Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Holiday gifts to make...

Firstly, I'm not even going to look & see when I last updated this blog- I'd be too embarassed! That said, I had wanted to post these ideas last year but didn't find the time before the holidays. Now we've got 2 years' worth of holiday do-it-yourself projects to share, so I hope they were worth the wait :)

I am a dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfer when it comes to gifts & gift-giving. Most of the things I knit, weave, tie-dye, & stitch end up as gifts for someone, & I find it very satisfying to craft things personally, thinking of the intended giftee as I make them. That said, having a son with fine-motor difficulties has made me think about making things, & gifting in general, differently than I ever had before. As much as I want to pass on this value for home-crafted gifts to my son, I also don't want making things to become a burden or a chore for him. I want it to be as enjoyable for him as it is for me!

So- I waited until last year, when he was in 5th grade, & had had the benefit of 6 years of occupational therapy, to propose that he make his teacher & family gifts himself. He was up for it, so we discussed some project ideas & the one he was most interested in was making beaded bracelets for everyone (approximately 15 people). We looked through the bead catalogue (my favourite beading source is Fire Mountain Gems) & Brendan chose 7 colours of czech fire-polished, faceted beads that he really liked. I ordered the 8mm ones, to be sure that he wouldn't have too much trouble handling & stringing them. I also ordered some nice wooden beads to use to make bracelets for his male teachers :) We used 1mm powercord to string them on, which meant no clasps to worry about. The 1mm size also has more body than the finer elastic cords, which meant he didn't need a needle to string them. I took responsibility for tying the knots, & used a combination of square knot & overhand knots, with plenty of testing to make sure they've caught properly.

We set up a work-station at the dining-room table, with a piece of cardboard to work on, a tape measure (so he could measure his bracelets as he went & stop beading when they were long enough), snippers to cut the powercord, a very fine crochet hook (you could use a tapestry or darning needle, too) to tie the knot around so it can be snugged up against the beads, & a plastic organiser box with dividers for the beads. We decided to make at least 2-3 bracelets per session, so that he felt he was making progress, & kept a list nearby to check-off the recipients' names as he finished each bracelet. I also tagged each bracelet as it was made, since Brendan was choosing colours he thought each person would like. We started about a month ahead of time, & although he was getting a bit tired of the project by the time he finished up, he did finish before the school break, so that all his teachers & therapists could get his hand-made gifts before the holidays.

As you can probably imagine, Brendan's gifts were very well received :) Everyone really understood that these were dual gifts- not just hand-made personally for them, but made by someone who has worked very hard to achieve the motor skills he used to make them. And Brendan not only received the joy of having made gifts for those important to him, but the pleased reactions of the people who received them, & the stories... one teacher came back from holiday vacation to report that he'd been asked by more than one person where he'd gotten his cool bracelet :) Grammie (aka: my mom) is never seen without the bracelet Brendan made for her nearly a year ago, that's how much she loves & appreciates it :)

So, when the pre-holiday season rolled around this year we didn't talk about whether or not he'd be making his gifts, just what Brendan thought he'd like to make this year. Having spent 3 weeks this past summer in Japan, Brendan decided he'd like to make beaded "omamori" good luck charms for everyone. I'm sure that the omamori that you get at the shrines in Japan are either blessed or have prayers inside them, since they are supposed to protect from bad luck by absorbing the bad luck into them, but we decided that making something intentionally for someone, thinking about them as it's made, would serve the same purpose. ("Omamori" comes from the verb "mamoru" which means "to protect".)

So, out came the Fire Mountain catalogue & Brendan chose 3 types of focus beads- hemalyke twisted ovals, blue glass with gold details, & sodalite nuggets (he really loves blue :) We also ordered cell phone straps to attach them to & crimp beads with a little loop on them, to hang on the phone straps. I contributed accuflex beading wire & smaller beads (many different kinds of gemstones & shapes) from my stash.

When we sat down to begin them (after making a list of this year's recipients) I showed Brendan a few ways that he could use the wire & beads to make different shapes of omamori. I suggested that he keep them under 4" long & not use too many heavy beads on one project (when I told him that one of his teachers could use hers for self-defence, he lightened the bead-load a bit :). Brendan's favourite shape to make them was with a small stopper bead threaded onto a 6-8" length of accuflex wire, then to put the 2 ends of wire together & thread them both through bigger beads, in a row. Some of them he varied by threading small beads onto each wire, then bringing them together again through bigger beads. Brendan was really creative with his choices of bead combinations & really seemed to enjoy designing them. We finished them by putting both ends of the wire together through the end of the crimp bead opposite the loop, then crimping them tightly with pliers (Brendan became very good at the crimping & testing to be sure they've held). I did most of the intallation on the phone cords, since the jump rings take a lot of strength to open & it hurt his fingers to do it, even with pliers.

The great part of this year's project is that he's been so into it he's made extras (for himself, his best buddy, added other people to the list...). We started making these just last weekend & he's made all but 2 (as of this moment)- about 15 of them made! He's also been dropping hints to his teachers about what he's making for them :) Yesterday, after melting down over a frustrating bit in a computer game, I suggested he make some of his gifts as a calming activity... & he was calm & focused on beading within just a few minutes. When he finishes each one he holds it in his palm for a few seconds, to finish putting good vibes into it. That's my boy... :)

I hope these ideas will inspire others to create home-made gifts, too. Happy, happy holidays!!

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Russian Tea": a warm winter drink...

I first encountered "Russian Tea" in the early 70's when I was in high school. I went to an alternative school, so things were very relaxed & it was common to start classes with a cup of tea & a chat with the teacher or friends. Although I do remember drinking this tea in Russian class, I can't imagine it's really of Russian origin, considering the ingredients. It's an easy mix to put together & the flavours can be played-with & fine-tuned to individual tastes or dietary needs. It's a really good alternative to cocoa, too, & requires only hot (not necessarily boiling) water to bring it to life :)

Russian Tea:

2 cups of Tang (instant orange juice mix)

1 envelope of unsweetened KoolAid or lemonade (optional)

1/2 cup of sugar (Splenda?)

1/2 cup of unsweetened, instant tea (decaf works, if you can find it)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp each of cloves & nutmeg (allspice works well, too)

Mix together & store in airtight jar (it's pretty hydrophilic, so will harden-up if kept for a long time)

Use 1 heaping tbsp per cup of hot water (to taste) & mix well.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Alternative to dryer sheets...

Okay, this may seem a bit odd, but for anyone out there who wants to use anti-static dryer sheets but has family members with sensory issues or just doesn't like the expense & waste (both conditions are true for my family)... then I have found a really good alternative :) I found these dryer balls on the Gaiam web site, where I buy my toilet paper & other "green" products. I thought, "what the heck" & gave 'em a try. And they really work! Gaiam sells them for $18 & they have a 2-year guarantee (see the dryer balls site for more info). I was ready to give the dryer sheets up entirely after B was born (I certainly didn't use them when he was a baby, even the non-scented ones) but my husband finds the sensation of his socks clinging to his trousers uncomfortable :) so I started using the scent-free ones when B was older. With B's sensitivity to strong, perfumy smells the scented ones were never an option... plus, I use lavender scented laundry soap as aromatherapy for him, so it'd be silly to cover up that nice scent. I am really pleased with this alternative to dryer sheets. Be aware, they're a bit noisy at first (when the laundry is still really wet) bouncing around in the dryer, but get quieter very rapidly. So, there's the Worksop hint of the day... :)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Manga-style drawing...

Due to a combination of factors, B has never taken naturally to drawing. His delayed fine-motor skills, hypotonia, & lack of binocular vision made it physically difficult for him to enjoy the process of drawing, & as a result, he never seemed to get the "point" of it nor was it an activity that he found soothing or helpful for passing time. When asked to draw in kindergarten, B usually produced mono-chromatic scribbles, which slowly changed as he received OT & visual-perceptual therapy. By the time he was 6 & about 8 months into these therapies, B produced this picture:

...which I have framed in my craft room. It is a depiction of the "Protections of the Sorcerer's Stone" from Harry Potter, inspired by a lego set he'd gotten that year. It is not only one of the first multi-coloured pictures B ever drew, but one of the first with a legible title, written himself. It represents enormous time & effort on his part & I cherish it. After this breakthrough, & B's development of binocular convergence, he became more amenable to drawing, but only if it was required for a school project & he often needed coaching while doing it.

B's reluctance to draw overcame another hurdle this past year when he started producing manga-style drawings of his own, original pokemon.

B clearly has some wonderful images in his mind! I particularly like the punnish names he gives them (Viaduck's was inspired by a Marx Brothers movie), his own particular twist on pokemon style :)

So what's the attraction of manga-style drawing for B? My main thought is that this sort of drawing has "rules" to follow, & that these "rules" make it more manageable & soothing to do. We learned the "rules" of manga-style drawing when one of my Sunday School students lent me the book "How to Draw Manga" by Katy Coope last January & I gave it a try. First, you draw your picture with a pencil. Then you trace the lines you want to keep in black ink (B uses a rollerball pen). Next you erase the whole thing, which leaves only the lines you inked. Last, you colour it in. B was fascinated by this process & the next thing I knew he was doing it (I prefer just to do pencil drawings :). I was kind of amazed that B took to this process because he usually hates erasing anything he's written & has been known to meltdown from having to erase, but he likes doing it as part of a manga drawing. He also takes particular care with the colouring, a new facet of the process for him. We really enjoy B's pokemon creations very much. They have a lot of thought & backstory that go with them, & I really love that this style has freed B up to finally enjoy using his imagination in the visual dimension.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


In my recent post in Life in the New Republic I mentioned onigiri rice balls, & in the comments section Kristina mentioned that her Charlie might like them, so I thought I put the recipe here. Onigiri are traditional kids' lunchbox food in Japan. The book "The Folk Art of Japanese Country Cooking" by Gaku Homma waxes enthusiastic about them (he calls them omusubi) & their place in children's lives in Japan. If you have seen the Miyazaki movie "Spirited Away" you have seen Sen/Chihiro eating onigiri. Our Japanese teacher, Tomoko, taught me to make them by hand last fall & I have since found some very kawaii & appealing onigiri moulds that make them even easier to put together.

The base for onigiri is, of course, rice, but japanese-style sticky rice must be used or they won't stick together. A friend who has spent time in Japan recommended the Kokoho Rose brand to me as the best of the american-grown short-grain rices, so that's the brand I buy (in 10 lb. bags...). I also have a rice steamer, which simplifies things, but there are directions for stove-cooking on the package. The rice is lightly salted before moulding into onigiri. Traditionally you also need fillings for onigiri: fish, fish roe, pickles, & the like are traditional. We have very specific preferences in our house, though. C likes tuna salad as his onigiri filling. I prefer pickles, shiitake cooked in shoyu & mirin, or crab salad in mine (or just half a honeyed umeboshi plum stuck to the outside). B likes them plain with no filling. You can wrap the outside with a strip of nori (toasted seaweed used for sushi) or sprinkle on some furikake (there are many kinds, usually with a goma- sesame seed- base). There are 2 main shapes for onigiri, triangular (if you've ever seen the "Fruits Basket" manga or anime, the triangular character that represents Tohru is an onigiri) & barrel-shaped, but I've seen round balls in pictures, too, so I expect there are regional variations. The onigiri in the picture above are both made with a mould, the one on the left has umeboshi on the outside, & the one on the right has goma shio sprinkled on it (the other half of the umeboshi is inside :).

To make them, lightly salt some cooked/steamed rice while it's still warm. Tomoko taught me to use plastic wrap to make shaping the sticky rice easier, & to protect hands from hot rice. So, place approx. 1/2 cup of the salted rice on a sheet of platic wrap that is draped over the palm of your hand. To add a filling, flatten the rice a bit, make a depression in the middle, & add about 1/2 tbsp. of filling. Then fold the rice around the filling, wrap the plastic wrap the rest of the way around the rice, & mould into shape by squashing it gently between your palms. Try not to let the rice touch your hands at this point. Also, try to keep the filling in the middle & not let it squirt out of the onigiri. When it's nearly the shape you want, dip your hands into water, remove the onigiri from the plastic wrap, & finish shaping with your wet hands. You can add nori (slightly wet one end so it'll stick) or sprinkle on furikake now. If you can't serve them immidiately, do not refridgerate- the rice will get hard & nasty. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap & set aside for no more than a few hours (this will depend on the filling- pickles will sit safely much longer than tuna or other fish products).

I get most of my ingredients at the local asian market, but what I can't find locally I get online at Asian Food Grocer. I found some of my onigiri moulds at eKitron.

I should mention here that onigiri are finger-food, so no hashi or fork & knife are required :) One nice thing about the onigiri, even the plain ones, it that they can make boring food look much more appetising. I often make fun-shaped onigiri for B's school lunch, add some cooked edamame for colour & nutrition, some carrots cut into rounds or flowers, & finish it with cookies & fruit. One of B's teachers microwaves it briefly (~20 seconds) for him so that the onigiri are softer. We made onigiri for B's buddy who prefers to eat only white food & he loved them.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Herbal oil for inflammation & pain

I was looking over my past posts here & realised that I never put in the healing oil recipe that is a companion to the healing salve. The oil is easier to make, although it can still take time if you make your own comfrey infused oil, as I do. I originally made a variation of this oil for sciatic problems when I was pregnant with my son, B, who is now 10. I derived the recipe from research in various herbals, particularly Valerie Ann Worwood's "The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy". Looking through my recipe book (being a former lab tech, I keep notes on practically everything) I don't find exactly when the recipe was refined to what I currently make, but I know that I have been making & sharing this oil for at least 8 years.

What does it do? I developed this oil to relieve nerve & muscle pain from chronic sciatica (due to arthritic degeneration in my lower back), & that's what it does. Based on my herbal research, the St. John's Wort oil & the comfrey are both traditionally used to combat nerve & muscle pain, & the lavender oil is a general pain-releiver. I use it every night after showering, rubbing it into the areas that are currently giving me trouble. Over time, the arthritis has gotten more severe in my knees & hands, so I have been using it to help relieve pain in these areas. I am not able to take NSAIDS (usually used to relieve arthritis) of any kind, so have had to find alternatives. I also use herbal tinctures to help with the inflammation & so far things are kept under control by the combination of tinctures & oil.

I began sharing the oil with friends quite some time ago. I gave it to a friend who had broken her neck in a car accident, & fortunately recovered all functioning but was left with considerable, chronic nerve pain. She found the oil gave her relief, so I eventually gave her the recipe so she could make it herself. My stepfather, who had rheumatoid arthritis, was plagued by intermittent swelling in his wrists & used the oil to relieve the swelling & pain. More recently, I have been sharing this oil with friends from my son's school, who have used it for plantar faschitis, stress fractures, & arthritic knees, with good results. So, without further ado, here's the recipe:

* comfrey infused oil (see below)
* St. John’s Wort infused oil (I purchase this from Mt. Rose)
* lavender essential oil
* clean bottle **
Half-fill the bottle with comfrey infused oil. Fill the bottle (roughly the same amount) with St. John’s Wort infused oil, to within 1/4 inch below the neck of the bottle. Add lavender essential oil to 1/8 inch below the neck. Cap, shake well, & label.

**pretty much any bottle, glass or plastic, will do, but it should be sanitised first. I put them though the diswasher to sanitise, but washing well with dishsoap then pouring boiling water in the bottle & lid will also do the trick.

To use, rub into the area where you are experiencing pain. I have never had trouble with this oil staining clothing, but I also rub it in until the skin is only mildly oily.

To make comfrey infused oil:

* dried comfrey leaf (preferably organic)
* organic olive oil
* clean quart mason jar or similar jar with well-fitting lid **(see above)
* cheesecloth
* clean bottle for finished oil (to hold approximately 16 oz.) **(see above)
Half-fill the mason jar with dried comfrey leaf. Add olive oil to within 2” of the neck of the jar. Cap, shake well, & allow to sit overnight. The next day, top-off the jar with more olive oil (the comfrey will absorb some, so the level will be lower) to within an inch of the top. Shake daily for the first 2-3 weeks. Place in a warm, dark place, if possible. Allow to macerate for at least 1 month, although the longer it sits, the better.

To decant, pour contents of mason jar into a large square of cheesecloth (I put it in a strainer over a quart measuring cup). When it stops dripping, gather the edges together, twist, & squeeze. The leftovers may be composted. Pour finished oil into bottle, label, & store in fridge. It will need to be warmed to room temp before using. (Store St. John’s Wort oil in fridge, too.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Baking as "therapy"...

I come from a long line of cookie-bakers, although I'm not the most dedicated baker in the family by far. I tend to bake as the mood takes me, & as I find the time (which makes holiday cookie baking problematic, since that's the busiest time of year round our house!). I have become more intentional about baking over the past few years though, thanks to the birth of my child, B. I bought my first bread machine when B was very little (I'm on my 4th machine :) because I didn't want to buy bread with preservatives in it, & I wanted to be in charge of the ingredients. I love my bread machine :) I have been very happy with the King Arthur Baking Company for their great ingredients & gadgets, too. Over this summer B has been helping me more & more with the baking & I taught him a very reliable way to measure flour: scoop the measuring cup overflowing with flour, chop across the top of the cup with the edge of a knife to settle the flour evenly, then slide the knife across the top of the cup (with the edge, not the flat side) to remove the excess flour. B is now my expert flour-measurer, which is very cool. It takes me about half the time to bake bread & cookies with him as it does without his help!

When B was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, one of the associated concerns that came to light was his low muscle tone. This causes B's fingers to hyper-extend (he's what we used to call "double-jointed" because of the hypotonia) & of particular concern were his hyper-mobile thumbs. When B was 7 years old we had him evaluated by a hand surgeon, at our pediatrician's recommendation, because she was concerned that these joints were so weak that he might injure himself doing regular kid-things, like climbing or catching himself when falling. Thankfully, the surgeon ruled-out any possibility of potential injury but did mention that the thumb joints are a particularly difficult area to strengthen, & recommended squeeze balls & the like. B is not the kind of kid to use squeeze balls, but something I saw in the King Arthur catalogue made me think I'd found a substitute :) I purchased this cookie scoop 3 years ago & we're still going strong with it. When B first started using it he needed both hands to squeeze the cooky dough out, but these days he uses it casually, one-handed.

So, to encourage baking therapy, here's my favourite chocolate-chip cookie recipe (formerly a toll house recipe, but adapted over the years to be my own :).

Set oven to 375 degrees

Cream together with mixer:
1/2 cup softened butter (unsalted)
1/2 cup crisco (butter-flavour is nice)
3/4 cup granulated sugar (I use organic sugar)
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

Add while still mixing:
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/4 cups flour

When flour is well mixed in, stir in 1 12-oz pkg of chocolate chips (or chocolate chunks, or a mixture of chocolate & mint chips, or chocolate & cappuccino chips- yum!). B dislikes nuts, so we don't add them.

Drop by the tablespoonful (or scoopful :) onto an ungreased cooky sheet & bake 9-11 minutes for regular sheets, or 13 minutes for air-bake sheets, till lightly browned. Cool on racks.

Makes 5-7 dozen cookys (if you fill the scoop flat, rather than rounded, you get a couple more dozen).

What we do is: I get the mooshy stuff into the bowl, then B measures the granulated sugar, then I do the stickier brown sugar (we do 3x 1/4 cups). He gets the mixer going & creams the butter/sugar mixture while I measure the rest of the ingredients & add them. By the time we get the last cup of flour into the bowl his arm is getting tired, so I finish the mixing & then mix in the choc. chips with a rubber spatula. The I fill the scoop & hand it to him to squeeze onto the cooky sheet. Voila! Cookys we both feel good about! Enjoy :)