Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: a Retrospective How-To

There is the "kick-start the holidays" Christmas party, the Hanukkah party, the solstice party, the apres-ski  party, the gift exchange with friends, the work Christmas party, the school or church pageant, the neighborhood party, the gift exchange with extended family, the Christmas Eve dinner, the Christmas day brunch and the ensuing feast, the Boxing Day dinner, the leftovers meal, the holiday card night with friends, and the New Year's Party - Did I forget any?

Oh yes, the online Skype party with distant loved ones! Nuts. That one was hard to remember as I didn't turn on my computer much over the big weekend this year. Hopefully an interim weeknight call will make up for it!

From someone who successfully attended or hosted many of these events, my advice would be do them all (unless you're under the weather then by all means stay home with your germs and a good book)! To keep the stress levels low and the multiple gatherings enjoyable don't make, wear, or bring something different to each one. In November and early December bake a few batches of cookies and store them in your freezer. Around this time make a list of all the people you'd like to give a little something to over the holidays - my preference is to give everyone a little something rather than half the people a big something. Make a few homemade gifts (see below) and bring these along as needed. Budget for a couple extra bottles of something at the liquor store this month to keep you in the spirit of things and stock your pantry with bulk nuts (salted and candied or in the shell), oranges and pomegranates and cranberries and decent chocolate. These items can be prettied up for a last minute gifties or placed in nice bowls and set out for unexpected guests. Collect a few pinecones and cedar boughs and light some candles; now you're set for the season.

As for shopping, I love the idea of picking up items throughout the year when you see just the right thing for someone you love, but I never actually do this. While I hope to one day shop with that much foresight, I tend to purchase most of my gifts at the same store. One year it's a bookstore, the next an outdoors store, the year after that a specialty foods store and so forth or try getting everything online from Etsy or give yourself one day at a local craft fair; there are some really fantastic shopping events out there these days. Shows like the Shiny Fuzzy Muddy show here in Vancouver or The One of a Kind Show in Vancouver, Toronto, and Chicago.

Here are a few of my favorite gift-worthy recipes from Christmas 2011:

Candied Orange Peel
 I dipped mine in chocolate and filled mini take out boxes lined with pretty scrap paper to garner oohs and ahhs.

8 oranges, 10 lemons, 6 grapefruits or any combination
3 cups sugar plus more for rolling
3 cups water
3 cups semi sweet dark chocolate chips
  1. Cut the ends off the fruit and standing on one end, follow the curve of the fruit and cut away only the outermost peel leaving most of the white pith on the fruit. Slice lengthwise into 1/4 inch strips. 
  2. In a medium pot of boiling water, 10-20 minutes (longer for lemons and grapefruits). With a slotted spoon transfer peel to dry surface and pat dry with paper towel.
  3. In a medium saucepan, bring sugar and water to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add peel and simmer until it turns translucent and syrup thickens, 10 minutes. With slotted spoon transfer peel to wire rack set in a baking sheet to catch the drips, separating the pieces as needed.
  4. Let peel dry 1 hour. Toss with cup sugar to coat.
  5. Return to wire rack to dry. Place in a warm (not hot) oven to dry if you find the strips do not dry as quickly as you would like.
  6. Working in batches, melt chocolate in a double boiler and dip ends of strips in the chocolate and lay on rack or brown paper to harden.
  7. Package in boxes with wax paper, decorative paper, and ribbon or enjoy at home with loved ones!

These freeze really well. Be sure not to over bake them! 
2 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
  1. Preheat oven to 400 f.
  2. In a medium bowl mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder. 
  3. In a large bowl cream together the remaining ingredients. 
  4. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until dough is smooth. If soft, refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. 
  5. In a large shallow bowl mix together 1/3 cup white sugar and 2 tsp cinnamon  
  6. Shape dough into 1 inch balls and roll in sugar/cinnamon mixture. Place on cookie sheets and press down each ball using the bottom of a glass to flatten to about 1/2 inch thick.  
  7. Bake 8 minutes or until firm around the edges.
And finally, make the pumpkin butter recipe I posted about back in November. 

Now, on to the new year!

Monday, December 19, 2011

What I'm Gifting

Lu Prints napkins and placemats

Paper bird game by French company Djeco

Upcycled guitar string necklace from  Blue Bird Sky in Brooklyn via Etsy

Homemade seasoning salt

Reusable bathtub stickers

Homemade pumpkin butter

Bingo for tots

Homemade candied orange peel au chocolat

Kids' card game

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This is My 'Hood

We moved to our neighborhood in central Vancouver, BC over a year ago. It is a rather unassuming neighborhood; it is very near the centre of the city and yet we'd never heard of it (and my husband has lived here most of his life and in houses all over the city). It is an understated, modest family area with parks and schools and a truly diverse population. In a city where people tend to have a lot or nothing at all, most folks in our neighborhood have a little of everything. There are many first generation Canadians rubbing shoulders with a surprising number of people who've never left, that is, they've grown up, raised families, and are growing old here.

Our playgrounds could use an update and our shopping area is yet to be gentrified but I can walk to almost everything I need: multiple libraries and community centres, big parks, trendy shopping and cafes, and even a mall. We're not so far south that we can't see the North Shore mountains but we're not so close to downtown that we live in a shoebox. We have a yard and garden with raspberries, rhubarb, apple trees, and a clothes line. While we rent, our neighbours on one side have lived in their house for nearly 50 years.

One fascinating online project is bridging the gap between ethnicities, generations, and neighbours in my 'hood. Inside Stories is a combined effort from filmmaker Nettie Wild, web designer Jeremy Mendes, and photographer Shannon Mendes. Here is one of the stories featured on the attractive and interactive site,

Friday, December 9, 2011

This Week's Books

Have You Ever Seen a Smack of Jellyfish? by Sarah Asper-Smith
Other than the surprising and vivid illustrations of this book, I marveled at how genuinely apropos many names are for their respective animal groups. How about a knot of frogs? I have seen one and it is indeed rather knotty. And a crash of rhinos? Well, I imagine that is the noise a group of them would make when plundering scrubby savannah bushes. Or the books namesake, a smack of jellyfish? Well, only one as lucky as myself would know the distinct splat of a small, harmless jellyfish propelled by a random beach brat hitting a bare back and I can tell you, a smack is a suitable word for more than one. I suppose I need not point out just how befitting it is that owls constitute a parliament and zebras a zeal? Yes, a zeal. Not only are the illustrations eye-catching, they are art. You can purchase baby clothes, cards, and other appealing items printed with the artwork on the author's Etsy site.

In the Tall, Tall Grass by Denise Fleming
Another book with big color and a fun theme, "In the Tall, Tall Grass" also portrays a small point of view in a big format. The perspective, that of a  caterpillar traveling through a field, is fun because the critters that look so small to us aren't so small to a caterpillar. My son loves this one; he can read it over and over, finding the caterpillar on each page or pointing out and counting the other creatures. The companion book "In the Small, Small Pond", a Caldecott Honor Book with a frog as the protagonist, is equally as appealing. Fleming's artwork, achieved by pouring colored paper pulp through hand-cut stencils, is splashy and bold and entirely her own. Once I read one of her books I started seeing them everywhere, recognizing them by the art and not the name on the cover.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My Slushy, Gravelly, Grey Hometown

Winter in my hometown is great, well, winter in the mountains is great. In town, it's grey; the trees, sky, streets and snow are all grey and it's only at altitude that you can break through to blue sky some winter days. Sure, the first snowfall always elicits a certain electric anticipation and Christmas is nice, but the highlights of my adolescent winters, if I wasn't skiing at the local hill, consisted checking out neighbors' Christmas lights, cross country skiing on the old railway tracks, reading a good book, and sledding down the steep unplowed Uphill alleys.

This segment from Whistler's Sherpas Cinema proves me wrong; apparently winter is grey and great in my hometown and it's nice to see some familiar alleyways too.

Monday, December 5, 2011

An Afternoon In

There was a lovely sunset today in my neck of the woods - at 4:15pm! In the slim hour between nap time and nightfall I couldn't get the momentum to bundle up the kids and get outside despite my resolution to always get out twice a day if it isn't pouring rain. And so we played indoors this afternoon - thank goodness for books, blanket forts, and play dough!

I made our play dough based on this recipe and it turned out great. I think the cream of tartar gives it a really smooth consistency. I didn't add any color to mine but I did add cinnamon to one batch and lavender oil to the other and I highly recommend doing so; it makes it more enticing for me to play with it too!

Play Dough Recipe:
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup salt
2 tablespoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon oil
1 cup water
food coloring, optional

Mix first 4 ingredients in a pot. Add water and mix well. Cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Dough will become difficult to stir.
Remove from stove and knead for 5 minutes. If using food coloring add during the kneading process. Store in a covered container in the fridge.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

This Week's Books

I go to the library twice a week and though my local branch is miniscule it is a warm, dry haven on wintry west coast days when the kids and I get cabin fever and we're fed up with being only family at the park. Each week I take out a dozen or so kids books to keep our reading options fresh. My older son (not yet two years old) and I both look forward to the the little discoveries and laughs we will share in the unfamiliar  pages. He enjoys putting last week's books (and occasionally his library card) in the book return slot and the newly chosen books up onto the counter for the librarian to check out for us, then he helps me load the stroller with our book bounty. For him the other highlight of these visits is the big red button that opens the automatic doors.

While I really enjoy the treasure hunt that is our weekly trip to the library, I've also loved sharing my old books with my kids. Here are two standbys from the early 1980s that happen to both be by Eloise Wilkin. I've got each of them committed to memory (they were already half complete in my head from my childhood) so that I can recite them in those rare instances that we - Heaven forbid - find ourselves without a book!

"And then we say goodnight."
My Goodnight Book by Eloise Wilkin
This shaped board book is brief but I can remember some of what I felt when I viewed these pages as a child. I recall identifying with the little girl, liking the look of the mother in the story and thinking she was sure of herself and gentle, and I was excited by the candy bowl on the table next to the armchair where the father and daughter read their bedtime story. Most of all I found (and still find) that the nighttime view out the girl's bedroom window on the last page of the book (see image) made me feel like all is right with the world. The pastoral setting and the summer evening breeze evokes a sense of security and contentedness that relaxes me still each time I read the book.
"A guppy is a little fish."

The Little Book by Eloise Wilkin
The cover of this book pictures a little girl reading "The Little Book" which has a picture of the same little girl reading "The Little Book" which has a picture of... This was my first example of recursion and I remember being fascinated by the infinity of it all. The text of the book is considerably less existential but just about as sweet as Wilklin's illustrations, epitomizing her cute aesthetic: "A chuckle is a little laugh. A little cow is a calf. A quarrel is a tiff. A little sniffle is a sniff." It's hard to beat the simplicity of a list of rhyming words and informative truths.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

This Year's Xmas Cards

I've been keeping busy in the brief evenings between putting kids to bed, cleaning up from dinner, and watching episodes of Boardwalk Empire by making Christmas cards out of my favorite material: old Christmas cards! You may recognize a snippet from a card you once sent me (it's a compliment really that I kept your card for such purposes) or see the card you're about to receive from me this year!

Birds and houses


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

All I Want for Christmas...

For the boys:

A bath toy hammock or bag

Any art supplies from Clementine Art

Or any other toddler-appropriate art supplies

Push cart for baby

And as always, books, books, and more books are welcome gifts

For Mama:

Set of stacking cake plates or a frilly 3-tiered dessert tray

Stainless steel lemon juicer

 1 quart sauce pan

Natural soap - I like to stockpile

Gift cards for any of the following:

My favorite store

My hair salon

My local fitness studio

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pumpkin Seeds Galore and More

Okay, so it's a little late; Halloween was over two weeks ago but it just now occurred to me to share the story of our jack-o-lanterns (or "punkies" as my one and a half year old enthusiastically calls them). I walked down an alley the other day as I am wont to do (see posts Sept 5/10 and Nov 7/11), and I saw a garbage can; the lid was ajar and I could see a somewhat soft orange orb seated atop a bulging garbage bag. In another alley on another day I saw two pumpkins that had been placed in the overgrown grass next to a garage at the alley's edge, now slowly leaning into the landscape. These sights saddened me not because our city has bins for yard trimmings and compostables but because pumpkins are so delicious.

Gramps and Oaks at the bird sanctuary.
For me, the pumpkin is an integral part of Halloween. Back in my single days I had pumpkin carving parties even though I never lived anywhere that got trick-or-treaters; it was all about the resultant festive lanterns, roasting the pips, and drinking mulled wine. This September we took the kids and one set of grandparents on what is becoming my new pre-Halloween tradition, an annual visit to a nearby island bird sanctuary and pumpkin patch. We picked our pumpkins with care, checking out the full array before making our selection. At home, we placed them on our front porch as a seasonal display until they met their demise on the afternoon of the 31st.

Both my husband and I were naively looking forward to carving  pumpkins with our little guys looking on. The reality was somewhat less than ideal. The toddler had no interest in helping to scoop out the cold innards of the pumpkin and both kids commenced crying while we wrestled the gourds and wielded knives. I managed to get the seeds in the oven with a bit of salt and Old Bay (though they're equally as good with a little cinnamon and sugar). Pumpkin pips are also known as pepitas in Mexican Spanish or passatempo in Greek literally meaning "pastime" which I love.

This year I carved mine like this.
After the festivities of the big night I was left with these two gorgeous, homegrown, handpicked pumpkins that I couldn't just compost so I have been cooking, freezing, and baking up a glorious orange-colored storm. (I should note that I made a point to use soy candles with lead-free wicks inside our jack-o-lanterns as I knew we'd be ingesting them.) Last year, finding myself in a similar situation, that is, with masses of pureed pumpkin on hand, I discovered what has become a household standby, Squashy Mac n' Cheese (adapted from this recipe, it's essentially pasta in a chicken stock and squash sauce sprinkled with breadcrumbs and cheese and baked). As I had a teething seven month old last Halloween I also froze chunks of pumpkin skin for him to gum. This year my discoveries include pumpkin hummus, pumpkin ginger scones, and highly recommended pumpkin butter. And so I can happily report that my pumpkins did not end up in a landfill but were an essential part of filling up my family with a little compost leftover.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

This Week's Books

A Winter Day by Douglas Florian
One boy is almost asleep and the other is almost awake; this is the time I should be napping myself but I'm just so warm and fuzzy from the book I just read before naptime. "A Winter Day" is one of those simple and nostalgic type of books that get me thinking about writing kids literature. The only thing is, I'm no artist and so many books are written and illustrated by one person, especially books with so few words. To quote the entire book: "A Winter Day. Cold and gray. Snowflakes. Pancakes. Cover your heads. Skates and sleds. A snowball grows. Warm your toes. Everything white. Orange light. A winter night." It is a poem, even if it wasn't written to be one; it's short, list-y, image-laden, sentimental but thankfully, with very few adjectives, in a word: perfect - or poetic - I often consider these two words to be synonymic anyway.

Little House, Little Town by Scott Beck
This is the other book that I just can't seem to return to the library. My husband recently remarked upon reading it for the dozenth time, "Why do all kids books take place in pastoral settings?". Well, for one, they probably don't it's just that I tend to favour the ones that do (and therefore, bring them home from the library) because it's what I like. Also, I grew up in a rather pastoral setting myself and wish to convey some of the freedom and security that I felt as a child due to my surroundings to my kids growing up in a rental house in the city. This book encapsulates the sentiment of a childhood realization that I assume is a common one for I remember it well. That is, that there is a world of other people going about their own lives every moment of every day and they are making the world go round. I clearly remember lying down for naptime at daycare when I was three or so and hearing the occasional car approach, accelerate, pass, and fade into the distance while feeling snug and cozy but aware of the world out there. While I have thought that I could improve upon Beck's particular words, a few lines really resonate with me. "Daddy turns the sprinkler on. Mama yawns a little yawn and pats her baby's back. Outside the train goes down the track." And later in the day, "People head home from the park. The mechanic puts his tools away. Children come in from their play. Now it's getting dark. Daddy rocks his boy to sleep. And with a kiss upon the cheek, he puts his baby down... in his little crib, in their little house, in the little town". I suppose it helps that Beck even uses our family's preferred parental pronouns, but there is something more that relaxes me when I read this book and it seems to do the same to my son. What more could you ask for in a bedtime story?

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Different Scarf Style Every Day of the Month (Well, Nearly)

I just wish I could remember a few of them when I'm on my way out the door...

Monday, November 7, 2011

November Raspberries

Seriously. I happened upon a mature raspberry patch while alleyway walking in early Autumn and I've been visiting the spot every week for six weeks now and the berries are still there: ripe, red, tart, and not moldy. I pick a handful each time, the toes of my shoes glistening in the heavy dew, little drops of water splashing onto the brim of my hat off overgrown canes, and my nose and fingers getting cold. There are plenty on the ground and it is obvious that no one is overly proprietorial about them and so I marvel and savour their unseasonal appearance, thinking each indulgence will be my last of the year and yet they continue to surprise me. This type of surprise is the best kind: an unexpected find that, with a little effort for a small berry with big flavour, can totally make my rainy day.

Photo credit Leora Wenger

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Dissertation on Modern Day Diapering

I have two kids under two. For those of you without children for reference, this means two kids in cribs, two kids who need to be carried and cuddled, two kids to push in a stroller, and two kids in diapers. It is amazing how many times in a day they need their diapers changed simultaneously and so I've quickly gone from a childless cloth diaper advocating day dreamer to a self-proclaimed aficionado grabbing whatever is in arms reach. I am reporting live from cloth diaper trenches and the news is surprisingly sunny.

I knew while pregnant with my first that I would like to save money and landfill space by using cloth diapers. I figured that generations upon generations (in fact, every single generation before us) did it, so how hard could it be? It's not like I'd be washing them by hand. In fact, before we moved into our current house I used to have to go outside and around the house to access our washer and dryer and so I even used a cloth diaper service for a few months the first time around so I never had to schlep wet diapers up and down our stairs in the rain. So really, how hard could it be?

As with many things in life, it turns out it's not hard at all, it just requires a little effort. I began by taking a cloth diapering workshop - no joke - and while it was informative I found it exceedingly overwhelming. I was right back to being the bumbling West Coast anglophone in my first Quebecois university level French class except the new language included all-in-ones, fitteds, prefolds, wraps, covers, snappies, soakers, flushable liners, and the ever-daunting pocket diaper. I also discovered the substantial upfront financial investment involved in buying cloth diapers. I left that 2 hour session with handouts that I never once looked at again and a sudden desire to commit to EC-ing (that is, elimination communication, aka: diaper free or natural infant hygiene) - a whole other blog topic for another day.

Fortunately for me, I soon received two large collections of lightly used cloth diapers including many brands and styles and over the past nearly 20 months of diaper mayhem I have my formed opinions and recommendations.

Today's cloth diapers can be broken down into three main categories:
  • All-in-one diapers (that is, diapers that have an absorbent insert sewn together with a non-removable cover) are a nice idea and the most like a disposable but not worth the money. Pocket diapers are a type of AIO. These are the most expensive diapers and you need a lot of them; every time you wash the diaper the whole thing goes in the wash as the insert and cover are "all in one". The waterproof-ness does not last as long as separate covers as they get washed a whole lot more often.
  • Fitted diapers are my preferred option. With this system you need two parts: cloth diapers and 1/3 as many removable covers. I've got something like 18 diapers to 4-6 covers per child; I wash diapers every 3 days and always have a clean cover to use. With this method you put the soiled cloth part in the diaper pail and assess the cover at each change, only washing the cover if it's dirty. Not only do the covers last longer being washed less, but you don't need to buy one for every corresponding cloth component.
  • Prefolds are closer to the old-fashioned diapers that my generation were diapered in. They are rectangles made up of layers of fabric with more layers in the middle for absorbancy. They can be folded into a cover or held on with diaper pins or the modern-day, no-prick version of pins called a Snappi. While these are the most affordable option I haven't found them to be as leak-proof as a fitted diaper and they're more confusing for alternate care givers, though they're easy enough once you're in the swing of things.
Bummis super whisper wraps in celery dot
Within each of these varieties there are a multitude of brands offering numerous styles; there is no need to own one of every type. I find it better to have one or maybe two options. My personal favoritecombination is Mother-ease one size diapers (bamboo, cotton, organic, whatever) in Bummis super whisper wraps. Having a limited selection is less confusing for anyone else who might change a diaper in your house and makes it easier to always have all the components you need at hand and not stuck downstairs in the dryer. If you're hesitant, you should try out cloth diapers by using a diaper service before making the investment.

As a side note, I must also confess to appreciating the convenience of disposables and understand why so many parents who might not love them end up using them. I myself use disposables overnight (1 per child per night is a small price to pay for the convenience of not having to wake up a baby to change him), as well as when traveling or when I feel the need to fit my kids' big cloth diapered butts into cute little outfits for special occasions. You do, as a cloth diapering mama, need to find which brands of baby clothes are sized to accommodate whichever style of diaper you choose.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Digital Dust Bunnies II

Introducing the mysterious Mr. Dickinson, one of my favorite photo subjects.

Vancouver sea wall
Trout Lake, Vancouver, BC
Galiano Island, BC
Thomanby Island, BC
Tofino, BC

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Who Doesn't Love Letters?

But when was the last time you actually wrote (and sent) one? And don't get me started on love letters; will the next generation have any collective memory of the ribbon-bound mementos prized by spinsters for centuries prior to our own?

Receiving mail is one of the best day to day surprises in life. The physiological impact of seeing your name in print on an unexpected envelope is similar to but substantially greater than the elation felt when opening an email, and the latter, unlike the letter, is sadly lacking in tangibility.

As with many children of the ante internet era, I had a pen pal. I wrote letters to my parents from summer camp and to my camp friends (and a few notable camp horses) during the school year. I collected postcards and foreign stamps and I even owned scented stationary at one time. It has now been years since I wrote a proper hand written letter, unless you count Christmas cards which I tend to fill with text to make up for my lack of "real" contact the rest of the year; despite the great utility and convenience of email, it just doesn't cut it. Don't get me wrong, emails have made me laugh and cry when composed with enough heart by a loved one, but if a letter is a thoughtful gift, an email is a ten dollar bill in an otherwise empty envelope.