Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My Favorite Martian

"There's a huge spider in the carport," Todd mentioned last week. 

"Really?" I said.  I haven't been outside much, to let my bites heal, but yesterday I started thinking, I wonder if that big spider is still there?  Actually, I didn't need a spider sighting to know that they're everywhere here.  No matter how often we clean webs from our windows, they look like this in a day or two:

Our carport is absolutely wreathed in webs.

Todd's spider was dead (male funnel weavers often die after mating), but I didn't have to look far to find another one.

The story of this spider (Agelenidae Agelenopsis) made an impression on me.  I know that people are squeamish about spiders, and I often hesitate to blog about them.  But I was sitting at a traffic light this morning and mused, "That coiled wire above the light reminds me of that male funnel weaver's pedipalps..." and I knew I had to talk about this fascinating spider.  You may have to click on the photo to enlarge for detail, but see those "arms" with the funny shiny coils?  Those are exclusive to male funnel weavers.  Those "arms" (pedipalps) hold their sperm, and the tips are modified into fancy black coils (these are what are actually inserted into the female).  I read that these spiders are fast and have been clocked at 1.7 feet per second (on their webs).  Their webs aren't sticky and don't need to be, because the spider is fast enough to catch any prey that stumbles into their web. 

I spent an hour reading about funnel weaver spiders last night, and started thinking about my journey to 'spider acceptance'.  I've always photographed beautiful webs:

...but I've always been admittedly squeamish about the spider itself.  I had a similar feeling about praying mantises, with their staring, alien eyes.

But I forced myself to learn about them and get close to them...really close.  Now they're "my favorite martian".

I used the same method for my arachnophobia, and I've found some really incredible spiders.

(Again, you'll probably need to click on the photo for good detail!)

The crab spider, always hiding in flowers to catch insects that alight there:

The clever spiny-backed orb weaver, which checkers its web to warn off low-flying birds:

Argiope and her zig-zaggy web:

My favorite, the Daring Jumping Spider, with its big eyes, funny hopping, and beautifully patterned abdomen:

Don't forget the beautiful jade Venusta Orchard Spider:

There are many others, but I think I've made my point.  Far from avoiding spiders, now I'm even trying to include them in my craft work, like this embroidery project (a future pillowcase):

It's not always easy, but I hope you'll go out of your comfort zone with a new insect/spider that you may have, in the past, avoided.  Who knows what you'll learn?

Have a great week!  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

El mosquito no esta bonito.

I'm not going outside again for a long time.

Since we had a big group of friends coming into town to stay with us this weekend, I wanted to spend a day in the yard, tidying things up.  I know that I'm a mosquito magnet, and that the gentle "natural" repellents don't work on me.  Those containing pure DEET help, but I hate spraying those chemicals on.  I decided to forgo the repellents.  In another brilliant move, I also decided to work in a tank top and shorts. 

I trimmed bushes, weeded, used the leaf blower on the driveways and flower beds, and got to finish a project I've been wanting to do for a long time - removing the ivy from the rock wall by our outdoor fireplace.  It isn't done yet...but it's a start.

I noticed a snake clinging to one of the low-hanging tree branches there.

I think it's a juvenile brown snake and totally harmless.  I used a rake to carefully move him to the neighboring woods.

Almost immediately after finishing my work, my leg broke out in quarter-size itchy blotches.

Over the course of the next few days, my ankles and calves swelled with bites big and small, and I had poison ivy rash on both wrists and my right upper arms.  I slathered on the hydrocortisone and decided to take an "outdoors break".

So, I've been enjoying the outdoors...from inside, like my safe view of this squirrel handily besting one of our squirrel-proof feeders down by the pond:

I started a new knitting project (a cardigan):

I made a card for a friend who was getting married:

And, I finally finished the front living room.  The back living room has been done for a while:

But the front living room, for the past year and a half, has been completely empty, other than a couch, a couple of beat-up chairs (future projects), and our board game cabinet.  I've been really motivated to finish it, because it's the first thing I see when I walk in the door.

Front and back views (I believe you can click on the pictures for a larger view):

I've got my puzzle table (IKEA) set up right by the big windows, to catch all the available light. 

We have some wingback chairs for cozy reading spots:

And, I refinished this table that Todd found at an auction for $20...

...and it makes a perfect sturdy table for assembling model kits.  I'm so glad to have this room done!

Even though I have done an extraordinary amount of cooking/baking this past week (16 pounds of hamburger with caramelized onions, 10 pounds of chicken, 7 pounds of rice, 3 different types of cookies, cookie bars, 2 batches of blueberry muffins, 2 batches of cupcakes, and cinnamon rolls), it wasn't long before I felt like baking again.  We had some fresh local peaches, so I made peach crisp.  Todd made himself a plate, and asked if we had vanilla ice cream to go with it.  We didn't, of course, because an ice cream addict like myself *never* keeps a readily-available stash of it.  But I started thinking.  There's a local orchard that keeps a permanent summer stand at my gym, and they have the most beautiful blackberries I've ever seen.  What if I bought some and made a sort of blackberry reduction sauce for vanilla ice cream? 

So I did.

I cobbled together a recipe from multiple sites, boiled my berries down...

...and made the most delicious ice cream topping I've ever had.

Plenty of seeds...just like I like it!

Blackberry Reduction Sauce

3 cups fresh blackberries
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vinegar (or lemon juice)
1 tablespoon cornstarch (and a bit of water to dissolve it)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Combine blackberries, sugar, and water in a pot and bring to a boil.  Mash some of your blackberries (I wanted mine chunky, so mine was "lightly mashed"), and add your cornstarch (dissolved in a bit of water).  Simmer for about 10 minutes.  Remove from heat.  Add vinegar and vanilla.  You can strain out the seeds at this point if you'd like.  Stir, cover, and store in refrigerator until ready to eat. 

This is a quick 15-minute recipe, and yields delicious results.  I think it's a nice summer treat, and if you're inside making blackberry sauce, you are probably safe from the evils of mosquitoes and poison ivy.  Win - win!

Have a great week! 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Eek! My First Steek

It's been a busy few weeks here, preparing for company both this past weekend and next.  The pictures that have been leaned up against various walls for weeks have finally been hung.  Final coats of paint have been applied to waiting surfaces.  And, I finally found a coat rack!  I've been searching for months, but the only ones I've found were at antique stores, and they were not quite the right style or price ($65 and up).  Then, miraculously, I found one on clearance at Target for $17.  Simple, and it fits right in!  At last, I have a place to hang my bag!

A surprising source has taken care of my fungal gnat problem, too.  Because I'm completely inept at caring for houseplants and ALWAYS overwater (or, conversely, never water at all), we've struggled with the pesky fungal gnats that love to lay their eggs in wet soil.  I bought a carnivorous plant last year (a pitcher plant) that never seemed to do much.  This year, though, sundews came up from the same soil.

See all the gnats caught on their sticky stems?   Hooray!

I've been keeping an eye out for new wildlife, but all I've spotted so far is this really cool hawk - variety unknown - that perched in a nearby tree for a quick rest.

Inside, I've been a baking machine.  I've been baking bread (recipe here):

A 3-layer lemon cake with vanilla bean frosting and mascarpone filling (recipe here):

One of my favorites:  pull apart bread, this particular variety being cinnamon and sugar.  Lovely rise...

The moment of doubt when the dough, buttered, seasoned, cut, and stacked, doesn't fill the pan:

Relief!  The first rise takes care of that:

It bakes up beautifully:

A little icing seals the deal!  Recipe for lemon variety here - switch out lemon for cinnamon and sugar to make this particular variety.

I've been knitting, too, but I'm afraid it's been a real exercise in frustration.  I am not content to knit the same easy stockinette patterns over and over again - I want to continually challenge myself.  I decided a few months ago that I wanted to knit myself a sweater.  Not just any sweater, though - a stranded knitting sweater with sew-in sleeves and a steeked neckline.  I picked my pattern (Aunt Fred), ordered my yarn, and got to work.

The first issue I had was switching my dominant yarn color after a brief knitting hiatus.  The result?  The background color changed, and I didn't notice it for SEVERAL INCHES. 

I frogged it down to the mistake and then proceeded to knit it incorrectly, AGAIN.  I had to frog it all the way back to the blue ribbing at the bottom and start over.  Nice progress on the body, the sleeves knitted up nicely, but I attached them incorrectly:

You can't see here, but I knitted several inches above what is shown here before I realized my mistake.  I frogged and re-knitted it TWICE before I finally got it right.  Next came the shoulder shaping.  Again, I knitted it incorrectly TWICE before I finally got it right.  My stitch count was off by 10 stitches, but by this point, I didn't care.

I was ready for my steek.  I had put in 7 lines of "waste yarn" in the middle of the sweater, where the "placket" (V-neck) was going to go.  I spent a night watching youtube videos on how to crochet up and down the sides of the waste yarn to secure the edges...

...and then made my cut down the center, between the reinforcement.

Curses!  I didn't properly secure the top or bottom stitch, so I had little 1-inch pieces of yarn flapping.  I grimly tied them up and kept moving.  I was confused about the shoulder-seaming directions (now WHERE does that fourth needle come from?!?) so ended up grafting them together.  They look shoulder-like, but I'm not sure how they'll hang.

I picked up the stitches for the collar...

...but was confused AGAIN.  Pick up stitches along each side, and then short row wrap and turn along back of the neck...ugh.  Short rows.  I got hopelessly confused and ended up putting the sweater aside, even though I'm in the home stretch.  I need a break from it.  I started another sweater - just one color, and what I thought were detailed directions, but soon I saw the dreaded "Follow this same pattern, changing up x and y as needed, for 28 more rows."  I'm not someone who easily sees patterns, and I really prefer to have each row written out - especially when you have cable rows and seemingly random placement of knit and purl stitches throughout.  I put that away, too.  I think I'm going to take a knitting break for a while!

Phew!  I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

Have a great week!