Tuesday, June 30, 2009

American Gothic

Have you ever wondered why the man and woman in Grant Wood's American Gothic painting look so solemn?
I've done some research and I can say with a high degree of confidence that they . . .

had been working to put up a chicken run fence.

It has been brutal.
We live in an area of town called "Rocky Hill". Need I say more?
We are digging the good old fashioned way with pick and shovel. No fancy, expensive, rented Bobcat or backhoe, no . . . just the sweat off our brow, and skin off our hands. We are just about done. We started nailing the fencing to the posts late last night and are hoping to finish today.

The kicker is . . . this is Victor's vacation week. Not exactly what every family dreams of . . .
At one point when I was exhausted and demoralized I tried to motivate myself by thinking of people in North Korea who are punished by being sent to hard labor camps. Get a little perspective Sandy and stop feeling sorry for yourself!
In the end, it will be well worth it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

For the love of Hens

Come out, come out, wherever you are . . .
Careful now, down you go . . .

My boys are loving their pet hens. We've put up a temporary run for them while we construct a sturdier permanent one. It's been fun to see the hens pecking and scratching, zipping around, and generally acting like chickens.

Benjamin is the chief chicken caregiver. He feeds them, waters them, brings them scraps from the kitchen, picks them up, and lets them out. They are creating quite the bond. It's adorable.
Benjamin holding a New Hampshire Red

Even Ripley has gotten up the nerve to pick them up. When they were little balls of downy feathers, Ripley wanted to pick them up, but after a few neck holding events we had to put a stop to it. Now the hens are large enough to take a little boy handling.
Ripley with a Plymouth Barred Rock

Happy Boys . . .
Happy Hens.
Taking a rest and a dust bath.
They all snuggled up together and fluffed in the leaves, dirt and dust.
Apparently this helps them to prevent or combat any pests and bugs.
All lined up . . . a New Hampshire Red, Plymouth Barred Rock and Rhode Island Red.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Homemade Strawberry Jam!

Although I have two strong rows of strawberry plants this year (second year), they didn't produce enough all at once to support a jam harvest. So, on Friday my Mother (aka: Grandmama), Sister-in-law Tanya and all of the grand kids gathered for our third annual strawberry picking extravaganza. 

Ripley was the chief eater in the group and managed to put about ten strawberries into his basket. The rest went into his belly. 
Grandmama continued her custom of helping to fill her grandchildren's baskets ... which promptly get consumed. In years past she's likened the experience the feeding baby birds. "Put one in my basket Grandmama. Put one in mine." 

Doesn't Rosalie look adorable in her bonnet? 
Reese Bow. Another champion consumer.
Benjamin was a great help and managed to fill up 1/2 of a large basket before he decided he'd had enough. Of course there were plenty of strawberries consumed. 
Notice Ripley .... CAUGHT, red handed! Quite literally.
I made three different varieties of jam last year. My favorite by far was a recipe adapted from the book How to be a Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson. It has balsamic vinegar in it, which sounds odd, but trust me, it was the best by far. Love. Love. Love. So, I made a truck load. 14 Pounds of strawberries, already hulled, might I add. 

Sugar is a very important ingredient for preserving jam. Initially I thought I'd cut back the sugar content, until I learned that the ratio of fruit to sugar is very important. The exciting thing is that Fannie Farmer says that "honey may be substituted for up to one-half the sugar in the recipe". So, one day when I have honey (if the sun ever stays out long enough) I will be able to use some of that! Exciting! 
Here is the recipe:
Strawberry Jam
7 lbs. strawberries, hulled
8 Cups sugar
1 lemon, juice and zest
1 1/2 T balsamic vinegar

Much to my chagrin, I have a ceramic top stove. If you do any serious cooking, please steer away from these. The clean up aspect may be tempting, but at least my circa 2001 version takes much longer than a traditional coil electric stove to heat water. No contest. It's possible they have improved the technology, however, I actually read a warning on my pressure canner that I purchased last year (granted, it looks like a tank) that the weight of it all, plus heat, could crack the ceramic top. Good grief. 

In any case, it takes longer than it would otherwise to reach high temperatures. Fannie Farmer says that the "jelling point" for strawberries is 238 degrees. Reaching this temperature will help you to determine if your jam is "ready". For the life of me I couldn't reach this temperature with my ceramic top. I had tinfoil wrapping the pot, the cover on . . . . the highest I could get was 215 degree. Granted, this was a very large batch of jam. Regardless, come to find out, strawberries have a low pectin level so reaching a very firm texture is impossible unless you add in commercial pectin. I am fine with a jam that is less firm than what you'd see in the grocery store. 
Here are my jars -- freshly sterilized. 
Put your jars in the pot, cover them with water and bring to a boil. Boil for 20 minutes.
All done. Yum. Yum. Yum.
I didn't sterilize enough jars for all of the jam I had. I was two jars short. So, that jam went into clean jars that I then put into the refrigerator. 

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Break in the Rain

We didn't see the sun here until 5:00 p.m., but with the exception of a short misty period, it didn't actually rain. Everyone in the surrounding area decided to seized the chance to mow their lawns. As I returned home from an errand, it seemed as if every other house had someone in the yard pushing a mower. 

Victor too, when he came home from work, jumped on the bandwagon. His sidekick joined him. Ripley will 'help' Daddy and follow him with his mower until the entire lawn is cut. Now THAT is a commitment. It's the cutest thing ever. 
The bees too seized the day. They send out all foragers and had orientation flights. However, they almost looked frantic and disorganized, which was a little unsettling for the bee keeper. They did settle down in time and around 2:30 p.m. after the mist had stopped (although dark clouds did loom), I decided to go in and check to see if the bees were ready for their honey supers. 
My plan was to see how their mood was to determine whether or not I'd pull frames out and do a full hive check. I started with the right hive, and as soon as I lifted the inner cover off I had a mad bee buzzing at me. I decided that they weren't up for a full visit and just peered in to see how their comb building was coming along. They had made some progress. They were beginning work on frames 1 & 8 in the upper brood chamber, although they hadn't finished with 2 & 7. So, I decided to add the honey super on. Since I have empty wax foundation, they will need to build comb, and will need extra time to build that comb. So I wanted to give them some space and the opportunity to start moving up and preparing a place to put excess honey.
It's been a tough June for the bees. Not only are plants behind about three weeks because of our lack of sun, but they haven't been able to forage as much as they would have otherwise. They may send out some foragers, but as an outside observer it seems like it's just a handful. On a sunny day there are tons of foragers zzzzz-i-pp-ing in and out of the entrance bringing in nectar and pollen. Hopefully at some point our summer will swing into gear. Although I actually heard a weatherman say "if the weather pattern doesn't change all summer . . . " Have mercy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Birds, The Bees and Me

My birds and my bees have been feeling cooped up. I heard that we have had the second rainiest June on record. The rainiest June was in the 1800's. It's been raining pretty much everyday with the occasional partly sunny day thrown in there. A British friend of mine tells me this weather is just like 'home'. Know that I haven't any plans to pull up stakes and head for Great Britain anytime soon. 

Last weekend between rain showers we were able to throw up a temporary fence to let the chicks explore the great outdoors. They loved it!
They pecked and scratched and rrrrrr-a-c-e-d back and forth. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to empty out and scrub their coop. Gee, that was fun. Not. 
Victor started to dig a trench for the permanent 'chicken run'. Since then, it's been raining non-stop so all work has come to a screeching halt. This weekend is d-day though. We've got to get it done. Thankfully there is actually sun in the forecast. None-to-soon as far as the chicks are concerned. They just look too big and cooped up in their roomy hen house to be crammed in there day after day. It's supposed to house up to 14 hens, but still, the girls need to get out and stretch their legs!

Incidentally, I got the biggest giggle when at some point this week Ripley was outside the coop throwing them some green wild blueberries he'd picked, and he called out "Girls . . . . over here . . . " referring to the hens. So cute.
My bees have been most unhappy. The poor things have been doing their best, sending out a handful of foragers in the misty, rainy, overcast weather. Yesterday it was overcast and misting the whole day and you'd think it was 80 degrees and sunny. They had foragers zipping in and out and new foragers 'training' outside the hive doing orientation flights. It was a regular bee party. Poor things. They have had to lower their expectations. Me too.

The unsettling thing is I haven't been able to go in and check on them. At any point now, they well be ready for the honey super (the next box of frames in which they typically put only honey). As I've mentioned before, you don't want your bees to run out of room. However, you can't 'work your hive' in the rain. And, if you work your hives on an overcast misty day after days of rain, they will be most unhappy with you. This strikes me as being worse than cleaning out the hen house. I'm planning to go in today. Sun is in the forecast for the afternoon, but I'll believe it when I see it. 

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers: Invaluable

When Victor and I were married, he became a father. A step-father to my son Benjamin from my first marriage. He embraced his role seriously, enthusiastically and thoughtfully. Victor has been more diligent about going to Benjamin's parent-teacher conferences than he has Ripley's (granted, Ripley is only in preschool). He has in his mind, and knows that one day he will get the push-back from Benjamin in a heated moment, probably in his teens: "But you are not my real dad . . . " He thoughtfully and energetically invests time and demonstrates his love and commitment, assuming that that day will come. I will be forever grateful that Victor has been a reliable, committed, loving father figure who has integrity. 

At the same time Victor and I are positive and supportive of Benjamin's visits with his biological father. Benjamin visits with him on Wednesday nights and every other weekend. It is hard to share your child. But a child psychologist we consulted when my ex-husband was going through his second divorce said that unless a father is dangerous in some way, any short comings are far outweighed by the importance of having a bond with your father -- flaws and all -- knowing that he wants to spend time with you and loves you in the best way he knows how. Fatherhood is powerful, isn't it?

When Ripley was born, Victor was in awe. I don't think he could believe he'd been given such a miraculous blessing. At first, we had both wanted a girl. But when Victor saw this perfect little bundle arrive through the miraculous process called birth, looking so much like himself with his Portuguese skin tone, his long thin legs, his long slender hands, his dark brown eyes and eyelashes, and much to his relief and my disappointment -- my reasonable nose, he was speechless. 

He wouldn't let that baby out of his sight. Victor followed Ripley wherever the nurses or doctors dragged him. Shots. Baths. You name it, Victor followed that bassinet cart and stood outside the door and waited until they brought him his baby back. It was the most precious thing I'd ever seen. 
To me, fathers are teachers and doers, and it is their presence and investment in their children that demonstrates their love. I know my perception is stereotypical, but this has been my experience. While moms are throwing dinner together in the kitchen, it is your father who shows you how to mow the lawn. While Mom is bringing wood in for the stove, Dad is teaching you how to split it and stack it. While I am stressed out thinking of the laundry that needs to be folded, or the floor that needs vacuuming, Victor is at peace spending two hours with the boys outside practicing baseball. Maybe it's that sixth-sense that women have about all that needs to be done, and the absence of that sense that many men have that make them good fathers. While I'm throwing the frisbee to the boys, I may pick up the broom and start sweeping the garage. Not exactly what you'd call "present in the moment". 
Growing up with a house full of boys and a mother who could managed them all, kill a chicken and be a star at the golf club, my father taught me to be a strong self-assured daring woman for my generation. Even though I was a girly-girl and insisted on wearing dresses and skirts that twirled, my father didn't treat me any differently than my younger brother. He taught me to give a firm handshake and look that person right in the eye. I helped mow the lawn and stack wood. He had no interest in a house full of whiners and insisted that we were 'tough'. We painted and schlepped,  sanded and hammered, assisted and cleaned up after him. He taught me to mow without 'holidays', to garden and weed, to churn ice cream and row a boat, roll a sleeping bag and cook bacon, to ski, skate, swim, dive, ride my bike and be brave. While my mother was expressing grave concern on the sidelines during any of our adventures, Dad would say "Ahhhhh, they'll be fine, let them go . . . " He taught me to lick my wound slap a bandaide on it and move on. He taught me the importance of working hard and playing hard. He taught me that you can still be a serious, smart person and occasionally wear a costume. 

Whatever your political views, I think it's hard to disagree with President Obama's thoughts on fatherhood and I applaud him for addressing this important issue. Here is an excerpt from an article he wrote for Parade Magazine this week:

"In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence—both in my life and in the lives of others. I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill. We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference.  

That is why we need fathers to step up, to realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one. 

As fathers, we need to be involved in our children’s lives not just when it’s convenient or easy, and not just when
they’re doing well—but when it’s difficult and thankless, and they’re struggling. That is when they need us most. 

And it’s not enough to just be physically present. Too often, especially during tough economic times like these, we are emotionally absent: distracted, consumed by what’s happening in our own lives, worried about keeping our jobs and paying our bills, unsure if we’ll be able to give our kids the same opportunities we had. 

Our children can tell. They know when we’re not fully there. And that disengagement sends a clear message—whether we mean it or not—about where among our priorities they fall.  

So we need to step out of our own heads and tune in. We need to turn off the television and start talking with our kids, and listening to them, and understanding what’s going on in their lives. 

We need to set limits and expectations. We need to replace that video game with a book and make sure that homework gets done. We need to say to our daughters, Don’t ever let images on TV tell you what you are worth, because I expect you to dream without limit and reach for your goals. We need to tell our sons, Those songs on the radio may glorify violence, but in our house, we find glory in achievement, self-respect, and hard work. 

We need to realize that we are our children’s first and best teachers. When we are selfish or inconsiderate, when we mistreat our wives or girlfriends, when we cut corners or fail to control our tempers, our children learn from that—and it’s no surprise when we see those behaviors in our schools or on our streets."

As a mother of two boys, I appreciate the knowledge and understanding that my father has about what it means to be a boy. As a grandfather, although he has high expectations for his grandchildren, he also has a lot of understanding and encouragement to offer a mother beside herself wondering how to manage a bright, intense son. He can see through the challenges of youth through to the gifts that will grow into something fabulous. He, like Victor, can't believe that he's been blessed with five beautiful, healthy, bright Grandchildren to teach and "do" life with. And sometimes I think he's speechless when he thinks about the blessing of having raised two children that through thick and through thin, came out wonderfully. I know he's proud. Now, sometimes, we teach him a thing or two. We are thankful for the privilege of having Dads and a "Gramp" who've taken the time to invest in us, love us, support us and actively be there with us as we "do" life. We love you.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My Bees

I have a bone to pick with my bees. They have developed a habit that I am none too pleased about. Bees drink water. They will go to a water source and have a little sip as they go foraging from place to place. I set up a little pool (a retired baby pool) by their hives for this purpose. I even installed a little bubbler that tends to attract them, with large rocks for them to set on and lap up the water. But where do my bright little bees decide to go and drink? I'll tell you.

In the upper left hand corner of the picture below you'll see the far left side of my garden -- it's set below the front part of our yard, thanks to a retaining wall, which is kind of nice since walkers-by can't see if I've had time to weed or not. Anyway, there is a little pathway between the fence Victor and I put in, and the potato towers you can see in the picture to the left. Because this area is lower than the front yard, between my irrigation system and the incessant rain that we've been getting (don't get me started) the little pathway is a little . . . 'squishy'. Well, the bees have decided this is a great place to suck up water. So, as I walk back and forth to my garden, or the compost pile for leaves and yard clippings, or to visit my hens, or for the kids to play on the swing set, we have to tromp on this pathway. The other day (ahem, when it was actually sunny) I tried to count how many bees were there sipping away. The pathway was literally buzzing, there must have been about 20 bees there. Which compared to how many bees are in my two hives, is a very small proportion, but HONESTLY! 
The thing is, it's not even good fare! The original soil here is like thick clay so it's easy to develop areas with bad drainage. Sometimes it can get a bit . . . uh . . . earthy-smelling (not in a good way). There she is . . . oh brilliant bee of mine. Good grief. So far, they don't seem to mind our tromping through their watering hole - they just fly out of the way, but I am mildly concerned. A couple of them have gotten stepped on accidentally (or run-over by the wheel barrel) and I'm just waiting for one of them to get mad that we nearly stepped on her. 
Aside from the smelly clay water sucking habits, they are doing quite well considering we've had about 4 weeks of constant rain. The poor things go bananas when the sun comes out in between rain showers. It's really hard to capture it on film. They are zipping in and out of their hives like there is an emergency. They don't bumble and bump around like their counter parts the bumble bee, the honey bee zips out and zips back in like an F-16 on a mission.

The week after I put the second brood chamber (the upper large box with 8 frames of wax foundation) on both hives the bees in the right hive in particular went to town building comb on the foundation. In one week, they filled 4 frames. I've been waiting for them to make more progress so I can put the next box -- the HONEY SUPER -- on top. On Tuesday when I went into my hives I was fully prepared to put the honey supers on, but they weren't ready. The wax production had come to a screeching halt. So, I lugged them back inside. They made some progress, but it wasn't like the week before. Maybe it's because of the rain. Since they are new in their hives and have to build comb onto the empty wax foundation I am still feeding them sugar syrup (10 lb bag of sugar combined with 5 quarts of hot tap water). From what I understand, the moment you take the sugar syrup off, they really slow down with the comb production and they need to build comb so that the queen can have ample space to lay -- AND eventually stash honey in the honey super for ME! 

The good news is that my queens are laying eggs in both the upper and lower chambers, I have capped brood and larvae in both hives, and even some capped honey in the brood chambers for the bees. I may check them in a day or two (if I can find a rain-free day) and see if they are ready for their honey super yet -- just to be sure. You don't want your bees to run out of room. Crowded Bees = Bad. 

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Precious Boy

Ripley wants to be big. He wants to read with a vengeance like his big brother. Percy Jackson and the Olympians is one of Benjamin's favorite book series. As soon as the next book in the series comes out, Benjamin jumps on it and consumes it. So of course he has already finished the most recent release The Last Olympian. Now Ripley has picked it up. He takes it everywhere. He sits and stares at the pages while I'm making dinner. He takes it in the car when we go on errands. He brings it to the dentist while I'm having my teeth cleaned. He brings it upstairs to bed with him at night. He looks at all of the letters on the pages, flips the pages and marks "his place" with a bookmark. Precious Boy. 

I asked him while I was cooking dinner last night "Aren't you getting bored, honey?" (I was trying to suggest a more age appropriate book.) Ripley replied "No." I asked "Are you looking at all of the different letters and sounding them out?" "Yes." He sat there "reading" for a good half hour. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Sleepover Birthday Party

This past weekend Benjamin had his first ever sleepover. It was a belated birthday party celebrating his 10th year. We pitched a three room tent downstairs in our finished basement and told all of the boys to bring their sleeping bags and pillows. What fun!

I've never been much of a babysitter, even when I was 12. And being a single mother for four years probably threw me over the edge. However, one thing I have always loved is hangin' with kids in Junior High and High School. I was a youth leader at my church for about 3+ years and loved it. At 10, Benjamin and his buddies are getting close. They are still a little wild and goofy, but I was able to pull out some old youth leader 'games' to keep things interesting. 

Food and entertainment was a 10 year old's dream come true with take-out pizza, fruit punch, fruit salad, make-your-own-sundae, candy & popcorn. 

For dinner, I made up little chit-chat cards kind of like the "Ungame" in case conversation needed some help. It was a bit one sided so I got out my pile of homemade cards and had each boy take a turn picking a card and answering a question. Such as: 
  • Can you touch your tongue to your nose? Answer: No
  • Would you rather go sky diving or bungee jumping (or neither)? Answer: Sky Diving
  • If you could buy your mom anything, what would you get her? Answer: Infinity Cats
  • What is your least favorite chore around the house? Answer: Taking out the trash
  • Do you play an instrument? If so, which one? Answer: Yes. Saxophone.
  • If you could travel to any country in the world, where would you go? Answer: Madagascar
Yes, the boys are in our dining room, which may seem silly but it's the only table we have (minus the island seating in the kitchen). I kind of like it because we actually use our dining room. As you can see, to conserve my energy level for the event, I caved and used paper plates and each boy got one plastic cup with his name on it. 
We also did the classic ice breaker where each person has piece of paper with a famous person's name written on it, taped to their back. They have to go around the room asking their friends yes or no questions to find out who they are. The incentive was: When you figure out who your person is, you get to pick out which box of candy you want for the movie. I had about 10 different 'movie sized' boxes to choose from. They did fabulously, and for Victor and I, it was hilarious to watch. The names we had were:
  • Princess Liea 
  • George Washington
  • Thomas Edison
  • R2D2
  • Miley Cirus
  • Benjamin Franklin
After dessert, we started a typical youth leader type game where I broke the boys up into two teams of three, gave each team a ream of paper and two rolls of masking tape, and told them that they had 25 minutes to build a structure. The tallest and sturdiest structure wins. They loved it, and it was hilarious to watch. 

The Wild-Crazy and Excitable Team
The Quiet, Methodical, Organized Team
The Quiet Team did change their method part way through, but they worked together and stayed focused the entire time.
The Wild Team had a lot of laughs and changed course throughout the project.
It was a taping, papering extravaganza.
No comments from the peanut-gallery, please.
Needless to say, the quiet methodical team won.
The unwrapping.
One of Benjamin's buddies brought over his Wee Game.
Another buddy brought over his extra controllers, so four kids could play at one time.
It was the most, errrr . . . excitable part of the evening. 
They had the chance to vote (secret ballot) on their choice for a movie to make it fair. It was between Star Wars I, The City of Ember and Back to the Future I. It was close, but Star Wars I won. Which of course, they'd all seen before. 
I was exhausted. We got everyone pajama'ed and bagged in the tent by 10:45 pm,  quietly talking and behaving themselves nicely. I finally had to go to bed because I was falling asleep on the couch upstairs waiting for the boys to settle down. Victor said he'd take the night shift and finally was able to go to bed himself at 1 a.m. 

In the morning I made pancakes, bacon and fruit salad for the boys. I think I'm out of shape as a youth leader. Or gee, maybe I'm just getting . . . old. I was exhausted and crabby. I felt like I'd pulled an all-nighter in college followed by a night of partying. It took me two days to recover. The good news is, all of the boys had a great time, no fights broke out, no one wanted to go home in the middle of the night, and we returned all boys to their parents the next day in one piece!