families, Life Talk

Making Bread

I often say that there is only one thing that comes naturally to me (aside from sleeping), and that is writing. Everything else that I attempt in my life I have to work hard at if I want to gain any kind of accomplishment at/with it. Not that I don’t work hard with writing, too, but it is an instinctive kind of hard work – it flows pretty naturally from me.

I have learned in the last few years, however, that the above statement isn’t entirely accurate. Cooking and baking is something else that is fairly natural for me. Again, I have to work at it – I’m a much better cook now than I was seven and a half years ago, just ask my husband – but there is an instinct underneath the work that helps it smoothly along. In fact, most of my cooking failures in the last few years have come from going against my instinct to follow the recipe more exactly. Much of what I’ve learned in the last almost-decade has been to trust my gut when it comes to cooking, not to second-guess myself and doubt myself so much. I am by nature a pretty reserved and cautious person, especially when it comes to my own abilities, so it’s been a long, slow process to come to a place of trusting myself when it comes to anything besides writing!

I love trying new recipes, changing things and adapting them, making them my own. I love discovering food blogs and seeing how the preparation of creation of food entwines in others’ daily lives. Most of all, I love making bread.

Yeast after it has proofed. Watching this process never ceases to amaze me.

My mother made bread. My grandmother made bread. One of my uncles even wrote a song about my grandmother’s bread. Bread-making is one of those things that connects me back to past generations. I don’t know that I’ll ever get over missing my grandmother, but every time I knead a batch of bread dough, I remember her as she was when I was a kid, making bread and setting aside the small loaves as “breadies” just for the kids.

All kneaded, ready for the first rising.

My breadie pans, four little loaves ready for the oven.

We eat homemade bread almost exclusively, except for those weeks when I’m too tired or too busy to make it. It’s not a quick process, certainly, not with two risings at the very least. It’s not for the faint of heart, with the muscles and patience required for kneading the dough. But the rewards are so worth it.

Fresh out of the oven, ready for immediate nomming.

The recipe for the pictured batch of bread (which included two full-size loaves as well as the breadies) is here; the only change I made was to replace two cups of bread flour with two cups of wheat, just because I prefer a greater wheat-to-white ratio. I’ve also, in the past, replaced 1/3 c. of honey with an equal amount of maple syrup, but we’re running low on syrup right now and I don’t want to run out before we make it to a sugarhouse, so I did all honey this time. It makes the most delicious and soft bread ever; a household favorite!

Books, children, figure skating, influences

Lessons From a Pig

picture from kristiyamaguchi.com

When I first heard that one of my long-time heroes, Kristi Yamaguchi, was writing a picture book, I was both excited and nervous. Excited because for one thing, there aren’t enough books out there for kids that feature figure skating. Ballet, yes. Skating, no. Also excited because it was Kristi! I was nervous, though, because excellence in one area doesn’t always translate to excellence in another. Not all figure skaters make great writers, and as a writer myself, I knew I would be hyper-critical.
I shouldn’t have worried. Dream Big, Little Pig is a fantastic book! Instead of what I would arrogantly call typical inspirational tripe, gallant little Poppy taught an important lesson. You aren’t going to magically be good at something and have everything handed to you on a silver platter just because you dreamed it – but if you love something, you should work hard and pursue it despite what other people say, and in that very pursuit there will be satisfaction. Awesome. My sister bought the book for my Joy when Joy just started skating, and I loved being able to read to her about how Poppy kept getting up every time she fell, and how eventually, she started falling less.
So when we heard that Kristi was writing a sequel titled It’s a Big World, Little Pig, we were thrilled. And rightly so, because the sequel is just as charming as the first book. Aunt Lis and Uncle David bought this one for Joy to help celebrate her completion of her first season of skating lessons, and again, it is a fun story (with great illustrations) with an non-sterotypical message behind it. Poppy gets to go to a big international competition, and she’s nervous, but soon discovers that all the competitors, despite being different animals from different countries, participating in different sports, they “all smile in the same language.” I half-listened as Carl read it to Joy and Grace the first time, and I asked when he finished “But did Poppy win?” All three rolled their eyes at me. “It doesn’t say,” Carl said. “That is not the point.”
Oh. Oops.
Not every athlete or actor can turn to writing stories, especially stories for kids, well, but Kristi certainly does. She inspires me to look at my own stories, and make sure I’m not falling into the trap of writing expected tropes, but instead pursue messages I would want my own girls to believe.
And to be perfectly honest, Poppy is a good inspiration to me, too – to not expect magical success, or to expect success to look like wild popularity or medals, but to work hard at what I love, just because I love it.
My big dreamer at her very first ice show (she’s the one in front)

Disclaimer: I am not being compensated in any way for this review, and the opinions therein are solely my own. And my children’s, so far as they have communicated them to me. :-)
goals, Life Talk

Our First Garden

Growing up, both Carl and I moaned and whined about helping out in our family’s respective vegetable gardens (especially picking beans, O Woe and Misery!). So naturally, in the last few years, we’ve been wanting to inflict – I mean, introduce our girls to what it’s like to grow at least a portion of one’s food. We weren’t able to do it when we were living at our old place, due to having no space at all to ourselves outdoors, but here in this house, we have loads of yard, front and back. Poor soil quality, though, so we’re doing container gardens instead of planting right in the ground.

I was all for buying seedling already started, but Carl pulled for starting right from seeds, and in thinking about how much more the girls will learn when they get to see the entire process from start to finish (in the grand old homeschool tradition, we are calling this “science class” and we’ll be studying about growing things right along with watching our seeds), I capitulated.

We planted the seeds in our little black plastic starter containers on Sunday, and we have been working ever since at keeping the littles from pulling off the lid to poke and prod, checking to see if their seeds have come up yet. We planted peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, peas, carrots, marigolds, lavender, and impatiens (lavender for Grace, who wanted “pupple fwowers,” and impatiens for Joy who wanted pink flowers, and marigolds to help ward off mosquitoes), and we are all, even Carl, getting excited about watching them grow, seeing which crops work the best, and enjoying the fruit of our labors this summer.

Books, characters, critiquing, fiction, world-building

Brother Cadfael, or, What Makes a Good Series

I think I first discovered Brother Cadfael through PBS, the series they did based on the books by Ellis Peters. It only took me a few episodes, though, before I was determined to find the books and read through them. That was years and years ago, and I have yet to read the entire series. That is not, however, due to a lack of interest; rather, I am reading them and collecting them as slowly as possible so as to prolong my enjoyment in them as long as possible.

So what is it about this mystery series, featuring a medieval monk with an adventurous past and an insatiable curiosity, that intrigues me so?

Aside from the brilliantly-drawn Cadfael himself, there are a few other reasons:

Good recurring characters: Not just Cadfael, but all the other recurring characters in the series are three-dimensional. They pursue their own lives, their own interests, have things happen to them, and interact with Our Hero very naturally.

Good side characters: These aren’t so much recurring characters as a nice bit of continuity – the goldsmith, for one, who features in one story, and then a few stories later we hear of him again in passing. Same with the corvisor’s son, and many others. Since these mysteries are all set in medieval times, when travel was difficult and most people lived and died in the same place their entire lives, this makes everything more believable, and contributes to the sense of feeling at home in Shrewsbury each time you read.

Good fleshing out of all characters: And to finish off the character studies – even the one-shot characters, the ones who only feature in one mystery and then vanish forever, are well-developed. Very few of them are flat or cardboard – in fact, that is one of my complaints about the PBS series, because they tend to reduce many of the one-shot characters to wooden caricatures instead of the real people Peters made them to be.

On to more specifics …

Good job moving from Abbott Heribert (lazy and easygoing) and Prior Robert (hard and uncompromising) to Father Radalfus: The first couple of books had the Father Abbott as a simple-hearted, simple-minded soul, easy for Cadfael to manipulate so he could do whatever he wanted in solving mysteries. In contrast, the Prior was cold, proud, and had a strong dislike for Cadfael, and went out of his way to make things difficult for the monk. Pretty stereotyped, wouldn’t you agree? But then Peters had Heribert demoted and brought in a new Abbott – Radalfus, who is clever, wise, just, uncompromising, understanding, and savvy. At times he is more than willing to give Cadfael freedom, but other times he imposes strict restrictions on him, and there’s nothing Cadfael can do about it. Prior Robert is reduced to a minor nuisance, and the entire situation is saved from mundane to clever.

Good with changing Cadfael’s helpers frequently – both introducing new sidekicks and keeping true to established canon: Cadfael tends to get novices as his helpers, and as they grow and pursue their studies, they move on, and he is supplied with a new assistant. This helps to keep things fresh and change things up without having to kill anyone off, and also makes sense given the Benedictine order. Another area where the PBS series slipped up – their Brother Oswin had the LONGEST novitiate known to man!

It’s not a perfect series – I get frustrated when book after book features a “villain” who is not truly guilty of desiring evil, but was just misguided. That works for one or two, but after a while it gets old. This was especially true in the book where a boy murdered an injured, helpless old man, but it was excused by Cadfael as “he was mad with love and grief.” Um, sorry, don’t buy that as a reason to let him escape to Wales. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in mercy triumphing over justice, but there are limits.

There are other flaws as well, but overall, it is a thoroughly enchanting series.

And I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet! Hugh Beringar is EXCELLENT. No mere Watson to Cadfael’s Holmes (although Martin Freeman would make an awesome Hugh, but then, what role wouldn’t he be awesome in?), Hugh is clever and dangerous in his own right. He and Cadfael aren’t always on the same side – Cadfael serves the church, while Hugh serves the king and law of England – but they respect each other and work well together. And Hugh is a brilliant swordsman, too, which automatically gives him an extra 50 Points of Awesomeness.

Are you familiar with Brother Cadfael? What are some series that set up good examples of ways to keep the writing fresh and exciting for readers no matter how many books are in the series? Do you agree that, in murder mysteries of any sort, every now and then the villain HAS to be villainous?



And the winner of the Rising:Resistance giveaway (chosen by a highly scientific method of having my kids draw numbers to narrow it down to two, and then making my husband take a break from studying Aramaic to pick the final choice) is …

Kirsten Lopresti!

Congratulations, Kirsten! I’ll try to get the book emailed to you today. I hope you love it!

Thank you to everyone who entered.

children, figure skating, goals, Life Talk


WARNING: This post has nothing to do with writing. It is, in fact, mostly bragging on my kid. Because along with being a writer, I’m a MOM, and occasional bragging on my kid goes with the territory.

These two pictures were taken the first time Joy was on the ice. She made either me or my sister carry her the ENTIRE time. Granted, she was a tiny three-year-old at the time, but still, we were SORE the next morning. She has loved watching ice skating with me ever since she was a little baby, but the reality of stepping on the ice scared her to death.
This was her third time on the ice. She didn’t even want to hold my hand by then! She also insisted I show her how to bunny hop. No fear at all, and even the few times she fell, she laughed.
photo by lis hurlbut
First time on single-bladed skates, showing her sister how it’s done.
And THIS is from her first day of Snowplow Sam (that’s the lowest level of skating classes from the United States Figure Skating Association, by the way) in January.

And THIS is last Sunday, when she brought home a certificate stating that she’d passed all of Snowplow Sam, and is ready to start Basic 1 in the fall!
Not bad, for a little over a year. Her first-ever skating show is this Sunday, and my parents, Carl’s mom, my sister and brother-in-law, and possibly Carl’s sister are all coming out to watch and cheer her on. It’s not just about the skating, it’s about finding something she loves, overcoming her fears about it, and excelling at it.
Hmm, maybe there really IS something in here applicable to writing after all …
Hey, have you entered the giveaway yet? If not, go, enter! What are you waiting for?