Monday, December 31, 2012

Last New Year's Eve, I reflected a bit on where our family was going and where we'd come from.  We had spent the morning in a San Joaquin Valley WalMart, purchasing storage tubs to begin packing our house up for an anticipated move, and I was trying to imagine where I'd be when December 31, 2012, which at the time was exactly one year later.

It's a year later, and I am here.

I have spent my day stoking the pellet stove, adding fresh straw to the chicken run, and deciding where to plant the fruit trees we bought yesterday.  When this round of planting is done, we'll not only have the pomegranate, nectarine, and pineapple guava trees which the house came with, but also a Mission fig, a Blenheim apricot, a Bartlett pear, three cherry trees (two Bings and a Royal Anne), a Granny Smith apple, and an Elberta peach growing on the property. 

 This is good news, as its important to get any trees you will use for food planted on new property ASAP, since it will be a few years before you reap any kind of decent harvest.  So the sooner, the better.  I'm glad we did not procrastinate on this item, as we have on so many others!

My husband has been down in the lower acreage fixing fencing today (one of his favorite chores, surprisingly) and tonight we will take a well-deserved break from our farm work and go into town and to a good dinner at one of the nicer Italian restaurants downtown.

So did I imagine myself here, one year ago, when I was standing in line at WalMart?  Yes and no.  In so many ways, we are living the dream we dreamed one year ago.  And yet, it's different. We are not as self-sufficient here as I thought we would be.  Yes, we will have plenty of food which we've grown ourselves, but we will always need the grid to provide us with electricity for well water, if nothing else.  Our pellet stove is amazingly efficient and cheap to operate, but it also requires  a small amount of electricity, so if we want to be comfortable in winter, we need that as well.

So I've had to come to terms with the fact that here in western United States, there really is no such thing as true and complete energy independence and least not without an extremely great financial investment.  Along with that, we face the fact that we're not getting any younger in many ways, especially when it comes to the manual labor this place requires.  yet it's a labor of love, and so we do all we can and make sure there's always ibuprofen on hand.  

And there are so many positives about where we live. I love the dark night sky here, and the peace and quiet. I love the view from the top of our hill. I love that we're making friends and feel ourselves to be a part of this community and the city that's closest to us.  The air is clean, the water is good, and the sun does not set over our neighbors' roofs, but over the western hills. And even on the hottest day, it still cools off right after sunset.  Our kids are off doing their own things, which we knew would happen, but they're all happy and healthy, as is the rest of our family. Those things are priceless.

I hope you have some priceless things in your life that you're thankful for as we roll over to a new year. If nothing else, you survived the Mayan Apocalypse, and that is surely something to be grateful for.  Happy 2013, everyone.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Beach cam

One of my New Year's resolutions this year is to spend more time at the beach.  To that end, I intend to check this nifty beach webcam out on any days I plan on going, so I can assess how to dress:

Friday, December 28, 2012

Tense Christmas

The decorations are stacked in a corner, the tree will come down this weekend, and all in all life is getting back to normal here on the old homestead.  This Christmas was, for some reason, a tense one.  We had a last minute change of plans that gave us all three kids home for five days instead of the planned two, which meant sleeping space was at a premium. It rained much of the time, which meant we were all indoors, and by about Sunday I'd say people were looking for ways to get out of the house for awhile, in small groups rather than as one big happy family.

Plus there was Christmas Day itself.  For some reason, my husband chose this day to do a Bataan Death March-style workday on the fencing around our property, and was frankly angry when he was finally called in to stop and have dinner with everyone.  The prime rib was terribly undercooked, a fact which he pointed out in a loud voice, several times, to anyone within earshot (remember he was already angry we'd made him come in and stop working) and the only way to salvage it was to gently microwave the meat until it was cooked to medium.  Surprisingly, this actually worked, so the dinner was saved. But the tenseness was a palpable thing by that time. 

I'm relatively new to the whole Norman Rockwell Christmas thing.  Chanukah is a completely different holiday.  For the most part, people work during the day, so the only time they're together is for dinner.  One gift is opened per night, which means there's no rush of gifts over a 15-minute period one morning, the way Christmas happens.  And with the focus on the meal and one present for each person, it just feels less rushed, and with lower expectations overall.  

For much of my life, I had lower expectations about Christmas, too.  Once I was an adult, I usually did decorate a tree (Chanukah bush!), but Christmas Eve I'd usually spend listening to music, or reading, and enjoying the pretty lights on the tree.  Christmas Day I'd sleep in, grab some breakfast, and then go over to someone's house who was celebrating, and enjoy a nice dinner with them and their family.  I have lots of happy memories from those years, which is probably why I try and re-create those times in my own home on Christmas.

Yet sometimes, despite my best efforts, it just doesn't come together.  And this year was one of those times.  While no one fought (a good thing) and goodwill was still felt by all, I still think that despite our lovely location people felt a little marooned up on this hilltop of ours, and were happy to go back to their regular lives.

What can you do?  Take down the decorations, and get over it, that's what.  What else is there to do?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Powering a homestead

one off-grid energy power

This time of year always brings with it a certain I hang wash outside, or use my energy-hogging electric clothes dryer inside?  You see, even though we live on the Central California coast, in the land of rhone wine grapes and sunshine, we still get more than enough winter days of "marine layer" cloudiness and short days, when there's a distinct lack of dry and/or warm air about.  There have been plenty of days recently when I dutifully hung the wash in the morning, then pulled it in at around 4:30 pm (sunset in these parts), still damp.  Talk about a waste of personal time and energy.

These days also have me thinking about finally buying a generator, now that my husband has his Christmas bonus in hand and we can afford it.  In summer, we could easily live without electricity -- the days are warm and sunny, but the nights are always cool, which makes the house a pleasant temperature most of the time; we have a solar oven and a 3,000 gallon tank of water which is gravity fed into the house if the well fails -- but winter is another story.  Again, we bust through yet another California myth:  Not only is there not eternal, warm sunshine, it also gets damn cold here in winter, especially at night, where it often freezes.  That's not North Dakota cold, but it is cold enough to make a long night much longer, if you have no pellet or wood stove, fireplace, or central heating to help you through.  

another off-grid energy power
Anyplace where it's down in the '20's or teens and you're in an emergency situation, you can always survive by putting everyone to bed in an extremely small room, sealing the doors and windows securely, and letting your combined body heat warm the room.  With only three of us here full-time, it would work.  But the question becomes....who would want to do that if there were another option?  It's a last resort, at best, suitable for only the worst survival situations. For us, another other option is a gas or propane generator, capable of running the fan on the pellet stove and therefore heating much of the house up before we retire each evening.  

I know it's odd that I loathe using an electric clothes dryer and regularly imagine scenarios where we actually have to do everything without electricity (in which case the clothes would remain on the clothesline for two or three days in winter until they finally got dry).  The fact is, I like having  back-ups in place to grid-dependent appliances -- and knowing how to use them, because what you think is never gonna happen seems to have a way of happening, even if only for awhile.  When the 1971 Sylmar hit near my childhood home, our power was out for four days.  Not an eternity, but long enough.

And if you need to imagine a closer scenario, how about Hurricane Sandy.  There are some folks that are still without power from that storm, almost two months later.

Another off-grid option.. really expensive power.
I freely admit I also hate giving an ever-increasing amount of money to PG&E each month, but I'm not sure solar panels or wind turbines would either a) make us more independent or b) save us money in the long run. The most expensive type of system is one in which you're off-the-grid most of the time and storing power in batteries, but have grid capability should you need it.  Those batteries I just spoke of cost a fortune, as does the technology that make it possible to charge them.  But with all that technology comes dependence of another sort -- on repairmen and parts shipped from far away, since no technology will work forever without need of replacement parts. 

So today I will use the electric clothes dryer....because I can, and tomorrow I will go out and buy a generator, because someday I may need it.  And when it's warm I'll hang  wash outside and use my solar oven, and when it's raining I'll stay inside and use my household appliances.  Right now it's the best of both worlds, but should one of those worlds become dominant, I'm hopeful I'll be able to function in either of them.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Someday I will get Christmas dinner right.  It's always something different, but there's  always one dish that presents a challenge for me and provides ample fodder to steal my joy, if I let it.   And it's always a different dish.

 Last year, for instance, it was the Yorkshire puddings.  It turned out I added a little too much bacon fat to the baking tins and when the puddings began to rise, the fat overflowed, hit the bottom of the 450 degree stove and made smoke billow out of the oven. 

This year, it was the prime rib.  I pulled out the meat when my new meat thermometer registered 170 degrees, which is about 30 degrees higher than the optimal "done" point.  But I figured since the outside was cooked well, it would be a perfect medium-rare in the middle....I was wrong.  The middle of the roast was almost raw.  My husband even said the rib bones were cool.  Not good.

So we popped the under-done meat into the microwave and, gently and carefully, cooked it the rest of the way.  This is not easy; microwaving meat is not something I recommend on a regular basis because it ruins the flavor.  But in this case, it worked.  We had perfectly done, flavorful meat, Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes, spinach casserole and pies, all without setting off the smoke alarms, which generated good will towards all. fact, most of the time, things just work out somehow, if we relax and work with our circumstances, rather than trying to achieve some perfect moment or day. In that way, Christmas is no different than any other day. 

Happy holidays, everyone.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hit by a family on Doomsday

We had the first of our family arrive last night for the holiday; the rest will be here later today.  I shopped like a Doomsday Prepper yesterday, stocking the fridge and cupboards with everything they'll need or want for the next several days.  It's nice to be the gathering place, where everyone wants to wake up Christmas morning.

And speaking of doomsday prepping, it looks like we all made it into 12/21/12 without too much trouble.  Which is a good thing, I would have hated to spend my last day on the planet trolling a shopping cart through Von's.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gas Versus Electric -- Round One

This fall one of the things we did was get rid of the old, inefficient appliances in our kitchen and replace them with new ones.  We took a financial hit in doing it, but it had to happen. The dishwasher sounded like a den of grizzly bears wrestling whenever we'd start it up.  It washed our dishes in lukewarm water, and consequently didn't clean well. It was old, and was a cheap, bottom-of-the-barrel appliance even when it was new.  

The oven was a slightly different version of the same story.  It too was cheaply made, and filled the house with a strong odor of propane whenever it was started up.  So both needed to go.  But while the dishwasher we bought was simply a better version of a dishwasher, we decided to change from using a gas stove to owning an electric one, something I swore I would never do.

Now that I'm adjusted to using the electric stove, I have to admit I actually like it better than the gas one.  Cooks fight over this issue all the time, and I was firmly in the "gas" camp until owning this particular stove. 

For me, while I was fine with having an electric oven, but was absolutely committed to having a gas cooktop.  I'd just heard they were better.  And while you can buy what's known as a "duel fuel" range, with an electric oven and a gas cooktop, they are expensive.  My other issue was that propane is a big mystery to is NOT the same thing as natural gas, and I've heard, alternately, that it burns cooler/ hotter, and/or dirtier than natural gas does.  This may be because, to convert a natural gas stove to a propane one, you must use a conversion kit, and I'm guessing some models just convert better than others.

So I bit the bullet, and went ahead and purchased an electric range, almost crying on the way home.  But I've been pleasantly surprised:  On an electric stovetop, for instance, you can set the heat on the burners much lower than you can on a gas stove...melting things like chocolate and butter has never been easier.  The glass cooktop is extremely easy to keep clean.  And you can't beat the even heat an electric oven provides when baking.   The other thing is efficiency.  A propane stove has a pilot light which always stays lit....when you are in town shopping, on vacation, or sleeping at night.  An electric oven remains completely off until you ask it to do something.   

In short, I'm sold.

But as I'm wont to do, I do worry about the fact that I won't have much to cook on indoors should the power go out.  Which is why we now have an extra tank of propane stored for our barbecue outside.  It's large enough to use as an oven, and even has a side burner which would function as a one-burner cooktop in an emergency.

We've faced this question over and over since we've moved in.  Do you get the off-the-grid capable appliance, which you mainly own for the sake of an emergency, or do you get an efficient appliance that might not work in an emergency.  Can you make do without it in the event something happens, substituting something else, as we can do with our barbecue when the electric stove doesn't have any juice?  Can you use your generator to run your pellet stove if your an earthquake hits in the dead of winter and knocks the power lines out of commission, or should you invest in a wood stove, and just make sure you have a good sized supply of seasoned wood stored someplace at all times?

These are not questions you want to dwell on too much lest you be called a prepper, but I would think you'd certainly want a general emergency plan in place, just in case.

I always try to live in both worlds, but I can tell you right now that there's no ideal solution.  What works 365 days a year under normal circumstances may not be your best bet in an emergency, and visa versa. So you pick your choice, you write a check, and you take your chances.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas-y kind of weather

This weather bespeaks Christmas to me....misty, cold, and wet.  It's the essence of winter here on the west coast, and makes you especially anxious to sit by the fire with a hot drink and maybe some twinkly lights nearby.  But every once in while I like to walk to the fence line that borders our pasture, feel the spray of mist on my face, and see the green hills blanketed in a pale shroud along our property line.  

We may not have a white Christmas very often, but sometimes a green Christmas is not so bad.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Pineapple Guavas!

Big Ag and I were out in the backyard yesterday when he picked up the fruit from one of our landscape trees next to the house, pulled out his pocket knife, and cut it open in order to identify it.  Having no idea what it was, he handed it to me.  Knowing that the lady who had this place landscaped had pets, and therefore being fairly certain she hadn't planted anything toxic back there, I took a bite.  It had the texture of an apple, but with an apple-pineapple-peachy kind of flavor to it.  It was ripe, sweet, and absolutely delicious, and I couldn't believe I'd been sweeping all this fruit into the trash before this, believing it to be the inedible product of a tree grown only for show.

After some internet investigation, I determined it was a pineapple guava, or feijoa plant.  Native to South America, it's able to be grown in our climate. I love discovering something new that's edible in our yard, especially when it's something I had just written off as a particularly messy landscape tree.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's been a few days since I posted because I was doing some charity work (story for another day), and today I was going to blog about the hard freeze that hit last night and the fact that today really feels like the first day of winter.  But then I turned on the television and saw the tragedy unfolding in Connecticut.  

From what I've heard so far, there is an entire classroom of kindergarten children unaccounted for, possibly dead, along with several adults.  Of course as a parent, when you hear about something like this you immediately think back on your own child at 5 years of age.  It's an age of sweetness and innocence, where Christmas is the biggest day of the year, and the events leading up to Christmas -- class parties, Christmas concerts and assemblies, are all a whirl of fun and joy.  For the parents, too.  Seeing your kindergartner sing in his first Christmas program, and watching the pleasure as they bring home Santa Claus and Christmas Tree art projects makes this season the most magical time of parenting there is.  It's only outdone by The Big Day itself -- seeing their sleepy little faces on Christmas morning when they realize Santa has come and watching them open their gifts, surrounded by their loving family.

I cannot even imagine the horror this little town will have to face, with 18 of its children dead in such a terrible manner.  I cannot imagine Christmas ever again being good for the parents left behind, who only a few months ago shed bittersweet tears when they watched their little boy or girl walk into their kindergarten classroom for the very first time...a milestone for most parents, and a new era in their children's lives as well.

Who ever thinks in September that by the New Year's they will be picking out a cemetery plot and headstone for their child, and doing it along with 18 of their schoolmates, their teacher, and their principal?  My heart and my tears go out to all those parents, and to the children because their lives were cut short so soon, and so violently. 

Today, I have nothing more to say than that.  It just truly boggles the mind.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Almost everyone who cooks for a family has issues with leftovers.  Leftovers of popular dishes (in our house this would be my oven-baked fried chicken) disappear like tax breaks over the fiscal cliff.  Other, less popular dishes, like the tomato soup I made a few days ago, would sit around until kingdom come before anyone touched them again if I didn't do something with them.

But since I hate to waste food, I've had to get creative recently with what I do with my leftovers.  With the aforementioned tomato soup, I added some tomato paste and a bunch of spices and made a pretty decent spaghetti sauce, which was devoured by everyone.  That's a good thing, because it means that not a scrap went to waste.

I've also gotten in the habit of using ripe bananas in my buckwheat pancakes.  Buckwheat is slightly bitter and the sweetness of the bananas really makes these pancakes wonderful.  I've put leftover sauces on baked potatoes, used leftover bread to make chocolate bread pudding, and of course boiled down whole leftover chicken carcasses for broth and for dog food.  

But I wish I had one of my grandmothers around, because I have a feeling there are a lot more tricks for using up leftovers out there than what I'm currently doing.  And every time I have to throw out some leftover fajita or burrito filling, a bag of old vegetables or  piece of fruit, or a quarter-cup of cranberry sauce leftover from Thanksgiving (because it got stuck in the back of the fridge and I forgot it was there), I wish I had a few more tricks up my sleeve to put these scraps to a useful purpose, other than giving them to our chickens or throwing them out.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Pomegranate freezer jelly

I recently switched out our kitchen oven to a glass-top model, which means I can no longer use my old metal stock pot on it.  I have a new, aluminum stock pot on order and coming soon, but unfortunately my pomegranates needed to be dealt with NOW, so I was forced to make freezer jelly instead of jelly preserved in a water bath canner.  
Immediate action item

The good news is that freezer jelly is exactly the same as regular jelly -- it tastes just as good and, in the case of pomegranate jelly, may even extend its shelf life past a few months (pomegranate jelly tends to lose color and become runny within about 6 months, I have heard).  The other good thing is that freezer jelly is MUCH easier to make, since you are skipping the water-bath step.  The only down side is that you need room in your freezer to store it.  But if you have a chest freezer, like us, its no problem.

Can deliciously check this off the to-do list now
First, get four cups of pomegranate juice, either by juicing the fruit yourself, or by buying some in the market ( I inherited a pomegranate tree when we bought this new house, so I did the former).  Once you have your juice, strain it and set it in a large pot on the stove, adding one and-a-half boxes of pectin, and cook to a full, roiling boil (one that can't be stirred down).  Next, add a quarter-cup of lemon juice and 6 cups of sugar.  Bring back to a full boil for one minute and then remove from heat, stirring constantly.  Ladle the hot jelly into jars, place lids on, and when they are cool enough, put in your freezer.  They should keep for at least six months, possibly more.  Just thaw out a jar and refrigerate it whenever you want some around.

Very easy way to deal with having lots and lots of pomegranates!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Half a year onward and a holiday party

Today marks about the six-month point that we've been living on the Central Coast; perhaps it was appropriate we return to the San Joaquin Valley for a party on Friday night, to remember where we came from and look over the old geography, half a year on.  It felt very familiar being back there, both in good and not-so-good ways.  The valley is never more beautiful (my opinion) than this time of year, the quiet fields, the little farmhouses with warm lights coming from the windows at sunset, and the eastern sky far off in the distance turning a lovely shade of violet...those things all make for a very pretty, Christmas-card kind of setting.  The people are friendly, and the streets are long and straight, with nary a bend in the road to contend with, most of the time.  I first visited the valley during Christmas 22 years ago, and coming from the smoggy glitz of Los Angeles, it seemed like a homespun haven from the city life.

On this latest trip, we stayed in a hotel so we didn't have to drive home after the party.  It was a nice hotel in a good area. Sadly, when we woke up in the morning and took our luggage out to the truck, we discovered the Range Rover parked next to us had been broken into and had its rear window smashed in.  And at that moment all the reasons we left the Valley became quite clear again.  Our move was as much about socio-economics as anything else, and when we saw the Range Rover with the broken glass all around it we remembered that.  

Fresno may have a couple of really good shopping malls, a Whole Foods and an extremely lovely area in the middle of the city called Old Fig, but drive three blocks away from any of those places and you will see poverty and desolation. The same goes for any town in the Valley, and the desolation is continuing its creep towards all the nicer areas.  Even out in the country, there are home-invasion robberies, ag theft, discarded refrigerators, sofas, and even the occasional stolen-and-burned car sitting alongside the road with the litter and old beer bottles.  That's what, in truth, lies in between the bucolic little farmhouses, the small towns, and the orchards and fields.  And they are all increasing in number and proximity to the more unspoiled and/or well-cared for places.  It's frustrating to watch.

It's not a class thing.  It's a pride thing.  People who value the area where they live tend to take care of it, and unfortunately there's just too many people around there who do not care, for whatever reason.  There are caring, genuinely involved people who have set down footholds and whose families have lived in the Central Valley for generations, but they are outnumbered at this point by the ones who simply don't care. And when that happens, anyplace, even the nicest area can become unlivable.  I am still glad we left, and I love where we live now, but I will always feel a connection to and feel worried about the future of places like Fresno, Hanford and the like.

And no matter what, I was extremely glad to see this upon returning to our little house on the hill.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Sometimes when I'm alone in the house, I get the feeling I'm being watched.  I sit with my back to the window, reading the newspaper, and suddenly feel a chill crawl up my spine.  Quickly I turn around and....

I see my stalkers.

Messy, but worth it

December here on the Central Coast and elsewhere is the time when the pomegranates become ripe and hang like big, red Christmas balls on their small branches.  Yesterday I picked the last of them off our tree and set about juicing them, which I do by quartering them, submersing the pieces in a bowl of water, and then picking the juicy seeds free while the pieces are underwater, so they don't squirt everything in sight if I happen to pop some open, which I always do.  I do this outdoors on the back patio, because it's still quite messy, even with some of it done by submersion.  And since pomegranate juice makes pretty permanent stains on anything, care is needed anytime you're dealing with this fruit.

And yes, I DO now have a purple splattered concrete walkway in my back garden, but it's better than purple-splattered grout in the kitchen.

At the end of a two-hour session, this is what I had, which yielded about five cups of juice.  Since I drank about a cup right there on the spot (cook's prerogative!) now I have about four cups, which means I only have to replace the one cup and I will have enough to make pomegranate jelly, which I've personally never tasted but am willing to try.  Why not?  Sometimes I wish we'd been given the legacy of some apple or pear trees, but if life gives you pomegranates, make a nice purple walkway and maybe some jelly.  That's what I think, anyway.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

2013 New Year's Resolution

Au Revoir, Loreal
I'm not one to make a lot of New Year's resolutions (which more often than not are forgotten by about March) but this year I am making a big one.  I have decided to let my hair revert to its natural color, which is about 75 percent white and 25 percent an odd kind of brownish color.  I did a full coloring  yesterday (my last) and this is how it currently looks:

No gray here yet....but stay tuned.

Not bad, but not natural either.  After all, I am in my early 50's and no one that age has no gray in their hair, except certain very lucky Asians or Native Americans, who don't seem to have much of a gray gene.  

Basically I am sick and tired of coating my head with chemical goo every few weeks in order to achieve a youthful look when I'm not all that youthful anymore.  I strive to live a seriously chemical-free life -- eating organic, reading labels, avoiding artificially-produced products when I could make my own natural ones -- so it makes no sense that every month I give myself an ammonium hydroxide swirly and then sit around letting it soak in for a good 45 minutes.  Surely this can't be a safe thing, long term.  So I've decided to go natural.  I do plan on having some help from a good professional colorist as my current color grows out, mainly so I don't get a skunk-like stripe down the center of my head for months.  But the days of coating my entire skull with hair coloring is over.  Finito. We'll see what color my hair actually is underneath the Medium Blonde #8...Even I am not sure, because I've been doing this since I was about 35 and a lot has changed with my hair since then.  But I'm excited to meet this new silver woman, whoever she is.

So Au revoir, Loreal and Miss Clairol.  It's been great knowing you. Not.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A sad goodbye

My son is currently down in the dumps after his girlfriend of over a year broke up with him.  It was unexpected -- for him -- for us, the older folks in his tribe, not as much of a surprise.  They've been trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, with her still in high school and him 200 miles away in college, for the last four months or so, and it's clearly taken its toll on their togetherness.  

We middle agers know from experience how difficult doing the long-distance thing can be, even once one is well into adulthood and can commute to see the significant other on a regular basis.  Most of us tried to do it once or twice, and most failed miserably. 

My last long-distance relationship was when I was in my 30's, and while it was doomed to failure for many reasons, the long-distance aspect of things definitely hastened the demise of the whole thing. He got a job in the bustling borough of D.C., working for the Bush Administration, and I lived the rural life of a primary school teacher in the Central Valley of California.  Clearly not a recipe for success, despite having everything else going for us. We couldn't even meet halfway, because, really, neither of us would have wanted to join the other in their life, or meet (geographically anyway) in the middle, probably somewhere in Kansas, which we often joked about. It just couldn't work. 

For young people, who have never lived without constant contact with each other, it's even harder....which is kind of a quintessential example of irony, isn't it?  Despite the ability to be in constant communication with your significant other thanks to texting, sexting, and Smart phones, relationships still can (and do) end because of the miles between you.  Technology means nothing in the face of what the heart really wants, which is having the one you love right there, right now.  In person.  No substitutions accepted.

I worry sometimes that maybe this next generation is going to be socially crippled because they have no chance for reflection in the spaces between the togethers in their relationships. We had them. We'd talk for several hours on a date, but then we'd be out of contact for another day or so, maybe more.   And in those hours of aloneness, we'd reflect on how the relationship was going, who the person was we were involved with, and where we thought the whole thing was going.

It's ironic that my son's girlfriend broke up with him after a weekend of (relatively) no contact.  He was working and could not chat at any length for about 48 hours or so.   I think that's when the illusion of togetherness probably ended for her, when in actual reality she'd pretty much been alone for four months already.  Kids today are never alone in one way; they can text people 24 hours a day and fill their hours with typed conversations.  But in another way, they really are alone, if they are sitting in a room by themselves to do it. They just don't know it.

Today's phone technology creates the illusion that there really is togetherness when, in reality, it's just you and a screen.  If this new technology actually worked, i.e, really did improve the quality of their interpersonal lives, their long-distance relationships would be the proof of it -- they'd fare much better than the ones of our generation did.  But instead they're worse, because all that immediate-gratification technology creates a believable illusion of togetherness. But what the brain sees, logically, the heart isn't buying in on for one second as it sits in a room alone. 

The fact is, technology is just NOT enough to satisfy some of the most basic inter-social human needs we have -- for companionship, leadership or love -- and is just one more example where over-reliance on technology will fail us, as it has done in so many other areas. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chill chasers

I made these chill chasers for the dining room windows in our old house (this pic is of the new house, which is why they're a bit short for the window).  The old house had windows which were quite drafty in winter, especially along the base of the windows. The chill chasers are made with old socks and rags.  Take the foot off each sock and stitch the ends of several together so they make a tube of wool, then simply stuff the wool tube with old t-shirts or other fabric scraps destined for the thrift store or garbage.  They're really quite ingenious, and they work wonderfully.

I haven't lived in enough houses to really say what is and is not normal regarding draftiness; at the time we built our first house I figured it was normal to feel some air moving into the house from the base of each window and where the top window meets the bottom one at the latch.  But maybe it was not.

The problem is, drafty homes are not only physically uncomfortable in winter, they are also expensive to heat.  At our old house you could crank the central heating up to toasty 78 degrees and still catch a chill if you were sitting next to one of those aforementioned, metal-framed windows.  The dining room and living rooms never seemed warm enough. Yet it was a newer house, built in 2005, so I always figured those windows were about as state-of-the-art efficient as you could get.  They were double-paned, after all. So we lived with the drafts, and I designed these chill chasers to block some of the cold air which entered where the base of the window met the bottom of the frame.  One thing is for sure: today's newer homes have more windows than ever, so it's extremely important they seal up fairly tight.

When we moved to this house, I brought our chill chasers along, fully expecting to use them again in winter.  But, happily for us, these windows are different -- their frames and edges are made of vinyl, which seems to be about 100 percent more energy efficient in terms of sealing up properly when closed. Yet this house was also built in 2005, just like our old one, which just goes to show that it's quality of construction is everything....a new house is not necessarily an energy efficient one.  It all depends on how it was built, and maybe who built it as well.

I must say, it's nice to sit in our dining room and not feel a cold draft coming from the windows.  Makes   us a lot more likely to linger in there and enjoy a second glass of wine or some dessert.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Deep House

I got a lot of holiday shopping done yesterday, almost all of it in Downtown Paso Robles, which truly has something for everyone on your list.  Today the wind is absolutely howling and rain is on the way, so I'm in the depths of the house doing inside stuff.  It's a good day to be indoors.  While there are few remaining advantages to being a homemaker, I can say without a doubt that being able to schedule your errand days around the weather is one of them.  When it's sunny, I wash clothes, farm, and cook in our solar oven, and when it's like this I deep clean a bathroom or two and make a nice hot dinner when the men come home from work and school.

There are things to do every day of the year around here, but to be able to watch a storm blow in from the south and not have to worry about going out in it is a blessing indeed.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Long Awaited Harvest

I was finally able to harvest some lettuce yesterday and let me tell you, it felt great.  No more wilty, slimy lettuce from the supermarket for us!  The one thing that's truly disappointed me about this area is the crappy selection of organic produce for sale in the area markets.  It's obvious they're not top-selling items by the expiration dates on them; gallons of milk and containers of lettuce don't last long in the fridge, because by the time they get home they're already past their prime, which tells me no one is buying them.  Items are never sold out, either, unlike the Hanford supermarkets, where they would sell out of organic milk and other organic items on a more or less regular basis.

I wonder if people's ignorance or lack of concern about the food they eat over here comes from the fact that they haven't seen how it's grown over in the valley.  Maybe they've never driven past a Tulare dairy and seen the condition the cows live in, or had to speed up on a Lemoore country road to avoid getting crop-dusted with pesticides by an airplane or spray truck.

Either way, it's become even more important that we grow our own food here, and this delicious, crisp lettuce is a fantastic start to what I hope will be a super-productive home garden.

Monday, November 26, 2012

We've traced the problem, and it's coming from inside your house, ma'am

I've been having trouble sleeping recently.  Some of the cause is allergies and some is the heat.  Heat in November?  You bet.  My room may be a cool 65 degrees, but I sleep better in an even cooler room.  And realizing that, I've started opening the window at night and resting a box fan on the sill again, in order to keep more cool air coming in.  

Last night it was a brisk 32 degrees outdoors.  I am guessing it was somewhere in the 40's in my room.  Yet I slept like a baby.  At no time did I wake up thrashing and kicking all the blankets off while simultaneously breaking a sweat.  I was cool and happy all night long.

The other odd thing was the allergies, though.  I'd been plagued by waking up at 4 am with sneezing and a runny nose.  And I was afraid if I opened the windows, my symptoms would get worse.  Instead, it's quite the opposite....the open window seems to provide clean, moist air that I have no problems breathing, without sneezes or nose-blowing.

51 years after birth, my body is still a mystery to me.  I know it and its little foibles well, but it's workings -- the genesis of why it does what it does -- are still a mystery to me.

But like the best horror films, sometimes the source of the problems comes not from ourselves or some outside influence, from literally from something inside the house.  Literally.  My body appears better able to cope with the natural, outdoor ambient air quality and temperature in this area far better than the artificial temperature and air quality inside my home.  Go figure. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

I stand corrected

Sometime on this blog and in my column, I stated that I did not see a problem with keeping hens in the city, because they were so quiet.  This was before I made the acquaintance of Miss Red.
Miss Red is the equivilent of a rooster.  She fusses.  She attacks people.  Her beak draws blood.  She is also my best layer.  But the thing is, she is LOUD.  When she doesn't get her way (and "her way," unfortunately usually means someone is going away wounded, usually a human) she screeches like a banshee.  If we had neighbors close by, we'd already have been visited by the sheriff and Animal Control because a) they'd want to know she's OK, and b) we'd have noise complaints.

Most hens are quiet.  Not this one, however.  She's Hell dressed in red feathers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Off the Grid?

Today the propane truck pulled up and filled our reservoir tank, so we're at full capacity and ready for whatever may come in terms of cold weather.  Back when I lived in the suburbs, I used to imagine what life would be like "off the grid" and how nice it would be to have energy efficiency that would remain uninterrupted should the shit hit the fan and our nation's or just our area's power grid went down.

A great many people put a lot of time, energy and money into assuring they are self-sufficient in case of a disaster.  Any episode of "Doomsday Preppers" will bear that out. While I think it's a good thing for everyone to be prepared to survive independently for a few weeks in case of a disaster, I think people who fantasize they are independent enough to last longer than a few months are fooling themselves.

That's because some infrastructure is necessary, even for those who consider themselves "off the grid." We're off the grid in terms of propane for a few months, but eventually we would need a refill, and it would take a truck to bring it up here to where we are. If you have solar panels and battery storage, you're only independent until the day something breaks and you need a replacement part.  Because ee're on propane here, we will always have hot water, but in order to have heat we need the electric blower that runs the furnace.  We have a solar oven and it works great, but it's our second one -- our dog broke the glass cover on the first one, rendering it inoperable.  You can run things for a long time if you have, say, a generator, but eventually you will need to go out and find fuel to run it.  Almost no one is completely independent, and even those who are can only be that way as long as they are fairly young and manage to live the rugged life without sustaining any serious injury or illness.You get the point.  

I used to think it was possible for many of us to be independent for any "long emergency" that might come down the pike, but after living country life for a few months, I've become more of a realist.  If we can last a few weeks without infrastructure, I'll be happy and consider us a success in the prepping department.  Any more than that and we would need support.  Which probably goes for any of us.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A party and a toy story

We attended a cocktail party last night, where the wine flowed, the food was good and the company interesting.  It was actually a fund-raiser for the Toy Bank in the area, which donates toys to needy children during the holidays.

I've been impressed by the amount of charitable giving that occurs in this area during the holiday season so far, and we're just at the start of it.  Giving to others in need is one of the hallmarks of a sustainable society.  But it also needs order for it to work, the amount of needy people must be in a small enough minority that the majority can help ease them through their hard patch, whether they are there due to old age, unemployment, or whatever.  And it also requires people be ethical and honest about their need, in order to make sure the truly needy are served and taken care of.

Where we lived before there were more people in need than there were people to help them, as well as a high number of people who were probably not so much needy as lazy, but willing to take from the mouths of those truly in need in order to satisfy themselves.  Didn't work.  Truly needy people fell through the cracks and people who were NOT in need got served, while they stood around wearing gold jewelry, texting on smartphones and climbing into new trucks with chrome wheels and driving off with their free toys, or groceries, or whatever, probably laughing that they'd suckered the do-gooder types out of some nifty swag.  If those in need severely outnumber those who are not,  if donors too trusting, or if regular people too greedy, charitable giving doesn't fix anything.

Seeing that occur is enough to turn even the kindest soul into a Scrooge.  I don't delude myself into thinking that everyone in this area who takes a free Thanksgiving dinner or toys for their children needs them, but because the numbers are more manageable, it's easier to screen people to assess their neediness, and someone who clearly does not need it would stick out like a sore thumb, because there are less who would take advantage of the system.  Not sure why that is.  

Either way, when you truly know you're giving to someone who needs it, it makes giving much more pleasurable and makes you want to open your wallet that much more in order to help.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

What I do

All of these things are true, except that I'm a rural homesteader, not an urban one.  The other day, when I met the drunk in the ravine, she was dressed in fashionable slacks, a nice sweater, some killer sunglasses and a fair amount of bling.  I, on the other hand, was dressed in flannel-lined overalls, an old t-shirt, and I don't think I'd combed my hair, much less put on any make-up that particular day.  I'm sure I looked like somebody's inbred country cousin.  She was probably figuring she'd be hearing banjo music any moment. 

As far as today goes, I keep dodging in and out of the house as little breaks in the rain happen to install drip lines on the cottonwood trees I planted last week.  It's just not home unless there's the lovely strand of cottonwood trees somewhere on your property, in my opinion.  These trees are the grand-trees of some I planted in the first home I owned (I pulled striplings off those, which grew into trees at our new house, then pulled striplings off them before we moved last spring, which I'm hoping will grow here).  To say I'm sentimental about them is an understatement.  I'm hoping with regular water and a few months of winter dormancy they will roar to life in spring and start growing.

And THAT is what I do.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The drunk in the ravine

I was outside cutting some roses at about 3 pm yesterday when I heard the sound of an engine racing, followed by some scraping, bumping sounds.  I looked across the yard just in time to see a Toyota Prius flying across our neighbors' yard and then bumping down an undeveloped easement between our property and theirs.  At first I thought it was teenagers, testing the limits of their car to see if they could make it to the bottom of the hollow and back up the other side, and my second thought was that this was a Prius, and that no one in their right mind would do that.

Once the car came to a stop at the bottom of the hollow, I ran over to make sure no one had been seriously injured.  A lone driver, a woman about my age, got out of the car and introduced herself.  She was completely unflustered, which flustered me, but she was unhurt and said she was just going to call her husband if she was unable to drive back out the way she'd  careened in.  She attempted to turn the car around (that's when I snapped this pic) but without 4WD could not do much more than spin her wheels in the dirt and brush.

So while she waited for her husband, we stood around and chatted, and that was when I smelled the alcohol on her breath.  She explained she'd been at a canasta party at the Newcomer's Club, which was being hosted by a resident up the street, and had not been paying attention when she missed the turn and went off-road down the canyon.  

And it was here I faced my dilemma of whether to let her and her husband solve the problem or involve the CHP.  Eventually I opted to call CHP and let them take down an accident report, in case our neighbors' property had been damaged in any way.  I also did not like the thought of them successfully getting her car back on the road and her driving home, as she lived about 30 miles away and had, after all, been drinking.  I figured the CHP could better ascertain her sobriety than I could.

Living in wine country, we see buzzed driving all the time, although not usually in our specific neighborhood.  There's no question that wine tasting is to this area what slot machines are to Vegas -- a ubiquitous, regular part of life.  And I can imagine how tempting it would be to attend an afternoon event and, without a designated driver in tow, give in to the temptation to kick back and have a couple of glasses of vino.

But a few minutes after I called the CHP (and was feeling guilty about it) a young mother and her two kids walked up the road to see what was happening.  It turned out her 10 year-old son had been just off the street when the woman blew by him, and said she was traveling at a high rate of speed. And I realized that this boy would have been in danger had he actually been in the street, instead of off to the side of the road.  And then I felt less guilty about calling the incident in.  

Because whether you are a resident or a tourist, and whether you fit a profile of what we normally think of as a buzzed driver, if you hit the road after any significant amount of wine tasting, you're breaking the law and endangering your friends and neighbors.  And if you're serving up that wine tasting, even if it's in the comfort of your home, you still have a responsibility to not allow buzzed people to hit the road after your little soiree.

There will thankfully be no permanent grief caused by this little incident; no one was injured (except the Prius, which got towed away) and in time the tire tracks and scrape marks down the hill will grow over.  But it was a powerful lesson for our household that the designated driver rule is always a good one, whether you're 21 or 51, especially here in wine country, where the good reds flow and you can't throw a rock without hitting a wine tasting party of some sort or other. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Too funny not to share

This is, quite simply, one of the funniest videos on farming I've ever seen.  


Tonight I have a full belly and am sitting in a warm house.  I will take a hot bath later on and then go to sleep in a soft bed.  

These are all things which are far too easy to take for granted.  And, as the season of Thanksgiving approaches, I want to remember to feel grateful for all of them.  They are simple, they are relatively inexpensive, and yet they mean so much.

Monday, November 12, 2012

So Excited!

About a week ago I left a voicemail with a local nature conservancy, offering to become a volunteer.  This afternoon they called me back, and I was thrilled to speak to the woman in the office, and excited to hear about the many opportunities they have for those who want to help.

This conservancy covers an area where I spent many happy hours over the last 20 years.  Sometimes, it was just a day trip, and other times, I'd come for longer.  I walked the ocean bluffs with my son and my mother, and later on,with my new husband and stepkids.  Over the years, we've brought friends along and shown them the magic of the place.  Being there has always provided me joy, solace, peace, hope and comfort, and the idea of giving something back to it, helping keep it great and even make it better, makes me so happy.

On Saturday I will go and help scatter native grass seeds in areas where it is sparse.  And I will see what else lies in store for me as I get more involved.  The one thing I know is that it is important to BE involved.  As I was brought out of the place we lived into this paradise, I realize how important it is to give back, as a way of saying thanks to God and as a way of keeping it beautiful and vital for generations to come.

You can throw money at causes like this, and that is, of course, appropriate, because some preservation can only happen when dollars get spent. But if you have the time, it's also important to give that as well.  For years I had young children at home and couldn't  commit to much, due to their needs and schedules, but at this point in my life, I can.  As much as it makes me sad sometimes that my kids have grown and gone on with their lives, knowing I can still contribute something important for the greater good makes me happy.

Today, I am thankful for being able to do that.  And I'm excited about Saturday.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Lemon state of mind

Sometimes I wonder how many negative experiences we draw to us due to our own negative mindset.  Last night I was a little ticked at my husband because he decided to go to a work dinner at the last minute and didn't make sure I knew about it.  This morning the auger stuck on our new pellet stove.  This pellet stove has had issues.  One time the mode light blinked for no reason (I unplugged it, then plugged it back in and it went away), another time it burned so hot the smoke detectors came on, and now it's blinking a code that tells me the auger is not feeding pellets into the stove.  Obviously, I'm going to report whats going on to the guy who sold it to us, but I am going to try and un-stick the auger myself before I talk to him.  It's going to be well below freezing this weekend and I'd like some heat that doesn't come from the expensive, propane-burning furnace.

Did we get a lemon of a pellet stove, or is life just handing out a few lemons in general to see if I make lemonade, or just put on my scrunchy sour face and pass on the sourness?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Chop wood, carry water.

The days when I come in the house mid-afternoon, hot and sweaty from working outside, and feel desperately ready for a warm shower are the best ones.   These days my time is spent between reading an incredible book on Kabbalah and performing chores and manual labor around the house.  It's all about balance, isn't it?  Feed your spirit, feed your body.  Become enlightened, think about it while you muck out the chicken coop.  I believe this is the natural balance of things, and that if the whole world ran like this it would be a better place.

Perhaps that was the idea behind the Kibbutz -- the farms in Israel so many of my friends sojourned to work on in the '70's and '80's.  Most went to make a pilgrimage to their ancestral lands and practice their Hebrew. But for many of them, their time working the land in The Holy Land was disappointing, because it was a mostly secular task.  Or nationalistic.  One friend was handed an Uzi on his first day in the field and told how to shoot in the direction of the hills where grenades were regularly launched from.  One has to defend oneself, it's true, but if its spiritual growth you're seeking, shooting at people probably doesn't help advance your understanding much.

But up here on our little hill, I can read the words of the sage rabbis and then go outside and prune a fruit tree or muck some chicken poop while I think about it.  It's a good way to really absorb what you're reading, and think about how it applies to your own life.

The buddhists have a phrase which sums it up nicely:  Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

That says it perfectly.

Monday, October 29, 2012

When it all comes unraveled

We've got 85 degree temps on tap for this afternoon, and it should be temperate for the rest of this week, but that's just the story here on the west coast.  On the east coast, Hurricane Sandy is getting ready to bear down on several states, disrupting services and forcing people to put their emergency plans into effect and find out how well prepared to be independent and off-the-grid they really are.

In a way, I'm envious of their disasters, because west coast disasters tend to be caused by earthquakes and we don't get much notice for them.  Actually we get none, so there's no flying out to Home Depot in a panic to stock up on batteries and bottled water. It can all come unraveled at once. We've had two moderate quakes since we moved into this house, but neither was large enough that emergency plans went into effect.  That's good, because as of right now, we don't have any.  Oh of course, we have earthquake insurance (buying that was  a given when we moved here) but as far as storing water, food, medical supplies and a "bug out bag" in case we need to evacuate, we haven't done anything.

This is not to say we won't do it.  Now that the bulk of our"settling in" chores have been accomplished, I know it's important to put together 1) a bag of goods that could keep me going in my car, should I get stuck someplace, unable to get home.  2) enough supplies in the house itself to keep our family going for a couple of weeks, should "the big one" hit.  

When we moved to this house, one of the things that happened was that our food storage system got out of whack.  We went from having a large pantry to store food to having NO pantry to store food, which has been problematic.  Of course we did the logical thing and downsized what food we keep around here, but let's face it:  should a major earthquake strike and at least one of us is at home, a healthy supply of canned and packaged goods would be a blessing, and would make life a lot more comfortable.  So now that we're moved and have some extra storage space allocated, a good supply of canned goods as well as some dry goods (like dry rice, wheat and beans) would probably be a good idea.  We have a solar oven, so can boil water and cook every day without any power whatsoever, if we'd like.  But if we want heat inside the house, we will also need a generator we can run at least a couple of hours a day.  That's more expensive, so we may get it down the road a bit.  The food I can take care of this week and be ready.  If we needed to, we could all sleep in the same room in order to stay warm.  But food and water are non-negotiables.

So in any disaster (including one that's not your own, like Hurricane Sandy is to us west coasters) can provide the occasion to audit your own emergency preparedness and see what's lacking. You can bet when I hit the store on Friday I will be buying some goods which will be put aside for emergencies and rotated regularly, just so they're there in case we need them.  Those tall bookcases and amoire will get bolted to the wall sooner rather than later, too.

Because while people who live in hurricane zones know what to expect and get some notice its coming, those of us in earthquake country do not. Any moment, any moment at all, could be the time that all those preparations become necessary not only for comfort, but actual survival.