Monday, December 22, 2008

the true spirit of Christmas

Years back Diedra and I started what became a Spencer family tradition: giving gag gifts for Christmas. Except that the recipient didn't know they were gag gifts, which made it even better. Let me explain:

Years back when my little brother Garrett was only 11 or 12, Diedra and I decided it would be funny to tease him about giving him a really terrible Christmas gift, like an education computer game. Since he is one to (a) always tag along and ease drop, (b) act like he is not trying tag along, and (c) get really upset when we tease him, it was the perfect plan. All we had to do was talk in slightly louder than normal voices about his "present" and he was hooked. We had created an education math game called Mr. Math, which was also on clearance (which only made him more upset). It was hilarious. We didn't even have to try that hard, he fell right for the bait.

Once our trick was stuck, we then thought it would be even more hilarious to keep him thinking he got the crappiest Christmas gift ever, so instead of wrapping up a gift, we made him go on a treasure hunt around the house. By the time he got through all the clues, he was so bummed about actually finding an education math game, that he didn't even want to open his gift (which turned out to be a toad). Garrett was thrilled about the awesome pet and pretty upset that he fell for the joke. And the Christmas gag gift was born.

So the next year our family decided to pick names among the siblings. When I got my name and started brainstorming options, immediately I thought "what is the worst possible present?" After mulling over some pretty bad gifts, I realized that the worst possible present is having someone donate yours to charity on your behalf. Enter gag gift #2.

So instead of my sister Rixa and her husband Eric opening a gift on Christmas, then got a very fancy envelope. Inside was a letter from the president of an fake organization I made up thanking them for their generous donation. It also included pictures, a certificate of the donation in their name, and a company seal. The whole family was tricked. My mom even commented on how thoughtful the gift was. Eric was a little miffed about the gift, but of course couldn't say anything. I giggled to my self for several hours until I finally broke the news that the entire gift certificate was fake and I had a real present for them.

After that, gag gifts were a must. I couldn't believe that I had fooled the entire family with a little fancy word document and card stock. Diedra also got in on the gag gifts for the next couple of years. Below is a list of the various gifts we have given:

1. Chaste and Be Chased. A Mormon book on dating and being chaste. I gave this to my little brother Garrett one Christmas. It was a real book, but I made a fake dust jacket. My mother actually loved it (she is a big fan of giving chastity talks), and Garrett had this horrified look when he opened it. The best part was the accompanying CD of chaste songs sung by the MoTab.

2. Fake IDs. I gave Diedra the idea to make people in our family fake IDs with a little color printing and laminating. My dad got one for being a President Bush look-a-like and Garrett got one that listed his age as 21 and also included facial hair, issued by the State of Insanity.

3. Certificates of servitude. You know the "coupons" you give your parents when you are little for things like hugs and helping with the dishes? Well we made long, detailed, and extravagant certificates to each member of the family on behalf of Garrett and forged his signature. The best part was having each family member read theirs all while Garrett is in the background protesting that he did not write it or sign it and it is not valid. We promised away most of Garrett's savings, free time, and allowance. It was priceless.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

leather books

I learned how to bind books in college and instantly fell in love. I remember spending a lot of my Saturday mornings hanging out in the empty classroom taking advantage of the amazing paper cutter. I made a lot of books that semester, many of which I still use.

When my best friend Jocelyn and I realized that we both took that class and knew how to book bind, it was a match made in heaven. We started to collect supplies; Jocelyn supplied the pretty paper and I found the perfect source for leather: my father.

I might have to tell you a little about my father at this point. He can do anything (and often does). Sometimes he thinks of something and then makes it (gee, I wonder where I get that from?). He learned how to make fly rods a few years back and has since taught the entire family. He taught himself how to fix cars and has spent a lot of time in our garage trying to keep our Ford Tauruses going. He picked up woodworking and has made our kitchen table, bookcases, bed frames, cribs, and jewelry boxes.

A few Christmases ago for the Spencer family Christmas craft, I taught the family how to make books using leather as the cover, and my dad instantly fell in love. He is actually really good at this and loves to make them in his spare time. My dad had part of a cowhide, which we used, but we knew we had to find more leather. Then came my dad's brilliant plan. As part of his job he drives around the state and often passes a local show factory. One day he stops in and just asks them if they ever sell leftover leather. Nope, they give it away for free. So he walks into an entire ROOM of leather scraps and fills up an entire bag full. Every once in awhile my dad will send me a huge box of leather, all different colors and textures. This is what supports my book making.

So with a box or two of leather and some paper, Jocelyn and I set about to get back into book binding. After making a few books, we came upon this ingenious way to make really small journals in only about 30 minutes (as opposed to 2-5 hours for each journal). We haven't made books together in awhile, but I still pull out my supplies and make books every few weeks. Below are some examples of the journals I have made.

Monday, December 15, 2008

joys of Christmas baking

I love all things Christmas. Ben was nice enough to let me decorate early this year (before Thanksgiving) because I was so excited about putting up the ornaments that I made last year with my sister and mom. In lieu of a tree, I decided to hang them on our baking rack, which is doing an excellent job at being festive. We also put up some white Christmas lights in the kitchen.

I also love all the cooking and baking that comes with the holidays, because it means that I get to spend time making delicious food I only make once a year and often with friends. My dear friend Jocelyn wanted to learn the art of bread making, so we convened in her darling green kitchen one Saturday morning with Kim to see what we could create. (Notice how I match the kitchen?)

We made two batches of pumpernickel (one of my favorites) and the Spencer family famous French Bread (that is to die for, trust me). After some helpful tips like (the water should be warm like a baby's bath, don't over kneed the dough, and rise the dough in a slightly warm oven for 20 minutes) we ended up with really amazing bread.

Enjoying the fruits of our labors.

Pumpernickel Bread
½ c + 2 T warm water
1 ½ T dark molasses
1 ½ c flour
⅓ c medium rye flour
⅓ c whole wheat flour
1 T unsweetened cocoa
1 t salt
2 T butter (or oil)
1 ½ t yeast

Dissolve yeast in warm water and let sit 10 minutes. Stir in molasses and butter. Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl and add half at a time. Dough should be soft, but not sticky. Knead until smooth. Let dough rise until double (about 45 minutes). Punch down and shape into a rounded ball. Let rise for 30-40 minutes. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes.

French Bread
2 ½ c warm water
2 T yeast
3 T sugar
¼ c oil
1 egg yolk
6 c flour
1 t salt
1 egg white

Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water, letting it grow for 5-10 mins. Add oil, yolk, salt, and 2 c flour. Stir until smooth. Add remaining flour until dough is soft but not sticky. Set in greased bowl to rise until double. Punch down and form into 2 loaves. Let rise until double and brush with egg white. Bake at 400 for 15-20 minutes.

I also got to spend a few hours this last Saturday with Kim making the most delicious sugar cookies. I am a sugar cookie purest; I don't eat any one's cookies but my own. The secret: add 1 tsp almond extract to the dough and a little to the glaze. It makes the flavor much better. I also dip my cookies in a glaze, which is easier than frosting (since the glaze smooths itself out, requiring so spreading) and hardens so that you can stack them in a container.

Now I am looking forward to some more baking with Ben's family and maybe trying out some new dishes.


The snorkeling was the best I have ever had (and I've been three times). We usually spent a few hours in the morning and then a few hours after lunch trying out different spots to see what we could find. Our two favorite locations were Salt Pond Bay and Waterlemon Bay. Both required about a 15 minute walk, but I thought it was well worth it. Above is Waterlemon Bay, where Ben and I saw the HUGE barracuda (which kind of freaked me out).

As proof here is a picture of Ben snorkeling in Waterlemon Bay. We found a few sea turtles and were following them around the shall, grassy area as they ate. They are incredible to watch and really fun to swim with.

Waterlemon Bay beach. The beach isn't very big, but it is beautiful and worth the incredibly snorkeling.

Highlights of our snorkeling:

1. We saw lots of sting rays, which Ben and I both love. I've seen them before, but they somehow never seem to lose they draw. They are really fun to swim above and watch, although Ben and I came across one in Maho Bay that did not seem happy to have us so close, so we backed off.

2. Squid. This was the first time that I have ever seen squid. We first spotted one in Waterlemon Bay, and stopped to watch it. Then we realized that there were three others near him, but just extremely well camouflaged. They are incredible to watch, since they are constantly changing colors and patterns. Once we knew what to look for, we saw eight more in another bay and a really big one later on in Waterlemon bay.
3. Porcupine fish. The first time Ben and I saw one of these, we had NO idea what it was. Besides that it looks kind of crazy, the way it swims is very strange. The small fins on the top and bottom of its tag wag back and forth, kind of making the whole wag as it swims. They are very wary of people, so we didn't get to watch him for long, but it was about 3 feet long. This is actually a puffer fish, but we saw it un-puffed.

4. Nurse sharks. I have never seen a shark before. We had heard that people have seen them in some of the bays, so one day Ben and I went out in Salt Pond to see if we could spot one at the edge of the sand and coral. And we did, but not just a shark, two six-foot long sharks. One was sitting on the bottom and one was swimming, which we followed for awhile. They were actually very beautiful and not nearly as terrifying as I thought they would be. I was much, much more terrified of the enormous barracuda.

5. Moray Eels. I thought I would be utterly scared of seeing an eel, but actually they are beautiful. I spotted one swimming along the bottom in Waterlemon Bay, and Ben and I stopped to watch it for awhile. It was beautiful to watch and it's face wasn't that scary after all.

6. Swimming around Waterlemon Cay. Waterlemon has a small island that you can swim around and see the most amazing coral. If you swim counter clockwise, the current actually pushes you all the way around, so it is a really fun ride. After an amazing swim around the island, we swam up to the sandy part and relaxed on our own private island.

Overall I was amazed at the clarity of the water and the amount of fish that we saw each day. Ben is incredibly lucky at finding sea life, and my reading about Caribbean fish really came in handy when we kept wondering what everything was.
Proof that Ben and I went snorkeling. Check out of our awesome mask lines.

Ben taking in the view at Waterlemon Bay.

the beaches

The beaches on St John are amazing. Since most of the island is still a forest, the beaches come right up the foliage, which is so pretty. When we weren't spending our time in the water searching for sharks, we were often on the beaches.

One of my favorite beaches on the island is Cinnamon Bay. It is a long bay, so the beach is wide and long. We went there one night around sunset to enjoy having the beach to ourselves. Since Ben isn't one to sit still for long, he found some volcanic rocks, which he proceeded to climb. We had a wonderful time enjoying a peaceful evening and still warmed by our sun-kissed skin.

Ben and I at Cinnamon Bay.

Ben climbing.

Ben jumping off some rocks.
I even took my turn at climbing, although I didn't get as high with a dress on.

The sunset at Cinnamon Bay.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Virgin Islands

Welcome to Thanksgiving, Virgin Islands style. For the past few years I have made it a tradition to head down to St John for a week of being very thankful for beautiful islands and snorkeling. Last year I went down with some of my dearest friends (and sister) for a truly lovely week. Ben and I wanted to take advantage of (a) living on the East Coast, (b) having flexible schedules, and (c) not having kids yet, so we decided to skip the turkey and instead bask in the sun.

Above is the view from Concordia, which is an eco-friendly vacationing spot on the southern tip of St John. It is a small complex of condos, with a restaurant, pool, and convenience store. I've been to this side of the island before, but not stayed there, so it was a nice change. The view was incredible. And since we had a kitchen, I brought an entire backpack of food, which might sound crazy to some people to fly with a bunch of food. But when we were eating brie with fresh french bread and pears for dinner while watching the sunset, I bet you were jealous. Most of our meals we ate in the condo, which made it that much easier to upgrade to a nicer room after our first one needed some repairs.

After a few bumps in the road (having to get another rental car since our first one couldn't go to St John and driving across St John in the dark), we eventually found Concordia. As a remnant of the Colonial past, you drive on the left side of the road in the Virgin Islands, which makes for some pretty fun/crazy driving. Ben did a terrific job at navigating the windy roads and also keeping us from bottoming out.

Driving on the left side of the road. Notice how the vegetation kind of takes over.

Our favorite switch back. This picture doesn't do justice to just how crazy this turn was. The best strategy of not dying: honk and then proceed with caution.

Each morning we would wake up to complete silence (after falling asleep to the surprisingly loud noise of tree frogs, the silence of them stopping actually wakes you up). It as wonderful to wake up to the bright sun and get to relax for a few more hours before hitting the beach. Most morning we would read on our wrap around porch while enjoying the sun. We would then head out to the beach around 10 for a few hours of snorkeling and then head back for lunch before round two of snorkeling. We had amazing weather and visibility all week.

Our condo was a two-story loft that had a porch that wrapped around, so we could see 180 degrees ocean view.

The main floor.

The vaulted, wooded ceiling. On the left side you can see the loft where our bedroom was.

The view from our porch. I spent most mornings and evenings out here just enjoying the view.

Some other fun aspects of the condo were:
1. Two sides of the shower were slats that you could open up and see the jungle. Really great for the exhibitionist in me, but also rather alarming to hear people outside walking around.
2. The condo was the highest up on the hill, so we had the best view.
3. The bedroom was upstairs, but the stairs were on the exterior. Not a big deal if you are heading up to grab something, but kind of strange to hop out of the shower and streak up the stairs so no one sees you.
4. We were about a 15 minute walk from our condo to Salt Pond Bay, which is were we did a lot of our snorkeling. It was fun to go a small hike and emerge from the jungle at the beach.
5. Humming birds were everywhere. Every few minutes one would fly by me as I sat outside.

Monday, December 08, 2008

all those tales about roadkill are true

Anyone who knows anything about my crazy (fun) family knows that we ate roadkill growing up. Not squirrels or raccoons, but deer. Only the top of the line roadkill. My father would usually find one while driving (deer are a plenty in Minnesota) or put his name on the DNR roadkill list and get called when they found a warm deer. (I'm not making any of this up). He would then proceed to skin and butcher it in our garage and nicely wrap it in butchers wrap and label RK for roadkill. At least my dad is funny. These butchering sessions would also include anatomy sessions for any kids who got close enough. My dad would often grab pliers, pick a tendon and then pull to show us how it make the legs move. Kind of gross but pretty awesome when you are ten.

To show that this is still alive in America, here is a snippet from his last letter:
The Frandsen family (from the 3rd Ward) hit a deer with their car on the way to
the Christmas activity on Friday. Brother Frandsen thought that he should
keep since it had done damage to his vehicle. He called the Sheriff and
waited. Finally after nearly an hour the Sheriff finally arrived.
While the Sheriff was filling out the possession tag, the deer raised it’s head
then sprang up and ran away! It is a good thing that he didn’t just throw
the deer in the back of his vehicle and drive off.

Lest you think that we only talk about people who pick up dead animals off the side of the road, earlier this year my dad came across a dead wolf (timberwolf) and put it in his trunk to take home. Only after skinning it did he realize that it is probably illegal to do so with endangered animals, so he called the police who quickly confiscated it. I'm not sure what my dad would do exactly with the wolf hide, but something tells me he would find a good use for it.

favorite brother

In true Spencer family fashion, a few years back Garrett made everyone in the family something with his face on it. The girls all got aprons with his face that either said "favorite brother" or "favorite son." The nephew got a t-shirt that had his face with "favorite uncle." It was pretty rad.

The best part is the likeness to Garrett's face. Yes he made the stencil himself. Yes he painted them on aprons and teeshirts.

Below is the latest creation by Garrett. I think my mom mailed his stencil to him in Russia so that he could make more items with his face on it.

Maybe someday if you are cool enough you might get your own Garrett t-shirt with his face on it. I suggest sending him packages now to start buttering him up.