Thursday, January 17, 2013

The best laid plans of mice and men...

As the new year -- 2013! -- rolled around I had a thought: how long had it been since I touched my blog?  Quite a long time, as it turns out!  As "they" say, life is what happens while you're making other plans -- and that's certainly what happened to me!  Where did all the time go?  I'll tell you: 2012 was the Year of Projects.  Don't believe me?  Just take a look at our holiday letter (edited for web publication, of course):


Happy New Year!  It’s hard to believe that another year has come and gone, and while the old adage about time flying by more quickly as we age may be true, in this household we tend to believe time flies by so quickly because we stay so busy.  Each month we hoped for a bit of downtime; instead, we found that 2012 earned its nickname as The Year of Projects.  For those of you who might not be keeping up with our various exploits through the miracle that is social networking, here is a brief recap:

As Oregonians know, January can be a rather dreary month. We did not have a massive snow storm this year but we started off with rain (this has been the fourth wettest year on record for Oregon since “they” first started keeping records about 80 years ago).  All the rain led to the second basement flood we’ve experienced in our current house and we’ve found we’re getting faster with the cleanup.  

Unfortunately, the rain was not the only damper to the Ballance household move in January – we started the month with a minor surgery on Lotus’s tail (which is now a couple inches shorter thanks to “happy tail”) and ended with a diagnosis that Nicky, one of our youngest cats (2.5 years) had kidney failure and was doing so poorly that he wasn’t expected to survive the month.

February brought better news. Marie discovered the miracles that acupuncture can work on a cat, prolonging Nicky’s life by a few weeks and allowing him to live pain free until his final day. In the meantime, Honey continued working hard at _______________ while Marie learned about marketing, branding, and working for a start-up.

Nicky passed away on March 1, and the whole household missed the cuddly little guy as Honey went back to being the only male in the house.  Yet this month, as the first month of spring, brought new beginnings.  We rented out our little rental house to a family who moved in right before the birth of their son.  We also brought home a new little one of our own – Aiko was ten months old and had lived at a shelter her entire life just waiting for us to find her. She settled right in and lived up to the meaning of her name: little loved one.

Marie went to California several times this year, the first time in April to help her sister prep for the birth of baby #3.  Meanwhile, Honey stayed at home hoping that the rains would clear so that gardening could begin in earnest.  That, however, had to wait until May and by June we were in full swing at the garden space and picking the earliest fruit at the house.

Perhaps those early gardening months did not give us enough to do because by July we decided to tackle the deck project we’d talked about for years.  And it was at that point that we lost all our weekends for the rest of the year – Marie counted a total of four weekends since July 4 that we have not worked on some major project together (and for two of those weekends Marie was in California and Honey continued working on his own!).  

The deck, like most projects at this house, took far longer than originally anticipated because the former owners tended to do a slap-dash job on everything.  This means that it’s not just a matter of replacing something; it’s usually a matter of tearing everything down to the dirt (or pretty close) and rebuilding things the right way.  At least this house is getting more solid every year!  And speaking of houses, in July we found our second little rental to purchase. In the spirit of arrivals, Marie went down to California again in July to meet her newest nephew, the Little Lion Man, who had made his appearance in June.

Back home in Oregon, we finished the deck (or at least close – we still have a bit of finish work to do in the spring!) and then immediately started work in August and September on Honey's 12’x16’ shed. That, too, is done enough for now with just a bit of work left to finish once the winter rains stop again.  

This shed was pretty important because we needed more space for all of Honey's wine-producing equipment. Perhaps one day he’ll go through the licensing process to distribute to the public, but for now if you want to try his wine, you’ll have to come on over for a visit.

The months of August and September were also very busy for Marie, who took a job as an Education Developer for a new school that is growing quickly and needed a bit of organizational help.  With all this busyness we were thankful that we didn’t take possession of our newest rental until October because this house needed some work and we needed some time. We spent October harvesting and canning, but by November we were in the little house renovating and painting and making it sparkle.

The year would not be complete without another project, would it?  And so, just as we thought we were winding down the last of the projects for a while, the shower in our master bath broke mid-December.  We had, at some point, planned to renovate the bathroom – just not this year!  Honey is using this time to become quite familiar with bathroom plumbing, a skill we’re sure will be very useful in the future.

As we have for the past few years, we escaped for a mini-break during the week of Christmas.  This year it was to a little house just south of Yachats, “the gem of the Oregon coast.”  Lotus loves going with us for this little trip, but she and Marie agree that it would be absolutely perfect if they could just figure out how to bring the cats along, too.

What else have we learned? Marie should not have fish as pets, Honey makes enough wine to need larger, professional-grade equipment, Marie loves knitting (a hobby newly discovered this year), Honey does not love plumbing projects, if you ever need a large amount of lumber it’s worth paying the extra money and going to Parr because they’ll load it onto the truck for you (which is half the work), hiring someone else to paint the outside of one’s home is totally worth it, the world did not end on December 21, and the pets are all very confused wondering why we don’t just hangout on the couch and sleep most of the day.

We are hoping that 2013 proves to have fewer projects and more time at home with our (furry) family doing the things we love.  We hope the same for you, too!

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.
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