Wednesday, August 16, 2017

First Harvest

August 16, 2017: My first harvest of tomatoes and green beans!

I suppose it's not strictly true that this is the first harvest of the season, since I pulled off the first bell pepper more than a week ago (quite delicious in my meatball sauce, by the way). Plus, I've harvested about two dozen strawberries by now. Still, it was exciting to reap the rewards from two vegetables at the same time. And so many beautiful beans!

Tonight's dinner was a tasty treat!

And so, Mark and I enjoyed fresh green beans with our steaks tonight. We both like frozen and canned green beans, as well, but there's just no comparison with those fresh from the garden. In fact, tonight was the first time Mark had ever eaten fresh beans, and throughout the meal he kept saying over and over, "These are really good!" He has now been introduced to a new gastronomical delight!

August 12: This little tomato ripened before I even noticed.

As for the tomatoes, I was starting to wonder if any of the many green tomatoes on my four tomato bushes were ever going to ripen. Then, last week, I took a branch off one bush and took it to the nursery where I buy my starters and sought their expert advice on why the lower leaves were turning yellow. Three of the employees--including the main go-to guy--all said precisely the same thing: blight, caused by too much moisture. They said I could use an anti-fungal, but probably I just needed to let the earth around the plants dry out. Not an easy task, since we'd been having weeks of non-stop rain, but they predicted that letting them dry out would also inspire my tomatoes to start ripening.

I don't recall this ever being an issue in my second husband's gardens, but then, as I've mentioned before, this has been the wettest monsoon season I can remember having in a very long time. Probably in ten years or more. Luckily, after my visit to the nursery, the weather dried up somewhat and we had about three days of little-to-no rainfall. I didn't water the tomatoes at all, though it made me a little nervous. Sure enough, within two days I had three tomatoes starting to show some color! 

Aug 12: Two other, larger tomatoes were blushing like this just four days ago.
Today, both were already ripe. I picked this one and left the other on the vine.

The rainstorms resumed on Friday, accompanied by wild thunderstorms (our neighbor down the street had two trees struck by lightning and their Internet fried), and continued for the next four days, but now we're entering another dry phase. Tonight I went out and watered the rest of the garden, but left the tomatoes alone. I hope more tomatoes will soon start to blush.

There are lots of green beans like these all over my beanstalks.

The green beans have become my favorite garden children. They never give me a moment of worry! I expect to enjoy plenty of fresh green beans over the next two months.

August 12: No cucumbers yet, but they're blooming like crazy.

The cucumbers are still on hold, but I see the little swellings on the female blossoms that foretell future tasty cucumbers. Fingers crossed!

See all the nubs of snipped-off pepper blooms and leaves!
Photo taken this afternoon.

When I visited Christopher's Gardens with my tomato branch last week, I also took in several little clipped-off bell pepper blossoms to show the nursery staff what's been happening, hoping they'd know what kind of pest was doing this to my plants. Unfortunately, they were stumped. Nursery workers kept coming in to have a look at them as other employees told them about my odd problem. One lady called it a "Nancy Drew mystery." There was a lot of head-shaking going on.

In the above photo is the plant from which I harvested the very first bell pepper. It's still alive, but there's not much left. You can see one of its snipped leaves in the background mud. The attacks seem to have focused on that plant for now, which at least has allowed the other two plants a chance to start forming little bell pepper starts.

Today: There will be more bell peppers!

In the end, the nursery folks sold me a can of Sevin-5 dust, an insecticide that's supposed to work on all sorts of insects, since the diatomaceous earth hadn't helped much. Again, the constant rain is a battle, washing away anything I put on the plants, so the clipping of leaves and blooms continues. I'll try the insecticide again tomorrow, now that we're entering another dry period.

Today: Finally, a little bell pepper is growing on the third plant.

Today: Lots of little bell pepper starts, four visible in this picture.

My strawberry plants are getting huge and throwing out runners with new baby plants all over the bed, but the production of berries has slowed way down. I suspected that it might be due to putting so much energy into reproduction (the runners), so I went online to find out. Sure enough, the experts recommend clipping most of the runners and allowing each plant to only send out three. Ten of my twelve plants are reproducing, and nearly all have started six to eight new plants. It's crazy. I guess it's time to do a little bit of cropping...

Today: My strawberries are still going strong and reproducing.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Getting Real

Students at their computers on the EAST wall of my old classroom.
April 18, 2017

People often ask me if it feels like I'm retired yet. I'm getting there, especially since school started almost two weeks ago. For instance, last Tuesday Mark and I stopped by my favorite nursery, Christopher Gardens, to see if anyone could explain why the lower leaves on my tomato plants were turning yellow. As we were leaving the nursery, I commented on how much lighter the traffic was than usual. The words were barely out of my mouth when I noticed that the clock on the dash board read "12:30," and it suddenly hit me that everyone else was back in school, but I was not.

Oh, sweet bliss.

My old desk (at the left) was in the southeast corner of my classroom,
with the reading center and student art on the SOUTH wall.

In the spring, I had a student teacher who taught my classes (under my supervision) for most of the semester. In the end, Mr. Vizzerra graduated and earned his teaching certificate, and he was offered a job teaching English at our high school. Goodness knows, there were plenty of openings since our entire English department decided to retire at the same time. Well, almost. Ms. Privatera, Ms. Mitchell, and myself all retired. Our department chair, Ms. Green, accepted a job at a middle school in the Phoenix area. Only Ms. Clarey returned for this school year, and she was fresh out of college just a year ago. For a while, we weren't sure which classes Mr. V would be assigned to teach.

Eventually, it was decided that he would take over my classes. I was thrilled because I believe it's a perfect fit. Then the powers-that-be decided to move him to a different classroom down the hall. Everything seemed to be up in the air for a long time. However, in July Mr. V texted me that they'd changed their minds and he was keeping my classroom. It seemed that everything was finally settled and I could simply move on.

The desk used by my aide, Mr. Cotellesse, was in the southwest corner.
The whiteboard and my podium were on the WEST wall.

At the end of the first week of school, August 2-4 (a three-day school week to start things off), Mr. V texted me, saying he had some questions and could we meet over the weekend. So I met with him at my old classroom for about an hour and a half on Sunday afternoon. But it definitely wasn't my room anymore. I remember the surreal feeling as I walked in and looked around. I wanted to say, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore!"

The television was in the northwest corner, although rarely used.
Mostly we watched films via my computer projected on a screen.
(This view is taken from behind my old desk.)

Don't get me wrong. I love what he's done with the place. I knew Mr. V would take things in a whole new direction, and that's as it should be. I just wasn't quite prepared for how different everything was, so soon, and it threw me for a loop. I actually think it was helpful for me, seeing that the remaining vestiges of my long-time presence are fading away, making it a little easier to let go and realize that my days as an educator truly are in the past.

The small-group-work table was on the NORTH wall and the
classroom door in the northeast corner. (Seen from my aide's desk.)

One of the first things I noticed was that he got rid of the desks and switched over to small, four-student tables. Earlier in my career, I'd considered doing the same thing. Then came a semester when a science teacher was on maternity leave and I was asked to teach one of her classes on my prep until she returned (I'm actually highly qualified to teach English, science, and--ahem--math). This teacher had tables rather than desks, which makes perfect sense for a science class, but I quickly realized it didn't fit too well with my style of teaching. Much too loosy-goosy, with ample opportunities for cheating and other shenanigans. I quickly threw out that idea for myself, but I admire teachers who can handle it.

My old classroom is no longer recognizable as my old classroom!

As you can see in the above photo, Mr. V kept the student computers on the EAST wall, where I also had them, but he changed the configuration from a straight row along the wall to a horseshoe-pattern. I like it. On one hand, it will be more difficult to monitor what the students are doing, but on the other, it will limit opportunities for looking on each others' computers.

Notice he also moved the reading center into the southeast corner, where my desk used to be, and he added some nicer furniture to the old couch (donated long ago by the elementary school). He said he got a great deal on the new furniture at a yard sale. He also took down all the posters I'd left, and I really like the new paper he put up over the bulletin boards and old chalkboards. He said he's waiting for new posters he ordered.

The SOUTH wall as it now appears. Mr. V's desk at far right.

As for the SOUTH wall, where the reading center used to be, Mr. V moved the shelves there that used to be behind my desk. And he moved his desk to the southwest corner, which used to be where my aide, Mr. Cotellesse, had his desk. Mr. C toyed with the idea of coming back for another year, but as the school year wound down to the final months, he decided to retire, too. (He tells me he's very happy with that decision now!) Mr. V has a new aide, a lady named Ms. Ophelia. Her aide desk is now in the northwest corner, which is where we'd put Mr. V's desk while he was student teaching.

Mr. V's desk at left, Ms. Ophelia's desk at right, and my podium still on WEST wall.

The two most noticeable changes at the WEST end of the classroom are 1) the television is missing, and 2) my Harry Potter posters above the brown- and white-boards are gone. Shocking! The TV has probably become obsolete. One new thing for the 2017-18 school year is that every classroom will be equipped with a class set of laptops, one for every student, as well as new laptops for the teachers. Who needs a TV when everyone has a screen at his or her desk?

As for my Harry Potter posters, I left them because the newly hired English teacher who was originally slated to take my classroom told me she's a huge Harry Potter fan and would be honored to keep them. When Mr. V got the room, he donated the posters to another new English teacher who'd also expressed interest in them. At least they've gone on to a new life.

The NORTH wall has changed the least.

On the NORTH wall, Mr. V rearranged the shelves a bit and put up new paper and posters, but he kept the small-group-work table there. Although, he did switch out my long gray table for a smaller trapezoidal table. I'm completely sincere when I say that he has created an inviting and practical work space for his students.

I loved this punching bag on Mr. V's desk.
Better to vent his frustration here than on students!

As we left the classroom, we took a detour to see the new library (or should I say, "Old library," since it's been returned to its original location from the days when the East Campus--my building--used to be the junior high). It was another dramatic change that was almost shocking, but it's absolutely a positive change. For several years it has served as a very large English classroom, but I like it better as the library.

Finally, Mr. V shared other changes and issues that are already arising as the new school year begins. New and burdensome expectations placed upon the teachers, horrendous problems with the new technology, the most difficult of last year's students ALL assigned to his classes... The rightness of the timing for my retirement has been confirmed!

BRHS Class of 2017 with Principal Jay Cox.

Over the course of twenty-seven years, I survived four principals: Kevin Bortin, Gerad Ball, Eric Harmon, and Jay Cox. I endured through four superintendents: Gordon Meredith, Mike Aylstock, Greg Schalow, and Mike Wright. I was blessed by six amazing aides: Laurel Evans, Tamera Butler, Wyndie Prestwich, Kristina Cummins, Kim Harmon, and Joe Cotellesse. I occupied three different classrooms in two different buildings. I taught both special education and regular classes, including English, earth science, and general math. And, above all,  I was touched in so many different ways by the thousands of students who passed through my classes during those years. 

It was a good run, a great career, and now it's time to pursue the other interests I put aside long ago.

I've finally graduated. The oldest member of the Class of 2017!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Baby Shower

The Baby Shower cake was an ice cream cake from Dairy Queen
and was decorated by my niece Elsie. Nicely done!

Last night Sarah and I had a fun evening, attending the baby shower of expectant mother Emily. Emily is the niece of my sister-in-law Dana, and the daughter of Dana's sister Kara. To me, Emily is like another niece as well as a friend. 

One thing I've always appreciated about Jeff and Dana is how they blend both sets of relatives, as if we were already one big family. Since they got married in 1983, we've been invited to most every family camp-out, ceremony, and celebration imaginable, attended by both Dana's relatives and Jeff's relatives. During those thirty-four years, I've come to think of Dana's parents and sisters and myriad aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews as my own relatives. By marriage, of course, but family nonetheless.

The shower was decorated beautifully by Tahna.

Emily already has two cute little boys, Anthony and Trenton, but this time she is very excited to be expecting a baby girl. This shower was an opportunity to celebrate with lots of tiny girly-girl clothes and trimmings. Emily's new little daughter is due October 28th. (The day after Sarah's birthday, as well as on the birthday of my daughter-in-law Danielle!)

The food was provided by Tahna, Cheri, and Kara.

The hostess of Emily's baby shower was Tahna, one of Dana's younger sisters and therefore an aunt to Emily, even though the girls are both young women quite close in age. In fact, Sarah and Tahna have been very good friends since high school. I was impressed by the great job Tahna did with the fun decorations, the games, and the food. Especially as Tahna is herself very pregnant with her second child. Her baby is due on September 7th.

I understand the chicken salad/croissant sandwiches were done by Cheri.

I loved that the refreshments included things I could enjoy eating without having to deviate from my diet. The croissant-sandwiches were stuffed with healthy chicken salad, which I could have eaten without the bread if I hadn't already eaten a light dinner prior to the shower. I had to skip the crackers, of course, but there were sliced cheeses and fresh fruits and vegetables with ranch dip on which to snack freely.

Emily with bags and bags of gifts for the new little one.
That's Emily's mom, Kara, seated behind her.

After we all gathered outside to eat and chat for close to an hour, the mosquitoes came out and we retreated indoors for the opening of the presents. It was so much fun to watch Emily's delight as she opened each dainty little gift. She loves imagining her own little daughter dressed up in the new outfits one day soon. 

Emily with gifts from Sarah (light pink) and me (dark pink).

During the hours before the baby shower began, Sarah and I each went shopping (separately) for Emily's gifts. When I picked up Sarah on the way to the shower, we cracked up when we compared out gift packages. Not only had we chosen the same-sized gift packages (mine dark-pink and hers light-pink), but we'd also selected the exact same sparkly-heart gift tag to put on the bag! And, believe me, there were many bags and tags to choose from. I guess it's true, great minds do think alike!

From me: adorably fringed, pink moccasins I just couldn't resist,
and two pairs of tiny sock-booties. 

I hoped Sarah and I hadn't chosen the same gifts, as well, but I didn't know what Sarah had gotten for Emily until the very moment Emily opened it. Luckily, I had chosen tiny shoes and booties while Sarah chose an adorable, sparkly outfit. (I love sparkles. Just sayin'...) Someone in the group pointed out that the pink moccasins I gave her would go well with the pink outfit Sarah gave her. True that!

From Sarah: a sparkly pink onesie-dress with dark pink leggings (on lap).

The following photos: more sweet little-girl gifts Emily received at the shower.

That's my niece Haley in the background of these shots.

I brought my own sugar-free dessert so I wouldn't be tempted by the cake!

We ended the evening with ice cream cake and more visiting. I had hand-dipped some strawberries at home about an hour before the shower started so I wouldn't be tempted by any sugary treats, which worked out well.

I even walked away with an unexpected prize! It's funny, but I've been to three baby showers in which one of the games was cutting a piece of yarn or string to the length that you estimate will go around the mom-to-be's pregnant waist. The first two times, I won hands-down. (I have a well-developed sense of spatial reasoning.) I almost won last night, too, missing the exact length by less than half an inch whereas most of the other ladies missed by several inches. However, one other girl missed it by only about an eighth of an inch, so I came in second place.

Dana's mom, Cheri (also Kara's and Tahna's mom), won the second game, in which we all wore clothespins on our shirts and lost them if we uttered the word "baby" at any time during the evening. I lost mine about half-an-hour in. Cheri, on the other hand, was very single-minded in catching us and collecting our clothespins. However, she declined the prize, and so Tahna awarded it to me for my second-place win.

I walked away with this prize: an infuser cup and
a pedicure set (the pieces were inside the cup).

It was a great way to spend the evening, chatting with friends and family while enjoying good food and games, and celebrating the impending arrival of a new life. Next up will be Tahna's baby shower/brunch, and not a moment too soon!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Eating Well

August 6, 2017: My new meatball recipe doesn't have a name yet.

Today marks the one-month point of making dietary changes to improve my health. From July 7 to August 7, I've worked hard to stay on top of meal planning with a focus on better nutrition, including in particular the control of my carbohydrate intake. I'm not always as organized as I'd like to be, but my only cheat all month was a pile of fried-potatoes-and-onion with dinner eight days ago. (Potatoes are high-carb.)

Ten years ago, I could count on losing 16-17 lbs the first month of starting a low-carb diet, but the old metabolism isn't exactly what it used to be. Nonetheless, I'm pleased with my progress and happy to report that I've lost 13.2 lbs during this first month!

Not only that, but other areas are improving as well. On the day I started the diet, my blood pressure was a stroke-worthy 148/100 and my fasting blood sugar was 168. Not good. However, both have come down steadily starting the very first week. Today my b.p. was 126/82 and my glucose was 111. In fact, during the last three weeks I've had blood glucose readings of 102, 104, and 109, and the four highest readings fell between just 120 and 122. That's a notable improvement from a loss of only thirteen pounds. I know from experience that the more weight I lose, the more my blood sugar will fall toward and back into the normal range.

For those who are concerned, no, I am not diabetic. I saw my doctor two weeks ago for my annual checkup and he did the usual lab work. My A1C (average blood glucose over a three-month period) is 6.0, and you must have two A1C readings of 6.5 or higher in order to be diagnosed as diabetic. 

It's true that my doctor warned me I was on the brink of pre-diabetes when I had an A1C of 5.6 in December 2011. (Pre-diabetes is diagnosed with an A1C falling between 5.7 and 6.4.) Obviously, I've allowed myself to slip into the pre-diabetic range over the past few years, but there's still time to turn it around.

I'm also losing inches! I've lost three inches off my waist, where I need it most (and the waistbands of my pants are much more comfy). I've also lost two inches off my hips, one inch off my bust, 1.5 inches off my thighs, and one inch off my upper arms. There is a lot more to be lost, of course, but it's a solid start.

This was the sauce before I added the meatballs. Recipe below...

To maintain long-term success, we all know it's important to not only eat right, but to also eat well. There must be variety and there must be foods that satisfy. While Mark and I were shopping last week, we bought some bratwurst, which he and the kids love. Most sausages are fine for low-carb diets, but I don't really care for brats, so I was trying to figure out something I could enjoy on the night Mark ate his bratwurst. Suddenly, for some reason, the idea of meatballs seemed very appealing.

I don't make meatballs myself, never have, so I started looking through Walmart's freezer section for frozen meatballs, something not packed full of extra carb fillers. I'd about given up when Mark brought me a 28-oz bag from the deep freezers where he gets his corn dogs and frozen burritos. Farm Rich beef-and-pork meatballs with a little soy flour and spices. Six meatballs for only two carbs. Bingo! 

Again, I don't make meatballs, and I can't have spaghetti (no noodles allowed), so what could I do with them? I usually google some recipes in these instances, but this time I simply mulled it over for a few days until an idea formed. This is what I came up with.

I finally pulled off the big bell pepper in the garden to use in the sauce.

Mix in the saucepan over medium heat until bubbling:

Two 24 oz jars of pasta sauce (I used Rao's Homemade Tomato Basil Sauce)
One small bell pepper, finely diced (from my garden!)
10 oz bag of riced cauliflower (I used Birds Eye)
5 oz shaved Parmesan cheese (shredded will work fine, too)

Then add the bag of meatballs, still frozen (or you could make your own), and mix well to coat in the sauce. Lower heat and simmer for 30-35 minutes. Serve on a plate and ladle some sauce over the meatballs. Optional: Grate 8 oz mozzarella cheese and sprinkle some over the meatballs and sauce to melt.

Oh. My. Gosh. It was delicious and we ate twice as much as we should have last night. The pot was scraped clean of all sauce. Even so, I'd lost another half-pound when I weighed myself this morning.

Note: If you're low-carbing to lose weight, be careful of the pasta sauce you choose. Tomatoes are healthy but moderately high in natural sugars. A half-cup serving of most types can contain up to fifteen carbs or more. I was shocked that the Rao's sauce I chose claimed to have only 2 carbs per half-cup (how is that even possible?), but if you take the time to look, you can find many with only five or six net carbs. (That's total carbs minus fiber grams.)

The riced cauliflower was a huge bonus. Rice is off the low-carb menu, but I miss the texture in soups and sauces. I only recently discovered the joy of riced cauliflower, which can be bought pre-riced and frozen. The texture is very similar (kind of like slightly under-cooked rice, firm but not crunchy) but doesn't taste like cauliflower. Instead, it absorbs the flavor of the sauce. It really added to this recipe.

I figure that this recipe, divided among six diners (with a nice side salad), would come in at only 10.5 carbs per serving. That would include about nine small meatballs (4.7 oz total protein). [The carb total would rise slightly with a higher-carb pasta sauce, of course.]

The next two peppers are growing side-by-side on a second plant.

Another component of eating well is, of course, plenty of fresh vegetables. I hope my little garden will become a great source of nutrient-dense, lower-carb vegetables for my new dietary lifestyle.

Now that my sole ripe bell pepper has been harvested, the wait is on for new peppers to ripen. I do have two that are definitely growing on a second plant, though they're still much too small to eat. Growing fast, though! A third plant has a few buds that seem to be developing into tiny peppers, so I still hope for a decent crop by season's end. I'm not sure about the first plant, the one that grew the first bell pepper of the season. Either it was overcome by its mystery attackers or it gave its all birthing that initial pepper. Its growth is stunted and I haven't seen any blossoms on it for a long time.

The third pepper plant is also showing promise with several tiny newbies.

The attacks on my pepper plants' buds had slowed to almost nothing after the last time I applied diatomaceous earth. Unfortunately, when Sarah and I went out to the garden last night, we found two leaves and two buds that had recently been sawn off. So I powdered my peppers and tomatoes up with diatomaceous earth once more (hence, the white powder in these pictures). Now we'll hope for the best.

Dozens of young green beans are forming all over my pole beans.

I'm also excited to be finding dozens of little green beans appearing all over my beanstalks. I can't wait to harvest them. They freeze well for later, and they are so much more tasty than the canned variety.

Alongside the beans are plenty of new blossoms, promise of a good harvest.

The last good rain we had was three or four days ago, so I've had to resume watering the garden by hand. Now that the plants are so much larger and producing, I notice they need twice as much water. At least. So I go out to water twice a day and I let them drink a bit longer than before. I've begun sitting in the shade on my purple kneeler/bench sometimes, just soaking in the quiet and the breeze and the simple joy of seeing what I brought to life. I'm even getting a little tan. Just a little.

Even the zucchini plants are blooming, about a dozen blooms so far.

I'm not too sure what the prospects for cucumbers will be this summer. The plants appear to be growing fairly well, but I notice rabbits are nibbling the outer leaves again. Not as badly, though, and the plants seem large enough to handle it now. Certainly, they're too large to put back under the cloches. And they are starting to bloom, which should mean cucumbers are in our future.

A couple of the plants are even starting to climb the trellis. When my second husband grew cucumbers, he just let them sprawl across the ground. They grew well, but sometimes the cucumbers lying in the mud were nasty, so I thought I'd give this a try. I had no idea that cucumber plants sent out feelers to grasp hold of things, the same way the bean vines do. They are adorable!

A couple of the zucchini plants are starting to climb their trellis.