Archive for January, 2010

Although this month has been full of good times, I admit that I’m ready for January to come to a close, as Shane and I wrap up what has become our annual exercise of strict frugality.  We did indeed manage to stick with our commitment of no non-essential spending this month, and maintained a grocery budget of three dollars per day per person, but it was definitely more challenging that I anticipated.  I could write a whole blog post about how difficult it was to give up espresso, or lunch at my favorite Thai place, but since there are so many people around the world making much larger sacrifices out of necessity rather than choice, I will refrain from whining about caffeine deprivation or cabin fever.  Instead, I can see the great deal of good that came out of this exercise: we spent more time in the kitchen together; we wasted less; we enjoyed the outdoors more; we found ‘solidarity’ with other frugal friends by sharing fabulous potluck meals together on Sunday evenings; and we realized that we can and should spend less throughout the year to come, so that we are able to save more and give more.  All good things.

We ended the month in truly frugal fashion, spending the afternoon taking a walk through the wooded park just a couple of miles from our house, and as I started to inwardly grumble a little about the soggy ground, the gray skies, and my hankering for a nice steaming latte, I was struck by the sight of beautiful little leaf buds starting to sprout on the branches of the trees along the path.  It was a nice reminder that life is a series of seasons, and that in Shane’s and my life, there is a season to sacrifice and a season to splurge.  And as long as we living intentionally and giving generously, there will be blessings to count no matter season we’re in.

I have a new-found love of historical fiction.  This book, set in mid 19th-century China, so brilliantly wove together elements of fictional relationships with real Chinese traditions and attitudes.  Through the lens of Lily, the book’s narrator and main character, we get a glimpse of what life was like for women living in China 150 years ago:  the pain and risk associated with footbinding, the rituals and duties of betrothal and marriage, and the never-ending list of  restrictions and expectations.  Totally fascinating, though completely tragic as you realize how heavily women were disrespected, devalued, and oppressed.

I loved getting together with my book club this morning and hearing everyone’s impressions of the book.  As we all sat around the table and enjoyed Congee (courtesy of Emily), I was incredibly grateful for the diversity of thoughts, cultures, and experiences present in that room.  We shared about how our familial and cultural roots have impacted our ability to express ourselves, how we still see women enduring pain and discomfort in the eternal pursuit of ‘true beauty’, and how difficult it would be to have to inflict pain on your child in the name of tradition.  Deep stuff.  Yet these moments of thoughtful reflection were intertwined with personal stories and loud bouts of laughter.  Two and a half hours has never flown by so quickly.  I have been so blessed by this group of ladies – I like to think of them as my own version of the Chinese ‘sworn sisterhood’…

This weekend was, in a word, perfection.  I consumed massive amounts of peppermint tea, spent countless hours curled up on the couch with the TV remote, and passed the nights enjoying the company of good friends.  On Friday night, we headed around the corner to play a little Rock Band with the neighbors – Shane and Justin formed a ‘band’ a couple of weeks ago named ‘Blood Stream’ (yeah, you read that right), and felt like it was time for a reunion tour.  They rocked out to the Go-Gos and Alice in Chains, while Lindsey and I giggled at their booty-shaking rock-star moves.  So much fun to watch two thirty-year-old guys revert to teen-hood together.  We made it home just in time to watch Conan’s last show (when I say ‘watch’ the show, I mean Shane watched it while I fell asleep on the couch).

Saturday was wonderfully lazy – I stayed in my pajamas until 6 pm, spending most of the day watching old episodes of Lost, knitting, and finishing our 2010 calendar.  I peeled myself off the couch late in the day to head over to Jason and Nancy’s for our very first crab-cooking extravaganza.  Jason had ransacked the Asian market earlier in the day and picked up a two and a half-pound live crab that they were looking to share.  Shane and I felt it would be a travesty to turn down an offer of fresh seafood during our frugal month, so I grabbed my crab mallet and a bottle of white wine, and we were off.  There’s something a little un-nerving about throwing a living, moving thing into a pot of boiling water, and we all laughed a little nervously as we watched Jason squeamishly transition the crab from the fridge to the pot, but he managed to cook it to perfection, and we feasted on a delicious crab salad, followed by a hearty Udon noodle soup.

Today was another mellow day, with church in the morning, naps and football in the afternoon, and a potluck dinner with friends this evening.  Shane and I have found several people here that seem to enjoy eating, chatting, and laughing all in equal measure, and we have come to love the three-hour meals that often occur as a result.  My belly is full of potato croquettes and carrot cake, and I am ready to end the day with one last cup of tea.  I feel so blessed by a weekend full of solid rest, good food, and truly amazing friendships.

As I mentioned earlier, Shane and I are in the midst of our frugal January, trying to stick to a grocery budget of three dollars per person per day.  I’ve embraced the challenge, but have been unwilling to give up certain ‘necessities’, such as dessert.  As I perused my most economical options for sweets on Friday night, I decided that carrot cake seemed to fit the bill as 1) cheap, and 2) still slightly decadent, when topped with fatty cream cheese frosting.  I pulled from couple of different recipes to come up with a cake that contained mostly ingredients that we already had on-hand, and it turned out quite well:

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (makes 8 servings):

2 eggs
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup grated carrots
1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/4 cup softened butter
4 ounces softened cream cheese
1 2/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
extra pecans, to sprinkle on top

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease an 11×7 or 8×8 baking dish.  In a large bowl, beat together eggs, oil, white sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Mix in flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, nutmet and cinnamon. Stir in carrots. Fold in pecans. Pour into prepared pan.  Bake in the preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Set the cake aside to cool.

To Make Frosting: In a medium bowl, combine butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Beat until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Frost the cooled cake and sprinkle with pecan pieces.

Cut a slice and serve with hot chamomile tea.  Consume while watching football on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I was happy with how this one turned out, considering it was my first attempt at a carrot cake – moist, cinnamon-y, and dang, I love a good creamy frosting.  I have already made two cakes in three days to share with friends and neighbors and will be adding this to my go-to dessert list.  The best part?  The only ingredients I had to buy were a couple of carrots, costing 60 cents, and a small package of cream cheese, which I got on sale for an even dollar.  Now that is a sweet deal (pardon corny pun)…

I was so proud of my 2009 homemade calendar, but in the end, doing a drawing or painting for each month got to be too much, and so November and December were never even completed (meaning that according to the calendar, it was October in our house for three months).  But I liked the idea of personalizing a calendar, so this year I took a less labor-intensive route and worked with photos I’ve taken over the previous year.  Each month in our 2010 calendar holds a photo that was taken during the same month in 2009.  I like it – the whole calendar turns into a nice little trip down memory lane.  March holds a picture of our trip to Paris, June reminds us of our hike up Little Si, and November is captured with a photo of our annual trip to Minnesota.  It took a few hours to sort, print, and trim all the photos, but it was worth the effort, and it’s nice to have the whole thing done and ready to flip to with the changing of each month.  Also nice to find that I had at least one print-worthy photo from each month of the year – I’ll work on keeping with that rhythm for the year to come.

The initial news of the disastrous earthquake in Haiti shook me – I was mortified by the magnitude of the destruction of both life and property and used TV and the Internet to keep myself as up-to-date as possible on the quake’s damage.  And then, without really realizing it, I began to distance myself from the gruesome images and horrific stories.  I wrote my check to the Red Cross, I said a prayer for the people of Haiti, and I subconsciously tucked the tragedy away in that corner of my heart reserved for seemingly hopeless cases.  My apathetic attitude came to light tonight and I knew that I should re-inform myself.  I started with a 60 Minutes segment on the latest activity in Port-au-Prince.  Tears streamed down my face as I watched bull-dozers dump piles of bodies into trucks headed for mass graves.  A child’s leg was amputated with an old hacksaw, for lack of decent medical supplies.  A swollen and bloody man was pulled from a pile of rubble after four days of being trapped among the ruins of a concrete building.  Absolutely gut-wrenching.  I set my computer aside, buried my face in my pillow, and cried.

I don’t mind shedding tears, if that’s the price I pay for being more well-informed.  I don’t mind donating money, encouraging my co-workers and friends to do the same, posting ‘pray for Haiti’ messages on Facebook.  But none of these things are going to return a lost child to the arms of her dead parents, or reunite a crushed and broken family.  My money, my sadness, and even my prayers feel so insignificant in the face of such loss.  And so, like so many people around the world, I see a glimpse of just how bad things are in the wake of this disaster, and I am called to…???  God, I wish I knew how to fill in that blank.

photo from here.

For the second year in a row, Shane and I have decided to counteract the over-indulgence of the holidays by being extra-frugal in January.  No eating out, no lattes, no movies, no shopping, and a very tight grocery budget (three dollars per person per day).  For someone like me, who loves to spend Sunday afternoons sitting in cafes or shopping for shoes, this is a challenge.  Right around day 7, I start to get a little antsy.  Shane must have sensed my home-bound jitters and so he surprised me with a free ‘date’ this afternoon by driving us over to Bellevue to check out the Mercer Slough, a park/wetland that we’d driven by several times but never explored.  It was the perfect day for a mini-adventure, and we enjoyed wandering through the trails, finding beauty in the mossy greens and even the muddy browns that are so emblematic of a northwest winter.

We ended the day with homemade veggie lasagna with friends, and I am once again restored, ready to face another week of skipping my morning latte and eating my leftovers for lunch.  It actually feels kind of good to go back to basics.

A few more recent sketches, again, totally random in subject matter and media…

beach plan (2009.12.14):

topos (2009.12.26):

lovely (2009.12.28):

black hills (2010.01.03):

As good as this little ‘weekly sketching’ exercise has been for me in terms of getting me to draw/paint/collage more regularly, I’m finding it a little unfulfilling lately.  The fact that I have not established a consistent theme or style in my work bothers me.  I’m not going to do away with the exercise completely, but I’m looking for ways to morph my process a little bit this year.  Watch for changes – they might be subtle and completely unnoticeable, or they might come in the form of a total overhaul.  Not sure yet…  But stay tuned.

I’ve always loved the look of hand-knit stuffed animals, and decided to take a stab at a teddy bear pattern I found in this book.  Mr. Bear didn’t turn out quite how I’d hoped – one of his legs is a little longer than the other, his stomach is rather lumpy, and his stuffing is showing through in places – but he’s got lots of charm and is still soft and cuddly.  Plus, he’s bright pink.  Awesome.

My parents gave this book to me for Christmas when I was just a kid – I believe it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for over 15 years, neglected and unread.  I’ve seen the movie over twenty times and count it as one of my favorites, but somehow just never got around to picking up the book.  After reading the first Twilight novel, I was in the mood for something more… ‘wholesome’ and challenging, and December seemed like the right month to take on Little Women, in all its classic, family-centered goodness.  And I’m so glad that I did.  I just finished this book by the light of our Christmas tree, and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.  It’s not a page-turner, and there were a few overly verbacious (is that a word?) chapters that were difficult to get through, but all in all, I really enjoyed this book and felt like the holiday season was the perfect time to read it.  I loved being transported into the March family’s living room, sensing the warmth of sisterly love and motherly care.  And while Marmee’s infinite wisdom and the girls’ fixation on morality may have seemed a bit much at times, I think that’s ok – sometimes the family unit needs to ‘idealized’ a little bit, considering the sad examples of crumbling families that we’re currently bombarded with in the modern media.  And so this book gets two thumbs up, with a bonus point for the fact that Louisa May Alcott seemed like quite an exceptional woman.