Friday, September 8, 2017

We Have Cucumbers!

Four of my five biggest cucumbers, as of this morning!

I'm trying really hard to not bore everyone with my garden. Believe me, I want to post a photo of every new vegetable and every little harvest, but I've been reining in my enthusiasm. However, it's been more than three weeks since my last garden post, and I'm just too excited to not share that we have cucumbers at last!

There's my fifth large cucumber, and a newly formed baby one above it.

I knew they wouldn't start to appear until late August or early September. While most all of our other crops in past years ripened during August, we never plucked a cucumber from the vine until September. I was more concerned that my rabbit-assaulted vines would be too damaged to bear fruit. They really do not look healthy and are even a bit stunted despite my Herculean efforts to save them from the beasts. And, due to being stunted, they haven't been climbing the trellis like they should be. Even so, they have been blooming wildly and there are many cucumbers developing, including five that will be ready for harvest in no time.

September 3rd: Tomatoes galore!

It cracks me up to remember that a month ago I was worried that all my green tomatoes would never ripen, due to my ongoing battle against the blight, which has cleared up since the daily heavy rains finally eased up a week or so ago. Now they are ripening at a rate of one or two per day, which is far more tomatoes than Mark and I can keep up with eating. I've been offering them to my kids (except Dylan, whose list of edible vegetables is short: french fries, mashed potatoes, and pizza sauce). Luckily, Chris, Sarah, and Jake like them.

Today, five days later, the basket is full again!

And today there are still five more ready to harvest, plus one almost there.

I've been using them in every way I can think of, and so far none have gone to waste. They are so much more delicious in different salads and on sandwiches and burgers than the store-bought variety. It will be hard to go back to the relatively flavorless tomatoes from the produce section when the fresh ones are used up over the next couple of months.

A favorite from my childhood: tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches.

Besides, our growing season will be cut short due to leaving for our vacation on Sept. 29. We usually start getting freezes in early- to mid-October, and everything must be harvested then, ready or not. But we'll be losing a week or two this year. Two days before we leave, I'll pull every green tomato off the bush and put them in brown paper bags (single layers). There, they will ripen nicely at varying rates, keeping us in garden tomatoes for a month or more. And we'll take the almost-ripe tomatoes on the road with us!

The green beans and tomatoes harvested two days ago, September 6th.

The green beans are still producing at an unbelievable rate. I can pull a full quart bag's worth of beans off the vine every three to four days. Thankfully, unlike tomatoes, the beans can be frozen whole to be cooked months later, still firm and plump and delicious.

I have five quarts of beans in the freezer now (Sept. 3rd bag not pictured).
We've already cooked and eaten three quarts from earlier in August.

The trickiest thing about plucking green beans is that they're so dang hard to see! If only they weren't the exact same color as the leaves and vines. For instance, I'll see a group ready to harvest on the other side where I can't reach, but when I move around to grab them, I often can't find them again! Or I'll just miss them one day, and by the time I see them a day or two later, they've grown too big. That's the thing about green beans. You can't just ignore them and leave them on the vine until you're ready. If they get too large, they're pretty much inedible. Tough and woody and yucky.

The pepper plant at center back has gone barren, although it's still alive.
The plant at left has only the one bell pepper on it.

I've given up hope for a large crop of bell peppers. The damage done by whatever insect was attacking them was too much for one of the plants, which never put out a single pepper. It has a few healthy leaves left, but everything else was snipped off. The plant that produced the sole bell pepper I've harvested thus far has again grown one single pepper, which is almost ready to be picked. There are a couple of blossoms left on the plant, but they don't appear to be in a hurry to transform themselves in peppers.

This is the only pepper plant doing well, with five healthy bell peppers.

The third plant, though, is hanging in there. In fact, it has five decent bell peppers growing on it right now, with a few others just starting to form. I'm going to call this effort a success...just not a HUGE success. Like the cucumbers, these plants seem slightly less than healthy, likely due to the early damage from dastardly intruders. Next year, I'll do better at protecting them in their early stages.

The strawberry plants have grown huge, and two are making berries again.

As for my strawberries, the new little plants from the runners have pretty much taken over that garden plot. (I also need to do some weeding.) Again, next year I'll be wiser, having learned that you need to limit each plant to three runners in order to keep them producing berries. Meanwhile, I have a bunch of young strawberry plants that I'm willing to share with anyone local who'd like to come get them! I hear they transplant well. Really. Not kidding.

Today's harvest. I've had seven or eight ripe berries so far this week.

Meanwhile, two of my strawberry plants have started putting out berries again, and the critters seem to be ignoring them this time. (Hear me knocking wood?) I'm glad I got to enjoy a few final, late-season strawberries. They are almost excruciatingly delicious! And I've learned this, as well: pick strawberries in the morning while they're still cool, and don't wash them until just before you eat them. That keeps them fresh about a day longer.

August 29, 2017: Gardening is glamorous...not!

The photo above isn't exactly flattering, but it's a great example of the toll taken on gardeners by the hardships of growing green things. It was supposed to be sunny all day on that Tuesday in late August, so I went out to water the garden toward evening. I was halfway done when I heard thunder rolling in the distance, dark clouds came scudding in, and I was trapped in a torrential rainstorm. Fighting insects and critters and weather and blight; having dirt under your nails and bugs crawling up your legs and mud splatters on your clothes...it isn't always pretty. The question is, is it worth it? Hmmm...

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Party On!

Finally, my birthday party, combined with a Labor Day barbecue!
Sunday, September 3, 2017

Although my birthday was on Friday and although we'd already celebrated somewhat with a dinner at El Rancho, my actual birthday party with the entire family had to wait until our usual Sunday dinner. Work schedules always make gatherings a bit more complicated than they were when the kids were little.

Sunday started off rather differently. Our church ward got a brand new Relief Society presidency, and I was sustained and set apart as the new Relief Society secretary. For those unfamiliar with our faith, Relief Society is a women's organization dedicated to serving the physical and spiritual needs of the women and families of our ward (and often the men, too). I'm excited to work with the new president and her counselors, all of whom are warm and wonderful ladies. The new president is, in fact, my friend Karen, whom you may have read about in my last post, along with Megan, Karen's new second counselor. Rounding out the team as first counselor is my friend, Liz, another recently-retired teacher (except she got to retire one year before I did). This calling will likely be a roller coaster ride of challenges and blessings, but I can't think of any other group of ladies with whom I'd rather share the experience.

I got an unexpected blessing when church ended and we all met at the office of Bishop Berges to be officially "set apart" for our new callings. For a moment it really hit me that I was alone. The other women had their husbands there to participate with them, and Megan's two daughters also joined in (the rest of us have empty nests). In the past, I'd always had the support of my children and usually a husband, but now it came as a little shock that there was no one there for me. (Just a note: Mark works on Sundays or he'd have been glad to be there, even though we're not married anymore.)

I shrugged off the jolt of that realization and settled into a chair in the bishop's office, ready to await my turn. Then, just before they closed the door, I looked up and saw my daughter Sarah in the doorway, holding a little boy by the hand. My heart was so happy to see her there! She asked me, "Did you say something to me?" I didn't know what she was talking about, because I hadn't even known she was nearby. 

Sarah had actually attended my ward that morning so she could be with me when I was sustained in sacrament meeting. However, when my church was over she had to go on to her own ward (which meets in the same building as mine), where she serves in the nursery, caring for the little ones while their parents go to their Sunday school, priesthood, and relief society classes. She told me later that she'd taken the young boy to the restroom, and when they'd come back out she saw me at the other end of the hall, waiting for my bishop. She was sure I'd looked right at her and said something she couldn't hear, so she'd walked down to see if I needed anything. As soon as Bishop Berges saw her there, he invited her into his office to join us. Suddenly it wasn't just me anymore.

I know this was more than mere coincidence. It was a tender mercy of the Lord, sending my daughter to me so I wouldn't feel abandoned. Because I truly never even saw her in the hall. And that little boy was angelic, sitting on Sarah's lap, perfectly quiet through the time it took to accomplish four setting-aparts! It may not have been an earth-shattering moment to the world, but for me it was a welcome little miracle.

Dinner featured homemade potato salad and grilled London broil steaks.

Our family party was that same evening. In honor of Labor Day being the following day, we had our Labor Day barbecue along with my birthday celebration. As soon as the kids arrived around 5:00, they helped me finish cutting up the vegetables for the potato salad while Mark grilled the steaks. Then we all sat down to enjoy a typically rowdy meal together.

I wasn't actually born on Labor Day, of course. In 1954, September 1st fell on a Wednesday, so Labor Day was still five days away. Still, I've always felt it was appropriate that my birthday falls on or near Labor Day weekend most years. It always reminds me that my sixteen-year-old mother endured seventy-two hours of difficult labor to bring her firstborn--me--into the world.

My long-awaited gift from Dylan and Jake.

I'd made my birthday cheesecake on Saturday night (always tastier if it sits and "ripens" for twenty-four hours or so before serving), but we still had the homemade ice cream to tackle. So I got that going as soon as we were done with dinner. Then Mark took over the ice-and-rock-salt duty, and we cleared the table for the opening of the gifts while the ice cream freezer droned on in the background.

I read my cards aloud, with feeling. This one was from Sarah and Chris.

Each gift this year was exceptionally thoughtful, and I loved them all. Dylan and Jake gave me a frame-mounted canvas print of a photo Dylan took about two years ago. With his then-new camera, he captured an amazing view of the Milky Way that I instantly fell in love with. I've been bugging him ever since to make a poster of the photo for me, and he finally delivered!

From Mark, I ended up with two new nightgowns.

Mark gave me a cute pair of pajamas with a tiny blue-floral print. However, since I don't sleep in pajamas (the pants always seem to get twisted around my legs), he went with me two days later to exchange the pajamas for a nightgown. I'm not really a person of expensive tastes, so I was able to buy two nightgowns for the price he'd paid for the pajamas. Thus, it was a great gift!

Lord of the Rings prints from Sarah and Chris. I love them!

My children know better than anyone how much I love science fiction and fantasy, and that I have a particular affinity for the Elves of Tolkien's universe. I've been dropping hints for gift ideas on Facebook for months, and Sarah and Chris took me up on one of them.

And Sarah chose my favorite of all the possibilities: a set of five canvas prints depicting the village of Imladris (usually better known as Rivendell) from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Rivendell is governed by the Elf lord Elrond, whose daughter Arwen marries Aragorn. It's also the setting of the Council of the Ring, where Frodo agrees to bear the One Ring back to Mount Doom in Mordor.

This is the entire painting from which the five prints are derived.

To make these prints, the painting above was broken up into five parts, with the center piece being quite tall, the two on either side of it being somewhat smaller, and the final two outer prints being smaller yet. It's very effective how all five prints flow into one another, presenting the entire image. Now I just have to find an inexpensive way to stretch the canvases onto wood frames...and then find a place in my small house to hang them!

Here's a better view of the center panel, printed on canvas.

The Rivendell canvas prints came all the way from China!

Jacob tells me he has a birthday present for me, too, but he will bring it with him to our family vacation in Northern California in a few weeks. We'll be meeting up at my cousin Craig's home in Woodland, CA, on the afternoon of October 1st, just twenty-five days from now! I guess I can wait that much longer...

All of my beautiful birthday cards for 2017!

For dessert, homemade sugar-free chocolate-chip cheesecake.

We ended the evening with my favorite desserts: cheesecake and homemade ice cream (both sugar-free). They were delicious, if I do say so myself! I savored every bit, because we don't make homemade ice cream very often, usually only two or three times each summer. That means we are facing a long, homemade-ice-cream-free fall, winter, and spring!

It's been a wonderful birthday adventure this year, and I thank each family member and friend for making me feel loved and special throughout it all! You're all amazing!

Also for dessert: homemade sugar-free strawberry ice cream.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Sixty-three

Here's my annual birthday selfie. I turned 63 yesterday!
Where did all those years go?

I started off my birthday yesterday by sleeping late. I was able to do that because, finally, I didn't have to get up and go to school! Retirement is awesome that way! However, I almost missed a call from my friend Karen, because I slept through the Walking Dead ringtone on my cell phone, thinking I was dreaming about the Walking Dead, and only realized at the end that someone was calling me!

September 1, 2017: Lunch at China Wok with my friends Megan and Karen.

When I called Karen back, she said she wanted to celebrate with me by going out to lunch, along with another friend, Megan. I was up for that! I decided to skip the healthy diet for the day--it was my birthday, after all--and we went out to my favorite Chinese restaurant, China Wok. It's not a place I can go when I'm dieting because there's very little there that's low-carb. Even relatively healthy dishes like chicken and broccoli tend to have starchy thickeners. So it was fun to splurge and eat there for the first time in months.

It was so much fun, in fact, being with friends and sharing stories and laughing uproariously, that a little lady who'd been eating at a nearby table came over to us as she was leaving and said, "I wanted you ladies to know how much I enjoyed your lunch!" And she meant it!

A sweet gift from Karen.

Although the gift of their time and friendship was more than enough for me, Karen brought in a big red bag and presented it to me during lunch. It was a massaging bath pillow, which she said was to help me unwind and be inspired as I continue working on my novel. How sweet is that?

Thoughtful gifts from another good friend, Wyndie.

Later that afternoon, back at home, my friend Wyndie dropped by with a dozen pink roses and some sugar-free candy. She knows I'm always trying to drop some poundage! We visited for more than an hour and made a lunch "date" for Wednesday. There's always so much to talk about! For instance, three weeks ago Wyndie became a first-time grandma to a beautiful new granddaughter, Jemma Lynn.

Next splurge: a shredded beef chimichanga at El Rancho.

Come evening, it was time to head to El Rancho for the Carter family birthday tradition. We've been doing this for decades. When you eat at this restaurant on your birthday, the staff comes out and puts a sombrero on your head, then sings happy birthday as they serve you a free bowl of deep-fried ice cream in a cinnamon-sprinkled tortilla bowl.. And they take your picture to post on their Facebook page.

The traditional birthday-sombrero and deep-fried ice cream photo.

No one ever eats their whole birthday ball of encrusted ice cream, of course. It comes with multiple spoons, and the bowl is passed around until everyone gets a taste and the bowl is empty. This time, we ate our dessert with dinner rather than after, because our server brought it out to us with unusual speed. We had to eat it before we finished dinner so it wouldn't melt!


As always, my family and my friends made me feel special on my big day (as well as before; thank you, Debbie!). It almost makes it worth being a whole year older! And it isn't over yet. We still have my birthday party with my children at Sunday dinner to look forward to. But that will be a story for another day...

Mark, Mary, Chris, and Sarah celebrate together at El Rancho.
Sadly, Dylan and Jake weren't able to join us this year. But next year...!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Pre-Birthday Lunch

Mary and Debbie at lunch on Tuesday.

It used to be that my friend Debbie and I could barely squeeze in one "girls' lunch out" together every summer. We were both high school teachers: I taught up here in the White Mountains and she taught down in the Valley. Although she and her husband George come up to the cool country every summer, in the old days I'd barely be adjusting to my summer break when it seemed Debbie had to hurry back to the Valley heat for the start of her school year.

Our cozy little corner in The Bistro @ Annie's yesterday.

Then Debbie retired a few years ago (although she continued as a substitute teacher until recently) and was able to enjoy the high country until late September. Suddenly, we were able to get together twice every summer.

I ordered chicken salad on wheat, with a raspberry lemonade.

And now, I'm retired, too! Since retiring, I've enjoyed being able to go to lunch fairly regularly with my friends Debbie, Wyndie, and Karen. And, this year, Debbie and I will hit a record high of going to lunch three times during her stay in her summer home! Last month it was Darbi's, this month it was The Bistro @ Annie's, and we're all set to meet at Jalapenos in September before she and George leave the mountain.

My half of the slice of triple-chocolate cheesecake that we shared.
I should have taken the picture before we split it, but it was yummy!

It has been Debbie's tradition to take me out to lunch every summer for my upcoming birthday, and that's what we did yesterday. (I can't believe I'll be sixty-three in just two days...) She is one of those friends who is incredibly giving, to the point that it's hard to get her to let you give back!

A note from our server.

We spent more than two hours in the restaurant, just visiting. No matter how often we meet, Debbie and I never have a shortage of news to share. As we were winding up, our waiter said, "I get the impression you two are celebrating something." When Debbie told him my birthday was coming up, he snatched back the receipt and scribbled "Happy birthday!" on it. He said it was his tradition, and I thought he was adorably sincere about it.

Debbie already showered me with gifts, and it's not even my birthday yet!

I hope Debbie won't be embarrassed while I brag on her, but she is a gifted seamstress. Last month she surprised me with a handmade bag as a retirement gift. It's the one with red handles in the photo above. I'm already planning what I'm going to pack into it for our trip next month: snacks, water bottles, CDs, camera, and other things I want near at hand in the front seat for long travel.

Then she told me about her burgeoning custom-purse business and said she wanted to make me one for my birthday. We went to a fabric store so I could select whatever cloth I wanted. Right before we went to lunch yesterday, she presented me with the lovely finished product, the brown-bear purse I'm holding in the picture. And she included the cute little bag to go with it. I love it!

In case anyone's interested in my funky hairdo, here's a closeup.

Thanks, Debbie, for the lunch and the beautiful bags, but most of all, thanks for being such an amazing friend! Your friendship is a great blessing in my life.

I got this "Majestic Hair Flower" at the Renaissance Festival in February.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Woods Canyon Lake (Mary)

"More than a thousand feet down, the highway zigzagged along a steep decline
and then on beyond our view. At the bottom, an eighteen-wheeler starting its climb
up the Rim’s face appeared to be no larger than a plump gray ant."

As I wrote in my last post about our day at Woods Canyon Lake, for Mark, our day in the wilderness was all about fishing, fresh air, nature, blue waters, and relaxation. For me, though, our little day-trip had a completely different focus.

Oh, I love the nature, too, and I truly did my best to relax. I was mostly successful in capturing the peaceful vibes of the environment. Nonetheless, my goals for our time at the lake were different from Mark's.

As I explained in the other post, I had taken my laptop with me, intending to work on my novel while Mark fished. For various and sundry reasons, my plan didn't pan out and I had to give it up. However, that didn't prevent me from thinking about my book, working on plot points and writing whole pages in my head. At least, that's what I was doing when I wasn't battling my stubborn little chipmunk opponent for our food!

"Approaching the edge of the escarpment, I saw that it was not actually the edge
at all, and I relaxed a little. Another shelf of rock, about four feet lower than
the one on which we stood, lay between us and a sheer drop to many hundreds
of feet below. Relieved, I released my hold on Hagen’s shoulder."

You see, my novel is set right here in the White Mountains, where I live, and features aspects of the world I know and love. Back in 2014, when I'd first conceived of my tale and begun spinning the story, I spent a day at the Petrified Forest/Painted Desert with Jacob, Danielle, Dylan, Ryan, and Shera (Ryan and Shera being my former stepson and daughter-in-law). As always, I took a bunch of pictures and, along the way, I started "seeing" my characters carrying out the plot in different scenarios throughout the park. As a result, chapters 21-24 take place on an earth science field trip to Petrified Forest National Park.

"Moon took a step toward Hagen, but a shard of rock shifted beneath his back foot
and crumbled away, leaving nothing but empty air under the leg bearing his weight.
Without a sound, Moon fell backward and plunged down the face of the Rim."

Now here I am, three years later, with a book that's only a little more than half-finished and the time, finally, to devote to completing it. (I should clarify that the tale is finished in my mind, but putting it down on paper as it's envisioned is a slightly longer matter.) 

Right now I'm working on chapter 41. As it happens, chapters 38-42 take place at (did you guess?) Woods Canyon Lake. So this was something of a working break for me. Since I couldn't write due to laptop issues, I took a lot of pictures and thought about how the setting would direct the story.

"A parking lot overlooked the calm blue water, just a short downhill hike away.
Uphill from the lot was an empty picnic area with tables and rock-lined fire pits. 
Unseen smoke from distant campfires wafted through the air, 
teasing my nose with the subtle fragrance of grilled meats." 

Some of the scenes were already written, based on past trips to the Mogollon Rim overlooks and Woods Canyon Lake (excerpts accompany the photos above), and some are currently a work in progress. This day at the lake helped solidify what I was seeing in my mind, and even suggested some new action. Having a hungry chipmunk leap onto my shoulder from a nearby boulder will definitely make an appearance in the story! Not only because it was shockingly funny, but because I can see how it will advance events in one particular chapter in a more playful and interesting way than I'd originally foreseen.

The paragraph describing this scenery has been written and rewritten 
many times already. It's clear in my mind, but putting it into words...

It's always interesting to me how some scenes practically write themselves, flowing smoothly from the brain to the keypad, while others are like being in labor for weeks, messy and painful, before producing something that brings you joy. It is definitely a labor of love.

I found the flat rock where Haley (the main character) sits to observe her brother
 Hagen with Moon, a mysterious young man who both fascinates and puzzles her.

This is Haley's view of the shoreline. Moon will be just visible
around the curve. Hagen may be fishing from that rock just offshore.
We'll see how it looks when I actually get it on paper!

My goal is to complete my novel and start shopping it around by next summer. I have about 54,000 words written at this point. The typically acceptable length for young adult novels in the science fiction/fantasy/supernatural genres is about 90,000 to 95,000 words. I have my work cut out for me.

To compare, here are the word counts of some recently popular young adult fiction novels. Generally, the first book in a series is the shortest, and then they tend to become longer with each new entry.

77,325     Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone (first and shortest in the series)
257,154   Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix (longest in the series)
99,750     The Hunger Games
101,182   The Maze Runner
105,143   Divergent
118,975   Twilight
95,022     The Hobbit (one of my personal favorites)

As you can see, I still have a lot of writing to do!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Another Baby Shower!

August 26, 2012: This time it's going to be a boy!

Two weeks ago, Sarah and I attended the baby shower for Emily's baby girl, due in late October, who will find two older brothers awaiting her arrival as she enters this world. Today we attended another shower, this time for Tahna's baby boy, due in less than two weeks. This little boy will arrive to find an older sister, Natalie, waiting anxiously to get to know him.


Tahna is the second-youngest of my sister-in-law Dana's seven sisters. Thus, like Emily (Dana's niece), she is family to us. Not to mention that Tahna and Sarah have been great friends since their high school years. They even got married just four weeks apart back in 2011. We can't miss out on celebrating with the family and friends we love!

A brunch buffet awaits us.

We met at 10:00 this morning at a church building in Snowflake. The shower was put on, I believe, by one of Tahna's cousins (her husband's cousin, in fact) and included a delicious brunch buffet filled with sweet items that I'm absolutely not supposed to eat (but I did anyway). Sarah was my hero, and withstood the culinary temptations. 

This was the pile of gifts when I arrived, but it grew quickly after that.

We enjoyed one game prior to the gift opening, in which we had to guess the name of a candy bar related to a new-baby event. For instance, New mom nap time = Take Five; Umbilical cord = Twizzlers; Baby-daddy = Big Hunk; Baby poop = Mounds; Bad obstetrician = Butterfingers; Epidural = Lifesavers; Newborn triplets = Three Musketeers; Newborn twin boys = Mike & Ike; Newborn baby girl = Baby Ruth... You get the idea. I couldn't name a single one, so no candy bar prizes for me!

Tahna begins opening her gifts, with a little help from daughter, Natalie.

Then it was time to open the gifts. So many cute baby boy things! Sarah and I, once again, were thinking alike. We both got little boy-baby outfits (mine said "best baby brother" across the chest), but that's not unusual. We both put our gifts in blue bags, but they were different sizes and hers was plain blue while mine had blue-and-white zigzags. However, we both chose the exact same gift tags, this time with sparkly blue stars on the front. (You can see them side by side in the lower right corner of the photo of the gift table, above.)

For Natalie, it was like Christmas morning. She was SO excited!
And, yes, she did understand that these gifts were for her new baby brother.

The person with whom I thought exactly the same was Tahna's mom, Cheri. Cheri had already given Tahna the same outfit last weekend, when Tahna's younger sister Whitney threw her a surprise baby shower. The outfits were different sizes, with Cheri's being "newborn" and mine being "0-3 months," but otherwise the same. We both left the tags on, so we won't mind if Tahna chooses to return one and buy something else she needs.

Tahna opens the present from Sarah.

Sarah gave them diapers and this little outfit with a cute puppy on it.

This was, I think, a bath seat. The water flows right through the mesh.

More adorable boy clothes.

We had a great time and we wish Tahna an easy delivery and great joy with her growing family. Despite the attendant trials, there's no blessing more amazing than motherhood!

Natalie liked this Mickey Mouse outfit.