Thursday, January 31, 2013

Valentine's Day: Take Heart

Oh, I love this time of year. Just when I finally get all the Christmas stuff put away, and life is starting to feel organized again, it's time to break out a fresh round of art supplies and get busy making Valentines.

I have strong feelings about Valentine's Day. It's a day to celebrate love in all its forms, and I make it a priority to send handmade cards to my loved ones. They may be heart-shaped, or perhaps mail-ready as postcards, but always, they come from my own two hands and grateful heart.

Here's what I'm working on this year.

I started a few days ago with a big pile of tissue paper in Valentine-y colors, a long piece of plastic wrap, and a concoction of equal parts white glue and water. 

I laid out the plastic wrap on the table in front of me, spread it with a layer of the glue mixture, and laid down some ripped sections of the tissue paper. See?

First, the bad news:
  • The plastic wrap will not lay flat. It gets all wrinkly and bunched up on the table.
  • The glue mixture does not spread well on the plastic. It beads up and runs together in a frustrating fashion.
  • Tissue paper is delicate, hard to handle when wet, and often rips in places you don't want it to rip. Annoying. 

Now for the good news:

None of that matters. Actually, these imperfections make for a more interesting finished effect. So have confidence, take heart, and carry on as if everything was going perfectly.

Once I covered the plastic wrap in a single layer of tissue paper, I added a second. And then a third.

And then it was really hard to tell how many layers I'd added, so I just kept going till the end of that episode of LOST. 

Then I set the whole soggy mess aside for a day, and when I came back, it had miraculously transformed into a single layer of colorful, textured, beautiful, DRY paper.

My heart overflowed. And I immediately made another batch. This time I sprinkled glitter on top.

Today, I grabbed my two sheets of homemade paper, as well as a heart-shaped cookie cutter, pencil, and scissors.

Oh wait. Back up. Before that, I went to the craft store and found these cute little square envelopes and then searched through my heart-shaped cookie cutters to find one that would produce a properly sized Valentine to fit into the envelope. 

Measure twice, cut once.
Live and learn.
Always be prepared. 
The devil is in the details.

Now I was ready to trace some hearts and cut them out. 

Not gonna lie; I was super excited at this stage. Because here is the thing.

Somewhere in the middle, every good project seems doomed to fail.

I don't know why that has to be true. But it is. Whenever I do any kind of creative work, I start out strong, and oftentimes, I'm pleased with my final result. But there is always a time in the middle of the process when I am filled with doubts and ominous forebodings. I often think my grand ideas are destined to fail. I am sorely tempted to give up.

But I have learned that this dry spell in the middle of the project is natural, normal and healthy. From what I've read, it's a common if not universal experience in the world of creativity. These doldrums are a necessary part of the artistic process, and I've learned to expect them.

The trick is to not panic. 
The trick is to have faith. 
The trick is to keep going and see what happens next.

So honestly, I was a tiny bit disappointed in how the paper looked after it had dried. Gone was the glossy shine of the wet glue, gone was the transparent quality of the paper, and going quickly was the glitter. It was falling off the paper like needles off a month-old Christmas tree. Sigh. 

But. I knew that this was my time of doldrums. So I was eager to push on.

Ta-da!! I'm so happy with how these hearts turned out! When trimmed down to heart size, the colors and textures of the paper are much more pleasing to me than they were in the large sheets. And while I liked the idea of glitter, I don't miss it now that it's gone. I'm super happy with these hearts and so glad I pushed on past my doubting doldrums.

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More sweet whisperings of Valentine love:

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Lake Feels Like Home

I love that I live in the wet and wild Pacific Northwest, surrounded by mountains and forests and salt water waves that roll up on the rocky beach of my current hometown. When I was a little girl, growing up in the great hardwood forests of Michigan, I dreamed of seeing such sights and I am still surprised and astounded that I now live among them.

But at the same time, I sometimes miss the sweet lake of my childhood. My house was just one narrow lane away from the shore, and I grew up playing in, on and around the water, every day of the year. There is something so safe and comforting about an inland lake, the way the houses curve around the shore, all facing inwards so everyone can see each other across the water. I love the soothing ways of lake water, with gentle waves that quietly lap at the grassy shore. And I enjoy discovering a lake's secrets - a sunny, shallow spot for swimming here, overhanging bushes for a family of ducks there, places where the seaweed grows thick, and the spot where the fresh water feeds in from a creek. 

Some days, I just plain crave a lake.

Today was one of those days. So I headed over to Lake Ballinger, about ten miles away, and found this idyllic scene. It was just what I needed to feel like myself again.

I even found a family of ducks. They quacked at me, and made me feel right at home. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Define 'Obsessed'

Five things I'm obsessed with lately:

1. Catfish.

First a movie, now a series on MTV, this documentary tells stories about people who are involved in sketchy online relationships. Each episode is different, but the main point is that someone is hiding the truth about their identity - a practice know as 'catfishing.' I'm always interested in the concept of online relationships; they perfectly illustrate the truth that perception is reality. Let's face it, social networking is a vast sociological experiment in which we are all participating, and Catfish - a show that examines that phenomenon - is a fascination to me.

* * * * *

2. Walking Ranger.

Oh sure, I've been a tried and true dog walker for most of my life. But I've generally thought of this daily outing as a responsibility to my dog, rather than something I do for my own benefit. Over the past year, my increasing Instagram habit has led me to see things differently, and the joy of taking pictures along the way definitely helped me see my walks as 'me' time.

Then, just this week, I read an article written by a fitness enthusiast slash outdoorsman who made an excellent point: Why do we assume that the stuffy confines of an indoor gym is the best place to work out? If you want true peace of mind as well as strength of body, go outside and get some exercise in the fresh air of the natural world. YES. Ranger's daily walk just became my workout as well as a dose of daily artistic expression, and I'm loving the mental transformation.

* * * * *

3. Going the extra inch.

I'm resisting the January urge to turn over a bunch of new and highly unrealistic leaves. I don't want to change my basic behaviors or alter my ingrained habits. But I am obsessed with the idea of doing all the things I normally do with just a tich more effort and discipline.

Examples: When I end the day with a stack of fresh laundry on my bathroom counter, I put half of it away before I sleep, so there is less to face in the morning, when I would normally take care of it. I've also been chipping away at my pile of Christmas ornaments in need of repair; typically, I would shove them into the box with all the other seasonal decor and tell myself that surely I'll fix them next December. Nu-uh. Fixing them now, slowly tackling one or two problems each day.

And just to prove that this obsession isn't only about doing chores on time, I'm also taking a little extra care with my Instagram feed, intentionally seeking out certain subjects, taking a bit more time to thoughtfully compose my shots, and editing when I have the mental clarity to do my best work. All in all, I'm not trying to change my world - just looking to bring my game up a notch or two. And you know what? It feels really good.

* * * * *

4. Teaching algebra.

Lately, I've been especially crazy about teaching algebra. I know. That's weird. But I love algebra because it's such an interesting, quirky, specialized world of knowledge, and I am so happy that nifty things like complex fractions, imaginary numbers, and polar vectors are part of my everyday life.  And I love teaching because it's so challenging to think of how to explain a complex processes in bite-size ideas that are easy to digest, and so fun to experience those 'aha!' moments when my students really get it. Put the two together and I'm in heaven.

* * * * *

5. Kindness and respect.

Ever since my kids were tiny, I've been using this phrase to sum up my expectations for their behavior. It's short, sweet and direct. Even as tiny toddlers, they were able to grasp and explain back to me what those two words mean, and despite the incredible range and variety of objectionable behavior we've dealt with over the years, this prescription always makes sense.

But kindness and respect is not just for kids; it's good advice for all of us. In the past few months, as I seem to be dealing with my fair share of frustrating situations, I've found that a little extra kindness and respect helps me keep my head in the right place. I'm thankful for that.

* * * * *

Bonus obsession: Re-watching LOST.

A lot of people got sick of this show the first time around, and even those of us who stayed with it till the end in 2010 spent plenty of time scratching our heads and saying, "Huh??" But dang it, I still love the basic premise of being stranded on a desert island, the eccentric cast of characters, and the kooky surreal plot twists that swirl through the story line like so many dust devils. 

And while sometimes the show takes itself a little too seriously, there's always one guy who makes me laugh.

Sawyer's sassy brand of humor is reason enough for me to start over at Season 1, Episode 1. Yep. I'm obsessed.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Heard It Through The Grapevine

Have you heard about Vine? It's Twitter's new app, launched just last week, that allows you to record and post six-second videos that play in a looped format in an Instagram-style phone app. It's a cute, easy and fun addition to the social media landscape

{Although I see in today's news that Vine is currently dealing with a bit of a porn problem. Ha. Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Yeah, me too.}

Well, other than that, Vine is an interesting spin on this new millennial habit of capturing and sharing the details of our lives with the whole wide world. Already, my mind races with the possibilities of what I might record and post: snowflakes falling onto a mittened hand, rocks thrown in a still pond, pets doing all manner of adorable things. Then there's the possibility for stop motion films - Vine's in-app video camera lends itself very well to filming in small segments, so it's possible to capture a stack of dishes magically loading themselves into the dishwasher, or a pile of LEGOs assembling themselves into a tower. My brain is boggled by all the possibilities.

And while, as of this moment, I've posted just one video on Vine, I have preserved a few Vine-like moments over the past few years that have been languishing in the Video section of my Facebook photo albums. In the interest of welcoming Vine into our world, allow me to share a few of my older captures here:

I'm so inspired and excited to start filming! Find me on Vine as DianeAgain and let the fun begin.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones

Went to a professional basketball game in Portland, Oregon last night. 

I don't devote much time in my life to keeping up with sports, but I do love to watch sporting events live. My eldest, however, is a major fan girl of the Los Angeles Clippers and since Seattle is currently lacking an NBA franchise, a trip to Portland was a necessity for her to see her team in person.

So she bought me a ticket to the Blazers-Clippers game for my birthday, and yesterday we drove 195 miles each way to take in the game. 

That's a loooooooong way to go for a regular season basketball game. 

Good thing it was AWESOME.

We arrived in plenty of time for the opening tip, and because we were seated directly behind the visiting team's goal, we were each promptly handed a plastic package. Once assembled, I was the proud owner and operator of a pair of these inflatable clappy things. 

They probably have a real name but I don't know what it is.

But I knew right away what they were for.

If you don't already know, the purpose of these air-filled sticks is to annoy and distract members of the visiting team when they are shooting free throws.

And they are perfectly suited to that task. The visual effect of all those white wands whipping through the air is dizzying, and the noise they make - a buzzy humming sound - is less annoying than a vuvuzela but still right up there in the "please make it stop" category.

Now here is where it got interesting for me. I'm all for going with the flow and following the hometown vibe, but due to family loyalties, I was rooting for the visitors. Was I really going to put forth an effort to distract my team's players from scoring?

Oh, heck no. 

So when a Clipper stepped up to the line for a few free throws, and everyone around me was clapping their clappy thingys and howling to beat the band, I sat quietly in my seat with my clappers on my lap.

I'm sure the Clippers noticed and appreciated my respect for their craft.

However, when the Clippers scored, well, I couldn't help myself. I beat those white sticks together like there was no tomorrow. 

And every time I did so, the 13-ish-year-old boy sitting behind me would mutter, "Traitor."

Psh. Whatever, junior. 

It was a hotly contested and incredibly exciting game. The Blazers stayed ahead for most of the game, but in the fourth quarter, the Clippers mounted a big comeback, and went ahead with a sizable lead.

Which the Blazers slowly cut away until they had regained the lead by just one point, with less than a minute to go.

Then the Clippers had the ball for what would surely be the last shot of the game. One simple goal was all they needed to win. A tried-and-true player got the ball, lined up his shot, and let her fly.

Aaaaaand he missed.


Alas, there was no joy in Portland for us Clipper fans, but the hometown Blazer lovers went mad with delight. Silver, red and white streamers poured from the rafters, the pounding music set the whole joint jumping, and everyone basically went berserk. 

And although this was not the way I wanted the evening to end, I'll admit that I enjoyed the heart-attack finish to the fantastic game, and the wild celebration that ensued. I had a pretty darn good time.

Even if I am a traitor. 

P.S. Here. I'll provide the highlights reel. But you'll have to find your own clappy thingys.

* * * * *

For more stories about stadium sports, check out:

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Well, there was the time when I got a concussion from falling into a creek hole and had to be stretchered into the first aid station.

Then there was that other time when I got not one but two speeding tickets on the way up, and narrowly missed being hit by a sliding overturned semi.

And once, my youngest came down with a fever on the way up and I skied anyway while my poor sick baby slept in the lodge. I still feel guilty about that day.

But today will definitely go down in history as one of my worst ski trips ever to Stevens Pass.

* * * * *

It started out innocently enough. I left home around 8:30 a.m. and enjoyed some interesting scenery on the drive up.

Just a mile or so from the resort, the omnipresent rain turned to snow and I was overjoyed. In my enthusiasm, I snapped a few shots in the parking lot. That's a sure sign that I'm pumped to be there and fired up for a day of skiing.

It was when I finally took my first run that my calamities arose. 

I couldn't see.

Instead of my usual unbeatable combo of contact lenses topped with a pair of ski goggles, I have been forced to wear my glasses lately. I have two pairs to choose from, plus I had my goggles with me. But with the snow falling, no combination of glasses, goggles, or glasses with goggles afforded me decent vision. I was literally unable to make out my own feet. 

I had no choice but to call it quits for the day. And I'm no quitter, especially when it comes to skiing, so you know the situation was dire.

I went inside and ate my lunch. And then, after two measly runs and less than a half hour on the mountain, I packed up and went home. 

But wait. To add insult to injury, my car then decided to get stuck on the icy drive in the parking lot. After using all my Michigan-born-and-bred tricks for getting a snowbound car unstuck, I had to bust out my tire chains and solve the problem with technology.

Nothing like getting down on all fours in the snow and fumbling around in your wheel wells to wrap complex bits of metal behind and up and around your tires. Let me add that the chains were covered in rusty powder and my hands got filthy dirty. 

Alright. I'm done complaining now.

After that, things went much better. I got home safely and worked on my Valentine projects, enjoying the winter sunshine streaming in my windows and a few episodes of Alias. That was lovely.

And while this wretched episode will undoubtedly go down in my personal history as one of the most abject failures of a ski day ever, it's nice to know that even a frustrating day like this one could be redeemed. 

* * * * *

Wanna read about all the twists and turns of my ill-fated 2012-2013 ski season? Check these out:

Friday, January 25, 2013

Art With Kids: Learning By Heart

For more stories about my talented and adorable art students, read:

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As an art teacher and an artist, I have some strong opinions about the nature and value of art as a field of study. Interestingly, most of the time, I contradict myself. See what I mean?
Some people are born with a distinctive and well-developed artistic aesthetic, yet the ability to make art is a trained skill, not an inborn gift. 
Art engages the right, creative side of the brain, but it also primes the left side for highly precise and rational work like mathematics.
Making art should be a playful, uninhibited, instinctive exploration, but it's also a serious discipline of study.
I've learned to accept that art has a split personality, and I do my best to embrace all of its dimensions.

So, when I am making art with young children, one of my goals is to create open-ended activities that allow them to follow their own instincts without any big concepts of 'right' or 'wrong' hanging over their heads. But at the same time, I watch their work for signs of growth and deepening skills, and share my observations with them to help them see their own progress.

Today, as we were making heart-shaped collages for Valentine's Day, I was struck by several of the projects I saw:

Look at the red rectangles inside this heart. Notice the clean, straight lines of the hand-cut pieces, the interesting way the pieces are layered one over the next, and the subtle variation in tones, from pink to orange to red.

Now check out the even more carefully trimmed skinny rectangles of pinky purple that were used by this eleven-year-old to outline the heart. While the delicate width of the band allows the red heart to steal the show, the contrast between the two colors delivers a strong pow! of excitement and drama to this composition. When a child creates a piece of art that delivers a little bolt of electricity to my eyes, I am very impressed.

* * * * *

Young children are often fascinated with the process of using smaller elements to outline a basic shape. This nine-year-old artist has definitely used this strategy for several years, and continues to experiment by plopping these sequins and other bits down in the shape of a heart. But notice how her level of sophistication has increased. These three elements - the pink heart, the big gold sequins and the smaller purple circles - create a pleasing variety of shapes, colors and sizes, and the craftsmanship in lining them up so carefully and precisely is to be admired.

* * * * *

This free-form eclectic collage is a study in interesting textures, colors, and carefully constructed balance. Notice the three big red hearts, positioned in the top two corners and lower center part of the heart. With the smaller red elements, they create a sturdy symmetrical balance that is enhanced by the ripped yellow paper. The negative space is beautifully uniform; the craftsmanship required to squeeze so many items into such a small space with about the same amount of white paper showing from behind...well, that's not so easy to do.  While this may look random and unplanned, this sort of all-over design is often the most difficult to execute.  Kudos to the eleven-year-old hands that made it happen.

* * * * *

And this? Well, this precious series of collages made by my four-year-old student reflects her growing sense of symbolism - "the hearts have faces!" - as well as her understanding of balance and contrasting textures. She's also become quite a whiz with a bottle of glue, and when she inadvertently squirted a bit more glue than necessary, she announced, "Don't worry, it'll be fine." And she was right.

* * * * *

I'm happy to say that all of my students had fun making heart collages today, and there were many other interesting projects created.  And while I value the fun experience that everyone shared, I also celebrate the advances that I saw in these particular creations. 

Bravo to my clever art students - you are learning so much about making art, and you make me very proud.

* * * * * 

More sweet whisperings of Valentine love:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Tale Of The Talking Turnips

Alright, I have to confess something weird. Today I heard voices.

Now, while you digest that much, let me tell you that it's going to get weirder. 

They were the voices of turnips.

I know. This was either a strange episode of VeggieTales or I need to cut back on the Dr Pepper. I have no better explanation.

But it's true. I ran into Whole Foods Market to pick up a package of beef for dinner, and as I was pondering my choices and thinking about what I might prepare for side dishes, I heard a chorus of small but determined voices calling, "Turnips!! Choose turnips!!"

This has never, ever happened to me before. 

Intrigued, compelled, I immediately grabbed any old cut of meat and headed straight for the produce section. 

I followed the pleading voices, for they were still calling to me, until I found this lovely display of purple and white turnips in the farthest corner of the store. 


We were meant to be together.

Never mind the fact that I have never bought turnips before. I've never cooked with them. Heck, I've never even eaten them before. But they were calling to me, and they were so cute, and that was all that mattered.

Without a word, I bagged up a goodly portion and headed to check-out. The woman who rang me up asked me what I was going to make with my gorgeous turnips. I had no idea. So I muttered something about olive oil and fresh black pepper, but all I could hear was the contented purring of the turnips in my bag. 

A few hours later, I turned up a simple recipe for roasted turnips with Parmesan cheese and tweaked it just a bit to go something like this:

4 medium turnips, unpeeled, cut into wedges
2 T olive oil
cayenne pepper, nutmeg, salt, and black pepper
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1. Slice the turnips, stir in first the olive oil and then the spices and Parmesan cheese.

2. Pour everything into a cast iron skillet and cook in the oven at 475 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until tender, stirring gently every now and then.

3. Eat. 

Oh my gosh. They were so delicious. Even my family, who had not been so keen on the idea of trying a talking vegetable, quickly got on board the turnip train. My serving bowl was almost emptied before I remembered to take a quick photo.

In conclusion, I have three pieces of advice for you, dear reader.

1. Try this recipe. It's really good.
2. Be open to trying new foods. Especially cute vegetables.
3. Accept the reality that vegetables can not only talk but sing!

Falling And Rising Up Again

As we all knew it would, the foggy weather has finally passed and the rains have returned.

Now, I'm not complaining. Rain is a part of life here in the Pacific Northwest, and I accept that. The winter rains must fall, but spring will come and the whole world will rise up again in the light.

* * * * *

This morning, I was out running errands in the rain. After a quick stop at the grocery store, I was cruising through the parking lot on the drive in front of the store when a grandmotherly woman suddenly ran out in front of me, without even glancing my way. I jammed on the brakes, and in an instant I understood what she was doing. 

An older gentleman - probably in his eighties but seemingly quite fit for his age - had fallen down. From what I could tell, his wife (for it was obvious that this woman was his wife) had dropped him off in front of the store and gone to park the car. In the meantime, he had attempted to step up the curb onto the raised landscaping area in front of the store, tripped or stumbled, and had fallen to his hands and knees on the bark.

My instincts were to throw my car into park, jump out and rush over to help him. But his wife had already reached him, pulled him to his feet and was asking him if he was alright. I could see right away that he was embarrassed and tried to shake off her attention and concern. He was not unkind or rough with his wife in any way, but I could see how humiliated he felt to have to rely on his wife's physical strength to literally pick him up off the ground. I felt a wave of compassion for him, and quickly decided to stay in my car, saving him any further shame.

Then I noticed something else. Briskly crossing the drive in front of me, a second man, about the same age and physical stature as the first, had obviously witnessed the fall and was now joining the scene. This man nodded politely to the woman but focused his attention on the man who had fallen. Clearly concerned, the newcomer did something that really impressed me: before he spoke a single word, he looked the fallen man square in the face and then held out his hand for a handshake. As the first man accepted this greeting, I saw him straighten his shoulders and stand taller than he had before. 

The men began to talk matter-of-factly. I couldn't hear their words but I knew that the second man was asking the first man if he was alright. Rather than recoiling from this concern, the man stood proud and confident, explaining what had happened and assuring the concerned citizen that he was just fine.

A firm handshake. A direct eye-to-eye connection. An unemotional assessment of the situation. 

These three manly gestures transformed this incident by restoring the fallen man's dignity. No response from his wife, or from me, for that matter, would have repaired his wounded pride so quickly and completely. 

Sometimes, men fall down. And when they do, they need other men to help them rise up again.

* * * * *

For more stories about late winter and early spring, try these:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Pondering P√Ętisseries

I've been thinking a lot about French pastries lately.

On a whim, I stopped by my hometown's new French bakery, L'Artisian. Excited to treat my eyes and my taste buds to some European charm, I discovered instead that the shop was closed for a week's winter vacation. Le sigh.

A few days later, at Whole Foods Market, I found myself summoned across the huge store to this lovely display full of French-inspired treats. I stood, I stared, I considered buying myself something delicious. But in the end, I chose only to snap photos and realize an important truth.

I don't want to buy French pastries.
I don't really want to eat French pastries.
What I very much want to do is make French pastries.

One day, quite soon, I am going to have to do something about this.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Heidi's Happy Photos

For the past week or so, it's been crazy foggy here in the great Pacific Northwest. The moody, glum, sullen grey stuff has been upon us morning, noon, and night, and it's even been creeping into my Instagram feed:

And while I have enjoyed the mysterious and brooding effect that these low-flying clouds have had upon my photography, my foggy feed is totally put to shame by the work of my dear friend, Heidi. 

It should be mentioned that Heidi has only been on Instagram for about a month. But she is quickly making up for lost time, turning her artistically gifted energies toward this quirky brand of photography, and her feed is beautiful. Check out her entire gallery at @heidiconahan on Instagram, or here on the plain ol' internet.

And feast your eyes on her fabulous fog-filled photos:

Thank you, Heidi. I don't usually feel cheerful about grey winter gloom, but your foggy photos always put a smile on my face.

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More stories about marvelous, mysterious fog: