Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Start Hoarding Now

Maybe you have a head start.

Maybe your cupboards are alphabetized and then further arranged by expiration date, oldest in front. Maybe your kids' shoes are purchased for the next five sizes (to last approximately five months?). And maybe, just maybe, you saw this financial crisis coming and didn't go on vacation over the summer, choosing wisely to put the money allocated for that spree instead into a margarine tub in the deep freeze.

One time my grandma had a jar full of Susan B. Anthony dollars buried in the garden. When her handyman tilled it up, he unknowingly shattered the jar and spread her money all throughout the garden's 18-inch-deep furrows. My grandma, the consummate Frugal Frederique, dug until well after dark seeking her coins. Later, many summers later, we started pulling carrots and beets with dollars in them.

And then another time I had purchased a 1930s overstuffed club chair for $10 and hauled it home to my college digs. My roommate Margaret and I decided that the fabric was scratchy and she knew a little about upholstery. There was a funny patch on the back of the chair so she also weighed in to say that it was common for people to hide money in their upholstery. (Why did I believe her? She was a history major.) Anyway we tore the offending fabric off and stapled on 10 yards of awful peach-and-green polished cotton from the dollar bin at the upholstery store. There was no money hidden in there. Then, when we were throwing the original fabric away, our antique dealer neighbor commented to say that it was mohair and reportedly was worth close to $100 a yard.

When my grandfather died, it fell to my mother to clean out his closets. Like many of his generation, the "Great Generation," he had a compulsion to save everything. Not only did he never throw anything out, but it was all squirreled away in tidy compartments. And he had multiples of most everything. The shoes he wore everyday were as worn as you can imagine, very "down at the heel." There were four pairs exactly like them in his closet, new in their boxes, just as they had been for maybe seven years. He washed sheets every Saturday, waiting until they line dried to make the bed again. There were 10 sets of sheets in their packages in the linen cupboard. I think this is the definition of hoarding, and I understand it is common among people who have lived with very little and are afraid to be without.

Maybe you're saving your dollars and maybe your menus are planned for three months of pantry meals. Maybe you're appreciating the value of your old things and resisting the pull of the Pottery Barn. Or, maybe, like the media say most Americans are, you're living paycheck to paycheck.

Maybe you're somewhere in between.

I have a stocked pantry. I shop about once a month for "big" groceries, stopping otherwise only for milk and bread and produce that the garden doesn't provide. I don't literally advocate hoarding, since that has a connotation of having more than one needs (and keeping it at the expense of others who aren't able to then procure it). But I am thinking a lot about the Great Generation and what they went through, how they managed. How it shaped them and their friendships. They must have relied quite a bit on one another. That part sounds good.

Monday, September 29, 2008


I remember that certain feeling of being 9, and too big for the ride-on toys, but still wanting to play. Actually I played anyway. That was a great thing about my parents, and in fact my whole childhood: it was okay to be a kid for a long, long time.

I remember this quilt from that sale and oh, how I wish I'd bought it. There's a shopping rule that goes something like, "walk away -- if you still can't live without it tomorrow, go back and get it." Yeah, that rule is stu-pid. Especially with yard sales.

I remember when I wanted a lavender hedge and a white picket fence. And now I know how long it takes to harvest that lavender. Don't tell anyone, but we're making lavender sachets and lavender eye pillows for Christmas.

I remember being that quick to pose for a photo. Grace Hannah steals the show, even at an airshow.

I remember how badly I needed a dark-chocolate-covered glace apricot last week. It's stress reduction in a dried fruit, my friends. I took that picture on my steering wheel. Then I went to Epicurious and learned how to make them. It might be more frugal, but it's not going to be good for my Derfwad Manor-affiliated 5K project. Maybe I'll give chocolate apricots away for Christmas with the lavender (yeah, right). In a related matter, there's a minor 5K update in the sidebar. No new hiney pictures though.

I remember saying that I'm not usually very sneaky. But recently I have been doing a lot of sneaking. I can't seem to help myself walking through the gates of abandoned old church lots and barnyards and... the pictures are worth it!

Keeping It Real

I think my neighbors are moving. They had their house on the market for a year and a half, and then it wasn't on the market, and it didn't sell, and now they're loading boxes.
Yesterday in church a family we know announced that they have taken their son out of school and are thinking of moving to Mexico because their house is in foreclosure, they are both out of work, and this is an opportunity to make a new start.
My house in town will be vacant in a few days. Hard times visited on our tenants, a family with six children, and they are moving. It's not just trashed. It's flop-house trashed.
I keep thinking that the market is not that bad in our area. That the economy is "not that bad" around here.
How bad is "not that bad" before it's just, you know, bad?
I want to focus on today's applesauce and cheese making extravaganza, but I am weighed down by sadness at the change of tide.
It can't be pushed back. I am completely powerless to help any of these situations; this is a "Be still and know that I am God" kind of a time. Every fiber of me is straining to find something to do, to fix it for my friends and neighbors and for myself. But I don't have $700 million, and money's not going to fix it anyway.
Maybe a little more canning. Or a drive through the countryside taking pictures as the leaves turn. The tide will still be going out and the economy will do what it will, but my worrying is not adding anything to the discussion.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Whatever Works

This weekend the girls and I have been up to our elbows in food preservation.

It feels a little farmy. Also a little WPA. The country is reportedly pulling out its dusty old Mason jars in time of economic hardship, returning to our grandparents' proven ideals of frugality and thrift.

Reportedly. When I went to get lids for my canning jars in the neighboring small town, I was told they were "out." The nice clerk informed me that "broke people like to 'put up' food." So I guess the financial disaster that's been all over the front page moved pretty quickly to the pocketbooks of my fellow canning afficionados and a bunch of newbies. People in financial difficulty like to can their own food, and the store didn't predict this, so they under-ordered lids and jars and such.

I didn't know about this chain of events. I thought broke people liked to window shop:

And then stop for a cup of coffee, black, no sugar, and to then watch the people go by:

(Ignore the shopping bag there. It's not frugal to actually buy something in the cute shops.)

Canning and freezing our produce, the last time I checked my bank account, is not cheap. I'm sure all the garden prep and organic seedlings and freaking deer prevention cost much more than a dozen trips to Trader Joe's. So if we're not doing this to save money, why did I get all sticky and end the day with a pail full of pear peelings? Well, part of the reason we like to preserve food is because we know what went in it.

I love dried pears more than cheesecake. And that's saying a lot. But the dried fruit at the supermarket is coated in high fructose corn syrup before it's dried. Say what? And the canned stewed tomatoes at the store have more sodium than a cup of insanity-producing saltwater. (I don't know that last thing for a fact, it just sounded funny in my head. I might be a little loopy from the hum of the dehydrator coupled with the steam from the canner.)

Here is what I know: So far today we have canned and sliced and dried 30 pounds of pears, seasoned and stewed and frozen 18 quarts of tomatoes, and grated and bagged and frozen enough zucchini for a dozen loaves of zucchini bread.

Then we had pizza for dinner. Because I like to keep 'em guessing, that's why.

Tomorrow the boxes upon boxes of apples will become applesauce and canned apple pie filling. Did you know that if you pre-cook and can your apple pie filling, the filling will actually fill the pie crust? (Instead of shrinking and leaving the crust high and dry.) I did not know that until this year. After the apples, I'm attacking plum preserves and pepper jelly. Have you ever had pepper jelly? A little of summer's heat in the middle of the winter, that's what I like to call it.

Then, after the jellies and preserves... it's chevre time.

That's right. This week we are making goat cheese with fresh milk from my neighbor's Nubian goats. Oh, yum. This is a completely new farm (and homeschool) endeavor, and we are so excited! Traditional "chevre," which just means "goat," is also known as "farmer's cheese." It's spreadable like cream cheese and has a tangy flavor like plain yogurt. If you do it right. We'll see how it goes. Some of the cheese websites we have been reading are written by Ph.D.s.

Biology doctorates, the internet, and cheese. It's a beautiful thing. They know what they're doing, so we don't have to. In this way the cheese is separated from the whey. No, I mean the curds. Or, I mean, the cheese process is different from the fruits and vegetables. I clearly don't know what I mean. But I do know what goes into the cheese: my neighbor's goat milk, some natural cultures, and some rennet. (I don't know what rennet is, but I know it's not as hard to spell as some of the stuff on the cheese I buy at the store.)

The girls and I recently went to the movie theater and saw the American Girl movie about "Kit" and the Great Depression. The story rambles over concepts of equality and features some really cute costumes, and just happens to include a little history. Incidentally Sarah was riveted to the Presidential debate on television last night. The EGE was still at work, and the other girls were otherwise occupied, but Sarah and I were similarly focused on the candidates' opinions and positions.

She wants to know whether we are facing something like Kit and her (fictional) family did in the Great Depression. No, Sarah, we're not. We're not losing our home, and Daddy's not losing his job. We're not taking in boarders. But like a lot of mainstream (if I heard "Main Street versus Wall Street" one more time in that debate, I think I'd have puked) families, we have felt the personal effects of the economy. I don't know what the definition of a financial depression or recession is, but I know that a disproportionate number of our neighbors have lost their jobs in nearby high-tech fields and banks and the real estate industry.

We don't preserve food because we are "broke." We preserve food because something about our society is "broken." I believe we have lost touch with where our food (clothing, automobile, laptop computer, ideology) comes from. It may seem trivial, but to me it's fundamental, to know and appreciate what we're doing.

Our next-door neighbors in town had a little girl Madeleine's age who did not recognize a tomato on the vine. For my part, I personally have no concept of what it takes to put a technology product on the market or the what it takes to keep the economy humming. And most Americans, I believe, feel completely out of touch with what the lending crisis (and accompanying real estate and market crises) means to them. But whether we understand it or not, it will likely affect us and our children's generation profoundly.

Seven hundred billion dollars. It takes a long time to type. This is what makes me preserve food, really. I know I can take the occasional shopping trip. I know I can afford my latte when I want one. I know I don't know hardship. And I know I don't know what this bailout, or the lack of one, will mean to me. I don't pretend to have an opinion, because it boggles me. Fruit doesn't.

So I submit, to the Bi-Mart clerk who said, "broke people like to 'put up' food," that it's not about the pantry. It's about doing something tangible to take care of ourselves and our families. We return to the familiar and the comforting like a robin in a windstorm. I'm just nesting.

I'm just folding my farm-fresh eggs into batter, lining my jars up on the shelves, because this is completely within my control. I can understand the economy of a garden and the provision for my family. I can't understand what's happened to the families who are losing their homes or to the bank employees who are carrying boxes of personal belongings down flights of stairs, to go home to be unable to pay their own mortgages.

I'm just nesting.

Main Street or Wall Street.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Little Buggy

There's a little something to be said for routine. I know this because we are not really in one yet, with the homeschool thing. It seems as though someone is always heading to Urgent Care with a skewer through their foot (Can you believe I didn't blog that? Further, can you believe the way we all use "blog" as a verb?), or someone else is disclocating their baby elbow so we have his sisters overnight, or a horse needs shod, or Daddy's super busy and needs Mommy (AKA "Teach" now) to run into the office for a minute, students in tow....

There's just a little something to be said for routine. And I may be able to say it if I ever can get a word in edgewise with our crazy unpredictable life. Maybe I can get Madeleine to plan ahead, say 24 moves or so.

Despite still flying by the seat of our pants some days, I must say I am loving homeschooling with the girls. And you were so nervous for me. (That was a Grover thing, in case you missed that episode of Sesame Street. Grover's still my favorite. Elmo is cute, but he'll never be the Big G.)

It's a certain brand of fantastic to witness the girls learning, to actually participate in that learning process regularly. I admit, I was worried I'd never have a minute (um, I don't) to myself, but this is better than a whole month of solitary cafe moments.

The girls were concerned, too, about the big change. But they are easily slipping into good habits with their studies. I think I'm lucky. This is not to say they don't still strive for their legendary levels of sass.

For example, when we recently had to rush Danger Girl in for the aforementioned skewered foot, I was a little eager and excited to point out all of the Latin root words in the hospital equipment. I was quizzing the girls quietly on how many "bio" words they could name (Yes, I'm embarrassing like that. Isn't it a mom's job?) in between CNAs telling us to be patient, the doctors were all busy, when Sarah whispered loudly, "Mom? Uh, Mom? School's over today."

So, yes, we're going buggy (and froggy too), but homeschooling is going well.

(Must add: The Praying Mantis only stayed in the Bug Observation Unit for a couple of hours. He is now living out his natural life or not in the great Farm Suite.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

This One Time, KL Said...

Early in the Spring of this year, my great friend and fellow organic gardener Agent K from Katie's Calamities was perusing slash drooling over my new garden site.

Ordinarily a "new" garden site is not so great, unless you lasagna-layered the poop and dry leaves and peat moss until your wheelbarrow tires went flat along with your desire to ever garden again. It takes years for the soil to get where you wanted it, at least in our clay-prone area.

But this year, I had a new garden. And as freshmen go, it was pretty cool. A little understated, with just enough personality to promote it for next year.

Also it was meant to be. Mother Nature works in mysterious ways: In February a huge Maple tree split in half under a snow load, leaving my husband with several weekends of chainsaw fun and me with a sunny new spot for raised beds. Building the beds took another four or five weekends of back-breaking work and a borrowed tractor. I contributed mostly by providing lunch.

Yeah, back to K's jealousy. It takes a lot to turn her green thumb green with envy, and I planned right at that moment to savor it for at least a few years. Her acre-and-three-quarters was tended for 20 years by a Master Gardener. (I'm not sure whether that's a proper noun, but in the case of KL's property, I'll make an educated guess.) It is a veritable jungle of landscaping genius, a plant collector's dream. Every time I'm there I want to sneak a little hand spade in. (Don't tell KL.)

But she forgot her green gills over my carefully planned raised beds for a moment when she noticed how lush and green my weeds were.

"You have a whole salad here!" she exclaimed. The dandelions, mints and wild herbs looked edible to her. She told me I ought to just water and snip and repeat, all season long.

And yesterday? A few months later? Laura agreed with her:

It's yellow, with an interesting form.

Let's see if I can dig up anything to go with it.

The mouth feel is a little... different.

Okay, maybe this diner is a bit seedy.

Auntie K, are you sure these are edible?

KL actually took these photos... and about 350 more. The Calamity family popped in for a visit after a church potluck. No one at our church was eating dandelion greens, that's for sure.

Maybe I'm getting older (duh), but I actually look forward to the church potluck. Or maybe there are just a lot of really good cooks at our church. Homemade mac-n-cheese, huge green salads, homegrown ham with home-canned peaches.

It calls to mind the Lyle Lovett lyrics: "To the Lord let your praises be/It's time for dinner now let's go eat/We got some beans and some good cornbread/Now listen to what the preacher said."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Live And Let ...

Not the Bond movie.

I'm actually thinking about my own bassackward (dorky pre-teen non-swearing aside, don't you think I'm funny? Just a little bit funny and heartwarming simultaneously? Ever?) .... Anyway I'm actually thinking about how I've walked around this Earth for most of my 37 years with a completely un-self-conscious, unplanned "live and let live" attitude.

I was raised a little unconventionally, we've established. But the counterculture got balanced out when my media-loathing, strict vegan father woke us up one fine Autumn morning and announced to the whole famdamily (again, tee-hee, with the almost-cussing) that he would, By God, be watching Monday Night Football and eating a burger that very day.

In my family, nothing was ever done by halvesies. We were tie-dyed-in-the-wool, raising sheep for the fiber, practicing radical reforestation (whatever that means) and eating organic waaaay before it was available at WalMart. Or, we were conservative-to-the-bone, supporting Ronald Reagan Republicanism, driving a fleet of Fords and wearing Wranglers to prove it. (I don't think my dad ever had an NRA membership, but folks we knew sure did. And do. "Charlton Heston is my President" bumper stickers and all.)

This amalgam boiled down, simmered for a few decades, and made me the tolerant, easygoing individual I am today. It's pretty hard to shock me. Not that I'm asking you to try or anything. For about a decade my very closest friend was an ordained minister. She used to say I had a pastor's face. You know, tell me you just had impure thoughts about your best friend's biker brother, and I'll nod politely, knowingly, without a shred of judgment.

That may be because I don't feel remotely qualified to judge anyone. In fact I spend way too much time trying to -- not exactly justify -- I spend too much time trying to get into the heads of random people who've wronged me or mine. I want to know what makes strangers turn right without looking left over their shoulders. I want to know why that greeter lady at WalMart looks right through every man but has a sad smile and hello for every woman who passes.

I want to understand why one particular couple lived rent-free in one of our houses for seven months and then were mad at us when we finally, painfully, had to evict them. (Um. I know they lived there rent-free because we didn't force the issue of paying rent. I'm inquisitive, not stupid. And I'm a pushover, clearly.) They were so mad that they took us to court. They accused us of causing damage to their 8-year-old son's psyche with causing them to move. They called the elders of their church and tried to have us "black balled." On a recording. And yet I still, truly, want to know how that went down from their point of view. How did that work for them? What led to their choices? Did they know when we took them out for pizza to help plan their budget (month three) how it would all turn out? Was it a calculated thing or did they just skate through that whole year like their blades were badly chipped and the ice had a momentous rough patch that caused their triple axel to end in broken contracts? And then, did they leave the rink with their heads held high?

I am a closet analyst. (It's nothing to do with your wardrobe, relax already.)

Hey, live in the city; live in the sticks. Work for a living; grow herbs for a living. Homeschool. Private school. Unschool. Stay-at-home mom. Nine-to-five mom.

What makes you tick? Does it get under your skin when others live in a radically different manner than you and yours? Or does it, for you like for me, make you rejoice that we are all so different and yet united by our humanity? Do you wonder how in the hellsinki (thought I forgot about that schtick, hunh?) someone you know and like could vote Republican, or Democrat, or (God Forbid) Green Party?

I recently ... okay, yesterday... ran across one of the FIRST EVER moments in which I lost the pastor face. There are some places the "live and let live" cannot be allowed to live. I'm still slow simmering that one. While it cooks up into an idea worth talking about, let's hear from you.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

It Must Be The Shoes

It's all about the boots.
I think it's highly possible there's an urban cowgirl thing going on, when the boots are that clean and the denim is pre-faded and the girl sits in the straw and watches the cows going by (so to speak).
Of course, if she's 4, we might make allowances.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nanny Goat, Nanny Goat

When I was a tiny child my family lived briefly in a Ken Keseyesque converted school bus. My father used a draft horse to work in the woods, an early semiLuddite environmentalist. Love children on the lam from the rat race of California.

The entire backstory has been hiding, skeletal, in a closet until today. In fact the meager skeleton has been gaining strength in its secrecy, and is now fat and ghoulish beyond its worth.

Right now I am a little concerned that my dad will attend the coming out party. But who am I kidding? My father read this blog exactly once, and then called me to say famously, "This is your private stuff. I don't want to read about your private stuff."

Hunh. He probably doesn't want to read about his private stuff either.

So I was a little counterculture hippie child, clearly visible under a blue velvet empire-waisted wedding gown in a picture that held my beautiful teen mother and my pony-tailed father and a daisy-bedecked cake. They're not married anymore. Maybe because they didn't keep a piece of that daisy cake under their pillow for a year. I think I read you're supposed to do that. It probably shifted out of place when they had to move the bus. Anyway it all crumbled.

After the bus we had a stab at dairy goat farming with some other like-minded individuals. I do mean individuals. I must not have liked their individuality very much because family lore has me attempting to hitchhike solo into "town" to go "shopping" at a tender preschool age.

I had figured out that those weren't raisins all over the grass. I wanted to buy some proper raisins.

I can still remember goat milk. Mmm-mmm. Or, NOT.

You know what goat milk is good for? Making goat cheese. Chevre. Like Chevrolet, only more expensive per pound. Our current neighbors have a dairy goat farm. Grace Hannah loves their Nubian nanny goats. They love her too.

Grandma and Grandpa love her too. Grandpa has a very short haircut and a business that has nothing whatsoever to do with getting back to the land. Or schoolbuses. Grandma drives a Volvo and takes the girls to the Dollar Tree with alarming regularity in determined support of capitalism.

I've come full circle and flung that closet door wide open. See how that works?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Singing the Praises of My Trail Mix

The good news:
My grocery store has my beloved trail mix again. No banana chips, no peanuts. Just my favorite nearly healthy mix of dried mangoes, apples, coconut, raisins and almonds with a little granola. Which reminds me of a story. (Of course.)
In late January, our area was blessed with a series of ice and snow storms alternating with high winds. Big trees plus ice plus wind equals power outage. At the time of our first multiple-day outage, our baby Laura was mere days old and yet on the second day of the outage the EGE was urgently needed at work in the city. He took my Suburban, for the four-wheel drive. The girls and I settled in to play Little House On The Prairie. I make a pretty cute Ma, but casting would have to ignore the anachronistic use of gas appliances.
For the first four hours or so, a generator ran a space heater and we all snuggled up to play Bingo and Go Fish. I nursed the baby (chilly moments!) and made cup after cup of cocoa. We fought with the oil lamps. They're nice to look at, but how do you stop all the smoke? (Mental note: Figure that out before Winter's first storm.)
When you live in the middle of the sticks, you're likely to be the power company's last priority. This is perfectly understandable. Sometimes they even forget us. We're that close to "off the grid." Our neighbors warned us before we moved here about the weeks without power, but I thought to myself, this is the 21st century, for crying out loud.
I also thought to myself when hearing their cautionary stories, there's a school right across the road. Surely the school and next-door country church wouldn't go without power for days on end? In the Year 2008?
Ah HA! I later found out the hard way that the school and church are on a different power grid or transformer or electric doohickey and whatchamacallit than the lowly residences on our rural road. You see that my common sense and vast knowledge of electricity will take me far in this world.
So while the generator whirred and its accompanying tiny space heater (Mental note: Continue to beg the Powers That Be for a woodstove before Winter.) struggled to warm our ancient farmhouse, the wind whistled a happy tune through the siding, and Madeleine called my attention to a flurry of snow outside the window. It was then, through the near-white-out, that I spied the warm glow of the church porch light.
The electric porch light. Or beacon of warmth and hope. Or, invitation to move in to the church. Whichever way you want to look at it.
Faster than you can say "frostbite" the girls and I had doubled up our socks (already had coats and mittens on) and packed a backpack with tiny diapers and cocoa mix and graham crackers. We trudged less than a quarter mile to the back door of the church. (Thanks, Charles, for the key.)
I had a little moment of guilt when I cranked up the thermostat in the nursery to 85 degrees. (Mental note: Give a little extra to the church for electric bill.) It wasn't long before the girls were playing in their shirtsleeves with felt apostles and palm trees. They were coloring Bible story workbooks and I was making coffee and rocking the baby in no more layers than the average person wears in a snowstorm. We looked out the window periodically to see if our own porch light was gleaming back at us.
When it finally did, just before sundown, I was reluctant to bundle up. I didn't want to walk across the road to a house that might take hours to warm up. But I knew the EGE would be driving home, and so we cleaned up the church nursery and the kitchen. We wrapped our scarves around our necks and pulled our boots back on and trudged through falling the snow to home.
Crashing in the front door to hear the reassuring hum of heat blowing in was a lovely feeling. Madeleine and Sarah rushed around turning off lights and appliances that were on when the power had failed. Grace, at the time 3 years old, stood stock still in the center of the kitchen and said solemnly,
"Hal-Lo-Lu-Yah. Now we can watch TV."
(That spelling attempts to give you her precious pronunciation. I included it especially for Barb, my favorite writer.)
All of this to say, hallelujah. They fixed my trail mix. It's been a long cold summer without it. The electricity, the spark, was gone. Or something like that.
So finally, I come around to the bad news, and reason for the picture above (and you thought the picture was unrelated to today's post. Hmph. Ye of little faith.):
The bad news is that Two Spot, our elderly gentleman horse, likes my trail mix too.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Barn Sides, Pork Rinds and Tree Frogs

Today, Chez Suite, we'll be hanging a little laundry on the line and canning a few thousand tomatoes. Lest you imagine me as a good a gardener as I ought to be, I will confess to buying my canning tomatoes at a large organic farm about 50 miles from my backyard raised beds. It all works.

It must be the microclimate of my garden (Yes, I'm justifying my gardening failure by blaming it on the climate.), but most of my canning tomatoes are still green. Green! I am familiar with the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes" and even read the book. But these are far too numerous to fry.

Ooh! Speaking of frying, yesterday Sarah tried her hand at making chicharonis (no idea on the spelling here). These are a disgusting small wheel-shaped snack that look like innocent pasta in the bag. Then you put them in hot oil and they puff up. I suspect it has something to do with pork rinds. SO NOT MY THING.

Some friends of ours brought a huge bag of dehydrated pork rinds back from Mexico, as a gift for my girls. Oh-Kay.

And yesterday Sarah was desperate for a snack, so she covered some of those little orange wheels with water and popped the bowl in the microwave. Oozy, gooey, gelatinous moments later, I had a minor freak-out and the chickens had a lovely snack. If the hens lay deep-fried eggs, more freaking out will occur. Mark my words.

Finally, NOT speaking of frying, the wildlife around here seems determined to help out with the homeschooling effort. We were unsuccessful at photographing our guest of last week, a magnificent five-eyed Praying Mantis, but this week we are studying this cute little guy:

Tree frogs have only two eyes. Not that I'm disappointed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sometimes Life Is Funny

Sue over at my favorite funny site (I am not saying that so she'll like me and invite me over to a PJ party with s'mores. Really.), Navel Gazing At Its Finest, is putting together a book. This alone is enough to make us take notice. A book of bloggers being funny? Ooh... where can I buy it?

But it's more than that. A lot, lot more. It's a book to help Nie Nie and her lovely family. Here's how to submit.

I also want to say here that sometimes my life is funny, and sometimes it's not. Sometimes I write a bunch of pseudophilosophical stuff and sometimes I post pictures of my kids freaking out at ballet class (high decibels + pink leotards = great photo opportunity and much denial of parentage).

Several years ago my father-in-law was burned terribly in an explosion at his work. To say the very least, he is one of my favorite people ever. I don't want to trivialize in any way that it was a long, painful recovery. But I want to add that with the help of family support, amazing doctors and nurses, and many prayers, he is fully recovered today. Nie Nie's story (and I don't know her at all) could be any one of our stories: A beautiful young blogger mom and dad with a gorgeous, amazing family facing a very difficult time ... they need our help. You can read about their plane crash and the updates on their recovery at this site.

And if you want to help: You can write about it on your blog, to spread the word. You can write something funny to submit to Sue's book. Or, you can buy the book. Or, you can click here to donate. Sometimes we need to do what we can to help one another.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On This Anniversary

Do you see those little iron stars on the side of the brick column? I was under the impression that they were pretty little iron stars until my husband, ever the engineer, told me that they are something like huge nuts on the end of massive threaded iron rods that hold the building together. Pretty, and pretty essential.

We celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary last month with Mexican food and a bowling fiesta with our four children.

Friends celebrated their parents' 50th anniversary last summer with a lawn party. Grandma still fit in her wedding dress. Grandpa made fun of her black stockings peeking out from her bone-white dress. Their great-granchildren cut teeth on barbecued ribs while helium balloons bobbed in the apple orchard.

Anniversaries call to mind a celebration of lives lived well, milestones met and passed with joy and sweet memories. But today is a different kind of anniversary.

Today many of us will remember where we were when we heard the news of 9/11/01. Today there are many other anniversaries, unspeakably sad ones, being made around the world by wars and natural disasters and abject poverty.

Those little iron stars? They're the studs of happiness, essential. They're pretty, yes, but as heavy as life and as impossible to bend as optimism.

The anniversary parties and birthday balloons and coffee dates are holding together the bricks of our carefully built lives against all odds. To celebrate the joyous occasions, I think, is to honor the fragility of life and humanity's enduring passion to live it.

I hope you are not mourning anyone this anniversary. But the only good I can find in an anniversary such as 9/11 is to cling to the goodness of and in life.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

If You're Happy And You Know It...

Today Maddy and Sarah played chess while Grace and Laura and I played. It was a good division of labor, since my ability to plan ahead has been reduced to about two moves.
Madeleine played a 14-year-old boy, a really smart boy, and she judges that he'll be a good chess challenge for at least week or two. Not a competitive bone in her body, I tell you.
In the meantime, Laura finally learned to clap! That would be so great, but did you know that chess match audiences are a little like golf spectators? Yeah. The required silent, respectful clapping is a little out of Laura's repertoire. She's of the squeal-and-clap club. I'm pretty sure that when she starts writing, she'll enjoy using multiple exclamation points. That's how excitable she is.
Sarah enjoyed chess today as well. She learned a new "strategy," she informs us, but will not elaborate further. (No inkling of the competitive streak in her either.)
And not that I'm keeping score, but a lot of these homeschool parents are competitive. I think it's fun to hear about everyone's accomplishments. I think every kid I met today is pretty spectacular. I think your kids are wonderful too. And you don't know me, but please believe me: I am not interested in the one-upmomship.
Do you know of what I speak? Some of the other baby siblings I met were reaching different milestones at different times than their mothers or neighbors thought they ought. One 12-month-old wasn't walking yet (gasp). One toddler refused to self-feed but could take apart an alarm clock and put it back together. A vast majority of the homeschool students I met were introduced by their name, quickly followed by a recitation of their grade level in each and every subject.
How would we feel if our spouses or friends introduced us like this:
"Bob! I want you to meet Maryann. She's really good at bookkeeping but a little behind in telephone skills. I've never met anyone who could photocopy as well as she does, but we've really got to get to work on her spreadsheets."
I just want to say, for crying out loud, don't let me go there with the half-apology, half-bragging thing. And don't get me wrong: I LOVE to hear about kids and their amazing quirks and differences. I LOVE to know what your kids (and anyone else's, honestly) are up to these days. I just don't want to feel like it's a big competition.
Did I just drop out of Pluto?
Anyone else?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hey, look at that little Jeep road over there. Wouldn't you rather drive over there? (I am struggling mightily not to start in with "the road less traveled.")

If we were driving over there, all those other cars would go away. The blacktop too. Look, isn't that better?
I'm cracking up over here.
In case you didn't click in for a wilderness show:
Today is our first day of homeschool. Ironically we're running to town for a chess class and then gymnastics. I think math and language arts fit somewhere between Mileposts 12 and 28.
On the upside, I went to the school board meeting last night. Wait. Did I say the upside? There may be something wrong with me, going to a school board meeting for a district in which I chose to homeschool. It was a confirmation of everything we've decided, but I'm still left unspeakably sad for our little community and the families who must ride the roller coaster of declining enrollment, difficult teacher recruitment, and the ever-present lack of funding.
Oh! And yesterday we found a Praying Mantis in the back yard. Don't take this wrong, but I thought it was a good sign. Six-Inch Carnivorous Bug With Five Eyes (really! that's true!) Reinforces Rural Mom's Resolve. News at eleven.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Frankly, My Dear...

It says, "Yes! You can weigh your own produce."

Healthy and encouraging too. Exactly what I was looking for in a roadside stand. Unfortunately the doctor was not in. (Remember Lucy's 5 cent counseling fee?)

In all seriousness, I have been asking the EGE for a couple of years to build a produce and flower stand for me. Because it's not enough to have three or four children, three or four jobs and three or four horses all at once. I need to throw in a little side business selling eggs and zinnias.

Big horses.

Little girls.

If I close my eyes and breathe in and out very slowly, I can conjure that exact hot, dusty stable smell, timothy hay and clean stall shavings and horse heaven in one breath.

Although we keep a couple of horses on our little piece of land, we recently moved Maddy's horse Seven to the barn you see in those pictures. It's a mile and a half away and has a very 1940s movie set feel, with echoes of the racing Thoroughbreds it was built for. The local lore says Clark Gable had a horse there in 1955. Mr. Gable was shortly thereafter married to the ex-wife of the stable owner, and can't you just imagine that the drama was not all in the beauty of the landscape?

I just love that kind of drama... the kind that's over and done with a long time ago!

Yesterday was our typical whirlwind. The EGE was gone to Portland. (Powell's Bookstore without me. I can't wait to see the credit card receipt.) The girls had at any given point in time from one to six friends over. This is not a typo. I don't know what I was thinking proclaiming that we oughta be the hangout house. Maybe I was thinking kids are a lot quieter and cleaner (and easier on the pantry) than they actually are.

But how could I deny them a gaggle of friends when I round the corner of the house to see my grape arbor thus decorated:

It was really charming until I discovered there were eight children under there, eating underripe grapes and plotting how to catch fairies. Okay, so the fairy part is still charming. And to the other moms? I'm so sorry about the sick tummies.

I just can't get over the ghost of Rhett Butler roaming our little village. This will be bad for my Scarlett O'Hara syndrome. Mark my words. The next thing you know, I'll have a produce stand that's painted with the lettering, "As God is my witness, I'll nevah be hungry again!" And then I'll sell cute little bundles of basil while wearing a velvet gown made of draperies. It's all so dramatic and cinematic, I can hardly stand it.

Oh, why oh why wasn't I born to wear hoopskirts on a plantation? With nannies to help with the children?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

That Kind Of Green

Approximately two weeks ago:

I was sitting in my very favorite independent bookstore enjoying a cup of coffee and a sneak preview of the book I would soon buy, when my favorite independent bookstore owner introduced me to a gentleman I shall not soon forget.

Could I get more vague than that?

Okay, so it was Guatemalan, locally roasted, with a couple of splashes of half-n-half. The book was (frantically searching memory and cluttered desktop) "Bread Alone," by Judith Ryan Hendricks, "an imaginative debut novel." The bookstore was The Bookmine, a most delicious meeting of old friends, plants, books, overstuffed chairs and coffee, found only on a Main Street near me. The owner, Gayle, is one a pair of sisters whom I've known since I was smaller than Grace Hannah is now. Twenty minutes in The Bookmine is better than eight hours at the ocean -- and I usually choose the ocean over anywhere when it's time to recharge.

So when Gayle wanted to introduce me to someone, I of course paid attention to her words. Mind you, these amazing women know everyone, and love to matchmake friendships and business deals and furniture swaps. They'll change your baby's diaper for you if you're deep in conversation. They'll not only let you use their phone, they'll dial it for you and help you pass the time pinching back African Violets until your ride arrives. They are the heart of a small town near me.

It turned out that Gayle's friend is a retired gentleman who wants some ghostwriting done. He lent me a book and gave me a list of web addresses to get a feel for his cause. This is how I came to read "Urban Homesteading" by Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne. They also have a blog. It's often funny, as I mentioned two days ago, but it's more than funny. The book is, in my opinion, essentially political, but the authors prefer the idea that it harkens back to a time when people used common sense and ingenuity more than money. It's something of a how-to book for folks who might like to live a "back to the land" lifestyle, only in the city.

In "Urban Homesteading," one can learn, among many other things: how to make a windowsill or patio garden, how to construct grey water or rain water collection systems, how to eat with the seasons, and in general how to rely a lot less on traditional packaged goods and the whole packaged lifestyle. Plus, it's pretty funny. The writing is snappy and conversational, and the writers are keenly aware that some of the ideas they present are less mainstream than the others -- building your own composting toilet from a five-gallon bucket and some peat moss, for instance.

Okay, so I'm all about a literally green lifestyle, but I'm not doing that.

The other day I was throwing a blog post up because I haven't been very good about keeping in touch with you all. I mentioned this book without naming its authors, and they definitely deserve attribution. And then (it gets worse, the self-flagellation and retraction-type stuff) I realized that I sounded awfully snarky and judgmental about what vehicle or attire a drop-in visitor might choose. She was such a lovely person! And I don't say that because I found out she's my second cousin. (Just kidding. I have no idea who she is.)

Y'all (borrowing Barb's Southern charm, hoping it works for me) can stop in anytime, in real life or in bloglife. Wearing your jeans or your stilletos... or both. Bringing your liberal politics or conservative... or both. I'll change your baby for you if you're deep in conversation, and I'll let you use my phone while I make some iced tea.

I want to live the currently popular and politically correct "green lifestyle" whether it's in fashion or not. But more than that, I want my life to be alive and growing and, you know, fruitful. I think of my beloved friends at The Bookmine, and I know the harvest of their (still young) lives is deep friendships and great loyalties. Yeah, I want to be green. I want to recycle, use my clothesline, walk to the post office and dig in my garden 10 months of the year... and "I want to live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to man."

And now I want to go Google that quote so I can properly give attribution.

Chicken Again?

Introvert or extrovert?

Coffee or tea?

Aisle seat or crammed between two large business travelers?

Would you say anything? Or would you take whatever came at you, whatever you were offered, and then stew about it later?

I usually have the perfect, polite but firm response to any given question... about three days later. And it doesn't even matter whether it's a tough question. I can put myself in a pretzel over whether the hostess would rather make tea or coffee. What would she prefer? I wouldn't want to put anyone out, after all. All of this to say: I may just be a chicken.

We have discussed here, blogishly, free range chickens (pooping on my next-door-neighbor's B&B), free-range children (not mine, usually), and the many (unfortunately unrealized on my farmette) uses for chicken poop. But we have never entered the territory of my chicken heart.

Okay, maybe once or twice I've hinted about how hard it is for me to be simply assertive. And then there was once I got miffed and called it mad and did something about it. Whew. That was fun. Go ahead and click on that last one. It's my favorite. And maybe you'll click back to hear about my latest struggle with saying what needs to be said.

I think I keep coming up against these situations because I need to, I don't know, change? Grow? Stop with the beating around the bush already?

These past couple of months we decided to homeschool the girls. I was completely terrified to inform the principal of our rural school. She is not a friend of mine, and I shouldn't be worried about hurting her feelings over this simple communication, but of course I have been. I have been worried to the extent that it resembles completely paralyzed and tongue-tied. I may have called the school district office six or seven times and been relieved that she wasn't in and further relieved that there's no voicemail.

She finally called me back, you know, and it was fine. It was okay. The worrying was way worse than the actual conversation. I choked it out, and she took the opportunity to tell me her own frustrations with the school district. (Not that I shared any frustrations of my own. Nosiree, Blog, this was strictly about making a decision for my girls. We have no frustrations with the school AT ALL.) In fact, the principal has transferred her own two children to another school. We had a very civil, productive conversation. I didn't even lose consciousness when I hung up. See? I can be assertive! (It helps that the person on the other end of the line was dying to dish.)

Since that phone conversation, I must have needed some repetition of the skill. Because you know I have had two distinct and separate opportunities to practice using my words like a big girl.

I wish I could report that it's getting easier. And easier. A piece of cake now. However, all I can truthfully say is that I've faced the fact that I am a chicken. Bock-ba-ahh-ck-bock. (And the first step to recovery?)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Introspection And Chicken Poop

Let me tell you, there's a lot of chicken poop on our tiny farm. Rabbit and horse poop too. Rabbit manure can go directly on the garden; as far as I know it's the only stuff that doesn't have to age before it's used as compost. The only problem with this is that we feed our rabbit hay, which has seeds... that aren't fully digested. So if you want to grow a lot of hay in your flowerbed, go ahead and use rabbit poop on it.

Chicken manure, on the other hand, has no seeds in it at all. And, it is reportedly in such high demand that I am told in a funny book I have been reading that I could sell it. Hah! Someone will pay for the contents of my chicken yard? Those little hens are cash cows, so to speak. First we can sell the eggs, and then bag up the soiled straw for delivery to some farmers' market somewhere. I guess. The world is truly turned upside down when bird and rabbit droppings are (theoretically) worth money.

Right after I read about that little (heavy on the potential) profit center... we had a farm visitor. This happens a lot, but this woman seemed to have been sent from the authors of the book I've been reading. "The Urban Homestead" is really a political book, and I think I might review it, or not. I couldn't seem to stop reading it in downtown SF, and now I'm still thinking about it in the middle of my real-life homestead.

Most people who visit us on the farm are our neighbors and fellow ruralites. When I was growing up, we had a long, wooded driveway with a narrow bridge to cross and a steep hill at the end. No one came to visit unannounced. Today, I live in a country church-turned-home next to an active grange hall, an operating country church, a volunteer fire department and a 37-student rural school. You might say it's smack in the middle of the sticks. We get all kinds of folks dropping in, and this is both wonderful and problematic.

Yesterday while the EGE was working in his shop and I was making my famous homemade mac-n-cheese for dinner, a strange white SUV with a gold trim package and those pimpish specialty wheels (They still spin after the car stops. What's that about?) pulled in my driveway.

She must be after chicken manure, I thought to myself.

No, really, I thought, she's lost between vineyards on a wine tasting tour.

Or, I thought, she's looking for a place to repent her flashy choice of vehicle and has mistaken my house for a confessional.

So I wiped my hands on my apron, picked up the baby, and walked out front to greet our visitor.

Naturally, since my children are now officially homeschooled and thus socially deprived, they all flocked out to stare unabashedly at the stranger. I ignored the embarrassment factor and continued to march toward her in a hurry lest the dog should jump on her white dress in greeting.

"I was looking for the fire chief? I was told he's here every Monday night? Even though it's Labor Day? I'm supposed to pick up a hose? Because my father-in-law's on a cruise...? You know, a hose for the water collection effort?"

I swear she asked way more questions than that. And even though they weren't grammatically questions, she had the the voice of a woman way out of her zip code. Luckily she didn't land her stilettos in any of our, um, naturally occurring fertilizer.

Then I had to invite her to relax in an Adirondack chair while I sent one of the girls in for the phone so I could call a neighbor for a key to the fire hall. She accepted some iced tea while she waited for the key delivery and then proceeded to talk nonstop while she watched the tail end of our holiday weekend as though she were visiting a museum exhibit.

For my part, I wondered what would have happened had we never left the city. Back when the EGE worked on the 32nd floor of a high-rise and I worked in a corner office of my own while we paid a couple hundred a month just to park downtown, I probably would have laughed pretty hard at the thought of wearing a vintage apron and a diaper-clad baby while receiving an unexpected visitor in my front yard. I suppose we did look a little odd to her, maybe just as fascinating as she looked to the girls.

I never felt like such a country mouse before. That's probably why I didn't have the presence of mind to sell her any manure.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Grace Hannah And Her Excellent Entourage

When you're 4, and the third girl in a four-daughter household, you might be tempted to retire into shy introspection.

Or you might be a complete drama queen in a bid to capture some territory, noisewise.

But what to do when all the friends belong to your older and infinitely cooler sisters and all the oohs and aahs for the moment are received by your chubby-adorable baby sister?

What to do?

In the case of Grace Hannah, you go big or go home. She has recently introduced us to her friends, all ten of them. They are represented, interestingly enough, by her fingers. All of the boys' names end in "o" and all the girls' names end in "a." This is very Romance Language of her, I think.

The boys all live on her left and the girls all live on her right. They have individual personalities and attributes. She can tell you about them in detail (and trust me, your head would spin). My favorite is her left index finger. His name is Chacho, and he is "very, very naughty." How naughty, you ask, because you can't wait to hear? "He picks noses."

I had brief brushes with imaginary friendship as a child. I remember conjuring a girl named Annie when my stubborn parents wouldn't take me to town to see real children and my brother (I first typed "bother," but there's nothing to that Freud stuff, I'm certain) was too busy selling tickets to "see the biggest bird turd in the world" (aka a spilled can of white paint in the woods) to play with me. Ten cents. That's how much he earned per visitor. Why wouldn't he rather play with me? Why?

Anyway Annie would play with me all day long. But I didn't have a tenth of Gracie's imagination (One-tenth. Hah hah.); my Annie was notably similar to, you know, Broadway's Annie. Red curly hair, orphaned, a great singer. She liked to read with me under the big maple trees. But a lot of time I'd forget her out there.

Not Grace. She takes her friends with her everywhere we go. She whispers her observations to them when Maddy and Sarah won't listen. It's a very attentive crowd.