Wednesday, July 21, 2021

That time of year


Heat Dome.

I like summer, but can honestly say it's not my FAVORITE time of year, unlike many Oregonians. This is because 1) I don't always appreciate the heat, even if it's just for a brief time, and 2) I adore autumn, so that's in my number one slot. But summer is my busiest time of year, for sure. We're out working on the property first thing in the morning, and back at again in the evening, until the sun sets at about 9 pm.

This is the third summer for my garden at this address, so it's the year when perennial plants really hit full steam, like when your kids turn 18 and seem to grow more lovely or handsome every day. This year it's the olallieberries that have really hit their stride. I grew these plants back in Paso Robles and I thought they did well there, getting a bit bigger than when I planted them and producing enough berries that I was able to sell a few pounds to the winery where I worked over a seven year period. What did I know? Bupkis, as my grandmother would say. My Olallieberry plants here in Oregon are three times the size of my plants in CA, and they are half their age. I have HUGE berries (larger than my thumb) here, too. By the time they're as old as my plants in Paso we'll be getting lost inside the tangle of vines and calling 911 for help to come get us out.

So, a little history: Olallieberries were created right here in this part of Oregon in the 1950's, hybridized as a cross between the Blackberry and the Youngberry. After field testing them here, they were sold mostly to growers in CA, as they didn't produce well in the cool Oregon summers. But with climate change, the Willamette Valley has become an ideal place for these guys. So I guess there's an upside to everything. During the recent "heat dome" event my Oregon Marionberries wilted and died back to the ground, killing all their fruit in the process. The Olallieberries basically chuckled, shrugged their shoulders and stayed green and productive, with no plant stress at all -- even at 117 degrees. 

Wine + vodka + berries + sugar = delicious!

But what to do with all the berries? For us, they went into jam first, and then into an alcoholic berry cordial called Cremé de Mure. I made enough to give as gifts, and enough to get us through the cold winter nights coming. Cremé du Mure by the fire, anyone? Or over ice cream? Such possibilities!

I also am getting an over-abundance of cucumbers, which I'm turning into relish and these cucumber ice cubes, to add a little cucumber flavor into cocktails and mineral water throughout the year. Pop these into a cocktail at Christmastime and it will be like a little bit of July in a glass.

But as with most over-productive years, there's a dark side to nature's abundance, too. We've been over-run by gophers and voles like never before, although the raised beds and berries are all protected with underground wire, a trick I learned in CA to keep the ground squirrels out. But the holes these critters make can injure lots of animals who step in them, like my son's dogs, one of whom pulled a muscle after tripping on a hole while running back there. For a deer, horse or other hoofed animal, an injury like this can be fatal. And for us, it could mean a trip to the emergency room and a cast for six weeks.

But trapping is my least favorite activity on our little farm. It's obviously cruel to the animal (yet ironically, also more environmentally responsible than poison, which can cross species if a poisoned carcass is eaten). It's emotionally painful to anyone who has a heart, and it also has its own set of risks. After whacking my thumb last week on the lever of a rather large vole trap, I asked Big Ag to take a more active role in this task. And by "asked" I mean yelled, sniveled, and threw a temper tantrum with all nine of my working fingers, which he was quite forgiving about. I guess the first part about having a good farm is having a good marriage.

And so here we are in high summer. I'd guess we've got about a couple more months to go and then the rain will start back up and the garden will die down. But for now I'm going enjoy our abundance of vegetables and fruit and savor it all. Hope you are doing the same with your summer.


Friday, June 25, 2021

Is life just too hard now?

 So in my former career as a newspaper columnist, it was more or less my job to  ponder The Big Things -- you know, the things that people think about at three o'clock in the morning, or when they watch the evening news, or when they're sharing a bottle of wine with friends and modern issues come up. That stuff was my bread and butter.

Probably what makes me different than the Average Jane or Joe is that the journalist in me is always on the lookout for something that connects seemingly random stories together. You have to be careful with this, because it can lead you down conspiracy rabbit holes if you're not careful. But sometimes,   a + b +c = d does in fact work. Other times, not so much. 

What I've been thinking about recently are things like the homeless crisis, mass shootings, people becoming more extremist in their political views and opinions, and the Trump Presidency. So what's my over-arching theory on why all these things are connected? It's this: Life has gotten too difficult now, on some level. And everything I listed above, whether triggered by rage, frustration, or a nostalgic longing for an America that no longer exists, is how people are dealing with it. 

While there's no question we live in a time where certain things have never been more convenient, we are more disconnected from society than ever in other ways. Sure, online banking is fast and convenient...until you have an issue which requires you speak to a live customer service representative, in which case you will need to mow through layers of computerized voice technology before you can find a true, live human voice to speak with. 

As for our phones and computers, there is no question how many more things we are able to keep track of now, whether it's our kids' whereabouts, the current location of a package we ordered, or whether or not we paid the electric bill last month.

But take away those devices, just for a few days, and we're no longer able to function in the world. This naturally leaves us feeling vulnerable and even anxious -- our entire lives are maintained by machines now, with breakable parts and limited lifespans.

I'm sure many of us have seen someone have a meltdown over a dropped phone, and we all get it. Because a phone is SO much more than a phone now. It's your life in there. 

Let's face it, ours is the first generation that has not had other live humans as their first line of defense to help us out during difficult times. We have machines. Heck, if you call your pastor in on a crisis nowadays you'll probably have to go through his voicemail first. That's just the way it is.

Look at our parents' lives as an example of how much simpler it used to be: They paid their rent or mortgage and the gas/water/electric bill all by US mail or in person, and shopped for groceries at the local grocery store. They didn't pay for cable, because it didn't exist, and regular TV was free. Not everyone had a car, often a couple of limited means shared one and just lived close enough to conveniences that it didn't matter. Married couples could generally get by on one income. Medical bills didn't bankrupt anyone because insurance was better AND both hospitals and medical insurance companies operated as non-profit entities, generally run by religious denominations. 

Life may have been more limited in some ways, sure. But it was simpler. Much simpler. 

I think a lot of Donald Trump's win in 2016 and the fact that about 65 million Americans voted for him again in 2020 is tied into just that. Trump personified the values of 1960's America, and that appealed (and still appeals) to a lot of people troubled by life today. (never mind the issues faced by minorities and women in the 60's, nostalgia generally focuses on the best of an era, not its issues).

I think some homelessness may be tied to the same root problem. At a certain point, life became too hard for many of these people, and they opted for the simpler life of tent dwelling rather than trying to deal with the complexities of 21st century America. Because, contrary to what many think, your average homeless encampment is filled with more than just the drug addicts and mentally ill. There are many people, not unlike ourselves, now choosing to remain houseless, car-less, bill-less, and tax-less. They have less comfort, but more peace. And we need to ask that is possible?

As for the mass shootings, I can tell you this, shared with me by a zoologist friend. When you cage up a few primates in a zoo enclosure, they generally establish a pecking order fairly quickly and do very well together for as long as the group remains stable. But if you keep adding additional primates to a point where the enclosure becomes overcrowded, behavior changes. Eventually a significant portion of the members (mostly males) will begin waging war on the others, often in explosive anger. They're still being fed, and they still have shelter. They are just over-stimulated. They're not picky when they choose their victims, but usually choose other members of the group too old, small, or vulnerable to fight back. And they will kill if allowed to do so, as their way of coping with the stress of their situation. Sound familiar?

Perhaps we just have too many monkeys in this cage, and we're asking too much of them -- us. Would a life that is simpler, with more personal contact, make a difference in our society? Would less technology and more person-to-person interaction help relieve some frustration and anger? I don't know, but I do know that these shootings were almost non-existent 50 years ago, and I think we need to ask ourselves why. 

We also need to ask ourselves whether the conveniences a contactless life outweigh the disadvantages, especially after this pandemic. It's a discussion we need to have. But more than you and I, it needs to be discussed as a society, so we can see if there's a way to re-engage with our neighbors and those we do business with in real life,  rather than via message boards, phone menu systems, and text alerts. 

Our sociological survival may depend on us listening and speaking to each other -- as we've done for eons -- in person, live and in real time.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Freshly Washed

So here we are smack in the middle of 2021, the unofficial start to the Roading 20's -- 21st Century Edition. I don't know about you, but for me 2021 just feels...more, somehow. Like the world has been freshly-washed and hung out in the sunshine. All the good things seem magnified. Lunches, graduations, shopping trips and vacations feel more joyful than I remember them. Strolling around outside feels even better than I remember it did in 2019 and 2020. 

Perhaps taking a year off from normal life reset some kind of magic button and we're realizing the joy in things we once took for granted, or even resented, Exhibit A being close proximity to our fellow man. Or maybe it's finally casting off the fear of sickness and death now that we're all (mostly) vaccinated. This all being the case, this summer should be one for the books.

I took my first post-pandemic trip a couple weeks ago, from Oregon to California. Even the airplane ride was nicer than I remember; flight attendants noticeably less bitter and resentful, in-flight pretzels that seemed fresher and crunchier. Is that even possible? We flew direct from Portland to Santa Barbara, and I have to admit I felt a wave of joy wash through me when I stepped out that quaint little Spanish tiled air terminal and smelled that warm and windy air again. And bonus points to you, California, for not being on fire at the time. 

We spent a couple of days in Santa Barbara, a place where I spent a good deal of my weekends back when I lived in Los Angeles, and what amazed me was how little it changed -- well, the waterfront and beach, anyway.  I know the city has grown, but it's still quiet at the beach on weekdays, and still a magnet for the most physically fit and beautiful Californians who dwell among us, the water just as warm and the temperatures just as lovely. 

After a couple of days there we headed north to Paso Robles, where we spent the next five days reconnecting with old friends, enjoying the sunshine, and visiting all our old haunts. We ended in Cambria almost as much as Paso Robles, just because, well, Cambria is always a fun place to visit, and the hiking around that area can't be beat.

Paso Robles has changed a lot since we left, and not necessarily for the better, but we did get to enjoy some ziplining in Santa Margarita and the Sensorio light show outside Paso. Downtown Paso is a bit worse for the wear, and so many old stores have been replaced with bougie piano bars, expensive rustic-looking restaurants and boutiques I couldn't even count them all. 

In a way, seeing all that gave me some closure with leaving, because sometime in the three years since I'd been gone I think I'd idealized it a bit, and seeing the reality of it reminded me that while 2012 Paso Robles WAS a town I loved living in, 2021 Paso is not. There's just too many inconveniences that come from living in a "wine country destination," so I'm happy we got out when we did. But it has become a true tourist destination now, which is probably great for the local economy.

Safe to say, we've just begun our traveling now that it's safe to move about the country. Our next excursion is heading to Walla Walla, WA for some touring around and wine tasting. It will be interesting to see how it compares to Paso Robles in terms of pricing and accommodations. But with our mid-week airfare to Santa Barbara just $89 bucks each way, I'm thinking my old escape destination of SB may live again as my new one. I could certainly see sticking my toes in the sand and warm water some mid-February morning and forgetting all the clouds and rain of the Willamette Valley. 

So stay tuned. Like many of you, I think we're going to have a fantastic 2021, doing all the old things but maybe in a new, and more appreciative way. 

Took the train back...beautiful scenery!

Friday, April 9, 2021


 I love the way the English language sometimes creates a link between two things that make sense...the word "season" being one of them. I think seasons are to the planet what seasonings are to food. You know, the way thyme, oregano, and parsley turn plain spaghetti sauce into your grandmother's secret recipe? That's what seasons do, here on earth. Your backyard becomes more than your backyard at the first sign of color, whether it's the pastels of spring, the rich greens of summer or the warm amber tones of autumn.

As far as planetary seasonings go, spring is one of my favorites. In this area, after a winter full of gray, it's nice to see these kind of outrageous pops of color everywhere. I don't know if it was pioneers planting along the old wagon trails and homesteads (that's the rumor among the locals), or ODOT, or guerrilla gardeners did it, but the medians of the highways, the fields, and dirt curbs are all exploding right now with bright yellow daffodils, scattered about here, there and everywhere, all blooming right now. 

It makes even the most mundane drive up Interstate 5 pleasant, especially when you throw in the blossoms from all the trees which adorn the sides of the roadways as well. The seasonings of the season indeed.

There's something innately hopeful about planting daffodils by the side of the road -- or planting anything, really --  trees, vegetables, or even the act of having kids. It's betting on the future; something that certainly isn't easy in these times of ours but probably has never been a 100 percent guaranteed success at any point in history, really.

 Planting is an act which says, "I believe there will be a future good enough for this plant to survive." Having kids is the same. I have no idea what kind of mindset or lives the babies being born today will have. But the fact that they exist says that, yes, there is still hope in the world. Hope for daffodils and hope that someone will be around to see them. I like that. 

We've added our own dash to hope to the mix recently, in planting a collection of mature trees in our property: five new sunset maples, five pines, two white birches, four dwarf Japanese maples, and a Kelly's Gold Maple out front, to replace the one that died in the ice storm in February. These trees were professionally rescued from a neighborhood vineyard using a giant tree spade. It was sad that wine grape expansion on the property meant they had to go. But the vineyard's loss is our gain. 

I'm not sure they'll all make it, or what their long term prognosis will look like, as it's early on and they must survive this summer, which may be difficult for a newly transplanted 15 year-old tree. If they do well they will likely outlive me, which is nice to know. They will require a HUGE amount of watering this summer due to their size of their rootballs (we needed a tractor with a backhoe to plant them) but like any other future-based activity, it's a prospect full of hopes, dreams and maybe just a little insanity.

Someday I hope to sit in their shade with a cool glass of something alcoholic at the end of a nice day and listen to their leaves in the wind. Will they make it? We don't know right now, but like all planting projects at their start, we're optimistic and a little dreamy about it. It was the same with our kids, and look how well that turned out. Sometimes optimism proves true, so let's hope it's the same here. 

Like anything in life, whether it's planting trees, a garden, or a family, it's the act of starting something new that creates the seasoning in our own lives -- a little kick of spice or a surprise burst of flavor which makes the mundane new again. The hillsides by the highway look sweet and inviting, and our back pasture beckons with the promise of future shade. That's how things look today, anyway. I'll take it. 

And so to all of you, may your spring be colorful, your food flavorful and your garden plentiful! Happy spring. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Weighting... One Year On

 Oregon locked down exactly one year ago today. We had plans to go to a spacious venue to see an Irish band that night as I remember, but of course that never happened, along with a myriad of other things -- weddings, graduations....funerals.

All along, we knew the world would still be there once we turned a corner and vaccinations were available, so the trick became to avoid the virus for as long as possible. And we did. Perhaps you did, too.

The actual day of lockdown, we took a long hike up to an area known as "God's Thumb" on the coast. We had no idea the state and federal park systems would also shut down for several months and hiking would not be on the table as an activity after that day, so I'm very glad we went when we did. 

And now, it's time to get back out there. I have a list of six wonderful hikes on my to-do list. Except I'm not sure I would be able to make it up a mountain today; certainly not God's Thumb. Because as it turns out, after having 12 months in lockdown, I've discovered I quite enjoy sitting on my ass and doing nothing. And now I have the ass to prove it. 

And so, that has to change now, so that I can get back out into the world in roughly the same shape and size I was when I left it.

I've gained seven pounds during the pandemic; enough that I can feel the additional weight through my midsection and behind, but thankfully not enough that my clothes don't fit anymore. But if Our Pandemic Year was about limitedness, Our Recovery Year needs to be about making up for lost time. More gatherings with friends. More travel. And more hiking for heaven's sake!

And so I'm embarking on that most dreaded of things -- a diet. Even though I'd promised myself I would never be an old lady on a diet, I'm going to make an exception in light of this extraordinary year, and try and get back not only to the weight that was on the scale in March 2020, but also my STAMINA. And not for watching Netflix. For hiking mountains.

I'm NOT going to be posting a lot of boring diet updates (you're welcome), but in writing it here I'm hoping to hold myself accountable to Summer 2021 in some way; to say, "I'll meet you on the mountain," and be able to make it up there without needing a call from the paramedics or to be flung to the wayside, sitting under a shady tree while everyone else scrambles on to the top.

I will admit that during this rough year I comforted myself with too much food and too many cocktails. Epic cocktails, true. I don't blame myself for this, instead, I give myself credit for playing by the rules, keeping distance and at first, disinfecting everything that came into our house, including us. Our discipline may have saved us.

But the time has come to begin planning on emerging from that, and I've decided that in order to walk through that door back into Life As We Knew It, you must first actually fit through the door. Bah Bump Bump. A little diet humor for you there.

So here I go. Without blame or shame, just wanting to get up that mountain again. Happy Diet Season to everyone who needs or wants it!

Friday, February 26, 2021

Off the grid: The 2021 Ice Storm

I'm sure you've all been hearing about the terrible power outages in Texas, which have left millions without water or power. Less reported on was the ice storm that hit the Willamette Valley here in Oregon at about the same time, which has left several dead, hundreds of thousands without power/water, and many homes destroyed or damaged. 

And just like all the history that's happened over the last year, we were front and center stage for it. I'm happy to report that after six days with no power and water, and 13 with no internet service, we are finally back online, both literally and metaphorically. Clothes and bodies are washed properly, dishes are sanitized, and online business can again be done.

Deadly beauty.

The ice storm started on February 12. We were expecting snow, but instead, sleet began falling that morning, and by 10 a.m., our power was out. Sleet is strange stuff, not rain, but not snow. It's like hail, but not really. Over the day it continued, and through the night as well.

We pride ourselves on being prepared, but we were totally under-prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. The first day wasn't too bad; we used our generator, discovered our gas fireplace has a battery back-up built in for ignition, and used a good portion of the water we'd put aside for not only drinking, but also flushing toilets, washing ourselves (fill a pot and take it into the bathtub with you) and doing dishes. We never dreamed the power would be out for so long, but in hindsight, we should have been more prepared in case it was.

One of our two generators.

That night we stood outside as the sleet continued to fall and the ice build. We heard something that sounded like firecrackers about every 30 seconds or so, some extremely loud, others not so much. It was the sound of tree limbs of all sizes splitting under the weight of the ice and then crashing to the ground, all over the neighborhood and forest that surrounds us. It was eerie, fascinating and absolutely heartbreaking, all at the same time.

Dramatic death.

The next morning (Valentine's Day), we went outside to inspect the damage. Our favorite tree in our front yard, a Box Elder with amazing fall colors, had not survived -- it split three ways down the center, a dramatic death if ever I've seen one. Other trees had large limbs on the ground or were bent over, weighed down with ice, but had survived. It was stunning, but it was deadly. So we spent most of Valentine's Day cleaning up the property, and going out to find more gas for the generator and more drinking water. We had already resorted to making a camp latrine for our other business, to save on water. We were now at Day Three

Camp Latrine: Where what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. Like life.

This went on for the next few days. We hooked up our old antenna to the television, which in turn was hooked up to the generator. Watching the news, we discovered that a half-million people  in Oregon had lost power (some of whom have still not been restored). on Day Four we finally took advantage all of the rain (the sleet stopped after Day Two) to begin harvesting rainwater off our shop roof into some waiting ice chests. We were able to flush toilets again at that point, and boil it for all other uses, too. I've never been so thankful to live somewhere with abundant rain.

MacGyver'ed water catchment system!

Fallen tree in the orchard.

On Day Six the lights came on! The heater fired up, everything with outage alarms began beeping, and we almost wept with joy. The house went from a brisk 59 degrees to a toasty 68 within a few hours. We still didn't have any internet, but did have our phones, so just continued burning our data allotment until internet was finally restored yesterday. 

Our lovely Deodar cedar suffered some damage...

as did our arbor vitae trees. 

We've learned a lot through this. First is that you can never have enough water put up. We were on a well, so with no power we had no water, but many, many thousands of residents in city limits had no water either, as the generators which run the municipal water systems could not keep up with demand using only generator power. At that point, finding water in the store was like finding gold. We'll be putting in a special surge protector which will allow us to run our well off one of our generators, and will also be purchasing two 500 gallon storage tanks to keep rainwater on hand at all times. What if this had happened in summer? Water is literally life, which means water storage is mandatory.

We also learned what we did right: We had plenty of easy to prepare food put up. We had emergency flashlights, which charge in your wall until the power goes off and you need them (they also serve as emergency lights if it happens at night). We had the gas fireplace, which can run even when power is off, and we knew how to make water catchment systems and camp latrines. All that earthquake preparedness finally paid off in some ways. And in other ways, it was a very real dress rehearsal for The Big One, when they say you would be prepared to be on your own for a minimum of two weeks. We just did half that, and found some holes in our plans. But they won't be holes for long. 

I'm not sure why it is the fates determined Oregon needed to live through a historic wildfire and a historic ice storm in the same year, but so be it. We're comforted by the fact that our normal lives are back and that spring is on the way.

We're also thankful that, as inconvenient as this ice storm was, our home was not damaged in any way, and we were put on notice to get better prepared for next time. 

Sometimes minor disasters are gifts in disguise, if you can learn from them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Snowgaritas and a shot

We had our first snowfall of the year today. There is always something magical about snow; growing up in Southern California, the most we ever saw was an occasional thick frost, white and crisp to the touch, but never anything actually falling from the sky. Generally by morning -- about the time the 405 would start backing up and the first celebrities would be showing up at their cosmetic sugeon's offices, it would all be melted anyway. 

In Los Angeles, better to dream of monster waves or mudslides, even earthquakes. Really, anything but snow. SoCal snow is as elusive as the pink unicorn. 

But since moving here to Oregon, the snow arrives every year, usually sometime after Christmas but before Easter. That's right, no white Christmases for us for some reason, but plenty of white President's Days or St. Paddy's Days. So I always keep my snow/winter decor up through at least February. And never take my duck boots out until after Christmas.

Because of my upbringing in sunny Los Angeles, I don't think I will ever be able to treat snow as an ordinary thing. As soon as the weather experts begin talking about it, I get excited. The snow we saw today did not disappoint; it started around lunchtime and went until 3 pm or so. At 4 pm we took a walk then came home, made some tacos and I gathered some fresh snow up to make some snowgaritas, which are like margaritas but using snow instead of blender ice. That's my own idea, but I don't understand why it's not a staple in places like Wisconsin, where an abundance of snow should make these as much a tradition as Taco Tuesdays. Why not?

Before this first snowfall, we were able to squeeze in one more trip to Silver Falls State Park after some particularly heavy rains, when we figured the falls would be at their peak. It did not disappoint. The lighting was just right.

I also, happily, am now halfway on the way to being fully vaccinated; I got my first dose of the Pfeizer vaccine last week. Words can't express the relief I feel to know I'm on my way to being a lot safer as I head back to work. Oregon is vaccinating its teachers first, and so since I'll be heading back to the classroom to help in the work of getting our students back to where they need to be in 2021, I was able to get my shot. No side effects other than a sore arm, and it will be great to work alongside students knowing it's safe to do so. I know we'll be masking and social distancing for awhile still, but this is a start towards getting life back to normal again. 

In the spirit of a happier 2021, I've also decided to bring my growing skills inside, finding two growing plants that seem literally impossible to kill. The first is a live moss bowl, filled with tiny ferns, lichen, and a few other mossy plants. And the second are air plants, which according to friends only need a once-weekly dunk in a jug of water for 10 minutes or so. So far, so good!

And "so far, so good," pretty much sums up my feelings about 2021 so far.