September 08, 2016

Playing with Other People's Toys

Recently, Caitlyn got a weekend with her grandparents and met her grandmother's Saori loom. Sharing the results of her explorations was the very first thing she wanted to do when we arrived on Sunday evening to collect her. Then, because she was *that* excited, she insisted that I meet the loom as well.

I may have spent the rest of the evening weaving.

my first Saori weaving
I had a small lap loom when I was a kid, and I remember generally liking weaving with it. I didn't really pursue it beyond that, never really figuring out what to do besides repetitive stripes or how to make something larger than the roughly piece-of-paper-sized fabric the lap loom could produce. Maybe I would have done more with it if I'd had an amazing yarn and fiber stash. Acrylic yarn circa 1985 was, well, somewhat less than inspiring.

Lianna's loom is larger than a piece of paper and her fiber stash is a thing of beauty. I wove this rectangle (table topper? oversize placemat?) spontaneously, with no real planning, guided roughly by a sense of "this yarn might look nice next to the one I was just using." Eventually the spectrum nature became obvious and I ran with it. And because Lianna's fiber stash is not boring worsted weight acrylic yarn but full of colors and textures of all sorts (yarns! strips of fabric! fuzzy! smooth! fringey! barely twisted!), the resulting fabric is interesting and diverse. It's "freestyle" weaving, with no plan and no rules.

my first Saori weaving
I can see the benefit in such an activity for someone as rigidly organized as myself. The reassurance that something nice can happen when there is no plan, no checklist. I probably need more of those reminders.

Perhaps I'll have to arrange a weaving weekend for both Caitlyn and myself.

August 30, 2016

Kids Art Week Wrapup

It took us more than the prescribed week, but Caitlyn and I did finish Carla Sonheim's Kids Art Week video lesson series. Here's a sampling of my favorites of our results:

cross-eyed owl
I painted this cross-eyed owl in the style of Jean Dubuffet. The process used salt as a resist with the watercolor, something I'd read about yet never tried (not really surprising since the amount of watercolor I do is pretty much zero). I really like the resulting texture! The black is an acrylic over the watercolor, something I doubt I would have thought to do on my own (mixing paint types, is that even allowed???). So this week was a win by Day Two: I learned two new things!

Day Three was all about collage art in the style of Robert Motherwell. This is Caitlyn's collage because I like it so much better than I like mine. Lots of movement and bold colors in hers. Mine is dull; I used a black crayon for my lines (as per instructions), but Caitlyn's painted lines are so much more vibrant. The collage process didn't really sing for me quite the way the watercolor did, but maybe that's more a reflection of the ingredients? Would it have been more appealing with other papers and a base that wasn't half a shopping bag?

well lined houses
These are our houses in the style of Hundertwasser. Again, I like Caitlyn's better than mine. I stayed too close to the instructions; Caitlyn used watercolor and I stuck with the suggested markers. Our marker collection, despite being a thing that fills a good size storage tub, is nevertheless full of markers I don't like. Many are old and the colors are fading (but not quite faded enough to throw out), and most of them came from basic kid sets so the colors aren't that great to begin with. Getting the colors to bleed nicely under a wash of water was also difficult since I either got no bleed at all or so much bleed that it was all mush. Caitlyn's painting has much better colors and a fun interpretation of the instructions while mine is rather, yawn, boring.

strange puppies
The week also included something Carla called "Picasso Dogs," which used collage and paint and an element of randomness to create vaguely cubist style dogs. I didn't care so much for this one, but in the interest of completeness, here are our results. I'll leave it to you to figure which dog belongs to Caitlyn and which to me.

We had a good time with Carla's videos, though, and I'm thinking about ways to keep elements of Kids Art Week in our usual routine. I really liked the directed nature of things; having an assignment works well for me and it provides Caitlyn with a starting point from which she can choose to off-road or not as the inspiration strikes. Carla has a collection of other art classes available via video as does Craftsy (and probably others). I've done a little poking at YouTube and so far haven't found anything that appeals (of course, that could be the result of not searching through YouTube with a sufficiently fine-tooth comb). So perhaps we'll try a class in watercolor later this fall.

August 26, 2016

Apple Processing Day


Our backyard apple tree produced 14 pounds of usable fruit this year. It took two of us, with the ladder and some careful contortioning, to harvest nearly all of it. I don't do anything to protect the fruit from the rest of Nature, no spraying and no little fruit socks. (I bought a package of fruit socks one year, and the process of getting one sock on one apple while I was still standing on the ground was challenging enough that I've never been inspired to try to do it from the top of a ladder.) The resulting fruit is occasionally occupied but rarely to the point where the entire apple is compromised. And since I'm cutting the apples up to process them anyway, it's not that big a deal to cut out the icky bits.

apple pie filling
I now have 6 pints and 2 quarts of apple pie filling in the freezer. I expect some of the pints will be thawed and warmed for winter breakfast toppings. And any pie I make will probably need both quarts of filling. I don't do skinny pies.

apple butter
And I have 20 half-pints of apple butter! This is the first year I've done apple butter, partly due to its reputation for taking hours and hours. Maybe it's just that my apples are on the softer side, but they cooked down quickly and then thickened before I'd managed to wash and sterilize all my jars. My apple butter is more intensely seasoned than the recipe, with the cinnamon quadrupled (at least) and the clove probably doubled. All the taste testers on hand declared it good before canning but I find I'm still wondering if I shouldn't have kept going with the spices.

I may surprise myself, but at the moment, I think that concludes the seasonal preserving for this year. It's less than I usually do (not mentioned: the pear preserve, the pear butter, the peach butter, the raisins, the bell peppers, and the zucchini) but I'm discovering a lack of motivation when I think of doing much more. Perhaps over the winter I'll spend some time figuring out why the things that I've done so willingly for the last decade or so suddenly have lost their shine.

July 26, 2016

Kids Art Week, Day 1

Caitlyn and I are following along with Carla Sonheim's 2016 installment of Kids Art Week. Five days of free how-to art project posts with each project inspired by the work of a famous artist.

Caitlyn's a good artist already, having produced some nicely drawn dragons last December. I like the idea of making more art myself, but I find myself frequently stymied by the blank page. One would think I'd have some clue how to handle that since I write a fair bit. Maybe it's that I can call the writing "journaling" and string together free-association thoughts until there's something sensible. Maybe words are just a more comfortable medium for me. Maybe words are more ephemeral and it's easier to throw out the gibberish. Despite my intentions to be more artistic, I find it challenging to get out the paints or the pencils. It's not hard for me to write about things we are doing or explore my inner landscapes with words, but settling on what to draw seems impossible. When I'm writing, I add and delete words, move them around like blocks, until I'm satisfied with what I've said. Strange that the idea of placing and removing line after line seems so daunting.

After the first day of Kids Art Week, I'm discovering that I really appreciated the "assignment". Maybe this is something I should look into: a series of assigned projects to build confidence, a way to become more fluent with the tools and techniques without the burden of finding subject matter. When I was in high school, I tended to write stories in response to writing assignments. I tried a few times to just sit down and write a story but the constraints of an assignment (none of which I can remember now although I can remember (and probably still have somewhere) the stories I wrote in response) produced better results. Constraints help: the original Star Wars movies are better than the prequels precisely because of the (mostly financial) constraints.

I'm terrible at making up the assignments for myself, though. I compromise the process by giving myself constraints that aren't really a challenge. Or I discount the necessity of the project because it came from me, not a professor or a client, resulting in the "assignment" always sliding to the bottom of my to-do list. This would be part of my larger issue of devaluing efforts I make for myself, since those are easily viewed as being selfish. I'm too well trained to put things for myself last, after everything I could do that would benefit someone else. Creative projects purely for my own development (never mind enjoyment) come only after every other possible thing has been accomplished. Since there will always be dust bunnies and cat hair to vacuum, I never reach the end of that list.

This first project was simple and fun to do. I'm tentatively hopeful that I'll learn just enough confidence to be inspired to revisit our art supplies more frequently.

June 29, 2016

Taffy Pulling, Because Science!

It started with an idle comment. It ended up a many-houred end-of-school-year sugar-coated event.


This goopy stuff is homemade salt water taffy. An exploration of sugar, chemistry, and the relative strength of various arms.

I gave the kids (Caitlyn and some homeschool friends) a short lecture about atomic structure, molecular bonds, solutions (and why it's not a reaction), and what it means to be supersaturated. I'm never really sure how these little talks land with the kids; Caitlyn always says very positive things but the others are often so quiet I'm not at all certain anything sticks. I've decided to take the steady deluge approach: if they are always swimming in lots of knowledge, eventually some of it will osmosis its way to permanence, right?

(Interested in doing something similar? I used this, this, and this to prop up my distant high school chemistry.)

Then, on to the sweet part! Taffy syrup needs to cook over low heat until it's 260 degrees. High heat will scorch the sugar (don't stir or you'll end up with gritty candy), so this process is long and slow. I sent the kids outside and read half a novel.


Two hours later, we finally hit the proper temperature. For taffy, you want the candy to cool quickly, before crystals can form. This is also the point when you add any flavorings. The kids chose peppermint, which vaporized on contact with the molten sugar and cleared the sinuses of everyone in the kitchen.


As soon as you can touch it without injury, you start pulling. The point of pulling taffy (it's stretch and fold, really) is to incorporate air into the candy. This makes it light and chewy in texture.

starting to pull

Of course, it's really sticky. We started with cornstarch on our fingers and that wasn't at all effective. Cornstarch all over the hands wasn't much better, buying you a couple of minutes of reduced stickiness. Butter was more effective, but it also worked its way into the candy, leaving you, well, sticky. I wonder if starting with butter and then having someone sprinkle powdered sugar in as the butter was absorbed would be effective. I'm guessing that if you can pull the taffy long enough, it becomes less sticky, but I'd need to make more taffy to test this theory.


Eventually, it does become white, opaque, and firmer to the touch. And you become aware of which arm is your dominant (the one that hurts less) and how you could probably benefit from some additional exercises to tone up those shoulder and upper arm muscles. There were 8 of us (kids and adults) pulling taffy, and we probably should have pulled it longer than we did. Pulling it all myself doesn't sound like fun at all.

homemade salt water taffy

The final product is pretty fine taffy.  It's light and chewy, pleasantly peppermint without searing your sinuses (having done that already).  Each of the kids involved got to take home a ziploc of candy.  Not a bad way to mark the end of the school year!

June 17, 2016

Thinking about Rocks and Time (Trail of Two Forests)

There's something surreal about rocks that clearly show they were once liquid. Reading about lava flows is one thing. Sure, it says the rock was liquid, and I don't doubt it. But getting up close to a rock, with all of it's solid hardness, and finding a curved and rippled surface not unlike some cake batters kind of puts it in perspective. Once upon a time, this solid surface moved like water.
tree mold, Trail of Two Forests
You can see the ripples in this photo, at about the 2 o'clock position on the tree mold.  Roughly 2000 years ago, Mt. St. Helens erupted lava which engulfed a forest.  Even as the trees burned, they were still cooler than the lava, causing it to solidify around the trees.  The flow moved on, leaving molds of the trees behind, sometimes with detailed impressions of the bark captured in stone.

The idea of Mt. St. Helens erupting lava is strange to me.  I know that all our Cascade volcanoes are composite volcanoes, built of multiple layers of various ejecta, sometimes ash, sometimes lava.  Still, because the 1980 eruption was so heavily ash-dominated, it's been easy to think that that's what Cascade volcanoes do.  It's probably important to compare the south side of the mountain with its lava-based landmarks with the blasted northern face.  One mountain, multiple expressions.

Still, it's surreal.  Humans aren't good at thinking in geologic time.  Our lives are too short to really grasp the scale.  This is a hole that's 2000 years old. (Why isn't it more full of debris?)  Before the hole there was a tree who had lived long enough to gain many inches in diameter, which stood on soil built up after previous eruptions, which built a mountain on rocks pushed onto the margin of the North American continent at a time when that landmass was more tropical than today.  I know this.  But it's only by seeing and experiencing that I begin to understand it, that the relative scale becomes clearer.

It's an understanding that is simultaneously depressing and liberating.  I am so small.  Life goes on, with fragile mosses reclaiming an inhospitable basaltic landscape.

June 08, 2016

A Morning Visitor

Wasabi was on a bit more of a tear than usual this morning, which made total sense once we realized we had a visitor:
raccoon in cherry tree

We spent the rest of breakfast watching her clamber around in the cherry tree, rather systematically eating all the cherries. Good thing I don't expect harvestable fruit from that tree!

raccoon in cherry tree
She (I'm assuming it's female based on this site which says that while commonly nocturnal, raccoons can be active during the day, especially if there are kits back in the den.  Raccoon kits typically arrive in April and May, and Mama tends to stay with them for a year.) walked as far out on the limbs as possible, backing up only when the bend in the limb started to threaten an imminent fall.

raccoon in cherry tree
She never fell, despite precariously reaching for that elusive fruit. 

raccoon in cherry tree
She seemed on the small side (young? female?) compared to the few other raccoons we've seen in the backyard.  And she was missing her tail.  From where we were, it looked like a fairly recent loss.  Did she escape a trap?  Get into a fight?

We must have stood and watched her for 20 minutes or more.  She ate nearly all the fruit in the tree, then cleaned up the ground below.  She seemed remarkably comfortable up there, even engaging in some grooming/itch-scratching a good 10-12 feet up.

Then, having eaten everything, she crossed the yard, squeezed herself through the fence slats, and  sauntered off.