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Compost Happens is a personal blog: part family, part garden, part crunchy green eco-writer. I'm Daisy, and I'm the groundskeeper here. I take care of family, garden, and coffee, when I'm not teaching and doing laundry.

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  • Wednesday, December 31, 2008

    Who's your role model?

    Try this. It won't take long. I don't say that just because I teach math, among other subjects. It'll only take you a few minutes.


    1) Pick your favorite number between 1-9.

    2) Multiply by 3

    3) Add 3

    4) Multiply by 3 again (I'll wait while you get the calculator....)

    5) You'll get a 2 digit number....

    6) Add the digits together to obtain your score.

    Now scroll down to find out what your score means.

    I'll go get a cup of coffee while I wait for you to interpret your results.

    Keep scrolling (I had to keep the answers under the fold in case you're one of those people: the people who will skew the math to match the result they want).

    Now with that number see who your ROLE MODEL is from the list below :

    1. Barack Obama
    2. Michelle Obama
    3. Condoleeza Rice
    4. Brett Favre
    5. Brad Pitt
    6. Dara Torres
    7. Oprah Winfrey
    8. Ellen DeGeneres
    9. Daisy of Compost Happens
    10. Katie Couric

    P.S. Stop picking different numbers.


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    Tuesday, December 30, 2008

    Turkey Barley Stew

    1 each, sliced: carrot, celery stalk
    2 small potatoes (russet or red), diced, skins on
    1/2 cup diced onion
    1 clove garlic
    2 cups diced turkey, pre-cooked (or leftover from your holiday dinner)
    2 cups turkey stock
    1 can diced tomatoes, drained or 1 cup frozen cherry tomatoes
    1 cup quick-cooking barley
    1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
    pepper, freshly ground, to taste

    Place carrot, celery, potatoes, onion, garlic, tomatoes, herbs, barley, and turkey stock in crockpot. Simmer on low for 3-4 hours. Add turkey and turn to high. About an hour before serving, add gravy or your thickener of choice (mine is 1 tablespoon cornstarch in 1/4 cup water). Cook until gravy is thick and turkey is heated through. Add pepper if desired.

    Serve with rolls or over wheat bread.

    This served 4 with some leftovers, but I only used 2 turkey wings. Next time I might double the veggies and use the full 2 cups of turkey. Next time? What am I saying? Next time, this will be chicken. I'm not sure when I'll next cook a turkey. November, perhaps?

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    Monday, December 29, 2008

    Now I know what to brew on January 20th.

    It's a given: I will get coffee for my birthday and for Christmas. Sometimes my students even get me coffee as a Teacher Gift. The variety of blends and flavors will keep me entertained and caffeinated until summer or even next fall. The only question is this: what will the flavors be? Today I have Harry and David's spiced Roasted Chestnut holiday blend in the coffeemaker. Mmmm, I hear your taste buds reacting!
    I'm also working on a package of Alterra Harvest blend, a strong but smooth flavor that I like to bring to school in my thermos or travel mugs.
    But this one is unequaled.
    I didn't have my glasses on when I opened the package (darn these aging eyes!), so I couldn't read the description or the name. Husband, big tease that he is, read little bits and pieces and made me guess. I'm not one to keep that kind of experience to myself, so let's see how you do with the same information!

    On the front of the package: "a Vienna Roast consisting of prime Kenya AA, Hawaiian Kona, and Indonesian Sulawesi coffees." Got it yet?
    A little more information from the back label: "When brought to a Vienna Roast, the highly-prized Hawaiian Kona gives the blend a full body and a mild and mellow character, the Kenya AA adds a wine-like flavor, and the Indonesian Sulawesi provides unexpected interest with its earthy taste, slightly smoky tone, and hints of spice."

    Did you make the connections yet? Okay, I'll give you one last clue. Also from the back label: "(the blend's namesake)'s lineage and early life are associated with three of the world's prime coffee-growing regions. Born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and American mother, he spent eight of his first 10 years living in Indonesia."

    Yes, you guessed it. From Longfellow's coffee, my brother and sister-in-law ordered me a package of Obama Blend.

    Can I make it last until the inauguration?

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    Sunday, December 28, 2008

    Life is NFL football; the rest is just details.

    The Detroit Lions' coach talked about three ways to face adversity. At 0-15, soon to be a record-setting 0-16 if my Packers have anything to say about it, he ought to know.
    The coach suggested that most people react in one of these ways:
    1. Remain oblivious
    2. Crumble
    3. Embrace it

    This philosophy applies to public school teaching as well.

    1. I worked with a principal who remained oblivious to adversity. When faced with challenges, she would spout her buzzwords of "differentiate" and "test scores" without ever answering the questions we raised. She thought she understood, but she was clueless. Simply clueless.
    2. It's easy to crumble as my workload grows and the pay doesn't, while public support continues to fade. I may react initially with a feeling of failure and hopelessness, but eventually...
    3. I work with a group of teachers and paraprofessionals who embrace challenges. The pressure wears on us daily, but we hold each other up and look for ways to meet the challenges.

    With a week off between Christmas and the New Year (my equivalent of a Bye week), I can rest and get myself psyched for going back to school. I brought home a little work, but not a lot. I decided to be realistic and not overload my schoolbag. I'll feel more productive if I complete the small stacks of paper in the bag rather than just make a dent in a larger pile.

    Minor injuries? In teaching, that's more likely to be illness. I had my flu shot, and so did Amigo. It's the season for keeping hand sanitizer on my desk and encouraging kiddos to wash their hands frequently. And if this preventive maintenance doesn't work, there's always the red substitute folder beside my desk.

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    Saturday, December 27, 2008

    Post-holiday let-down and laundry, again, still.

    I didn't have enough baskets to sort laundry this weekend. You guessed it; the daughter's home! And she brought her entire wardrobe, dirty! I think the only clean clothes she brought home were the pieces she was wearing. Add that to my holiday stresses and my PMS, and there is one unhappy mama in this house.
    She'd been home two days when she asked, "Mom, are you, like, going to do laundry anytime soon? I need pants and underwear." This was in the evening on a school night, mind you. I was worn out from dealing with kiddos too wired for learning and too old to believe that "Santa's watching, you'd better behave." Well, I did it anyway: she sorted out the main necessary items, I threw them in the wash, and she made it a few more days.
    The day after Christmas I sorted ours and then asked for hers. She gave me a hamper full of hoodie sweatshirts, sweaters, and tanks and thin tees for layering. Almost everything was to go in the delicate cycle.
    The result? Four overflowing baskets for the delicate cycle, not enough Woolite, and one cranky mama off her routine.
    I'm ready for a coffee break, I've filled two baskets with clean, and the laundry room still looks like a tornado hit and left the contents of her closet behind. How did she ever manage to last that long without doing laundry on her own?
    Last year I stocked up on underwear for the entire family with the goal that any one of us could go at least two weeks without washing clothes. I think I bought her too much!

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    Friday, December 26, 2008

    Holiday troubles pile on

    Then there was the year when everything seemed to go wrong around Christmas. I fought with the snowblower and lost, with the penalty being a soft tissue injury that hurt like heck and didn't get better.

    We brought daughter home from school after final exams to have her wisdom teeth out, planned it perfectly for my last day of school before break so that her younger brother wouldn't need a sitter, and voila! we had an ice storm that closed schools. Grandma saw the school closing report on TV and called up to offer her assistance. We crept across town on icy-coated streets to take La Petite to her surgery. I didn't relax until the car stopped moving in the parking lot.

    Later that day, after getting La Petite's pain meds and antibiotics and changing her dressing every hour on the hour, I went to my own doctor and had my still aching wrist X-rayed. No fracture, luckily, but she confirmed that soft tissue injuries hurt like heck and then offered a splint and anti-inflammatories. Back to the pharmacy I went, then over to Grandma's to pick up Amigo and finally settle at home.

    La Petite's mouth healed slowly but surely. I wore the splint faithfully for my seven to ten days, taking it off only to shower and to stretch twice a day. On Spint Day Ten we got a phone call: my father had died in Missouri.

    Husband couldn't take off from work. One of his co-workers had broken a leg, and Husband was the only other one trained to run the equipment and drive the truck. He had just been sick, too, and was dragging himself to and from work and sleeping as much as he could at home. The kids and I piled our luggage, sore mouth, and splinted wrist into Husband's Saturn and headed south.

    We survived the trip, grieved, shared memories, and stopped at my brother's house near Chicago on the way home. I apologized to daughter for "ruining" her New Year's Eve, and she said she hadn't even thought about it. Son did remarkably well, given his Asperger's. He was thoughtful and well-behaved on the trip and at the ceremony. We were all exhausted.

    Then I went back to school. In hindsight (always 20-20), I should have taken time off. I taught for three days (with my splint still on, wrist aching from driving 12 hours each way), and then said I had to rest. I took two days "death days" allowed by contract, and slept. And slept. And slept.

    Life is much better now. Wrist has relapses now and then, but very seldom. I don't touch the snowblower any more, but if I need to we have a new one with electric start. Amigo and La Petite remember the trip and the funeral, but they weren't overwhelmed or traumatized by it. They survived, as did I. In fact, the multiple trouble of that holiday and the months that followed inspired me to start blogging as a therapeutic outlet. The rest, dear readers, is history.

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    Thursday, December 25, 2008

    Random thoughts on Christmas Day

    Last night Amigo suggested we set our alarms and all get up to open presents together. Unfortunately, the bunnies didn't follow the plan. Peanut was up on our bed 45 minutes before the alarm was due to go off. Husband went downstairs to feed Buttercup, and she made a beeline for the tree and began nibbling on wrapped presents. The result: one bunny back in her cage, all three bunnies fed, and a lot of laughter before we heard Amigo moving around his room in his jingle bell necklace.

    Our kitchen contains an embarrassment of riches. The refrigerator has leftover turkey and fixings, the snack basket overflows with cookies and other treats, and the freezer hides enough turkey stock for three soups or stews. There might be a little wine left, too -- or not. Did we really drink all the Door County mulled cherry?
    In fact, I told the family that no one, but no one, can go out to eat for at least two weeks. Oh, okay, I might relent on New Year's Eve.

    Husband, the TV and movie guy, got me DVDs. I got him books. I'm sure there's some deep meaning to these choices, but I think I'll just chalk it up to sharing our pleasures. My DVDs are three seasons of the classic Muppet Show: I predict some fun family time in the den watching these!

    Environmental and frugal wrapping went well. We didn't buy a single roll of wrapping paper. The unwrapping process generated more recycling than garbage. Buttercup enjoyed chewing on the thick white packing paper. I'll definitely continue this trend.

    So on that note, I think I'll adjourn to have lunch. Whatever leftover wins my appetite lottery will be followed by pumpkin pie.

    Merry Christmas, everyone!

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    Wednesday, December 24, 2008

    Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good wine.

    May this holiday season find your glasses not half empty, but half full.

    Photo taken by Husband on Thanksgiving Day

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    Tuesday, December 23, 2008

    Potato Soup at last!

    I've tried several different options for potato soup. None quite hit the spot until I came up with this one. The secret is cooking the potatoes until they're soft, then thickening the soup with potato buds to keep the strong potato flavor and mashed potato texture. I use whatever potatoes in the house, 1-2 potatoes per person depending on the size of the potatoes. I feed them into the food processor with skins on to speed up the slicing and keep the size uniform.

    Lots of diced or sliced potatoes, skins on: russet or yukon gold
    (I use about 2 potatoes per person, or 8-10 total)
    6 cups chicken broth or stock
    1/4 cup diced onion
    1 teaspoon rosemary
    1 teaspoon thyme
    1 teaspoon turmeric

    Place all ingredients in crockpot. Cook on high for 4-6 hours on high or 8-10 on low. When potatoes are soft, mash them with a fork or use an immersion blender. Leave some small chunks for texture. Add 1/4 cup potato buds to thicken. Let cook on high for another hour, then serve with grated cheese.

    Add 2 tablespoons chives, fresh or frozen
    Cook 4-6 slices of bacon, crumble and add to soup with potato buds.
    Add 1 cup diced ham with potato buds.

    I haven't tried this as a chowder base. It could work with more vegetables added. there's an idea!


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    Monday, December 22, 2008

    Is the thermometer broken?

    Part of Husband's job involves working at Lambeau Field on game days. He was on the field a few weeks ago along with a team from (ahem) the Southern realm of the NFL. He was dressed for what we called Moderate Cold Weather, but the guys from down south had a hard time dealing with the change in temperature from the blue skies of home.

    In a case like this, we Northerners take pride in our toughness, our knowledge of how to dress, our attitudes in dealing with extreme weather.

    One of the Southern Staffers caught a glimpse of a thermometer and threw (in my teen's words) a total fit. "It's so cold there's no temperature!"

    It was Zero Degrees Fahrenheit.

    I hesitate to imagine how he would deal with the concept of wind chills below zero.

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    Sunday, December 21, 2008

    A mini-tour by the fireplace

    Eggbert will whisk visitors off to the candy dish that looks like a fireplace. Sorry, the candy's gone. You'll have to wait for cookies.

    The snowman on the left is so tacky it's adorable. It has a light inside that changes colors from pale blue, to lilac, to white. It's ridiculous, but really sweet. Yes, it was a student gift. How can you tell?

    The other snowpeople are a candy jar and salt and pepper shakers. They're really cute, too. I might just have to use the shakers at Christmas dinner. And as for the rabbit hiding on the right -- did you really think we'd decorate without bunnies? Not a chance.

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    Saturday, December 20, 2008

    Creating an emergency....or not.

    In the book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, one piece of advice that resonates personally is this: Don't create your own emergency.

    We had a staff breakfast this morning, the culmination of our Secret Santa week and a fun get-together for staff just before winter break. The invitation always comes with a hint to make our favorite recipes. There are usually at least three different egg dishes, several coffeecakes and homemade breads, coffees, juices, and the works. Last year I baked muffins. Out of a dozen, I brought home eight.
    This year I was smarter. I signed up to bring fruit. I gathered a variety of apples, pears, and oranges from the recent music department fundraiser, dropped them in a reusable but presentable paper bag, and called it done.
    The fruit bag was a hit. I only brought home a few oranges and one pear. My contribution also turned out to be something my coworkers could bring up to their rooms and enjoy later in the day. I knew that any fruit I brought home would still be good; no stale muffins to be wasted. I didn't have to bring utensils or special toppings. It worked for the healthy food folk and the dieters, too.

    I took the advice to heart and managed to contribute something of value without creating my own pressure, my own stressful emergency.

    At this time of year, that's a gift.

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    Friday, December 19, 2008

    In response to irregular plurals

    "Reactions while correcting the weekly spelling test" just didn't sound as good for a post title.

    What were these kids thinking?
    Sheelves: female elves? Are there He-elves, too? Or was that just a drawn out vowel, a southern style accent, Shayelves? One student spelled it shaelves. "Put the books on the shaelves, ma'am." Shelves also became Sleves, Sevles, and shelvs.
    Theeth: well, the kid knew the plural needed a double e and a -th. Maybe he wasn't sure if the th came at the beginning or the end and just put it in both places to increase his odds. Or not.
    Chidren: three kids left out the L. That's not a regional dialect, folks; we really do say "children."

    Wimen? Gese? Gesse? Spacecrafts?

    I really did teach the spelling structures for the irregular plurals. The kids created a list comparing the singular to the plural form of each word, sorted by pattern. The list stood on a chart in a prominent place for a week. They had review/ practice sheets for extra credit.

    The dysgraphic child in the class handled this test with 100% accuracy. That's not easy; dysgraphia made the P in sheep difficult, among other letters. This kiddo worked harder than any other to make these letters fall in the right places and face the correct directions.
    To the rest I'm tempted to say, "What's your excuse?!"

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    Thursday, December 18, 2008

    Any port in a storm, as long as there's coffee. And wi-fi.

    Famous last words: "It was fine when Amigo and I had to spend the night there."

    Amigo and I were caught out in a storm a few weeks ago, so we stayed in a hotel down the road from La Petite's apartment in her small college town. We were relieved to find that there was room at the inn, and happy to find that the Inn offered complimentary continental breakfast and free wi-fi. It wasn't fancy, but we didn't need fancy. It worked for us.
    Husband told me (a few days later) that he had looked into this place when we visited during Homecoming weekend, and he made reservations elsewhere because the reviews were all negative. Lousy. Bad news, bears. Whatever, warhawks.
    That's when I uttered my famous last words (see above).
    So when we decided to visit to celebrate daughter's birthday last weekend, we stayed at the Inn Down the Road.
    Where should I begin?
    The mattresses were soft, the kind we call Valley Beds with a major dip in the middle. The pillows were lumpy. Comfort wasn't on the menu.
    The TV reception was blurry. Not just unclear, downright blurry.
    The heater continuously pumped out excessive warmth, leading to dry, dry air and dry, dry throats. Adjusting this appliance led to two adults who didn't sleep much, since we were frequently getting up and changing the settings and peeling off layers of winter pajamas.
    Pool (indoors, of course) was okay, but the whirlpool wasn't available.
    Breakfast was good, though. They had a wafflemaker that started with batter and produced a fresh, warm waffle in two minutes. The coffee was good, and that always helps.
    As we left, Amigo and I talked it over. We didn't have the heat problem a few weeks ago, but that was because I didn't discover the heat switches until morning. We were so exhausted and relieved to have shelter that we just tucked ourselves into the blankets and slept. We didn't swim that night, and we didn't notice a problem with the mattresses or pillows. Maybe we were just too tired to care, or maybe the bedding in the other room was newer and less worn.
    In conclusion, we decided that the Inn Down the Road was a good port in a storm, but not the greatest place for a pleasure trip with the family.
    Happy Love Thursday, all. Next time, I'll do my best to keep my Famous Last Words to myself.

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    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    So the Grinch said

    He didn't stop Christmas from coming: it came!
    It came without ribbons. It came without tags.
    It came without packages, boxes, or bags.
    He puzzled and puzzled 'til his puzzler was sore.
    Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before.
    What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store?
    What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?
    --How the Grinch stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

    I'm giving some gifts from stores (brick & mortar and online), some from my kitchen, and some from creative secondhand shopping. I've taken to heart the thoughts of wrapping, though. I don't like the waste or the cost of commercial wrapping paper, so this year I'm working on alternatives.

    - The bags protecting the newspaper have been red lately. Tie at each end with curling ribbon or twist ties, and the package looks like a great big piece of candy!
    - Seasonal grocery bags have simple but nice graphics; cut them out, add them to the fireplace motif wrapping.
    - All this wrapping material will get recycled or thrown away. Don't get attached to it. But who gets attached to wrapping paper anyway?
    - There's always!
    - Martha doesn't live here. Really. And it's okay.

    This goal was born of my environmental streak. The frugal piece is a byproduct of the green, but a valid one. I haven't purchased wrapping paper, ribbons or tags, boxes or bags. It lets me focus our budget dollars on the gifts, the keepers, rather than the byproduct that ends up in the trash. And even with my lack of scrapbooking skills, I'm having fun thinking of new ways to make the wrapping look nice.

    If Dr. Seuss wrote about gift wrap, he might suggest:

    What if wrapping, itself, didn't come from a store.
    What if thoughful gift wrapping meant just a bit more?
    Just reuse the boxes, the ribbons, the tags.
    Make use of the packaging, boxes, and bags.
    If you and your clan enjoy Christmas each year,
    Be nice to your budget, the message is clear.

    Parent Bloggers Network and FFDA are working together to find out how families are handling this holiday season, adapting financially and in other ways to make the season less overwhelming. FFDA is an organization that provides support and counseling year round, not just at Christmas.

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    Tuesday, December 16, 2008

    Easiest Oatmeal Cookies Ever

    1 cup brown sugar, packed
    1 cup butter, softened
    1 cup all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    2 cups uncooked quick oats

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine sugar and butter; mix well. Add flour and baking soda. Stir in oats. Roll into 1 inch balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheets and press slightly. Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on cooling rack. Makes 2-3 dozen, depending on size.

    I made mine bigger, so my yield was 2 dozen.
    And I was almost out of butter sticks, so I combined it with the low-fat vegetable spread in the big tub -- the store brand equivalent of country crock.
    And I added 1/2 cup raisins.

    So my Easy Oatmeal Cookies didn't turn out exactly as pictured in the Cookie Book. They tasted delicious, but they spread out really, really thin, and they kind of folded/squashed themselves into odd shapes when I took them off the pan. I blame the "butter."

    The original recipe, not my improvised edition, is from the WE Energies 80th Anniversary Cookie Book. If you follow their directions, you'll have better luck. Either way, they're great with coffee or hot apple cider.

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    Monday, December 15, 2008

    Dear Santa; a little assistance, please?

    Dear Santa;

    I know you are coping with a wildly increasing workload. Your working conditions are probably a lot like mine: more demands, fewer resources, fewer people (or elves) with which to handle more difficult tasks. We jolly old elves and not so jolly teachers keep facing the challenge of doing more and more with less and less.

    Santa, I don't ask for things for Christmas. I don't ask you to fill my stocking. I put something out for my students so they can enjoy a little seasonal specialness at school. You don't have to help with that part of the celebration.

    But Santa, I've been feeling a little down lately. I could chalk it up to "Kids these days" or the worsening economy, and both are parts of the problem. My job is stable and employment secure, even though my salary is more likely to shrink than grow in today's reality. No, Santa, I'm not asking for money.

    You're in your furs from your head to your foot, and your beard may be covered with ashes and soot. I'm clad in a holiday sweater that makes fashionistas cringe, but makes my students smile. The problem is this.

    If an ice cream maker gets in a bad batch of blueberries, they can send them back to the plant.
    If a television producer gets a poor script, it gets revised or rewritten.

    When I add a student to my class, I teach that student. I can't send him back home to re-learn how to behave, send him to his former school to learn to read, or simply say to the principal, "No, I'm sorry, this one just doesn't measure up. I can't take him."

    But the Joe Q. Public thinks it's my fault if the kid doesn't make it. Mine and mine alone.

    Santa, here's the point. All I desire for Christmas isn't a new teacher mug or a package of caramels, although I'll love those, too. Instead, I'd really appreciate respect. A little respect from the families of the children in my classes, a little respect from those who might not understand the challenges I face every day. A little respect from the energy-saving czar who keeps complaining that my computer uses too much electricity; a little respect from the parents who think their child is an angel, even though he's probably getting a lump of coal from you, if you're honest.

    So Santa, you can bypass the World's Best Teacher coffee mug for my stocking this year. I don't even need a Congressional bail-out. I'll take a new Public Relations director, one who can tell the world what I face each day, one who can let the lawmakers and community members know how much knowledge and passion I inject into my fascinating and exhausting work.

    Thanks, Santa.

    Respectfully yours,

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    Sunday, December 14, 2008

    Wisdom in the laundry room

    Green washing of Jeans: wash first, dry last. Hang to air dry in between.
    This saves time and energy by air drying the wettest of the jeans. They'll shrink less, too, as they can now dry for a minimal time on the delicate cycle.

    20 Mule Team Borax is a great invention.
    It smells better than bleach, doesn't spill (well, I don't spill it as easily), and takes out stains well. It doesn't cost as much as commercial detergent boosters, and the paper box is recyclable.

    Detergent makers usually recommend at least double the amount that's really needed to wash a load well.
    Of course! They want me to buy twice as much of their product. Ha, ha, ha. I'm wise to this trick!

    Dryers eat socks. Sometimes they spit them out later. I keep an Orphan Sock Box in the closet for socks waiting reconciliation.
    This also works if one sock in a pair spouts a hole. When another pair from the same package suffers the same loss, there's a new mate waiting. If a sock really, really doesn't have a mate, it will eventually end up in my classroom as a white-board eraser.

    Just because I do this chore efficiently doesn't mean I like it.
    I've learned enough tricks to get the family laundry done quickly and efficiently, get the stains out (mostly), and get all the clothes back in the closets and drawers by the time school and workweeks start Monday morning. It's a necessity, family, not a pleasure.

    Clothes must be washed, no matter what the other plans are. Fit it in.
    See above. If we're going away for part of the weekend, I'll start sorting and washing ahead of time. If report cards are due, I'll start a wash load, work on math grade, throw the wash in the dryer, work on reading grades, etc., etc., etc. Laundry is a good Sunday chore, too; I can fold sheets in front of the TV while the Packers are playing!

    Each and every family member needs to own at least two weeks worth of underwear.
    See above. If no one runs out of underwear, laundry can wait a week in a pinch. Maybe. So there's the wisdom; make sure everyone has drawers in their drawers, and the livin' is easy.

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    Saturday, December 13, 2008

    Coping with the Storm

    Hunker down or evacuate? Depends on the storm.

    Here in the Northern Reaches of the Midwest, we hunker down. Our storms are tornados, thunderstorms, blizzards, bitter cold temperatures, and (sometimes) floods. Most of the time, it's not even enough to cancel a football game. We prepare by having flashlights, fresh batteries, candles, matches, and firewood. If power goes out, we can cook on the grill or eat cold sandwiches. If power goes out in winter, we put the frozen food in a cooler in the snow and all is well. Snowstorms usually leave the house intact.

    The main danger in a storm is travel. In a blizzard, we stay home. Schools get cancelled (sometimes) or delayed until the plows can get through. In bitter cold below-zero weather, we dress in layers - many layers -- before venturing out to get the paper or shovel snow. We Wisconsin natives pride ourselves on coping with the cold and the snow, but it's a world of difference from the parts of the country that prepare to evacuate on sometimes little or no notice due due impending hurricanes or wildfires.

    In my training as a Public Health Volunteer, the trainers kept impressing upon us that a true pandemic flu could stop all public interaction. Schools would close, most businesses would close, and people would be advised to stay home. Cutting out the outside world can stop the germs and viruses from spreading and potentially save lives. It would be the ultimate in hunkering down. How can we prepare for that?

    I guess the best way to prepare would be to stop rambling on my blog and take inventory of the pantry and medicine chest. Here I we have enough peanut butter to bake cookies?

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    Friday, December 12, 2008

    Juggling -- literally and figuratively

    In the final graduate class toward my Masters Degree, all of the class members were describing their personal growth and professional progress as they had passed through the program cycle. We were seated in a circle, my friend Sara next to me, and Deb was showing us a collection of photos that represented critical points in her educational journey. The classroom windows were tall and narrow and far apart, so only those of us sitting exactly in the right place could see outside. Beyond the window behind Deb, on an entrance road that passed rather close to the building, a juggler appeared.
    Yes, a juggler. Big yellow shoes, baggy black clown pants, bowling-pin style clubs spiraling through the air. Sara and I exchanged glances, then looked back at Deb and tried to concentrate. The juggler walked on, and a parade of dog-walkers following him. This group of people -- it had to be at least 75 to 100, just counting the two-legged folk -- strode along as though they were marching for a cause (which was probably the case!). By this time, Sara and I could no longer look at each other. The longer the line went on, the closer we came to laughing. As the dogs and their humans paraded down the road out of sight, a helicopter landed on the campus lawn. Yes, a helicopter.
    Deb had no idea.
    Sara and I held onto our composure and used our best drama skills to at least feign focus until Deb was done. During our next break, we told her the whole story. Truth is stranger than fiction, and this was one of the strangest things to happen to us during grad school.
    Five years later, we are still friends. Deb's a fabulous teacher and a great juggler herself, a mother of three and teacher in a low-income school in our fair district. Her sense of humor took her through the cycle of graduate classes and served her yet again when we informed her of the sights she hadn't even known were competing for our attention.
    As the new year looms closer and my personal juggling act gathers momentum, I can't help but think of the juggler who started the whole crazy parade outside the graduate school window. The symbolism remains strong; we might never know how many people around us are juggling. I won't even try to address potential symbolism in the helicopter landing.

    Parent Bloggers Network and BigTent asked bloggers to chronicle their goals and changes for 2009. For me, life always come down to the juggling act. This is a true story, a post renewed and revised one more time.
    I'd love to get my act together and maybe even take it on the road for a while. But for now, I'd be satisfied to successfully juggle all the balls that life throws at me. Want to join my circus? Watch your step; the dogs are often a hard act to follow.

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    Thursday, December 11, 2008

    Fireplace brick style wrapping paper

    La Petite showed me this technique a few years ago. I wanted to make a poster, and the brick wall motif worked well for the project. Since I'm avoiding buying wrapping paper this season, I thought I'd try it again.
    The tools: iron, ironing board, spray bottle for water, marker (black or brown work well), and plain brown paper bag(s).

    Step one: Crinkle the paper. Crunch it up. Crumple it.

    Step two: Spritz it with water, smooth it out, press it. The water softens the paper and keeps it from scorching. Caution: it also weakens the paper, making it likely to tear.

    After the pressing, draw brick shapes on the paper with the marker. I'm not an artist; mine are rough, very rough. It's okay; wrapping paper gets torn apart and thrown out right away anyway. This batch will go in the recycling bin.

    But until then, I have two pieces of "fireplace brick" with which to wrap a present or two. One bag survived the process; one didn't. Both will look fine under the tree.

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    Wednesday, December 10, 2008

    Snow, anyone?

    How much snow fell overnight?
    Enough to keep us off the bench.

    Enough to put off any picnics for several months.

    And enough to hide the rose cone.
    I can only wonder what it'll look like in January.

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    Tuesday, December 09, 2008

    Midwinter Chili for the CrockPot

    In the bleak midwinter, Frosty wind made moan,
    Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
    Snow had fallen, snow on snow on snow,
    In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

    1 can chili beans, spiced
    1 can black beans
    1 lb. ground beef, browned and drained
    1/4 cup diced green pepper
    1/4 cup diced red pepper
    1/2 small white or yellow onion, diced
    1 tablespoon chili powder
    optional: 1/4 cup spinach
    1 quart tomato soup from the freezer!
    (okay, you can substitute canned tomato sauce and/or tomato paste along with a can of tomatoes)

    Add ingredients to crockpot in that order. Let simmer 4-6 hours on high or 6-8 on low. One hour before serving, add 1 cup noodles, stir, and turn heat to high.

    Serve with your favorite sides for a hearty midwinter meal!
    I like grated cheese on the top. Husband likes crackers. Kids both add ketchup, and I don't object.
    My favorite sides are fresh bread, cheese, or a side salad. Mmm.

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    Monday, December 08, 2008

    Big Words for the season

    Dear Santa;

    Every year you get letter upon letter saying, "I want this. I want that." Some are more polite, saying Please and asking how you are. This year may be no different... or will it?

    There are some Big Words out there in the world that strike fear into a lot of adults. Economy. Recession. Layoffs. Unemployment. Debt. Kids don't always understand meanings of these words, but they feel the stress that comes from the situations. The younger the children, the more likely they'll feel the emotional turmoil and the less likely they'll understand it.

    Santa, I know it doesn't feel right to stuff a stocking with soap and shampoo. Those are supposed to be necessities, not gifts. But this year, the little gifts might be even more important. Crayons. Pencils. Markers. Paper.
    I'm giving my students a little cup of goodies. They'll each get a pack of tissues, a new pencil, a candy cane. If I can swing it, they'll each get a white-board marker, too. The candy cane is the only frivolous item, but I know they'll enjoy the others, too.
    You see, Santa, the little ones in my class get colds whether they're rich or poor. Germs don't discriminate. And the tissues in my classroom are running out, with the generic scratchy products left to take us through the winter. If a kiddo has his or her own little package of something soft, maybe that will be a small pleasure for those noses that rival Rudoph's in redness.
    There's a big gap between the haves and the have-nots in my school. Some families bought their kids big packages of white board markers. Some couldn't afford to even buy one. When I'm working with white boards as a check for understanding, you can guess which kids need to beg or borrow markers. Santa, if you and I can help these kids out, they won't have to feel depressed every time we get out the white boards. The students from less-well off families can reach into their own desks to get supplies of their own.
    The other day I heard a teacher complain, "Flash cards? Who gets flash cards in their stocking at Christmas?!" I understand. It's kind of like getting underwear for a holiday gift; what fun is that? So along with the marker and the tissues, I'll give a holiday pencil. Plain yellow #2 just wouldn't have the same impact as something in red or green or another festive design. It'll let the kids get their schoolwork done and still make the season bright.

    Money, Santa, is not a children's problem. It's a grown-up problem. But the problems inherent in today's economic crisis trickle down to children's everyday lives. When parents have to choose between buying shoes for their kids or paying the rent, kids feel the pain. When parents can't afford healthy snacks for mid-morning, kids get hungry. When the car doesn't start and the parents don't have the discretionary bucks to fix it, the young ones have to walk to school in the bitter cold. It takes time for those little ones to physically warm up enough to focus on learning.

    Santa, I'd love to ask you to deliver safety and warmth and some basics to each and every child in need. But I know that you and your elves can't solve these economic problems any more than I can. All of us will just have to tighten our belts, give where we can, and most of all, understand. Let's understand that when parents lose their jobs, kids suffer. And let's take care of the small things, like markers and pencils and candy canes, so that their suffering is limited even a little bit.

    Thanks Santa. Have a Happy Holiday. Hug the elves and reindeer for me.

    Lots of love,

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    Sunday, December 07, 2008

    ridiculous/ hilarious/ terrible/ cool

    Ridiculous/ Hilarious/ Terrible/ Cool; A Year in an American High School

    Elisha Cooper spent a year tagging along with students at Walter Payton High School in Chicago, experiencing their senior year along with them. Grades, classes, sports, arts, and college applications are high on the list of most seniors, and these teens were no exception. Theirs was a typical high school in some ways, atypical in others. But these teenagers experienced the same academic challenges, emotional dilemmas and relationship woes as teens in other American secondary schools.

    Cooper didn't go for the standard cliques -- the jocks, the cheerleaders, the geeks, the gangsters. Instead, he followed eight individual students through their everyday lives. Cooper's book paints a picture of personalities against a backdrop of classes, sports, proms, sports, college applications, and more. The diversity in the eight students profiled reflects the diversity of Payton High School as a whole.

    Daniel, the class president. Emily, the star athlete. Maya, the actress. Anais, the dancer. Diana, with family obligations that put enormous stress on her. Aisha, caught between two cultures. Anthony, who holds court in the cafeteria to the detriment of his classes. Zef, whose sleep disorder puts him at risk of failing. Each of these teens has his/her own strengths, weaknesses, plans, and outlook on life.

    I enjoyed getting insight into each teen not just as a student, but as a unique individual. Emily, the star athlete, had a fear of failure that prevented her from scoring even though she was the best ball handler on the team. In her role as team captain, however, she guided her teammates to improve their game and led them to many victories. In a very different family, Diana found herself in tricky situations where she had to translate in court for her parents and her older brother while her other sisters sit back and refuse to help. She used this motivation to set personal goals, apply for colleges, and look for financial assistance to make her dream of attending college a reality.

    Following these eight teens on their way to young adulthood was a fascinating journey. I enjoyed getting to know them and seeing high school life through their eyes. I questioned, however, why Cooper chose to write in such a choppy style, with short sentences that bordered on fragments. This style made the reading rough going at first. Even as I adjusted, I found myself wanting to revise some of the paragraphs to flow more smoothly. High school students, at least the ones that have spent time living and hanging out at my home, don't speak in short sentences like this. Text or IM maybe, but that's another genre altogether.

    Dreams are a big part of high school. Those students with dreams and goals are more likely to succeed. I see that in the elementary school in which I teach, a diverse neighborhood not unlike that of Payton High. I wish for my students some of the same hopes and dreams and successes of these Chicago students. Fortunately, Cooper added an epilogue to let readers know what these kids were doing six months after graduation so we could follow their progress toward their dreams, too.

    Mothertalk sent me a free copy of the book in order to review it. My teen, Amigo, loved the title; he hopes it will become available in audio book or in Braille so he can read it. I hope so, too; I think he'll enjoy and identify with the stories. He might prefer a high school named Ray Nitschke or Don Hutson, though. Think about it.

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    Saturday, December 06, 2008

    Green, green, green...the sequel

    Here's the latest in my quest for eco-friendly wrapping this holiday season. These are picture frames for my grad school friends. Don't worry; they're all with me today on a major shopping and social outing. They won't read this until they get home, if they read Compost Happens at all.

    I didn't want to give the frames empty or with the usual tacky fake filler fotograf. I mean, photograph. To fill the frames, I went to Wordle. At the wordle site, I copied and pasted a blog post about the five of us and our friendship, turned it into a word cloud, and then printed. I had a hard time getting the size right, making sure it had all the names, and looking for key words, so there were a few extra copies printed. Those extras became the wrapping.

    The result: a unique and personalized gift and recyclable wrapping to (almost) match.

    I hope they like them. Aw, heck, they'll love 'em.

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    Friday, December 05, 2008

    Paper-wise and Paper-foolish

    We're under pressure at school to save paper. It's a major expense, one we can't avoid, but one we can adjust and minimize. Maybe.
    • I save extra copies or "oops" papers: the kind where the answer shows through on the page or I have two too many because kids moved yesterday. Those papers get re-used as scratch paper.
    • I copy back to back.
    • My colleagues and I use overhead projectors, small white boards and chalkboards, and other devices for keeping kids involved without requiring paper.
    • I copy straight from the blackline master book without making a new master copy.
    But we're stuck on other paper uses. Penmanship practice needs paper. Attendance is still on paper in our school, as is lunch count. Bathroom sign-out sheets are an unfortunate necessity.

    Our district-mandated reading comprehension tests have bubble sheets to run off. My class' bubble sheets took (are you sitting down?) 150 page. That's 150 sheets of copy paper, more than one fifth of a ream. Multiply that by the five intermediate classes of similar sizes, and imagine the amount of paper and toner we're forced to use. It's like an unfunded mandate with the orders coming from downtown, but all the supplies coming from the existing site budget.

    Running scores for the district-ordered Measure of Academic Progress test uses one page per child, three times a year. Multiply that times the number of kiddos in grades two through six and you get -- a lot of paper.

    If I run grade reports for conferences, there's one page per student for Reading, for Math, for Science, for Social get the picture. Multiply that number by five intermediate classes...we're starting to look at red ink in the budget line for copy paper.

    I haven't even mentioned IEPs and other special education documentation, much less the daily behavior sheets for kids who need them.

    So what do we do? I keep on looking for ways to be pennywise. My colleagues do, too. But there's only so much we can do when the major paper usage comes not from us, but from record keeping and mandated testing that's all ordered downtown at the district offices.

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    Thursday, December 04, 2008

    How Green can I be?

    I don't like wrapping paper. It gets used once and then thrown away. It's not recyclable, we can't burn it in the fireplace, and re-using it is difficult if not nearly impossible. So what's an environmentally friendly mama to do? I re-use paper when I can, I keep gift bags until they fall apart, and set up a box for the cut-up cards that become our tags every year.
    It still seems wasteful.

    I've set myself a goal. Goals need to be realistic, so I set this one high enough to make a difference, but not so high I'll be sure to fail.

    I'm determined to use no new wrapping paper this holiday season.

    I can use scraps that are already on our wrapping shelves. I can re-use bags and tissue, bows and curling ribbon. But I won't buy new wrapping paper, no matter how cute or special.

    I've salvaged packing materials, especially the large pieces of butcher paper that cushion the smaller boxes within the big ones. Flattened, that paper makes a great base for wrapping. I can decorate it with cards or ribbons or other small pieces of wrapping material, and it'll look reasonably festive.

    My family won't buy into my project. I know that already. They fuss when I take care to open presents so I can reuse the paper. But I set this goal for me alone, and I don't plan to force it on the rest of the crew.

    Here's the first. We have a couple of birthdays to celebrate over Thanksgiving holiday. This one is wrapped in off-white packaging, decorated with pieces from one of last year's holiday newsletters and a bow, and then one of my own specialized gift tags.

    Off we go; for a Christmas that'll be at least greener, if not green.

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    Wednesday, December 03, 2008

    In the eye of the beholder

    Loveliest of trees... or at least one of them. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood when the trees look like this.

    It's not so lovely when the road signs look like this. And this sign was quite readable, compared to the other road signs that we needed to read to reach our destination on Monday morning.

    It was the kind of weather that made us decide to take a detour into a Farm and Fleet store and buy Amigo a new pair of boots. These were not inexpensive boots, either. They fit, they're warm, and he can handle them himself. I call it an investment. I hope his feet are done growing for now....

    You can see the evidence in the parking lot. The roads were that sloppy, too. My vehicle is so grungy that even my visually impaired teenager remarked, "Mom, your van is a mess."
    A snow- and road salt-covered minivan is just not as pretty as a snow-covered tree.

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    Tuesday, December 02, 2008


    It's not what you think. It's really the story of a kitchen near-disaster that spawned not a doorstop, but a colorful end product.
    I bought fresh peppers from the farmers' market in september and planned to dice and freeze them for fresh pepper flavor and color in the middle of winter. I thought, "Oh, I'll use my new food processor! It'll go so quickly."
    Famous last words.
    I chose a blade that was much too fine, and the yellow pepper quickly became pureed instead of diced. Oops. I switched to a blade that allowed a larger cut for the red pepper, and my lovely kitchen gadget still blended it to a smooth consistency. I was left with colorful but slushy red and yellow pepper mush.
    I froze them both anyway. I knew the flavor would still be good, and I was certain there would be a way to use this accidental concoction.
    Last week I spread the yellow pepper mush on tilapia under the broiler along with the usual butter and lemon. It was delicious and looked lovely.
    The red pepper mush ended up in several places. Tacos, superburgers, meatloaf, and eventually quesadillas.
    I won't make the same mistake a second, er, third time. But if this happens by accident, well, I know there are lots of ways to use pepper mush!

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    Monday, December 01, 2008

    Shoulds are bogus, even in a snowstorm

    Ah, contradictions. This is a case for "Shoulds are Bogus."

    The school for the blind should be more flexible in receiving kids who do not take their buses.
    Reality: Their dorm staff doesn't arrive until a certain time, and that's that.
    End result: I had to plan to drop him off late in the evening, and then either find a hotel or make my way home over back roads late at night. In the snow. During deer season.

    I should have left earlier in the day.
    Reality: Amigo couldn't get into his dorm at the school for the blind until 7:30 PM at the earliest, so leaving earlier was pointless.
    End result: We watched the Packer game at home and then left.

    We should have changed plans completely, leaving early Monday morning.
    Reality: We didn't know the weather would be as bad as it was or the traffic as slow as it was.
    End result: We changed plans as we got closer to our first destination.

    I should have prepared Amigo for the possibility of change.
    Reality: Having too many options can cause him to melt down just as much as a sudden change can. There was really no way to prepare him.
    End result: He had a meltdown in the van.

    I should be grateful we found a hotel room down the road from La Petite's apartment.
    Reality: I'm very grateful. In fact, the other hotel in the town near Amigo's school cancelled my reservation with no charge. I'm grateful for that, too.
    End result: We're nearly the only customers here, in this hotel in a small college town. It's very quiet.

    And shoulds or not, I'm glad we have a safe and warm place to lay our heads and rest. No matter what the morning brings, we'll be all right.
    And the hotel room has a coffeemaker, so at least one of us will be happy in the morning.

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