Friday, May 29, 2009

If Steve had a Blog, He Would Post This

My brother Steve set out to build a treehouse for his kids last weekend. And, he posted some photos of said progress on Facebook. When I saw the photos, I commented to him that the photos would make an excellent blog post.

His reply to me on Facebook was, "Yes, well, as soon as I get about 364 more excellent blog post ideas, I'll start one. I'll leave it to you until then. Maybe you could have an "other people's excellent blog posts if only they had a blog" week on yours and you could just post it for me."

So, today, here on Ate Up Amateur, we will let Steve and his kids sort of take over the blog. I'm not sure I could make a whole week of it...or maybe I can - send me your interesting blog post ideas! But, here's one for today about building a treehouse - it will make a good post for the end of May. End of May! Can you believe it's almost the end of May! Unbelievable!

Veda, second from left, performing in her class play, as an elephant.

I thought it might make a more interesting post if I asked the kids about what they thought about the project and about the photos of the construction to include in the post. First up was Veda. She is 8 and really not very available for such silliness. She has a busy social schedule and it was hard to get worked in.

I start with some small talk - are you glad school is almost over? I saw some photos of your school play. That looked cool. What do you plan to do with all your time this summer? Are you excited about the treehouse?


"I dunno. I want to go to Florida."


OK, a girl of few words. I decided to move on to the photos. I asked each kid what the photo was about, what was in the photo, etc. Those answers will be interspersed below...let's just say Veda's answers are all in the minimalist tradition.

Deacon, at Kindergarten graduation, with his teacher, Ms. Mercer.

After I spoke with Veda she moved on to her busy social schedule. Deacon came to the phone ready to talk. He seemed upbeat and interested. I of course again started with some small talk.

I saw some photos of your Kindergarten graduation. That looked like fun.

"Did you see the one of me and my teacher Ms. Mercer?" Yes, Deacon I saw that one. Why?

"Oh, well, because that's the best one. It's the only one I like." Why?


Are you excited school is out? What are you going to do with all your time this summer?

"Yes." "I don't know - maybe play in the treehouse and with the Wii."
Big plans.

Then we went on to the photos and talking about the building of the tree house.

Cora at her pre-school graduation.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Miss Cora last. She recently graduated from pre-school. The only person from the family there to witness this event was her mother. This is because up until the time of the event, Cora was on-again, off-again on whether she wanted to go. You might remember she can occasionally, just a little bit, on the side, be a little bit moody. So, her smart mother didn't invite anyone. But, she took pictures.

On this particular night, however, in this particular conversation, she was a lovely partner in banter. In fact, before I could ask her any questions, she offered up some tidbits of information.

"Today I went to Veda's show. She was an elephant and another girl was a leopard and she had a lot of leopard spots. Veda and me counted them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!"

Wow, Cora, that's interesting. Are you excited school is over? Are you excited to start kindergarten next year and ride the bus with Bubby and Sissy? (Deacon and Veda)

"Yes, but I'm not going to ride the bus home from school. Mommy will pick me up because I get out before them." OK.

Are you excited Daddy's building a treehouse? Will it be fun to have a treehouse?


"I dunno."

I asked all three kids what this structure was called - a clubhouse, a playhouse, a treehouse, what? Deacon explained, "Daddy calls it a playhouse, but we call it a treehouse but there is no tree."

Veda, demonstrating the post-hole digger.

Veda described this photo as one where she was "trying to dig a hole." She has a very literal mind, I've ascertained.

When I asked Deacon who's idea it was to build a treehouse he said, "Well, we were wondering what to do on a Saturday once, so this gave us something to do." He also reported that Veda was just starting out on that hole in this photo, and while it appears she might be wearing a hard hat in this photo, it is in fact only her "froggy hat". Whatever that is.

Cora reported that Veda dug a deep hole. "It was deep." I am not going to question the deepness of the hole....who dug the hole to that deepness, now well, that is another question. Ahem. I'm sure Veda was a big help, though.

Once that hole was dug, Steve put the corner beam into said hole.

Veda said, "Daddy's putting the thing in it and we're watching." Deacon added, "Me and Veda are standing there waiting, ready to pick up a board." And Cora had this to say: "I'm peeking behind the wood."

Everyone pretty much agreed here that "Daddy" was hammering and building the floor.
Go Daddy.

And what a nice job he did, no?

Here is where Deacon and Cora began showing a greater attention to detail when speaking about the photos. Veda said, when seeing the photo, and I quote, "Floor". OK! Deacon noticed the tools on the floor. But Cora, well Cora went into a very detailed accounting of what that pail on the left is for - it is a bucket of nails, you see. "You just can't see the nails." Cora also reported the legs in the photo belonged to her and Veda. Maybe - maybe. Sounds plausible.

I wanted to know what that tarp was for in this photo.

Before I asked that question, I got very detailed reports of the "wall, back wall, wall with a window, wall with a door."

When I asked about that plastic, though, Veda said it was to go under the floor. Huh? I tried to ask again, but got the same response...I was confused. To me, it looked like it was OVER the floor. So, I asked Deacon. He had the skinny. Apparently, another "floor" will go on top of the plastic tarp, so that's sort of a spacer in between the floors.

This also helps define the unfinished space for me. Obviously, the section without the plastic will be the "porch" or "deck" on the front of the treehouse.

You can see this delineation in the side view here.

And here, that front wall is starting to be in place.
And Deacon is standing by, helping.

This photo is telling to me, about what was going on during the build. Notice Deacon is still on the "construction site". And the girls - well, the girls are over there in that giant tube. See them?

I sort of have a feeling they were otherwise engaged at this point in the build, while Deacon hung on.

Actually, my dad told me that he and Torchy took Deacon to lunch this week. While at lunch, he asked when he could come over and spend the night at their house. My dad, his grandpa, told him that he and grandma would have to discuss it. Deacon then responded, "Why don't you discuss it now?" Well, OK. They did and suggested Saturday. Deacon said that wasn't going to work for him because the weekend was when his Daddy did the really cool stuff on the treehouse and he didn't want to miss that. Alrighty, then. So, Thursday, last night, he was penciled in.

This whole scene takes me back a bit myself. I remember as a kid my dad would drag me with him on the weekend to Central Hardware to pick up some various odd thing. It smelled like fresh cut wood. That smell to this day - no kidding - induces in me a Pavlovian response. I am immediately sleepy when I smell fresh cut wood. In other words, I would have probably been over there in that tube with the girls.

Not that I wouldn't have LOVED that treehouse. When it was done, of course, and I could hang some curtains in it. Not that, with three brothers, and a neighborhood full of boys, I was a very girly girl, and am not very girly even today. But, that's what I would have wanted to do. Decorate it, darlin'. Decorate it.

Steve, taking a break.

Or, at least that's what it looks like to me. I mean, he built it up to this point and he decided to sit down and take a little rest. The kids - they interpreted this photo differently. Veda said it was a photo of, "Daddy sitting in it." I asked her point blank if she thought he was tired and she said no. She thinks her Daddy is Superman. As she should.

Deacon thought he was sitting down in the chair to think up ideas about how to put on the roof. A photo of his dad sitting down doesn't look like inaction to him - it looks like a strategy session. Since it's Steve in the photo, I'm going to have to say he is probably right. Steve's one of the smartest people I know. And I'm not just saying that because he's my brother. He is. One of the smartest people I've ever met. Anywhere.

Deacon also pointed out you can see the wood cutting command center in this photo. Very cool area to a six year old boy.

Deacon, demonstrating the ladder.

Deacon reported the ladder works, "pretty good." He also said he's been practicing to use the ladder like his dad does - walking up it with NO HANDS. Apparently Steve has demonstrated this option to him and he thinks it's cool. He even said he did it once but hasn't been able to repeat it.

When I asked Cora about walking up the ladder with no hands, she said, "When you climb up the ladder, you use your hands AND feet." Don't be getting all "no hands" on Cora.

Getting there.

Cora noted the branch under the treehouse - that branch, according to Cora, was cut down by her Daddy to make room for the treehouse.

The back of the treehouse with siding on.

Further progress continues to be made. The roof has been completed and the siding is beginning to go up.

A look at the progress from a distance.

I notice the trimmed branch has been moved away by the time this photo was taken. Oh, and there's Dolly over there in the background. One of the sweetest dogs I've ever met. So sweet. I love that dog. Be kind to her, children. She's old and sweet and she deserves it.

Deacon reported that the roof looked like a roof on a house. So, when Cora told me the roof was on, I said, "Does it look like the roof on your house?" She reported, "Kind of, except it's black." I noticed in one of the other photos that the shingles on their house are gray. This detail did not get past Cora.

It's shaping up quite nicely indeed.

Of course, the really cool action will happen this weekend, and Deacon will be on hand to help and to witness the coolness of it.

When I asked Cora what she was going to do in the treehouse when it was done she said, "I don't know - it's going to be a treehouse!" So clearly, the possibilities are endless.

When I asked Deacon when he thought the project would be totally finished, he replied, "Probably on Sunday or Tuesday." We'll see.

I'll try to get a photo of the finished project to share with you here on my blog, you know, since Steve is still working on those 364 other blog posts before he starts a blog of his own.

Best wishes for a lovely Friday and a great weekend. Stay cool!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Cooking Basic: Cornbread

If you live in the south, cornbread is most likely a staple of your diet. Not that they don't eat cornbread up north - they do - it just seems to be more popular down here.

And, there are about as many cornbread recipes - and opinions about what cornbread should taste like - as there are people in the south. So, I offer this little post to demonstrate the basics about cornbread - not to issue myself as an expert on the subject, or to even say this is the RIGHT way.

For example, this recipe uses white corn meal. To some people I have just committed a grave error. And, this recipe has NO sugar. Another foul to some. Also, this cornbread is made in a round cake shape - not muffins. Sacrilege to many. This recipe is a coarse bread - you can really taste the meal in it. Some people prefer their cornbread to be more like cake. I say live and let live. What's more, I would never put milk of any kind over my cornbread. I'm just not gonna do it.

But, since the "how to string a guitar" post was so popular, (and I use that term popular loosely) I thought I'd try to work in a few more "how to" posts. And, people, I don't know enough about much to do a "how to" post on just anything. But, I do know how to cook. So, I thought a few posts about cooking basics might be interesting. If you're a master chef or even an occasional cook, this will be totally boring for you. However, if you like to learn cooking basics then you've come to the right place today. And if you don't, well, maybe you'll like the pictures. Or, come back tomorrow. I'll certainly have changed the subject by then.

So, here we go. This recipe is the one S's family makes. That's the way S likes it, so we use this recipe. That said, it has all the basics of a good cornbread recipe, minus the aforementioned personal preferences. I'm going to call it Anna's Cornbread because Anna, S's grandmother, is where S thinks the recipe originated. Whether this is true or not or just family lore, she's getting credit today on Ate Up Amateur.

Anna's Cornbread

1 1/2 cups white corn meal
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
Some cooking oil

If you're a novice looking to cook more, one thing you can do is take a basic recipe like this one, and change it up - add more baking powder to see it rise, sift the ingredients for a different texture, by all means add sugar if you like it. And, see what happens. It's science people - like little science experiments. And you just might like the outcome.

So here we go. The first thing you do is preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Then, you get out your cast iron skillet. Cast iron seems to be important to this recipe - I've baked it in a glass loaf pan and other containers and S says it doesn't taste as good. It probably crisps up pretty good in the cast iron, if nothing else. Anyway, you put some oil - a two inch circle, maybe, or less, in the bottom of a cast iron skillet, and you put that skillet into the oven while it's preheating. This allows the oil to become more viscous and cover the entire bottom of the pan. Note to you - should you try to photograph this action, do a better job than I did. Two blurry photos. Geez.

Then you measure out your white corn meal and your flour and put it in the mixing bowl.

Then follow suit with these. And give it all a toss.
(That means mix it together.)

Some action shots of adding the salt...fancy.

Next comes the wet ingredients.
Egg and buttermilk.

There's another variation. Sometimes people use "sweet" milk for their cornbread. I will have you know there is no such thing around our house as cornbread made with anything but buttermilk. But, to each his own!

Then mix the ingredients together with a spoon (or a whisk - S likes to use a whisk. I don't see the need.) When it's ready to go in the skillet, it will look like that bottom photo.

Take your skillet out of the oven. That oil will now be good and hot. You can swirl it all over the bottom of the skillet. Spoon the cornbread batter into the hot oil - check out that sizzle? Use the spoon to spread the batter (dough?) out all over the bottom of the pan.

Return the skillet to the oven and bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes.

Then go read something. Or cook something on the stove. Or feed the dogs or practice your guitar. Do something for twenty minutes. It'll bake without you looking or doing one thing to help it along. If you're feeding S, you'll slice up your potatoes and get them into the skillet to fry. Somehow, in S's head, cornbread must be accompanied by fried potatoes.

Ding! 20 minutes later, browned cornbread goodness. Amen.

Left-top. Right-bottom.
The bottom gets browner because of that oil.

Then cut it up and serve it with some butter. Or ketchup, or navy beans. Or ham. Pick your poison.

Another S oddity is pictured above - he CUTS OFF the BEST PART - ala the blueberry muffins with no blueberries in them - and leaves the crunchy bottom to languish in the pan. Strange man. But I love him, so more power to him. Keep on, baby.

So, there you go. If you're a cornbread novice, try it out. If you just want to try a new cornbread recipe, go ahead. Or, come back tomorrow and I'll talk about something else. See you then.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


It was a cold, windy, rainy day the day we had some free time in Vienna. It was probably some of the coldest, wettest weather we experienced while in Europe. It was also a Sunday, which meant the churches were otherwise occupied and not readily available for heathens like us and nothing - virtually nothing - else was open. The stores and some museums close on Sundays in most of Europe. And, good for them. Unless, of course, you are a tourist on your only day in Vienna. Then, it does limit your options.

I should say the night before our walk through Vienna, we did walk over to the famous Sacher Hotel and shared a piece of Sachertorte. After they made us "check" my sweatshirt jacket in the cloak room, we sat down in a very Viennese like room and were served. We were unimpressed. Perhaps we don't have a discriminating palate. It just tasted like stale chocolate cake to us. The coffee was good, though.

There were a couple of really well done tourism books in our hotel room. So, we decided to walk to the St. Stephens Cathedral and see what we could see, go to the Mozart House Museum, walk through the palace area and past the opera house near our hotel. Then, we planned to take a tram out to the big city cemetery to visit the graves of some of the world's most famous classical composers, (Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Strauss, etc) who are all conveniently buried next to one another.

First stop - St. Stephen's Cathedral

The cathedral is under reconstruction - it's porous limestone exterior requires a lot of upkeep. I do like the marketing on the construction sign - "Our St. Stephens Cathedral" as in Vienna's - not just the parishioners. It is of course an historic building, built on top of two former churches, and home to a congregation that stretches back to 1147.

I was struck, especially on the exterior, by the tile roof and how "Eastern European" it looked - as much as the Austrians don't like to be associated with the Hungarians, they are intertwined, whether they like it or want to ever admit it.

Mass was just finishing as we arrived.
They have a barrier to keep the heathens (tourists) out.
The priest blessed us as he went by. (God save their souls.)

When the parishioners went in for the next Mass, I followed them to take a few quick shots of the space before the next Mass began. It, too is a very impressive cathedral and houses a great many interesting antiquities. And, some dead people too. Every Catholic church needs it's share of dead people, no?

This lady right here - the one with the tan coat on and the fuzzy purple hat - she was none to impressed with me. She gave me all I needed to know by the look she rendered on me as she passed. "Filthy heathen tourist who is in my way and totally disrespecting my Sunday Mass experience." Yes, ma'am. That's all true. But, you see, it's my only day in Vienna, so please excuse me. I wish I would have captured the look I got. It was priceless.

I was struck by the different styles present all in the same place.

There was a medieval/renaissance altar, a baroque altar, and a Gothic pulpit. I also noticed, because we were there during Lent, the purple drape at the back of the main altar area - I figured there was a big crucifix back there, all covered up. From what I can find, though, it was just another old altar...not sure the "ruling" on all of that. I mean, that neo-classical crucifix was in plain view.

After the church - after they ushered us on out of there for the next Mass to begin - we tried to head to Mozart's house. This took some doing - it's sort of hard to find, and the map only gives you a vague idea of where the entrance might be. It is behind the cathedral, up a couple of small streets, on the back side of the main thruway. The museum did not allow you to take photos. It was a thorough accounting of Mozart's life in Vienna, and out of the 9 or so apartments where he lived, this is the only one still in tact. He lived there for two and a half years and produced a number of important works during this time, including Marriage of Figaro. The exhibits were well done and extensive. It was so much information that when we finished, we were exhausted, really. Interesting and exhausting.

Mozart is well loved in Vienna, as indicated by this homage, and by all the crappy souvenirs they sell with his likeness emblazoned on them! I was thinking of trying the yellow treble clef thing in my front yard. I'm sure S will mow around it and the neighbors will love it.

While walking through the streets of Vienna, we saw these two monuments to famous people with Viennese ties - the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler's likeness was on the outside of the Vienna Konzerthaus, and the statue to German poet Goethe (a little more peculiar and not connected to Vienna, at least as I can find) was on the road between the palace area and the opera house. Goethe has certainly had better days - it looked like someone had affixed some paper to his face on the day we were there...poor guy.

The weather didn't let on, but spring was around the corner.
Look at those buds on the trees?
And, I found the gates to be very beautiful.

In general, I found Vienna to be an architecturally interesting place, as witnessed by the photo montage above, but hard to enjoy in the weather. Additionally, I'd say the people are not too friendly - they are all (generally speaking) sort of "stuck up". Besides the history and grandeur of the surroundings, I'm not sure I need to return to the city. Perhaps I need to give it another try in better weather.

I like this photo of S and the overcast light coming in.

Here's another example of the great gates Vienna sports throughout.

I tried to use it for some interesting photos.
I'm not sure I captured what I was going for.

These are the "outtakes" of our "self-portrait" photo shoot.
We were in the palace area.
Can't you tell?

One more thing about that palace area - it's all museums and government buildings now. But, man oh man - I can see why the people revolted - what opulence! I'm not a communist or anything, but geez, this place was OVER the TOP.

A funny shot - an ad for a "Vienna Soul" station.
Apparently, Vienna Soul listeners speak English.

After we walked that area, we ate at this perfectly lovely Italian restaurant near our hotel. After several days in the Germanic countries and some really strange meals, we were sort of both over the schnitzel, if you know what I mean. This place was delicious. I will say, when we were in Italy, I got sick of Italian food. It's just that I guess we're used to variety here in the ol' US of A. For dessert, S ordered an orange sorbet. He wanted a photo of it, because it was served in a frozen orange shell and he thinks he'd like to do that here at our house when we have guests over sometime. If you're coming over, don't hold your breath. The photo of me - I was not upset - I was just cold and tired. And, so was S. So, instead of heading out on the tram to the cemetery where we could stand in the rain again, we went back to the hotel and took a nap. A Sunday afternoon nap in Vienna. It was divine.

So, that's our time in Vienna. We left VERY EARLY Monday morning on a train to Prague, where we had two days to ourselves to explore that city. I have lots to tell you about that place when I get around to it - and video. Video! I know you can't wait. I'll get that stuff up here sooner or later. That's it for today. See you here again tomorrow. Auf Wiedersehen!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

An Outdoor Concert

On Memorial Day evening, S and I and S's parents, Cheryl and Sam, went to Flagpole Hill to hear the Dallas Symphony Orchestra perform a Memorial Day Concert.

The crew.

This is an annual tradition here in Dallas, where thousands of people turn out to listen to the music. Most people go out with their extended families or friends and many have elaborate spreads of food and fun. We normally go with our lawn chairs and just hear the music.

This year, though, at sort of the last minute, I got a bee in my bonnet and decided to pick some food up at the grocery and take a little picnic out there to enjoy. It turned out to be sort of nice to get there a little early, sit outdoors, eat and people watch.

I should point out those bags up there are Envirosax. A set of five of those puppies roll up and fit nicely in a glove box. You can then easily take them into the grocery with you and load up all the groceries, no problem. Good for the environment. And, they are so pretty, too...they have a ton of designs. I highly recommend them.

We had plenty of food - the best picnic one can conjure up at the grocery store with little planning. I want to point out to my father - look dad - that I only paid $3.99 for 8 pieces - EIGHT PIECES - of fried chicken at the deli counter at the grocery. Bargain. BAR-GAIN.

My dad came to town once over Labor Day weekend, and we went to a parks concert at the Dallas Arboretum performed by the Dallas Wind Symphony. Anyway, because he was in town, and we were going to go to this concert, I wanted to prepare a special picnic. A little more planning had gone into that one. And, I wanted to buy some Bubba's Fried Chicken to go with the meal.

There were two things wrong with that chicken as far as my dad was concerned - first, we drove WAY too far to pick it up. Dad thinks we drive too far to do anything in Dallas. (Just did a Google Map - 2.8 miles from my door to Bubba's.) And, second, it was too expensive. We could have, Dad thought, gotten the deli chicken at Kroger for half the price and it would have been just as good.

Whatever Dad - Bubba's is worth the drive. And, I think you liked that chicken. Ahem. But yesterday, I did the "Dad thing" and got the deli chicken. And, yes Dad, it was darn good chicken. And closer to my house and everything.

We won't even go into what I paid once for steak when he was here and the reaction it garnered from Dear Ol' Dad...will we, Dad? (I love my Dad - don't get your panties in a bunch - this is all in fun, and he will know it.)

We also had some vegetables.

Some chips and crackers and salsas and dips.

And of course that chicken.

Some watermelon and other fruits.

Seed maybe? I dunno.

And some cookies.

After we ate, our bellies were smiling.
I even got S to show a smile on his face!
Sort of.

Sam, in addition to liking the fruit, was decked out in his patriotic regalia.

There were some others with the patriotic bent...

...a little blurry, but you can see that Patriot over there.

People brought their pooches...

...we did not.
And believe me, Ellie and Echo were just fine with that.

A little later, the concert got underway and the sun went down.

The kids brought out the spinny light-up thingys.
That's a technical term, you understand.

They played the Armed Forces Salute and Sam stood for the Army.
(Like this one, but a different arrangement.)

And this guy saluted during the entire Air Force tune.

I thought of my dad here too - gosh, I thought of you a lot last night, Dad. When my dad is there, and a band or orchestra performs the Armed Forces Salute, he can stand for three branches of the service - the Navy, where he served for 8 years, the Marines, because he was stationed with the Marines while in the Navy in Vietnam - the Navy supplies the Marines with all of the medical personnel and maybe other stuff too - I don't know the particulars. I just know he wore a Marine uniform with Navy insignia on it when he was in Vietnam. And then, later in life, he was in the Army National Guard. So, he gets to stand a lot because he served his country in lots of places. And so did a lot of men and women at this concert- the crowd really looks around and claps for them. It's very cool.

And then, after America the Beautiful AND The Battle Hymn of the Republic, at the very end...

...there were fireworks!

Being a 4th of July baby and all, those fireworks hold a special place in my psyche. I mean, when I was very small, my father told me they shot them off in honor of my birthday. So, I can do nothing but like them. It's ingrained in my brain.

It was a nice evening - a little hot to begin with, but as the sun went down it was a lovely time to be outdoors at a concert with a picnic, however thrown together. And, an outdoor concert honoring this country and those who have served it was even better.