Wednesday, June 25, 2008

a line, a pile, a piece


Remember when I did a whole month of posts in November? I can't even manage a consistent once a week post now. Which is maybe more because I haven't officially committed to it and less about what I keep feeling is a lack of inspiration or motivation. Without commitment, what difference does it make if I'm inspired or not?

Hi, this is the blog where every week I write Hi, it's been a week.

I might re-commit to daily posting again. But right now I confess to struggling with cleverness. I write as fancy strikes (whether that's on a daily schedule or on a random whim), in an up-in-my head, for myself, free writing sort of way. So by clever I don't mean like some relevant modern day Erma Bombeck wearing thrift store aprons and smirks (erma bombeck?! what? see, it's all whatever falls off the top of my head); I just mean more-or-less coherent and not exceedingly soporific. And when I'm struggling with that basic standard, with me as my only reader in question, well, then who knows what the three of you who wonder over from some wayward google search think.

So despite my baffled, sleepy brain, I will tell you that I finally got the husband to install my laundry line in the backyard. I'm not unfamiliar with a screwdriver, but when a stool would be necessary for shorty me to get the proper leverage, well, I prefer to pass the task along to Mr. Longarms Powerdrill.

I have a rod up in my laundry room and I've been air drying some items from most loads (save for, say whites and towels) on that since we moved here. But it took us a while to get the outdoor line up and in use. I don't know why. I love hang drying laundry. I've had lines up in every house we've lived in (if not a long line, then, one of those roundy spinny poles).

There's something very calming and purposeful about shaking out the wet clothes, clipping the pins. I find it oddly rewarding to pull the sun-stiffened garments down, drop the pins back into the empty tin, clunk clink clunk.

I'm very good about doing laundry, keeping my family in clean clothes. I'm not so good about putting the clean clothes away. I'd rather scrub toilets.

Taking the clothes outside to dry slows down the process. While it's arguable that the sun, on a clear hot summer day, is often faster than an electric dryer (this was certainly the case in Phoenix), there's just a lot more hands on time, every single piece being touched twice, instead of a jumbled pile (every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders what the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of, oh, sorry. I do that) being hefted as a whole. And I find that the slower pace reminds me to finish what I've started, instead of allowing it to build and grow. So I bring in the still-warm clothes and am compelled to put them away, right away. (feeling compelled does not always equal actually doing it, but hey, it's a start).

I guess it's a bit laundry life philosophy, but it's also plenty of good sense, too. It's silly to use the electric dryer when there's a perfectly accessible solar powered one strung up between the back door and our little grapevine patch.

Which reminds me: how goes the compost pile? Well, I'll tell you what I forgot to mention when I wrote about it in the first place, which is that I have an honest, genetic legacy to compost and a decent "all-in-the-family" reason to feel ridiculous for not having been composting all this time (we've been here in this house NINE months now): my father produces 200 tons of compost a day. Two Zero Zero TONS. A Day. He's something of a compost king over there in the southern half of The Land of Enchantment. My little heap is paltry in comparison, and won't be producing anything rapid enough to be measured daily, but at least now when we talk on the phone about any subject related to Growing Things, I'll be able to respond affirmatively when he touts the merits of building soil health by adding organic matter.

When it's warm out, do you feel less inclined to cook food, too? I'd like some cold wine and a piece of cake, but growing children really do require other things, summer or no. I'd better get on that. It's only in the mid-seventies, not appetite reducing temperature at all, so I can't even blame the weather on this sudden disinterest in cooking and one pesky, clamoring sweet tooth. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd blame my ugly kitchen floor, since I've convinced myself that if we had a different one, I'd be ten pounds thinner and could sing like a bird.

Our backyard has been a real eyesore, but it's starting to look so much better. So maybe it's just a matter of feeling pleased with that. Wanting to relax at the table on the patio with something sweet and refreshing, believing that this little corner of the world is, at this exact moment with my head tilted just so and my ears purposely tuning out the neighbors, just fine.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

u-pick (i'll take pictures)

strawberry field

the picking was good

little picker

berries boy bucket

the very hungry toddler and the red ripe strawberry


I hitched the camera over my shoulder and squatted down into the low, lush plants long enough (we were in the fields about an hour) to pick half of our bounty. That was long enough to fill about as many buckets as I can take home and process at once and long enough to feel a bewildering mix of gratitude and disbelief when thinking about the people who do this, for a living, all the time.

It's one thing to have a pleasant afternoon outing on an ideal early summer day with friends and children to go pick berries. It would be a very different thing all together to crouch so low, hands in the vaguely prickley stems, loading up buckets as quickly as possible to be paid mere cents per pound. For every complaint about the high cost of produce, I counter that our food prices are subsidized by the poor wages of people who work incredibly hard.

I cannot realistically grow everything I eat (my fledgling garden might produce something, but the scale on which I'm producing is too small for even our little family of four), and I cannot expect to acquire the whole balance from local u-pick establishments. I will always (so long as society hasn't collapsed and we still have stocked markets and money to purchase things) rely on the food grown and harvested by other people.

Oregon berries are so sweet. So much exploding with that perfect tart/sweet taste, it's hard to not speculate whether they've been injected with extra strawberry flavor. Of course, they haven't, they just come off the stem like that, grow under the mostly cloudy Oregon sky like that, come into my house and go into my freezer, to add into many future smoothies, just like that. But if I didn't pick them myself? Who did? It's like me to have to pair the sweet with something less palatable. It's so easy to imagine strawberries growing in tidy fields of turquoise paper boxes, straight from seed to little bundle.

Some person touched every berry you eat. Isn't that amazing? Some person with worries and fears, with children and hopes. Some person who's trudging through like any of us. My gratitude for these people isn't enough, but maybe it's better than never thinking of these things at all.

Monday, June 16, 2008

well, it's about time

it's gotta start somewhere

It's not much to look at, that half-shadowy lump of fresh grass clippings. You'll have to fast forward in your imagination several months or so to see the rich organic matter of backyard home compost. It's taken us a long, old time to get our composting arses in line, if you will, despite a generous supply of those cloying and infamous "best intentions" everybody's always talking about (one of the few things I always seem have too many of: dust bunnies in the corners, pounds around my middle, best intentions).

Coincidentally, the same day we were finalizing our future compost spot, I had listened (on the trusty ipod while nursing the boy down for a nap) to a recent episode of the Alternative Kitchen Garden about the very thing. I always enjoy listening to Emma in the UK describe her gardening endeavors and accomplishments and insights and the composting episode was no exception. I was particularly glad to hear her list minimizing one's carbon footprint among reasons for home composting.

I have a hard time uttering the phrase "carbon footprint" without having something like a very small gaggy reflex. I think it's high time the masses envelope simplicity. I am very concerned about the state of our world, the future of our children, our obscene reliance on fossil fuels. Absolutely, all of it. But I'm disgruntled to see the Obvious and Necessary becoming the next trendy marketing scheme. Environmentalism shouldn't be trendy, it should be the default standard. And it shouldn't primarily encourage or require the purchase and acquisition of More Stuff.

I think they call that Defeating The Purpose.

Let me chase a rabbit for a minute [when I was a child, sitting in church with my family, our pastor used the phrase "chasing a rabbit" to mean following a tangent for a spell, and I don't know, maybe that's a common phrase and maybe other people say it, too, but it always takes me back to that storefront baptist church, drawing pictures on the backs of bulletins]. . . My only vehicle is an SUV. A 95 Range Rover. An apparent object of scorn from so many hybrid drivers. Every single time I drive into the big city now, I get the stink eye from any number of people and I am convinced my car is the reason. The truth is this: my car goes fewer miles per gallon than your shiny Prius does. But a gallon is a gallon. Don't assume that my fuel-guzzling beast is on the road every day: it's not. My other car is a pair of beat up converse and my husband commutes to his (rural, fourteen miles away) office often by bike. Could I sell my thirteen year old car for something else? Sure. And then what? What becomes of my mostly parked monster? Is it purchased by someone who starts driving it daily? And what do I buy to replace it? Because that Hybrid you (oh general you) are so smug about? Was not fashioned out of twigs and compost by some clever, modern ecofairy. The production of new cars does not have a negligible impact. No, I believe that society's More More More dogma is what got us into this mess in the first place. Making more stuff -even if that stuff is Environmentally Friendly! Green! Organic! Sustainable!- is still Making More Stuff. Stop the EcoGreen Insanity! (my apologies to Susan Powter and her early nineties appearances on late night television)

I have a front loading, high efficiency washing machine. When we bought our house, we needed some appliances. We made the decision to spend a little more for the machine that promises to use a little less. I support having such a choice as a consumer. The problem is, there are too many choices and too many consumers! Production isn't filling a basic need, it's catapulting sales of a whole new product bracket. How about we Buy Less Stuff? Because I'm pretty much convinced that the production and the packaging and the transportation of all this STUFF isn't saving the planet any.

So, in not so many rambley words, that's basically what Emma said about making your own compost. As in, compost is great! But buying compost only makes your carbon footprint all that much bigger. And when that phrasing isn't used as a marketing gimmick, when someone isn't insulting the size of my own carbon footprint so I'm compelled, in a fit of ecoguilt, to replace all my clothes with a new wardrobe of organic yoga attire? I can get behind it and say it again. Reduce your carbon footprint by doing it yourself. Whatever "it" might be. Make do with what you've got, see what you've got that might make something else you need.

And make secondhand stores (or rummage sales or craigslist or freecycle) your first stop for "new" stuff.

A few weeks ago, I picked up a funny, holey-lidded, enamel pot at the goodwill for two dollars. It was in good shape, whatever it was. Some peculiar old coffee percolator perhaps? I admit to being charmed by funny old things. I thought I might drill a few holes in it, use it for flowers or herbs on my front steps.

On Saturday, it hit me! I was standing outside, complimenting the husband on his readying of Compost Pile site, thinking of how glad I am to finally have a place to properly dispose of my kitchen waste when I realized that the funny old pot I didn't know what to do with is only the best food scrap bucket EVER! Time will tell if its functionality is as grand as I assume, but right now, it sure seems to be the right tool for the job:

food scrap container

It's a perfect fit in the cupboard to the very left of the kitchen sink, the one with the original built-in towel drying rods inside (they telescope for easy reach!). I have only taken one trip to the pile (visualize a grassy heap with a little plop of scraps atop), but I look forward to this arrangement serving me (and my garden and my world) well for a long time.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

every day dad, because it matters every day

father's day 1976

Father's Day, 1976, my mom ordered that shirt for my dad. I was seven months old. I can't recall what happened or what, if any, gifts were given for the very first ever Father's Day for the Father of my own children. Let's see, that would have been June of 2000. We lived in Southwest Portland on a steep street. I remember lots of summertime picnic dinners on the front lawn. I remember driving our little zippy Saab into the garage with my husband's bicycle still attached above to the bike rack. That first Father's Day, though? Heck if I know. But owing to a relatively recent resurfacing of that size XL bonafide mid seventies sturdy polyester t-shirt, I know exactly what my own dad got to mark his new title, new relationship, new status as somebody's Dad. Per my mother's memory, he did indeed wear it. Once. And then it shuffled around from drawer to closet to box through the years until it finally made its way to me. Which is kinda cool but maybe a little creepy. What should I do with it? You know, other than parade it out on nominally relevant holidays?

I asked my guy if he wanted to wear it today. I wasn't really being serious. He did not respond. I guess I can save it for my little boy and he can don his mother's half naked butt when he's bigger. Which is creepier still, no?

After nearly twelve years of marriage (and a lot of change and hard work), things aren't exactly as I might idealize them to be, but whatever else might be going on, I still (always) appreciate my husband for being, reliably, a really great dad for my children.

I displayed my appreciation by giving him something that fits just right and and is guaranteed never to languish in the back of any drawer for three decades: a fresh hot cup of coffee. Which is to say, I ground the beans and filled the press this morning, waited for the second kettle of water to make a cup of tea. And is, truthfully, the same thing I gave him last year. It's an everyday gesture for the everyday work of being an involved parent. He's involved and a part and my children's biggest hero every day. I appreciate especially that we're not the sort who require neckties or fishing hats or three dollar greeting cards with tired dad jokes to say Hey, Thanks, I love you.

He didn't have any of those teevee commercial magnanimous aspirations for his "special day" no poached egg brunch, no endless streaming sports station, no la-z-boy recliner naps. No, when asked what he wanted to do today, of all the things he might have said (a long run or a bike ride, a trip to a favorite mexican place, what?) he said he wanted to build a tree structure with his daughter.


platform in progress

They've been at it since right after breakfast. When it's all said and done (sometime later this evening) there will be a strong platform in the magnolia, nine feet up in the air.

And that's why he's a good dad. Because he's there. And building and making and talking and sharing every day.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

close enough for horseshoes

best foot forward

So that title's not meant to make any sort of comparison between me and creatures of the equine variety. It's a broader remark. Meaning, it's not a ringer, I didn't quite hit my mark, but right now, today, I'm having a little love affair with my town.

Add Shoe Repair to the places I can get to on foot. I've had those Dansko sandal-y clogs languishing, dust gathering, in the backs of many closets now for years. I remember wearing them when I was pregnant with the boy, twisting the brittle, stretched-out elastic around a safety pin, a temporary fix, all the while meaning to take them to a shoe repair shop. I drove past one often, then. I would see it and think, I should grab the shoes, stop here sometime, bring them in. But I never did.

I consulted my yellow page directory a few weeks ago and, yes. That independent shoe store up the way? The one that sells the Birks and the Danskos and the Keens and those sorts of shoes? Why, they're a full service shoe repair, too. And just a few blocks from my house.

I took them in and the small section of elastic on each shoe (a tiny section attached to the buckle, funny how such a small piece has such a huge impact on their wearability) was replaced and they were ready the next day for a very respectable ten dollars. Not bad for a pair of shoes I picked up long ago, for about the same, off eBay.

What are the odds that if we lived in Portland again (oh Portland, I still love you best, but. . .), if we made it back to the place we missed for so long, if we were in that same hip northeast neighborhood that formed us in obvious and important ways, that I'd be within walking distance to. . . a shoe repair shop, an independent toystore, a second run theater, a new and used bookstore, a natural food store, the library, a thrift store, a drugstore, a non-chain movie rental store, parks a-plenty and a McMenamin's brewpub? Yeah. That's a tall order from any one spot. But that's what I've got here. In this little surprising place.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

rice is nice

It's not all grief and wallow in the kitchen, no, sometimes I cook in there, too. And, for the record, I actually really dig my kitchen. The tall cupboards (unpainted birch, sweet.), all the drawers (can you believe, a few of them are still empty!), space for the little wooden play kitchen to sit (so my boy can play cook alongside, at least that's the idea, though he really prefers being up at the counter on a stool, but, hey- there's space for that, too). Remember, I've come to terms with the lack of a dishwasher (uh, more or less). I don't mind handwashing. Rather enjoy it, to be honest, it's the splayed across the counter drying part I don't like, the always having dishes, clean or dirty, hanging around waiting and up my business all the time that irritates me. Dishwashers are handy for keeping things tucked away: I like a kitchen to have bare counters and my counters are rarely bare. It's a great kitchen, though. It is. Which is why the whole floor thing is such a problem. Because I get distracted when I'm in there by the stupid floor and then I don't enjoy whatever other thing I'm doing in there as much as I might otherwise.

But catch me in the right mood and I'll still get flipping giddy about some kitchen happenings. What's new in my kitchen? Aside from the little cuphook in the ceiling and the faint lingering smell of pureed meat babyfood? Huh? Oh, did you know? We have a tiny new kitten named Ozma. So tiny that she won't yet crunch dry food or terribly textured wet food and, on the advice of several different people who would know, we've been supplementing her diet with pureed meat in a jar. The first jarred baby food I've ever purchased! It stinks.

The kombucha experiment isn't so new, but I'm just as enthusiastic about the stuff. Why isn't the whole world brewing and sipping this magic tea?

And why did I screw up rice cooking so long?

I read recently about the boiling method for all grains and if a person can get really excited about something like boiling grains, then whoopee! It's almost revolutionary!

I had rice cookers for a few years, a long while ago. But they cluttered my counters and were a hassle to clean and who really needs a whole appliance for one thing anyway? So since then I've been cooking rice like this: put in rice, add twice as much cold water, cover, cook. And it mostly turned out okay. You know, except when it didn't. And lately, it was mushy pudding every time, overcooked and despondent. All those sad little grains smushed together in one pathetic, gooey clump.

I don't know how I managed to get it right for so long to start turning out mush all the time. I imagine it's a little like the way my pizza dough had a recent bad spell: week after week of dense, hard crusts. I was baffled. I've been making the same pizza dough every week for years. I make it on autopilot, a quick tasty reflex. Yeast, flour, oil, water, salt. What is there to even mess up? Oh, the kneading. I could mix it all up and forget to knead it. I could mix it all up and forget to knead it many times before one night I think to myself, hey, didn't this used to take longer?

It doesn't matter what I was doing wrong with the rice, because this is how to do it right: boil it. Like pasta. Set a pan of water to boil, rinse your rice, add it to the boiling water, cook until almost done (taste it, like noodles!), and then drain in a colander. I've done it several times now and what I'm getting are beautiful, distinct happy grains. You can throw the drained rice back in the pot and keep warm on the stove.

boiled rice

The night I took that picture, I whipped up something I call (when pressed, my family just eats what I put in front of them, they don't usually ask for a name) some vague kind of slip slop approximation of a chana masala. I cook up my onions and spices and add tomato sauce and coconut milk and garbanzo beans and cook it down until it's less soupy, more thick and stewy. Just before serving, I throw in roughly chopped spinach. I throw in roughly chopped spinach (or chard or kale or. . .) to just nearly almost everything.

throw some spinach in and call it dinner

And then I put the whole mess in bowls and called it dinner. Do you see that lovely unmushy rice? It was good. I'm quite fond of one-bowl meals for everyday family dinners and I'm doubly delighted with food that cooks up easily. Nearly no fail rice! Who knew?


Monday, June 02, 2008

swabbing the deck

this is not a mop

See that cleaning implement splayed across my kitchen floor there? That is not a mop. It is a long-handled very stiff scrub brush made to give backyard decks a seasonal once-over. I picked it up at the local farm store a few weeks ago. Thought, hmm, if it will muck moss and lichen and inches of outdoor sludge from off of coarse wood, well, then this will help me clean my kitchen floor. Right? Yes?


We've been in The House That Jake Built (I tried, little ranchy bungalow to give you some compelling moniker, but it always comes back to the elderly people who custom built the place, being that they were they only owners and all. and the home was left vacant for 25 years after they died. it's hard for me not to think about them. ahem. anyhow. . .) for about 8 months now. And my kitchen (and bathroom and laundry) floors have never been clean. Not once. Oh, they were new when we moved in. The house was donated to a college, the college slapped some putty colored paint on all the walls and The World's Worst Vinyl Flooring on the floors, put it up for sale, and we bought it.

Our first home improvement priority upon possession was to replace the original carpet with bamboo. The 1958 formica? Charming. The same vintage wall-to-wall? Not so much. But replacing the vinyl flooring didn't even register. It wasn't even on the list.

Eight months into living here, and I'll tell you: It's on the list. I tried to be Zen about it. And by Zen, I mean, hunky-dory in that air-quotey way because I'm not buddhist. And when did "zen" became such common lingo any disgruntled housewife with a dirty floor can drop it down on a blog and get away with it, anyway? And those were air quotes, by the way. I feel itchy about appropriating other people's beliefs and philosophies, but I'm totally down with dorky irony. The irony being that I'm a dork. And I use air quotes.

But the floor. It is so bad. Unlike any floor I've ever had (all the frequent moving gives me an ample personal history on this one) or noticed elsewhere. It's not smooth at all. Textured. I want to say Orange Peel, but really, more like Sandpaper. Really, rougher than it looks:

i hate my kitchen floor

Regular mopping doesn't touch the ground in dirt. And we're not all that dirty, I don't think. Our backyard is a dirt pit, yes, and the children and the dog are in and out all day long, but I sweep every day, at least once.

A while ago, I thought, I know! I'll start mopping every day! Who has time for that? I guess I do. But that wasn't good enough. So then I tried to hands and knees, hot water and scrub brush the floor every day. But that left me stiff fingered, dry-skinned, shaking my fist at the heavens and having an existential crisis in my kitchen. Because if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a new outcome, the definition of futility is doing the same thing over and over again and knowing it doesn't matter anyway.

Last night I filled up a bucket of hot water + vinegar + a few drops of lavender oil (my usual mopping solution) and decided to have another go with the long handled scrub brush. And the brush pulled the dirt up, it does do that. But being that it's a brush and not a mop, it doesn't absorb any water, so then I need to grab an old towel to sop up the overflow and I was just about to get to that step, to the grabbing the old towel step, when I might have lost it.

I'm not going to divulge the whole story, but I might have screamed the sort of guttural, primal roar normally relegated to pushing babies out of hoo-has and I might have whacked that long handled brush against The World's Worst Vinyl Flooring with a force befitting Beowulf in the hall of halls. And I might have felt so disgusted and frustrated and DONE that I just left the whole mess in the kitchen and went to bed.

So what's the wrap up here? My husband (who spends a lot less time fretting about the cleanliness of our home, I'll tell you that) tells me I should find an acceptable level of clean and just let the rest be. But I tell him that it's none of it acceptable. It all pokes my sore spots and makes me feel like my whole existence is epitomized by a ding dang floor that won't get clean. It's either I curse my futile task, but keep at it anyway, or I give up.

I ignored last night's bucket of scrub water and broken long handled brush this morning. Walked around it while making breakfast. Tried not to make eye contact. And you know what happened a while later, when I was standing on the counter screwing in a little cup hook in the ceiling above the kitchen sink (so I can finally hang that little bluebird doodad I like so well and has lived in so many of my kitchens): the boy dumped the whole bucket of water on the floor.

I climbed down, grabbed an old towel, stepped on it, and scoot-scooted across the floor. Hollered at the girl for more towels. Kept at it. And then, then it was all dry and, maybe, sorta, a little clean? I've eliminated every other method, I guess we'll see how long this skating on wet towels in cartoon house cleaning way lasts. Except, not really skating. Because it's hard to skate on sandpaper.