Saturday, November 13, 2010

Recycled Potatoes

Last summer, we had a sudden hot spell just as my baby onions were getting started. The delicate shoots were fried beyond any hope of recovery.

As I was pondering what to put in the now-vacant 2 foot by 4 foot space in the planter box, I came across a few potatoes lurking in the back of the bin that were more sprout than potato. Just the thing. I cut them into chunks, being careful not to disturb the sprouts, and laid them gently in the area vacated by the onions. Then I covered them with a heavy layer of compost and left them to their own devices.

I soon had an impressive display of green potato plants. My only clue to what was going on underneath was an occasional glimpse of a tiny potato poking above the surface. I just added more soil whenever the baby potatoes became visible, and otherwise ignored them.

A couple of days ago, I took advantage of a break in the rain to check out the garden. The potato plants looked to be mostly dead, and were turning to slime in the rain. Although the gardening books tell you you can just store potatoes in the ground, I figured that wasn't a good idea in our wet climate. So I dug them up and brought them indoors. I gathered about eight pounds of potatoes, ranging in size from little marbles to about four inches long. Not a huge crop maybe, but not a bad return on a handful of potatoes that were destined for the compost heap.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Book News

The Door in the Sky is now properly posted on Amazon and available for purchase. Thanks to my two reviewers who have posted so far; there should be more soon. I was quite impressed with granddaughter Maggie's review. (Grandmas have bragging rights.) I don't see it on Barnes and Noble yet, although they do have The Mountains of the Moon.

Orchard House Press reports that they are making all their books available on Kindle, the first ones starting in December. They'll follow that with other formats, such as Nook. They're also working on bringing out hard cover books, and The Hall of Doors will be among the first of those, with a combined version of the first three books. So there will soon be lots of choices, but I don't have confirmed dates on anything.

I'll be signing books at the Friends of the Library holiday bazaar in Oakville November 20, and speaking to kids at the Tenino library January 5. Just a reminder: I'm available to speak at schools, scouts, libraries, writer's groups or whatever and will work cheap (FREE!!) as long as I can bring books to sell and don't have to travel too far. I've been thoroughly checked out by the Timberland library system and pronounced safe:)

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Our entire pumpkin harvest. All the how-tos say to leave them on the vine to ripen, but the vines were nearly dead, and with all the rain we've been having, the slugs were moving in. These are small, even for pie pumpkins, but the paper tells me the commercial growers didn't do too well this year either. Since they've at least started to change color and the stems have hardened, I think there's a good chance they'll color up a bit more. The instructional blogs all say that sunshine is the key to ripening, but I think heat is more an issue, as the mostly-green ones were green where they were exposed to such sunlight as made it through the overcast, but yellow or orange where they touched the presumably warmer ground. Anyway, they're now on a card table in the back bedroom, which is the coolest part of the house but much warmer than outside. I'm hoping we'll get enough pumpkin puree for pies, pumpkin bread, etc.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Pennypinching: Fruits

This wasn't a good garden year in western Washington, and our little orchard didn't fare much better. A couple of deer incursions eliminated most of the apple leaves, then the brief but intense hot spell sunburned most of the apples that the deer had missed. Once they were sun-damaged, the apples invited insect attacks. The few apples that survived all that fell prey to birds and wind. All in all, we had mostly salvage and windfall apples. I finally picked the last of them short of perfect ripeness, to save them from the birds.

Salvage was an ongoing operation, with small green apples turned into puree (for applesauce bread and muffins) and larger ones canned for pie filling or made into chunky applesauce. But I was running out of pint canning jars and didn't want to buy more. Since there are usually just the two of us here, I prefer to can in pints. (Besides, the rack for the big canner went missing when we moved, and the little one isn't deep enough for quarts.)

Freezing in bags was the obvious option, but filling little bags with applesauce is a tedious and messy operation. Then I had one of those "Doh! Why didn't I think of that before!" revelations. I still had a wide-mouthed pint jar available. I placed a sandwich-size plastic bag in the jar, popped in my canning funnel to hold the bag open, and filled the bag as easily as filling a jar. Since the jar is tapered, I had no problem sliding the bag out and sealing it. I further simplified the operation by placing the small bags inside a gallon Ziploc, so I only had to label the outer bag. I do that when freezing small portions of meats and vegetables also. The outer bag doesn't touch the food, so can be reused, and a big bag is easier to find in the freezer.

Do you ever wonder what to do with the juice/syrup from either store-bought or home-canned fruits? It can be thickened with tapioca or cornstarch to make pudding or a sauce.

For tapioca pudding, mix two cups of juice with three tablespoons of quick-cook tapioca (Kraft's Minute brand). No need for sugar, unless your juice isn't as sweet as you want it. An egg is optional--I had one that had cracked a little on the way home from the store, so I wanted to use it right away. Stir it and let it stand about five minutes, then cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a full rolling boil. Let it cool and serve either warm or cold. You can also cook it in a microwave, in a large bowl to avoid boil-over, stirring every three minutes. It should take about 10-12 minutes.

You can make a sauce using one tablespoon of cornstarch for each cup of juice. Either mix it all together before cooking, or stir the cornstarch into a small amount of juice, bring the rest to a boil, and stir in the cornstarch mixture. It's about the same as making gravy. Use it warm as a sauce for cake or ice cream; it will set up into a pudding in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pinching Pennies: Bread and Butter

What do you do when a friend or relative insists on giving you bread that is a bit too far past its prime to bother freezing it? The solution for me was to slice it thin and pop it in the dehydrator. A slow oven would probably do as well. So now instead of rather tough bread, I have a supply of crispy melba toast-like slices, good for eating like crackers or dropping in the soup. It can be made into croutons or crumbed for a variety of uses, and stores well at room temperature in a paper bag.

I used some of the crumbs for tuna patties, which are a great way of stretching a can of tuna into several servings. You can do crumbs in a blender or a food processor, but I get good results by putting the bread (or corn flakes, if I'm making meatloaf) into a paper bag and either crushing it by hand or using the rolling pin.

So on to the butter. Once we started learning about things like trans-fats and I realized the nutrition gurus had been lying to us all these years about hydrogenated vegetable shortening and margarine being the healthier choices, I went back to butter. I buy it when it's on sale and usually have a few pounds in the freezer. We don't use a lot, but I do prefer the convenience of the soft-spread variety for uses other than baking. It's easy to make your own soft spread. Just whip together a cup of butter, 1/2 cup canola oil, and 1/2 cup water. Store it in the refrigerator in a covered container.


In case you're wondering how the mouse problem worked out, son Jon took pity on me and removed the partition between the dishwasher and sink area. He then informed me that my theory of mousy access was wrong; there was no possible way they could get in there as the base of the dishwasher was tight against the wall, and in fact they seemed to be coming in on the other side of the sink, in my pan cupboard. He used a flashlight to point out the evidence, back in the dark recesses of the cupboard along the outside wall. Yuck!! So I washed all the pans, vacuumed and disinfected the pan cupboard and under-sink area, and sealed all around the edges with spray foam. This involved lying down on the floor, attempting to crawl into the cupboard, and using my handy-dandy grabber gadget to reach the far corners. It's all sealed and clean now, and the mousetrap that I re-installed under the sink has so far remained untouched. The partition between the pan cupboard and the sink area was loose, and had been sloppily installed in such a way that it couldn't fit tight, so I pulled it out and re-fastened it. End of problem? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

And yet another mouse story...

It's that time of year. The weather's getting cooler and damper, the garden is winding down, The critters are starting to look for warmer quarters. I've learned to keep a mousetrap behind the trash can under the sink, since it appears the mice come in somewhere under the dishwasher, and scramble over the partial partition that separates that area from the one under the sink.

Yes, I could solve the problem by removing the partition and sealing up whatever holes they come through, or simply add on to the partition so they can't get through. It's been on my to-do list forever. I'm a talented procrastinator who really hates doing household repairs. Note to any of my children reading this: take pity on your poor old gray-haired mom and fix this for me. It would be a nice, cheap birthday gift, and my 70th is rapidly approaching. Pretty please?

Alas, 70 is the new 40 and my kids know I can do it myself if necessary. We'll overlook the fact that I taught them to use tools early on, just so I wouldn't have to.

End of digression--back to the mouse story. I had already disposed of one victim a few days ago and replaced the trap. Yesterday brother Richard glanced under the sink and said "didn't you put a trap in here?" There was no trap behind the trash can--but further over, stuck behind the pipes, the missing trap seemed to be bouncing around. A still-live mouse, caught only by one foot, had dragged the trap as far as possible and was trying to pull free, while simultaneously scarfing down the peanut butter bait.

I can deal with setting a trap and disposing of the remains. Doing the killing myself was more than I wanted to handle. Letting it struggle until it eventually died wasn't acceptable either. I picked up the trap with my handy-dandy two-foot-long grabber device, took it outside, and used a table knife to pry up the bar. The mouse immediately jumped free and dove between the boards of the cover over the crawl space entry. So it's lurking under the house, perhaps contemplating trying it again.

I don't imagine mice have very long memories, but I'm hoping that one won't be back for a while. I suppose it's too much to hope that he warned his friends away, too.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Experimenting in the Kitchen

The house I share with my brother came with about 90 gallons of wheat stored in metal cans. I guess the previous owners had a survival hoard. I used to do a lot of baking when my family was growing up, but not so much in recent years, so I've forgotten a lot (and there was plenty I didn't know to begin with). Lately I've been experimenting with home-ground flour.

My first biscuits using 100% whole wheat flour were more like hockey pucks or ship's biscuit. They were edible, but nowhere near light and fluffy. The second batch, using half ww and half all-purpose flour, were an improvement. Then I got really daring and made chocolate drop cookies using half ww. Edible, even tasty, but the appearance and texture left a little to be desired. That's when I remembered making cracked wheat bread about forty years ago--I always soaked the cracked wheat overnight. Hmmm.

My friend Amanda had given me a roll recipe that she said worked with up to half the bread flour replaced by ww. But my home-ground flour is probably a bit coarser than the commercial stuff. So I mixed the ww (almost half) with the milk in the recipe, covered it and left it in the refrigerator overnight. The flour soaked up ALL the liquid. Her recipe was for a bread machine so added the yeast with the dry ingredients. I figured I'd better go with the more traditional method, plus I was guessing I might need more liquid, so I dissolved the yeast in (more) warm milk, then added that and the other ingredients to my milk and flour glop (which I had first warmed a little in the microwave). Success!! The rolls came out perfect.

I think next time I make cookies I'll try the pre-soak method.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Door in the Sky is available

I now have copies of The Door in the Sky, book two of the Hall of Doors series. The publisher hasn't updated either their website or, but you can get them directly from me. Contact me at gramajan500 at msn dot com if you want autographed copies.

In this adventure, Sammy learns that love and friendship are stronger than fear, and sometimes you just have to "do it scared." She's off on a roller-coaster dragon ride to help Princess Selena with a serious problem, one that will take all the courage she can gather. In helping her friend to open a spell-bound treasure chest, Sammy also discovers the key to solving her own problem.

The Mirror Door
and The Secret Door are still in the publisher's queue, with no release date set. Since the illustrations are done for The Mirror Door, they tell me it's possible that it might be out this year. Here's a sneak preview of the cover picture.

And on a somewhat more silly note, can you imagine a bank telling a 46-year-old man that he can't add his wife to his bank account without his mommy's permission? That's what happened to my oldest son recently. Nearly thirty years ago, when he was a teenager, I cosigned so he could have his own checking account. We never took my name off the account--in fact, I had forgotten about it. But the bank refused to make any changes unless we both appeared in person to sign papers. A note wouldn't do, even if I had it notarized. So I made the 75 mile drive on a Saturday morning, which was the only time he and his wife could both make it to the bank, and we took care of it. Or at least we got my name off. His wife, a Chinese immigrant, didn't realize that she would need her social security number for the transaction, so they'll have to go back next Saturday to finish up. I guess a bank has to be careful about these things, but I wonder what we would have done if I were still in California, or had become mentally incapacitated.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gray is the proper color for sky...

Not that dirty gray-brown of warmer but smoggy climes:

A soft, misty gray that soothes the eye and calms the soul.

The mist descends to pour over the hills,

Drifting through the firs,

Wrapping the world in a fuzzy gray comforter.

Gray is the perfect setting, enhancing the earth’s green

From somber firs to bright maples

And the myriad shades of green in my water-fat garden

Where deer amble around the fence, pretending nonchalance

Searching for the magic portal

That will grant them access to the tempting delicacies within.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Wildlife Invasion Number Three

Back in mid-March I mentioned finding a deceased mouse in the trap under the sink, and wondered if we were overdue for a starling invasion. We actually had more mice first—a total of five, I believe, before the end of April. I grew careless about keeping that trap set, so had the fun of starting my day by sanitizing the kitchen countertops on more than one occasion. One of these days I need to pull out the masonite half-wall partition between the under-sink cabinet and the dishwasher. I’m sure that’s where they get in. For now, I make it a point to check the baited trap under the sink every morning. So far, we’ve been mouse-free for about three weeks.

So back to the starlings. We usually get one or two in the “attic” every spring, and they eventually wind up in the vent pipe over the kitchen range. This is a manufactured house, so the gap between the ceiling and the roof isn’t accessible to big critters like humans. We couldn’t figure out how they got in the attic in the first place, nor how they went from there into a pipe that *should* run continuous and unbroken all the way through the roof.

Yesterday, brother Richard noticed the starlings were getting rather aggressive at pushing against the attic vents, trying to get to a nesting spot. Then he heard a lot of noise in one spot, but by the time he got there the bird was inside. He started prodding the overhead (soffit) vents with a pole and discovered that one was loose enough to be pushed up a little. He tried holding the loose vent up for a while, but the bird wasn’t about to come out while he was there. The trapped bird stomped and fluttered all over the attic for hours, and finally got into the vent pipe just as I was preparing to cook dinner.

I knew the drill. Spread a towel over the stove to catch dirt and feathers; take out the screws to remove the vent fan; push up the butterfly valve with a stick; keep pushing and prodding while the *stupid* bird insists on perching on top of the valve flap or jumps from one side to the other as it frantically tries to climb back up the pipe. Mumble a few unprintable words under your breath. Use two stick to hold up both sides of the valve so the $%;*# bird can’t keep jumping from side to side. Consider getting a pair of tongs to grab a leg or whatever presents itself and drag the bird out—in pieces if necessary.

The bird, of course, instinctively tries to escape by going *up*. Falling *down* is not in its repertoire. But eventually it loses its balance and falls through the hole, immediately flying toward what appears to be the nearest exit, the kitchen window. (bonk!) Then, slightly dazed, it makes a beeline for the patio door, which Richard has not managed to open yet. (bonk again!!) Knocks itself out this time. Is it dead? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care. Richard opens the patio door and chucks it out. Either it will recover and leave on its own, or one of the neighbors’ cats that hunt on our property will find it.

In the meantime, I’m trying to clean up the mess so I can cook dinner. Throw away the shingle nail that came down the pipe with the bird. (How did *that* get in there?) Carefully gather up the towel and shake off the debris outside. Wipe everything down with disinfectant. Try to re-install the fan. Hah!! Try working close-up overhead in a dark space looking through the long-distance portion of your trifocals. I fumble a screw; it bounces as it drops and winds up behind the stove. This isn’t working, and I’m so angry and frustrated that I’m close to tears. Time to call for help.

Son Jon says he’ll be over as soon as he can—he has to wait for Patty to get home so she can watch daughter Raven. So I take few deep breaths, leave the fan dangling by its wires, and cook dinner.

Epilog: Jon arrived, bringing a beautiful flowering plant for Mother’s Day. He put the vent fan back in, did some repair work on the starling’s entry point, and even pulled the dead battery from the van and put it on the charger.

It was, all in all, a pretty good Mother’s Day. I heard from all my kids and got to spend time with granddaughter Britni who is here visiting. I’ll have delayed Mother’s Day lunch with former foster daughter Kristina next Sunday, and probably spend time with son Jeff and daughter-in-law Joyce the Sunday after that. I hope all mothers reading this had a good day, too—minus the starling.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More on "Divine Appointments"

In my previous post, I mentioned, among other things, the possibility of "divine appointments" in which we are linked up with someone who can answer our prayer needs, or may have the privilege of being part of the answer to someone else's prayer. I commented that "When I pray that I might be a blessing to others, the opportunities appear." So I had made a public announcement of being willing, or as public as it gets on this blog, and had prayed, as usual, that I might be a blessing to someone. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by what happened.

My brother, Richard, and I have made it a habit of late to go out exploring one day a week. We've been to many of the small towns in our area, taking in the sights, visiting museums, and browsing through second-hand shops. We've been to Winlock to see the World's Largest Egg and may attend their Egg Day in June. We're looking forward to riding the steam train near Mount Rainier. On the day after my previous post, we were in the little town of Raymond, Washington. We had admired the park and all the artwork along the streets, and thought we would go visit the Carriage Museum. But first we took a detour to check out a little consignment shop that had caught my eye.

There was nothing in the shop that screamed "buy me" too loudly, so we were ready to go. I thanked the proprietor for letting us look, and offered her some of my bookmarks, mentioning that I write children's books.

She immediately became very excited, and said she had been praying for someone who could tell her how to publish the book she's been working on for several years. We must have talked for over an hour, as we discussed all the things that need to happen to get a book in front of the public--editing or polishing the writing, submitting to publishers, publicity, etc. I told her I didn't think I had the expertise to guide her through the whole process, but that I'd be happy to make suggestions and steer her toward other people who could help with each aspect.

By the time we finally got to the carriage museum, it had just closed. Oh well, it will be there for another day.

I spent most of the next day putting together a package of suggestions and reference material. I hope it helps.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Coincidence versus Fate

A few days ago, granddaughter Britni posed a question on Facebook: are there coincidences or is it all just fate? In other words, are we all acting out a pre-arranged play, or is it all, in the words of Homer Simpson, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.” I think it’s a little of each.

Humans have an innate tendency to impose patterns on everything they see or hear or experience. Consider the constellations, for instance. Somebody, or several somebodies, played connect-the-dots with the stars, overlaid pictures of familiar objects, and made up stories to go with them. In a world without GPS, this helped people to remember star patterns for navigation purposes. It also helped to figure out seasons, so you knew when to plant the corn. The process got carried to extremes as the “science” of astrology, which was the forerunner of astronomy. Because many isolated groups of people were engaged in this ordering process, it’s not surprising that we have different constellations, and different stories, from different cultures. We see the same phenomenon at work when we choose to see specific shapes in the clouds, in spots on walls, or even in potato chips.

Our pattern imposition, and a strong urge to create order out of chaos, is seen in many of our recreational pursuits, from crossword puzzles and Sudoku to jigsaw puzzles. We teach our children sorting games, helping them to categorize by numbers, color, or whatever form of order is being studied.

Whether or not we consider ourselves to be writers, we also are concerned with stories—our own or other people’s, “real” or imagined or a combination of both. This, too, is part of our need to create order. When we recount an event for an audience, we pick and choose our words, emphasize some details while dismissing others, and generally impose a pattern on what may have been random events. We appreciate the abilities of a “good story-teller” and avoid the ones who insist on dragging in every boring, irrelevant detail. Even if we never relate the “story” to another person, we tend to go over it in our minds, analyzing and polishing, until it “makes sense” to us.

Does this mean that all events are random, only seeming to be related because of our need to see connections? I don’t think so.

As a Christian, I believe strongly in the power of prayer. I believe that God answers my prayers, even those I don’t voice but that come from the yearnings of my heart. I believe He works through people, and that I may have the privilege and responsibility of being part of the answer to another's prayer. Don’t ask me how the system works—I don’t know and I leave those speculations to those whose order-imposing drive focuses on such questions. I can drive a car without being a mechanical engineer, and I can flip on a light switch without having a detailed knowledge of the electrical system. But I have heard about, or witnessed myself, too many cases of people being in the right place at the right time—sometimes as a result of a string of seemingly unrelated events—to dismiss the idea of “divine appointments” or whatever you choose to call them. I have sometimes seemed to suddenly know things I didn’t know before, heard myself say things I wasn’t expecting to say, found myself focusing on certain words or ideas from seemingly unrelated sources, that prodded me to take certain actions. I find these things happen a lot more when I have consciously opened my eyes, my mind, and my heart in a willingness to be responsive to the needs of others. When I pray that I might be a blessing to others, the opportunities appear.

To those who would see all religious belief as just another instance of man’s trying to impose order on a chaotic, uncaring universe, I make no argument with you. I’m a live-and-let-live Christian. “Everyone to their own ridiculous opinions” as my daddy used to say. You are welcome to believe as you like, if that’s what works for you. I think you’re wrong, but I also know that my world view, like everyone else’s, probably contains some flaws. It’s like the poem about the blind men and the elephant, each trying to describe the elephant from the portion he was touching, and all arguing about it.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

More Wildlife

Curiouser and curiouser. Frogs in the morning, mice in the afternoon. Or at least mouse, singular. The last time we had mice in the house, I used canned foam to seal all around the pipes or hoses under the kitchen sink, since evidence in the form of droppings suggested that was their way in. Just to be on the safe side, I set a trap as well. That was months ago.

This afternoon, when we pulled out the trash can to empty it, there was a deceased mouse in the trap. I don't think it had been there too long, as there was no noticeable olfactory evidence.

What next? We've been seeing squirrels, raccoons and deer outside, but I hardly think they're going to come in. Hmmm. We haven't had a starling in the vent pipe over the kitchen stove for a while.

Early Morning Surprise

I had just turned on the water, planning to take a shower, when this dark gray-brown THING leapt out of the drain area and began rocketing around the tub.

I turned off the water and jumped back. My sleep-fogged brain was telling me “mouse” because of the size and coloring, but at the same time arguing “that thing didn’t look like a mouse, and it moves like a…” and I was just getting to “frog” when I cautiously drew the shower curtain aside again and peeked in.

Our little tree frogs have chameleon characteristics—this one had been hanging out in the drain area, mimicking the color of the metal crossbars, but was already well on the way to a more frog-like green. I tried to catch it by hand, but the critter was too excited by now to hold still and I was afraid I would hurt him.

I finally got a wide-mouthed glass out of the kitchen, and a stiff plastic CD mailer out of the office—didn’t think cardboard or paper would do as well in the wet tub. He was a very pale green by then—probably the closest he could get to the ivory-colored tub.

After a couple of false starts I managed to pop the glass over without injuring the frog, slid the plastic under, and voila, bottled frog. I dumped him on the mat at the back door, where he was still sitting when I closed the door.

They tend to “freeze” when frightened, using their camouflage to avoid detection. We get them in the house occasionally, but that was the first in the tub.

I guess he got over the trauma, as he was gone when I looked out later.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Westwind is back

There were rumors that the NWSFS magazine Westwind was about to make a comeback. I was delighted to find a copy in my mailbox today, and even more excited that my poem, "Trapped in a Bubble of Eternity," was on the back cover. What a delightful way to start the new year.