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2012 January

Easy DIY Transformation: Muumuu to Cute Skirt!

Last week I made my first big thrift store transformation, and I am so excited to share it with you! But first, some background is required. 🙂 This whole post is an homage to the amazing Marisa Lynch, who turns crazy-looking thrift store garments into beautiful clothes in a million creative ways. She inspired me to get a sewing machine, and she keeps on inspiring me almost every day on her bright and beautiful blog New Dress A Day. (Her project started with the goal of turning 365 old garments into new pieces, one each day for a year, spending only $365 total. And she totally did it!) When I saw this big muumuu at my favorite thrift store, I bought it, with just such a transformation in mind. I cannot resist polka dots! I don’t know if you can tell from the picture how comically big it is on me, but no matter: I knew the fabric belonged in my closet!

I started by measuring the right amount to cut for a skirt. I wanted it to be close to knee-length.

I bought some 1″ elastic from my local fabric store and measured it around my waist to determine the right length. (You could also use your measurements, but I knew that I wanted the skirt to sit somewhere between my waist and my hips, so I moved it around until I had it where I wanted it.)

Then I put a simple seam in the elastic to close the circle, and started sewing the red fabric to it. There are several ways to sew fabric onto elastic, but I chose the pull and stitch way. Basically, you are stretching the elastic on both sides of the machine as you are sewing. Then when it retracts, it draws the fabric in, creating little gathers. It wasn’t too hard to get the hang of it.

I could not believe how quick this project was! And now I have a shiny new polka dot skirt in my closet! I think the best part is that I’ve still got the top of the muumuu to work with. I am scheming about what it will become…:)

I put it on this weekend (with teal, of course!) and loved it! Have you done any transformations like this one? I’d love to see them! If you are looking for ideas, I cannot recommend Marisa’s blog highly enough. Not too much else to report from my weekend, except that Eric helped me give the blog a bit of a fresh look (thank you!), and I wrote a new About Page, where you can see me, again, in, you guessed it…red and teal! Hope you all had a beautiful weekend!

Week in Brief

I love writing here. I really do. I’ve got a book full of ideas, a camera full of pictures, and note cards with post schedules strewn all over my desk. I love it. And I love the routine and the discipline that I’ve set up for myself, to post something here Monday through Friday without fail. I write my posts at night and schedule them to be published in the wee hours of the morning, for my friends on the East coast. Because I write my posts when the day’s work is done, and I have the luxury of some reflective time, it’s a relaxing part of my nightly routine. And then there are some nights, like tonight, when I’ve just got a rough headache. That’s life. Instead of giving up on posting, I like to challenge myself to adapt to my circumstances. To let the post I had planned wait for another night. To roll with the punches. That’s life.

And so tonight, I want to just tell you a few things about my week, a few things that made it special. Life is made up of little moments like these, so here is a necklace I’ve strung of my pretty little beads of memory, shimmering in the sunlight. This week I had my first Turkish lesson. It was so much fun. I love understanding how languages work, and I love wrapping my mouth around new sounds and new words. Being able to do this makes me feel like I am living the dream. I’ve been practicing my vocabulary on Eric. It’s fun. This week Eric and I spent several nights at our parish, where a wonderful monk from a California hermitage led us in prayer and reflection. It was beautiful. This week I hardly cooked anything at all, since Eric and I were both fighting colds. At least now victory has been secured! This week I made a skirt from a thrift store mumu. It has red polka dots. I love it. This week I started reading Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, which I am thoroughly enjoying, as much as I am enjoying steeping in decadent Bay area nostalgia. This week I made a new schedule for myself and am finding it beautifully impossible to cram all the things I want to do into one day. It is so wonderful to be alive. This week, and every week, I am so very grateful.

Easy Button Collar DIY

I have ever so many beautiful buttons, and I’ve slowly been working on some projects with them. One of my first ideas was to sew them into a simple collar for an everyday shirt. I love the way it turned out, and it was so easy and quick!

You could easily have this project done in the time it would take you to watch an episode of Dexter. Or Downton Abbey, if that’s more your cup of tea. (I myself like all kinds of tea, thank you).

I already had my buttons sorted by size from my button belt project, so I chose a top that was looking tired and got to work. Since it’s been pretty warm the past few weeks, I may actually get to wear it sometime soon!

I started in the middle and worked my way out on both sides, sewing in several stretches (I didn’t want to use a thread longer than 9 or 10 inches because long threads tangle very easily).

Now that I’ve done one shirt, I think I’ll have to restrain myself from doing this to all my other shirts as well. Because, you  know, that probably wouldn’t be good for my fingers in the long run. Or my wardrobe. 🙂 If you try it, send me a pic–I’d love to see how it turns out!

Buddha’s Hand Citron Cake

Eric and I bought this gorgeous Buddha’s hand citron at Berkeley Bowl in December, and for a week or so it perfumed our apartment with loveliness: a deep lemon scent with a hint of vanilla. (And before that, it perfumed our suitcases, much to the confusion of the TSA, who eyed it, and our bags full of bulk spices, with suspicion). I was determined to bake it into some kind of delicious cake, and am I happy to report that I succeeded!

I’ve seen these spectacular fruits for years and was always impressed by their gnarled little fingers. And those little fingers pack such a powerful citrus punch that I think from now on I will be buying one every year! I wanted to get as much of that flavor as I could into the cake, and so I planned to use not fine zest, but rather long peels of the skin from the fingers. Accordingly, I got out my vegetable peeler instead of my grater, but I soon found that the best tool was a paring knife: it let me cut long strips of fruit with no trouble. You can actually eat the Buddha’s hand whole–there is no segmented fruit inside, but just lots of the white flesh that makes up the pith of a typical citrus fruit. That white part isn’t terribly flavorful on its own, but together with the zest, it’s pretty zippy. That was a very long way of telling you that I wasn’t too worried about some of the white flesh making it into the cake. I am the opposite of succinct, am I not?

I wanted to keep this cake really simple, to let the flavor of the Buddha’s hand shine through. I didn’t add any lemon juice or vanilla, and I hoped it would turn out sufficiently lemony. And oh yes indeed, it did.

I loved that the chunks of fruit I had cut were thick enough to sink your teeth into. And the cake had a lovely fragrance and so much citrus flavor you would’ve thought I poured several cups of lemon juice into the batter. Buddha’s hand for the win, or, as my dissertation adviser used to say: “Economy of effort.”

Now that the cake is gone, I am wishing I’d bought several of these big guys. They would have been so fantastic in scones, or maybe even in madeleines. And, I should report as well that when I was researching Buddha’s hand and looking for ideas, several sources informed me that it is common in some parts of the world to keep this fruit in the kitchen, just to perfume the house. To this I have two words in response: Good. Idea.

In any case, you can probably expect to see the triumphant return of the Buddha’s hand citron to this blog sometime soon!

Buddha’s Hand Citron Cake

1 c butter
2 c sugar
1 tsp salt
4 eggs
2 tsp baking powder
3 c flour
1 c milk
1 c strips of zest and fruit from Buddha’s hand citron

-Preheat the oven to 350F and butter the inside of a large Bundt pan.
-Cream together the butter and sugar, and then add the salt. Mix in the eggs, one at a time, and then the baking powder.
-Mix in half of the flour, followed by the milk and the other half of the flour. Finally, stir in the fruit.
-Pour the batter into pan and bake for 55-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool for at least 30 minutes before removing from the pan. Enjoy!

My Necklace Rack

This is definitely a project, but more of a family project than an individual one. When we moved to Pasadena in August, I asked Eric to build me some kind of necklace rack so I could see my glorious bling, which was languishing in a cardboard box with no place to call its own. I have kind of a lot of necklaces, but that’s because most of them are plastic:) I drew up a few sketches for Eric, he did some calculations, we bought wood to build it…and then we got really busy. Dissertation busy, new job busy, new house busy. And we never really got around to it. Eric’s sweet parents came to visit us for New Years, and one night before they arrived I said to Eric, “Hey, maybe your dad could help us with the necklace rack.” Eric said, “Don’t think I hadn’t already thought of that!” Eric’s dad is a mechanical and carpentry genius. He loves fixing things, taking them apart and making them work. It’s a joy to watch him at it. He did fix many a thing while he was here, for which we are supremely grateful (hey, now our front door closes again!), but the sweetest and most beautiful thing of all was how he built this necklace rack for me, carefully and expertly and lovingly, and how the whole family joined in. It was an overwhelming reminder of how very much I am loved, and I will treasure it forever.

Here is my rough sketch on a paper towel, scrawled out after dinner one summer night. I think that is some plum juice in the corner.

Here is a sketch Eric made, with actual measurements and things, and then some notations in the sweet hand of my father-in-law. It turns out that we had bought exactly enough wood: only two inches to spare!

Eric’s dad sawed every piece of wood by hand, and then sanded them all to smooth perfection before drilling the holes for the screws. He did all of this on the hard stone of our entry hall. And it took about three days altogether. He is too sweet.

When the rack was put together, it looked a lot like set of bleachers, and I like that about it:) It seemed appropriate, given that we were going to the Rose Parade to sit in just such a structure.

After he drilled all of the holes for the hooks for my necklaces (72 in all!) he and Eric’s mom lovingly screwed each one in by hand, to keep from creating grooves that might snag my necklaces.

 My sweet husband got in on the action too, and it was so wonderful to see them working together, father and son. (In other news, yes, this is the blog premiere of my handsome and charming yet photographically elusive husband!)

Here is the finished product! Magnificent, is it not? There are three different sizes of hooks, and there are hooks on the front and the back of each beam. Amazing.

Now that is some fine craftsmanship.

While Eric and his dad were finishing things up, Eric’s mom helped me untangle all my necklaces. There were some tough ones!

Everyone helped bring the necklaces into the bedroom to hang. Going through them all was a lovely trip down memory lane, and I realized how many stories are locked up in these beads and baubles of mine. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me at all, but I think it’s an abundance of narrative worth celebrating. Once again it’s the everyday objects around us that hold our lives, our stories.

Every time my eyes fall on this necklace rack, I can’t believe it exists and belongs to me. It is such a precious treasure, such a pure product of the labor of love.

We had such an incredible time with Eric’s parents, and I am so glad to have this daily tangible reminder of our happy end of 2011 and still happier beginning of 2012. I could never count, even on the hairs of my head, how many things I am grateful for, but having such a wonderful family, including a new set of parents who truly love me as their own, is definitely very high on the list. 🙂

Return of the 80s

Maybe I shouldn’t say “return of the 80s” because the 80s never truly left us. We all continued to awkwardly bob our heads to Prince and Michael Jackson (or…maybe that was just me…) and now the glorious bright colors, football player shoulder pads, and, yes, even frizzy hair are back in our midst. For those of us born in the 80s, it will always have a special place in our hearts. And on our shoulders. And in our frilly scrunchies (ah, those were the days!) I got this bright blazer at the Bargain Barn, my favorite thrift store of all time, and I apparently stumbled upon someone’s entire collection that day: I bought variations on this theme in yellow, red, and orange as well, and I *love* them. When I was teaching Russian, I used to dress them up with skirts and boots, but today I went for jeans and a bit of a layered effect. The (backwards) belt is one of my faves.

I haven’t done a style post in ages, in part because we’ve entered into the darkest time of year, when it’s hard to catch the light. My sweet husband got some awesome photography gear for Christmas, though, so here are our first indoor shots with his new flash and diffusion umbrella! I love it that it’s a joint project:)

These pretty earrings were a gift from my wonderful friend B. She was a bridesmaid in our wedding, and she totally surprised me at our rehearsal by giving me a bubble wrap bouquet studded with all kinds of little gifts! It was so incredibly sweet. The bubble wrap is a reference to all the time we spent together helping wrap our husbands’ scientific equipment for research trips. I so treasure those memories, and those long days in the lab when B became such a dear friend, when we laughed as much as we worked, when we had the chance to be part of something so important to our menfolk. 🙂

These purple suede boots are kind of my pride and joy, and I still can’t believe I found them at the thrift store in my size. That was a red letter day, for sure. 🙂

I am hoping to be a bit more regular with style posts now that all the dissertation deadlines are behind me! I have been having a blast working on all kinds of projects in my free time, and so far, 2012 has been awesome indeed. Hope you are all having a wonderful new year too!

Santa Monica

Over Thanksgiving weekend, as I was scrambling to revise my dissertation, something unthinkable happened. Our campus email went completely kaput. I suppose it was not entirely unthinkable, since the system had been experiencing some serious hiccups over the course of the semester, but I never could have anticipated the message on our homepage Wednesday afternoon: Calmail will be down until Monday morning. No logging in. No accessing your files. I think many of us felt simultaneously terrified and thrilled: oh, how behind we would get! Oh…how behind we could get! All of my revision notes and emails from the committee were locked away in my email (for the record, steps have been taken to make sure such a thing never happens again), so what could I do? Nothing! I considered it an act of God. A good one. So, what did I do? I went to the beach with my husband!

The weather was insanely gorgeous: sunny, clear, and 75. Sometimes, when you are given a gift, you just have to run with it!

When we arrived, we headed down to the pier, which was predictably crowded, but nonetheless fun to explore. The pier is technically the end of Route 66, which holds a special place in my heart, as does its modern-day cousin, I-40. Oh, I-40, how much time have I spent on you?

The Ferris Wheel looked so lovely against the bright blue sky. We didn’t go for a ride, but admired it all the same.

As were strolling around the pier, Eric noticed this little star painted on the floorboards. So sweet. There is probably only one person in the world who remembers that, for a very brief time in high school, my nickname was Little Star, and that this is a fact of which I was proud. (Besfrinn, I hope you are smiling) 🙂

Since I lived in the Bay area for seven years, I have an unshakable habit of bringing a sweater with me everywhere I go. On this beautiful day, however, I wished I’d worn shorts! For the past few years, we’ve spent Thanksgiving at Sea Ranch with my family, so this is quite a change in wardrobe! But at least I was still at the ocean, even if my family couldn’t be there.

There were even a few brave souls in the water. I will be joining you, say, in July!

I took this shot as we were leaving the pier. I like the happy hustle and bustle. And that pigeon so bravely standing in the middle of the pathway. Perhaps he likes steel drums.

We had just as much fun exploring the city of Santa Monica, and we stopped for lunch at the tiny little Interim Cafe, where I had, hands down, the best veggie burger of my life. I’ve had plenty of doozies in my vegetarian days, but never one so succulent and flavorful as this one. Highly recommended!

When we’d worn our legs out, we headed back to our car, passing this enormous Christmas tree along the way. It was a perfect festive day, full of relaxation. Calmail, thank you for the early Christmas present!

My Favorite Academic Satires

A few months ago, I was having a truly dismal day with the dissertation. I was in such a funk about it when Eric got home from work that he started suggesting nice things I might do for myself to make myself feel better, or at least take my mind off it for the evening. Nothing he was suggesting was really speaking to me until he said, “Maybe you would like to read one of your favorite books?” Bingo! I jumped out of bed and grabbed my favorite David Lodge novel: there is nothing like a good academic satire to heal those in the painful throes of a dissertation. Although the dissertation is, blessedly, behind me now, I have spent the last few months revisiting some of my all-time faves of this particular genre. I know the semester (or quarter) is starting up again soon, so I wanted to post about these glorious novels on the off-chance that someone out there needs a break from Derrida or Foucault or differential equations before things kick into high gear again. All of these books will make you giggle with glee, if not laugh out loud, and they are pretty witty besides. I begin at the only true place to begin: David Lodge. He is completely hilarious, and brilliant to boot, which is a very winning combination. He has written fairly prolifically over the past decades (oh, happy fact!), and I have read just about everything his pen has produced. My all-time favorite, though, is Nice Work, the third book in his Campus Trilogy. I love this novel because Lodge so masterfully places the anxieties of the ivory tower against the backdrop of the equal yet entirely other anxieties of the world of industry, but also because he creates such unintentionally hilarious and memorable characters. He offers a moment of perspective for those of us publishing or perishing, but not without making us laugh along the way (and if we are really just laughing at ourselves, all the better).

The first book in the trilogy is Changing Places, which was described to me, of all places, in a Russian conversation class. It takes place in the thinly disguised locales of Berkeley and Birmingham, England during the Free Speech Movement; the premise: two English professors exchange positions in a faculty swap, one off to sunny yet volatile California, the other off to rainy and damp Birmingham to face challenges of his own. (I have to say, it was an interesting thing to be reading in light of all that went on at my erstwhile campus this past fall.) Our hapless heroes are introduced, and it is so deliciously funny watching them wade through the hazards of their environs.

The second book in the trilogy, Small World, is also a fave of mine; it focuses on the jet-setting conference-going aspect of academia in its earlier days. I read this book in the Minneapolis airport, for the most part, snickering loudly and probably annoying my fellow passengers, but, ah, the perfect appropriateness of this setting! I don’t think I will spoil anything by saying that one of my favorite plot lines concerns a professor struggling to write his conference talk even up to the moment he approaches his podium: who among us hasn’t been there, or at least had nightmares about it? In addition to the incessant humor of these academic transients, Lodge provides a sharp send-up of structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, and any and all other criticisms filling the rarefied air of the 70s and 80s. It is really good fun.

I will just offer up one more Lodge recommendation before turning to other authors, and this one is another classic, Thinks . . . Once again, Lodge provides us with parallel worlds, as he does in all of his best work: this time he approaches the question of consciousness from the perspective of literature and of cognitive science. The experimental ways in which the characters representing both sides of this coin begin to approach each other and their respective disciplines makes for seriously thought-provoking material about consciousness, which is, per Nabokov, the greatest mystery of all. And of course, it wouldn’t be Lodge without some hilarity thrown in, mostly through the wonderful vehicle of characters’ assessment of their own self-awareness. So lovely.

This list would never be complete without the granddaddy of academic satire, Kingsley AmisLucky Jim. This novel predates the others, and is wonderfully wicked. I found myself laughing out loud on almost every other page at the unexpectedly misanthropic proclivities of the eponymous hero. While Lodge’s characters may sometimes hold a grudge, their revenge is taken mostly mentally; Jim lashes out at those who insult him by pulling faces at them, scribbling on their magazines, drinking all their Bourbon, and, even if accidentally so, burning holes through their bed sheets with his cigarettes. The precipice over which he teeters for the entirety of the novel leads into an event of almost absurdly comic climax, but I shan’t ruin it for you, dear readers. 🙂

And finally, I offer a more recent send-up of the ivory tower, Richard Russo‘s Straight Man, in which the eponymous character is just that. This novel concerns the difficulties of academia from the professorial and administrative side. The realities of the university’s funding problems, detailed artfully in this novel, cannot be far from any of our minds. Why not, then, live vicariously through an English professor who, donning a plastic pair of glasses with nose attached, grabs an unruly goose by the neck and promises, on live television, no less, that he will kill one duck per day from the campus pond until he gets a departmental budget? Laugh away, my friends; it’s the best medicine.


This soup began with a package we received a few months ago. A glorious wedding present, it contained tons of Rancho Gordo beans and grains. This is a sign of someone who seriously knows me well (thank you, K!). We’ve been working our way through them this fall, and I couldn’t wait to make some posole with the hominy. Oh, delicious hominy, I have often been considered an odd duck because I like you so much, but it’s worth it. Serendipity smiled upon me, since the new issue of Bon AppĂ©tit featured a great recipe for this classic soup. So, a few days before Christmas, I set about cooking beans and hominy, roasting meat, and assembling my spices. The house smelled decadently delicious.

This soup starts with a slow roast of the meat: about 5-6 hours at a low heat, topped with onions and coated in spices. Yum. And just in case that picture looks creepy, don’t worry: the meat is in a Pyrex baking dish, and not directly on our counter top.

While the meat was working its magic, I cooked the pinto beans in the pressure cooker. I think our pressure cooker is just about the hardest working member of our little kitchen family, and I *love* it. Going from dried beans to dinner in 25 minutes is a magic I’ll never comprehend, but one I thank my lucky stars for.

Next, it was the hominy’s turn. I love how chewy it is when cooked–it adds a delectable texture to the soup.

By then, the meat was ready, and very easy to shred with two forks. It looked like pulled pork, and I felt a bit closer to home. Wow, I think this is the first time meat of any kind has been featured on this blog. Usually, my sweet husband takes care of it, and this was no exception, but I took over the rest of the dish:)

Once everything was ready, it was time to stir and stew it for a while, letting the flavors deepen and develop. This was our Christmas posole, and we ate it almost through New Years–it makes a big pot! We *loved* it, especially with lime, cilantro, and freshly baked tortilla chips. Even though it has been in the low 80s for the last week or so, I would still eat this soup any day and happily lick my spoon. 🙂

Slightly adapted from Bon Appétit 

1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2-pound boneless pork shoulder (Boston butt) (*We used pork sirloin.*)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 red onion, sliced

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 red onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 plum tomatoes, diced
6 cups water (or broth, if you like)
1 28-ounce can undrained pinto beans (about 1 1/2 to 2 c dried pinto beans)
1 28-ounce can white hominy, drained (about 1 lb. dried hominy)
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with juices, puréed in blender until smooth
1 tablespoon oregano (preferably Mexican)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Shredded mild cheddar
Chopped fresh cilantro
Lime wedges
Tortilla chips

-Preheat oven to 275°. Line a small roasting pan with foil. Mix cumin, garlic powder, and smoked paprika in a small bowl. Rub spice mix all over pork. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place pork in pan and cover with sliced onion. Pour 1/2 cup water in the bottom of pan. Cover pan tightly with foil and roast until meat is very tender, 5–6 hours. Let pork rest until cool enough to handle.
-Using 2 forks, shred pork into bite-size pieces. Skim fat from juices in roasting pan; reserve meat. 

-Heat oil in a large pot over medium- low heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the diced fresh tomatoes and stir until softened, about 2 minutes longer. Stir in broth and next 5 ingredients. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Cover; simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
-Add reserved pork to posole. Simmer uncovered 30 minutes longer for flavors to meld. Season to taste with salt and pepper, adding reserved juices from roast pork, if desired. Divide among bowls, garnish with shredded cheese, cilantro, and lime wedges, and serve with tortilla chips. Enjoy!

Corn Kernel Necklace

Eric’s parents are some of the sweetest people I know in the whole world. Having Eric in my life is already a gift beyond belief, but I never dreamed I’d marry into such a wonderful family. I love visiting them on their beautiful farm in Illinois, where the delights of summer include rowing in a boat on the pond, chasing frogs, spotting owls and deer, welding and shooting practice, and some seriously delicious food. Every fall when Eric’s parents harvest their crops, they send each of their two boys an ear of corn from the field, just so they’ll feel part of something that’s very important in their family, and so they’ll know that they’re being thought of back home, even though they can’t be there. When Eric and I started dating, I got my very own ear of corn too. 🙂 This year we received our first joint ear of corn, which we displayed on the table with some pretty pumpkins for the fall. As the corn was drying out and we were shifting into winter, I began to think of other lives this corn might have. A few kernels fell off every now and then, and thus an idea was born: a corn necklace!

Eric wasn’t sure at first if it could be done, but I did a few test pokes with my sewing needle and found that it would indeed go through the kernel! It required just a bit of pressure, but not too much.

Once I had all the kernels off the cob (and isn’t the cob pretty too?!), I sorted them a bit by size and then started threading them onto my needle. I just used my everyday sewing needle and a doubled-up length of silver thread, which I break out a lot for making necklaces because it is unobtrusive.

I had this necklace together in a jiffy, and I *love* to wear it. Sending us the corn is such a sweet gesture, and this necklace reminds me of that.

This is a special kind of corn, I should say, one with an already low moisture, so it lends itself very well to a project like this. I would think you could easily make a necklace with the decorative corn that’s sold in the fall, but probably not summer sweet corn. Popcorn kernels might possibly work, though I think of them as a bit harder, and, of course, your necklace would not be microwave-proof! 🙂

Eric’s parents came to see us for the holidays, and I was so happy to have this necklace ready to show them. I like to have them close to my heart, even when they are far away.

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