Friday, January 31, 2014

Soup Therapy: Corn Chowder

January has been a bit of a germ fest around here. There are several people in my family with lingering colds; I can tell because they keep texting me requests to buy more tissues, Nyquil, and orange juice. 

Now, I have a very specific strategy for feeding sick people. When they are in the down-and-out phase, lying on the couch half-asleep, and staying home from work, I trust in the body's natural instincts to know what it needs. 

You want Cheetos and mozzarella sticks? Sure, I'll fix you a plate. 
The tiny-size tangerines and pink Starbursts? Not a problem. 
Three straight days of leftover lasagna? Yes.

I will cater to any crazy cravings during the active phase of a cold.

But once the worst is over, and my patient is on the mend, then I shift gears. 

It's time to serve some healthy food.

So that's where I'm at this week. I need to tempt those out-of-sorts taste buds with the most restorative dish known to man - a bowl of homemade soup.

^ My first batch of the week was corn chowder. Though rich and hearty, the flavors were sweet and delicate and a nice full bowl sat easy on the weakened tummy. 


8-10 rashers of bacon, diced
one onion, chopped
1T peanut oil 

4 potatoes, peeled and diced 
2 cans of creamed corn
2 C water
salt and pepper to taste

2 C half and half

In an inspired moment of plan-aheadedness, I bought enough for several batches because everything is easily kept on hand.

^ 1. Dice the bacon and plop it in a nice big pot with the peanut oil. Over medium high heat, stir occasionally till the bacon is crisp.

 And enjoy these last few looks at my ugly eighties tile counters because, mark my word, their days are seriously numbered.

^ 2. Peel and dice the potatoes. When the bacon is done, toss the potatoes into the pot. Cook and stir for ten minutes. 

I am well known for chopping and cutting my ingredients into irregularly shaped bits. Some people try to categorize my work as hasty, but I have a strong preference for what I call a rustic chop. Food tastes better when each bite has personality and texture.

^ 3. Add the water, corn and seasonings. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered for twenty minutes, until the potatoes are tender.

Creamed corn is weird. I flinched when I poured it into my pot, and immediately wished I had bought plain old regular canned corn. But the end result was fine and I have no regrets.

^ 4. Add two cups half-and-half, stir and heat till just warmed through. 

I neglected to capture a photo of this step. Because Ranger. 

This corn chowder was nourishing and restorative. My reluctant diners ate seconds and immediately divvied up the leftovers for work lunches the next day. I highly recommend this recipe not only for its recuperative powers but also because it is plain old delicious.

P.S. Yes, I am still on my no-carb, no-sugar plan. Since potatoes are a no-go for me, I ate veggies for dinner, though I will admit to taste-testing a hearty sample of this soup.

Adapted from Grandma's Corn Chowder on

* * * * *
If you're in the need of some more healing remedies, I've got the cure:

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Year Of The Horse

 ^ So I was driving home from a math session today, and as usual, I saw this.

Yup. A Vietnamese temple of some sort. Ain't nothing weird about seeing Asian worship sites out here on the Pacific Rim.

But unlike the many other times I've passed this site during the last few months, something new has been going on 'round here.

^ Yup. It's celebration time! 

Call it whatever you like:

Lunar New Year
Chinese New Year
Vietnamese New Year
or Tết.

Despite the different names, the meaning is essentially the same. On January 31, most of Southeast Asia, including transplanted Asians around the world, will begin celebrating a new year, as marked by the traditional and time-honored lunar calendar.

Holiday customs vary from country to country, and even from people to people within the same country. But it all boils down to family reunions, neighborly visits, paying respects, giving money to little children, and eating heaps of lovely food.

Yup. I can certainly get behind a holiday like that.

The peek-a-boo colored lanterns strung along the roadway tempted me to stop at the temple. Pulling into the drive, I noticed the politely locked gate. Darn it. Visiting hours were over for the day, but I snapped away to my heart's content.

^ Nothing could hold back the explosion of color and joy that burst forth. By some creative shooting around and through the gate and fences, I felt like I was at the epicenter of the celebration. I especially loved the strings of lanterns that wound through the trees and deep into the Pacific Northwest forest.

^ Even the temple gates that prevented me from walking under the lanterns and around the property were festive and joyful in their own right. 

^ Same goes for these brilliant spring primrose planted out. Their brilliant colors and bold shapes echoed the hanging lanterns and brought the celebration right out to the tips of my toes. 

* * * * *

Even though I'm not exactly in the prime demographic for this cultural happening, I will definitely be celebrating. Thankfully, this holiday is one that stretches out to a span of several days, so I've got some time to work this gala into my life and onto my dinner table.

Happy Year Of The Horse!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Something Beautiful

When I was a little girl, my grandmother was a glamorous influence on me.

Never mind the hardworking, no-nonsense German farmer's daughter shown here. Two indisputable facts proved to me that she was elegant, refined, and oh, so very feminine.

First, she wore earrings. Every day. Big, flashy, colorful clip-on earrings - not expensive, mind you, but stylish and chic for the times. 

My brothers and I had a fascination with those gorgeous things. While my grandma was seated, we would run around and around her, pausing each time we passed her right or left shoulder to carefully take her nearby earlobe, earring and all, between our little thumb and index finger, and give it a gentle squeeze. Then we would let go, squeal with delight, and run on in a circle around to her other side, taking turns at this game of ours.

Thankfully, my grandpa thought to take a picture of our fantastic ritual. With his Polaroid camera. 

And if more evidence was needed to prove her womanly virtues, my grandmother carried a vanity case. Yep, that's what she always called it - her vanity case. Whenever the folks came to stay a few days at our house, I would run to the car and wait while Grandpa opened the trunk. Then my grandma would reach inside, pull out the small, cream-colored case, and hand it over to me.

Sometimes we would make it into the house before I begged her to open it up. But I can recall once or twice that she flipped open the silver latches right there in the driveway and satisfied my mad desire to look inside.

Cold cream. 
Hand lotion. 
Talcum powder.
Hair spray.
Bobby pins.
Hair combs.
And several pairs of earrings.

I considered these delicately scented, unfamiliar bottles and trinkets to be the essence of ladyhood. My mother, ever practical and frugal, wasted no time or money on such frippery. And I smile now to think of the fascination and awe I had for such basic items of feminine grooming. But oh, how mysterious and exciting they all seemed to me at the time.

* * * * *

I'm happy to report that when my grandmother passed on, her vanity case came to me. For years, I kept it with my little girls' dress-up clothes, full of play-friendly necklaces, bracelets and scarves. I hoped they would associate the sweet little vanity case with the same ideals of womanly beauty that it imparted to me.

When the time came, our dress-up collection was edited down and stored in the attic for the next generation, and the vanity case was tucked away as well. 

^ But a few months ago, I got to thinking about that sentimental treasure and decided that we had been separated long enough. Once I held it in my hands again, I realized that the blue-papered interior was a bit worse for the wear, and pondered some solutions for returning it to its former glory.

^ Finally, my task is done. I relined the interior with blue flowered paper that not only repeats the original shade, but adds a note of Asian-influenced art, another of my grandmother's exotic interests. The mirror has been reattached in its proper position, and though I'm not exactly sure what I will keep inside, it will certainly be something beautiful. 

* * * * *

More stories about my grandma:

Collecting Stories

Monday, January 27, 2014

Say What??

Hold on. Wait just a second.
You brought me to visit yet another vet. That's bad enough.
But now you're talking about bringing me back next week? For surgery?!? 

Don't worry, Ranger. It'll be fine.

* * * * *

Here's the backstory on Ranger's medical drama:

And an in-depth study of his typical vet's office behavior:

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Teaching My Own: Graduations!

Finally, all the years, months, weeks, and hours of my seemingly endless journey as a homeschooling parent wound down to four indescribably joyous and soul-satisfying days. 

Because after all the requirements were met, transcripts reviewed, checklists completed, and last-minute haywire emergencies resolved, each of my four girls marched across a stage and graduated from high school.

And at the same time, college applications were completed, essays written, difficult decisions made, and the orientation process to a new university had begun. 

Here are the stories of my four daughters' journeys through their high school senior years and a pocket-sized summary of their lives ever after. 

^ My first born's graduation experience was probably the smoothest of the four, although my lack of experience with the process made the task feel daunting at the time. We relied on our more experienced homeschooling friends for advice and guidance, and their expertise was much more helpful than any of the official advisors we encountered.

After high school, she ventured on to pursue an English degree in Creative Writing at Western Washington University. Eager to be done with formal schooling for awhile, my efficient daughter wrapped up all her college graduation requirements in two short years and craved an interesting change in her life. 

She ended up spending a year living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada before coming home to take a management position at Gap Kids. Always the wordsmith, she is the go-to member of the staff for well-written prose. Living at home for the past few years, my travel-loving eldest uses the money she saves for more plane tickets to visit her online friends all over the country.

^ My second-born's senior year involved two major curve balls. First, by the beginning of the year, it was clear that she was closest to her circle of neighborhood friends.. Since all of her remaining coursework would be completed at the community college through the Running Start program, it seemed logical to transfer her attendance to the local public high school, where the counselors there could monitor her progress, and she could take part in all the special senior-year events with her bestest buddies.

So with the daunting persuasion of a used car salesman and the devilish persistence of a mosquito, I twisted arms at the high school office until my daughter became the first and only graduating student of Kamiak High School who had attended exactly zero classes on campus.

Several months later, I mounted another crusade with my daughter's college of choice, the University of Washington here in Seattle. After dotting her Is and crossing her Ts in the U's outrageously lengthy and detailed application, my daughter received word that despite her excellent grades and test scores, she had been placed on the wait list. But why? I immediately asked. What could we have possibly missed?

Back came the long and jargon-filled response. Even though my daughter was currently enrolled in a traditional public high school, she was still considered by UW to be a homeschooler. But how is that even possible? The traditional high school has accepted all of her credits. My brain was befuddled. But it seems that the University of Washington, in all its infinite wisdom, has decreed that if even one credit on a student's transcript was originally earned in a homeschooling environment, no matter that the work was supervised and accepted by not one but two public schools, that student is still considered a homeschooler and must use the alternate application process.


It took a month of mad scrambling, countless phone calls to the admissions office, and a parade of online forms that made us both bleary-eyed and cranky, but in the end, my second-born was accepted at her dream school, where she went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting and Drawing, with a minor in Art History. She spread her coursework out over three years, which also allowed her to spend a magical quarter studying abroad in Roma, Italy. 

These days, my artist is a store manager at Hollister where she creates beauty in a retail environment. 

^ My determined third-born faced a tough road. Her graduation process went smoothly enough, but she was part of the largest US graduating class ever, and the economy had tanked just the year before. So college admissions officers were extra tough, and she had to realign her plans once or twice before accepting an offer to attend nearby Seattle Pacific University. Fortuitously, once she settled in, she felt that this campus was where she had belonged all along, and after she adjusted her major from Classical Languages to Linguistics, all was well.

Like her older sister, she decided to stretch her undergraduate experience out to three years by earning a minor in French and spending a quarter abroad in France, Switzerland and Italy. Bitten by the world travel bug, she capped her college career with a month-long service trip to Vietnam, where she taught English to kids in an after-school language program called Fisher's Super Kids..

Well. That amazing adventure changed things up a bit. Originally planning to join the Peace Corps in the hopes of teaching English to some French-speaking African children, she decided that her experience in Vietnam was exactly what she looking for. Rather than roll the dice with the Peace Corps, she would just go back to her sweet Asian students and spend two years teaching at the same school where she had volunteered.

And that is where my third-born is happily living and working, right at this very moment. 

Last but certainly not least, my fourth-born walked her own highly individual path toward graduation and I was amazed to see how many new wrinkles and complications we managed to find.

Eleventh-hour changes in graduation requirements led to quickly improvised home-based coursework.

An uncompleted diversity credit at the college necessitated one last class during the summer quarter after her graduation.

And after a fall spent completing a series of in-state college applications, a New Year's Eve conversation with a family friend caused my fourth-born to completely rethink her choice of universities. She ended up submitting one last application to the new school of her dreams, the University of Arizona, where she was readily accepted and is currently studying astronomy.

Sigh. That girl's senior year was a real nail-biter. But we made it through and in the end, everything worked out perfectly.

* * * * *

No matter where kids go to school, their high school graduations are momentous, messy, and highly emotional rites of passage. 

For homeschooling families, the milestone is exponentially more intense. 

Such a bond we have, us parent-educators to our student-offspring. 
Such responsibility we take on, in guiding them through this series of accomplishments. 
Such guilt and shame we would feel if we were to fail them.

But that moment when all is said and done, 
     when the dust finally settles 
     and, lo and behold, there is your cap-and gown-clad student, fake diploma in hand, 
Beaming with excitement, 
     ready to lift off to a bold new chapter in her education 
     - one that does not require you -
This is when the magnitude of this accomplishment hits
     and you realize It is finished.
     My homeschool journey has ended.

And this is when you breathe a mighty prayer of relief and say Hallelujah and praise the Lord! I did it!!!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Teaching My Own: Finishing Strong

^ Although my girls went to college for high school, they still took part in some non-curricular fun at our school-for-homeschoolers. One of the highlights of their year was the annual three-day nautical adventure on this lovely old girl, the historic schooner Zodiac.

When I dreamed about the high school experience I wanted for my four homeschooled daughters, I had some very specific ideas:
  • lots of social time with friends
  • interesting classes with great teachers
  • time and space to pursue their passions
  • preparation for the transition to university life
  • freedom from unnecessary rules and regulations
  • freedom from me 
The answer, it turned out, was to not send them to high school at all.

Instead, I enrolled my sixteen-year-old daughters, each in her own turn, in college.

^ Once a year, about twenty-four high schools students from our program, along with a handful of teachers and chaperones, would head off on the Zodiac with a captain and a skeleton crew of veteran sailors, to ply the beautiful waters of north Puget Sound. Under the supervision of the deck authorities, the kids did the actual work of running the ship - hoisting sails, coiling ropes, tying knots,  manning the helm, keeping watch and generally doing whatever they were told.

Community college, to be exact. Edmonds Community College, just eight miles from home, was the perfect place for my middle-teens to learn and grow in those pivotal years between adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Here's why this strategy worked so well for my family:

My daughters were ready for something new.
Homeschooled since birth, and long-time members of our school-for-homeschoolers program, it was time for my girls to spread their wings and try a new adventure. I wanted them to have a chance to learn the ropes at an unfamiliar school so that two years hence, when they headed off to university, they would feel comfortable finding their way around a new place.

^ It takes a lot of hard work to sail a ship of this size, and the captain tolerated absolutely no nonsense. It was a great pleasure to see our kids rise to his expectations and learn to crew together as a smooth, efficient team. 

Community colleges have a lot to offer.
Challenging coursework, a wide variety of subjects, accomplished faculty - a community college has a lot more to offer, in both breadth and depth, than the typical traditional high school or normal homeschooling family can cook up. Although each one had a pretty clear idea about where her passions lay, I wanted my girls to use these last years of her primary education as an adventure for exploring whatever was most interesting to her. And if she could knock off some of the general ed requirements that her future university would most likely require, all the better.

Independence is best tested sooner than later.
Teenagers need to test themselves against the world and my daughters were ready for some new freedoms. Riding a public bus to campus, dealing with academic advisers and online registration systems, holding their own in college classes, and doing it all without their previously ever-present siblings and mommy in sight - my college-bound kids faced some big-time growing edges. But they were not alone; in our homeschooling social network, most of the kids followed this same path, so my girls' friends and peer group were all on hand to help each other through.


^ As the ship wove its way among the picturesque San Juan Islands, the kids had time to roam around the vessel, try their hands at all the different sailing and navigation tasks, and eat plenty of delicious food cooked up by the on-board kitchen crew. There were also several planned stops (and an occasional surprise) at the different islands, where the kids could offload in kayaks to stretch their legs and explore the wild landscape.

Gradual transitions ease change.
By their mid-teens, my daughters were ready to take charge of their own educations, and I knew it was time to hand over the reins. Granted, our dance as parent and student had always been evolving from my control to theirs, over the course of the years. But the move to community college was a big jump in the order of things, and a healthy one at that. The girls were ready to step out from under my wings, and honestly, I gained a lot by letting them go, one step at a time. Two years later, when each of them left home for university life, we were well prepared for the emotional and logistical separation.

* * * * *

As it turned out, during their time at community college, each of my daughters earned an Associates degree, which transferred two years of credits earned to the university of their choice, and gave them a big head start on their four-year degrees. That accomplishment gave the girls a huge shot of self-confidence.

And thanks to a program here in Washington called Running Start, most of the girls' community college classes were tuition-free, providing much-needed financial relief to our one-income family.

But even without the degrees and the free tuition, my daughters' experience of attending community college during their high school years was absolutely the best decision we could have made for that transitional and highly complex stage of life.

It was the perfect capstone to our long and rewarding journey as a homeschooling family.

^ And the hour-long bus ride from port back to town was also a satisfying ending to a long, hard-working, bone-chilling adventure on the high seas. 

Photos courtesy of Jane and Tessa Streicher