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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Cutting the Cord

So the basic idea behind homesteading is to turn one's home from a zone of consumption into a zone of production to whatever extent you're comfortable doing it, relying on "grid" technologies as little as possible. You make what you can from scratch, you don't buy what you either don't really want or don't really need. There's varying levels of sacrifice and denial of techno-pleasures on the scale, but everyone gets to set their own personal levels and limits, which I like.

I don't know anyone who lives entirely on what they create and grow on their land, but the beautiful thing about the movement is that there are no requirements on how much you do or do not do. We did a lot while the kids were growing up, but now that we're empty-nesters, I fully admit to the fact that we indulge ourselves a little bit more (not many homesteaders will admit to buying a Roomba, for example). 

The point of the movement is that if everyone did just a bit -- grew some food, raised a few chickens, used three ingredients to make something at home that the Industrial Gods would use 25 for in the same item in the freezer section of the supermarket -- everyone would be helping to be part of the solution, instead of blindly and unconsciously spending, buying and putting God-knows-what into our bodies and our homes.

In that spirit, Big Ag and I are discussing cutting the cord. After four years with satellite television (Cable is not available in our rural location), we are thinking of getting rid of it. We're also looking into cutting the cord to our landline and the DSL internet it's attached to, and going with a satellite company for that, because with faster internet, we can stream cable shows online.

The reasons are financial, although they are more on principle rather than based on need. We can afford DirectTV and ATT without any problem. But why give these companies $120 (each!) a month if we don't need to?

Anyway, it's early on. We'll need to look into getting a good antenna, a DVR to record shows we're not here to watch, and of course a new way of getting our internet. But I'm always in favor of something that gives us a little more independence, and free Antenna TV certainly provides us that.

One thing I find myself wondering in the back of my head though is whether or not these steeper fees are in place for house phones and cable/dish-based TV because older people (like myself) are sometimes not as comfortable utilizing new technologies? Is there an age-related price gouging going on? (as in, "the old folks don't know how to do it more cheaply, so we'll use that to our advantage.")

Not sure how true it is for the general population, but the one thing you can say about homesteaders is this: Crank up an expense too much on us, and we will find an alternative, just because it goes against our grain to fork over money blindly. 

There's no age limit on ingenuity and stubbornness, which for homesteaders are their most defining and useful character traits. So sign me a homesteader -- with a Roomba yes, -- but still a homesteader at heart. Cutting the cord soon.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Something old, something new

So things are proceeding at a nice pace here at the homestead. After a much-too-busy May and June, the July schedule is pretty open, and it's giving me a chance to think about a few projects.


My adirondack chair project is still in the garage, unfinished. It hit a snag when I discovered that whatever was underneath the teal paint you see is some kind of mega-waterproofing Kilz-type product that will not respond to even the strongest stripper. Basically it liquifies and cannot be completely removed.  So now I will just take off whatever paint I can, see if Big Ag can find a way to stabilize the chairs by adding additional screws. We can't get the old ones out because they are also completely filled in with the aforementioned White Goo of Death, whatever it is. (Fun Fact: "White Goo of Death" is actually also the Secret Service's code name for Donald Trump). Anyway, the plan with the chairs now is to sand off what I can and then re-paint them a color to match the other stuff in the yard. 

So not a total fail, but not really a success either. But for $15 a chair, I can't really complain. Oh wait, yes I can. I can always complain.

Meet Adele.

So what's new, as the saying goes? Well, I bought a Roomba. In light of my hip recent surgery and the fact that I'm about to turn 55, I decided to grant myself a back saver and hire a robot to do my floor cleaning. The cost of a mid-range Roomba is about the same as having our old housekeeper come two and half times, so it's basically already paid for itself and unlike the housekeeper, Roomba cleans every day of the week and does not check her cell phone and listen to annoying radio stations while she does it. 

So have you ever owned a Roomba? It's amazing. It gets under furniture, cleans corners well, picks up cat litter and fur, and generally keeps my home looking like it's just been vacuumed, all while I am doing other things, like yelling at the Adirondack chairs in the garage. My Roomba, by the way, is named Adele. And I love her.

in black.

So as most of you know, the trick to catching great thrift store finds is to shop out of season, and with that in mind I went looking for some dress jackets at the local Goodwill the other day. I have barn coats aplenty -- ones that actually get filthy from doing field and barn-type work -- but no coats I could wear for an evening out. First World Problem, obviously. But still a problem. So I got one plain black suit jacket to go with jeans (above), another quilted coat with a faux-fur hood (above also), and this baby right here.


I think it would look great with some pencil-leg black pants and heels, don't you? Very European, very metallic. I love it. It just needs the sleeves shortened and a new set of buttons for a matching  hood that was safety pinned onto it and it's all set to go. I'm thinking New Year's Eve? Got to begin planning these things early.

And so it goes, something old and something new. Between the two I manage to keep myself on a budget. Kind of.