Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I love my baby -- even when she's trying to hack our computer.

Non, je ne regrette rein

Well, it seems I can't blog consistently this year.  And while that does bother me a bit, I am going to try to make one of Edith Piaf's songs my theme: non, je ne regrette rein -- No, I don't regret anything.

How could I regret when life is packed with so many things?  Some are good and some are bad, but all serve to keep life busy.

The "bad" things serve to teach me a lesson.  Like today, for instance.  I've struggled and struggled to make online scoring for a particular curriculum company a possibility.  It has been like pulling my hair and my teeth out every day.  Their technical specs were unclear and it took a while to get to the root of the problem.  The training took forever, and there were multiple complications.  I discovered that my assessment of a "good teacher" -- even when using the rubric they provided -- and their assessment tend to differ.  If this were face to face I could, perhaps, talk with someone to figure out why they score certain things certain ways.  I've been back over several portfolios and I just don't see why the teacher who has about the same about of rapport with his students as a doorknob (and teaches social studies in a traditional way -- that is, the way coaches teach and make kids think they hate the subject) scores better in some areas than the teacher who has genuine rapport and an engaged classroom.  Do they both have room for improvement?  Yes.  But which teacher would I hire?  That was easy -- and my answer just happened to differ with the curriculum company.  I tried adjusting my standards, but without knowing the reasoning behind their varying interpretation of the rubric, adjusting standards doesn't do much good.  And so today I discovered I will not have more to score because they are almost to the end of the process and it's "too late to go through mediation."

I have conflicting emotions.  I've never "failed" at an education-related task.  I am a master teacher and I excel in all areas of education...except, it seems, in this.  And I don't like feeling like a failure.  On the other hand, this has been such a stressor and has taken up time and energy and was going to take even more from an already packed week that.  I am thankful to be able to put this behind me and look at other things.

So what have I learned?  I have learned that online systems are not my favorite.  While working with people can be difficult, it is easier to understand intent when in the same room.  And that lesson, my friends, is a valuable one.

Non, je ne regrette rein.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

DIY Liquid Laundry Soap

For the past two months, I've been using homemade powdered laundry detergent for my warm loads (towels, sheets), but this weekend I decided to take the plunge and made a liquid laundry soap for other loads.  I found and adapted the recipe from The Family Homestead.

Why do this?  It's simple and cost-effective.  Depending on the cost of supplies in your area, you could potentially make a year's supply of laundry soap for about $10.

The Winco in my area carries all the supplies except the bucket.

  • 5 gallon bucket + lid
  • 1 bar Fels-Naptha soap
  • 1.5 c. washing soda (not baking soda)
  • 1.5 c. borax
  • water
  • 5 gallon bucket + lid -- $5
  • Fels-Naptha soap -- $1
  • Washing Soda -- $2.50 for 5 pounds (which is way more than you need)
  • Borax -- $7 for a 5 pound box (also way more than you need)

First, grate the bar of soap as finely as possible.

I used the food processor to grate and then put in the blades to get the soap into a powdery consistency (although this last step is not necessary for the liquid).
Please note: if you use a food processor then make sure you thoroughly rinse it before sticking it in the dishwasher or you'll get lots of suds!

Second, using a large pot, mix the soap, borax, and washing soda with 12 cups of water.  Heat and stir until dissolved.

Third, place 10 cups of warm water in your bucket.  Add the soap mixture and blend together.  Add two gallons plus ten cups additional water.

Your bucket should be nearly full.

Last, label your bucket, attach a 1/2 cup scoop, and you're done!  Use 1/2 cup per load.

The verdict: It smells clean.  In fact, my whole kitchen smelled like Dial bar soap when I was making this (which is not surprising, since Fels-Naptha is a Dial product).  I like that smell because it reminds me of my grandmother.  The soap itself is gel-ish, the laundry smells clean,so I'm satisfied.  Honey is skeptical, so we've agreed not to use this on work clothes until I prove that it doesn't fade colors.

Don't know where to get washing soda in your area?  Apparently you can make your own!

Of course now that I have this year's supply my sister told me about soap nuts.  They sound even easier than this and her friend gives them rave reviews, so perhaps that will be my next step on the path to Hippieville.

Life is what happens while you're making other plans

I had big plans for this year, for this blog, for many things.  Now I find myself staring June in the face and wondering where the time goes.  It is very easy for me to get wrapped up in the daily grind and before I know it a week, or a month, has flown by and I have no idea where it went.  It's hard for me to admit, especially because I like to be thought of as competent, engaged, organized, but time management is not my strength.  In fact, I was just discussing this with Thin Man last night.  How is it that some days one's list can be three miles long with 597 things to-do and that manages to get done (or mostly done) and other days only have a handful of items on the list and yet by the end of the day few are checked off?  It's a mystery.

My intention was, at the beginning of this year, to write a blog post nearly every day.  Obviously that didn't happen, so I am going to accept that and move on.  Instead of crying over spilled milk, I've decided that this blog post will be about what's happened this year and what I plan to do with the rest of the year.  While I highly doubt I will remember most things that have happened (unless they were somehow momentous), perhaps this record will be good motivation.

January 2012: Floods and illness.

Our year started with our dog, Lotus, having part of her tail amputated.  Who knew that there was such a thing as "happy tail" and that it was truly dangerous for dogs? I certainly didn't!

Lotus has a strong tail and she's always wagging it.  She wagged really hard one day and broke it by hitting it against the corner of a wall.  Because the broken area was so close to the tip (about 2" away), even though we gave it protection and medication, it just wouldn't heal -- the doctor said the blood flow couldn't reach it.  So off the tip came.  Thankfully it looks normal now -- our vet did a nice job!

We created this tail splint using foam pipe cover and athletic tape.
It allowed airflow to the healing wound without letting the dog lick it.

In the middle of January, our house flooded.  Again.  This happens every couple years due to the incredible amount of rain we get over the course of a few days.  The ground can't absorb everything and so the water (and dirt and grime) finds a way inside.

Thankfully this time we caught the flood in the basement within an hour of when it first started and with the help of Honey, Thin Man, and the sump pumps we bought last time, it was cleaned up by the end of the day.
Thin Man was not too happy about pictures during the flood.
But his idea to use the wet/dry shop vac to clean up the water was a great one!
Less than a week later, I was at the vet with Nicky.  He was not doing well and had lost weight very rapidly (over the course of just a few days).  The vet told us that he had acute kidney failure, and after two days of staying at the vet's trying to get his system to improve, I brought my little Chunky Monkey home, knowing that the prognosis was he would not survive the week.
We were very blessed -- Nicky managed to hang on until March 1.  Caring for him was like caring for a dying relative -- it took time and energy but I was thankful for the time we had together.

February 2012, A New Work Life
This year brought with it a new career opportunity.  I am trying to be an entrepreneur.  If I'm really honest then I must admit that I have no idea what I'm doing.  For me, holding a job, a "real job," is easy -- you know what to do and when to do it.  No problem!  But figuring out how to work on one's own -- and how to sell a business to clients -- is hard, especially for this introvert.

So what is this business and job?  It's called The Black Brand and I work as a developer of Your Brand of Educating.  The woman, Jan, who had this brain child, is someone I met through my work at the university, so I've known her for a couple years.  Last August I helped her run a two-day professional development seminar for teachers (called a Brand Build) and we discovered we worked well together.  That was around the time my job at the university dried up, so I started working with her -- unpaid -- on a few things to see if we could get a business going (and in the meantime I searched for a job).  In January we made it more formal, but without a steady stream of clients there is no current income.  (This week we're hoping to change that by adding another school to our roster of clients, so fingers crossed!)  We've done a number of teacher in-services and professional development seminars and we're hoping to do more.  This is something I believe in -- I just don't always know how to start and run a business, especially if I am working with someone else. It is a learning process, but this week two books (The Lean Startup and The Fire Starter Sessions) I ordered arrived and I am excited about reading them and learning more about being a successful entrepreneur!

March 2012, Saying Goodbye, Saying Hello
March 1, 2012, was the day Nicky passed away.  I was devastated.  And it took me a while to recover.  Of course part of the path to recovery includes finding the baby that will fill the hole in my heart, and so in mid-March we brought Aiko home from the shelter.

She is an amazing kitty -- although I should've realized that an Ides of March baby would have issues.  We've finally, after two months, solved her health issues...I think.

In March we also had a freak snowstorm.  The weather's been a bit crazy the past two years and it make me worry about the garden, but there's not much to be done about it.

At the end of March I participated in a two-day retreat (of a sort) for women as the start of a year-long participation in a Women's Circle.  It was amazing and I am so happy to be a part of it because it's helping to heal my heart that has been broken by women in my life.  I have some serious issues, many stemming from the relationship with Crazymaker and the Cougar that was supposed to be my best friend, so learning how to trust and interact with women in a positive way and to feel that support system has been amazing.

April 2012, A Blurry Month
Most of this month consisted of a weekend trip to visit my sister and her family in CA, getting the garden ready, celebrating a graduation, and work.  Fun times.

May 2012, Spring has Sprung
We decided this year that we would put some serious work into our garden space.  We use a large plot of land (1/3 or 1/2 acre I think) a few miles from our house to garden.  Although our yard is about 2/3 of an acre, it's on a very steep hill and the ground was neglected for years before we bought it, so the soil doesn't really like growing vegetables.  Instead, at my house, I grow tomatoes, peppers, and a few other things in pots on my porch and patio.

This will be our third summer at our garden space, and while it's a bit inconvenient to drive ten minutes to get there, we are thankful for the opportunity to use this space.  We've been slowly working on it, but the weeds had control last year and so this year we stepped into high gear and decided to fix that issue by spreading ground cloth and barkdust on the permanent installations.  Over a week of working in the garden every evening after the work day resulted in some beautiful grapes and blueberries.

We still have some more work to do, but it's getting close and we're hoping to be done by the end of the month.  Then it's just a matter of maintainance!

I also learned how to knit this month!  And it may look silly with giant needles and really thick yarn, but it's very satisfying to be able to whip a scarf out in an evening.

Of course I only know one stitch, but it's a start! And I've made about six scarves and have started two different car seat/stroller blankets.

This recap does not include weddings, babies and baby showers, graduations, counseling former students, and other bits of life.  There is always too much to recount, to remember, and to do.  But at least it's a glimpse into the first half (or near-half) of the year.

My goals for the rest of the year are numerous, but I'll write the important ones here:

  • Submit at least two academic articles for publication.
  • Recruit at least two additional clients for YBOE (so at least a total of four schools or four Brand Builds).
  • Gardening and canning
  • Embracing the tasks and the learning that accompany the Women's Circle.
  • Learn at least one more knitting stitch.
  • Submit children's books to a publisher.
  • Finish novel.
  • Participate in the Creating Success Around the World blog hop in June.
  • Officiate at a wedding in July.
  • Participate more frequently in my online book group.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cajun Mushroom Fettuccine with Homemade Pasta and Fresh Ricotta

There are no pictures to this post because I was just experimenting, but when it turned out well and a friend asked for a recipe, I thought maybe I could retrace my steps and share.

We had a lot going on in the kitchen last night.  Honey was putting the cheese wax on the brick of cheddar cheese he made over the weekend (more on that later!), we were making fresh pasta, and I had this recipe going.  I think I need a bigger kitchen!

We used a Williams-Sonoma recipe for the pasta.  That I did stick to because I wanted to make sure it turned out.  We then used our pasta maker to roll it and cut it into fettuccine noodles. 

The ricotta that we used was a by-product of the cheddar cheese that Matthew made this weekend. Apparently after one makes the cheddar there is whey leftover, which can then be turned into ricotta.  I found this recipe that just tries making ricotta on its own, so maybe this is helpful if one just wants to make ricotta? 

For the cajun mushroom sauce, I had two recipes as inspiration: mushroom fettuccine and cajun chicken pasta.  Then I went off and did my own thing.  It looked something like this:

  • 1 chicken breast, cubed (you can, of course, use far more, I just wanted a taste of chicken this time)
  • 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
  • 1/2 large onion, diced and divided (Costco size)
  • 2 oz butter, divided
  • 2lb. mushrooms, sliced (I used baby bellas)
  • 1.5 c. ricotta (or slightly more)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 c. grated cheese
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 2-3 c. chopped fresh spinach
  • cajun seasoning, garlic salt, red pepper flakes, pepper -- all to taste
  • 1/2-3/4 lb. fettuccine noodles
Coat chicken in spices and cook with half the onion, garlic, and butter until cooked through.  Remove from heat and set aside.

In the same frying pan, melt the rest of the butter.  Stir fry the rest of the onion and garlic for about two minutes, then add the mushrooms.  If you have some extra spices from the chicken, toss them in.  Cook until the mushrooms are done.

In the meantime, cook the fettuccine, drain, cut into smaller pieces, and set aside.

Using the big pot in which you cooked the fettuccine, mix together noodles, mushrooms, chicken, cheese, and milk.  Slowly add the two eggs and mix well (the food should be hot enough to cook the eggs as you mix).  Add the spinach and continue tossing until all is blended and the spinach is wilted.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Recipe: Crock Pot Garlic Roast (aka "Hearty Stew")

Yesterday for the first time in my life I cooked a roast in the crock pot.  I have cooked roasts before (in the oven), but it's been at least 14 years.  You see, Honey grew up vegetarian, and when we were dating and for much of our marriage, this was a vegetarian house.  We progressed from that to a "flexitarian" house, meaning we had poultry and fish in the house and served it when we had company.  A few years ago, Honey started eating the occasional steak, and last year I decided to join him.

Fast forward to this winter when I decided to go from only-having-beef-in-the-house-on-days-we-decide-to-grill-steaks to buying a box of locally raised, grass-fed beef.  There is a local farm (well, it's a bit of a drive, but I still consider it local) that offers a very good deal on boxes of beef.  I decided that if we were going to venture out a little more into this realm, I wanted whatever we consumed to be high quality.  (Thank you, Bald Hill Farm!)

Perhaps one day I'll write about our journey from vegetarians to omnivores (or mostly omnivores -- we still don't eat pork), but not today.  I will, however, point out that we generally limit our consumption of non-vegetarian cuisine to one or two meals a week (sometimes more if we have leftovers, like this week).  Honey still only takes vegetarian meals for lunch and since the lunches are based on dinner leftovers, there is definite incentive to keep most meals vegetarian.

Yesterday, however, I decided to make a roast.  My inspiration was a pressure cooker recipe for Guinness Pot Roast, but I decided to use my crock pot instead.  I made my own recipe, which even included a bit of tomato paste now that Trader Joe's has this wonderful little invention:

Tomato paste in a tube is a genius idea!  I just had to share...

Anyway, the recipe turned out well.  Honey really liked it and I did, too, so we may have to make this again -- but in the distant future.  For now, we don't need to eat beef that often.

Crock Pot Garlic Roast (aka "Hearty Stew")

  • 3lb chuck roast
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3-4 Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
  • 2 small yams or sweet potatoes (not much bigger than the potatoes), sliced into strips (like carrots)
  • 2 heads of garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/2 c. hot water
  • 1 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp corn startch
  • 2 tsp. Pasta Sprinkle or Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 packet au jus or gravy mix
  • salt, to taste (wait until the roast is cooked and then taste and adjust for salt)
  • 1 bottle (12 oz) dark beer (Guinness recommended but not necessary --we used non-Guinness, so it adds a tiny "hoppy" flavor)
Place roast in the crock pot.  Add onion, potatoes, yams, and garlic.

Mix together hot water, spices, and au jus/gravy mix.  Pour over roast and veggies.

Pour beer over everything.

Cook on low for 8-9 hours.

Serves 8.

Yes, I forgot to take a picture of the end result because we just started eating it.  I cooked the roast for nine hours so that it fell apart in shreds and thus resembled a very thick, gravy-like stew.  So yummy!  Perfect for the cold, snowy day we had yesterday.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Recipe: Twisted Chicken Casserole

Earlier this week, I made Crock Pot Honey Mustard Chicken so that we could have sliders.  Of course we ended up with a bunch of leftovers, so I made Twisted Chicken Casserole.  It received its name because it started as an idea to make enchiladas but then was twisted and modified so much that it became its own creation.

Twisted Chicken Casserole

  • 2-3 c. leftover Crock Pot Honey Mustard Chicken
  • 4 c. sliced mushrooms (approx. 2lb)
  • 4 c. diced bell peppers (approx. 3-4)
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic (appox. 6 cloves)
  • 2 tsp. onion powder or 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 tsp. curry powder
  • red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • salt (to taste -- I didn't use any, but some people like more salt than I do)
  • 1 can enchilada verde sauce (approx. 2 cups)
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 12 corn (or flour) tortillas
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro
  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 1 c. grated cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and grease a large rectangular baking dish.

Saute mushrooms and peppers about five minutes, then add spices and continue to saute until peppers are soft (about five more minutes).

Mix enchilada verde, cream of mushroom soup, and milk together.  Spread a small amount on the bottom of the baking dish and top with four tortillas.

Layer 1/2 of the veggies, 1/2 of the chicken, and 1/3 of the verde soup mix.  Top with four tortillas.

Layer with the rest of the veggies and chicken and 1/3 of the verde soup mix.  Top with the last four tortillas and then the rest of the verde soup.  Sprinkle grated cheese, scallions, and cilantro on top.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown.

Serves 8.

Top Five Things You Should Never Say to a Woman Without Children.

A friend of mine -- a wonderful mother with four kids -- recently shared an article entitled 15 Things You Should Never Say to the Mom of a Large Family.  Having grown up as the oldest of seven children and within a community where families ranged from six to thirteen kids, I've heard all of these many times.  (Side note: I don't think of four children as a large family, but I think that's because of the way I was raised.)  I grew into the habit of saying "Yes, I'm the oldest of seven. No, we're not Mormon or Catholic."  There are some choice phrases that my adult self would add to that spiel now if the opportunity presented itself, but thankfully I haven't had to worry about that too much.

Instead, I get a different type of ignorant questions or assumptions thrown my way because I've been married for nearly 11 years and I don't have children -- at least not in the traditional sense.  And so I've decided to write my own blog post.

Top Five Things You Should Never Say to a Woman Without Children

1. You'll never know true love until you have a child. -- Yes, me, Jesus, and Mother Theresa have no concept of love or its power because we are childless.

2. Who will take care of you in your old age? -- Oh, silly me, I forgot. Let me rush right out and have a baby because the only reason to bring a life into this world is so that someone can put me in a home when I turn 80.

3. Want to watch my kids? It'll be good birth control. -- Of course. The only reason I don't have kids is because I babysit frequently, not because I have made an independent conscious decision.

4. You'll never know the pain and self-sacrifice of being a parent. -- See answer #1.  Or read this.

5. You and your spouse are intelligent and financially stable. You'd be good parents. It's your duty to have children. -- I'd like to point out that intelligence and financial stability are wonderful to have when raising kids, but love and the desire to have children and raise them well is even more important. Too many kids in my generation came into the world because their parents felt a "duty." Now they're all in therapy.

And, just for fun, let's throw in a bonus:

6. You'll change your mind. -- Perhaps.  Then again, maybe not.  You probably don't know me very well if you think this.  I also find it funny that people usually say this within a minute or two of yelling at their own children and then saying how wonderful parenthood is.

Perhaps what it all boils down to is this: let people make their own decisions and don't assume that just because you want a particular life that everyone else must want the same.

*steps off soapbox*

Offerings to the Kitty Fairy

"You sure know how to pick 'em."  This was what Honey said last night when we were talking about Aiko, the latest furry addition to the family.

Aiko is an amazing kitty and a good fit for our family.  Or at least she will be a good fit once she is well.  Right now she has "tummy" issues and I am trying everything I can to clear them so the poor little one (and I) can have some relief.

There are a number of things that can give cats intestinal issues, including new food, stress, a new environment, and a reaction to deworming medication.  Aiko has experienced all of those since we adopted her last Thursday evening, so it's no wonder the baby has issues.  I've just never had a cat with this level of intestinal issues.  It makes me wonder if I should put her in a diaper -- that would mean a lot less cleaning for me.

Aiko is trying to settle in.  Last night Bunny let Aiko curl up next to her -- for about five minutes.  A step in the right direction!  It's just hard when the other cats have a problem being around a stinker.

A friend pointed out that I've had some terrible luck recently with pets with Nicky's passing first and now with Aiko's illness.  In fact, I've been dealing with sick pets (and the resulting need to do at least one load of laundry every day) since mid-January.  I am tired.  And part of me wonders why the Kitty Fairy is being mean to me.

The other part of me looks at each situation -- even those that are really difficult, like caring for a dying pet or nursing a very sick little one -- and is very thankful for the experience.  Do I wish that it could be different?  Of course.  But every day I am given the opportunity to send love and goodwill into the world by caring for these little ones.  I learn patience, kindness, understanding, and suddenly these burdens seem lighter.

That being said, I really hope the Kitty Fairy has pity on me and heals the baby.  I could really use a good night's sleep and a break from laundry right about now.

The Second Day of Spring

How long before unusual weather becomes the norm?  And once it reaches that stage, what is the weather called, since by being normal it is no longer unusual?  I ask myself these questions after a winter like this one.  And like last year.  And the year before that.

I've lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of my life.  It's my favorite part of this beautiful country of ours.  That being said, I don't particularly care for the "normal" winter weather: rain, rain, and more rain.

Several years ago, we were stuck inside our house thanks to a monster snow storm.  That was unusual.  Last year, I don't remember if we got any snow.  It was warm and wet and stayed that way through July -- ick.

This year the weather can't make up its mind.  We had very little rainfall for a long time, then torrential downpours (causing flooding), then sun, then snow.  The first week in February was so warm and sunny that I wore a tank top when taking Lotus on a walk.  We laughed at Punxsutawney Phil and the prediction of six more weeks of winter.  Really?  With this sun?

I guess the famous rodent had the last laugh.  Yesterday, on the first day of spring, we saw the biggest snowfall of the season.  In some parts of the state, not too far from where we live but at higher elevations, people reported over six inches of snow overnight.  We're pretty close to the valley floor so we didn't see snow like that, but it's the middle of the day, the second day of Spring, and we still have snow on the ground.

Welcome, Spring!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Recipe: Crock Pot Honey Mustard Chicken Sliders

I wish I had a picture to go with this recipe.  I thought about it, but by the time it was ready it was so good that I forgot to take a picture -- we were too busy eating.

Crock Pot Honey Mustard Chicken Sliders

  • 4-6 frozen chicken breasts (we get out chicken from Costco, so the pieces are huge)
  • 1/2 c. honey
  • 1/2 c. yellow mustard
  • 1/2 c. soy sauce
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 1/4 c. dried onion (or a small onion, diced)
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic (approx. 4-6 cloves)
  • 1 tbsp curry powder (it mellows out quite a bit in cooking)
  • Optional: 1-2 tsp each of red pepper flakes, cayenne powder, and Italian or pasta seasoning
  • Salt, to taste (wait until the end to add this -- depending on your soy sauce, you may not need it)
  • Slider buns, potato rolls, or small hamburger buns
Place frozen chicken breasts in the bottom of the crock pot.  Mix all other ingredients together and pour over the chicken.  Cook on high for four hours or on low for seven hours.

Remove chicken, shred, return to crock pot for another 15-30 minutes.

Slice buns, toast for a minute (optional), top with mayo or avocado mayo (yum!), and serve with fries or a salad.

Serves six.

Trust me, it's good!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Meet Aiko, our Ides of March Baby

Thursday was the day that we brought home a new little baby to fill the void in our hearts left by Nicky's passing.  Once I finally decided that I was ready to go out and find our new baby, I was so excited!  The 20 minute drive to the local cat shelter felt like it took forever but it was worth it.  Meet Aiko, our newest baby.

Aiko means "little loved one" in Japanese.  All my life -- as long as I can remember, certainly long before I became a teenager who thought about having her own family and then an adult who decided her only children would be of the furry kind -- I have wanted to name a baby Aiko, but that name never before fit.  If you've been a consistent reader of this blog, you know that I am a bit woo-woo.  I do believe that animals listen and understand and that if you ask what their name is, you'll know.  This is the Aiko I've been waiting for my whole life.

Aiko's shelter name was Kit Kat, part of "the candy bar litter" brought to the shelter last May when they were a few days old.  This litter was found in a sawdust bin in a mill a couple hours away and they were lucky enough to be spotted by someone who knew to take them to a good shelter.  This particular shelter is in an old house and has, I'm sure, well over 100 cats -- and it's not even kitten season.  This is probably why the shelter is trying a program to get as many cats spayed/neutered as possible -- to end the cat overpopulation problem.  At this shelter, one can see the overpopulation problem first-hand.  Aiko shared a room with 20 or 25 other adolescent cats between six and twelve months old, all very loving, all with a clean bill of health, all needing homes.

It makes me very upset when people don't have their animals fixed, especially when most humane societies and other rescue organizations offer vet partnerships so that the cost is low and it can be done as soon as pets hit a certain weight (for cats it's two pounds, or about eight weeks old).  There are times when a pet legitimately cannot be fixed and so that I understand.  For example, a friend of mine has a kitten she found abandoned at a very young age.  The kitten can't be fixed, though, because she has a heart murmur and the anesthesia could kill her.  She'll be an indoor kitty her whole life and she won't contribute to the overpopulation problem.

But back to my story.

Every time I get ready to welcome a new pet into the house, I get a little apprehensive.  What if she doesn't fit in? What if she turns out to be crazy? What if I choose the wrong one?  All of these questions swirl around in my mind even though the more sane part of me knows that I have had incredible success choosing pets and if I just listen to my own intuition I am fine.

Listening to my own intuition is one of the reasons I spend a lot of time waiting and looking and thinking before making a decision.  To the untrained eye, it might look like I was spontaneous on Thursday -- my meeting was canceled, so I hopped in the car and drove to the shelter.  But to those in the know, Thursday was the result of weeks of planning and preparation.  My intuition told me that it was finally the day.

I have a system for bringing pets into the house.  Part of it involves preparing the current pets for a new addition, much like parents prepare a child for a new baby.  The other part involves looking for signs or talking to the prospective new baby.  It may sound strange, but it works.

On the drive to the shelter, I said, "Little one, when you see me, I want you to run up, cuddle, and start purring."  This is not always the determining factor when choosing a pet, but I knew that for this one I wanted a cat who was very lovey.  Over the past few weeks I set purpose statements around what I wanted -- some people might call this praying because it's very similar.  In these statements, I was clear that I wanted a black cat (although I was open to a tabby, too, because they tend to be my favorites), one that was a little lover, and one that was curious enough to stand up to the other pets as they reacted to a newbie.  I wasn't sure if I was going to get a boy or girl (although aside from Nicky we've generally had a "no male pets" rule in the house), but I thought that it would probably answer to one of three names.

When I arrived at the shelter, I told the woman working there that I was looking to bring a little one home to a house with three other cats and a dog.  I wanted a loving cat under a year old.  When I first got in the car, I thought I'd ask to see the new litter of kittens, but that's not what came out of my mouth at the shelter and so the woman took me to the crowded room of adolescent cats saying, "They are all so loving, they'll mob you."

That is exactly what happened. A giant cloud of fur headed my way, but one cat in particular responded to my message.  She took a flying leap from across the room, crawled up to my shoulder, curled up and started purring. I stood.  This was the one.  Immediately, the mob of cats dissipated.  The woman said, "They must know you've already chosen. I've never seen them do that before."  We talked for a few more minutes in the room.  I crouched back down and called a few over to give them love while I was there and then sat my kitty down so I could exit and fill out paperwork.  She followed me, trying to get out of the gate that kept her trapped in the room and my heart melted.

Paperwork and flea check complete, I loaded the kitty into the carrier and took her to the car where Lotus was waiting.  This was test number one: see how a cat who's never seen a dog before reacts to Lotus.  I opened the lid to the carrier so that Lotus could sniff and said, "Lotus, meet Aiko," the name rolling off my tongue so quickly and easily that I knew it was her name.  Lotus sniffed, Aiko looked, and then they went about their own business.  Aiko never meowed on the drive -- she knew she was going home.

Honey pulled into the driveway right as I did, which was perfect timing.  When we bring pets home I have certain "rules" about the amount of time the rest of the family should be home to help the new one adjust.  This was perfect.

Now "experts" say that cats should be introduced slowly, over the course of days or a week, and that during this time the new one should be kept in a separate room away from the others.  Perhaps this is necessary if one has mean pets or a tiny house, but I say it's hogwash and only serves to prolong the transition.  (Now of course there are exceptions if you are concerned that one pet might be sick -- like Nick and Nora were when we took them home -- and so quarantine is important so that the sickness doesn't spread.)

Aiko explored her surroundings and her new family.  Canvas and Lotus both had the same reaction: "Oh, okay Mom, you brought home another one.  Whatever." and they went about their daily routine.  Bunny is our welcome kitty. She still hisses a few times, but she follows babies around, shows them where things are, and only hisses when they put a face in her face.  Nora is the most standoffish right now.  After 24 hours she was to the point of only hissing when Aiko was within a foot of her, but she is making her displeasure known through her glares.  All of the cats hang out at the same time in the same room, though, so it's just a matter of time before Nora warms up to Aiko.  (It could partially be due to the smell -- I've been giving Aiko cloth baths because she smells like a stinky shelter. That should fix itself in a day or two.)

Did I get what I wanted?  Absolutely!  Aiko has responded to her name from the moment she heard it.  She comes running whenever we call.  She follows me around the house and loves to be held.  I don't think she's stopped purring since she got home!

I needed to be able to do things today, so we tried the kitty sling for the first time and she loved it.  She can now be close to Mommy and I can have my hands free!

We are so happy to have another furry baby to fill the hole in this family.  And Aiko truly lives up to her name -- she is loving and well-loved!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Menu Monday #8 (On a Tuesday. Again. Maybe it needs a new name.)

This week I am experimenting with a new-to-me tool: a pressure cooker.  Years ago, a friend's then-husband used to make curry in a pressure cooker.  It was always amazing.  But the thought of using a pressure cooker was a bit scary.  Weren't those the kitchen tools that could explode and cause massive damage?  Didn't they make weird noises??  Do I really want to risk it?!?

Image from of a Presto 8-qt. pressure cooker

The questions roaming around in my mind were in conflict with the part of me that said "But I read that it only takes a few minutes for dinner to cook with a pressure cooker.  Maybe I should look into that..."

When I saw The Easy Pressure Cooker Cookbook at Costco last week, I knew I had to get it.  This was confirmed by a little old lady who walked up to me and started telling me how much she loved her pressure cooker.  I then opened the book and saw the page for Chicken Tikka Masala.  In under 10 minutes.  No. Way. I was sold!

Some things I discovered: the recipes in the book need the addition of a bit of salt.  It also takes a while for the pressure cooker to reach full pressure (which is when you start timing), so the times aren't entirely accurate -- but it's still much faster than regular cooking.  And there's no need to watch a pot or worry about burning!

This week, it's all about trying more pressure cooker recipes.  I want to have a fast way to make a ton of freezer meals for my sister.  She's due in May (although the baby might arrive early, like baby #2 did) and I'm planning on visiting her in CA in April so that we can stock her freezer and do any other necessary prep.  A pressure cooker could be just the thing we need!

Menu 3/11-3/17

  • Sunday -- Fish tacos
  • Monday -- Vietnamese chicken and sweet potato curry in the pressure cooker (I'll have to post this recipe later, since it was a blend of two cookbooks)
  • Tuesday -- Curried lentils in the pressure cooker and a salad
  • Wednesday -- New Orleans-Style Red Beans & Rice in the pressure cooker
  • Thursday -- Vegetarian chili in the pressure cooker
  • Friday -- tomato soup & grilled cheese
  • Saturday -- beer & pretzels (We're meeting Tin Man at a local German restaurant because he really wants German beer! -- One day he'll realize our microbrews are actually better.)
My pressure cooker cookbook also has several recipes for rice pudding.  To me -- and my sister -- there are few things in life better than rice pudding.  In fact, it's quite possible that no dessert on earth tops it.  Needless to say, I will be trying these recipes.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Gluten-Free Pumpkin Spice Muffins

It seems that more and more people in my life are avoiding gluten, so I keep trying new recipes.  This was inspired by something I saw at Williams-Sonoma, but I had to create my own recipe to fit with all the dietary restrictions.

Why isn't there a picture of baked muffins?
I got busy eating and forgot to take a picture. Whoops.
These muffins are really dense and do not rise up like a hill as most gluten-filled muffins do.  They are still yummy and filling and do not have that horrible gluten-free taste (which could be because I used Jules' GF Flour, something I recently discovered online -- the better taste is worth the higher price).

Pumpkin Spice Muffins (GF)

  • 1 c. GF flour
  • 1/3 c. almond meal (may be replaced with GF flour)
  • 1/3 c. flax meal
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger (or 1/2 tbsp freshly grated)
  • 1/4 tsp. cloves
  • 1 c. pumpkin
  • 1 c. mashed ripe bananas (approx. 2-3)
  • 2 eggs (to make vegan: replace with an additional 2 tbsp flax meal and 1/3 c. water)
  • 1/3 c. agave (or honey)
  • 1/4 c. blackastrap molasses (or additional agave)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease muffin tins.

In a small bowl, mix all dry ingredients.

In a large bowl, mix all wet ingredients.

Slowly add dry ingredients to large bowl.  Mix thoroughly.

Fill muffin tins to nearly full.  Bake for 22-26 minutes until a toothpick comes out almost completely clean.  Let muffins sit in the tins for five minutes before removing and placing on a cooling rack.

Makes approximately 15 muffins.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Spinach "Ice Cream" Recipe

A while back I was browsing Pinterest (of course) and found a recipe for a Green Monster Smoothie from the blog Iowa Girl Eats.  It was delicious.  In fact, it's one of my go-to quick and nutritious lunches now, especially when I have to be on the road at lunch time.  I modified the recipe just slightly to suit my tastes and then I started thinking "I bet this would make great ice cream."

Spinach ice cream?  Why not.  And what better way to get even more veggies into the day's meals?

You will need an ice cream maker for this recipe.  Ours is a Cuisinart.  Adjust the time based on the directions for your ice cream maker.

Spinach "Ice Cream"

  • 4 c. spinach, washed
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter (or other nut butter)
  • 1 c. coconut milk (we used Silk)
  • 1/2 c. whole milk (you need the fat for this to work -- if you don't drink milk, use one can of full-fat coconut milk found in the Asian section of most supermarkets instead of coconut milk + whole milk)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 c. Greek yogurt

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

Pour into the ice cream maker, turn it on for 25 minutes (or according to the directions for your ice cream maker).

Serve in small bowls and enjoy!  This made 3-4 servings.

The verdict?  According to Honey this was not really ice cream, but "it's still pretty good" and we'll definitely be having it again.

Note: If you like really sweet desserts, use honey-flavored Greek yogurt or add 1/4 c. honey.

Easy Salmon Dinner (A Sort-of Recipe)

Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny day.  On days like that, we feel lucky to live in the beautiful Northwest...and we generally eat a pretty Northwest meal.  Last night we had grilled salmon and fresh asparagus.  Yum.  This is one of our favorite summer meals and so I had to share the recipe with you.

The only minor hitch?  It's not a precise recipe.  This gives you an approximation that you can mix to suit your own tastes.  You've been forewarned.  Oh, and even people who don't care for fish love this.  It's really that good.

Creamy Dill Salmon

  • 1.5 lb salmon fillet 
  • 2 large spoons of mayo (approximately 1/3 c.)
  • Several shakes of smoked paprika (approximately 1 tsp.)
  • 1 squirt lemon juice (approximately 1/2 tbsp or a quarter lemon)
  • 1 tbsp dried dill or dill paste
  • 2 forks of capers (approximately 1 1/2 tbsp -- we use forks so that the capers drain)
  • 1/2 tsp. liquid smoke (opt. -- we no longer use this because we have a smoker box in our grill)

Rinse salmon fillet and pat dry.  Set on a "tray" made out of two sheets of foil (just barely larger than the fillet).
Mix all other ingredients together and spread on the salmon fillet.

Place salmon (on its tin foil tray) on a heated grill for 15 minutes.  Serve with pasta and a vegetable.  Serves four.

Easy Asparagus

  • 1/2lb asparagus (give or take -- we've done more at a time before)
  • 1 tbsp. minced garlic (approx. six cloves)
  • 1/4-1/3 c. soy sauce
  • 1 pat butter (opt. -- we've done it without for friends on diets and it's still good)
Wash asparagus and trim ends. Place on a microwave safe plate.  Pour soy sauce over it and top with garlic and butter.  

Cover (tightly) with cling wrap and microwave for 2-4 minutes (depending on how crunchy you want it and how much you're cooking -- I usually end up at 3 minutes because I don't want it too crunchy).

Serves 2-4.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rest in Peace, my little Chunky Monkey

The past week has been full of emotion.  It was one week ago last night that Nicky, our little Chunky Monkey, started deteriorating.  Those of you following the saga know that in January our little cat was diagnosed with kidney failure at the age of two and a half.  I now am fairly sure that it was actually cancer that led to the kidney failure, but that doesn't matter right now.  The best care in the world can't reverse kidney failure once it's been diagnosed in cats because it's not found until kidneys are at least 70% gone.

We were lucky, in some regard, because when I took Nicky in in January he was so sick that the vet thought he wouldn't last more than a day or two. He didn't respond to any treatment.  Then we tried acupuncture.  It was a miracle.  He perked up!  He started eating and drinking and peeing and gaining weight -- all good signs.  I was baffled and didn't know what to expect, but thrilled nonetheless.

The alternative treatments -- he had three or four acupuncture treatments altogether -- helped give us all enough time to get used to the idea that we would have to say goodbye.

As February drew to a close, Nicky's health was getting worse again. He'd respond to treatment, but after a few days look like he was getting worse.  He lost control of his bladder, so we ended up with kitty diapers and puppy pads.

I stopped sleeping much at night, and when I did sleep it was very lightly -- I wanted to be able to hear Nicky if he called (which he did every time he was hungry or needed a diaper change -- much like a human infant).  We didn't want to put him down just because of bladder issues because every time I had the acupuncturist check for signs of pain he didn't exhibit any.  He was fine just being mommy's baby for a while.

Last Monday, his gums started bleeding.  This is a sign of the last stages of cancer and kidney failure.  I rushed him in to the vet's, but there was nothing to be done other than to give him some pain medication for his gums just in case he needed it.  They offered to put him to sleep, but I said no -- he wasn't in pain.  My plan was always for him to be able to go on his own.  For weeks I had told him that it was okay for him to go whenever he needed to and that we would miss him and be sad but we don't want him in pain.  Monday changed my message; I started telling him he couldn't stay.  His body was too broken.  Yet he still clung to life.

Nicky's last day
On Tuesday he was worse, but still not showing signs of being in pain.  I called the vet and made an appointment for Thursday afternoon and then I started telling Nicky that he needed to go on his own, but if he couldn't manage, I would get the vet to help.

Wednesday evening brought one last hurrah.  A friend who practices pet reiki came over to help with Nicky.  She confirmed that he was not in pain -- just stubbornly clinging to life.  It seems his mind knew he was still a little boy and so well loved, so he didn't want to leave.  His willpower was keeping him alive by this point -- he was stinky, unable to eat, entirely dependent on me, and hadn't moved much that day, confirming to my heart that the decision to make an appointment for Thursday was the right one.  He needed to leave -- he just didn't want to.  Every time this friend worked on him and I told him, "Nicky, I love you, but you need to leave. It's okay, it will be easy, but you need to go" he pulled himself up and moved.  Every. Single. Time.  Finally we tried a new tactic -- R. showed Nicky that his body couldn't heal as I told him the same thing: the body was done.  He peed.  (I took that as a sign of his displeasure.)  And right after that, he lay down and indicated he was done, almost like he was giving up.  Message received, Mom, he said.

That night, we stayed awake together on the couch for the entire night.  I gave him some of the pain medication from the doctor because he had finally started showing he was in pain.  And every time I started falling asleep, he meowed, waking me up.  He knew.

And so I stayed up and sang to him.  We had several songs that were ours.  That last evening, this song from the movie Beaches was the one I sang most often.

On Thursday morning, I was exhausted.  Nicky was not doing well and I gave him more pain medication.  We then stayed curled up together as I spoke to him, told him how much I loved him, told him about the better place he was going to, told him cats have nine lives and he can come back later in a better body.  I told him I would miss him.

At 11:30, he was crying.  I could tell he was in pain again and this was the end because he stood up and tried to get out of his bed.  I placed him on the floor, knowing he wanted to go to his favorite spot -- the bathroom.  He used to love watching the shower water and every morning before he was sick I would hear him talking in there, waiting for me to come in and pick him up. (And if I didn't heed the call, watch out! He'd unravel the toilet paper.)  On this morning, he pulled himself to his favorite spot.  The death convulsions started, something I recognized from my experience with Hero.  If you've ever seen them, you know that they are heartbreaking.  Death often does not come peacefully, like in the movies, much as we wish for that outcome.  And, like anyone watching a loved one in pain, it broke my heart.  I gave him more pain medication, knowing full well what it would do at this point.  It would take less than a minute to slow his breathing and make him relax and then his spirit would leave his body.  He wouldn't be in pain any more.

Our Nicky, our little Chunky Monkey, died at 11:36AM on Thursday, March 1.

It has been several days and now I can get through the day, I can think about him, and only choke a bit.  I am not drowning in tears and sobs and sorrow, but my heart is still heavy.  It's really hard to deal with so many conflicting emotions. On the one hand, of course I am relieved that he is gone, he is no longer in pain.  But the other hand misses him so much and even with four other furry babies the house feels so empty.

This is the tribute video that I made for my little boy.  Out of all the songs I sang to him, this was our favorite.  I don't listen to country music much now, but when I looked at this boy I knew immediately what my heart wanted to tell him.  This song was the best way to express it.

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