Jan 082017
 

We visited my mother-in-law over New Year’s weekend in Rib Mountain, Wisconsin, where we celebrated her 84th birthday. If you’re unfamiliar with Rib Mountain, it is known for its ski slopes on Granite Peak (originally called Rib Mountain) and its ice fishing on Lake Wausau. We knew we had arrived in northern Wisconsin when we stopped for gas in Cadott, halfway between Rib Mountain and the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Hanging from pegboards in the shop aisles were retractable ice picks for pulling yourself out of holes in the ice (should you fall in), as well as ice tip-ups (flags) that pop up to tell you when you’ve hooked a fish.

Located near Wausau about an hour away from the home of the Green Bay Packers in north central Wisconsin, Rib Mountain is a beautiful area studded with forests and lakes, hiking paths, and snowmobile trails. Winters are long and cold, so you learn to dress for the weather. When we arrived at John’s mother’s house, the wind chill factor was -17 degrees. Needless to say, the weather is always a topic of conversation in northern Wisconsin. Before we returned to Iowa, we pulled out our iPhones to check the weather app. Roads close during blizzards when there are whiteout conditions, or when the roads are completely ice-covered. Checking the forecast won’t change the weather, but it prevents you from getting stuck.

This photo of my mother-in-law and me was shot half a dozen years ago in December, up on Granite Peak in the town of Rib Mountain, Wisconsin.

Snow showers were forecast in the vicinity of Minneapolis, the edges of which we normally cross on our way home. To avoid the prospect of icy roads, we headed straight south on Interstate 39 from north central Wisconsin. This added about an hour to our usual seven-hour drive home, but we consoled ourselves with the thought that the road less traveled often yields unexpected surprises. That’s when we saw it—the unexpected, that is—in Windsor, Wisconsin as we stopped for gas. Across the street was a tiny building topped by a jaunty mouse.

That washed-out sky told us that either rain or show showers were behind us, further north.

Who could resist The Mousehouse Cheesehaus, especially in Wisconsin, the Land of Cheese, where Green Bay Packer fans are fondly referred to as Cheeseheads? Besides, it was dinnertime and we knew we’d find something tasty inside. While our orders for ham and chicken salad sandwiches were being filled, John and I browsed the aisles. In the cold case we discovered a Swiss & Almond Cheddar Cheese Spread. A second stop at the sausage tasting counter netted us a 1-1/2 pound log of Old Wisconsin Beef Summer Sausage. As we rounded the corner, a glass case with 23 different homemade fudges caught our eye. Buying four squares of fudge and getting two free ones was a no-brainer. It was tough to narrow down our choices to Chocolate Walnut, Rocky Road and Dark Chocolate Caramel Toffee, but we got the job done. If you’re diabetic, they even offer two types of fudge made with sucrose-free chocolate.

After we returned home, we visited the Web site for The Mousehouse, and discovered that it has garnered various awards. The Swiss & Almond Cheddar Cheese spread, for example, which uses a white cheddar base, earned 1st place in the 2011 U.S. Cheese Championship. The summer sausage logs are hand-tied and made in what is called the “old style Wisconsin tradition.” I’m not sure what that means, but I can tell you it tastes much better than my grocery store’s summer sausage!

The cheeses that you buy at The Mousehouse are purchased from 19 different cheese-making factories in Wisconsin, each with its own specialty. What makes these cheeses so special is that many of them are crafted by Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, a distinction earned by only 51 cheesemaker artisans in the state. The title is earned by graduating from a three-year apprenticeship program administered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the Center for Dairy Research, whose standards are more rigorous than any other cheesemaker certification program in the nation. Veteran cheesemakers can enter the program only if they have a minimum of 10 years of cheese-making experience. Five of those years must be in the specialization of up to two different cheeses, which is the maximum number of cheeses in which an artisan can be certified each time he or she enters the three-year program. During that time, candidates take required courses in cheese technology, artisanship, grading and quality assurance. They select from a set of elective courses that include applied dairy chemistry, water and waste management, and whey and whey utilization. Finally, apprentice cheesemaker artisans submit samples of cheese for taste and consistency evaluations, and pass a final written exam.

The tradition of cheese-making in Wisconsin goes back more than 160 years, when Europeans first arrived in America and sought the best environmental conditions for crafting cheese. They found it in Wisconsin’s pastures and limestone-filtered waters, perfect for the cows whose milk begins the process of cheese-making. You can learn about The Art of Cheesemaking in the fascinating 12-minute-or-so video shown below, produced by the University of Wisconsin Extension Office.

Making unplanned stops when you travel definitely produces surprising discoveries. You can bet we’ll visit The Mousehouse in the future, either in person or online.

© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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Dec 292016
 

The week the Christmas tree gets taken down always feels anticlimactic to me, especially after the excitement that precedes its decorating. Because our tree is decorated with both our own family’s ornaments and those of my late parents, each decoration marks a moment in time: our son’s birth, his earliest handmade ornaments, a favorite storybook character, family members’ hobbies, the first Christmas we visited our parents after being married, my father’s love of flying. It’s fun, too, to add new ornaments to the tree, especially when they are handmade, but also purchased ones that carry a special meaning.

Our own tree still stands in front of the living room window, and probably will stay up for another full week before we remove the ornaments and put the tree away. Where I work, however, the trees in the atrium are coming down every day this week. Yes, trees. Earlier this month, 10 groups of employees—mostly different departments—were represented in a Parade of Trees decorating competition that challenged employees’ creativity. Bottlebrush tree trophies were presented at the annual holiday party for the Most Unique Tree, Best Themed Tree, Best Traditional Tree and Best Overall Tree—and each one was special in its own way.

Although not officially part of the Parade of Trees, the corporate tree in the lounge near the main entrance of the building drew everyone’s eyes.

The atrium was lined with five trees on each side. You can see a Parade of Trees banner hanging from the walking bridge that crosses the atrium.

My department decided it would focus on a traditional-themed tree, so my contribution was handmade paper ornaments, some of which are shown below.

Although the awards have already been presented, at the end of this post you can vote for your favorite tree. Unofficially, I have nicknamed each one, so I hope that doesn’t sway your opinion one way or the other. Here we go!

Tree #1 – O Starry Night

Tree #2 – Naughty & Nice

Tree #3 – Protecting Livelihoods & Futures

Tree #4 – Cookies & Milk for Santa

Tree #5 – Surfin’ Santa

Tree #6 – Hot Toasty Fingers & Toes

Tree #7 – Better Homes & Gardens

Tree #8 – Football Fantasy

Tree #9 – True Heroes

Tree #10 – Santa’s Workshop

Let me know in the comments below what your favorite tree is.

© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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Dec 182016
 

I’ve concluded that librarians, or at the very least, library clerks, are athletes in disguise. This weekend, as I was organizing my craft, needlework and sewing books, I rediscovered muscles I didn’t know I owned. Stacks of books moved from the floor to a bookcase, from the bottom shelf of one bookcase to the top shelf of an adjacent bookcase, and from left to right on one shelf after another. Needless to say, I knelt, stretched, stooped and lifted countless times. After swallowing some water and two Advil tablets, I promised myself once again not to let too many books collect in impressive stacks on the floor—or on any available horizontal surface—before returning them to their proper space on the bookshelf. Unfortunately, this is a promise I keep making and breaking. All I can say with certainty is that it’s a lot of work keeping a home library organized that probably rivals the collection at my local library.

As you look at the photo above, you may notice what appear to be dividers peeking out between groups of books. I got the idea at my local library, when I noticed they used plastic labeled dividers to subdivide some categories of books, making them easier to locate. I love this system. I labeled 8-1/2 x 11 sheets of white card stock and inserted them in clear sheet protectors, and it works great. No, I don’t use a Dewey Decimal system, although I seriously considered it at one point. Upon further consideration and the plea of “No, please don’t do that” from my husband, I came up with an alternate system that works for me. If you, too, are overwhelmed by the books in your collection, here are a few tips that may make your life easier.

Use a database

It isn’t enough, if you have a large collection of books, to keep them organized on shelves. Keep a list, whether you use a program like Microsoft Excel or iWork Numbers, or catalog your books using Library Thing or Goodreads.

For myself, I find it convenient to use an Excel workbook. This helps me track the books I own, and to some extent helps prevent me from purchasing duplicate titles if I remember to check my workbook before I go shopping. (This is a key point.) It also is a great way to determine actual book placement on my shelves. Within the workbook, individual worksheets are dedicated to each type of book. One of the columns contains an identifier that represents a subcategory, and these subcategories directly relate to the shelf dividers I use.

For each book, I enter the book’s title, author or editor, publisher, copyright date, main category, and subcategory. It sounds like a lot of work, I know, but you can enter a surprising amount of information while you enjoy a hot chocolate. What’s nice, too, is that you can sort this information according to your needs. I also find that it’s a good way to weed out outdated titles, especially when you take a good, hard look at some of the copyright dates.

Recycle magazines

Many craft magazines cost as much as the books you buy, and thus deserve a neat method of storage for the time you keep them. I don’t keep my magazines forever, mind you. I keep about two years’ worth of magazines, then remove the articles I find especially useful by slicing them out and scanning them. These digitized copies are, of course, for my personal use, and never get shared. I keep some of the illustrations to make bookmarks or gift tags that become giveaways. Then I put what’s left of the magazines in a recycle bin, and that’s the end of that. Some magazines do get passed on to other people or organizations for their enjoyment. But while I am storing the magazines, I keep them in magazine racks you can purchase from your local office supply store.

Cull the herd

As a writer, bookaholic, avid reader, and—yes, I admit it—once upon a time English major, I know how hard it is to get rid of books. But if you don’t, you simply won’t have space for new ones. We don’t want that to happen, do we? Your home is only so large. I have 14 bookcases that stand six feet tall—many more shelves of space than the average person, I know—but I continually run out of book space. And some of those bookcases are used not for books, but for craft supplies. These days, I don’t add many hardcover fiction books to my shelves, unless they are part of a series I have already begun in that fashion, or if they are such long novels that I have to page back to earlier chapters to look up some details. The rest of my new fiction novels are in digital form. I save a lot of bookshelf space by utilizing book apps on both my iPhone and iPad—among them iBooks, Nook, Kindle, Kobo, Free Books by Digital Press Publishing, and Bluefire Reader.

You can donate books to your local library, which will often sell them and use the monies to purchase new books. You can also donate books to senior communities, nursing homes, schools and thrift stores. You can sell some books to a bookstore—I use Half Price books, for example—or you can sell books on Amazon. You can exchange your read books for new titles via a book swap service—I use Paperback Swap, for instance.

Say goodbye to old encyclopedias

I finally thought with my head more than my heart, and decided to get rid of a set of World Book encyclopedias dating back to 1969. The white leather-bound, gold-edged volumes have long held a special place in my heart and on my shelves because I won them during junior high when I sent in a question to the “Ask Andy” column in the Milwaukee Journal. At that time school children were routinely invited to send in their seriously considered questions. Each week one question would be selected and answered by “Andy,” and the student received a complete set of “Aristocrat” World Book encyclopedias. I asked what the real job of a nurse was—a career I considered at one point but decided against. My question was selected, and I received a set of encyclopedias. It was a great prize, but in 2016 these encyclopedias are seriously outdated. Anything I want to know of a general nature can be found online in spades. Time to donate! The space I recover will be used for my books about writing, to which I refer far more often than the World Book encyclopedias that are moving on.

Leave room for expansion

I cannot state strongly enough how important it is to leave breathing room on your shelves for new books. If you’ve ever looked at home decorating magazines, you’ll notice that expansion space is provided with decorative bookends, vases, knickknacks and photo frames. That being said, I have no room for anything but books on my shelves. I love the decorator look, but need to think about functionality more than home dec because of the sheer volume of books I own. I do, however, take care not to squeeze books in so tightly that you can’t add a few new ones. If your cuticles begin bleeding when you insert or remove books, that’s a sure sign you’ve squeezed in too many titles.

Locate sturdy shelves

Locate the sturdiest shelves you can find, or make them yourself. A poorly made bookcase typically has shelves that bow as you add books. Ideally, bookshelves should measure at least one inch thick. Bookcases don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be strong. If you’re fortunate enough to live near an IKEA store, you can purchase a set of sturdy, functional shelves you can assemble yourself. I don’t live near an IKEA store, so I ordered bookcases through my office supply store’s catalog service. They shipped the shelves directly to my home, and my husband assembled them.

If you have additional suggestions for organizing your home library, I’d love to hear them. Meanwhile, I will return to my own library and finish organizing its contents.

Full disclosure: Yes, I have worked in a library, and I seriously considered going into library science.

© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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