Thursday, February 9, 2017

On grief

I'm not sure how to write about this, but I also don't know how to move forward without writing about it.

My stepmom died one week ago and I feel broken. She and my dad met when I was eight years old and she immediately opened her heart to my sister and me and made us a part of her large and wonderful family. Claudia had this amazing blend of magic and practicality that I haven't ever seen in anyone else. My life is so much richer for having had her in it all these years.

She and my dad were both diagnosed with different terminal illnesses many years ago, and they defied all odds. I think part of their strength came from having each other. They would always tell me that it really wasn't so bad because they could lie in bed together and read and talk all day. When my dad was dying almost exactly two years ago Claudia was right there with us that week in the hospital, even though it was incredibly hard on her. Together we cared for my dad in his last days and as I stayed with her last week I knew I was there for myself, but also for my dad. I hope that she could feel his strength coming through my hands. For me, there is comfort in the care taking, the last act of tangible love I can give. I can suspend myself in that moment and know that however hard it feels, at least I am doing something.

The not-doing part is harder for me. It's strange, going through this a second time so close to the first. I'm not surprised by how I feel right now, my inability to listen to the news, or even read a book. I'm back at work and it's good to be forced to focus on something else for a few hours, but I still feel like I'm sleepwalking half the time. It's hard to convince myself to care about issues that seemed incredibly important two weeks ago. All I can think about most of the day is how badly I want to get in bed, and then when I do get in bed I can't sleep. I didn't realize that losing Claudia would also rip open the grief of losing my dad. I feel like the life we had together all those years, both the big adventures and the quiet moments, are suddenly, irrevocably, gone.

I don't have any amazing insights into how to deal with grief. I just go through the motions as best I can in public and give myself permission to do pretty much nothing in private. I stumble on. This weekend my sister will be here with my niece and nephew, and I want to make them blueberry muffins on Sunday morning, the way Claudia always did for us. We'll see our huge, amazing family, and try to remind ourselves that love doesn't disappear into thin air, that she has bound us all together, forever.

Easter Day photos, approximately 20 years apart.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Dealing with dog separation anxiety - Furbo review

I feel like this is such a specialized post and also I'm completely outing myself as a crazy dog person, if that wasn't already evident, but this has eaten up a ton of my time over the last month so I'm posting it anyways.

{does not look like a monster who barks nonstop}

Circe is a nearly silent and super calm dog when we're around so we were surprised when our sweet neighbors let us know that while we're at work she's been going on barking sprees that last upwards of 30 minutes. This, of course, made me feel terrible about both Circe's well being and the impact on my poor neighbors (luckily they are also crazy dog people, and were more concerned with Circe than the noise). We're thinking that as she gets older she's probably experiencing a little more separation anxiety. Unfortunately, neither of us work jobs where we can routinely bring a dog to work, so we have to come up with a system that will help her feel better about being at home alone during the day.

I read as much as I could find online about dog separation anxiety and it basically boiled down to a few core things, as far as I could tell:

- Don't make a huge deal out of leaving or coming home (this is hard for me!)
- Have something available as a special distraction when you're gone
- Make sure they're getting enough physical activity in general

Lots of people recommend crating to combat anxiety but Circe is almost 12 and I'm not about to start crate training at this point. In addition, I want her to have access to the backyard because we're gone for the whole day, so crating her wouldn't work for us.

I really wanted more detailed information about her barking patterns, so that we could try to identify what was working and what wasn't. In a fit of desperation, I purchased what is possibly the most extravagant dog item ever - a $200 camera that can also toss treats and send you alerts when your dog barks. I know, I'm crazy. I paid for it out of her allowance, though, and it's less than we used to spend on a dog walker each month (which was not a good solution for us, because Circe doesn't like walking in the middle of the day and she doesn't get particularly excited about seeing people other than family). The Furbo has a 30 day money back guarantee so I figured we had an out if it didn't work well for us. Turns out, it's amazing. We've had it for a couple weeks now, and it's made a huge difference in managing her anxiety. We can check in on her live video feed from our phones and have a mini play session by tossing her treats if she's behaving well. If she starts barking, it sends an alert to our phones and we can check in on the feed. There is a microphone option so you can talk to your dog, but we've had mixed success with this because Circe is going a little deaf and it's hard to catch her attention unless she's really close by. We have used it as a creepy walky talky when one of us is at work and the other person is still home. Ha. You need a certain size treat for the Furbo to function best, and these Zuke's dog treats work really well (plus they're wheat free, which can be tricky to find).

circe + furbo
{bonus - Furbo is not a hideous eyesore - it's the white tower back there on my nightstand}

In addition to the Furbo I stocked up on some dog puzzles (yes, this is a thing) to keep her occupied while we're gone. She usually decimates them within 20 minutes of us leaving the house, but it hopefully gives her a positive association with us leaving. We showed her how to use each one the first time, but now we only give them to her when we're gone. We give her two puzzles each day, rotating which ones we use. We already had this one, which is beginner level, and we added this more interesting activity board, plus the higher level dog chess. (Technically you aren't supposed to allow your dog to use these unattended, I guess in case they tear it apart and eat the plastic? Circe is really gentle with her toys and we feel totally comfortable letting her play with these while we're gone, but that's something to bear in mind if your dog has a history of eating plastic)

I tried getting her this really well designed treat dispenser, but she wasn't interested in it for some reason. I think she only likes ugly toys. It was a big hit with the toddlers, though, so I guess we'll keep it as a kids toy.

dog puzzle

bone puzzle

We've been working this system for a couple weeks and we're already noticing a downward trend in her barking fits. I'm super impressed with the bark alert functionality. It can pick up her barking from any room in the house and it almost never has false alarms (we did have to turn it off over the weekend when we were having a party with multiple toddlers and there was lots of shrieking, but our day to day life rarely sets it off).

Some reviewers have noted issues with their units straight out of the box (treat dispenser not working, speaker sound really distorted) so I was apprehensive, but ours has worked perfectly. I'll update if it doesn't hold up to long term use. They have a pretty responsive customer support team, so I'm not too worried about it.

I am disappointed that it doesn't have logging capability. I'd like a record of when Circe barks and for how long, and also when we tossed her treats. Right now we do this manually, based on our notifications, but it would be so much nicer to have it integrated. I sent this request to the customer support team and they said they would send it to the tech team, so maybe someday this will happen.

Currently, there's no way to link multiple cameras to your account, so you can only have eyes on one room in your house unless you want to sign in and out of multiple accounts on your phone. Circe tends to hang in the bedroom so we put the camera there, but sometimes she moves to the living room and I won't see her for hours. It would be smart to offer the option to link cameras (although I'm not sure I can justify buying multiple units at this cost). Even better would be if you could have a main Furbo with full functionality, but also cheaper satellite Furbo cameras for other rooms without treat tossing capability. I know there are other options for house cameras, but so far I've resisted.

Note - if you aren't on board with spending this much money on a dog camera (I get it), I would also recommend the Dog Monitor app which I used when we first adopted Circe. I haven't used it in a few years, so I don't have the most up to date experience, but it worked decently for us back then. If you already have an iPad, this could work for you. It had the camera function (although you can only get stills when you're not on wifi) and you can talk to the dog through the mic and it will send you bark alerts. We found it tended to drop the connection a lot (and couldn't pick it back up until the app was restarted at home) but that could have been our internet.

Thundershirt - we have a Thundershirt and we have used it each time we move. I find that Circe gets really freaked out by nighttime noises for the first few nights in a new place, and the Thundershirt works great for that and gets her sleeping through the night until she adjusts. I've read that some people will use it during the day to prevent dog separation anxiety, but Circe never seems to be able to move very well in it (she won't jump on the bed when she's wearing it) so I've been reluctant to leave her in it unattended. I would probably consider it if the barking got worse.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Reading, lately

I know January is supposed to be a fresh start, but I always think of it as an in-between month to wrap up loose ends and plan for the new year. In that spirit, here are my December 2016 reads. It was a pretty good month, reading-wise. Also thinking I should maybe do a round up of my favorites from last year? It would be nice to have the good stuff all in one place, instead of making you wade through a pile of posts if you're just looking for a recommendation.

DEC 2016 reading

The Angel of History - Gorgeous, magical, heart-breaking novel centered around the aftermath of the AIDS crisis. I almost quit in the beginning, when Satan and Death are having a casual chat and I was worried the book would be way too heavy handed, but it totally works.

Manhood for Amateurs - I typically love Chabon's novels but this collection of short personal essays didn't wow me as much. Some of them I loved, but overall I felt it was a bit repetitive and maybe the selection could have been pared down a bit.

The Weight of Things - Short novel set in post-WWII Austria. Sad, weird and captivating. I'm struggling with how else to describe this one, but I'm glad I read it.

Helter Skelter - Needed to read this as follow up to The Girls. I got a bit bogged down in the beginning (very, very detailed descriptions of the crime scenes and the victims), but looooved the investigative and legal detail once it got going. This didn't make for great bedtime reading, though. I had some very jumpy nights.

Pond - Lovely writing, made me feel oddly serene. Not really a novel but not really short stories either. I loved the slightly rambling stream of consciousness feel of this book.

Homegoing - Epic, sweeping novel following a family (and many branches of descendants) from Ghana. I was only sad because I wanted more story for every single character. I also couldn't get over how much research the author must have had to do to write this book. It spans 300 years of history and there is so much detail in each section.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Joshua Tree - NYE 2016 camping

I want to be a rational human being who doesn't think that how any particular day goes really has any particular bearing on the rest of your year. But there's something about the transition to the new year that gets me. I want it to feel kind of weighty, but also celebratory and serene and reflective. We did it right this year and took a trip out to Joshua Tree. We got in Friday night, spent Saturday scrambling around the rocks and the expected rain even held off long enough to let us enjoy a long NYE happy hour by the fire. (We don't really do "glamping" but I made an exception and packed a couple of our nice champagne coupes for the occasion.) It rained all night, but cleared up for a perfect New Year's Day camp breakfast.

indian cove
rock scrambling
camp grilled cheese
rainy day lunch
camp lunch
NYE 2016 happy hour

You can't really go wrong with Joshua Tree camping, in my opinion. We stayed at Indian Cove this time. The sites are great (if you check the site list you can actually see pictures of all of them, which is really helpful), with plenty of vault toilets scattered around. There's no potable water available in camp, although apparently you can get water at the ranger station about 1.5 miles away. It gets really busy this time of year, so reservations are your best bet. We booked our site months in advance to make sure we got one. If you're planning on having a few people join you, make sure you check the site photos carefully. Although technically you're permitted to have two cars per site, some sites can really only accommodate a single car. We stayed at 96 and were pretty happy with it.

Campsites are dog friendly, but they aren't allowed on the trails - bummer. This can be a deal breaker if you have dogs unless you have a big enough group that someone is willing to hang out at the campsite during the day. For this trip, we didn't really hike, just scrambled around the rocks at the campground (with Circe in her backpack).

If you're into rock climbing, Indian Cove has some great options. D loves it, but I'm terrified of sheer heights, so I can't do it. Oddly, I'm fine clambering over giant piles of boulders, hence the rock scrambling.

I like to take January to think about goals for the year, but we're both on board with continuing our 2016 resolution of fitting in as many short camping trips as we can.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Christmas 2016

I spent a lot of time in the kitchen leading up to Christmas, and absolutely zero time shopping, which is exactly how I prefer it. I made a bunch of Christmas cookies, as usual, and packaged them up. I made this crazy lasagna for Christmas Eve dinner. It's my absolute favorite, but it takes basically a full day to put together. Luckily it can sit in the fridge for a day once it's been assembled, so I made it on Friday (along with Caesar salad dressing, croutons, and garlic bread). Then on Christmas Eve morning I woke up feeling like I had nothing to do so I baked a yule log. Emily introduced me to this tradition last year and this year we did a virtual baking session from our respective kitchens, texting pictures and recipes back and forth as we worked. (Notes on the recipes at the bottom of the post)

Christmas Day was a blur of driving and family and then we had a whole freaking week when we were both on vacation and at home, which never, ever happens to us. We made this huge list of things we wanted to do and then instead of doing most of them we took turns catching colds and ended up binge watching a bunch of TV and using the fireplace as much as humanly possible. It was still pretty wonderful.

cookie boxes 2016
buche de noel
christmas eve table 2016
christmas eve dinner 2016
stocking stuffers 2016

Bûche de Noël (aka yule log) I think this is going to become a tradition, so I promised myself I'd write down some notes for when I inevitably forget everything next year.

We used this recipe for the sponge cake + filling. Super simple, tasty. I didn't have any trouble with it except that the recipe specifically calls for a 10x15" jelly roll pan and I only have my beloved half sheet pans (closer to 12x17" if you're looking at the interior measurements) and a couple quarter sheet pans (9x12") from when I had a miniature oven. I stressed about whether I should try to scale the recipe up a bit, but decided against it and as it turns out I think the half sheet pan is exactly what you need. It filled the entire pan perfectly.

Notes -
- Beat the egg yolks thoroughly (3 - 5 minutes in a Kitchenaid). They should be very thick.
- Put parchment paper in your sheet pan and then spray it with oil. I had no issues peeling the parchment off, but some of the reviews mention that if you don't spray with oil it can suck trying to get the paper off.
- The filling is just whipped cream with cocoa powder, and I was afraid it would collapse quickly, but it held up pretty well. I made this the same day we ate it, but the leftovers were good for another couple days, so it would be possible to make it a full day ahead, possibly two (do NOT put meringue mushrooms on until the day you are serving it, though).

Mushrooms - I used this recipe for meringue mushrooms. I used superfine sugar instead of regular granulated because I always do for meringue (I don't buy superfine sugar, just blitz regular granulated sugar in the food processor). Some reviews mentioned the meringue being too salty, and I did notice that I could taste salt, but I actually liked it and no one else commented on it. Maybe reduce the salt a bit at first and taste before adding more? I didn't have a large enough circle tip, so I just cut the tip off the pastry bag. I didn't assemble the mushrooms with melted chocolate as the recipe called for because I was feeling lazy so I just stuck the tops and bottoms together with buttercream. I had watched Emily make the mushrooms last year, so I winged the technique but if you want to see someone do it this looks like a very detailed tutorial, although the video is crazy long (tip - she starts piping around 12 minutes if you need to jump ahead). Meringue will get sticky if it's damp out, so if you're making these ahead of time store them in an airtight bag. I found that mine were fine sitting on the cake for 12 hours, but by the 24 hour mark they were starting to get sticky. The ones in the bag held up perfectly for 3 days (probably would have lasted longer except I ate them all by then).

Chocolate buttercream - I used this recipe for chocolate buttercream and it was tasty but sweeeeeeeeet. I might try something less sweet next year (I usually prefer flour or pudding based buttercreams - Bravetart has my favorite buttercream recipes and tips and I particularly love her German buttercream although I'm not 100% sure it is sturdy enough for this purpose - maybe a ganache frosting of some sort?). But everyone else loved the sweet buttercream so maybe I'll just stick with it because it was super easy. One important note - this recipe makes at least 3 times as much frosting as you could possibly need, even if you are frosting heavily (which you don't really need to do with a yule log). I'd at least cut it by half, possibly by a third.

Making the branches - The recipe I used doesn't explain how to make the branches. I know last year we found a description somewhere but I can't find it now. Basically, I fill the yule log exactly as described in the cake recipe. At this point, I roll it up tightly in a kitchen towel and place it in the fridge, ideally for an hour or two. Then I remove the dish towel, place the cake on a cutting board and cut a slice off each end with a sharp knife (just enough to clean up the edges). To create branches, I then cut off a larger piece from one end (maybe 5" or so?). I cut this piece in half at an angle, creating two pieces that each have one straight side and one angled side. Transfer your log to a serving plate, then add the branches.Using frosting, adhere the angled side to your log wherever you want it. I put one branch coming off the side and one coming off the top, but you can have just one branch or no branches at all, of course.

Frosting - Once your branches are in place, carefully spread buttercream over the entire cake (leaving the ends exposed if you like). I used a small offset spatula with a tapered head for this (mine is like this one), and then just dragged the tip of the spatula in brush like strokes to create texture. You can also create a bark-like texture using the tines of a fork.

Decorating - for finishing touches add the meringue mushrooms on both the cake and the plate using buttercream to stick them in place (again - I'd wait to put the mushrooms on until the day you are serving the cake, if you made it ahead). This year I added sprigs of rosemary from the garden, and a few cranberries for color and then dusted the whole thing with powdered sugar (place powdered sugar in a sifter or fine strainer, then gently tap over the cake).

IDEAS FOR NEXT YEAR: I like having the two branches, but this makes a somewhat stumpy cake (ha). Next year if we want to get ambitious I think it would be fun to work together and make three batches of the cake + filling. This would allow us to get two full length yule logs and use the third cake solely for branches. If you're making more than one cake, you still just need one batch of mushrooms (could probably decorate 3 - 4 cakes with one batch). The frosting recipe I used this year could be cut in half and still frost two cakes easily, I think.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Mini Christmas

I took a three day weekend and went up to the Bay for some niece/nephew time. It was such a great trip and we tried to cram in our favorite holiday activities since we won't see each other for Christmas. We watched Prancer, made our grandmother's pecan ball cookies, and even tried to get my niece to decorate her first gingerbread house. Turns out 21 months is not quite old enough to understand the concept, although she quickly got on board with shoving as much frosting into her mouth as possible. These kids are the sweetest and coming home gets harder every time.

little helper
mini tree
casey, december 2016
gingerbread houses dec 2016
for the adults
gingerbread house

The adults ended up taking over the decorating duties when it became clear the kids weren't going to step up. Our candy supply was pretty limited this year because we were trying to stick with toddler friendly candy (we got snow caps, mini M&Ms, yogurt pretzels, mini marshmallows, mini candy canes, cereal and gummies) but we had a lot of fun anyways. I baked all the gingerbread pieces at home and added the stained glass windows, then wrapped them up carefully and packed them in a box in my suitcase so we could assemble them up north. In case you're wondering, yes, I totally got flagged for secondary screening at the airport because the scanner couldn't figure out what was going on, but it was worth it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reading, lately

I figured I better get a small round up done before the holidays hit and things get busy. I'll try to get one in before the end of the year as well, since I usually manage to get a decent amount of reading done in December. 

heart of light - reading, lately

All the Missing Girls - This thriller has a bit of a gimmicky structure, with the narration starting two weeks after the disappearance of a girl in a small town and then working backwards. I was a little annoyed at first because I kept getting confused by who knew what and when, but it started to make sense as the book progressed. I ended up enjoying it.

Now You See Me - The first in a series about a female detective in London. The premise is a bit gory, but the twists were good and towards the end I didn't want to put it down. If you like the Maeve Kerrigan series, or the Inspector Lynley series (before it went a bit off the rails), then I think you'll like this. I have to see if I can get on the waitlist for the rest.

Extreme Prey - I've never read John Sanford, so I dove right into the middle of the Lucas Davenport series, on the advice of a reader. I didn't feel lost, so I think each book probably stands alone just fine. This really reminded me of the Jack Reacher series (large, testosterone filled protagonist, strange conspiracies, detailed descriptions of weapons). Of course, I love that series, so this totally worked for me. If you're a Lee Child fan, check it out.

The Girls - My well read friend recommended this book ages ago, and I finally got it from the library. It's fiction, based on the Manson family murders. Loosely, I assume, but I know basically nothing about the Manson family other than the bits and pieces I've somehow picked up just from existing. The book was good, really evocative of the time and place. Story is creepy and draws you right in. I felt like it had some gaps in it because the entire story takes place in a really short period of time and the relationship the protagonist develops with the cult, and then the eventual breakdown, felt a little too rapid to be believable (but maybe that's accurate?).  But I can think of at least three friends that I could confidently recommend this book to, so that's a good sign.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things - For the first third of this book I just wasn't getting the hype because it felt very, very slow. But then it gradually starts getting creepier and creepier and ends up feeling incredibly tense and stressful. Full disclosure - I guessed the twist a little early so I didn't love the book as much as others have.

Loner - I was disturbed by this book, as I assume you're meant to be. A nerdy kid gets into Harvard and becomes fixated on a girl who lives in his dorm. I wasn't sure who I was supposed to empathize with in this book, but it is certainly not the narrator, who gets weirder as the story progresses. I didn't really love this overall, although it's pretty absorbing.