Sunday, January 1, 2012

Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore

I tend (or tended, before a career, wifehood, and motherhood entered the picture) to be one of those people who attracts...stuff.  Experiences.  Confidences.  Drama.  Sometimes they are physical experiences, such as bearing sad witness to the death  - and a helmeted foot race to the nearby ambulance company - of one of my classmates when getting certified to ride motorcycles (a brief stint with an R6 followed, but once you've seen death by motorcycle, it loses it's appeal, or at least for me it did).  

Sometimes it's an emotional experience, such as some of the confidences that seem to come my way.  

Sometimes it's both - like the time I paid a waitress at John Harvard's Brew House in Harvard Square $20 to dump a glass of water on me to get out of a blind date.  Seriously - apparently it's still a bit of brewhouse lore.  Trust me, when a blind date tries to order for you (having never met you before) and brings you a screenplay "I thought you might want to read for me", escape via soggy pants via the exit nearest the bathroom starts to sound pretty good.   Guy sent me an e-card the next day with singing flowers on it too, which only confirmed that it was money well spent.   I can only hope that the general male population understands that "You look like a gin-and-tonic kind of girl" is not an effective pickup line.  Plus I hate gin.

But last week I had one of the most surreal experiences I think I've ever had.  2 days after Christmas, phone rings.  Robocall.  Normally I hang up on them, but I had my hands full of a dinner recipe, so I listened.   Political survey.  3 questions.  Seeking to understand who I thought was handling the debt crisis better.  Or worse.  No question, of course, on whether I believed there was a true debt crisis (and I suppose there is, or will be, although I think it pales in comparison to say, the hunger crisis, or the jobs crisis, or the stupidity crisis that seems to not be contained just to Capital Hill), just what I thought of the Democrat and Republican Parties and the President's handling of it.  On a scale of 1-5, with 1 presumably being something somewhat akin to 'abysmal' and 5...fixing the problem?  

Needless to say I'm not totally bought into the idea that austerity in the worst economy since the Great Depression is the way to get the economy going gangbusters.  And since the voting options did not include that the Republicans have been hijacked by a bunch of nutbags, the bulk of the Democrats pay lip service to their base and then head off to fund raise on Wall Street and leverage insider information, and the president seems to be the Neville Chamberlain of our time, I punched in my 'they are all the detritus of society, with the Democrats and the President only marginally less stinky than the loonies who would allow Rick Perry near the nuclear football" votes and hung up after duly noting my responses were received.

It wasn't the polling that was so shocking.  It was that I was offered a 2-day cruise to the Bahamas for taking a 10-second robocall poll.


Now, I'll confess that I occasionally toss money to a campaign I believe in - although I will never forgive myself for the $50 I threw at John Edwards.  But we're talking like $15 or $25 here, not $1000 a plate fundraising.  In other words, I'm a good bet if you have a candidate I like - which doesn't happen all that often, but if you were planning to fund your campaign on my money or my connections, you probably shouldn't run for anything more than local trash collector of the year.  And even that would be a brief race involving lots of potluck casseroles.

Now, I didn't take it, but you knew that.  See, first - I have no idea who was funding that poll.  I'm suspicious of Political Action Committees and their agendas.  And the fact that they didn't fess up to who was funding it says it's highly likely it's a PAC.  

And quite frankly, 2 nights in the Bahamas is FAR less than I'm worth, even for answering a loaded poll that left no room for commentary  - intelligent or otherwise - in less than a minute.

Add this to the list of things that make it clear our political system is demented, like the fact that people get paid to put comments on political news articles supporting one point of view or another - I'm not sure the paycheck even requires reading the actual article most of the time, since the comments are often unrelated at best.

But seriously, I'm not going to let the Adorable One grow up in a world where Mommy's political opinions are for sale for an onboard all-you-can-eat buffet.   And when the money offers start coming to someone who tosses the occasional 10-spot at a candidate, you know things are completely out of whack.   I'm not connected in any meaningful fashion - I have no political juice.  

I'm torn between amusement at the relative idiocy of it, and utter disgust, which is about how I feel just about every time that John Boehner or Harry Reid speak.  So I guess I shouldn't be surprised after all.  

But if you were on the fence about whether our political system has bought a 1-way ticket to the loony bin, let your mind rest easy now, because when someone's trying to buy me, their next stop is Larry the Cable Guy.  

Enjoy the Bahamas, Larry.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

After the Christmas Rush

Christmas came and went yesterday, and it was lovely.  Both sets of parents joined us for the day and dinner, which was nice - it was an easygoing day.   The presents and the company were wonderful.  

But today was even better.  Aside from kitchen cleanup, which continued into today, and some laundry, we've done exactly...nothing.  Except read, eat when the mood strikes, and the adorable one and I both took naps.    

I really like the day after Christmas.  After all the rushing and wrapping, all the preparations are finished, and in our house the next big event (the adorable one's 3rd birthday) is almost two months away.  There are leftovers in the fridge, which means there's no need to cook.  There's no rush to take decorations down - they can stay for a few days, or weeks at this point, until the tree starts to shed needles at an alarming rate.  We can take our time finding homes for the presents.  All the holiday-preparatory house projects - this year painting the entryway and setting up a wall gallery of family photos up the stairs - are complete.  

The only thing pending is the furnace replacement in a little less than 2 weeks.  It's still working partially, and the wood stove is supplementing, so we haven't had to rush,  which is a relief.   My brother in law, who does that sort of thing for a living, a friend of his, and my husband will replace the furnace while the adorable one spend an early January weekend with my in-laws.  It should save us about half the cost of paying someone to do it.  

And I'm mostly on vacation, so more days like this are on the docket.   We'll do a few day trips - to the Aquarium, and Old Sturbridge Village, and probably to the local zoo, but otherwise, we've got no plans.  Which is the way it should be.   

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Holidays and an Update

Happy Holidays to all!  We're 9 days out from Christmas, and I'm getting close to ready.  All the shopping is done, some of the wrapping is complete, I'll be baking more this weekend, and the two families that we've done 'Christmas' for this year - both refugee families - are starting to recieve their warm clothes and supplies.  The first drop off was this morning, and I'll do the last one on Christmas eve morning.

I love the holiday season - the lights, the tree, the food.  Our turkey (local from Vermont) has been in the freezer since Thanksgiving - if you want a local turkey, you take them when it's butchering time - and there's one last pie pumpkin on a shelf in my kitchen awaiting it's fate as several pies and pumpkin bread.

I've been preparing a lot for 2012 this year - unemployment will run out soon for my husband, and so next year we'll do more cutting back.  Which is actually OK.   But I have done some preparing - clothes and birthday things for the adorable one for next year, buying our garden seeds early, stocking up before we let our big-box store membership expire, filling the freezer with local meats.

But some things you can't prepare for except to save and hope they don't occur, like a cracked furnace and replacement heating system, to the tune of $7k or so.  Apparently furnaces are not self-healing.  Who knew?

Well, OK, we did, we just didn't expect it 2 weeks before Christmas.  As I said to my husband "It's a good thing I bought your present yesterday, before we knew".  The response "Same for yours".

But it's all good.  We probably won't get as much renovation work on the house done as we hoped in 2012, but we'll have a huge garden. 

On an unrelated note, Christopher Hitchens died.  I adored his work, and I think I would have liked him.  He was the Archie Bunker of intellectuals - nothing was to sacred to examine, not Mother Theresa, not God, and certainly not himself.  The world is a little smaller without his caustic wit.  RIP.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Expanding our Family....Sorta

I've hesitated to post about all of this for myriad reasons - it involves other people who may not prefer to be blogged about, it might sound like I'm tooting my own horn, and it's not something I'm without mixed feelings about at times.  

But it seemed like a big thing to leave off the blog, and a good opportunity to plug a good charity, so here goes.

I seem to have acquired 4 kids over the last year.   Well, two, and then perhaps another two on the side.  And before you ask, no, we're not adopting or having quadruplets. 

In January of last year, one of the gentlemen that attends our church showed up one day with a new family.  A father, and 2 daughters, recently arrived from a refugee camp in Kenya by way of Ethiopia (at least for the father, the girls were born in the camp).  Now, just for a frame of reference, they got here in a period of record snowfall - there was about 5 feet on the ground on our lawn.  And they arrived with no winter gear, and light sneakers that wouldn't stand up to a single slush puddle.

Turns out Jim heads up the board of directors of R-I-M, the Refugee Immigration Ministry, and these were houseguests until an apartment could be found.  

So, I asked what winter  gear they needed, and Sander and I got them boots and winter hats, and the girls some clothes.  And then got a thank you note from their father.  And then we babysat the girls the day of the adorable one's 2nd birthday party so that their father could move them into their new apartment.

And the girls and my daughter fell head over for one another and were inseparable after that.
So we went from winter boots to almost extended family in a matter of months.   A little odd, even for me.  And that's saying something.

Then almost immediately after they moved into their own place, Jim took on another family - this time asylum seekers - a young mother, father, 2 year old daughter, and a baby on the way.

And of course, the 2 year old had nothing that fit, and since the Mom's maternity appointments were in Boston near where I work, I started providing rides home and a loan of maternity clothes.   And of course, the adorable one decided that their daughter and she should be BFFs.  Let it be noted that she doesn't take no for an answer, my child.  I don't quite know where she got that.  ;)

And then the baby was born, and there you have it.  Since the younger family is intact, they need mostly friendship and clothes for the kids.  The other family is a bit more complex -  and they have somehow become much more wrapped up in our lives, and we in theirs.  And they may become extended family in a truer sense - my sister the farmer needs a farm caretaker, and Dawit has both the veterinary and construction skills that fit.  He needs a home for his daughters, and some stability.  We're working through the details, and the adorable one and I recently took them out for a visit to NY.

Both families have lost everything in terrible ways.   The younger family fled for their lives during the civil war in Congo, and experienced horrible things - being human trafficked, spending last Christmas in a mexican jail, a 6-day march down a river - in the river- for 12 hours a day, holding their toddler daughter up on their shoulders to keep her from drowning.

The older girls lost their mother when she was beaten to death.  The younger one was 7 months old.   Their father has lost and lost again, almost too many things to list.  

It's always a mixed bag when you expand your lives to accommodate newcomers.  And here, there's culture and language and power issues.    There's a lot to bridge in a relationship like the ones we're engaging in - our inability to begin to comprehend what their lives have been like, the simplistic view of everyone in America as 'rich', the struggle to navigate a culture so dissimilar from their own, and the difficulty in starting over as adults in a place where their experience, education and frame of reference are seen as valueless.

We've made a commitment though, to help these 2 families through to success - to make sure that the kids stay clothed and shod, to help their parents get ahead.  Somehow, some winter boots have turned into much more than that.

It's not without mixed feelings, this commitment we've made to intertwine our lives - even at a distance - with people so different from us.   When you choose to do it with people who have similar frames of reference, it's easy.  This is a bit more complex, and it's called out to me that while it's easy to give, it's not always easy to give in ways that are meaningful to others but not to yourself.  And that we all sometimes need to be made a bit uncomfortable in order to personally grow.

I think everything happens for a reason.   Maybe that's trite, but I do.  This year we acquired some extended family, and we are better people for it.  That doesn't mean it's easy.

There's more to this story, and I will tell it.  But later.  

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cooking Season

The fact that it is 84 degrees in the front yard today hides the fact that it is autumn here.   We're having some unseasonable warm, dry weather after September's deluge, and it has revived all our spirits.  

The blast of warmth allowed the tomatillos and ground cherries to flourish, and both are now dropping off the vines.  

In the summer, we fire up the grill most of the time, and slice up vegetables and some mozzerella drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar for a salad.  It's simple, quick, tasty, and keeps the kitchen from heating up.  Aside from our weekly bread making, the oven rarely turns on from June-September.

But this week, despite the heat, it is back in action - roasting tomatillos so that I can make salsa verde, turning some apples that developed soft spots into an old school recipe I found for boiled cider pie (I'll let you know how that one goes, but it smells wonderful), and dinner tonight is Congo Chicken Moambe, a recipe I tracked down when I hosted some recent refugees from the Congo for dinner, that has now entered our regular rotation of meals.  It's simple and delicious.

It's a pleasure to be in the kitchen, although I have taken several opportunities to go outside today and enjoy the sun, but since Sander and a friend are helping take down branches and small trees around the property, the adorable one and I have been shooed inside for a good chunk of the day.  The Topsfield Fair is still going on, which makes it a pain in the arse to go anywhere (at least, to get to the park, or most local farms, which are the only places we might want to go), and after a few busy weekends, I'm not exactly sad at being stuck in the house.

There's another reason that I'm cooking as much as I am today - we have an overnight guest tonight, as a very old friend is the Blacksmith at the fair, Carl having ditched IT work for something that makes him infinitely happier.  As he's been pulling 12 and 13-hour days at the fairground, we've offered crash space, and we all know that pie at 11 pm followed by croissants at 8 am are just the thing when you are blacksmithing all day.  Or at least, that's my theory.  

I love this time of year.  Besides the occasional batch of green salsa, the preserving of food work has dropped off significantly.   We have to keep a close eye on all the food we do have - potatoes, onions, and squashes don't last forever, so we have to check daily and use up carefully - but aside from the general chores that all of us have in life, such as cooking, laundry, cleaning up the house, and my least favorite, ironing, we are able to kick back, have friends over more often, and even sleep in.

Pretty soon we'll have our cord of wood delivered, and can start enjoying nightly fires. I'm ready for fall and winter - for the end of yard work, and for putting the garden to sleep finally, until the seedlings get started in the dark of late February.  I like all the seasons, to be honest- I think that gardening helps me like even the months that aren't all that pretty.  March is ugly, but it's seedling time.   April is wet, but the flowers start to come up, and we can plant peas.  January and February are good for hibernating and catching up with friends.  

But now it's cooking season, and the pie is ready.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Postcript to the Garden

It's raining.  Again. We're expecting a bit more than a 1/2 inch of rain.  And it's going to rain on and off for much of the week.  It's not that I mind rain, I'm a fan.  It's just that we've had something like 15 inches of rain over the last month, and I prefer not to live in a perpetual bog.

But hey, at least the lawn isn't brown.

It's also been really warm.  With the exception of 1 cold snap a couple weeks ago, the weather has hovered around 80 most days.  Today is cooler, and that's good - I'm ready for a frost.  It will protect the garlic I just planted - garlic is planted in fall, then harvested in summer - and kill all the bugs.  I'm really sick of mosquitos, so a frost would be nice.

We lost all the remaining tomatoes in the mold.  The rain, coupled with lack of sun (the two seem to go together, oddly enough) and the inability to dry out has molded every single tomato on the vine.  While it's normal to be done with tomatoes now, typically I lose them to cold.  The mold thing was a little disturbing.   We pulled a few green ones out last week that have been left to ripen in a paper bag, but even then - anything not in the fridge is molding in the kitchen.  Even the hubbard squash, which should have lasted well into the winter, being an, um, winter keeper squash, developed a soft spot, and had to be hacked up, baked, and frozen.

In addition, my lawn is growing mushrooms.  Lots of them. That's how wet it's been.  

On the upside, it's been a good year for mushrooms.  There's this sweet old italian guy that occasionally drives by and harvests mushrooms at the edge of our property, and as thanks brought us back a jar of them preserved with onions and zucchini.   I don't know enough to know what mushrooms are safe to forage for and which ones are poisonous, but I'm baking him some cookies, and maybe he'll show me.

I should be grateful though - at least there's been no flooding.  Last weekend's trip out to my sister's farm included a drive through of the nearby town of Schoharie, which was under 9 feet of water following Hurricane Irene last month.  It looked like a third world country, with boards covering stores and windows, and heaps of furniture and trash out on the street.  Some areas had leaks of oil and sewage, so the cleanup will be huge.  And they had a couple hours warning -another town nearby, also in the Schoharie Valley had about 8 minutes warning to run for their lives. 

Makes complaining about rain and mushrooms sound a tad whiney, eh? It definitely shook me  to see.  

Despite that, some of the farms on higher ground survived, so we still came home with red peppers (1/2 bushel) a bushel of onions, another 1/2 bushel of butternut squash, and 1/2 bushel of potatoes, all of which are keeping cool in the basement.  We'll need to check on them daily to make sure they aren't impacted by the damp, but if all goes well we should be able to make them last until December or January.

Even though the peppers seem to be withstanding the rot, and the 1 pumpkin we harvested is hanging in, garden season is effectively over.  We're still expecting 2 more cold-hardy cherry trees to be planted this month, and I need to order some flower bulbs to plant in the newly-redesigned back yard, but until the seed catalogs show up in December, we're done.

As for chickens, in 2 weeks there's a livestock auction, following the fair in our town.  We haven't decided if we'll get chicks then or wait until spring, but we're at least going to go check it out. 

Despite everything, this was our most successful and productive garden year yet. The containers of homemade sauce in the freezer, plus all the produce we ate are a testament to our increasing success on the home front.  Next year it will be even better.  

That's the thing about gardening - there's always next year.  

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How Does My Garden Grow 2011: Harvest Season

It got cold here this weekend.  No frost, but cold enough so that the dish detergent on the counter next to the kitchen sink, which sits right below a slightly-open window, chilled to a solid block of soap last night.  Cold enough.

The tomato vines, which delivered tomatoes very late to the party this year because of a very cool, rainy spring, are finally starting to die down.  We'll probably get tomatoes for another week or so, and then I'll be out picking all the remaining green ones for a batch of green tomato chutney.  The peppers, cucumbers and tomatillos are still going, but even they seem to sense that the growing season is ending.

The farmer's market in town, which is open on Saturday mornings, closes down next week.   It uses some of the space that will be dedicated to the Topsfield Fair, which opens in less than 2 weeks.  It's the big excitement here in town, and for 10 days there will be a traffic jam next to my road.  If you like giant pumpkins and racing pigs, it's the place to be.

We went there this morning, as we've been trying to do most Saturdays, to get some last peaches to eat and freeze, some broccoli, and a few other things that I don't have in my garden this year.  A quart or so of wax beans went directly from blanching to the freezer, the corn we'll eat this week.  We also brought home 2 giant butternut squash, as we prepare for soup season to arrive with the turning of the leaves.

Since Sander was working on the stone wall that surrounds the garden again today, the adorable one and I were on Farmer's Market duty, and decided to make a morning of it by driving out to Russell Orchards afterwards to pick some apples.     We came home with lots and lots of apples, 2 sugar pumpkins for pies, a baby white pumpkin because the adorable one was besotted with it, and one rather enthusiastically large hubbard squash.

Hubbard squash is delicious, but getting into it is tricky - but we can talk about making pie with a Sawzall another time. i-squash-hubbard.jpg

A recent re-read of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has resulted in me trying to up my game on the local food front.  There's an upside and downside to deciding to do this in mid-September.  The upside, of course, is that it's a brilliant time to obtain local food.  Peaches, apples, squash and pumpkins are in abundance.   So are greens like Kale and spinach, as they thrive in the cooler weather.

The downside of my decision is that harvest season is short, and so despite the blackberries and peaches in my freezer, the 50 pounds of local beef, pork and chicken & sausage that are soon to arrive (none spending their lives any further than Vermont),  and the ability to stockpile squashes and pumpkins, and the pasta sauce in the freezer made with our own tomatoes and some of our own peppers, we'll still be grocery-store bound this winter.  

And realistically, for a few more years. But not as much as last year, even, despite the fact that we've preserved far less food than in our 8-day preservathon last year.

The adorable one and I are off with some family friends to my sister's farm next weekend, and if the local farms weren't completely flooded due to Hurricane Irene, we should bring home lots of onions, potatoes, and whatever else we can put our hands on.  Next week Sander will clean the farmer's market out of whatever squash they have, and we'll go apple picking at least once more the following week.  The organic farmstand down the road, Green Meadows is expensive, but open all year.  A market opened in our little town last year with an amazing selection of local cheese.  New sources of 'local' constantly spring up everywhere, it seems.

Next year, with all 8 garden beds in, I'll be able to start far more seedlings in more variety.   One of the things we didn't get to this year was growing birdhouse gourds, or any of my flower seeds.  We can also put in a permanent herb garden, something we've been talking about for several summers now.  And finally, chickens - when is still unknown, but they are coming - we pay for farm eggs now, but at $3.99 per dozen, I'll be thrilled to collect them from the chicken coop, even on cold mornings.

Also, next year the adorable one will be 3, and we can have conversations about why we shouldn't buy goldfish crackers any more, but she can help make homemade granola bars instead.  She would already rather have an apple just off the tree anyway, so it's not going to be a hard conversation.  Mostly.  I think.

It's been an interesting year.  The more I learn about climate change and resource depletion, the more worried I get, and couple that with the economy, and I have developed an ant-like urge to be prepared for winter...and for later.  While on the surface everything is normal - if you could call the current economy normal, almost everyone I talk to on some level shares my deep unease - the sense that things are not quite right.  I think we know, in the same way muskrats build thick walls on their dens, somehow knowing when the winter will be particularly hard, that things are changing.  It is as though we've been out for an afternoon jaunt, when we realize with a jolt we have stepped to the edge of a precipice, and a few more steps would take us tumbling down.

But the more I learn about human resourcefulness, the more hopeful I get.  We may have lost many of the skills of our forebears, but there are many of us relearning.  I personally know blacksmiths, weavers, farmers, and people with multitudes of skills one might call 'quaint'.  There are more chickens in backyards than anyone could have imagined even 5 years ago.  Seed companies are selling out of seeds due to the resurgence of backyard gardening.  What we sow, so too we reap.

This year, our self-sustaining garden has gone from dream to reality.   Next year it will produce abundantly, and hopefully for years later. My one pumpkin may never turn into a field of them, but maybe next year the one will be five.   And then 10.

Soon the garden will go to sleep, and I'll be dreaming of how my garden will grow next year.

Happy Fall.