Archive for the ‘Living’ Category

We have had an interesting spring in South Texas with the weather and the rain. Ranging everywhere from HOT to cool, HUMID to dry, and quite the range in-between. After living in Palm Springs, CA in the dry desert heat for many years, I find that I am more intolerant to any type of humidity. In the desert, our humidity was something like 7%, maybe 14%, so when we moved to the San Antonio area in July 6 years ago I was blasted with 102F and a lot of humidity (the 102F was a “normal” temp in summer in Palm Springs, it was still blinkin’ hot, but it was dry.)  People form Houston just laugh and say that we don’t know what humidity is like, and while I agree and completely understand, I still need to explain where I came from and what a shock to my system it was coming from 7% humidity to something higher.iceNow, I add menopause to the equation and I am miserable when the thermometer climbs about 70F it seems.

Enter cold drinks with ice cubes, cold washcloths and fans everywhere around the house.

We have an old-fashioned refrigerator. I say “old-fashioned” because there is no water or ice cube maker in it, and that is not a complaint. I am our built-in ice-cube machine! It is part of my daily routine.

I am thankful for days without much humidity, and electricity to run the fans and the refrigerator so that I can make more ice!

What are the summer temps like where you live (you southern hemisphere readers can tell me about your winter temps – the cooler temps might make some of us feel better)?

How do you combat the heat?

Sincerely, Emily


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I make everything from scratch, to avoid ingesting hormones, additives, and preservatives that I consdier pernicious, or at least whose beneficial or pernicious qualities are an open question. Dinners, desserts, soda, sauces and jams, breakfast cereal, trail mix, all sorts of bread. (Still haven’t made my own noodles, because I can’t seem to run out of the ones I have. I’ll get there Susy Morris, I swear.)

At almost 60, I’m a remnant of the last generation that routinely learned to cook at home. While I never stopped making dinner- the stews and soups and roasted chickens- I had largely abandoned baking, picking it back up a few years ago. I started with crackers, then scones, and moved on to pie (yes the crust too, thanks for asking).

It turns out to be like language– while I do rely on recipes, I found baking intuitive for the most part; call it “touch memory” from my childhood. Like smells, it turns out the texture of a proper pie crust, and the correct amount of cookie dough to scoop up, and the shape of a pita are learned skills that lurk in the interstices of your brain until you need them again.

But I didn’t trust myself with bread.

I’ve been through many recipes- the Browneyed Baker, and Mark Bittman and my favorite legacy cookbook. I’ve watched the complex terror that is America’s Test Kitchen’s minute description of how to fail at breadbaking. I followed every step to the letter. I asked my pro-baker buddy for tips. But it wouldn’t rise, and it didn’t look right, and the crumb was too loose or too dense.

The only expert I didn’t consult was that lizard brain of mine, which kept telling me that none of my breads felt right.

A month ago I went to a bread baking demonstration, expecting to find That One Weird Trick That Will Make Your Bread Turn Out Correctly Every Time!

And I did.

The presenter started throwing ingredients into a bowl– warm water, melted butter, yeast, sugar, coffee, salt. He dismissed experts and recipes– “two cups of liquid, some kind of shortening, yeast, flavoring like salt, 4-5 cups of flour. That’s bread. Any kind of bread– flat bread, loaf bread, fancy bread.” Now this sounded more like cooking, and less like that scary, scientific, chemical-reactions, cautiously weighed ingredients mystery that is baking. And I remembered baking bread with my mother; she used to have a cookbook out, but I seldom remember her looking at it. She would just make the bread, and tell me “this is what the dough should feel like when it’s ready to rise, and this is what it feels like when it’s ready to bake.” Here’s how it looks and here’s how it smells.

So I started making bread, instead of reading recipes. The first time I ignored the recipe, I forgot the shortening in a loaf bread. Bread without shortening gives you flat bread, like pita, so you can imagine how nice and dense that loaf was.

But it freed me from the tyranny of perfection– I made edible bread armed only with ingredients and my knowledge. So I made another loaf (and forgot to punch it down– this results in a bread “balloon” in case you’re wondering), but it looked and tasted like bread. I’m on my fifth loaf now, and third successful loaf. Easy, in fact, as pie turned out to be.

Standing at the counter kneeding bread feels not just like, hey, I’m going to have some delicious bread in a few hours. It feels like I’m Eve, or Miriam, or Mrs. Ingalls, or my mother, doing what women do, and have always done.

Making bread.


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The problem with full time employment, aside from the annoyance of having enough money to pay the bills, is that macro-projects like the January Cure are hard to keep up with.

I’ve been telling myself that I did a major home reorganization last spring, so I don’t really need to go through my closets.

I don’t approve of cut flowers from an ecological viewpoint, but the bigger problem is that I live in the ghetto (ish), where there are certainly no florists, and now there are also no large grocery store chains. We are not the sort of neighborhood that the yuppie chains like Mariano’s find attractive. Buying cut flowers is a chore, not a joy.

I did of course do the kitchen, but not at the level recommended by the Cure. Although frankly, my kitchen is pretty clean and well organized as that’s where I spend most of my time. I think if I lived in a one room apartment, that room would have to be a kitchen, with the bed stuck in a little alcove.

I did not create a landing strip, but mostly because I’m not an accumulater. I just get rid of stuff I don’t need- papers, old clothes, cracked dishes, husbands…. In fact the moving on of the husband is the reason I don’t need to reorganize things like the kitchen and the bedroom and the paperwork. Been there, done that.

I also have not planned a get together, which is actually something I’d like to do.

Partly this is procrastination, and partly it’s fear, because the last get together I planned, half the people who R.S.V.P’d didn’t show up. I’m still getting through the leftovers, more than a month later. Who needs the stress, or the cost.

I am determined to get to my Goal Projects: boxing up my husband’s detritus from the basement (he is not someone who does not accumulate things), painting “blackboards” in key places, and organizing my necklaces (I have several dozen).

I figure I have 17 days before I have to admit defeat on that.

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Kitchen deep cleaning is my favorite task of the January Cure. It’s one of those things that each of us knows should be done, but you never do it because, seriously, life’s too short.

Somehow the January Cure stands in for a scolding nanny who impels compliance.

As it happens, I had completely rearranged my kitchen in the spring when my husband moved out, taking half our stuff with him, so I didn’t really need to get that down and dirty with all the cabinets, so I tackled those projects that have been waiting literally years to be done. You know the kind– organize your bracelets. Clean off the tops of the hanging cabinets (haha, yah, I didn’t do that).

What I did do was finally caulk the counter behind the sink and the stove.

Now, I’ve never done this because I’m a little afraid of caulk. Instead, I’ve been letting moisture seep back there for more than 15 years; I’ve had nightmares about what it must look like behind that sink cabinet.

What I want to know is in what universe is caulk “ready to paint in four hours.” Because it’s going on 8, and it’s not just still tacky. It’s still wet. I guess I’ll paint tomorrow. Night. Because I have to work during the day. In the meantime, I haven’t been able to wash dishes all day.

I ran out to the local True Value for hooks and cleaner. This is one of those wonderful old neighborhood hardware stores with the little bins of screws, wooden floors, and an astonishingly huge inventory. The guy knows everything, remembers you, and will order what you can’t find. I asked for environmentally friendly cleaner, because he didn’t have anything obvious on the shelf. What he did have was something called SunBrite, which comes in a little tub that mixes up to the equivalent of several gallons of cleaning spray– I used an emply Mrs. Meyers spray bottle. I’m plugging it here, because it’s amazing stuff.

I also finally attached the Container Store roll-out cabinet bins (finally = we bought them when we first did the kitchen, in 1998. Mustn’t rush these things). You don’t really need to attach them. They work just brilliantly just sort of placed in the cabinet. But Nanny was in the corner telling me to get with the program and install them already.

Now, here’s the heroic part. And don’t lie, you have not done this. But I have. Yes, folks:

I cleaned the refrigerator.

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I confess. I didn’t clean my floors.

I spent the weekend shoveling. Which is underfoot, so that sort of counts?

It’s strange being housebound by yourself. The last time this happened I was 21 years old, it was 1977, and even though I had a roommate, she was never there. Eventually in that epic winter storm (60 inches of snow over the course of about a week, air temps lower than -20 (that’s Fahrenheit folks), I had to dig my way out and spent the week squatting in a university art studio.

I got to the end of the internet. I watched Netflix. I watched the season premier of Downton Abbey, reminding myself of the fact that I stopped watching it because of the telegraphed plot and sluggish writing and direction, despite the absurd number of simultaneous storylines. (Downton hate mail in 3…2…1…)

I made rugelach.

But a large part of the day I pulled a chair up to my back window and just watched the storm. Here in Chicago we got twelve inches on top of the twelve already on the ground. It snowed last year, too,  but this “was not the same snow. This snow came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss….”

I felt like I was living inside the story, which I know by heart, because I have read it aloud to someone every year for decades, and when I didn’t have someone to read it to, I read it aloud to myself.

I left the house dark except for the last of the holiday lights, draped with greenery in the bow window. Snow like this muffles the sound of the city, with just the occasional rattle of the wind chimes next door– they rattle instead of ringing because they are filled with snow.

I sat because I was sad; it’s no fun being housebound alone when you’re used to having someone with you, to share the thoughts, and the boredom and the rugelach. But after a few minutes, the view becomes hypnotic and your mind empties. It’s not so much that you’re not sad, or not thinking, but that you’re just a vessel, filling up like the garden with the beautiful, blowing, soft and drifting snow.

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I get it– spring cleaning because you can set the wash tub outside, and beat the rugs when it’s warm.

But my washtub stays indoors since, despite my pioneer-woman conceits I actually don’t use a scrub board to clean; nor do I beat the rugs. I vacuum them. I don’t want to be stuck inside cleaning when the weather is finally nice and I can get out of the cave for a few hours.

Enter the January Cure.  This is one of those internet things of which you’re vaguely aware for years.  And then a friend says “I’m doing this!” and you think, okay, why not. It’s great “Dark Days” therapy.

Last year my friend petered out after a couple of weeks, but I stuck it out and went the whole month. I confess some of the tasks struck me as silly (buy some mass-produced art), or inconsistent with the eco-friendly mandate (buy some cut flowers in the middle of January– they’re only the most ecologically disastrous industry on the planet!). But for the most part it laid a really useful and effective structure for cleaning. Last year I had an entire 10-room house to clean, which was a little more than the “Apartment Therapy” home site was geared towards. This year, I’ve contracted onto my first floor, so I should be able to keep up a little more.

I’m going to add my disaster of a basement to the mix (in fact I’m headed there right after writing this).

I’ll be going back to my regular Tuesday posting day for  reporting. (It seemed ridiculous to post about cleaning on New Year’s Eve- I don’t know about you, but on New Year’s Eve my aim is making messes, not cleaning them up!)  I hope you’ll join me in signing up through the Apartment Therapy site, and that you’ll chime in on the comments here about your successes, misses, and surprises.

Happy New Year!

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Sometimes when your life changes in drastic ways, you make deals with yourself. “I’ll get such-and-such accomplished as soon as he gets his sh*t together;” the problem being, of course, that first he’s never going to get his sh*t together, and second, you have no control over when that might happen anyway.

My basement studio is one of those perennial deals I make with myself– I’ll start using it to make art when [fill in the blank]. The latest is “when my husband moves his massive amounts of stored music and filing cabinets out of the basement.”

I’m taking a few days off– to write (hello! here I am again!), to draw, to fulfill a promise to myself to be an artist if only for a few days. But like preparing for any vacation, you have to do the work first– the packing and the cleaning and the calendar clearing. I want to do some drawing with pastel, which meant that I had to find the pastels.

While I’ve kept my studio space reasonably free of the inevitable detritus that accumulates in an unused space, entropy sets in and things pile up. Since the pastels were not in the accessible place that I first looked for them– an easily reached drawer– I had to start excavating.

I’m good at cleaning– I don’t have emotional attachments to things as a rule (there are exceptions: don’t get between me and something that belonged to my mother) so it’s easy for me to throw things away. The general rule of throwing stuff away is that if you don’t know you have it, you don’t need it.

Except the stuff you do need. Someone listening to me clean would have been hearing “lookitthat!”, “oh this thing!”, “Oh, man, so glad I didn’t buy a new one of these!”, “I wondered where that was” and “Oh I LOVE this!” (respectively a photo of me with my gradeschool best friend, taken about 15 years ago when she looked me up; a blue pashmina that I’d completely forgotten I had; a clamp-on pencil sharpener; a piece of art I traded with the artist maybe 20 years or more ago; and a wonderful portrait I drew of my daughter when she was about six.)

I also found the pastels.

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There’s a certain degree of hubris in writing about the things we accumulate. George Carlin pretty much said it all. (Caution- link contains strong language).

I throw stuff away– I joke that I spend an embarrassing amount of time going through the trash for the stuff I should have kept. But I’ll tell you, in two weeks I will be wracking my brain trying to remember what it was I needed so badly that I dug through the garbage looking for it.

There’s a nostalgia to stuff– who doesn’t love going into the attic or the basement (or better yet your mother’s attic or basement) and finding that childhood stuff that you had forgotten about. Or even just that blouse that you loved 8 years ago, which is hopelessly out of fashion or never going to fit again. But the thing with stuff like that is that if you didn’t know you had it, you don’t need it.

When the kids were little and apparently unable to ever put their stuff away, we would pack up the clutter in paper bags. If they didn’t ask for it in the next three months, we’d chuck or donate it. I cannot remember a single instance of my kids ever saying “hey, what happened to…”

Some of those forgotten items you should keep, for future generations. If you find something from a prior generation, I guess I’ll let you keep that, on the theory that in another 2 generations it will be a best-of on Antiques Roadshow. But your stuff? Don’t put it away, throw it away.

I’m the child of gypsies– both sides of my lineage were immigrants who came to America with the things they could carry, and then spent the next two generations moving from one place to a better place, so I suppose I’m culturally, if not genetically disinclined to save stuff. When you move a lot, you don’t accumulate things, because you’re just going to have to pick it up and carry it with you the next time you go, and there will be a next time. By the time I was 30, I had lived at 11 different addresses, moving on average once every 2½ years before I graduated high school. The longest time I lived anywhere before my current address was seven years, and that was in my late 20s. Growing up, the record was four and a half years.

After I left home, my parents didn’t stop moving either. My father has lived at nine different addresses in three different countries since 1978. That’s a move every 4 years. He once moved to England with only the things he could fit stuffed into a single carry-on and the sleeves and zipper lining of his trench coat.

After 30 years at this address, I feel now like I have more stuff than I can handle. When you don’t move, the dust settles. But I have friends whose every closet is packed like McGee’s, with drawers stuffed to uncloseability, and every surface covered. You just never know when you might need that jar (never).

Give it up, throw it out, don’t make it do, just do without (with apologies to grandmas everywhere)

Are you a keeper or a tosser?

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I really liked the theme of our Sunday Photo post this past Sunday – Time!  I am all over the board when it comes to all things “time.”  If I have a meeting or appointment, I am an on-time kind of gal. Arriving somewhere 5 minutes early is quite late for me. While I still am on time for those things, I am here and there and everywhere on so many other time-related things.

Starting more aloe plants for swapping

Starting more aloe plants for swapping

I am a potterer (is that a word?) I potter around, in that aimless way (sort of). There is a method to my madness most of the time, but I do get distracted easily and find myself working on something completely different than the task I started on initially. I get things done (for the most part.) So many things are on the big “list of things to do”  and I will chip away at it. Some of the projects I can do quickly, others are ongoing and just take time. Heck, everything since January takes a lot more time than it used to. That alone is a new concept in and of itself.

I am a list maker. Always have been, although the older I get the more important it is. I was one of those people that used to remember all the details like phone numbers and little tidbits. I had several jobs working phones. One was a switchboard with 10 incoming lines for a international music company where I knew most of the extensions to everyone in the building. I can’t remember how many employees there were, but I’ll take a guess it was more than 300. I also worked on a switchboard after-hours at a medical clinic where patients would call in to get a hold of the on-call doctor.147

Getting back to how this all relates to the concept of time…. Somewhere in my 30’s I decided that if I had this stuff written down somewhere I wouldn’t have to remember it, clearing up all that brain power for other things! I find that with all the changes and advancements in technology I barely know anyone’s phone number at all anymore. they are all in that little Rolodex called a cell phone!

Some days time just flies by, other days it really seems like the day is longer. Not dragging on, just longer and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with how much I get done or even how much energy that I have. Before I know it, it is the end of September. Some days are still go go go, and others I can just get lost in what I am doing. Taking plant cuttings and potting them up, starting seeds, planting things, or working on a sewing project or making cards.

Where does the time go? It is filed into the memory banks of our mind I guess.

How do you manage your time?

Sincerely, Emily

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On days like this I wonder why we greet the first day of spring with such glee, yet dismiss fall’s first day as just the awful downturn into winter. The spring equinox is muddy, cold, and grey and the trees have no leaves; fall is brighter and warmer, green and gold and full of food and life. It is the second harvest (the first is Lammas in early August) and the promise of a healthy winter. At Spring the stores are low, at Autumn they are bursting– I’m running out of shelf space.

By common law tradition, the autumn equinox is a “quarter day”– Michaelmas or the feast of the angels, a time for fairs, marriages and pay day.

I sit here writing this at approximately the moment of Equinox (and by the way, when did we start thinking of the Equinox as a “moment”), looking at the astonishing blue of the sky and the clarity of the light. There is nothing like the clear intensity of light on a cool autumn day.

I run my hands through the beans drying on the counter, loving the gentle music they make. The rattling of beans on the vine is one of those sure signs of autumn. Every year I face the dilemma– mix all the varieties together, or separate them? This year I’ll separate by color only- reds in one jar, whites in another. I grew Christmas Limas for seed for Peterson Garden Project; they’re all supposed to go to next year’s garden, but I think I’m going to need to siphon off a half cup to cook (for science, ahem). Plus 25 to grow in my own garden. The rest will go back into the project (pinky swear).

It was such a Sconeday— crisp and still– so I made scones– a rolled raspberry version made with half white and half oat flour. It seemed appropriate to use the last of summer’s raspberries, frozen since July, for the first day of autumn. I flavored them for the memory of summer-with orange zest, orange extract and coriander, and glazed with a little bit of peach preserve left over from the peach syrup I made a few weeks ago.

The afternoon will be spent transplanting two small caryopteris bushes to a sunnier spot in a friend’s yard, where I think they’ll thrive better than in the shady spots they inhabit here. She’ll get some divided white iris and phlox as well. I’ve run out room to divide in my own yard, and can’t bear to just toss them. The weather is slated to warm up later in the week, the perfect transplanting formula.

I’ll walk to the lake, as always, towards the end of the day, to honor the horizon and to hear the sound of angels’ wings that is the waves rolling onto the beach.

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