Monday, August 29, 2011

Breakdowns - part two

In an earlier post, I mentioned that we have had several things break down this summer. First the computer, then the dryer, the washer, the vacuum, and finally the lawnmower. I was hoping the breakdowns had stopped there, but that was a vain hope.

One of our neighbors offered to look our lawnmower over. If it was a simple problem, he could fix it, no worries. While he was looking over the machine, another neighbor, Dena, offered to let me borrow her mower. I was so grateful I nearly cried - our lawn had become a jungle at this point and something needed to be done.

The front lawn was mowed, and most of the backyard as well. The mower was turned off so the picnic table could be moved, and then my teenager Jon went to mow the patch of grass that had been under the table. He gave the starter string a sharp tug.


"Um, Mom? I think I just broke Dena's lawn mower".

I stared at the machine, which had been purring happily a few minutes before. The starter cord had completely disconnected from the engine, and no amount of pulling was going to start it. I dreaded telling Dena that we had broken her mower as well as our own.

I half expected the lawnmower to pull this neat trick next.

Later that evening, the neighbor's wife brought our lawn mower back while I was talking to Dena. "My husband said he couldn't fix it," she said apologetically. "The engine is completely seized up." I thanked her for making the effort anyway, and remarked that I was just having bad luck with machines, while pointing at Dena's mower. She offered to take Dena's machine back with her to see if her husband could fix the starter, and Dena agreed. I said if any parts were needed, we would pay for them, as the machine broke while we were using it. I privately decided that each household is getting a fresh-baked loaf of cinnamon bread for their generosity.

So today I decided to pull out the weed whacker and try to trim the small bit of yard that hadn't been mowed, and also to trim the verge around the driveway and carport. The weed whacker worked for about sixty seconds, then the plastic string on the bottom flew off into the thick grass and vanished.  Ta da, a totally useless weed whacker! I was starting to feel like some sort of circus freak

("Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see the amazing Machine Killer! She may look like an innocent housewife, but watch what happens when she touches that lawn mower - BAM! It's irreparable!")

I was determined to get SOMETHING done outside today, so I decided to transplant my tomato plants into bigger containers. And of course, just as I got the first pot filled...CRACK. The wooden handle of my shovel split, right above the metal part. I threw down the shovel in disgust and stomped back towards the house.

...only to discover that the air conditioner had stopped working.

I really need to join a circus. I belong in the freak tent.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Biscuits and Gravy

My husband grew up in a variety of different states around America, due to a parent in the military. He proudly calls himself a southern boy in taste. Many of his favorite dishes are from down south. He's been pestering me for a year to make biscuits and gravy, and I've been resistant - mainly because I still struggle whenever making gravy, and it has never once come out the way it's supposed to! But I finally decided to try making this dish for him a couple weeks ago, and I was astounded by how simple it was. The gravy came out perfect and the biscuits were light and fluffy.

The first thing you have to do is make biscuits. If you really want to, you can buy ready-made biscuits in a can, but I find those cans rather insulting - it's almost like the companies are implying that their consumers are not capable of mixing a simple batter together. No ready-made biscuits in my house! And lets be honest, shall we? When you make it at home, you control the size and thickness of the final product, and those biscuits-in-a-can are never big enough.

So here is my recipe for buttermilk biscuits, modified from the original found on

4 cups all-purpose flour
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Cut in shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the buttermilk until moistened, and knead until the buttermilk is fully incorporated. Roll to 1/2 an inch thickness and use a mason jar ring as a biscuit cutter (this works perfectly because the ring is exactly 1/2 an inch thick, so you will know if your biscuit is too thin). Place on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees F until golden brown (about ten minutes).  Makes 20 thin biscuits or 15 nice thick ones.

While the biscuits are baking is the perfect time to start your gravy. I must admit the recipe I found on allrecipes is perfect, and I can't picture changing it in any way. Absolutely scrumptious!

1 lb. sausage
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups of milk
salt and pepper to taste

Crumble and cook sausage in large skillet over medium heat until browned. Stir in flour until dissolved (I put in a little at a time). Gradually stir in milk. Cook gravy until thick and bubbly. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot over biscuits.

Every Saturday night we have a large group of people come over for gaming (my husband is a big Dungeons and Dragons fan). I usually cook for the group, and everyone chips in to help pay for the ingredients. Last night I made the biscuits and gravy - thirty biscuits and over four pounds of gravy. It was a hit, with people wandering back to the stovetop for seconds. This morning I took stock of the leftovers - we have two biscuits left, and no gravy whatsoever! You know a recipe was a winner when there aren't any leftovers.

Currently my three kids are arguing over who will get to eat the last of the biscuits - I may have to make another batch!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Good Wife Guide

I'm sure many of my readers will remember seeing this article (supposedly from the 50's, though it was later said to be fake):

I remember there being a great outcry by both men and women about the article being sexist and promoting inequality. I'm sure many of you remember this yourselves, so I won't go into much detail about how insulting the article was to many people. Rather, I want to focus on the few brave souls who went against public opinion.

"I wish my wife would accept the part that says 'Don't greet him with complaints or problems'. I understand that she had a rough day with the kids, and I'm more than willing to talk the problems over with her - I just wish she didn't slam them on me the moment I walk in the door."

"If I told my wife I expected her to have a cool drink ready for me when I got home, she'd probably dump it on my head!"

"I wish society was more accepting of submission in women - I'd personally love to greet my husband at the door and offer to take off his shoes.  But I think it would spark an argument!"

I was working in an office at the time, and for each one of those statements above, a furor and outcry would fill the break room as everyone else would rush to correct the offender - especially the one woman who had the desire to take off her husband's shoes!  It got me to thinking, though - was the article really all bad?

Sure, there are certain points that I found offensive - such as "Don’t complain...if he stays out all night." "His topics of conversation are more important than yours." "You have no right to question him."  I think most people will agree with me!

But what is wrong with making sure the home is a place of peace, order, and tranquility? Is it fundamentally wrong to greet your spouse with a meal or a drink when he returns from work? Some of the things on that list struck me as being sensible, even respectable.

For example, the second point suggested taking a little time for yourself before your husband arrives home. This just seemed wise to me.  After rushing around all day, cleaning and cooking, it just makes sense to take some time for yourself! How would you rather greet your husband after work (or you children after school) - frazzled and overwhelmed...or calm and collected? 

Clearing away the clutter, and doing a bit of dusting before everyone arrives home also seems wise. Having a cluttered busy home makes it hard to relax and unwind. When everything is tidy, it promotes a relaxing affect on everyone...and who doesn't want to have relaxed children in the evening?

"Be happy to see him".  It's kinda sad that we need reminders like that, isn't it? After all, if we aren't happy with our spouse, why are we married to him? But sometimes life gets so hectic and busy that we forget to express our pleasure in others. Another sad reminder is the exhortation to "listen to him" - really, that's not something we should forget.

And honestly - it goes both ways, doesn't it? A husband has similar duties to his wife. I love this article which created a companion list called "The Good Man's Guide", reminding husbands that they need to participate in making home life enjoyable and relaxing. I also feel that children have a responsibility to keep the house running smoothly.

I keep a copy of this guide on my hard drive, and have printed out a copy and taped it to my fridge. It represents a lot of things to me - first, how far the woman's lib movement has come, and how far it still has to go (I'll go into more detail on this in a later post). But it also serves to remind me to look at the big not be so distracted by the little things that I lose track of the most important thing of all - my family.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Junkyard Summer

Earlier this year our computer was affected by a virus. We'd been thinking about getting a new one anyway - the poor thing was over a decade old, and ready for retirement. Replacing it wasn't really a big deal. And I must admit, I love our shiny new computer, and  didn't feel much sadness when the old computer was sent to the junkyard.

Then our dryer broke down. I didn't see this as much of a loss, either. A lot of studies have found that the dryer is the second to third largest energy consuming item in a home - and our dryer took two cycles to dry a small load (three cycles if it was something heavy, like a comforter). Besides, summer had just started, and I've always preferred line-drying clothes anyway. So the dryer ended up in the junkyard.

Then, disaster - our washer broke. My fondness for old-fashioned methods of cleaning clothes stops at line drying. The idea of laboring over our bathtub with a washboard was terrifying - and when I thought about how much clothing a family of five really goes through in a week? Not gonna happen. Fortunately my husband agreed with me.

The old washer was relocated to the junkyard, and an $800 dollar loan was taken out to replace it.

Last week I plugged in our vacuum and discovered that it, too, was not working. At this point I felt like screaming at the universe (the only thing that stopped me was the suspicion that the universe wouldn't listen anyway). Now, please realize, we have two cats and a dog of our own - plus our foster animals (and at that point we had a foster dog and two more kittens). So you can imagine how much I NEED a vacuum just to keep up with the pet hair - not to mention the dirt and debris that my three sons drag in every day.

I sat down and looked over the entire machine from top to bottom. No clogs, no strings wrapped around the bristles. I even took it apart to check the belt, but there was no obvious reason why it wouldn't start. So the vacuum joined the growing mass of products in our local junkyard - and Sean sighed and looked on for a new vacuum, while I tried to figure out a menu plan that would allow for the price of the vacuum to be taken out of the food budget.

This morning I went out to mow the lawn. Can you guess what happened? Yup. I pulled the starter string and all I got for my troubles was a loud, ominous CLANK followed by a jammed starter string. I'm dreading telling Sean about this one - he's under a lot of pressure financially, and I don't like adding to the weigh on his shoulders. In the hopes that I can give him good news along with the bad, I've sent out a freecycle request for a working lawnmower, but my hopes aren't high.

....and when I remember that little glowing "check engine" light that's been lit up for a couple months in our car?  I feel like pleading with Karma to spare us ("Oh no, please, no, not the car, anything but the car!).

I don't think Karma's listening.

Friday, August 19, 2011

this moment...

A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. 
A simple, special, extraordinary moment. 
A moment to pause, savor and remember.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why I Love My Husband

The first five years of my life as a adult were beautiful.  I had a small son who was adorable, obedient, and intelligent.  I had a small but tidy home that I rented.  Most of my transportation was done by bike (with a trailer for my son to ride in), so I was in wonderful shape physically.  I was attending college and getting fantastic grades.  One of my professors nominated me to be the editor in chief of the college newspaper.  I was busy, happy, and feeling confident about my course in life.

Then, disaster.  During the next eight years of my life, my confidence and happiness were shattered, over and over again.  The man who had abused me during my childhood made a reappearance, bringing flashbacks.  I had two life-threatening pregnancies, and the births were only eleven months apart.  During the second pregnancy and recovery, I missed so much work from my well-paying job that I was fired.  I ended up leaving the father of my children after he got hooked on drugs.  I rallied by starting a home-based business which slowly grew and thrived, until someone jealous of my success set out to sabotage my work - and succeeded.  The loss of income from that sabotage resulted in homelessness, and while I was homeless, the storage unit that held all our belongings was destroyed in a fire.

Again I rallied, fighting to better my life and the lives of my sons. Again, I was struck down.  Over and over and over again, for eight years.

During that time period I grew very depressed.  I eventually got a job outside of the home (at a fast food restaurant), and settled into a life of drudgery.  I took no pleasure from my job, and I was too exhausted when I came home to take pleasure in parenting my children.  Keeping the home clean and organized seemed an insurmountable task, and at this point I gave up on a lot of things.

I gave up on keeping a clean home.

I gave up on finding a better job.

I hid the fact of how miserable I was from those who loved me.

I gave up on the idea that I could ever be successful, or reach the dreams I've had since girlhood.

I gave up on the idea of ever finding a significant other who could make me feel whole again.

And then Sean walked into my life.  Honestly, I was so depressed at that point, and so terrified to take a step towards bettering myself (out of fear that I would be struck down again), I'm really not sure what he saw in me.  I certainly wasn't any kind of catch at that point!  I was nearly 200 lbs overweight, and hadn't done anything for my appearance in years. My wardrobe at the time resembled that of a goth chick - just without the sexy corsets and artfully ripped jeans.  I looked dumpy, to tell you the truth.  (Recently I asked him why he found me so attractive when we first met - he replied that he saw the person I had the potential to be hiding inside the person I had become.)

He asked me to marry him that night.  I laughed, thinking he was joking - I mean, for goodness sake, we'd just met an hour before!  But he was utterly serious.  And I realized, as I laughed, that I hadn't smiled in so long that it hurt to smile - as though those muscles in my face had atrophied from lack of use.

He devoted himself to courting me.  The next couple of months were a whirlwind of laughter, teasing, and an awakening of my awareness of myself as woman rather than mommy.  I felt alive in a way that I had almost forgotten was possible to experience.  When he asked me to marry him a second time, I said yes.  And he gave me my dream - the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mother and housewife.  He's worked hard to make sure we have a steady income, and he's gone without to provide the extras for the children.  He's treated my sons as though they are his, and made it clear to the boys that he considers himself their father, even though they don't share genetics.  His wisdom astounds and humbles me, and his intelligence awes me.  

And over the last three years with him, I've gotten reacquainted with the woman I always had the potential to be.  And I realized that I always had this potential within myself - I had just grown so scared of the possible downfalls that I wasn't willing to reach for the heights.  I credit my husband with my success, but he refuses to accept that credit.

He insists I did it all by myself.  And that is why I love my husband.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Learning to ride a bike

To my shame, I must admit that my younger children did not get their own bikes until August of 2010, for their seventh and eighth birthdays, respectively.  Why not?  Well, we had moved to Illinois when the children were four and five, and we moved into an apartment building that had no storage space for bicycles.  We couldn't see the point of buying a bike for the boys when they would have no place to put it.

In July of 2010 we moved to a home in a suburban neighborhood - complete with a yard, a driveway of our own, and ~gasp~ a shed for storing bikes.  My husband suggested getting each child a bike for his birthday, and I agreed.  Jon's birthday is in July, and James and Jacob were born in August, so within six weeks of moving to our new home, all three boys had new bikes.

Jon already knew how to ride a bike, so I didn't have to work with him at all.  Sean and I both started out teaching the younger boys, but for some reason they didn't seem interested after the first couple of days.

"It's just too hard, Mom!  I didn't think it would be this hard."

Then the first snows came early, and thus halted bike learning for 2010.  I started up again in early summer this year (the spring was constantly rainy, so we hadn't had a chance before July to practice again).  This time I handled the training a bit differently...I focused on teaching just James.  The reason for this is simple - my youngest, Jacob, has a temper, and is stubborn as a mule.  When he fails to learn a new skill after the first couple tries, he crosses his arms and refuses to try anymore.  But he's also very competitive, and I knew that if James learned how to ride a bike first, Jacob's natural competitive nature would drive him to learn the skill in short order.

My plan worked like a charm.  I focused on James and within a week he was able to ride his bike all the way down the driveway before falling.  His shouts of joy and triumph drew Jacob, who watched him wobble down the driveway.  Jacob hugged his brother, congratulated him, then turned to me with a determined expression and said "I want to learn now!".

By the second week, James was riding to the corner and back without falling over once, and Jacob had mastered the driveway.  ~laughs~ I love it when psychology works!

This morning I took the boys out again.  James has been asking to ride around the block, which I was a bit leery about (our block is amazingly long - just walking around it is more than three quarters of a mile).  But I said if big brother Jon went with him, James could ride around the block.

While the two older boys were gone, Jacob rode down the driveway, turned, and rode about three houses down.  I watched as he attempted a U-turn (which he has never successfully done before).  And he made it - just barely, but he managed to turn around without falling off!  He spent the rest of the morning riding back and forth in front of our house, doing U-turns and riding back.  Every so often he would fall, but he got right back up and brought his bike back to start again.  You could just see the determination to catch up with his older brothers! 

By the end of August, I suspect I will have three skilled bike riders in the family.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Recipe of the Week: Taco Soup

Food prices are rising, and for many (myself included), this means a major change in shopping and cooking habits.  We have slowly but surely been buying cheaper, more filling products and reducing the amount of processed food we consume.  Along this path of change came the cooking of dried beans.

I've been given dried beans before - they are a staple at food pantries.  But I never knew what to do with them!  Usually the bag would sit in my pantry until I finally tried to cook it, but once I had the beans reconstituted, they tasted so bland that I couldn't eat them, and they would end up being thrown out.

Then along came this wonderful thing called the world wide web...and the discovery of multitudes of fantastic cooking blogs.  One of my favorites is "Bored Cook in the Kitchen", and she has a wonderful recipe for taco soup.

The first time I made her recipe, I followed the directions exactly.  I discovered that there were a few changes I wanted to make - for example, no one in my family enjoyed the broth of the dish.  My husband commented that it would have been perfect if the broth had been based off chicken stock rather than water.  I replied that replacing the beef with chicken would add a lighter texture.  The second time I made it, everyone declared it perfect - and it's been a staple in our menu since.

Taco Soup
2 cups shredded chicken
1 28 oz. can petite diced tomatoes
1 medium onion, diced
1 can of corn, drained
1 1/2 cups black beans, drained and rinsed
1 packet of taco seasoning
1 packet ranch dressing 
1 packet Goya Sazon (in the orange box)
1 1/2 cups chicken broth

Add all the ingredients to your slow cooker, set on high (to cook for 4-5 hours) or low (to cook for 6-7 hours).  Creates around 6 servings.

Of course, if you garden, you can add your own produce, such as fresh sweet corn or peppers.  I like to top my soup off with shredded cheddar, sour cream, and crumbled tortilla chips, but that significantly increases the cost per meal, so keep that in mind...however, for me, I do tend to always have cheese and sour cream on hand for other recipes, so this does give me a chance to use up more of the product before it expires.