Thursday, August 11, 2016

Hate is a strong word

So I officially hate the woman who owned these chairs before me. Not at first; I thought I was lucky to get them for $15 at a garage sale. But now that I've tried to strip them several times, and now that Big Ag has had to replace some slats that were rotting, I've decided I hate her.

But hate is such a strong word, dear, I hear my Aunt Margaret saying. Are you sure it's hate and not just frustration?

OK, so I don't hate the anonymous woman, honestly, I just hate what she did to these chairs. I hate that she coated them with a multi-layered blanket's worth of some mysterious white primer that liquifies when the stripper hits it, then painted 2,346 coats of teal latex paint on top of that. And I hate that she didn't bother painting the bottoms of the chairs, in places no one could see...hence the wood rot. 

And like most singularities in the universe, my hatred of this woman as Chair Caretaker points to a much larger issue in my soul, which is that I have issues with people who don't take care of things they've been entrusted with, whether that's a pair of wood adirondack chairs, a piece of land, a dog, or even a child.

I just realized it's why I have so much trouble with some people who move to the country yet aren't prepared to deal with the responsibility the land demands of us. There are a few of them in my neighborhood, and my house sits in eyesight of their eyesore. 

It's not their person -- they're usually quite nice --  it's their sloppy caretaking of cats, goats, sheep, grasses, topsoil and even the houses they live in that get me. Some people live like the objects they own and the places they live are ziplock bags...just use them until you're done and then toss 'em in the trash. 

It's very zen to think of everything as temporary and ephemeral, but we make serious errors when we start treating everything like it doesn't matter because of that. Because even the little things matter. And yes, I sometimes fall beneath my own standards when it comes to caretaking (if you saw the filthy interior of my otherwise-nice car right now you would agree with this). 

But the great thing about the world of ours is that it's mostly about increasing self-knowledge. And if you're willing to look at yourself in the work you do, whatever that is, you can learn a lot about how you relate to the world. It can be in doing something as simple as re-painting two wood adirondack chairs. Or running a vineyard. Or a business. Enlightenment in the simple tasks is available if we'll hold up a mirror to see our reflection while we're doing it. 

But to do that, you just have to be willing to do the work, both the chore and the corresponding inner analysis.

(which I will continue to do, by the way. These chairs will be getting fresh paint and weatherproofing this weekend). 

And to the lady who owned these chairs before me, I forgive you. Because as my Aunt Margaret always said, hate is a very strong word. I'm even working on forgiving the liquid primer that turns to goop on contact and becomes unremovable, but I gotta tell you, that one's gonna take some time.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Things Could Always Be Worse -- a Foodie Prepping Primer?

It seems like every time I start canning season, I also begin thinking of emergency preparedness. I'm not a Collapse of Western Civilization kind of gal, but I am most certainly a 7.0 Earthquake kind of gal, having lived through two of those suckers in my lifetime.

And so I reasonably ask myself at times like these if I'd be happy eating the stores I've canned and/or put up on my shelves. If the power was off for, say, two weeks or so due to a large quake, assuming we are well enough to have an appetite, the question then becomes 1) do we have enough food to survive, and 2) exactly how much fun would it be to eat what we've put up? 

Relishing (left) the apocalypse.

These are the only two questions that matter if you and your loved ones are in a disaster and are already safe, with a good source of water and shelter from the weather. It will come down to food. Doesn't it always? Whether it's a housewarming party or the End of The World As We Know It, that's what you will remember about the party when it's all said and done. So even at the conclusion of the future Earthquake Party, the question will be: What did we have to eat?

If you remember Jim Bakker, the preacher involved in some juicy evangelical sex scandal in the 1980s (with a wife who could not keep her mascara from fleeing the scene of her badly made-up eyes), he basically disappeared. Or so I thought. The other day I was channel surfing and found him, now hawking survival food supply kits on QVC. "It's our $99.99 Special 20-year Survivalist Package featuring MEXICAN food!" he extols. 

While I find him strangely amusing, there's one thing he and I agree on....just because the world ends, it doesn't mean Taco Tuesdays have to.

Anyway, I don't count what's in my chest freezer at all in my accounting of foodstuffs, since chances are it would be warm enough that within a few days anything we cannot consume immediately will spoil. This means for the first three days we'll be eating nothing but steak, ham and chicken. (Note to self: stock up on emergency, End Of The World-strength laxatives.) But ultimately, the safest and longest-lasting emergency source of food lies not in the freezer, but rather in the canning cupboard and the pantry selves.

I can make this delicious.
Rice, beans, quinoa,  various pastas and grains would probably become our staples, along with flour for making bread.  Beans would be especially important since lacking refrigeration, we'd also probably be lacking in animal protein after our chest freezer binge-feast (belch), except for fresh eggs. Since I'm mostly vegetarian, I would be OK here, and everyone else would have to be too. 

But the issue then becomes how to dress up all those beans and grains so that they are tasty, or at least interesting, since they'll probably be eaten two or even three times daily (perhaps with some canned salmon or tuna, which I've also put by). People in this situation always say something like well, things could always be worse, but really, I can't think of anything much worse than having to eat rice, beans and quinoa for two weeks straight. 

Of course having a good stock of wine, beer and other alcohol could help immensely, so that should also be at the top of any emergency preparedness food list in my opinion. Everything tastes better with expensive alcohol to wash it down.

But I think having a good stock of spices, jams/chutneys, relishes, and little gourmet items will ultimately make your family's life livable during times of crisis, as much as warm blankets and shelter do. You need to be able to dress up your staple ingredients with flavors, textures and surprises to keep those Lord of The Flies instincts at bay and keep civilization afloat. Sauces, sprinkles, marinades, aoli and other spreads (we have chickens and oil and therefore eggs and therefore aoli -- yum!). 

For me, I would plan on cooking everything in the solar oven (which even works on cloudy days, things just take longer to cook) or on the grill, and so that gives me lots of options for different tastes and textures as well.

Everyone should have one.

I do not plan on eating squirrel or gopher in stews, or insects, or nearby neighbors. That is not my kind of disaster. But vegetarian paella with canned mushrooms, peas and asparagus with some hard-boiled deviled eggs on the side, a fruit galette for dessert and some '10 Cabernet to accompany it all? I could live with that. 

I am sure there is a survivalist cookbook out there, but I like to see myself as a kind of a "San Andreas meets Ina Garden"-type heroine, creating lovely meals for my family spontaneously and cheerily, while the tremors rumble through, the stucco falls off in sheets and the National Guard personnel carriers pass by the road.

It's Bon Appetite at the end of the world, baby. And I feel fine.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Tomato Death

Ex-tomatoes. RIP.

So my tomato crop this year at the homestead has been a total and complete failure. One of the things I learned in my Master Gardener coursework is that crops that are suffering and dying generally are not infected with disease; most of the time it's our own husbandry habits -- watering trends, over/under fertilizing, or other human factors which have inadvertently killed the ones we love...well, the green ones, anyway.

But for the second summer in a row my tomatoes have fruited poorly (this year not at all) and had a wilting issue, which I now realize is either being caused by fusarium or verticillium wilt. Both are soil-borne diseases that can last for years in soil, and so now I'm faced with fixing the issue, along with buying tomatoes at the farmer's market for the foreseeable future.

It doesn't really matter which wilt it is, fusarium or virticillium -- that's like debating whether getting run over by a Subaru Outback versus a Forester would be worse. The point is you, or in this case my tomatoes, are flat on the concrete at this point, and aren't coming back.

Luckily, since my contaminated soil is in raised beds, I can opt to either replace all the soil or solarize the bed. I'm going to solarize since we're at the height of summer -- spreading some clear plastic over the beds and letting our blistering summer heat do its work, raising the temperatures in the beds to about 160 degrees and killing the fungus...hopefully. 

Next year I will also have to plant VFN-resistant (VFN = verticillium, fusarium and nematode) hybrids instead of heirlooms. Luckily "Better Boy" is one of my favorite hybrids, so I have hope of salsa in 2017. I will miss my heirloom Mortgage Lifters and Pink Ladies though, but I'm taking no chances. It's sad to let those seeds go, but they will live on at the winery in the garden, so all is not lost.

It does make me understand exactly why these hybrids were developed, however. Losing an entire crop to disease is unfortunate for me, but could be catastrophic in the ag sector or on a family farm back in the day when no tomatoes actually meant no tomatoes -- period. 

Heirlooms are beautiful and are all the rage these days, but it's important not to forget exactly why some of these hybrids -- common, easy-to-grow; disease resistant and prolific -- are an important part of the crop world. They get a bad rap but the truth is are sometimes the answer to a prayer.

And I'm already praying for my 2017 crop, believe me. And luckily, my self-esteem got a boost this morning when I was able to can 20 pounds of pickles in the form of relish. So the preserving season has not been a total bust vegetable-wise.

But then there was relish.

And lots of flowers.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Postcards from The Descent

Beginning...(taken a few days ago).

...the descent. (taken today)

There is a book, or rather, a book title which has always fascinated me, and the it pops up regularly in my brain during life's more difficult times. 

The title is, "Briefing For A Descent Into Hell."

I could use a briefing like that right about now. Not on a personal level, but certainly on a geographic one. We are currently sandwiched between about three gigantic fires and all of the smoke is pouring into our region.

A few days ago it was a little bit hazy but you could still see blue sky if you looked up. Today the air is choking with smoke smell and you can't see more than a mile. No blue sky to be had either. 

I am extremely conscious that all the molecules making up the particulate matter and smoky smell belonged to something that was alive and well a week ago. It's a horrible amount of destruction when you see this much dead matter rising into the sky in yet another mini-apocalypse -- a forest here, some homes there, a few thousand trees, plus any birds and animals who couldn't make it out in time. Life's tough on the road to Hell for everyone, as the road starts shifting towards a definite downward grade and the flames begin appearing. 

Luckily I can shove the larger issues this all represents into the back of my mind (where it will move to the forefront and wake me up at 3:30 a.m. to ponder, no doubt) and focus on the tasks at hand. 

I have plenty to do because as if the air you could cut with a knife is not enough, the temperatures are also sitting at about 106 degrees each afternoon. My hens were suffering, and so I dragged out an old evaporative cooler we weren't using and installed it in the coop, filled it with ice water and...voila. Instant cooling for my girls. It's nice to know I can still affect some small change in someone's day.

But I can't fix the air quality. Many years ago when I lived in the Central Valley (where bad air is the norm) I suffered from asthma. And sure enough, for the last two days I've been wheezing, coughing and feeling tightness in my chest. Luckily I still have my old medications around but it's proof just how bad it is outside right now.

And so we shelter in place as much as possible and wait for it to pass. Perhaps other places where there are fires can reasonably expect a summer storm to extinguish any forest fires, but if that's the case here things will burn into November.

So who knows. Maybe while I'm waiting around for clean air I'll write that briefing for the descent into Hell, or just read the book. Clearly we're currently on the outskirts and the road seems to be rising up to meet us. I'd say that makes me a qualified expert at least.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Squash Baby

So I have a coworker who absolutely hates squash. We go around and around, with him coming up with pithy little statements designed to get on the squash-lovers' nerves (this includes our winery chefs and a couple of tasting room folks). Things like, "I have a great recipe for squash. Cut the squash into little pieces, throw it into the trash, and go find something else to eat." Ha ha.

Those of us who like squash are always in a difficult time at this point in the year anyway, because while we really like squash, we've also had enough of it to last us awhile (although I will never admit this to my squash-hating coworker). Luckily I work in a place that allows and encourages practical jokes. And so the idea of Squash Baby was born. Basically I nurtured one GIANT squash among my plants here at home until I had a 12 pound huge zucchini. Squash Baby got plenty of water and plenty of fertilizer, in order for him to reach his full potential.

 I went to the Goodwill and bought him some baby clothes (the onesie actually has a tractor and says, "homegrown!") and a hat. Then I pulled four more squash at roughly identical lengths to make two arms and legs.

And then I left Squash Baby in my coworker's office, so it greeted him in his chair on Monday morning. 

Haven't heard a bad comment about squash since then. I think Squash Baby now inhabits his nightmares. I know it does mine.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When good things happen to bad people.

One of the great tests in our lives is surely how we respond when something good happens to someone bad. Also the opposite, when bad things happen to good people, but I'm on the first one today so stay with me.

You know how it goes...someone totally underserving gets an unexpected windfall. This just happened with a blogger I know. Or your favorite chicken passes away at a young age while your least favorite, most difficult bird goes on forever.  This has happened to me, too. Or someone you hate ends up as POTUS. There's a 100 percent likelihood of that happening to me this fall unless a write-in candidate somehow wins the election.

But I've lived long enough that it's all happened before and will again.  

Even in the garden, the tree you lovingly tend to somehow always ends up being the one that catches a virus or blows down in a windstorm and dies, and a different tree, one you don't particularly like and always contemplate taking out, grows like a proverbial weed until it towers over you, almost mocking your disinterest in it.

Maybe it's a test on our path to see how we deal with these things. When I go through life thinking about the lessons I need to learn, the ones that keep repeating themselves come to the forefront of my consciousness. This is one of them. How do I deal with the disappointment and anger when the bad are rewarded for being bad?

I don't live in a world where I get to be the judge and jury in most situations that happen around me. Sometimes I wish I could, but mostly I'm glad I'm not because I never know the complete story. And that is where faith comes in. Whether it's faith in Jesus, God or just the Karmic Universe, sometimes we have to go on faith and know that although it's out of our hands, it's in someone/something else's.

I am writing this today to remind myself about that kind of faith. And if it reminds you too, then that is a good thing.

We are not judge or jury. We're the guy sitting in the back of the courtroom with his iPad and a snack, watching it all unfold, trying to learn to trust in a system -- the universe -- which we don't always understand.

That's all faith is, but it's enough to keep most of us struggling to climb towards acceptance, most of our lives.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Over there, over here

I'm not quite sure how to deal with the violence of our time.

This month: Police, charged with protecting the public, seemingly shooting innocents rather than criminals. These incidents are immediately followed by a criminal individual shooting innocent police officers in Dallas. All this while the entire nation is still reeling over the Orlando nightclub shootings and the slaughter of all those innocents last month. And of course we still have the airport bombing in Turkey and the mass murders in Paris in the backs of our minds.

Then this week: A Bastille Day celebration in beautiful Nice turned into a bloodbath.

Then today: A possible military coup in Turkey, one of the only Middle Eastern countries considered a good, safe transportation hub to go through on your way to and from various points in Europe, Africa and Asia. As of this moment, the airport is closed to anyone wanting to leave and The Men With Guns are running the show. Seems like you could say that about a lot of different places.

And who knew? Who could have predicted any of these things?

I would imagine if, for example,  you're trying to get to or from somewhere in Europe or the Middle East today and ended up in Turkey, you probably are 1) scared for your life, and 2) having a horrible moment of clarity when you realize you've definitely ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It seems like a lot of people recently have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and have paid with their lives. It seems like too many people have had to experience the awful realization that they are in a terrible situation, real time, and there's nothing they can do about it.

How do we process things such as this? People lucky enough to live in relatively unpopulated areas, such as myself, sometimes feel as though they are watching an alien world, all from a distance, whether they are on a homestead in Central California, a farm in the Cotswolds, or a cattle ranch in Argentina. The horror of what's going on is on the evening news or the internet, but only as long as we look at the screen. 

It's not down the street or even on the other side of town. But that doesn't mean it's not still horrifying.

Living where I do, I don't have to worry (much) about terrorists or rogue police officers or military coups. And at times like this, it feels like a huge divide between "here" and "there." Even if you're in a city apartment there is probably "here" and "there." Here, your cozy flat with the tea kettle singing, the house plants growing and a cat or two at your feet. Out there, Armageddon.

Am I the only one who feels a little guilty turning away from the news and just walking back into the comfortable routine of my normal life while others are suffering so horribly? I watch the sun set, I listen to the birds in the trees, and it seems somehow disrespectful to those who are still living in very real fear at the exact same moment. Yet there is also comfort in it. The sun will still rise tomorrow, for me anyway, and that becomes something to hold onto, something to look forward to, along with the beautiful routine of my day to day life, something I may not have appreciated as much before the sidewalk massacres started happening.

And if you think this is where I mention that time-honored cliche that we all have to get out there to public events, to airports and to foreign lands as we normally do or the terrorists and bullies of the world are winning, I do not believe that. There is no way I'd want to be in Europe right now, and I have family there. There is no way I'd want to be black in certain parts of this country. 

There's a primitive instinct that tells us to stay put when things seem to be getting chaotic "over there," (wherever "there" happens to be) and the primitive part of my brain is happy to be who I am, where I am right now. And I can't say I'm blessed, because then it implies that those less fortunate or of a different color or geographic locale are un-blessed, unwatched over somehow, and that's unacceptable. 

So I'll just say I'm lucky. Does that work?

But how do we negotiate our increasingly violent world? For me, the tendency is to pull inward.  To walk my property at sunset, watch dumb "Christmas in July" programs on television...anything that tells me there is goodness and routine still to be had within the boundaries of my blessed/lucky-so-far life.

And I guess I can be thankful for that and mournful at lives lost "over there" at the same time. But I still can't help but wonder where we all go from here; when "here" becomes a haven and a shelter from "there." One thing is for sure, and that is that we never really know the distance between the two. Because every place  is "here" until the bullets start flying and you realize you're now the one who has ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And then you find you're now "there" too. I hope you all stay safely within the bounds of "here" as we collectively attempt to figure this all out.