Friday, August 31, 2012

SuddenlySusan Comes for a Visit

SuddenlySusan, also known as hubby's mom, came for a visit over this past weekend. We were really excited to have her here and show her our little world.  It's funny how you can live in a place for a while and not really know what there is to do because when you're at home you aren't really a tourist.  I'm going to split her trip into two posts:  one about the stuff we did and the other about the food.

Walking down the River Walk (Credit: SuddenlySusan)
From the moment she landed, we were going.  I think the three of us wanted to fit as much as possible into the time that we had.  The first night we went took a walk down the river walk and explored downtown a little bit.  Mom was so excited by the capitol building that we decided to visit it the next day for a tour.  I'm really glad that hubby and I saved the tour for when she was here.  Otherwise, we would have been super bored.

Chandelier (Credit: Suddenly Susan)
The capitol building is super neat on the inside and bit gaudy too.  I didn't think it was particularly gaudy until I looked up and saw the chandeliers that were straight out of an elk lodge.  They didn't match the overall decor at all.  It was neat that we were permitted to wander around the entire building without being required to submit to a security check.  Part of me wonders if that was related to the time of year.  Since the legislature is not in session right now, maybe security is a little more relaxed.

Mom "dying" again (AMSmith)
After our exploration of the capital building, we decided to head home and cool off for the evening.  It was nice cooking dinner at home and playing video games.  Mom was way too funny when she was playing Super Mario Brothers on the Wii.  I think it was really cool of her to be open to relaxing at home with some video games.

On Saturday, we decided to check out a local Oldsmobile museum.  It was really neat seeing all of the different models of Oldmobiles throughout time.  Also, by most of the cars, there were mannequins wearing whatever was in fashion at the time.  It added to the sense of times long past seeing those outfits.  It's sad to think that the last Oldsmobile was produced in 2004.  Also, we were left wondering what cars from today would be in museums in 20 or 30 years.

Checking out the "Woody" (Credit: SuddenlySusan)
Later in the evening, we decided that we didn't want to stay home and that nothing at the movie theater or red box seemed interesting, so we piled into the car and drove 1.5 hours to Ikea.  Mom had never been to an Ikea before, so it was an interesting adventure.  Plus, she had the added bonus of getting to see more of the state.

On her last day here, we took it a little easy.  It was supposed to get up to 95 degrees and with the humidity we knew that all of us were going to be cooking.  So, we decided to take a drive to where I work (about 1.5 hours away).  We packed all of our leftovers from the weekend into my lunch box and made a pic-nick adventure out of it.  On the way home, we decided to for go the usual highway route and took the scenic back roads home.

All told, it was a pretty amazing visit with our mom!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Making sorbet

I really like to cook, especially when those eating my food are my family and friends.  While mom was in town, hubby asked if I would make some raspberry sorbet.  Of course, I said I would and mom thought that it would be a great photo opportunity.  It was funny making sorbet with another person at home because I don't think about the recipe any more, I just make the sorbet.  As mom asked questions about each step, it became readily apparent that I know how to do something that most people do not.  I think that many people would rather buy their frozen desserts (sorbet, ice cream, etc...) from the grocery store, not necessarily because it's cheaper, but because they probably don't know how to make it.

Cooking the berries (Credit: SuddenlySusan)
I'll tell you what though, sorbet is one of the easiest frozen deserts to make.  When I make sorbet, I start by making a simple syrup.  Simple syrup really is as simple as the name implies.  All you need is a 2:1 ratio of water to sugar.  You bring it to a boil for one minute and that's it.  For berry sorbet, I add the fruit to the simple syrup and bring it back up to a boil.  I let it cook until the fruit is pretty much dissolved or broken down to the point of very small chunks.  Then I strain the berry mixture into a large bowl and refrigerate the mixture until is super cold (this takes a couple of hours).  Finally, I run the mix in my ice cream maker according to the manufacture's directions.  In my ice cream maker it takes approximately 25 minutes to go from liquid to soft serve.  If I want a harder sorbet -- and I usually do -- I freeze it for a couple more hours.  In all, it takes about eight hours to go from berries to sorbet, but so much of that time is inactive that it seems really quick.

Straining the mixture (Credit: SuddenlySusan)
I started making sorbet as a healthier, and more cost effective, alternative to store-bought dairy-free ice cream.  A pint of dairy-free ice cream tends to cost upwards of $5 (and sometimes more).  On the other hand, I can make a quart of fresh berry sorbet for about $3 and have the added benefit of knowing exactly what ingredients were included in the sorbet.

I have tried making dairy-free ice cream at home with little success, but I'll keep trying until I've finally figured out what tastes good.  Until then, various fruit sorbets will have to do.

What do you know how to do that others might not?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Baking bread from scratch

One of my favorite things to do is bake bread from scratch.  I love the smell of fresh baked bread and the feeling of accomplishment that I get when it comes out of the oven.  I've been baking bread off and on for the last fifteen years.  Baking (bread or any other treat) is one of my most consistent hobbies.  

The bread that I make is usually a simple white bread with just a few ingredients.  The awesome thing about this bread is that it can be jazzed up in a pinch by kneading in some fresh apples or by sprinkling cinnamon on the dough during the loaf making stage.

When we lived in Arizona, I used a bread machine to make my bread.  The bread machine was great because I could set it up and come home to tasty goodness.  Also, it didn't cause me to heat up my whole apartment with the oven.  Since moving to Michigan, I haven't used the bread maker as much and have come to prefer making the bread by hand (or really Kitchen Aid mixer) for two reasons.  First, the humidity in Michigan is much more variable then in Arizona.  Humidity does weird things to baking in that the amounts of flour needed for most baked goods fluctuate on any given day.  For bread, this means that I have to be present when the dough is formed because the dough might end up too sticky or too dry if I'm not there to monitor it.  This wasn't the case before.  The other reason I haven't used the bread maker as much is due to the size of our kitchen.  It takes up my entire counter, making it pretty hard to do anything else in the kitchen during the four hour bake cycle.  I think the bread maker is on it's way to being "decluttered."

For me, the most important part of baking a successful loaf of bread is respect for the yeast.  If you treat the yeast well, it will treat you well.  However, if you are mean to the yeast, bad things will happen to your bread.  Yeast is not very forgiving.  I try to keep this in mind when I'm warming the mixing bowl since the yeast likes a nice warm room to do its business, when I'm preparing the butter-sugar mixture because the yeast likes warm, yummy food, and when I stick the yeast in the oven (not turned on) because the yeast likes to work in a cat-hair free, warm environment.  As you can see, yeast is a finicky substance.  I haven't gone as far as talking to the yeast, but if I thought it would help the process I would.  Like I said, respect the yeast.

I think my next bread project will be to explore different types of breads.  Hubby likes pumpernickel, so that will be my next bread adventure.  Stay tuned!

**Update 8/27/2012**  I wrote this post a few days before SuddenlySusan came to visit and after chatting with her, the bread maker was indeed decluttered.  I hope that someone enjoys every future loaf that comes out of it.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Giving up soda

Pick me up during spring finals. (AMSmith)
Back in May of this year I quit soda, specifically coke, for several reasons.  First, I somehow managed to gradually increase my soda consumption up to two (sometimes three) cans a day.  Even when you drink the "short" cokes -- the 8 oz cans -- the calories really add up.  Second, the extra caffeine consumption was bothering me.  I wasn't sleeping well and could feel my body reacting to the extra stimulants.  Finally, drinking soda seemed to go against my minimalist philosophy.  

Soda and I have a pretty long history.  When I was a kid, my mom would "pay" me in six-packs of coke for doing my chores or watching my younger brothers.  It was a special treat because the only other soda in the house was yucky diet or, even worse, disgusting kool-aid.  I couldn't stomach the taste of either and preferred to drink ice tea, water, milk (the lactose intolerance came later), or coke.  I know that it sounds silly, but I liked knowing that I was the only one who got to drink the "real" stuff at home.

Fast forward a few years, and you can see why coke holds a special place in my heart.  But, like I said, things started to change.  I'm not going to blame grad school, but it was definitely a contributing factor to the weight that I started gaining.  I've always been a pretty slender person, so any fluctuation in my weight is readily noticed.  The stress of grad school and the desire to fit as much as possible into every day lead me to abuse caffeine -- A LOT.  During that first year, it was common for me to have a cup of coffee in the morning, two sodas, several glasses of ice tea, and another cup of coffee in the evening.  I rarely drank just water and started to feel rather yucky.  Noticing these feelings, I cut back to one cup of coffee a day, but the rest stayed largely unchanged throughout the rest of my masters program.

After moving to Michigan, I started embracing the minimalist lifestyle to a greater extent.  For me, minimalism isn't just about reducing the amount of stuff that I own or depriving myself.  Rather, minimalism is --oddly enough-- about maximizing the joy in my life.  Since I don't derive much joy from owning lots of things or being a consumer, I have consciously decided to own less.  The same logic applies to my caffeine consumption.  I don't derive joy from feeling like a strung out caffeine junkie.  So, I have gradually cut caffeine out.  First, I made a conscious effort to increase the amount of water that I drink.  Realizing that I enjoy water that is room temperature and tastes good means that I buy bottled water.  Think what you want, but it's a small price to pay to make me happy.  I do make sure to recycle the bottles.

Drinking lots of water gradually started to change the way that I viewed soda.  The carbonation didn't taste as good and my insides felt sticky.  I found myself drinking water after soda to get the taste out of my mouth.  When I realized what I was doing, it was time for soda to go.  I certainly wasn't deriving any joy from consuming it since I was washing my mouth out after drinking it.  So, I stopped buying soda.  I am blessed in that my husband supports me and the changes I make in my life.  He still drinks soda, but the temptation to drink his soda doesn't exist because he drinks diet.

The funny thing is that I now drink less iced tea as well.  I've become more mindful of what I'm drinking.  Most often, I drink water.  In the morning, I still have a cup of coffee and I don't see that going away any time soon since it is part of my morning routine and the process of drinking coffee starts my day of right.  If I feel like I need a "pick-me-up," sometimes I'll go for a walk to clear my head or make a cup of hot tea.  This has been a gradual change over the last year, so I know that the change in habits is likely to stay.  Like I said, living the minimalist lifestyle isn't about deprivation.  It's about maximizing joy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Living in 580 Square Feet of Awesome


Hubby and I have lived in small apartments since we were married.  With the exception of our first apartment, which was on-campus, all of our apartments have been studios or small-one bedrooms ranging from 450 sqft. to 720 sqft.  Admittedly, the 720 sqft. apartment was much too large for our tastes, but the price was certainly right.  Our current apartment is a one-bedroom with 580 sqft.

Living in a small space does require a little creativity when it comes to storage and function.  The main room in our apartment serves as the kitchen, dining room, living room, and Justin's work space.  Our bedroom is our place for sleeping and contains my work space.  We've found that we're both happy as long as we both have a space to call our own.  Since both of us are rarely home at the same time, with the exception of evenings, it never feels like we're never alone.  (As long as you don't mind kitty stares -- privacy is a foreign word to our "kids.")

I thought I would list the top four reasons that living in a small space is awesome:
  1. It only takes about 20 minutes to go from day-to-day disaster to clean.
  2. You can always find what you're looking for.
  3. Small spaces don't take that much energy to heat or cool.
  4. It's easier to resist buying more stuff.
Granted, living in a small space isn't for everyone.  When hubby and I were looking at our current apartment, the leasing agent mentioned that they don't usually let more than one person live in these units because people usually want to move out when a larger unit becomes available and the paperwork is a hassle.  I assured him that this was on the large size for us and wouldn't be a problem.  The funny thing is that the couple below us just had a baby.  I wouldn't be surprised if they moved when their lease is up.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

I didn't know you could do that!

Not too long ago I blogged about finding a new way to use an empty bookcase because I didn't want to part with it, but also didn't want it to take up space in our home.  I love finding new ways to use the things that we own.  Sometimes the things we love have something bad happen to them and this is a post about turning bad things into good things.

Right after moving into my resident assistant dorm room, back in 2008, I decided that I needed to add seating to the space.  Yes, my dorm room was big enough for a small couch and coffee table.  Being an RA was awesome like that.  But, I digress.  Justin and I drove the three hours to Ikea and picked out our first piece of furniture together.  The couch that we bought was a two-person, white love seat that fit in the back of the car (amazing, I know).

The little couch served us well.  We even bought a matching couch when we moved to our first apartment after getting married.  Sadly, Ikea no longer sells it.  After getting our cats back from my mom, things started going downhill for both couches.  It turns out that both Cali and Scooter like the feel of couch under their claws.  Our pretty couches went from pristine to shredded in the course of two years.  While both functioned for sitting, they certainly were an eyesore.

I toyed with the idea of buying a new couch, but couldn't bring myself to do it.  So, I started looking into what would be required to re-upholster both couches and was surprised to find that the answer was not much.


Upper Left: Me working on sewing the cover.  Upper Right:  The world's smallest sewing machine.  Lower Left: Tools of the trade.  Lower Right:  Completed project next to the matching couch.

One can take the "hardcore" upholstery approach and buy a bunch of tools, spend weeks deconstructing the piece, and then painstakingly replace the cushioning and fabric.  On the other hand, one can take a more laid back approach to the project and create what amounts to a well-fitted couch cover.  I choose the second option.  For this project I purchased a sewing machine, thread, 10 sq. yards of fabric, a measuring tape, staple gun, and staples. I spent $120 in total with the majority of that being the fabric.

The steps I took for this project include:

  1. Choosing the new couch color and the type of fabric.  Hubby and I decided on a dark purple microfiber for several reasons.  Dark colors are less likely to show cat hair and we like purple.  Plus, microfiber is especially easy to clean.
  2. Taking the couch apart (an Ikea bonus) and measuring each piece three times.  I'm a little neurotic, but I wanted to be sure that I didn't purchase too much material and wanted to ensure the best fit for each cover.
  3. Purchased the fabric from an online store.  I had shopped around in several local fabric stores, but the prices seemed a bit outrageous to me.
  4. Once the fabric arrived, I took apart the first couch and meticulously cleaned each piece.  Since I was planning on leaving the existing fabric on the couch it was important to start with a clean surface.  It wouldn't be a good idea to lock any existing cat smells in forever.
  5. Then I got to work making the cover for each piece.  I measured the individual parts, pinned them together, and then sewed them with my tiny sewing machine.
  6. Next, I slid the completed cover over the piece.  Pulling towards the bottom as tightly as I could, I stapled the cover the piece.
  7. Finally, I put all of the covered pieces together and reassembled the couch.  In total, the project took eight hours spread throughout a weekend.
I couldn't be happier with the finished product.  We ended up with a revitalized couch for a fraction of the cost of a new one and have a unique piece.  You may be wondering why I didn't just buy a couch cover from Ikea and that's a good question.  Before starting this project, I looked to see if Ikea sold covers for this particular couch and unfortunately the did not.  So my options were to buy a new couch or to make this one work.  

The response to the completed couch were surprising.  Many of my friends said that they didn't know that I know how to re-upholster.  To which I told them, "I didn't know that I knew how either."  The moral of the story is that you'll never know what you can do unless you try.

Monday, August 13, 2012

One Month without FB

Today is my celebration of one full month without Facebook.  I am happily surprised to say that I don't miss Facebook in the slightest.  Sure, I have had to make a few minor adjustments in my life (Like de-FBing my phone and loosing a bunch of contact information).  Overall, things are looking up.

A small recap of what I've accomplished in the last month:

  1. Started a blog and made a habit of responding to every comment.  
  2. Made lots of decluttering progress.  (Although the Smith 150 Thing Challenge is ongoing.)
  3. Spent more quality time with hubby.
  4. Churned through 1/4 of the reading list for my area exam.  
  5. Finished prepping the first half of my fall class.
That isn't everything that I have gotten done, just the things that I'm most happy with at the moment.  Of course there are still some things that I would like to complete before school starts in a few weeks, so I'm going to make a big push to get them done.

Life without Facebook has been simpler, if a little frustrating some times.  Hubby will say, "I posted this on FB, but let me show you on your computer since you're not on FB."  Or one of my friends will say, "I have a hard time calling or texting you because I never know if you're busy or not.  At least when you were on FB, I  knew that you could chat."  I'm not dead, I'm just not on FB.  Feel free to drop me an email or a text anytime!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Making Progress on the 150 Thing Challenge

One of the things that I like about being a minimalist is that I often recycle the things that I am no longer using.  Sometimes this means donating items and other times this means finding a new purpose for something.  This post is about the latter.

During a recent "organizing stuff into oblivion" binge, I found myself to be in possession of an empty bookcase -- a rare feat indeed.  Hubby and I have been going back and forth about this particular piece of furniture.  On one hand, moving it on in life would be a good idea because an empty bookcase is really just a temptation to buy more stuff to fill it up.  On the other hand, it's a pretty sturdy piece of furniture that might come in handy the next time we move.  You can see the issue.

In addition, we have a coffee table that has seen better days.  In the past, this coffee table has embodied our spirit of repurposing.  For a short time it was a traditional coffee table in front of the couch.  Then it became our fish tank stand when we tried our hand at being fish parents.  (We should have stuck to being cat parents.)  Then, in our current home, it became the media center under the TV that held our gaming equipment.  But, like I said, it has seen much better days.  Hubby recently agreed that when we move again, probably in two-ish years, that we can part ways with the coffee table.  

So, how does the bookcase dilemma relate to the coffee table?


The picture on the left is of the sad, empty bookcase.  It was just hanging out in the kitchen begging for a purpose that wasn't just collecting cat hair.  The picture on the right is of the re-purposed bookcase.  By turning it on its side I was able to replace the coffee table and make a new home for our electronics.  I'm not sure what I'll do with the bottom cubbies yet, but I'm open to suggestions... 

The Henry Ford Museum and the Titanic Exhibit

Hubby and I went to the Henry Ford Museum with my mom and little sister to see the Titanic Exhibit.  We couldn't resist checking out the rest of the museum while we were there and it was super neat.

Little Sister, Hubby, Me
Right when you walk inside the museum, you are confronted by the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile and the smell of cooking hot dogs from the cafe right next to it.  We were able to resist the hot dogs, but of course I had to have a picture in front of the Weinermobile.  It turns out that this is a popular photo opportunity for families, so we were very lucky to be able to get a picture without people walking through.

Then we went through an exhibit that shows the development of furniture throughout time.  It was pretty neat to see the different materials used to make furniture that went beyond wood and fabric. For example, one of the chairs that we saw was made out of bone.  I'm not sure how comfortable this chair is -- something tells me that ninja monkeys would fall from the sky if I tried to sit in it -- but it does look pretty uncomfortable.

It was finally time for us to go to the Titanic exhibit.  Unfortunately, cameras and cell phones were not permitted to be used inside the exhibit.  It was really neat though.  My favorite area was the room showing the differences between the various classes.  As a passenger on the Titanic you could be assigned to First, Second, or Third class depending on how much you paid for your accommodations.  The most expensive suites on the ship cost $90,000 (in today's money).  That's pretty extravagant.  Part of the exhibit is getting biographical cards of people who were on the ship.  Justin's person was one of the people to stay in the $90k suite.  Needless to say, he survived the tragedy that was the Titanic sinking.  I had a 14-year-old girl who was watching her brother in third class.  Both of them survived.  Unfortunately, my little sister's person, from second class, didn't make it.  Having that extra connection to the exhibit was really neat.  Going into it, I thought that my person wouldn't make it because of her class status and knowing that most of the third class didn't make it out.  I was pleasantly surprised that she did.

The last exhibit that we saw was, by far, the neatest in regards to being applicable to my daily life.  We went to the Dymaxion House.  In my excitement, I forgot to take pictures.  So check out what it looks like at the link.  The Dymaxion House is an 1100 square foot, 2 bedroom, one bathroom house that was created in the 1940s as affordable, modular housing.  I was pretty jazzed to be walking around it.  As we were walking out, my mom says to me, "But there isn't any storage space.  Who would want to live there?"  I told her that some people don't need storage space and that the house was almost double the size of my current apartment.  We definitely have a different idea of the amount of space needed to live.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Making a difference

http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/3370498053/
D Sharon Pruitt/flickr

One of the things that I'm constantly working on is my teaching philosophy -- not just the document that reflects my philosophy -- but the philosophy itself.

According to Google, a philosophy is "A theory or attitude held by a person or organization that acts as a guiding principle for behavior."  For me, my guiding principle for teaching is being student-centered and based on interaction.  I think that the best learning happens when students are invited to think on their own terms and to make discoveries on their own.  There are pros and cons to this approach to learning.  On the pro side we have the ability to create an atmosphere that is conducive to sharing and learning, the ability to meet students where they are in their learning process, and the ability to engage students in the material that goes beyond lecturing.    On the other hand, this teaching philosophy has the potential to blow up in my face when students are unwilling to engage me or the material or to step outside our information-consumer habits and learn to be information-producers.  


I use a lot of in-class activities and discussions to challenge my students to engage the material, but also lecture quite a bit so as to keep them within their comfort zone.  It's a pretty tough balancing act though because some activities that require getting up and moving around takes students out of their comfort zone.  One activity that I have been doing for the last few semesters with some success is having my students create and share skits that relate to concepts we are learning in class.  After the obligatory groans, many of my students seem to enjoy this form of hands on learning.  I use skits for higher level concepts that need to be grappled with in order to make sense of them.  For example, in my introduction to criminal justice classes I have students create skits that illustrate an index crime and a particular step in the typical processing of a case (arrest, bail, etc...).  I encourage the students to be creative, but to also keep their skits "work-place appropriate."  After each group presents their skits, I have the class identify several important elements including actus reus, mens rea, the crime itself, and the outcome.  One of the main goals is to get the students to understand that we cannot have a crime unless both the act and guilty mind are present, a concept known as concurrence.  This activity also reinforces the importance of knowing the index crimes and the various steps in the process.


Another way that I try to engage my students is by posing questions at the end of class for them to think about and creating an on-line space for them to discuss these issues.  I emphasis that this is their opportunity to share their opinions and learn from their classmates.  I'm still working on getting students to willingly participate in these activities since I don't usually grade them for points.  Asking questions is one way that I take my teaching from the classroom to real life as well.  When I'm having discussions with friends, I'll ask their views and opinions and challenge them.  Sometimes this results in really neat conversations and sometimes it results in really heated discussions.  Either way, I try to plant the seeds for future learning.  And in the end, isn't that what a teacher is meant to do?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

For the Sheldons of the World


A few days before going to Cedar Point, I read a blog on the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Have You Tried Being Likeable?," that hit closer to home than I expected.  The gist of the blog post is that being likeable is about much more than knowing your stuff or being smart.  I have a confession to make.  I struggle with being likeable every day.  The sad part is that I do not think I am alone.

When I'm out and about I try to smile at people and say hello.  However, I am terrified that someone will want to have a discussion with me and that I will not know what to say or, even worse, what I do say is taken the wrong way.  My sense of humor is very dry and, if taken out of context, can be misconstrued.  To make matters worse, I am pretty blunt with my opinions and tend to not sugar coat things.  I have learned that when people say I can tell them what I really think about them, their ideas, or their opinions that I should hold back the complete truth.  My "word filter" works overtime most days.  It is not that I am trying to be mean, condescending, or any of those other adjectives that have been used to describe me.  Rather, I think a lot about what people are saying when they say it and truly try to listen to them.  When I am talking with someone, I block out all other distractions and focus on them and what they are saying.

All of that being said, I am sure that I am not likeable most days and that this is affecting my ability to teach.  Every semester I vow that this is the semester that my student evaluations will not have remarks about my facial expressions being awkward or that I am overly inflexible.  Perhaps I am just too sensitive about what my students think about me, but it hurts my feelings when I try so hard.  To some degree, I think that my character traits are a product of my upbringing and my education.  Changing them would require me to change who I am my core.  So, I will go on smiling and trying to be likeable and hoping that people can accept me for who I am -- quirks and all.