Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thinking about Thanking

We live in a crazy world of our own design, where obscure markets fluctuate beyond our control while we buy crap we can't afford, and people blow each other up over whose magical story is better, and we seem addicted to fighting about our differences a lot more than appreciating just how much we have in common. That's life. That's the larger human condition at this moment in time. It's a mess, this great big human-built world.

But, I'm just a little, piddling thing, a wee and meager part of that larger human condition. And just as in physics, where the laws of the large fall apart at the wee and meager scale, things look a little different down here. While all these terrible, no good, very bad things swirl around, life down here sort of putters along with random ups and downs that have very little to do with those fluctuating markets and warring factions. You see, no matter what AIG is doing, my cat wants a lap and he wants it now. No matter how big the national debt gets, fresh pumpkin pie still tastes pretty awesome. No matter how many leaders meet to pontificate and promise about global change while doing nothing, my husband's smile and twinkly chestnut eyes still light up the room.

Things might be--well, are--a mess, but today and every day I am thankful for the wee and meager: that smile, that crazy cat, pie, my funny stepson with the gnatlike attention span and wonderfully good heart, bean plants that one day aren't there and the next day are waving at the sun with little heart-shaped hands, loving parents and lunatic sisters, the smell of wood fireplaces, lifelong friends, an office that's more like family, the soundtrack in the Grizzly Hills of Northrend, Grandmom Betty's butter nut cookies, good health and the wonder of muscles that move, modern medicines that help with that good health thing from time to time, a comfy bed, air conditioning, intestinal bacteria, stars that twinkle and planets that don't, winter sunsets on the Gulf, spinybacked orb weavers, El Cap cheeseburgers, a motorcycle ride on a cool day, breathing in and infinite list of wonders that make a wee and meager spot at the tail end of the messy human parade a pretty cool place to be.

I'm thankful.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Things You Learn

I finally ran the soil tests on samples from the garden boxes, and it isn't pretty. Last year's decision to use our well water to water the garden instead of the chloramine-laced city water has backfired spectacularly. Why? Because this is Florida, and pretty much every shallow well here is loaded with sulfur. A lot of sulfur. Our well water doesn't have that characteristic rotten-egg smell, but sulfur is there all the same, apparently. As a result of last year's watering, our garden boxes are now pools of acid. So much for trying to conserve city water. Add to that a total absence of nitrogen and other nice things due to depleted compost and the excess acid, and we are in big trouble here.

For the boxes that are already planted, I'll try to amend the soil and hope our rain barrel gets filled often enough during this dry season to avoid watering much with city water. The other two and half boxes? Might just dig them out completely and start anew. Not where I hoped we would be in this second year of gardening, but at least we're figuring it out while we still have about six or seven months of gardening time left. If I don't blow it all being an addle-brained lazybones, that is.

And apologies to Fox for image theft, but sometimes only Homer Simpson will do. D'oh, indeed!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Quick Musing

While wandering around here on the railway platform trying to decide what train to take, my mind tends to wander around a lot. Well, let's be honest, it wanders even when I feel full of direction and purpose, but that's beside the point.

I love history. I love imagining the past. I love thinking about all those tough and tender folk that went before me and the barely comprehensible but all too familiar times in which they lived. The WWII years, in particular, have always been fascinating because of the sheer grit and determination people had, along with their ability to make sacrifices that people would be horrified about today in our coddled and convenient world. Take the tires off the car and walk! Knit sweaters for the boys! VICTORY GARDENS, for pete's sake! What a vibrant, if frightening, time to be alive, when you really had to do for yourself in the service of the greater good.

And then I stumble on to something like this, and the 21st century suddenly doesn't look too bad, despite its lack of charming aprons. Click to embiggen a nice reminder that the nostalgia train doesn't always go to the place you imagined it would.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Yeah, that's me. After the flurry of productivity during August, I became the laziest slug on the planet. I even gave in and planted store-bought seedlings in the garden after taking so long to plant seeds that I overshot the prime weeks. The shame! Now, here we are just shy of the start of November with nothing in particular on the slate except watering a bunch of cheater's lettuce and broccoli and vaguely wondering what magical amendment my soil needs to keep everything from dying halfway to full growth yet again.

The interesting thing is that I don't have anything that I have to do. The things that need to be done get done. I go to work, the house is reasonably clean, all living creatures get fed and clothed. I even got rid of creatures so I would have less to look after, because it was driving me batty. I'm talking about the rest of my time, and the issue of whether time spent doing "nothing" is wasted or not.

On one hand, there's the "less is more" argument--that by not filling every moment with projects, one can experience the actual moment more completely instead of thinking toward the next and the next and the next. Now, ask me if I spend time being that aware of the moment. Eh, not so much.

On the other hand, there is the growing awareness that life is pretty ding-a-danged short, and I shouldn't waste time failing to learn Mandarin and how to design a website and shoe a horse before it's proverbially and literally too late. Why I think I should do those things or other things like them, however, I have no idea.

And on the third hand, there is that streak of busyness encoded in my DNA from all those Puritan, mercantilish, pre-America ancestors, for whom a minute wasted was nothing but a shilling thrown down a well. Everyone thinks puritanical strictness was about offending the gods, but my genes know better, and they're mighty cranky about my lack of productivity right now despite their total silence on the subject of "you have a better idea?"

Sometimes I get the feeling that if I bought a convertible and maybe one of those Italian horn necklaces and took up SCUBA and just happened to have the XY chromosome combination, everyone would smirk and nod knowingly and call this a mid-life crisis. But I'm XX for good, I already know how to dive, those necklaces look lame, and convertibles are hell with hair like mine.

So I guess like any good post-Puritan woman, I'll get on to getting on with it. Eventually. Whatever "it" is.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Adieu, mes chers poulets!

It's true, Lucy and Ethel are off to a better place. No, not that one, where their molecules get all mixed into the great scrambled egg of the universe. We are ending our backyard chicken experiment and sending them to a nice home in the country. The person adopting them has a variety of poultry out in rural Florida that can free range over an acre. Our girls will have more company (maybe even that of an attractive rooster, nudge nudge) and can get out of the coop and back to their beloved free-roaming, bug-gobbling ways. We cooped them permanently early this year when we realized we could never win the chicken vs. garden war. For all their teeny tiny brains, the girls were remarkably persistent and pretty ingenious in the pursuit of our produce. Now, we've had a number of altercations involving what we think are feral cats getting into the coop late at night (there are bazillions of them here in the urban hood). It could also be young raccoons or rats. Who knows? But, the ongoing cost and stress of trying to create an animal-proof coop that still keeps the girls happy is proving to be more than the benefit of keeping them. Considering that Jeff is now rarely eating eggs and Jared isn't here often enough for us to keep ahead of the egg curve, we had to admit that this experiment has run its course. We learned a great deal, that's for sure.

The girls are sweet and very successful at doing their chicken thing, and we made sure they're going to a good home where they'll be treated very well, if not spoiled rotten. And why not? When you think about what a chicken manages to do with that whole egg-laying thing, they deserve a little spoiling. Consider, oh female readers, that you would have to produce something like a 4-pound baby every 28 hours for two to three years to replicate the feat of these little laying machines. The mind boggles at the thought. We certainly have a new appreciation and understanding for where at least some of our food comes from, and in this disconnected, pre-packaged, styrofoam-cartoned 21st century world of ours, that's a precious thing.

Anyway, while we're very sad to lose them, we're happy to report that the Saturday Morning Market kicks back up this weekend. If we're lucky, the egg vendor will return and we can continue to have a few better-than-grocery-store eggs from happy, free hens even without our backyard girls.

Alors, bonne chance et bonne vie, chers poulets, et merci bien!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Green Things

Things are starting to look green in the backyard these days, as gardening gets off to a start here in the south. Remember my little cuke babies in the previous post? Two weeks later, they're looking pretty good. I'll call them cuke tweens, since they're thinking about going all hormonal and flowering, but haven't quite gotten there yet. This is our first year growing from seed only and, so far, I'm pretty pleased. It may take longer, but the cukes at least look much better than the ones that grew from Bonnie starts last year. I have also discovered that starting seeds in little pots is totally unnecessary in our climate. The peat pots just get moldy in our atmosphere, while seeds sown directly into the garden spring up in no time at all. More lessons learned—love it!

In addition to the garden plants, our currently-potted key lime tree (a gift from Jeff's parents) has lime babies on it! Three so far. Here's a game: can you find the two wee baby limes in the second key lime tree photo? It's just like the hidden picture puzzle in Highlights Magazine, only you don't have to go to an overly-cheery dentist's office and use the magazine to distract yourself from the bloody horror that awaits you beyond the giraffe-appliqued door. Such good times we had! Click to enlarge the photo if you're as blind as I am. No judgment.

Lots else going on here, including hours of studying by Jeff and Jared alike, and hours of puttering on my part. I have now been to two sewing classes and have successfully produced one French-seamed pillowcase (for Jared) and one fully functional tote bag (for me). Pleasing, to say the least, to produce something useful. I have always loved fabrics and am slowly working up to the ability to use them to make things. Very exciting! I can also see that a tight rein will need to be held on that enthusiasm, lest we drown in piles of expensive, unsewn fabrics here at the Handyhouse.

And speaking once again of plants, let a recent experience serve as a lesson to all of you who order flowers and living plants for others over the internet. Jeff's parents sent me a bonsai for my birthday. "Awesome," thought I, upon seeing the box. I've never had one and would delight in figuring out some freakish shape for it. Or not, as the case may be, since the shape it had already chosen was "Dessicated Greyish-Green Blob." I'm as postmodern as the next person, but this seemed a little too deconstructivist, even for me. Jeff's dear mother, however, upon hearing of this topiary travesty, laid down some Hoosier smack on the supplier for sending an already-dead plant. Honestly, I have no trouble killing them myself. They don't need to help. Lo and behold, a new starter bonsai arrived today. Here's a side-by-side comparison and a second game for you: spot the bad bonsai. Go on, see if you can tell!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What we did on our summer staycation

Last week, Jeff and I took the week off together and stayed home and had a great time doing, well, stuff. Jeff read and studied and wrote and actually finished his current online college course a week in advance. This particular course crams 12 regular semester weeks into 7 or so, so that was quite an accomplishment. So proud! If you have questions about the progress of western civilization up to the time of the Renaissance, you now have your go-to guy. Other than that, it was mostly staying home and doing things in a fairly non-stressed way. The weather has been weird and wet and stiflingly hot, a typical August for Florida, I suppose, so I stayed out of our totally unkempt yard except for tending my tiny garden starts. Can you believe it's almost time to garden again here? Circle of life and all that.

I painted the bathroom red. Home Depot calls it "Chianti," and how I wish I had that paint-sample-naming job! Jeff gently pushed me away from the grey family and suggested red, and it looks great with the white and black tile in there.

I also, after almost three months, finished the refinishing of the front door.

And instead of painting the office, which I now know would have been a nightmare, we got rid of an inadequate low bookshelf and bought a larger one with glass doors from the fine folk at IKEA. Two hours of assembly and one trip back to Tampa to replace one teeny, tiny, totally crucial screw later, it looks great. Re-arranged some furniture, covered some magnetic boards with coordinating fabrics (yeah, I used duct tape, so what?), and now we have a much more balanced, if impossible to photograph, space.

What else? Let's see. I read 400 pages of this, which is the second in a series and quite good:

I cooked. Pork tenderloin with mushroom and Calvados cream sauce, New England fish chowder and my very first Tarte Tatin from Julia Child's recipe. I let it go about 45 seconds too long, but it wasn't nearly as burnt as this lousy photo implies. And the photo certainly doesn't tell you how it tasted, which was jaw-droppingly good. Flour, butter, sugar, apples. Four simple ingredients turned into pure deliciousness through the chemical alchemy brought on by heat. I never fail to be amazed by the everyday miracles we encounter and so often fail to appreciate. Sure sure, a guy landed a plane on a river and saved everyone or it rained frogs in Kansas, but have you tasted this??

We watched movies. "District 9" was excellent. "Milk" was quite good. "Watchmen" was a very disappointing bore of bores. And "Cosmos" always made an excellent background for my other major staycation project.

I knitted my very first sweater. No, really, a whole sweater, with sleeves that are four inches too long and everything! The whole thing is about a size too big, which goes to show that maybe you shouldn't guess how big your body is before you choose your knitting pattern variation. It's bulky but perfect for lounging around the house on a chilly day. Clearly, my seam-sewing needs some practice but, hey, I knitted an entire, wearable, non-embarrassing sweater! Another little everyday miracle.

I'm sure we did other things in our seven days together, but that rounds up the big stuff. Good times! Here's hoping everyone had a jolly and productive summer vacation, too. This weekend we're back to the school year pattern, and so it goes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Virtual Realization

Whillikers, it's been a while since I posted! It was a busy June and July, since we had Jared for six weeks straight this summer. Good times had by all, and Jared learned some great tips at fishing camp that he and Jeff should be able to put to good use. We also had a great time up at the Beckers' place in North Carolina! With all said and done, I can just say kudos to all full-time parents out there, because wow.

I confess I've also been spending time playing The Sims 3. It's fun, but it creates a certain obsessive behavior in me that can be very, very time-consuming. So much for quitting World of Warcraft, which I was rarely playing when I cancelled my subscription. I just replaced it with something I now play A LOT. Which leads to a recent realization: my virtual Sim people are leading more fulfilling lives than I am. Seriously, they cook, they garden, they play the guitar, they paint, they write, they work out, they go to the park and concerts and movies and the day spa, they chat and have friends over and flirt with their significant others and get appropriate amounts of sleep. They play video games, too, but they manage to get all of those other things done, as well. Thing is, I'm spending my time helping them do those many things instead of, oh, say, doing them myself. Doesn't that seem a bit...wrong? In fact, maybe a lot wrong?

Maybe it's the dog days of summer that were talking to me and telling me to take a break, but I'm now itching to do more. At the very least, I should give myself a real life at least as interesting as the one I encourage for my fake people. So, I'm back on the workout train after an overly long absence, thinking about freshening up the house with a repaint or two, am eagerly awaiting my seed shipment so I can get the garden up and running in August for the new growing year, plan to attend my first sewing class in a few weeks and may just have to suffer the fingertip pain and get the guitar back out. I swear, if I don't learn to play at least some chords and a simple song this year, I'm putting it on Craigslist on January 1. We've had them sitting there for at least three years, which is at least two years over the edge of reasonable learning delay. Use it or lose it, at least as far as my own guitar of the three that we have is concerned.

So, thanks, Sims, for reminding me how life ought to be lived. Video games are fine, but not at the expense of my own existence. Life is good, but it's also short.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Modest Results

We're coming to the end of the main growing season here in Florida and can report a year of a few modest successes, some baffling disappointments and some lessons learned. Setting up the garden, along with the chickens, took a significant investment of time and capital, but the infrastructure is something that won't need to be repeated in the future. Knowing what I know now, would I have done things a little differently? Most certainly! A few of our boxes aren't in the optimal place, we still lack a box deep enough for carrots and other root vegetables, and the blueberry plants are certainly showing a preference for a slightly shadier spot. That said, things haven't gone too badly, all in all. Many of our early frustrations were related more to the chickens and their incessant desire to eat everything in sight, a situation we remedied with a permanent coop last month. Another frustration--small plants that wouldn't fruit--may have been related to our use of city water. We've switched to well water and rain water exclusively, now, and that seems to have improved things, but I'm not sure. Well water may also be the reason that our plants are dying early. Or is it too much sun? Not enough compost? An excess of squirrel poop? Bad vibes? Venus is transiting Cassiopeia? Frankly, there are so many factors that my head swims just thinking about it!

Still and all, we've had some nice produce this year. After years of planting the odd tomato only to see it fail, this is the first time I've gotten to eat fresh tomatoes from my own garden, and they're good! Given how expensive tomatoes are these days, I think we'll break even on the investment in the seedlings. Next year I'll be attempting to grow them from seed as a cost-saving measure, so that should be interesting. Our lettuce performed very well for the second year in a row; we definitely came out ahead there and I estimate that we saved about $30 growing our own (plus, the chickens get all the bad bits, so free feed there). Our cabbages were small but delicious. We saved a few dollars there and have bags of it the freezer for future meals. Chinese cabbage was even more successful, and if you need some I have bags of the stuff! Luckily it keeps and freezes. We harvested seven small broccoli heads, which wasn't too bad for nine plants. Again, the leaves and stems went to the girls to become eggs, so it's an extra win for plants like that. Onions that we planted on a whim are growing nicely, much to my surprise. Peppers of all kinds are growing like crazy. Too bad I hate them! Well, Jeff's happy and it looks like we'll have enough cayenne to dry and grind our own red pepper. Swell! Our English peas are looking iffy--another victim of unexplained early death. Zucchini, squash, cucumbers, cauliflower and a few other things were all losers this year. Maybe next year! Pretty soon I'll be digging the remains and planting our only summer options--beans and cantaloupes--and I have one watermelon vine still living. Pretty low expectations for those, but as I've learned when it comes to gardening, you never really know!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My Wandering Attention

Green living, gardening, astronomy, chicken rearing, knitting, Celtic history, hydrogen energy, baking, the Tudors. Well, it just seems obvious that this list would lead to my latest point of attention, which is . . . Steampunk, naturally. I've poked around it for some time, but I confess to a recent explosion of fascination with it. It combines my love of the Dickensian era, the brutal elegance of machines and old industry, ornate design, and science fiction and fantasy in a quite wonderful, almost irresistible way. It's fascinating to posit an alternate timeline that could exist if this invention had had more attention, or that one had come along at a different time. Thinking about it makes one realize how interconnected and accidental our own timeline really is.

Also, the style and artwork from this particular subculture is just delicious. Think "Golden Compass" combined with "Myst" and "The Prestige" peppered with the more curious curiosities of "Antiques Roadshow" topped with Johnny Depp's bowler from the very dark and drear "From Hell." Now add a fanciful flight jacket from an imagined AeroCorps of steam-and-sail zeppelins, a mysterious gasworks, a giant Tesla Coil and gorgeous nineteenth-century penmanship on a copper-infused calling card. Well, anyone who knows me knows I'm in alt-history heaven right there! If you see anything out there in the interwebs or art world that sounds like this, please do send it on. In the meantime, the ladies can have interactive fun with this little Steampunk costuming link: Clockwork Couture

I suppose the men can have fun there, too. Naughty!

And if anyone is at all inclined, I would very, very much like to have one of these Steampunked laptops. My goodness, who wouldn't?

I promise I'll get back to posting about our garden and our new chicken coop soon, but this is so much more interesting than cabbages at the moment!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Recipe Basics Sheet

One of my goals for 2009 was the creation of a "Recipe Basics Sheet," the model for which came from the Angry Chicken blog (link to the left over there). This is a single cheat-sheet with 11 recipes that I make fairly often. I know generally how to make them, but the exact ingredients or oven temps and times may get jumbled in my tiny brain. I'm sure it will undergo many changes over time, but it's nice to have a start on being more efficient in the kitchen.

I'll be posting some pictures of the garden as soon as it turns sunny again. This weekend's crazy wind was a killer, but most everything survived intact. The pea plants and zucchini are flowering, there must be 5 dozen different tomatoes working, and we have our first cucumber babies! This is my third or forth time planting cukes but the first time to ever get an actual cucumber on the vine. Very exciting here in Florida's prime growing months.

Happy spring! As always, click on the pic if you want to see a larger version.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Freedom Gardeners Site

Freedom Gardeners is an online community group of people trying to do more with growing their own food and being more self-sufficient. It's a nice way to get in touch with others and get advice. You can see our profile as a way to enter the site--just click on the title of this post.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Netting is Annoying!

And did I mention how annoying the netting is? In addition to getting caught on anything and everything, it also catches things, too. In December we discovered a gigantic black racer that had wriggled through the netting until it had gotten itself completely caught. We thought it was dead until Jeff touched it. NOT DEAD. Nevertheless, Jeff very carefully cut the snake out of the netting using a tiny pair of scissors while the snake at first wrapped around his wrist and then tried to bite him multiple times. Well, there's the wonder of nature for you! With the last snip the snake shot off under the fence to our neighbor's yard, so all was well that ended well.

But that netting is damned annoying. Any ideas out there?

Click to see Jeff in all of his Marlin Perkins glory (no, not dating myself at all there with that reference!).

The Green of Change

I don't think I've ever before appreciated how cool gardening is. Sure, it's nice to put things in the ground and get useful or beautiful plants as a result, but being witness to the process of growth is really amazing. It's hard to fathom day to day how much a seemingly simple little plant can change. From barren dirt to two little seed leaves and a stem poking out of the ground, new branches on a tomato plant coming from seemingly nowhere, leaves on the lettuce plants puffing out where I had just picked off older leaves 48 hours beforehand. And they do all of this, endlessly, with no more than the four elements. Clearly, our ancestors were on to something when they called out Earth, Air, Water and Fire as the most essential building blocks of life. Plants bear out their testimony in the most remarkable ways. It's really quite a privilege to see it, especially in a society where we are increasingly divorced from the natural world.

Today, we harvested our first edible head of broccoli. This is our second attempt at broccoli after our crazy chickens wiped out the first batch in a single day at their own personal broccoli buffet. The cucumbers are just sprouting (my first experiment growing directly from seed), the lettuce is going crazy in our beautiful weather, we have nine or ten types of tomatoes in the ground (c'mon bees, show up this time!) and yesterday I noticed that all eight blueberry bushes have tiny berry buds nestled in their leaves, which are still flashing their autumn/winter shades of rusty red. The blueberry bushes are still very small, but they've all survived and look determined to fruit at least a little bit. I'm hoping to nurse them along to full size this spring.

The girls are still happy little hens, it seems, and are back on a pretty regular laying schedule now that they're done molting and the days are getting longer. I expect we'll see an even greater output with the increasing sunshine. They're still noisy, but no neighbor complaints so far. It's amazing how much goodwill a handful of beautiful, sage-colored eggs can buy you. The chickens would be quieter if we let them have at the garden to stuff themselves, but we've draped everything in a fine bird netting that keeps them out. They are not shy about voicing their displeasure. Every. Single. Morning. The netting is terribly annoying stuff but will do until we figure out how to enclose the whole area in something more workable. One project at a time!

Next on the list--planting our last box with delicious tidbits, pulling out some old plants and replanting with spring veggies and hooking up the rain barrel. Oh, for two weeks off!

As always, click the photos for larger versions!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Out with the Old

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

Just a bit of President Obama's inauguration speech that I personally found inspiring. I can't see how anyone committed to the idea and ideals of a free, just and prosperous America could disagree, no matter what their personal affiliation or identification might be.