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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Year in Review

You can ask anyone who's known me for a while: I don't make a big to-do about New Year's Eve. I don't "do" resolutions. I'm typically at home by 7:00 PM on NYE because drunk drivers aren't my favorite. During the decade I spent in Las Vegas, I whiled away precisely one New Year's Eve on the Strip, and that thing is rife with stories, only because they were so awful and exhausting and weird.

Typically, if I make plans to attend a New Year's Eve function, unless it starts by 8:00, I'm probably going to decide at around 8:15 that I'm nice and warm and getting a little sleepy, anyway, and skip it. I had friends of friends invite my family to a really cool ranch party in Las Vegas three or four years in a row, but the party didn't start until 10:00 PM, and by then, if I haven't already started amping up, I'm winding down in a big way.

As far as resolutions, I subscribe to the philosophy that any day is a great day to start a good new habit or to ditch a bad old one. I never want to be among the full parking lot at the gym on January 2. If I ever resolve to do something, I don't want to take it so lightly. And I don't want to wait for a magic date.

For me, January 1 is the next day on the continuum after December 31. You wake up, and nothing is substantially different. So, while I like any excuse to celebrate, this isn't one of "my" holidays.

That said, this year, I am looking back over the past twelve months and am more than a little awed about everything that has happened. This time last year, I was in a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend of six months; I was one month into what would be a full-on half-year battle with chronic pain; I was living in an RV, my home for nearly two years, on the east side of Austin... And there's so much more.

So, in no particular order, here's my 2013:

1. I got married! James moved to Austin in early February. He said that he wanted to be in town for at least a month to see if we could live in the same place without driving each other crazy. I might have been driven a little crazy. I was concerned that he might fall in love with downtown Austin and the lifestyle and not be in any hurry to "make it official." But at the end of February, when he'd come over for dinner, he mentioned off-handedly, "I was thinking about when we should get married, and April 1st seems like a good date." If you haven't seen our wedding video, here:

While I think this is the most raw and sincere expression of a love that leaves my man absolutely speechless, our officiant told James that he might want to write "actual" vows. He said that, no matter how "cool" I was, women want something different (maybe "normal"?) for their wedding. I'm so glad James didn't listen to him! James knows me. I knew exactly what he meant. He told me later that he knew I'd write something poignant (and, likely, verbose) and that he wasn't about to try to "compete" with that, so he went his own direction. I love his direction.

As to people who think this is just another weird Austin thing or that we're mocking marriage... Lots of people have fun at their weddings. This wedding was "us." My husband has never been married before because he never met anyone else he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. He was very serious. I was very serious. But we can be serious in our intent and still have a good time carrying it out. In fact, this is how we live our lives.
Photo credit Alec Hilliard

The past nine months of marriage have been like nothing I could ever have imagined. James and I love and appreciate each other. He makes my life so much brighter, and I try to employ Dr. Laura's advice constantly: "When you wake up in the morning, ask yourself, 'What can I do to make him happy that he's alive? And what can I do to make him happy that he married me?'"

My best friend lives in the same house with me. His company is a pleasure, and loving him is easy. I am blessed, and sometimes challenged, and head-over-heels in love.

2. Chronic pain defined the first half of 2013. The process of trying to treat my back pain (chiropractic, my first involvement with acupuncture, lots and lots of NSAIDS), then getting a diagnosis (thanks to the Volunteer Health Clinic) including my first (and scary!) MRI, to the hopelessness of months of only two hours of sleep at a time, to feeling very much like I was going crazy even to the point of giving my then-fiance an out... I have a much more compassionate view of people who deal with their bodies' unrelenting attack on themselves. It is honestly the worst thing that I have ever experienced, and I'm very sad that it colored so much of both of James' family's visits (for his birthday in December 2012, when it was first starting, and then our wedding weekend). I hate that my daughter woke up so many nights to my crying and felt like she needed to check on me, even though there was nothing to be done for it. But I absolutely adore my family's patience and long-suffering with me. I hope I didn't make it too awful for them; I tried not to. I felt so respected and "heard" by the entirely volunteer staff at the health clinic that it was a blessing to interact with them.

Starting in mid-June and proceeding on to the end of summer, the pain started abating. There are still ways my body tells me not to sit for a long time, but it tells me in soreness and stiffness, not shooting, searing pain. The last time I hurt myself was playing laser tag a couple of months ago, when I accidentally bent over with my left leg hyper-extended. However, a few weeks ago, when I flipped my head over to dry my hair, I noticed that my left leg didn't automatically kick out behind me or fold into my right leg. Testing, I was able to touch my toes keeping my leg mostly straight (it's a little rickety from non-use). Although my disc will always be ruptured, I consider myself "healed" from this episode right now. I am at about 90% of where I used to be, and could probably be closer to 98% if I pushed myself... but having pushed myself on the front end, trying to do push-ups and sit-ups and "bicycles" while I bawled in the floor, and probably making the problem worse... I'm not pushing myself. I'm being grateful for the slow advances in recovery. Unspeakably grateful.

3. The Nuthaus. Living this close to downtown has opened up so many opportunities. First of all, I can either walk or bike almost everywhere. If I run out of eggs or butter or just need an emergency cheap soda, they're all right up the road. If I want nice flip-flops, or fro-yo, or bubble tea, or kitschy Austin weird-wear: can walk. If I want to see what's going on at the Capitol, or enjoy one of the best Indian restaurants in Las Vegas, or have sushi or an incredible pear cider on tap: boom. Done. I can ride my bike to the library, to get the fancy cat food that we have to feed all of the cats because Aish only gets the best but she will eat garbage if that's what the other cats are eating. I rode my bike to the courthouse to file my name change request. I've ridden to book group, to church, mystery shops. We walk to meals, to sight-see, and to run errands.

But there's something else: If you've been paying attention, you know that we see a lot of super eccentric stuff around here. Beyond that, though, living this close to an urban center has given me the opportunity to get to know some of "those people" you might pass in a car and feel sorry for, but not be able to connect with. (Yes, I just ended a sentence in a preposition. To do otherwise sounded awkward.)

Yes, there are the people who have touched us and passed by, like Vanessa and Kenneth, the expecting couple James met when he first moved in. There is the guy playing guitar to whom James stopped to listen, and genuinely chat up, before offering him and his friends dinner. I have to say that in this regard, James is such an example and so convicting to me. He does not see the street people as a group of down-on-their-luck people. He sees them as individuals. People he'd probably like if he got to know them. And he's interested in them and their stories. He's concerned.

We have spent great chunks of time talking to the vendors on 23rd Street. There have been people who want to tell us their stories, even if they aren't asking for help. Our porch is a comfortable invitation, a place to rest. But there are people resting on the steps of the churches on Guadalupe, too, and they want to be heard. Just last night, Daphne and I talked to a couple who said they were in danger of homelessness. The wife had all of the work receipts that her husband had from working for a day labor service. There was one man who told me that the meal from Potbelly and the chat was worth so much more than when people just give him money.

People like that come and go, and it's incredible to get to interact with them on a minuscule level. But there are others we see more frequently.

There's "Grandpa," the man who looks barely older than my own dad, and sometimes not much rougher (though yesterday when I saw him, he had a great bruise over his left eye, as though someone had kicked him when he was sleeping). I know where he usually sleeps, and in the morning, he walks past the Nuthaus to Taco Cabana. He sits in the dining room and drinks a water, then he makes himself a lemonade. I have chatted with him once, and he is mostly "there." He just has that lost look of someone who doesn't have an anchor.

There's another man we call alternately "our neighbor" and "crazy guy," because he has two different personalities. When he's lucid, he's friendly and wishes us well. He will say, "Jesus loves you," and if you say, "Thanks," he'll usually stop and say, "Seriously. I mean it. He really does." He doesn't think we're taking it seriously enough. Other times, he's back in the alley, swearing at someone we can't see. Or at life. Who knows? Recently, he seems to have acquired a wheel-chair bound friend. Now, sometimes he'll be hollering and cursing, but still carefully pushing his friend.

And there's also a very sweet old lady who isn't homeless. She lives somewhere down the street from us, though I don't know exactly where. But she walks all the time. She has a walker, and her hair is always in a perfect bun. It might be 49 degrees outside, windy, and sprinkling, and she'll have on her shawl and plastic rain hat, walking with her walker. I officially met her about a week after James moved in, when I was working at the Nuthaus and saw her standing on the sidewalk, looking at the house. She said that she was so glad to see people living in these long-vacant properties. We haven't had a chance to chat again, but every time I see her, I feel like we're... well, neighbors.

Sometimes it's heart-breaking to see life as up-close as we get to see it living here. But I love it. I don't want to be blind. I want to know. And, if I can, I want to help. Even if that just means sitting on the curb with my arm around a girl I don't know, while she works through a panic attack. I love the Nuthaus.

4. The Pregnancy. Almost immediately after James and I got married, I got pregnant. Obviously, it didn't result in our having a baby, but I credit the pregnancy hormones with pushing forward my pain diminishing. When I found out that I was pregnant, I weaned off of the Gabapentin and Naprosyn as quickly as I felt was safe. And even though I'd found both to be a miracle for which I'd been desperate a mere two or three weeks earlier, I didn't need them anymore. When I was pregnant with Daphne, and again this time, my asthma abated. My mom has a friend whose intense rheumatoid arthritis goes away when she's carrying a baby. I am certain that I was pushed forward months of recovery time due to the brief influx of hormones.

5. Four Awesome Organizations. This year, I had the privilege of bumping up against four organizations whose work I so earnestly believe in that I'm trying to help in the small ways I have available to me. I want to share what they do with others, too, in case anyone else is moved to pitch in. These are also in no particular order:

Help One Now
James and I traveled to Haiti with Help One Now, and I can't even begin to describe what an eye- and heart-opening trip that was for us. Help One Now has been working in Uganda, Haiti, and Zimbabwe for some time, and they're just kicking off work in Ethiopia. The cool thing about Help One Now is that they don't go in and try to assert their presence or their way of "fixing" local issues. They work with established leadership, people who live in the countries, and who are already doing their part to tackle a problem that they see.

In Haiti specifically, we got to meet three such leaders. The first was Jean Alix Paul, a pastor/businessman at whose home we stayed. An orphanage, a school, a children's home, and a business incubation program are all under his supervision... and I think he probably does a lot of other stuff about which I have no idea. Also, he and his family and household graciously host visitors to Haiti. In 2014, the visiting teams will stay in a guest house closer to work sites, a project Jean Alix has also overseen.

The second was Pastor St. Cyr, who had a church and school in the urban city of Port au Prince before the 2010 earthquake. After that disaster struck, he planted a church in the biggest tent city, a place of otherwise darkness, where children were at risk for trafficking, where the was violence and desperation. He made it his goal to hold worship services every single day, to have some hope and singing and light in the makeshift neighborhood. Since then, he has build a much safer church building than the one damaged in the earthquake, and has been able to move the school there. They are very close to opening a medical clinic in the same building.

The third pastor we met was Gaetan Alcegaire. He moved back to Haiti (having come to the US with very many opportunities to work) specifically to start an orphanage on some family land. Immediately, the children came. For a long time, every day, all day, his goal was to find enough food to feed his kids. After the earthquake, things became even more desperate, and American groups would come, promise help, and disappear. Through a partnership with Help One Now, Pastor Gaetan has built dorms for his children, with whom he was sleeping outside under tarps because he explained that a shepherd doesn't leave his sheep. He has built a two-story school building that now houses 400 children, including all of the kids in his home as well as children from the surrounding area, many of whom cannot pay the $25 a year fee to attend. They are not turned away.
The children at Yahve Shemma, Pastor Gaetan's home. They had never
had pizza before and weren't sure what to do with it. Also, they are taught
not to eat with their hands, but to use utensils. Whoops! We meant well. :)

These three men all work in and around Port au Prince, Petionville, Guibert, and Kenscoff. There is a newer initiative in Ferrier, an anti-trafficking house where children who are basically caught at the border, as they're being attempted-smuggled out of the country. We sponsor a beautiful 8-year-old girl who was a house slave, and has probably lived a harder life in her 8 years than I have in my 40. It is my hope that they can find her family, and that she is able to get an education and grow up knowing the love and security that kids deserve. If you're interested in helping sponsor an orphan or at-risk child, or a teacher (remember those kids who don't have the ability to pay the fee for their schooling?) you can find out how here.

Homes 4 Vets
We first encountered Homes 4 Vets at a re-enactment event at Camp Mabry. This group seeks to provide housing and job/life training for homeless veterans. The details of the program are on their website. They have just submitted the paperwork to become a 501(c)3 charitable organization, and need $6 million to start on the rec center and infrastructure. They need $23 million to build out the whole community and to put all of the program into place.

They chose the dome shape for the single-family properties because of the durability of such structures. After the rec center and single-family domes go up, they have plans for family housing, four sets of townhouses each with a common courtyard and playground accessible only to the residents from those houses.

The residents will have two years to complete job training and life skills training, and the board plans to use their contacts to help them find employment.

It's an ambitious plan, and it's been started and is spearheaded by a retired dual-service Veteran, a young architect who caught the Veteran's dream, and the owner of a construction company. Since that time, a CPA has joined the board, and these four men are pushing forward this ambitious program. I'm excited to see what happens! If you know anyone in central Texas who has land they'd like to donate, or if you'd like to donate funds or time, let me know and I can pass your information along to them.

Rework Project
The Rework Project is also a local service to the homeless and those transitioning out of homelessness. The "Reworkers" learn wood-working skills by building and selling five awesome products: bird-houses, tree swings, huge tabletop Jenga-style games, bean-bag toss/cornhole games, and my favorite, picnic tables. They will personalize these to your specifications, and even with customization, they are incredibly affordable. Especially the picnic table!

The Reworkers learn how to and then build these products, then they are able to keep the majority of the profits for themselves. If you'd like to read one of their success stories that it near and dear to my heart, go here, and scroll down (better yet, just read it all) to the part about Anthony. Anthony isn't just the guy who lives in the same RV spot where I used to live. He's in our small group, and I consider him to be my friend. I'm so proud of Allison and of him and of this entire program.

Having lost 100% of their funding for 2014, Allison had to decide whether to pack it up or try to raise the $40k that Rework needs herself. In under a month, they've already gotten $36,000. If you can help, either in a one-time gift or a monthly contribution, go to here.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes
When I lived in the RV park, I saw Mobile Loaves and Fishes trailers. They also sponsored one community barbecue. Other than that, I didn't really know much about them until this year. They serve the street community extensively, with food, clothes, and shelter. Their most recent project here in Austin is best explained in this video.

Included in that video is a gentleman named Glenn who is familiar to me from church and Rework, too. Also, Anthony (mentioned above) has been doing a lot of work at the garden (included being stung right in the face by a bee; I guess that's part of it: beekeeping) and learning to can to use any bounty from the garden.

When James and I got married, we donated the RV to Mobile Loaves and Fishes. I hope it's going to be used in this community! Also, I did a dunder-headed thing and never got the trailer re-titled in my name, so they're having to do all of that, and they're so gracious about the whole thing.

So, basically, my life has been enriched a great deal by knowing that these four organizations exist. I mentioned Volunteer Health Clinic above, and that's one that actually benefited ME. I couldn't have afforded the MRI I got on my own. It's awesome to me to know that there are people who care, and who are out there doing the stuff, and who love and want to bring the marginalized into the circle of light most of us occupy.

I will say that being Facebook friends with some of our new Haitian friends is a little surreal. The other day when one of the pastors "liked" my post about the entire Firefly collection being on sale for $5 on, I felt like I needed to explain that I hadn't bought it myself... But then maybe he's a Firefly fan. I have no idea. But sometimes, it throws into stark relief the contrast between what occupies our day-to-day lives. And yet, because of Help One Now, we are friends. He can message me when he needs prayer for something. I am honored to be on the fringes of his life and the lives of others I admire. It is an inspiration to be in the orbit of these people who are serving orphans, and the homeless, and Veterans. It is an honor.

6. Life as Usual. Then there's the every day stuff, and that's just about as incredible as the extra-ordinary stuff, too.

First there's my job. Yes, I'm an insurance agent (with Hejny Insurance Agency). Yes, I find that every bit as funny as when I was a property manager. No, I don't think I'm awesome at it, but I can administrate stuff, and people seem to like to talk to me on the phone. Moses and Lisa offered me a job, and a spare office for my daughter to do school, at a time when I desperately needed an income, and was trying to figure out how to keep from sending Daphne to school (I don't think that there's anything wrong with school, and it might be an option in the future; but I didn't want my divorce and financial issues to force my hand). THEN when I wanted to move to Austin, they let me stay with them, working remotely... even though, technically, my job was, um, reception. So. I'm continually grateful for how they've accommodated my "special needs" time and again.

Then there's my daughter. As she matures, I see her becoming this young woman who both amazes and terrifies me. I think that it's probably normal to feel like you're "losing" your kid sometimes. And I am. She doesn't think what I think just because I think it and wish she did. She's becoming this person who is totally separate from me, and I am excited to see what she does with her life. She is clever and talented. She is a born leader. She is so much more secure than I was at her age. I love her with everything that I am. (And, yes, there's also an "everything" for my husband. Love is pretty awesome like that.)

And also, there is a group of  friends from church who have really lived out what it means to be community to me this year. We've had game nights, and shared meals, and evenings out, and birthday parties. We've laughed and cried together. We've shared concerns and hopes and ideas and pop culture. I've been confronted and counseled and supported and encouraged... and it's been fun and hard and purposeful. It's what this is supposed to be like.

D and I re-started BSF this year, and she's already made a new friend we're supposed to get together with this week. I'm still doing mystery shopping, and we've gotten to putt at a sports club, play laser tag, go bowling, see movies, eat at an awesome local sports bar a whole lot, and have all sorts of fun in exchange for paperwork. I'm comfortably settling back into Astro-owning. And all of the "normalcy" is pretty great.

Suffice it to say, 2013 has easily been the best year of my life. I'm eagerly looking forward to 2014. Hope you are, too.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Good thing we're so compliant around here!

My husband and I have quite a bit in common, but this is one of the most obvious ones: The surest way to make certain that James will not do something is to tell him that he has to.

If there is, say, something on his coat and I want to wipe it off so he doesn't get it all over himself and his car, if I say, "Take off your coat!" he would much rather dirty up everything. If I say, "Would you mind taking off your coat?" or explain why, or frame it as a personal favor in which I am desperate for his acquiescence, he will go for that.

I'm slightly more compliant than that about little things... well, outwardly, anyway. Okay, that's false. I'm just stubborn about "have to"s in a different way. For instance: I watched 24 minutes of "Napoleon Dynamite" and hated it. I gave it to the 40 minute mark to get better, and when it didn't, I stopped. People have told me that it grows on you after two or three viewings. I'm sorry, but I rarely watch movies I like three times. I'm not wasting time watching a movie I don't like multiple times. But what's worse is that people tell me, "Oh, you HAVE to watch the whole thing." Oh, I do? No. I don't. I will never ever watch it. Or Community. Or Parks and Rec. Or Battestar Galactica.

Lately, as Daphne and I have been listening to Ally Condie's "Matched" again, I've begun to see how this knee-jerk "Oh yeah, says who?" applies to my homeschool philosophy.

When we lived in Sherman, the library had a bunch of books along the lines of "What Your Fourth Grader Needs to Know." I checked one book out, I believe when Daphne was in "first" grade, and remember looking through the suggested reading list. I thought, "Whatever. Why does my six-year-old need to read these books?" She was reading Harry Potter and Calvin and Hobbes at that point. I didn't feel like she was missing out on anything. I reject the notion of cultural literacy. I mean, I don't deny that it's a "thing," but I don't aspire to be relevant in random morays.

The book "Matched" takes place in a future where there are only 100 books, 100 history lessons, 100 movies, 100 songs, and 100 poems that the government deemed worthy of surviving. Everything else has been destroyed. Humans have lost the ability manually to write letters, only typing on "scribes," which are like tablets. Everything that they write is recorded. There is no paper, no pens, nothing private. The government runs a utopia based on customized food portions, early proficiencies pointing to early job placement (jobs that can largely be done my computers, but people have to stay busy and to be trained in case the computers go down).

While I realize that there's a long way to go from where we are to there, and that might never happen, I don't want anyone teaching my daughter what to think. Common Core is something that seems to be hated by parents and educators alike, but it's still in place. I don't want my daughter homogenized. She is a special person. She might be a little weird. I mean, let's face it: she's my daughter. It was genetically likely.

So I feel no pressure by the fact that my daughter probably can't locate Colorado on a map. The fact is, she can look that up. She can draw a billion times better than I can. She spends the majority of her "school" day creating: drawings, skins, worlds, talking to friends all over the world. I won't have her tested, because I reject that anyone else has a right to tell me what she "should" know at any given age. She is her own person. She learns what she needs to know. And if all I accomplish in homeschooling is giving her the space to think for herself, then I'll be happy.

I don't think that my attitude is virtuous at all, nor do I think that it needs to be parroted. But I know so many homeschool moms who are stressed, held captive to the "they should already be..."s that other parents, professional educators (even those with charitable intentions), books. in-laws, and even spouses hurl at them. "Says who?" If the answer isn't God or someone who's going to pay my kid for knowing something, then I am not particularly interested.

Then again, I may have some issues with authority.

Detritus of years in a car

Anyone who knows me knows that there is no love lost between me and that Hyundai Elantra I've been driving since my van pooped out three and a half years ago. So selling it is not a bittersweet thing for me.

Someone is coming to test-drive it tomorrow, and we already have a couple of bids on it, so I just put everything personal into a bag to sift through, and I thought you might enjoy the inventory:

Orange/white swirl bouncy ball
Completely blank Harry Potter journal
My favorite winter hat! Yea!
My old coupon organizer (full of expired coupons; trash)
A super old DC to AC power inverter that my brother-in-law gave me (going in the van)
Emergency blanket-in-a-bag my Grandma Hannah made (going in the van)
Beanbag pillow from my back issues (retired)
Krispy Kreme paper hat
Lots of green twist-ties
RVOS sun shade
Golf ball
Band-Aids (going in the van)
Cat harness and lead (practically unused; for small dogs but even our skinny cat can't fit into it)
Aleve (going in the van)
Ancient Craisins, unopened (going in the van, even though they were best by 10/12)
Mega Mad Libs (going in the van)
Great Songs of the Church hymnal (??)
So. much. ketchup.
Googly eyes
Emergency socks (unexpected skating or bowling, going in van)
A conspiracy CD someone in Tulsa gave us a year and a half ago
A Logan's Roadhouse mini-bucket from a dessert Daphne got 7 years ago
Acupuncture needle the practitioner had accidentally left in my head
Dr. Kracker Apple Oat Crunch Culinary Crisps (stale, going in the van, because in an emergency, you'll eat it and like it)
Emergency bottle with batteries (likely dead), poncho, waterproof matches, twine, flashlight, etc.

What's in your automobile?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Homemade Christmas Croissants! (aka Don't Try This at Home)

Have you ever thought, "I should totally try to make croissants at home (like not the ones in the tube)"? Of course you have! Who hasn't?! I know I have. Multiple times.

Allow me to divest you of this brilliant idea.

Here is the recipe I used. "Classic Croissants" from the Fine Cooking website. You can read the recipe itself, and they have SOME step-by-step photos, but I'm going to show you what I did.


Since I wanted to have these on Christmas Wednesday, I had to start on Monday (or "Christmas Adam" as the internets is so fond of saying this year. I saw it first attributed to Jon Acuff's wife; I don't know where the rest of you got it.)

DAY ONE: Make the dough. That's the easy part.

DAY TWO: Create a big old butter pocket.

I took the advice I read in a comment or somewhere and made guidelines. One smaller square for the initial layout...

And a second for the final shape.

Note: if you prefer not to have graphite touch your food, be sure to draw on the "back" side of the parchment.

Dough with butter on.

 Now comes the rolling. Good gravy, Mabel, the rolling.

"I'm just starting! I haven't lost the will to live yet!"

Roll it out until it is about 22 inches long. Now it's a long piece of dough with one butter layer inside.

Fold a third of it.

And the other third.
At this point, you have 6 layers of dough and 3 layers of butter. You have to freeze the resultant block for 20 minutes. Then repeat.

Roughly 22 inches, but who really cares.

Now 18 layers of dough and 9 layers of butter.
Freeze it for 20 minutes AGAIN. Hope you didn't have any plans!

Last roll-out. The edges aren't happy.
By the time you wrap and refrigerate the dough for the last time, you have 54 layers of dough and 27 layers of butter.

DAY THREE: Merry Christmas! You're going to be busy!

The breakfast pizza recipe is here!*

You're supposed to roll this out to 41 inches or something, but after a combined half hour of rolling, it was somewhere in the 30-inch vicinity, at the longest points, and I call "close enough."

You're supposed to use a yard stick and measure and straight edge, but, come on, people. Pizza cutter, and knowing that they're supposed to be pretty much triangles, and boom!

Oooh, right, they're supposed to have points. Whoopsie!

Fortunately, I had some good-looking help.

The recipe said that this would make 15. We made 18, not including the turn-over I did with the scraps and the little ring of dough one of the cats managed to pull off the cookie sheet before we threw her outside for the rest of the morning. Our croissants were fatter than they were supposed to be because I could not roll out anything anymore.

That ended up being okay, because as it was, butter was coming out of the dough as we worked with it. It's the weirdest feeling. As we'd pull on the points to elongate the dough, you could feel that it wasn't a solid block of dough. 

Egg wash looks nasty up close. Their pictures look a lot tidier. I call "fake."

We made sure the chocolate chips were visible on the chocolate ones, so we wouldn't try to make ham sandwiches with those croissants.
They bake for 20ish minutes, and you have to move the trays around.

We ended up "losing" a lot of butter due to our handling of the dough. I know there's a way to prevent that, but you have to be so meticulous and careful, and ours still turned out fine.

Unfortunately, all of that butter in a 450-degree oven set our smoke alarm off three times.

Merry Christmas, neighborhood! Hope you weren't trying to sleep late!

When I pulled the croissants out of the oven, I was a little disappointed at how brown/black the bottoms were. But it's just super brown from the butter; they aren't and don't taste burnt.

Croissants with flash.

Croissants without flash.

Yes, they're beautiful! Yes, they taste great! Yes, I can see how making the dough thinner would help the flaky layer effect continue deep into the croissant (which is pretty moist and chewy in ours). But I'm plenty happy with these, and we'll enjoy them for days.


In the future, I will purchase croissants. This was a lot of work for a generous baker's dozen pastries, and a fun experiment, but now that I've done it, I will appreciate paying $3-7 for a really good croissant that someone else made.


*The breakfast pizza recipe is the third time I've made something with the instructions "make a well/crack the egg" and had the egg go EVERYWHERE. What am I doing wrong? "Make the well deeper!" Well, yeah, I get that. But this was supposed to be a pizza, and if I'd put it in a muffin tin, the shape would have been off. If I'd made the pizzas wider, then I wouldn't have had enough dough on the bottom to keep the egg from leaking through.

These ended up being beautiful AND delicious, but when I saw that white oozing all over the cookie sheet, I was initially extremely disappointed! I'd love your advice!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Laura + Astro, a love story

It all started on October 18, 2003. That's right, boys and girls, an entire decade ago. That was the day that I purchased this:

A stunning 1997 Chevrolet Astro extended passenger van. I loved it at first sight, but our ensuing relationship only solidified my affection for that six-year-old vehicle.

The Chevrolet Astro, which stopped being produced after 2005, is the only "mini" van built on a truck chassis. It has pretty astounding mileage for a big vehicle: 15 MPG in the city and 20 on the highway. It seats 7-8 passengers, depending on the set-up.

This Astro was a dream for several reasons:

1) It was easy to find in a parking lot. It didn't look like other cars. Or vans. Plus, it was a lot taller than most vehicles.

2) Roomy! We had so much room to spread out. This goes along with:

3) Flexible configuration.

This particular van had two fold-down bench seats. At some point, Daphne's favorite was to sit in the very back with the rear a/c blowing on her, folding down the middle seat so she could still chat with us.

There is nothing better than a few dedicated vents after a steamy day at the Durant Peanut Festival!
4) Dark blue interior. Did not show spills and stains. Did show pet hair, but what doesn't?

5) Front seat could recline pretty far back without requiring the amputation of the middle-seat passenger's legs.

Yes, I know how unsafe this is on so many levels. Spoiler alert: she made it.
Sure, the van had problems.

It had a lot of problems.

Something leaked from Day One. I grew to believe that it was the steering fluid, because sometimes it'd be very difficult to turn a corner... And then it happened that I'd get the oil changed and fluids topped off and miraculously could steer again. It came to be that the steering fluid seemed to drain at about 3000 miles, so it was the perfect reminder to stop in for service.

The gas gauge never worked. I had to reset the tripometer every time I got gas, and go back in for a fill-up at 300 miles. I believe that I let the gas run out twice and maybe three times during the years that I owned the van. The very last time it happened, we thought the van had died for good because it'd been petering out for a long time. By the time we realized that had actually occurred, we'd grieved over the Astro and had moved on. It was time.

The windshield wipers were intermittent. By that, I mean they worked whenever they felt like it, which wasn't reliably. However, when things got so bad that I would panic and really pray about it (like during a snowstorm in which I was terrified to pull over in the dark and wait, or when I really needed the car to pass inspection), they'd magically work for half an hour, then stop again. Fortunately, in all but the worst of gales, Rain-X actually works loads better than all but brand new wiper blades.

The driver's side window gave up the ghost after a while, meaning that I could roll the window down but not up. It took months and months of getting the window stuck in the down position when it was very hot or very cold or very wet before it became automatic to open the door at drive-throughs. 

Then there were the batteries and the cracked radiator on vacation, and several other things. But that thing got me through many years, hauled a lot of stuff, many friends and family, and I genuinely loved it, as much as a human can love a vehicle.

In fact, when we gave up on the car for good, in April 2010, Daphne, who was probably more traumatized than I was at the loss, wanted a couple of momentos. Until we moved the following year, she had these "couches" in her room.

Ever since April 2010, I have wanted another Astro. I notice them everywhere, and I have noticed that they tend to exist in one of two realities: Either the owner of said Astro has used it to haul cargo and it's completely spent, or the owner has babied it and it's beautiful. With my first Astro, when I took it in for an oil change early in my ownership, the man whistled and remarked, "Someone has babied this thing." It seems that that is common. 

Although I have adored the Astro and have been thinking about getting one ever since we moved to Austin, and then seriously after I got married, it wasn't until the air conditioner on my Elantra went out that we decided to get serious about trying to find one.

I was unable to find any that I liked locally; I knew I wanted the extended body (though that was negotiable), the passenger version (rather than the cargo one with no back windows), and I wanted it not to be plain white or tan or some other boring incarnation. I found one I really liked that Enterprise was selling in Kentucky, but they wouldn't even talk to me over the phone and the van was twice what I wanted to pay for a vehicle, so we waited.

Then I looked on the dreaded Craigslist, and there we saw this purple beauty that sent up red flags all over the place. It is a 1997 that has only 71,000 miles on it. My Elantra is a 2003, and I just topped 150,000. This smacked of odometer tampering. But, over time, everything checked out. So, here's the history of this van, as we now know it:

A lady bought it new in 1997 and owned it until October 2013. She serviced it regularly, and all of the maintenance, emissions testing, and registration renewals show up on CarFax. Also, the odometer readings are there since 2007, and they show a consistent use, albeit it a very low one. The original owner has several Mazdas, and her ownership of multiple vehicles might explain why the mileage on this one is so low. This fall, she decided to trade her Astro in for a Mazda, and one of the maintenance staff at the dealership went in with his dad to buy the vehicle for his mom, who had been wanting a mini van.

The new owner drove the van for a couple of weeks and deemed it too big. She didn't want it. And I'm glad that she didn't! It was so much easier to buy this thing from a private party. There were no games, no yards of paperwork. But we did meet him at the dealership, so we know where he works (and, ahem, where he lives) and he invited us to call him if there is anything wrong with the van.

I had to hound him, it felt like, to get him to send me the VIN and to meet us, but it turns out he's been really busy and his parents have been traveling, so it took him a while to get up to north Austin where the van was and to find time to squeeze us in. He said "A lot of people have been wanting to see it, but I just haven't had the time." So, this squeaky wheel is pretty ecstatic about the whole thing.

And now, without further ado, MY "NEW" 1997 CHEVY ASTRO!


Note: This is the first vehicle I've ever had with remote entry. Ever. Yes, it works.
Super sweet tape player! Under 71,000 miles!

Four captain's chairs, unlike my first vehicle. More reclining opportunities for passengers!

The back seat is a bench seat... but not *just* a bench seat. Stay tuned!
The model we looked at from Enterprise had pleather seats. I prefer cloth so much, I can't even articulate it. I feel like cloth is so much more comfortable (in my price range; I understand you can get real true leather that is buttery soft).

Comparing the distance from the ground of my Elantra's seat and the Astro's.
I'm up a foot and a half higher and the view is GREAT!
Speaking of view, the Elantra's windshield is 45 inches wide and very sloped.
The Astro's windshield is 56 inches wide, and at a less severe angle. The result feels very panoramic.
This is the bench seat, or "sofa," from the front.
I love that all of the seats have fabric that sweeps the floor. It makes the car look a lot neater.
I used to store a lot of stuff under my seats, and hated how junky it rendered the interior.

The sofa from the back. But... just flip the switch you see on the right wall and...
It's a very comfortable bed!
Too bright? Sun in your eyes?

I probably wouldn't do this with the back windows when in motion.

But I love having the option.
It's on all of the rear windows.

Unlike my old Astro, these windows don't open.
Each seat has its own set of headphone jacks for the radio and the television.
Also, you can control the sofa from the middle driver's side.
In fact, there is a whole separate sound system for the back seat! I didn't notice it until this morning.

Didn't notice this until today, either. Guess it means we can hook up the Atari!
Each seat has a vent and rocker directional lighting. There is also rope lighting behind the window trim.

For an older car, the designers really anticipated the need for power outlets. I believe there are at least 4.

Faux wood detailing.

And in the back, a perpetually-charging flashlight (which needs a new battery), and...

A car vacuum! This is perfect for me!
So far, the Astro and I have been very happy. We got out this morning and I showed her some of the sites around town. She seemed right at home.

Sunrise at Graffiti Park.

Thanks SO much to my awesome husband, James, who was almost as excited about this van as I was. They had an Astro when he was growing up, too, so we're both pretty nostalgic about the whole thing. Can't wait for a road trip!