Blog-o! Notes from

Mon, 20 Aug 2012

A friend of mine recently asked what I do about dinner, since I somehow manage to work (during school months, at least) and do lots of volunteer crap and also feed my family reasonably well. She wanted some meal ideas.

There's no real trick to cooking half-decent (quarter-decent on bad days) meals, just a series of habits which I've developed over the years.

Meal Plan

Once a week I make a meal plan. "Meal plan" is actually too grandiose; I write down five dinner ideas. I don't like to spend more than an hour preparing dinner (apparently pretty typical) which limits the weekday dinner repertoire, but we still have a pretty good list to choose from.

After we (I usually solicit ideas and opinions from the rest of the family) pick the five dinner ideas I make a shopping list based on those meals. We typically do one big shop on the weekend and then an auxilliary shop mid-week for milk and other perishables.

With the meal list in hand I also decide which dinner we're having which day, based on what ingredients will spoil first, which days are rushed, when we're having company, etc. Knowing what meal I'm preparing each day also tells me when I'm making something which requires prep earlier in the day, like a crock pot meal or roast.

Other Meal Habits

Most days we eat at 6:00, which means I try to be home and cooking at 5:00. (It usually doesn't actually take an hour of work to make dinner, but I started giving myself an hour when the kids were small to allow for interruptions, and now I just like to have the time if I need it.) Knowing we eat at 6:00 and I cook at 5:00 helps me make decisions about playdates and activities; i.e., we don't schedule them for those times if possible. (As the girls get older and their activities are more "serious" I find it's harder to control what time they're at, but I try.)

If I know I won't be able to be in the kitchen at 5:00, I plan a crock-pot or other make-ahead meal and "borrow" that hour from earlier in the day.

Some Meal Ideas

Here are seven of our favourite meals, with ingredients and instructions.

Bean Burritos: tortillas, can of black or red beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, salsa, sour cream, rice.

Drain the beans and put them in a pot with some water (enough to barely come to the top of the beans) and a generous pinch of garlic powder. Throw in a teaspoon of chicken boullion powder. Let it all simmer for twenty minutes or more, mashing the beans occasionally. Serve in a nice bowl.

(Optional classy version: use chopped fresh garlic, and chicken broth instead of water and boullion.)

Meanwhile cook the rice, chop up the lettuce and tomatoes, and grate some cheese. Warm the tortillas on a plate in the oven or wrapped in a clean tea towel in the microwave. Get a kid to set the table, put out all the food and let everyone assemble their own burritos.

Chicken and Salsa: skinless chicken parts (thighs are nice), salsa, rice, salad or crudites.

Either throw the chicken and the salsa in the crockpot around 2:00 and cook on high for the rest of the afternoon, or throw them in a dutch oven-type pot at 5:00 and cook at 350°F for about 45 minutes with the lid on. Serve over rice.

Serve with salad or crudites. (Bagged salad is just fine.)

Big Salad: lettuce, baby tomatoes, cheese, deli meat, eggs, cucumber, green onion, baguette.

Boil the eggs. Cut up the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and green onion. Grate the cheese, slice the deli meat into little strips. Once the eggs have cooled, quarter them.

Either put the lettuce in a bowl and arrange everything on top, or serve everything separately in little bowls and let everyone assemble their own (perfect for picky eaters, but make sure everyone eats something from all the food groups). Serve with a good dressing, like Renee's (or homemade dressing), and chunks of baguette and butter.

Macaroni and Cheese: macaroni, milk, butter, flour, sharp cheddar cheese (we buy the cheap stuff you can get in great big slabs).

Cook macaroni.

While it's cooking melt about two tablespoons of butter in your favourite sauce pan. Add about the same amount of flour and whisk them together. Cook over medium heat until it smells like shortbread. Add a little bit of milk and whisk together — don't panic as it turns into a lumpy mess. Add a bit more milk, whisk together, warm gently until it gets all lumpy again. Repeat until you've added about two cups of milk. (I don't know if you really have to mess about with all the adding and mixing, but it's kind of fun.) Heat until hot, then remove from heat and add a little salt and pepper and whisk in some mustard powder. Stir in two or more cups of grated cheese.

When the macaroni is cooked, add the cheese sauce and serve. Alternately you can drain the macaroni when it's not quite done, put it in a casserole with the cheese sauce, sprinkle some bread crumbs and grated cheese on top and heat it in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes.

Traditionally we serve this with sliced apple, but go ahead and add your favourite side-vegetable.

Tuna Pasta Salad: short pasta, tuna (2 cans), tomatoes, green onion, mayo or italian dressing.

Cook the pasta. While it's cooking, cut up the tomatoes and green onion. Drain the tuna. Once the pasta is done and drained, mix everything together. Serve warm or chilled.

Spaghetti and meatballs: spaghetti, tomato puree, garlic, onions, homemade or frozen meatballs, salad or crudites.

Here's one that you can spend as much time as you like on, because you can buy the pasta sauce and the meatballs and just throw it all together, or you can hand-make one or both of the sauce and the meatballs.

Here's how to make sauce: chop up the onions and garlic and saute them gently in olive oil — not too high heat or you'll burn the garlic, and there's no recovering from that. Add the tomato puree — either one of those bottles of Italian strained tomato or a can of pureed tomato — and let it simmer gently for at least twenty minutes, or longer if you have time. (Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn.) If you're using frozen meatballs, you can add them to the sauce after it's been simmering a while to cook them — follow the instructions!

You can also make meatballs yourself. I like to make square meatballs, which is just meatloaf cooked in a lasagna dish (so it's really shallow and flat) and cut into little squares.

"Moroccan" beef and cous cous: stewing beef, onions, garlic, a dozen dried apricots, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, canned diced tomatoes, cous cous, plain yogurt.

Chop up and brown the onions in your favourite cooking fat; add to crock pot or dutch oven. Brown the beef, add them to the onions. Halve the apricots and add them to the pot along with the garlic, apricots, cinnamon (1 tsp), cumin (1 tsp), cayenne (1/2 tsp), and tomatoes, and some black pepper. (There's probably enough salt in the tomatoes but add some more if you like.)

Cook in the crock pot all day on low (check it mid-afternoon -- if it's really done-looking turn to "keep warm") or in the dutch oven at 350 for... I guess an hour, hour and a half? (I don't think I've ever made it in the oven.)

Serve over cous cous with yogurt on the side, and your favourite side veg.

(I call it "Moroccan" because it seems Moroccan to me but I actually have no idea if this is the kind of thing they eat in Morocco. Probably not.)

So that's how I bastardize the cuisines of the world; I expect this post will drive away any snobs who might read this blog. I hope these ideas are useful for the rest of you! While you're here, why don't you add your favourite quick dinner to the comments below?

[Posted at 21:27 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 18 Feb 2012

About a week and a half ago our cheap little washing machine started making an alarming grindy noise when it was draining, and then the day before Blake left on business it decided it wasn't going to drain at all; the clothes were left to wallow in a puddle of soapy water at the end of the load.

There's a drain outlet with a filter on the front of the machine which catches little bits of crap you've left in your pockets, fluff and soapy slime; we opened that and a whole wash-load of water flooded out. Fortunately the washer lives in our unfinished basement right by a drain, so the water found a good home without destroying anything on the way. The filter had caught a whole lot of safety pins, beads and bobby pins (damn you, ballet); I guess they mean it when they say you have to clear it out every month.

I did some Googling and found some suggestions, some helpful and some not so helpful. From our information, we deduced that the problem was somewhere in the pump and drain system (we're brilliant).

So we headed downstairs and starting taking the thing apart; we removed the back panel, disconnected all the bits of drain pipe we could make sense of, and failed to find any obvious blockages or other visible problems. That left the pump, which looked okay, but then that's the nature of pumps. Having eliminated everything else, we ordered a new pump.

It arrived a couple of days later (I love PartSelect) but Blake was away and I didn't fancy trying to screw the pump to the bottom of the machine without someone to hold it up. So I waited until he got home, and we installed the new pump today. It was tricky and a bit annoying, but not spend-my-debt-paying-money-for-someone-else-to-do-it tricky.

And guess what? It works! The machine is purring happily away, draining like never before, and Blake and I are full of the smug satisfaction that comes from fixing something yourself instead of being suckers and paying someone to unscrew some screws and disconnect some hoses.

The next thing, of course, is to fix the stove...

[Posted at 22:33 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 11 Feb 2012

Back in 2008 when we moved into this house, we secured a line of credit to use for renovating. It was a deal we made with ourselves—we would spend less money on a house that wasn't "done", and then use secure credit to fund renovations.

And that's exactly what we did. Soon after we moved in, we took down some walls and totally redid the kitchen. And then we gradually paid the loan down; not all the way, but a lot of the way.

Then last year we redid the bathroom and added a powder room in the basement, and now we're in debt again, deep enough that I'm pretty uncomfortable. I'm not a futurist or an economist, but I don't think now is a good time to be deep in debt, even secured debt; jobs are scarce, housing prices are in a bubble, and the economy is in flux. I would rather be in the black.

So we put together an aggressive plan to pay off debt. It took us four months to get into debt; it's going to take us four years to get out of it, assuming we keep to our plan. And as I said, it's aggressive, quite probably unrealistically so; no vacations, no household maintenance, repairs or new furniture; no clothing; no gifts (except the girls' birthdays and Christmas); no veterinary care for Thomas the cat. When we spend on any of those things, it will either be from the $70/week not-otherwise-specified fund, or it will slow down our debt repayment.

Inevitably, mere days after making this plan, the stove and the washer broke and Thomas had to go to the vet.

But we have cast off our North Toronto helplessness; instead of calling a repairman for the appliances we consulted various websites, and there are shiny and complicated parts being shipped here as I type. When they get here we will get our hands greasy, or sticky, or whatever it is, and install them ourselves.

(I know, the thought of amateurs messing around with water and electricity or natural gas is alarming, but I'm confident that helpful YouTube videos will ensure our safety. Unfortunately there is no YouTube video for how to do expensive bloodwork on a domestic cat, so the professionals still have the upper hand in that one. For now.)

As for money in; well, Blake is making as much as is feasible at the moment (with occasional large and surprising bonuses). Now it's up to me to bring in some bacon of my own—or at least tofu. I took a baby step towards that goal this week by getting an IRS EIN, a magical number which allows me to charge Americans money. (Or more specifically, to charge them money and not have them withhold 30% of it.) This is exciting because so far almost all my clients have been American.

The other thing I'm doing is trying to fit more work hours into my week. I had been using my "work" time (i.e., 9:00 am to 3:00 pm) to run errands and do chores, but I've moved a few errands to the weekend and after school. I really like my work-life balance as it is now, but the fact is when you're freelance, only about half your hours are billable. I need to make the number of hours as big as possible, without making myself or the family miserable.

Sometimes I think it would have been better to have bought a house which was all renovated and shiny, and just suffered (in our shiny, renovated house) with a bigger mortgage. But we didn't, and now we have this shabby little house with no family room, and a huge debt. It is what it is, and at least we're fairly young and have a chance of pulling ourselves out of this mess before it's time to retire!

[Posted at 23:27 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 14 Apr 2011

The Amazing Two Bathroom Home-Value-Inflating Reno Extravaganza is plodding along nicely. The basement powder room is framed out, the plumbing and electrical are roughed in and the drywall is up. (Oddly enough the guys who hang the drywall are not the guys who tape and plaster it, so we're in between those two stages at the moment.)

But I digress. This post exists to ask for your help. We're totally redecorating the upstairs bathroom and I have exhausted my teeny tiny decorating muscles.

As you can see in the collage above, the floor tile is a kind of stripey grey (it's the "White" colour), in 12" by 24" rectangles.

We're tiling the walls halfway up with elongated glass subway tile (4" x 16"), mainly white with about 15% bottle green, and a few tiles-worth of white square mosaic tiles in there for texture (and because Delphine really likes them).

The bathtub is really plain and rectangular. The sink is Ikea's Vitviken. (Or perhaps I should say sinkS! Whoo!) The vanity is shiny and white and plain, the medicine cabinet is shiny and plain, the faucets are shiny and sleek and apparently not discussed anywhere on the Internet (but here's the box).

So what colour paint is going to work with the bottle green tiles? Find me a shower curtain the softens up all that sleek shininess. Tell me what else I need! Shop for me, my pretties!

[Posted at 21:51 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 08 Sep 2010
  1. Sweep the front hall, dining room and kitchen.
  2. Empty the dishwasher.
  3. Take out kitchen recycling, garbage and compost.
  4. Load the dishwasher.
  5. Just stare out the window at the back yard for four minutes – because sometimes that's what you need.
[Posted at 13:54 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 05 Sep 2010

The first sign of trouble was the brown spot on the dining room ceiling. The dining room, as it turns out, is directly under the bathroom. I called Drainworks and they sent a guy—earring, shirt unbuttoned one button more than is conventional, small medallion—to have a look. He determined that the bathtub drain has a really slow leak, and he said the same thing the last guy who came in to look at the last brown spot on the ceiling said: the pipes are old. They're as old as this house, and as Chris the sexy plumber put it, they don't owe me anything. His thought was that the moment anyone puts a wrench to any part of the plumbing, all those eighty-year-old lead pipes will crumble and make a giant sloppy mess. He suggested we talk amongst ourselves and decide whether we want to do a patch job, just replace the pipes, or reno the whole damn bathroom.

So we talked, and decided to get a quote on renovating the bathroom. We'll probably go ahead with the reno: the bathroom is really old, and we would all love a new bathroom with a new tub and some storage space. We're also planning to put in a cheap and tiny powder room in the basement, which will add a whole new dimension of happiness to our mornings.

In the main bathroom we're replacing the ancient and not particularly fancy clawfoot tub with a deep rectangular tub, and we'll replace the newish, expensive faux-Victorian faucet with something sleek, modern and easy to clean, with a handle up high so you don't have to bend over to adjust it, and a handheld shower for rinsing little girls.

We're keeping the toilet (we bought it when we moved in) and putting a wall between the tub and the toilet so you can't see the toilet when the bathroom door is open.

We're going to move the old sink down to the basement powder room, but when it's down there we'll replace the newish, expensive faux-Victorian faucet with something cooler, easier to clean, but still kinda old-timey. Upstairs we're going to put in a shallow, wide rectangular trough sink (no picture because I can't find the kind of thing I want anywhere on the whole entire Internet) with two faucets. We're also going to have a proper vanity and a giant mirror, and whatever storage our designer can cram in.

The floor and walls will be white ceramic tile, and we'll put radiant heat under the floor for wintertime post-shower happy toes.

It's all going to be rather awesome (and probably awesomely expensive) and I'm quite excited. It will be nice to have at least one room in the house be slick and modern and cool.

And I'll take lots of pictures.

[Posted at 22:07 by Amy Brown] link
Fri, 05 Feb 2010

Blake has been away for two weeks on business. It's the first time he's ever been away for more than a couple of nights, and before he left I was worried that it would be impossible and miserable to manage by myself.

Blake's coming home tonight, and his absence has taught me a few things:

Blake doesn't do much around the house. I've suspected this for a long time, but now I'm sure. I didn't perceive any change in the amount of housework or childcare I do from when he was here to when he wasn't. Obviously this sucks and has to change. I get that he has a job and earns all the money, but I work hard too and I think everyone should help out at home, I don't want my children growing up thinking that housework is women's work, and I can't do any kind of freelance work or self-improvement if I'm spending all my time doing other people's scut work.

Sorry, that turned out to be kind of a rant, didn't it?

Anyway, that led me quite smoothly to realization number two: I don't need him. Obviously I love him, and of course we need his healthy income. What I mean is I don't need him to keep the house and family running: I can manage by myself. This is tremendously empowering. I was honestly worried that somehow everything would fall apart without Blake here. That I would fall apart without him. (Yes, apparently being married has turned me into a jelly.)

This leads, somewhat less directly, to the next realization: I still want him around. We've been married for ten years, and we're attached to each other through this house, through the children, and through habit. Sometimes it seems like all those things are doing the work of keeping us together, and the spark and affection which brought us together in the first place has become irrelevant.

I'm trying to write about this without making it sound like I've been plotting a divorce. I swear I haven't, I love being married to Blake and we're always going to be awesome together. But for a while there it looked like we were together because I didn't have any choice. Now that I know I have a choice, however hypothetical, it makes it much more satisfying to be together. It means we're here because we want to be—because we like each other—not because it's the only option.

Here's another thing I learned: I don't do housework either. I never thought I was doing housework for Blake's benefit, but the house has gotten slightly more disheveled than usual in the last two weeks. It's not so much that I'm cleaning for Blake—I don't think he could care less. It's more that having another adult around adds a level of accountability that keeps me honest. If I can get away with it, I don't clean. Good thing I had company today: at least the main floor and the bathroom are clean.

I noticed is that I'm a lot happier to do the housework I do do when I don't have someone to resent for not doing it instead. I think once we've worked out some kind of respectable chore schedule I'll be much happier to do my jobs, secure in the knowledge that I'm not doing all the jobs.

Last one: it's nice to be the only decision-maker. Not so nice that I'd want to do it all the time, but there is something about not having to discuss everything: meals, plans, jobs, whose turn it is in the shower, all that chatter and negotiation. It's not something that bothers me normally, but it's nice when it's not there, like the silence when the power goes out.

Tonight the silence ends and we get our man back. I wasn't happy to see him go, but I'll be very happy to have him back, with a little wisdom under my belt.

[Posted at 22:26 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 18 May 2009
Growing Pains

This is our third summer in this house and I'm finally starting to get some inkling of an idea of what to do with the garden.

Today we dug up some of that unreasonable raspberry patch and replaced it with a blueberry plant that Blake bought on impulse this weekend. we should probably mulch it, but we don't have any mulch. I also moved a few of the ostrich ferns which had been stranded between the fence and the deck when we built the deck. They were on either side of the pathway you see on the bottom right there, and they were in danger of being trampled. So I dug a nice new bed on the opposite side of the garden, by the fence about halfway back, and moved five of the ferns over there. I'm going to get some huechera to go in between and it should be quite charming. I love ostrich ferns—I told Blake I would be happy if our garden was, like, forty percent ferns. They even smell good.

We spent a lot of time cleaning out the hedge in the front yard. I don't really want that hedge but I haven't come up with anything better to do there so we're keeping it for now, but it's a mess. Lots of different things growing in it, to the extent that I had to arbitrarily decided which species was the "real" hedge and then yank out anything that wasn't that, including a truly irritating number of maple treelets. I'm not sure what the hedge is made up of, but I've noticed a few hedges of it in the neighbourhood so it must be something pretty standard. While I was checking out other people's hedges I noticed more than a few which were lousy with maple. One was mainly maple.

The last big accomplishment today was moving the composter from the neighbour's yard to ours. They are shiny urban hipsters and composting isn't really their thing—the composter was left by the previous owner—so they said we could have it. We tucked it just behind the new fern bed, not too far from the house that we won't use it, but not too close either. It's not terribly ugly and I think once the ferns grow up more it will be mostly concealed.

Incidentally, having our own compost will yet further complicate throwing stuff out, because now we'll have two categories of compost: backyard compost (fruit and veg scraps, tea and coffee, and yard waste) and city compost (leftovers, meat, kleenex, all that gross stuff). So we'll need two containers on the kitchen counter. There's gotta be a good way to do that but I haven't figured it out yet.

The Plan

Okay, "plan" is a little grandiose for something that's not much more than a collection of notions. First, as you can see I've covered a fair bit of ground with that giant playstructure. For now I'm happy to have that area be weeds and dirt, and it's happy to oblige. So that's a good 320 square foot I don't have to worry about. (Well, I planted some scarlet runner beans to grow up it just for fun.)

I want to create a path between the back gate and garage, and the front gate (which is where the path by the deck leads). Ideally that would be some kind of cool flagstone path, either with rectangular flagstones or crazy paving, but for now we'll have to settle for the leftover Unilock from those same neighbours' previous front path. It would also make sense to pave the area around the laundry dryer since I stand around there a lot and lawn doesn't stand a chance. Plus that way if I drop something it won't get all muddy.

We've got the vegetable garden going by the deck there, and I expect it will stay there because that's one of the sunniest parts of the yard, unless we give up on it altogether and just grow food in the planters on the deck.

For the rest of the garden, I'm going for a low-maintenance, woodland, bird- and butterfly-friendly mainly-native plant vibe. The only specific plants I have in mind at the moment are a Saskatoon berry plant for the birds, and something evergreen for winter interest, of which I have none at the moment. I'm finding it really hard to source native plants but I suspect I just don't know where to look. I need to keep researching them so that I have the names of native plants in my head, so I recognise them when I see them. Most garden centres and catalogues don't have any comment on whether plants are native or not.

That's the plan. It's going to take a while to get there, but at least I have some idea where I'm going so I'm no longer paralysed by my garden. Onward!

[Posted at 22:41 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 02 May 2009

Here is the how I throw thing out:

I recycle: plastic containers and glass (the plastic containers with their lids on but not the glass containers), tin cans, styrofoam, cardboard cans with their metal lids, plastic bags but only the ones from stores, and not the bags that milk bags come in which are completely identical but for some reason unacceptable. That's okay, I save them for cat litter. Also plastic bags must be recycled in bunches, not one by one. Further I save the bags without holes in them to contain regular garbage and compost, which means that I have three separate streams into which plastic bags can possibly go. Also recyclable are newspapers, magazines, and regular paper but not paper that the girls have glued random crap onto, nor stickers (too sticky, they gum up the recycling works).

Speaking of compost, that's the City of Toronto compost which accepts all the usual vegetable matter as well as any other food (except gum), paper plates and napkins (but not paper cups from coffee shops), diapers, kleenex and paper towels, tea bags, cat litter and dog poo but not cotton balls, q-tips, or hair and fingernail clippings. (Because that would be gross.)

Outside, there's yard waste, which is weeds and leaves and twigs and stuff but not grass clippings.

Then there's the stuff which isn't garbage yet, the clothes and toys and furniture and housewares we don't need. Some of that I'm saving for the school's fundraising garage sale, some of it goes into the Goodwill bag for when Andy does a Goodwill run, and some of the toys I'm saving for that mythical day when I sort out all their pieces and find their manuals and take them to the consignment store.

Finally, as a last resort, there's regular garbage: anything that doesn't fit into the above categories, mainly rejected plastic bags and other plastic packaging, and broken things.

I hate throwing things out because it's complicated. It's hard to believe that fifty years ago people just threw everything away in one container. How simple! Which is exactly why it's dangerous — it can't be that easy to get rid of things. You have to be mindful of whether your trash still has value, as a source of energy or materials, or to someone else in its current form. And when I'm feeling sorry for myself because it's so hard to throw something out I remind myself that I wouldn't have this problem if I didn't bring that thing into my house in the first place.

[Posted at 21:45 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 17 Jan 2009

Part II: Blake

There's something slightly weird about me posting about the other writer of this shared blog, but whatever. This is the wifely perspective on Blake's life.

So Blake is in some kind of between-job limbo, fortunately punctuated by contract work which we assume will be lucrative once he gets paid. There's a vague job offer in the offing but nothing has been signed yet. Limbo indeed.

The working from home is going pretty well, I think. We don't have a home office, per se, in that our house has six rooms (three bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and living/dining) so he's set up in the bedroom, on Baba's antique sewing machine. It's a pretty sad state of affairs and it wouldn't work in the long term, but it will do for now. He also takes breaks in the living room, and sometimes gets out of the house and works at U of T (where he Knows People) or Starbucks (where he Spends Money).

Apart from the working he spends what seems to be a lot of time on his own programming projects and on open source projects. (I say "what seems to be" because for all I know he was spending the same amount of time on that stuff when he was at the office and I just didn't see it). He also reads lots of books (but not as many as me because he's not insane) and listens to a lot of podcasts. A huge number of podcasts. Mostly really geeky ones about programming languages, comics and role-playing games.

Despite Blake being laid off in these Trying Times, we're pretty optimistic. Our spending habits are pretty sensible, and the future looks bright. And like Blake says, we have a lot of available credit. Hah.

[Posted at 22:22 by Amy Brown] link

Part I: Our Routine

It's the middle of January, and January sucks. It goes on and on forever and ever, and it's bloody fracking cold this year. I mean really cold, and I'm tired of it. I know it gets cold and it snows every year - this is Canada - but I hate it. I hate the bundling up and the having to hurry everywhere outside, but mostly I hate the sheer discomfort of being cold. I am a big baby.

The girls and I are still doing what I like to call Der grosse Schlep on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We take Cordelia to school for nine, pick her up at 11:30, have lunch and then take Delphine to school for 12:40. When Delphine is at school Cordelia takes a nap, and then we pick Delphine up at 3:20. This massive to-ing and fro-ing was supposed to be a little easier this year because Baba and Zaida bought a condo halfway between Delphine's school and Cordelia's, which was to be our waystation and lunch room. However, the condo is still (still!) not finished. I am hoping it will be done before the end of the school year, but my breath is not held.

On the other hand Blake's quasi-employed status is proving to be very helpful. I can leave Delphine at home while I take Cordelia to school, and pick her up, and after lunch he puts Cordelia down for her nap while I take Delphine to school. This makes for much less putting on and taking off of snowsuits, and of course I can travel much faster alone. Hopefully by the time he gets back to work, snowsuit season will be over.

Apart from the main schedule, which revolves around school, we have some other stuff going on too. In the fall both girls had gymnastics, and now we're in Music Together on Saturday mornings. (In order to keep our schedule manageable we do an annual rotation of activities: gymnastics in the fall, music in winter, swimming in spring.) Delphine also has Sparks on Wednesday evenings at 5:30, which let me say is an insanely bad time for an activity. We have to leave at 5:15 and we're not home until 6:45, which (when bedtime is at 7:00 is far too late for dinner.)

The other regular rhythm to our life is that after school the girls watch two (2) TV shows. I was pretty hardline on the TV thing for a long time, but an essay in that Alfie Kohn book convinced me that TV isn't inherently evil, and Delphine's getting to the age where TV is a significant part of her peer culture. And Blake and I watch and enjoy our TV shows - I try not to be too much of a hypocrite.

That's our routine these days. It's going to be like this until the end of the school year, and then next year life will be significantly easier because Cordelia will be in JK at the same school as Delphine. Hooray!

[Posted at 21:57 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 07 Apr 2008

Spring has arrived with an unlikely two sunny warm days in a row, over a weekend! We celebrated by playing in the muck. We raked most of last fall's leaves off the front and back lawns, and I cleared off and weeded some of the north border in the backyard. I pulled out about a ton of creeping charlie, which is surprisingly satisfying to uproot when the ground is soft; you can get hold of a bit without breaking the stem and then reel in about a foot of plant and roots, like a magician pulling scarves out of a hat.

We also uprooted some of the many raspberries, and I cleaned out some of the raspberry patch. There are dozens of plants there and it's hard to get the leaves and twigs and weeds out from between them, to say nothing of trimming out the dead canes, pulling out the millions of little suckers, and removing the raccoon poop. I think the smart thing to do with the raspberry patch will be to thin it out as well as reduce its overall footprint. The previous owners must have really like raspberries.

There are lots of little things growing, but the only things flowering yet are crocuses. I'm not sure what the other things are so I'm looking forward to their flowers. Some tulips I planted last fall are coming up in the front yard; Delphine is very excited about that because she helped me plant them.

Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment this week was that Blake built a frame for our Square Foot Garden. That's a technique for vegetable gardening whereby you plant your entire garden in one (or more) four-by-four foot squares. We picked out the spot for the garden and Blake was poking around in the shed and found four perfect four-and-a-half foot planks, which he screwed together into a frame to delineate and protect the garden. I say this casually, as if Blake screws things together to make other things all the time, but if you know Blake you know that just isn't so. He is not what you might call "handy". However, he made a perfectly lovely frame without swearing or drawing blood, so I think he might be handier than either of us suspected. The frame is gracing our garden and waiting patiently for some nice compost and lots of seeds.

[Posted at 14:48 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 02 Dec 2007

Today marks exactly one year since we moved into our little house. A year ago this evening we were sitting amid piles and piles of boxes, still fretting from our run-in with surly movers and our inability to locate toothbrushes or pyjamas for the children. Last Christmas was a cluttered mess with no decorations except for a tiny pre-decorated tree. The months ahead would be full of frozen convenience food because our stove was unusable (although very funky!), dim lighting, long walks to daycare, and the crustiest old linoleum I had ever seen. When I look back at it now I wonder how we possibly got through it, but at the time it seemed all right. Kind of.

So after slogging through a long and unChristmassy December in the new house, we interviewed a few contractors. Mostly they didn't seem to want to have anything to do with us, probably because I got a list of recommendations from a friend of contractors from the suburbs, and I bet they don't care to bother with little houses with no driveway and tiny doors and muddy access lanes when they can find a million suburban clients with huge houses and lots of land to park their dumpsters on. But we finally found a guy who was really nice and seemed helpful and smart, and seemed to understand what we wanted, and who cost a billion dollars. We were very sad. We looked at our reno plan and started making cuts, and got into big fights; Blake wanted to take down the walls and make do with the kitchen, I thought I couldn't possibly make do with the kitchen and the walls were aesthetic and could wait. We cried. Well, I cried. It sucked.

Then finally Andy made us meet with Stephanie and her company, and they agreed to do the whole job for about half the price the other dude was asking. Half the price. We had to make sure they hadn't made a mistake about what we wanted, their price was so low. Well, the fact was they were doing a huge favour for Andy because he's such a swell guy; they made us promise never to tell anyone else what they charged us because they would go out of business if they did any other jobs at that rate. (It's good to have a really charming father-in-law!) So we didn't have to compromise. We got it all: we took down the walls on the main floor, we got a whole new kitchen, we tiled the front hall, we redid the electrical in the whole house and painted. It all took only a couple of months, and to Stephanie and her team's credit, they did everything to the exact same high standard that they set for their richer clients, because they take personal pride in doing their jobs properly.

In fact, just last week I discovered that the trained monkeys who installed our Ikea kitchen had neglected to install the forced air vent. They didn't just forget, they actually saw that it should be done, didn't do it, and willfully assembled the cabinetry so that the venting was very hard to install, because that was the easy thing for them to do. Cory had left a piece of venting there to show them where they would need to work around, and they took it out and tossed it aside, and then installed a cabinet with the legs directly in front of the vent hole in the wall. So last week when I realized there was no heat in the kitchen, I emailed Stephanie. She sent Cory in, Cory arrived with his tools, assessed the situation, figured out a solution, implemented the solution, tidied up and was out of there in a couple of hours. No bill, no invoice, nothing; it was considered part of the original reno, which is already paid for.

Stephanie has also sent members of her team back to repair and paint cracks in the walls where the new drywall settled, to fix a sticky latch on a gate, and to clean up some foam caulking stuff which someone had spilled on the floor. Stephanie believes in leaving a perfect site, no matter how long it takes.

The reno wasn't a lot of fun to live through. We set up a makeshift kitchen (microwave, toaster oven and fridge) next to the laundry sink in the basement and spent our days there, in the tiny corner of the living room which was cordoned off with a plastic sheet, and at Baba and Zaida's house. Oh, that sucked and it was a very long eight weeks but it passed as inexorably as any other eight weeks, and one day it was over; appliances installed, plaster dust vacuumed up, paint dried. Suddenly we were normal people with a normal (mostly) house. What bliss! What joy!

Now we have a house with lots of space on the main floor (well... relatively speaking), a bright, sunny, organized kitchen which gets a lot of use, tons of electrical outlets and lights, and a huge back deck. I'm really starting to like this house. I did suffer a pang of jealousy sitting in my friend's south-facing living room. We don't have any south-facing windows, and the west windows are in the kitchen and Delphine's room, and they're really pretty small. So we don't get that ocean of warm sunshine we used to get in the condo, and I miss that on sunny winter days. I hope that a couple of skylights will make the house brighter. One day.

A year ago today, cold, frustrated, tired, missing the condo and wondering what the hell we had done, I consoled myself with the thought that in a year everything would be normal and happy again, and I was right. Yesterday we spent the whole day putting up our (really rather huge, in this place) Christmas tree, spangling the mantelpiece with tinsel and lights and tiny china Santas (and a menorah, poor thing), and stringing J'Anne's beautiful handmade stockings all up the staircase. The house is warm and cozy and full of love and giggling little girls, and I could hardly be any happier.

[Posted at 22:01 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 16 Aug 2007
Deck Party!

And now the details:
When: September 8th, 3:00 until 8:00 (or later)...
Where: redacted
What: Beer, pizza, some kind of munchie thing, and some sort of fancy blended drink (originally scheduled to be Margaritas, although I don't know if I'm up for tequila (shudder), so maybe Piña Coladas, or some sort of Daiquiri).

RSVP, so that I know how much beer/munchies to buy. Or just show up and take your chances.

Oh, and one thing I forgot to mention in the email, since Amy and I have two kids, feel free to bring whatever little ones you have along, and they can all look at each other distrustfully, or run around screaming, or whatever it is children do when they get together in large groups.

See you there,

[Posted at 10:06 by Blake Winton] link
Sun, 29 Jul 2007

Okay, I think the deck is officially done, and so it’s party time! If you’re actually going to have a chance of making it here (sorry, Dave), please leave a comment or email me with the dates that work well for you, and I’ll see what works out the best for the most people.

The tricky part, I expect, will be restraining myself from writing a program to figure out the optimal solution.

[Posted at 18:56 by Blake Winton] link
Thu, 26 Jul 2007

Get it?  Agate?  Get it? A Gate! No longer just a pretty stone, we now have a gate to keep out whatever’s been pooing in our yard. (Assuming it isn’t one of the girls. Or a raccoon. Or someone’s cat. Or something that could squeeze through the gap in the bottom. But still, it’s got to be less likely to continue, right?)
The Shed. Our garbage shed! It’s a bit larger than I thought it would be which I think is partially due to the sloped roof, which is mandatory in places that get as much snow as we sometimes do, and partially because… Well, I don’t know why else it might be so big. Maybe just because that was the scale of the space it had to take up.
Screen! And an old-new screen door. This should get some air moving through the house without my having to worry too much about finding a hornet in my bed (again!) And when the screen on the front gets installed, it should be even sweeter.

[Posted at 20:07 by Blake Winton] link
Wed, 25 Jul 2007
Daily Deck Update 9

It was late, I was tired. No pictures today. Try again tomorrow.

[Posted at 21:45 by Blake Winton] link
Tue, 24 Jul 2007
Daily Deck Update 8

Stairs! It’s getting close... The planters are done, and the garbage bin (which seems larger than I thought it would be) is framed in.
Stonehenge.  Kinda. A closer-up view of one of the planters, along with the base to the umbrella for the patio table, and the gas hookup for the barbeque.
Stairs! And the inside of the garbage bin, with obligatory cat.
Okay, so the comments were a little weak today, I’m recovering from a severe arm wound, cut me some slack.

[Posted at 22:23 by Blake Winton] link
Mon, 23 Jul 2007
Daily Deck Update 7

Stairs! The facing went on! Apparently we got fewer long planks than we needed, so Cory couldn’t finish the deck itself, so instead he put on the facing, and started building the frames for the planters. Hey, I just noticed the big long stair at the front. Neat!
Stonehenge.  Kinda. And another shot of the side stairs, with facing.

[Posted at 20:42 by Blake Winton] link
Fri, 20 Jul 2007
Daily Deck Update 6

Stairs! Finally, a set of stairs! I can’t tell you how excited I am about those, although I am a little curious as to why that first step is twice as long as the second… Maybe the ground moved up. Yeah, that's what I'll go with.
Stonehenge.  Kinda. This line of stones brought to you by Cordelia. It’s nice to see that she can create order as well as chaos.
A window to nowhere. And finally, a bonus picture for Andrew. Yes, that was a window you saw under our deck. I’m not sure how we’ll get light into the basement now. Perhaps with electricity. (I’m also not sure what is going to happen to the edge of the deck, so we just might still get some light from the edges.

[Posted at 19:24 by Blake Winton] link