1st Annivarsary of Blogging – Announcing My Blog to the Public

Many, many years ago I started a small town newsletter.  It was printed on 8.5 by 11 sheets of paper, and was run off on a hand cranked Gestetner mimeograph machine. A group of faithful friends would gather after the sheets were printed – to collate and staple – we called it “Bend, Fold, Staple and Mutilate Night.” I sold enough advertising to pay for the materials and the postage. Everyone in town was given a copy.

Morning Coffee and a big city newspaper – cabin style.

Eventually a Company that wanted to publish a Real Newspaper arrived in town. My newsletter was going to become redundant. And because my newsletter was a volunteer society, I couldn’t legally sell the assets. The Real Newspaper offered to give me a job if I let them use my name and reputation.  I agreed, mostly because the job was only going to be one or two days a week, and it got me out of the house. I never  made any money personally from this job. My salary only paid for the babysitter I had to hire because I wasn’t at home to look after the kids. I learned a lot though, not the least of which was that the editor of the paper couldn’t write all that coherently. This was where I learned to ghostwrite, in such a way that the editor didn’t really know I’d done just a bit more than correct his spelling errors… Several years passed, I moved away, and the little Town Newspaper continued on without me. I stopped writing except for my Annual Christmas letter.

A year ago I started writing again and chose a WordPress Blog to “publish” me. It feels just like my newspaper days, except it is so much easier. No messy ink, no typesetter machines, no paper cuts. No deadlines. No Advertisers. No Readers – well, in the beginning there weren’t any. But I didn’t really care. I was too busy playing with words and themes to care whether anyone saw it. I didn’t even tell my family and friends what I was doing. I didn’t want to feel like I was writing for anyone but me.

A year has gone by, and I am ready to tell my family and friends that I have a blog. It feels a bit like the old days, where I invited the team to come over to assemble the newsletter. So here we go! Welcome to the Red House! Who brought the stapler?

Does Reality TV Reflect a Downward Intelligence Spiral?

Dumbing Down – to lower the level of difficulty and the intellectual content of (as a textbook); to lower the general level of intelligence ; statement of truth about real cultural trends in education and culture.
(Dictionary definitions)

The QuipperyWe’re kind of smug here in Canada – we like to think we’re “different” than Americans. And, in many ways, happily, we are. But, unhappily, we’re working hard to change that. I’m thinking specifically about what I refer to as the “Dumbing Down” of America.

One example of “Dumbing Down” would have to be the popularity of Reality TV programs. I’m thinking specifically of “Wipeout”. I’ve never watched it, but our little local paper describes it thus: “…draws humour from the different ways huge objects knock contestants into a moat.” I don’t quite understand why anyone would want to be a contestant, nor why that would be funny to viewers. Even more disconcerting is the fact that Canadians can now compete in “Wipeout Canada.”

Our little newspaper goes on to profile a local lady who was selected to be on this show. She wanted to do this so that she could be cool in the eyes of her two sons, who both love the show. Now, I can see why two pre-teen boys find humour in this type of show. I have grandsons. I know what they think is funny. The perplexing part is why a mother would think she has to let herself be the object of the humour.

I have to give the lady due credit though. She had to pluck up the nerve to fly to Argentina (where the show is filmed), overcome her fear of extreme heights, and get used to having a TV camera jammed in her face. It was all likely quite an experience.

It’s not that I am totally against Reality TV. When we lived in the UK, we were big fans of a program called Scrapheap Challenge. It featured two teams who attempted to construct a machine that would achieve a particular objective. The time limit to do this was 10 hours, and the location was in a scrapheap. The Car Guy absolutely coveted the scrapheap.

The Scrapheap Challenges varied from week to week, but each one required both mechanical and engineering knowledge. The two teams would invariably approach the challenge from a different direction. The show host, as an aside, would explain the principles involved. It was quite educational, and certainly entertaining. And very British, which is usually quite different than anything initiated in America. On the whole, the Brits don’t seem to Dumb things Down as much.

Speaking of Not so Dumb TV, Canada is home to an excellent series called Murdoch Mysteries. Set in Toronto in the late 1800’s, the murder mystery stories invariably introduce inventions and ideas that were making their debut at that time, and alludes to how they might be used in the future. My very favourite was an episode that involved a dangerous killing machine that sent out microwaves. A Toronto Constable by the name of George conjectured that perhaps these microwaves could be used for more benign things, like cooking potatoes. Inspector Murdoch replied that this wouldn’t be very practical because the machine that produced the microwaves filled an entire room. George responded that, while that might be true, homes of the future might have one entire room that was used just to cook potatoes with a microwave machine.

Apart from the fact that someone dies in each show, I think I would rather have my grandchildren watch Murdoch than Wipeout…

How to Plan a Gingerbread Party

PLAN A: Christmas Day, after dinner, I started The Gingerbread. My plan was to bake four houses (one for each child) and lots of cookies. These were to be decorated the next day – Boxing Day – by all our guests. This has become a tradition here at the Red House.

Bird House, according to the magazine

And yes, I had left the making of the Gingerbread to the very last hours that the task could logically be completed…

Usually it is traditional for several people to make the gingerbread, led by our Middle Daughter – the Baker. But this year I was on my own. It didn’t take too long to mix up the first bowl of dough. Then, ignoring the instructions to chill it for 30 minutes (remember, I had started this after dinner…), I started rolling and cutting. A house came first. I chose a Bird House this year – scaled  down quite a bit from the size recommended in my clippings file. By the end of the first bowl of dough, I had one bird house, and about a dozen cookies.

The cookies – traditionally they would be Gingerbread Men, but my cookie cutter has disappeared.  I did have a replacement – my daughter had received a set of Fred ABC Cookie Cutters for Christmas.  “ABC” stands for Already Been Chewed – one cutter doesn’t have a head, one doesn’t have an arm, and one is missing a leg. I rolled out some more dough, and made a few of each. I have to admit, they were a bit spooky. Especially the one with no head. Unsure how these cookies would be received, I looked at my other cookie cutter options. I selected a hedgehog, star, car, tree, camel and a simple house shape, and cut one of each. Then I was out of dough.

With only one house done, and three more to go,  I mixed up another batch of dough. That used the last of the molasses. I queried the Supplies and Procurement Officer, and he admitted he hadn’t bought any more molasses. Clearly I’d have to move to PLAN B. There would only be two bird houses, and the four children would each decorate half a house – and a few spooky men, and a hedgehog or two. The adults would decorate the rest of the cookies, and all would be right with the world.

Boxing Day morning arrived. The turkey went into the oven. I made up a bowl of Decorative Icing so that I could glue the houses together before the children arrived. I had the front and two sides done on the first house when I realized that I had not cut out backs for the houses. The front of the second house would have to be the back of the first house. Now I was down to one bird house. It was time for PLAN C. I took the two roof pieces of the second bird house, formed an A-frame, and added a cookie tree on each end. Now I had a second house – a Tree House. I did the same with the roof sections of the first bird house, and made a second Tree House. Then I took the two side sections of the second bird house, formed another A-Frame, and added a house cookie to each end. Now I had a little A-Frame House. That left me with the original bird house, sans roof. Four car cookies later, and I had a roof of sorts. There – four children, four houses.

The guests started to arrive. The third wave included two unplanned, but always welcome, extras. I mentally reconfigured the seating arrangements for dinner. The last wave arrived, less three of the planned guests, two of those  folks being two of the children. I mentally reconfigured the seating arrangements again. And thought about how the remaining two children would be pretty excited that they got two gingerbread houses to decorate this year!

Our Middle Daughter, The Baker, set out bowl after bowl of candy and we were ready to get started. The Gingerbread Decorating took several hours, with each creation being uniquely suited to the tastes of the designer. The ABC Gingerbread Men that were missing an arm or a leg – they were accepted with no comment. But the ones  with no heads – each one of them were given a head replacement.

Christmas Peace – Keeping the Season Simple – 2010

I’ve been reading quite a few blogs over the past few days, and the general consensus seems to be that this holiday season has become anything but peaceful. “Crazy ideas of a perfect Christmas” is how one blogger describes her preparations. “Worst traits of humanity” is how another blogger observes the shoppers. “Madness that are the weeks leading up to Christmas”  is how another blogger sums up her last week of activity.

I’m a perfectionist to the nth degree in many things. I have the potential on any given day to detail something to death. And sometimes I do. This is balanced at Christmas, quite thankfully I must say, by the fact that I am not a shopper, and I really don’t like to cook all that much.  It has simplified the Christmas holiday immensely.

So while others are rampaging through the stores for yet another gift to add to the pile under the tree, I have placed just one. It is a power tool for my Spousal Unit. And I didn’t even have to buy it. He had been looking for this particular tool for months, and when he found it, he bought it. Then he gave it to me and said, “Put it away, and give it to me for Christmas.”

He, in turn, has placed one gift under the tree for me.  I bought it some while back because it was exactly what I wanted. I gave it to him to put away for me for Christmas.  This has become a tradition. You might think this takes a lot of the surprise out of gift giving. But some days I forget what I was heading to another room to get, so it is not hard to forget about a gift that was bought some time ago…

By the front door there is a gift for the neighbour who lives nearest to us. We aren’t close friends, but we know we can depend on each other to be there when a neighbour is exactly who you need. They always give us a box of fine chocolates. We always give them a bottle of good wine.  This is a tradition.

By the front door there is a small pile of gifts that will go to our daughters house on Christmas Eve. Two of the gifts are for the people whose names we drew in the family draw. The rest are small bits and bobs that will be put in each persons stocking. We’ll spend Christmas Eve at someones house. It varies from year to year. We always go home early, and then listen to Christmas music and watch Santa’s progress on the NORAD radar site. It’s become a tradition.

On Christmas Day we will go to our daughters house. Our children and grandchildren will be there. We might or might not have dinner with them, depending on what their plans are that year. Wherever dinner is, it won’t involve a turkey or a ham, and it won’t take very long to make. This is our Christmas Day tradition.

On Boxing Day,  we will have a large gathering at the Red House. Our parents, our children, our grandchildren, and assorted others (this part of the list changes a bit from year to year) will arrive with bowls of  food to round out the menu for this festive meal. We will cook a turkey and a ham. The turkey will always take longer to cook than I had forecast, and I will be a bit peeved at the bird for that. The Car Guy will look after the ham, which usually upstages the turkey. A son-in-law will make the gravy. It will simmer away on the stove for much of the afternoon. I will have baked row after row of gingerbread men (or maybe hedgehogs this year because the “man” cutter has gone missing).  Everyone will spend the afternoon personalizing the cookies with icing and candies. Each family will have  one little gift to give to the grandparents, usually food related. This is a tradition.

And that is it. Just enough preparations to make Christmas a special holiday. Not so much preparation that the Peaceful part is gone.

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Christmas Tree Decorated with Memories – 2010

My Christmas Tree is my Memory Tree because most of the decorations were either purchased at places we have visited, been gifts from family and friends, or are crafts I have made.

My favourite ornament when I was a child was a this red and white dotted glass ball. Above it in this photo are thin slabs of wood that we cut from a fallen branch in our yard.

Many of the decorations were purchased from the places we have traveled to. When I decorate the tree, each of these ornaments is a pleasant reminder of a place we have visited. Others, like the stitched ball in the top right of the photo,  have been gifts from friends and family.

One fall I crocheted snowflakes for the tree. Each one was uniquely different – partly by design, and partly because I’m not all that proficient with a crochet hook.

In our house in England the bathrooms didn’t have light switches. They had pull cords. I bought these decorative  pull cord handles for the bottom of the cord, then repurposed them into Tree decorations.

I found this delightful wooden Moose at a border crossing Duty Free shop.

These Macaroni Angels are many years old. I made them before I had a glue gun – it was a tedious job to stick the parts together.

My cross stitch skills are pretty good. I can also cut and fold fabric, and pin it onto styrofoam balls.  A very time consuming project!

One of the grandchildren contributed this delightful little Hand Stitched Bird. Below the bird is one of the baubles from the John Deere collection.

The crochet bells were a big undertaking, and I abandoned further additions after bell #6.

The angels made from ribbon. This was a glue gun project – I burned my fingers many times and stopped after making 12 of them.

Metal Art – Forge and Welder

In true Martha Stewart style, I’d like to show you is how to make a few SIMPLE  pieces of  Metal Art with a forge and a welder… It is not inconceivable that Martha would have access to a forge and a welder, and would have “people” who know how to use such things, though she doesn’t seem to have posted any stories about this kind of project.

For one brief day, I had access to a forge and welder. Actually, it was a whole shop of interesting tools, and several barns of raw materials to choose from. So I started off the morning by collecting enough metal pieces to make two “critters” and one piece of garden art.

welded metal

welded metal

Once I had my designs figured out, I laid out all the pieces on the shop floor. Then I was shown how to make the coal in the forge glow bright red. This heat was going to be used to bend metal. I showed my Spousal Unit which nails I wanted bent to make some legs. (This didn’t seem to be a job that I had the strength or finesse to do.)  That is about all we did with the forge, other than stand around it and warm ourselves up – it was a cold day.

The next step was the welding. Again, a handy man was there to help me – while I held the parts in place, he spot welded them. Once all was cool, I headed for the bead blasting machine to clean everything up. (I did the bead blasting all by myself!) And that was it for the mosquito and the crab paperweights. Sounds fast and easy, doesn’t it?

The last project that day was a piece of garden art. It was a bit more involved because it used larger scraps of metal – rakes for the wings, a big spring and a length of rebar for the backbone,  a hinge for the beak, some nails for a tail, and some bits that I don’t even know what they once were, for the rest of the body. Once all was welded, I decided it was a chicken. I named her Henrietta, and retired to the house to help make supper. That left my two gentlemen helpers to clean up the shop. It also left them alone with Henrietta. They decided to make “her” a “he”, and added the appropriate hardware.

I didn’t learn of Henrietta’s gender change until the next morning, when I was asked to stand next to the chicken for a photo. Everyone else was smiling – well laughing, actually. I didn’t get the joke at first – but realized that it had to be something to do with my garden art. It was then that I saw the added nuts and a bolt”

In Other Crafting News

Apparently Martha Stewart has put together a list of what should be in the Ultimate Craft Kit. It includes such items as a glue gun, paper trimmer and cutting mat. While I agree that these things should reside in every home that has packs of paper in all the colours of the rainbow, I know from reading “Martha Stewart Living” that Martha is capable of so much more than that.

Have you ever read that magazine? My daughters left me a pile to peruse when they moved out. I attacked them with a pair of Martha Stewart approved scissors, removed a few good ideas, then threw the remains into the recycle box. The most fascinating part of the magazines, I thought, was Martha’s monthly calendar.  If I was to be as efficient as Martha, my week might look like this:

Monday – pick up all the pine cones in the “Four Acre Forest” for use in Christmas crafts; create pine cone centre pieces for 500 close friends.

Tuesday – clean house, wash windows, organize closets, defrost freezer, do laundry.

Wednesday – harvest garden,  mulch flower beds, rake the forest; make preserves.

Thursday – repaint all rooms inside house.

Friday – paint outside of house; buy groceries, and make dinner for 50 guests

In reality, by Friday I wouldn’t have finished Mondays task, assuming I’d ever think I should do those things…

Magic in December at the British Museum – 2010

December could be a mournful month if I let it be so. Certain days certainly can be difficult. My mother died on this day (15th)  in 1987.  Every December 15th throws me a bubble off plumb all day – not half a bubble, a whole bubble off.

I had an equally bad December in 1991. That was the year cancer visited our house. My Christmas letter that year started out with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself -I lived through this horror, I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  Then I talked about our child and leukemia.

Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels

The first few weeks of December 2000 weren’t great either. We had completed two years of assignment in England, and were being transferred to the Middle East. It wasn’t a move I was looking forward to. The first half of the month was consumed with packing and movers. On December 15 I locked the door of our rental house for the last time, and caught a train into London. With half a day free to do as I wanted, I started walking, and eventually found myself in front of the British Museum. I went inside, and just kept walking. I went from one display to another without any thought about where I was going, and not really paying much attention to what I was seeing. I just knew it was warmer than being outside.

That was when the Magic of December kicked in. I suddenly I found myself in the Egyptian Mummies room. Standing in front of a display of grave goods, I  remembered that it was December 15th. I  thought about how interested my mom had been in archaeology. I remembered a book she used to show me when I was a kid – Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels – which included pictures of Egypt’s pyramids.  I thought about how she had never travelled outside of North America, and never seen most of the things that she showed me in that book.

I spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the British Museum through my mothers eyes.  I thought about all the foreign places I had visited – places that my mom only saw in the Complete Book of Marvels. I thought about how ironic it was that I was travelling, which I never intended to do; and she didn’t travel, which she always wanted to do.

The truly magic part of December, for me, is that it doesn’t matter what December dishes out, I still simply love the whole month. I love the music and the lights and the stories and the decorations. I love the magic thought of Santa Claus. I love the prospect of one day a year when most of the world is united in peace, just like that Christmas Day in the trenches in 1914. December is a Magic Month if you let the good bits guide your sleigh…

LEGO – Work and Play

One of my grandsons (Lego Lad) shares my passion for LEGO. Nothing pleases either of us more than a shiny new set of LEGO blocks. But while I prefer the sets that have little people with smiling faces, he likes the newer stern looking warriors.

When he comes to stay at the cabin, he can only pack so much LEGO. His mother insists that his suitcase be primarily devoted to mundane stuff like underwear and T-shirts. So he brings lots of LEGO people, and improvises the scenery and buildings. One morning I woke to find my kitchen counter had become a battle field. I named it the LEGO Fruit War. A large watermelon, all the apples, a few oranges and a banana had all been incorporated into an intricate battle scene. I half expected to find blobs of ketchup next to the fallen warriors…

On another occasion when we both had suitcases to unpack, I surprised him with a gift of a LEGO book. He thanked me for it, then proceeded to show me which LEGO he had brought on this trip. Then he looked at me expectantly and said, “So what LEGO did you bring?” I was surprised, but gratified, to think that my grandson would assume I would pack LEGO along with my toothbrush.

LEGO is not merely a child’s plaything. It has applications as unlimited as the minds that use it. I found this story about the Antikythera Mechanism today, and realized what a perfect construction media LEGO was for this project. And there is a blog called A LEGO a Day, with great photos and wonderful captions.

LEGO – it’s not just a toy for children and grandmas!

Home Electricity Project that was a Hoax

The QuipperyThe Car Guy and his father get together once a week to work in the Garage. They’ve tackled many projects. Usually these involve things that suck gas, but last week they turned their sights to projects that involve electricity.

The first was a practical demonstration of the fact that two candles and two nails can’t produce electricity. You may have seen this hoax video on YouTube. It is very convincing, but it is really a demonstration of how easy it is to get people to believe in something that isn’t. I don’t know what the intent was of the people who created this video, but I like to think it was simply their attempt to create a fairy tale. And it was pretty successful. Sure, it contributes to clogging up the internet with useless bits of stuff, but you could say the same about the NORAD Tracks Santa video, which I think is awesome.

The Car Guy was disappointed that the candles and nails didn’t work, but over lunch he and his dad shared several tales from days of yore, including when they made a potato battery.

Electricity is a concept I find difficult to understand and that makes it easy to relate to these quotations:

We believe that electricity exists, because the electric company keeps sending us bills for it, but we cannot figure out how it travels inside wires.
– Dave Barry –

Why is electricity so expensive these days? Why does it cost so much for something I can make with a balloon and my hair?
– Dennis Miller –

Have you ever made a potato battery? Got any great jokes or quotations about electricity?

Kitchen Reno – New Trend Stone Countertops

The Kitchen Reno was precipitated by two events. The first was the unfortunate choice of counter top surface that I made twenty years ago. The surface was a laminate with a very slight texture to it. In my defense, those little sample chips of laminate don’t really prepare the buyer for what the product is going to look like when it becomes a blanket of counter top. And in the case of this product, the slight texture wasn’t as slight as I thought, and dirt didn’t think it was slight either. Regular attacks of a bristly brush and lots of muscle power were required to keep it clean.

But I lived with it for 20 years before the second event set the ball rolling. A new business opened in the town nearby. It is called Granite Transformations.  I researched it on the web, and checked out it’s reputation. In the meantime, my Spousal Unit stopped by their showroom one day and was impressed with their product. So he invited them to come to our house and show us how they could transform our kitchen. Which they did.

Granite Transformations Tropico

The saleslady explained all about the product, then laid out the little sample chips on our counters. After much hemming and hawing, I finally chose several that I liked. But I wasn’t prepared to make a commitment to one of them. Then the saleslady went out to her car and brought in big samples of the product, so that I could see what they really looked like. That narrowed my choice down to one. But I wasn’t prepared to make a commitment.

Then the sales lady got out her tape measure and calculator, and next thing we knew she was ready to give us the price for our kitchen’s transformation. Which she did. But I wasn’t prepared to make a commitment… although by now I had spent several hours with the product and I could really see how it was going to look in my kitchen. And the big sample that I had chosen was happily sitting next to the cook top, acting like it was already part of the family.

So then the saleslady, who was also starting to feel like she belonged in my kitchen,  told us how much she was willing to budge on the price if we would like to make a commitment before she rounded up her product and set off into the night. She assured us, however,  that we had two weeks to completely back out of the commitment for no charge. Spousal Unit and I retired to the living room to review the contract terms, and  decide whether we should sign it. We signed.

For the next two weeks we did the research we would have done anyhow. We visited a lady who had recently had her kitchen done by Granite Transformations. She was happy. We looked at granite slabs and compared prices. We looked at other products.  At the end of the two weeks, we were content that we had made the right choice for our kitchen.

The product we are purchasing is called Trend Stone. It is an engineered product that is – wonderful, to hear them describe it. The counter top sections will be prefabricated in the shop from 1/4 inch thick product. Then they will be installed right over top of our existing counter tops. This has a lot of appeal to us. Our renovation philosophy is reuse or recycle, so not having to tear out our old counter tops and back splash is a big bonus.

Cook top and counter before reno

The cost? It is going to be about 4 times as much per square foot as what we spent 4 years ago for some laminate counter tops in the workshop. For that, we get 4 more features – hot pans can sit on it, knifes won’t scratch it, chemicals won’t stain it and flames won’t mar it. Who can argue when the numbers align like that?

I see that some designers are forecasting that granite counter tops have perhaps reached the peak of their popularity, and are heading towards being out of style. If that is the case, so be it. Our dining room set has been out of style since shortly after we bought it over 30 years ago. Ditto the kitchen flooring that is 20 years old. We’ve been married for 40 years, which is probably out of style too…

The installation was completed in two days, and was very professionally done. We are happy with the results, and look forward to many years of easy to care for counters!