Thursday, February 23, 2017

This is a drill

So after last week's power outage I've been taking stock of areas where we succeeded in staying comfortable and areas where we failed. In a way, a 12-hour power outage is a blessing, because it's a sort of practice drill for something that could take much longer to resolve. As you know, I'm not a tin-foil hat kind of lady, but having lived through a couple of major earthquakes I do know what it's like to not have electricity and gas for several days. If you've lived through a hurricane, tornado or blizzard, you probably know it too.

Right now our neighbors have three or four eucalyptus trees that are leaning significantly towards the power lines that keep our house and about 20 other properties in the area lit up. It's kind of a foregone assumption that they'll come down sometime in the next few weeks or months, but at least we now have a mindset of preparing for that eventuality. It's gonna happen ... it's just a question of when.

So doing a quick inventory of what worked and what did not last weekend, here's where we failed:

1.  We were woefully short on batteries. 

2. We had not stored extra lamp oil for our kerosene lamps. 

3. Most of our candles are either battery operated votives or highly-scented decorative candles, both inappropriate for long term use in a power outage. No one wants to live in a house that smells like a combination of Christmas Pine, Pumpkin Spice, something called "Sea Breeze," and the odd floral-scented aromatherapy candle. If Martha Stewart ever opens a funeral home, it will probably smell like our house did that day.

4. We needed a generator, as we have no woodstove or wood-burning fireplace to heat the house with when the grid is down. We do have a pellet stove, which can operate off-grid if necessary though, and that proved to be a huge plus once the generator was up and running and the stove was plugged into it. 

Having a generator will also allow us to do a dirty re-wiring of our well pump so we can get water if we need it. (We have a 4,000 gallon storage tank, but if it were damaged we could effectively be out of water in a disaster).

5. The main emergency wind-up weather radio I had in the house was broken.

6. None of our devices -- phones, Kindles, etc. were charged.

On the positive side, we had enough food and propane. Plus plenty of wine -- essential during times of natural disaster (in my universe). And both vehicles had full tanks of gas, something we always try to have going for us in case we're forced to pack up and leave quickly. 

And we had lots of pet food on hand, just like the disaster prep sites advise, so our cat and dog were going to be fine.

So what's next? Stock-up trips, both online and in person. I already bought lamp oil and batteries, plus our new generator will allow us to charge our devices, run our heat, and keep the food in our fridge and freezer from spoiling. We'll overnight-charge our devices a little more religiously from now on, too.

But another important thing is knowing what you already have on hand. We have both a percolator and a café press, but the day of the power outage we forgot we had them and so went without our caffeine fix for the day. Not a major disaster by any means, but if it's important to stock up on emergency supplies, surely it's even more important to remember what you've put by so you can use it when the time comes. I had several friends who forgot they had things they looked back on and wished they'd used. First World Problem.

So this has been an important wake-up call as to how quickly disasters occur and how quickly you may have to rely on what you have on hand, right her and right now.

This time it was more like a drill, but next time it may be more serious. So like having flood/earthquake/hazard insurance, having a generator and emergency supplies on hand are something you hopefully will only rarely need. But the day you need them, you'll be thankful to yourself for purchasing them.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Meanwhile, East of Eden

"The water came in a 30 year cycle. There would be five to six wet and wonderful years when there might be 19- 25 inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then there would come six to seven pretty good years, with 12 - 16 inches of rain. And then the dry years would come..."

                                       John Steinbeck, "East of Eden"

Steinbeck summed it up pretty accurately, and so here we are in the midst of one wet and wonderful year, with the only detractor being that with so many dry years in a row before this, the land is scarcely capable of holding all this water.

Dry creeks filled with drought-killed trees are flooding for the first time in years and carrying the debris downstream. Sinkholes of formerly parched earth are opening up underneath the streets in southern California and swallowing cars whole, and 40 year-old trees are finding that even harder than surviving the droughts, surviving the deluge that comes after the drought is even more impossible.

And so it is in my neighborhood. Yesterday we had an astonishing 15 inches of rain on our hilltop, thanks to three micro-bursts which caused literal walls of water to fall around us. 50 mph wind gusts took out five of the neighbor's trees, narrowly missing our property.

The community effort which occurred immediately after these tree falls was nothing short of amazing; in less than 15 minutes there were at least 10 neighbors, half with chainsaws, hacking off branches, stacking logs and clearing the road. It was heartening to see, and made me realize what a wonderful neighborhood we live in.

But as a result of so many trees in the area coming down, we also lost power for about 12 hours on a very chilly and windy day. I sent Big Ag a text with one word:  GENERATOR. We've been bickering over the last several years about whether or not we needed one, and thankfully (or not) Mother Nature saw to it that a combination of necessity and comfort won this argument.  

So that night, we cooked dinner indoors, had a lamp on and ran our pellet stove until we were warm and our bellies full. I am as proud of that new generator as I would be of a Mercedes -- prouder even, because it's much more practical for where we live and we'll probably have it longer than we have any car we currently own. 

Today the power is back on and the cleanup has begun all over the state as we slog our way through this "wet and wonderful" year, ever mindful that too much water is still preferable over not enough. We'll take the downed trees, flooding and power outages over endless sunshine any day of the year. Because just like Steinbeck points out, the dry years are always coming.

Just not today.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Rearranging Deck Chairs and Chopping Wood

Sometimes it feels absolutely surreal to go from the morning news to outside, around our property. With so much turmoil, how can there be such peace within nature?  Do you ever feel that way?

The spring grass is getting tall, the birds are starting to seek out nesting materials, and they're perfectly content in their lives -- quite unlike what I see when I turn on the news. Most days that feels we're all just stacking up the deck chairs at the non-sinking end of the Titanic. The band still hasn't played "Nearer My God To Thee" yet, so we still have a long ways to go, however. I just hope Jack and Rose are okay.

Living on the west coast that's actually how it feels the rest of the country is tilting and we're sitting on a little island of dryness and safety...for now, anyway. 

Of course the tilting country analogy is not really the case; there are plenty of other places in the country that feel like we do here, but after years of planning my exit from California, for once it feels good to be knee-deep amidst all the "silly" environmental regulations, generous state health care, and at times ridiculous seeming touchy-feeliness. It doesn't feel so ridiculous anymore. It's actually quite comforting to know I live in a state that embraces the voiceless, the downtrodden, and the dreamers. And the environment. Even if sometimes it's at a semi-ridiculous opposite end of the spectrum, I'd rather be here than more "red" parts of the country, let's just say that.

I don't have to worry about my representatives voicing my opinions in Congress, because as one of the most liberal areas in one of the most liberal states, I know that's going to happen. So we have that going for us. 

So what's a resistance fighter to do? Chop wood, carry water, as the Buddhist saying goes. In other words, the usual routine -- so comforting when things seem crazy elsewhere. So in light of that, I realized that I was overdue for two improvements in my home garden. One was an automatic irrigation system in the raised vegetable beds, and the other was floating row covers, so in the last week or so, Big Ag and I have been busy installing both.

Why did it take me so long to put both these things in? I guess sometimes life is like get into a rut ( also known as "a routine") you don't even realize you're in until you're out of it. Most of our industrially-focused civilization we live in is like this, all the time...we don't know how much we need something until we have it. The cell phone. The laptop. The food processor. That can cut both ways; it's always important to know how to do most things by hand, but there's nothing wrong with shortcuts if you're proficient and just need to save either time or energy.

That's certainly the case for our country as well. Those of us who have assumed the environment would always be protected, that the highest levels of government would be run in an orderly fashion, and that if our leaders did not always welcome the inquiries of the press that they would still honor them, have had a wake-up call about just how quickly all that can change. 

And so vigilance all around appears to be the call of the day. The nice thing is, at least we still have the birds, the wildlife, and nature to enjoy while we're going about our business. But no small effort of vigilance is important there, too, if we value what we currently enjoy.

So pick your metaphor. Chop wood and carry water. Move those deck chairs. Either way, stay vigilant, but also stay in touch with those things you're most invested in protecting. Those are the things that will keep you sane through times like this.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Elephant in the Room

I haven't said anything about politics recently, mainly because when I work around my property, or when I come here to write, I'm actually trying to get away from it. I watch the news daily, and occasionally check the latest happenings on my computer throughout my work day, so safe to say I'm pretty much knee-deep in the minutiae of what's happening right now.

And the thing is, everyone who pays any attention to politics has what the experts call "hot button issues." They are the things that matter the most to us -- the things we'd turn out to protest for or against, write letters to Washington in regards to, etc. For me, it is and always has been The Environment. It's a big, garish, nail-polish red button to me.

You can probably throw in Science along with The Environment as well (the two hold hands on a pretty regular basis anyway, so it's not really a stretch). People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own science. Science just IS. Now, that doesn't stop some loud voices from attempting to come up with their own spin on scientific facts, but you get the point.

So as you can imagine, my world has seemed a bit darker and more tense in the last month or so. 

But I'm also an optimist. I've donated good amounts of money to the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, and various coastal environmental groups over the years. This was done to help protect the environmental laws and regulations that keep our wild areas and our animals safe and with decent protections in place. And now it's time for them to use that money like never before. So I'll send more.

And here's something happy to think about: In two years, I can almost guarantee there will be a surge of Democrats voted into various congressional seats, but until then I'm relying on those groups to help keep the things I value most about our country safe, by keeping new and stupid laws, or relaxation or old and reasonable ones, tied up in court for the foreseeable future, until saner heads again prevail.

I am also relying on individuals within and outside the government system like Alt. NationalParkService ( to keep speaking up, to refuse to silence the dispassionate and objective voice of science, and to help them whenever and wherever I can.

March for Science? I'm there. March for The Environment? Count me in. You can argue that protesting does not actually accomplish anything, but where would the Civil Rights Movement be now without the protests that happened 40 years ago? Do you really think women would have just magically been granted the right to vote if the Suffragette Movement had not taken it to the streets (and to their dinner tables) and demanded it -- and not nicely or in a pretty, lady-like way? 

While this blog focuses on a microcosm of daily life in my own little universe, please don't ever think that I live in that microcosm because the big issues are too hard for me to deal with. I recognize that many of your hot button issues may not be my own, so I leave it out of my writings, most of the time. It's more to keep the peace than anything else. But it occurred to me recently that I should at least state my opinions so you know where I'm coming from.

And remaining politically quiet here doesn't mean I'm not taking action in my own personal ways. Far from it. Who knows, this may be the season of my life when I actually end up getting arrested for blocking a street, refusing to move from one spot on a piece of hallowed ground, or something equally inconvenient yet necessary.

Until then, it's going to be all about spring planting, used-item upcycling and pursuing peace, balance and free time. But that's not all there is to life. Now more than ever, it may be time to be a presence in the world. 

Kind of ironic that the Old Boss who supposedly was going to bring in change did not bring about nearly as much as the New Boss who wants to take us back to 1962 is bringing, and that it's change we're actually going to be fighting against, not for. But there it is.

So my advice is this: Grow onions. Install row covers. Write your Congressperson. And knit your brain hat for the Science March, donate to the Sierra Club like never before, and if the White House Switchboard is no longer taking comments, find another opening to register your comments on. The last I heard, Twitter and Snail Mail were still working.

But keep the faith and keep going. None of this will last forever.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Thinning the herd and matchmaking

Loving the raindrops.

Well, it's the time of year when an old lady's fancy turns to....her garden. And to her garden list.

My garden list gets going in earnest during fall, when I'm too burned out from the heat to do much outside. In September I basically sit inside with a cocktail complaining about the heat and writing down things for Future Me to do....later. Much, much later.

If it's true that everyone hates themselves sometimes, I definitely hate Autumn Me. That witch is a slave driver.

But here we are in the midst of "list season," and so here I am completing it. Thinning my torch flowers was first. With limited water, these plants can only be allowed to grow so big, and so dividing them down to size was the order of the day. One advantage is that in every garden, you want plants of varying sizes, and these just look better smaller (although not right now, as they're a little shocky from the dividing process). 

I won't have as many flowers this year because of the thinning, but that's the price you pay for healthy and not-as-thristy plants sometimes, especially with corms and bulbs. Thin the herd, my friend. They'll drink less if there's fewer of them.

Divide and conquer

I also planted two apple trees I grafted in Master Gardener class last spring. One of the most important things I learned in Master Gardener class was that I really, really suck at grafting, and so these grafts were completed for me by a kind old man who felt I was still young enough to flirt with, and who stepped in and completed my assignment for me. I figure my chatting up Chivalrous Man may well be
 the last time I'll be able to use my looks for anything other than getting a good senior discount, so, you know. One last hurrah.

So I planted the two grafted apple trees, plus a Golden Delicious bare-root tree I bought last weekend, to help my Grimes Golden pollinate better. Supposedly Mr. Grimes is self-pollinating, but having another similarly pollinating friend never hurts, so this will help my heirloom tree produce some fruit. I also played yenta a little more by buying a Black Tartarian cherry tree for my Royal Anne cherry, who is having no luck producing her own cherries. I plan on keeping these pollinators small enough that they don't use a lot of water either; I just want them for their flowers.

And so I work my way down on the list until I'm caught up and can report back to Past Me that her damn list is finished, and hey, nice job on the apple tree grafting, which I happen to know she didn't do herself. Turns out cheaters never prosper, but sometimes they do get apple trees.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Three hens, no rooster


So our experiment with having a rooster is over...tonight Otis went to that grand chicken coop in the sky, culled by us after fighting with Callie, the largest yet most submissive of our hens. 

Otis' story began a couple of years ago when, we made a big, sentimental mistake and acquired some eggs from a friend so our brooding hen Ellen could hatch them out and become a mother. We found good homes for three out of the four of Ellen's chicks. Otis we kept, mainly because roosters are hard to place and we figured we'd try having one and see if he'd end up a good addition to our flock.

Otis and Ellen

 Otis ended up causing us no problems.... while his mother Ellen was alive. We realize now it was her influence that kept him in line. After Ellen died (she was put down several months ago after suffering a debilitating tumor) his personality became less cooperative, and more typically rooster-ish.

The attack this afternoon was not Otis' first infraction. A few weeks ago he attacked Chloe, our lovely barred rock, and opened up a sizable gash on her comb, which bled profusely. Chloe spent Christmas morning in our bathroom getting doctored up, and when she was ready to go back out Otis was put in a separate pen for a few days so that both would forget their altercation, which chickens often do. Brain the size of a peanut and all that.  

But if we thought the temporary time-out/isolation worked, we were wrong. As I mentioned earlier, today I found Otis full-on fighting with Callie, our young Silver-Laced Wyandotte. And so, before another hen was injured, we decided Otis had to be culled. 

And while it's never easy to put a bird down, as I was carrying Otis out into the garden and Big Ag was loading the shotgun, I thought about how many chickens grace my dinner plate every single year, and how each one of those chicken dinners represents a bird that died just like Otis was about to. 

That's one thing that keeping animals has made me thankful for -- I never take for granted the meat or poultry I eat. I know something that once lived and breathed lost its life in order to be consumed by me, and I don't consume it as mindlessly as I once did.

And so I say farewell to Otis and to roosters in general. We're planning on getting another couple of hens this spring and I'm sure there will be plenty of pecking-order drama when we integrate them into our flock of (now) only three birds. But while it may be difficult to watch the pecking order re-shuffle itself, it will settle down in time, which probably would not have happened with Otis. 

Sometimes it's survival of the fittest, but in Otis' case it was a different rule, no less valid or important: Survival of the congenial.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Real LaLa Land

Don't pay attention to the dancing beauties; your first clue this is a fantasy is the idea of available street parking. 

Do I ever review films? Do I even see them on a regular basis? Well, no, but I have a few things I'd like to say about "LaLa Land" as I think it's becoming a sort of lighthouse beacon, inspiring aspiring actors and actresses from all over the world to move to Los Angeles and try and become the kind of person that TMZ is interested in following,  no, of course I mean that hones their artistic craft and becomes admired for it.

The City of The Angels is singing its siren song again, something it does every few years when some lucky soul who did come to LA and strike it rich decides to make everyone else think they can, too.

First of all, I want to start by saying that, as a native Angeleno, I did actually really like "LaLa Land," mainly because it was such an affectionate send-up of my hometown -- restaurants, architecture, neighborhoods, all of which are familiar icons of my childhood. My one complaint about the movie was its completely and utterly unrealistic view of show business, and of course, Los Angeles itself. 

In the movie, both the hero and heroine become successful entertainers, cashing in on their talents to the fullest by the time the film ends. The only problem is that this isn't how things usually happen in the real LaLa Land. So in reality, what might more realistically have happened to our romantic pair?  

Second clue: lack of traffic (and jumpers) on Suicide Bridge in Pasadena at rush hour.

Sebastian, our jazz piano player hero (portrayed by Ryan Gosling), might possibly have found good a studio musician, providing he kept up with his union dues and his industry connections, which he seemed to have. He would have been supplying piano riffs in things like McDonald's commercials, industrial videos and recordings of all kinds. A regularly paying gig is a coveted nirvana for most LA musicians who have been around for any length of time, and they tend to count their blessings if they're working regularly, no matter what kind of music it is they are playing. Work is work.

 Mia, our actress heroine (played by Emma Stone), might have ended up working in administration for Warner Brothers, or maybe just managing the coffee kiosk where she had been working. She would have done secretarial temping, waitressing, and catering to pay her bills until a combination of age and burnout sent her into more regular employment, as audition opportunities dwindled. 

Don't believe me? Watch Turner Classic Movies sometime and pay close attention to the closing credits, for any film. Every single person in a supporting role in a film ("girl on street corner," or "Mr. Smith's driver"  was once convinced this was their big break, and that they were finally headed for stardom. Once in a blue moon it actually happened (kind of like winning the lottery). But 99.9 percent of the names you see are unfamiliar strangers to you now because that minor role -- that "big break" -- turned out not to be the start of something great. Six months after their "film debut," it was probably back to that second job and more rounds of auditions. 10 years later, it was probably over and they either got out of the business entirely, or took a job backstage or in studio administration. Or departed Los Angeles, back to whatever town they had come from, becoming someone the neighbors might point to in the hardware store and whisper, "well, he was once a successful Hollywood actor, you know! He appeared with Charlton Heston in 'Ben Hur' as a chariot driver!")

I write this not to throw a wet blanket on the film -- in fact I recommend it highly. Take it in, enjoy it and tap your feet along with the excellent soundtrack while a completely fantastical Los Angeles rolls by visually.

Third clue: believing that young, struggling newcomers in town get invited to parties in places like this.

But don't let your friends, your children or your family become starstruck and think LA is the place to make it. Don't think the streets are that safe, that clean, or that final-read auditions, invitations to swank parties and earning enough to make one's car payment are easy achievements to come by. Thousands will tell you just the opposite.

The film is a lovely fantasy, and nothing more. Enjoy it for that. If you want to move to LA, do it for realistic reasons, such as the epic freeway car chases, occasional earthquakes and fantastic Mexican restaurants...not for show biz, and not because of anything you saw in LaLa Land.