Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review- Alice I Have Been

My two cats, Mollie and Dinah. Dinah is the fat one on the left; Mollie is on the right.

I have a thing with Alice in Wonderland. I didn't watch it much as a child, but as soon as it was re-released, I claimed my DVD copy and wouldn't let go. I had a beautiful blue and white sundress that I called my Alice dress and I wore it to the premier of the most recent (and horrible) rendition of the story. I've read both books (the first was my favorite) and can quote the movie with ease. I even named one of my cats after Alice's cat; only a few people have recognized the reference, which is a little disappointing, I won't lie.

So, when I saw a work of fiction about the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll's beloved story, I was intrigued. I always figured that the inspiration was an unknown, common child- one of the many children Lewis Carroll came into contact with. And I was wrong. WAY wrong. I always knew Alice in Wonderland was written by a math professor, but I had no clue how many of the characters were based on real people (and not political satire, as so many people like to say). I also had no idea about the serious controversy between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell Hargreaves, his inspiration.

While I certainly agree that Melanie Benjamin picked an interesting topic to write a work of fiction on, I don't agree with how she presented it. No one wants to think a beloved children's author could have been too close to his child-muse, however, the information Benjamin presents both in her novel and its afterward, as well as research I did on my own, suggests that it could entirely be possible. However, Benjamin turned several other aspects of Alice's life into similar situations. I really liked how Benjamin presented Alice during her "muse years"- she really did seem like the Alice we all know and love. However, I felt like the change between young Alice and "mature" Alice was too drastic, and disappointing- I really wanted to see her maintain her spunk and curiosity about life throughout her life, rather than turn into a whiny and bitter woman.

I felt like it was a personal interest in the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves rather than the writing style of Melanie Benjamin that kept me interested in the story. To be honest, I skipped several pages (about 30 or so) and felt like I did not miss much of the story when I did. I doubt I will recommend this book to anyone, but if you are looking for a quick read with an interesting factual basis, this book might just be for you.

If you are interested in the book, here is a link:

I also encourage you to check out Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell Hargreaves on Wikipedia- especially take a look at Alice, as her personal life is very interesting and it is interesting to be able to see what the muse actually looked like.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Charity Feature- Warm Up America!

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of making items for charity. While I'm making them, I like to imagine the people (or animals) who'll be getting the items; I feel like it helps me make them with more love and care. I was introduced to my very first charity project through a national activity that my fraternity did. It was for Warm Up America, a project that collects knitted or crocheted rectangles to make into blankets. These blankets are then donated to abuse victims or families who have gone through some form of traumatic loss, such as a house fire. All donations are given to those in need in the United States, so it's a great way to do something for the ones in need at home.
I especially love this project because it has so few limitations. You can knit or crochet with any yarn, in any pattern; the rectangles only need to be 5" by 7". Therefore, this is a great project for beginners learning to knit or crochet, for anyone who wants to try out a new stitch, or for anyone trying to get rid of that scrap yarn! The only request is that if the yarn is made from a fabric that requires special handling (100% cotton, wool, etc) that you send a note stating so and making sure that washing instructions are included so that the recipient's blanket does not get accidentally ruined. Warm Up America accepts donations of individual rectangles, rows of seven rectangles stitched together, or entire blankets of seven rows by seven columns.
I know, I know- you're thinking "I can't do this, my rectangles will look awful, my stitches aren't perfect, etc etc." Warm Up America doesn't care! They want their blankets to be representative of the multitude of people who have contributed- that's why they love the different colored rectangles and even the imperfect ones! You're saying "But I don't have time!" A rectangle takes one hour- easy to do while watching tv or on a car trip! You're saying "But I have no clue how to do the rectangle!" Warm Up America has patterns for both knitting and crocheting on their website. Any more excuses?
This is an extremely popular charity- it has collection boxes in various crafts stores, has clubs throughout the US, and has been featured in several craft books. I very highly recommend them and hope to hear all about the beautiful rectangles people have sent in!
Please see for more information, including where to send donations. You can also follow them on Facebook at

This is the blanket that my Honors Program in college did as a service project one year.

Some of my rectangles that are waiting to be sent out. See- mine aren't perfect and I've been crocheting for years! Warm Up America doesn't care about perfection- they care about heart!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Skillet Beef and Asparagus"

Overall, today was a good day in the Crafty Mountaineer household. I cleaned off the kitchen counters (finally) and did a little crafting (to be posted later). Ryan and I had a great time at the WVU game- the epic win made our left-side-only sunburns totally worth it. I managed to do a little physics on my own before I decided I was looking at too many numbers. Mason, our darling puppy, discovered that he loves asparagus. And we had a pretty damn good dinner.
This recipe came from one of Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade magazines. Sorry, don't remember which one.
Skillet Beef and Asparagus
4 servings
Prep: 10 min, Cook: 8 min

2/3 cup beef stock (I used 2/3 cup water and 3/4 tsp of beef buillion)
1/3 cup orange juice
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper (I used red pepper flakes)
1/4 cup veggie oil
1 lb. sirloin steak, thinly sliced (I used a steak we had purchased on special- I don't think it was sirloin)
1/2 lb. fresh asparagus, cut in 1 in. pieces (we used more)
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrots (we used more)
1 tbsp. thinly sliced garlic (about 2 cloves)
4 thin orange slices, halved

In a small bowl, whisk together the first 6 ingredients (up to the veggie oil). Whisk well, then set aside.
Add the veggie oil to a skillet (we used a wok) and add beef. Cook beef 3 minutes, stirring constantly, or until desired doneness. Remove the beef from the skillet and set aside, leaving the rest of the veggie oil in the skillet.
Add the asparagus, carrots, and garlic and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. The veggies should be crisp-cooked; ie, they should have a slight crunch when you bite into them.
Whisk the sauce again and add to the skillet with veggies. Cook for one minute.
Add the beef and the orange slices and cook for one minute.
Serve over rice.

Unfortunately (and fortunately), hubband and I inhaled the meal too quickly for me to get a good picture of it- it's that delicious. We had to stop ourselves so that we could have leftovers for lunch tomorrow!
The dish can be altered pretty easily, depending on what you have on-hand. For vegetarians, eliminate the meat all together and just add your favorites veggies (or tofu, although I have no clue how to cook that). Beef can be substituted with chicken (although I imagine it cooks faster) or pork- just made sure to cook those all the way through, instead of to desired doneness. We'll definitely be experimenting with the dish here!

I also realized that this dish is super awesome because the majority of the ingredients I already had on hand. We only needed to specifically purchase the asparagus and the orange, which brought down the cost of the dish significantly. So, honestly, for everything that we had to purchase (I'll throw in the steak for fun), the dish cost about $6 at the grocery store for two people ($3 for steak, $2.50 for asparagus, and less than $1 for the orange). I imagine using pork or chicken would really bring the price down.

Bon apetit!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The R-Word

(A picture drawn for me by the client I currently job coach- he heard me talking that day about how much I love pumpkins)

As I've mentioned before, I work with adults with mental retardation and developmental delays (henceforth, MR/DD). I teach my clients job skills so that they can go out into the community and find jobs. I also "job coach," meaning that I take a client out to his/her job in the community and help them perform the job, either by making sure that he/she completes duties as necessary or just to make sure everyone interacts with each other appropriately (meaning no one picks on my client). My job is difficult and requires a level of patience that some days I'm shocked I have. And yet, I can't imagine working with any other population.
My clients have become a sort of family to me; as much as I hate being at work at 7:30am, seeing them really makes my day.
One client and I discuss Glee, our favorite tv show. Another one comes in full of piss and vinegar, one minute telling you to leave her the hell alone, the next giving you a hug and telling you she loves you; her favorite holiday is Halloween and it's hilarious to talk with her about it. There's one that I took to his job for several months before I had to temporarily leave; he and I make bunny noises at each other and joke about the food he sneaks in to work each day. The client I take to work now reminds me so much of my brother, with his fart jokes and quirky sense of humor.
And so, when I hear people use the word "retard" or "retarded" to describe something or someone stupid, I get furious.
My clients may have mental retardation, but they are absolutely not stupid. Some of my clients remember sports facts better than any announcer. Some of my clients can complete a puzzle by themselves that took me weeks. Some of my clients can do math better than some people I know (myself included). My clients are good, solid workers that would make any employer proud. My clients care more about each other and their staff than some people who say they care about each other.
So don't you dare call them stupid.
Don't call someone else "retarded" just because they're acting like a fool. Call them a fool, call them stupid- just call them what they are acting like.
Because, honestly, if they were acting "retarded," then they'd be acting like someone who's grateful for the job he/she has, no matter how menial. If they were acting "retarded," they'd be willing to love someone who's making fun of them and give them a second chance. If they were acting "retarded," they'd have amazing insights into the world around them. If they were acting "retarded," their willingness to try again and again each day would amaze you.
Don't use the word "retarded," then get offended when I tell you that word is NOT appropriate.
And, most importantly, don't insult the clients I love.

Please enjoy some of the wonderful artwork my clients have done for me:

This one was drawn by the client I used to job coach. The top picture is of me driving my car to where he works. In the bottom picture is Santa Claus and a bunny.

This one was colored for me by the client who loves Glee. It was such a surprise when she came up to my table and said "Here, I did this for your birthday!"- I had no clue she even knew it was my birthday!

Drawn for me by the brother of the client who drew the very first picture shown. They both love cars (especially Dodges) and cats.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Double-Edged Sword and Containment

Being crafty is a double-edged sword. Not only does it give me something to do during football season while my husband's hogging the television, it is somewhat empowering to look at project ideas or sweater-like items in stores and say "I cant make that." It was a pretty cool feeling the first time I looked at a sweater on a website and realized that I (as in ME) could make that. Granted, my first sweater was quite the learning experience and has some mistakes on it, but it's pretty flippin' cute and I'm proud of it.
However, as I've heard other yarn crafters complain, it does mean that anytime someone wants a handmade gift they instantly turn to me. And because either I tend to think I have more time than I do or the requester thinks that it takes less time for me to make a project than it does, I get swamped. This happens a lot around the holidays and what I call "baby season" (typically the spring).
My favorite example from a year or two ago was someone who asked me to make a baby blanket in early April for a baby shower in middle May; I said sure, just pick up the yarn you would like for me to use and I'll get started. A month and a half to make a baby blanket is more than enough time, even if I had other projects. Well, the requester forgot to pick up the yarn time after time (even with me requesting) until a week before the shower. The shower was the same day I was supposed to be leaving on a road trip. So, I spent that week frantically preparing for my vacation in between getting the blanket done; I was supposed to leave at 6 am for a 12 hour drive and had to stay up until midnight to get the blanket done. Moral of the story: If you ask a crafty friend to make a project, give them ample (as in, almost double what you think necessary) to make it. And get them the yarn pronto.
As an addendum to the moral, if you request the handmade gift, then YOU (yes, YOU!) purchase the yarn. I can't tell you how many times people have asked me to make them a gift, then been shocked when I asked them to purchase the yarn. I don't know what people are thinking: you'd have to pay for all of the materials if you purchased any other gift, so don't expect that a handmade one will be free.
Not only do I get swamped with requests (they really do all come at the same time!), there are things I want to make for myself. Which means that for years, I had piles and bags of yarn, books, and projects all over the place. It eventually got to the point that I was getting frustrated with all the mess and extra yarn all over the place (how my husband put up with it for as long as he did, I don't know). I tried different containers upon containers, and none really suited my needs. So, one day I noticed several women at a knitting group carrying their yarn and projects in the same bag. I asked about it, and it turns out that Thirty One's Organizing Utility Tote ($25, plus $6 for personalization, is perfectly suited for the job.

However,I found that the bag does not hold my pattern books as well as I would like- they fall to the bottom of the bag, rather than stay upright. Also, I like to keep my completed projects separate from the in-production projects. So, I purchased myself a small cloth box ($7,Target and Lowes, that keeps the books upright, as well as my completed projects and my bag of stuffing.

Now everything is contained and I've enacted a new rule: No new projects, for anyone, unless the yarn fits in my bag!