Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dear Victoria,

I've been reading your blog for two years now and have often found myself green with envy. The stuff you find at op shops (thrift stores, for us American readers) amazes me. What goes on in Australia that you have this endless stream of bounty? All those cross-stitched red mushrooms with white polka dots, the circa 1974 issues of Family Circle, the souvenir tea spoons, the ineffable jar hats?

Maybe I'd have better luck at thrift shops if I went more often--so much of thrifting victory has to do with serendipity, it seems. But all the good stuff seems to have been snatched up when I go to thrift shops. My thrift zen has never been all that good.

Until this weekend.

We were in the mountains, in a fairly remote, but still reasonably populated area. The boys were getting squirrelly, so I suggested a ride down the mountain. When we passed the Rainbow Thrift Shop in downtown Spruce Pine, I just had a feeling that what I needed was right inside. And when I saw two whole shelves devoted to chicken statuary, I knew I'd found thrift heaven.

Victoria, I have the greatest respect for your ability to find amazing op shop booty. I bow down to you. And yet ... if you can top a statuette of a rooster perched on a rock gazing at another rooster--in fact, a tiny version of himself--ensconced in a snow globe, well, I will permanently take off my hat to you.

How many hours could one spend pondering the philosophical and spiritual implications of Big Rooster gazing at himself in that tiny, snowy world? Does he even know that the tiny rooster is his spitting image? Do roosters have mirrors? Do they know what they look like? Is this narcissism at its extreme? Maybe the rooster is contemplating how long it would take to peck through the glass ball to free the little rooster inside. Maybe the snow globe is actually a crystal ball, in which Big Rooster is looking into his own future, in which he is much smaller and lives on a farm where it snows all the time.

I hope this rooster will serve as an inspiration to you and all my op-shopping friends. The Sublime is out there, slightly used with a tiny crack or two, and it only costs two dollars. Hunt it down, girls, hunt it down. It's what makes life worth living.

Your Friend,

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Quick Update

The furnace is still busted. Furnace Guy #2 came out this morning. He thinks it can be fixed (furnace guy #1 had his doubts and thought we should buy a new one--from him). However, he has to send a report and photographs to the insurance company. It will be Monday afternoon, maybe Tuesday, before we hear whether or not they'll pay for repairs. Then we'll have to get a repair guy in (maybe today's guy; I liked him--he didn't try to sell me anything) to come fix it, so really, it could be years before we have heat again.

Fortunately, it's getting warmer, and we've done pretty well so far by keeping a fire going in the fire place and running a space heater during the day. We're going up to the mountains tomorrow, where it will be rainy and gloomy, but where the rooms will be warm.

Overall it has been a weird, unheated week. It's disappointing when you've been led to believe spring is here (all those blue skies! all that sunshine! for three whole days!) and then realize it's not. I have felt the energy drain right out of me this week. Those gardening books I checked out from the library? I burned them for heat. Don't tell the librarian.

Two things have kept me going: 1) Lindt Dark Chocolate with Truffle Filling. Better than whiskey. 2) This podcast. This morning the Times ran an article about slow gardening and this guy in Mississippi who's its biggest advocate. Turns out, he podcasts. If you want to know why I love the American South, this podcast will tell all. I haven't heard anything this cool since listening to the weekly Society News report on the radio driving through Stamps, Arkansas, in 1983.

I shall return next week, warmer and a little more vigorous, one hopes. Until then, read some good books, eat some chocolate, and send pleasant thoughts my way. I can use whatever help I can get.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Black Tuesday

I was in a foul mood yesterday. Our heater isn't working, and our home insurance company most likely isn't going to pay for a new one because, according to their minions, the one we have now was improperly installed. A pre-existing condition, it would seem. Huh. Who would've guessed?

(Insert rantings here about the special circle in Hell reserved for all insurance companies and their minions.)

So, anyway. I was cold. I was working on a first draft of a novel, a terrible, horrible, demoralizing experience. And I had to go to the post office, to mail a package to Israel.

I have a bad habit of becoming enamored of plans I later regret. For some reason, in early March, I thought it would be fun to get involved in a $10 swap over at Ravelry, the knitting site. When I signed up, I said I'd be okay shipping overseas. I was feeling generous that day. I regret it now, of course.

After I signed up for the swap, I started checking out the postings for February's $10 swap, where people shared what they got, to get some idea of what was expected of me. Here's what became wildly clear: People were spending more than $10. Oh, a few people were keeping to the $10 limit, but their packages looked skimpy--a skein of yarn, a bar of chocolate, a few stitch markers, a postcard. Which is about what ten bucks will buy you.

Well, I got my package put together, and yes, I spent more than $10, though not a ton more. Maybe like $13. I skipped the chocolate. I packed everything up. I went to the post office. I waited in line. It was a long line. There were two "associates" with open windows, though other postal employees mosied in and out, chatting and humming merry little tunes. At one of the windows, a tiny, meek-looking woman appeared to be shipping the contents of her household to Siberia. There were many, many forms to fill out. She seemed to confused. The "associate" seemed confused. Clearly, the task of shipping this woman's worldy possessions across the world was going to take all day, maybe the rest of the year.

Finally, I reached the other window. The "associate" was friendly, competent, and had a nice sense of humor. I didn't appreciate it one bit. I was in a foul mood. I didn't want coddling. He informed me it would cost my right arm to mail my swap package to Israel. I gave it to him. I asked how much it would cost to get a confirmation number for the package--something that the Swap Gods require. He said it would cost me my first born child. I said to heck with the Swap Gods and their confirmation number requirement. I filled out the customs form. I left, feeling empty and out of sorts. Of course, I'd arrived feeling empty and out of sorts, so I couldn't really complain. But I did. In my head. Maybe I was muttering under my breath. Who knows.

I stayed in a foul mood for the rest of the day, until it occurred to me I should pretend we were living off the grid and that's why the house was so cold. Yes, off the grid except for electricity, computers and a fully-functioning gas stove. Well, really, that's about as close to off the grid as I'm going to get--all appliances and conveniences minus one--so I ran with that idea, and it actually cheered me up.

The heating people can't come til tomorrow, so I have another day of off-the-grid living. And it's cloudy and cool today, chance of rain. Clearly, this calls for lots of chocolate and an overdose of "Tales from Avonlea." But I'll do what I have to do to stay sane. I can't go on like this much longer.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Unprocessed Life

As you may know, I'm a big fan of homemade living. Which doesn't mean I actually practice a made-from-scratch lifestyle. I just really like the idea of it. I'm a notional kinda gal.

But for my Lenten discipline, I've given up processed foods. This turns out to be easier said than done. Most bread at the grocery store--from bagels to pita to sliced bread to baguettes--is made with all sort of additives, even the in-house bakery stuff. So if you want additive-free bread, you have to make bread. This Lent I have made oat bread, wheat bread, white bread, pita bread and foccacia. All of it has been pretty simple, but if I don't plan ahead, I'm toast (a little bread humor there). And while it's simple, it can also be time-consuming, particularly the clean-up part, since I can't seem to bake without using at least three sets of measuring spoons and a wide variety of measuring cups (why don't they make a three-quarters cup, by the way?).

Making bread is only the beginning of my baking chores. Each week sees me rustling up blueberry muffins, zucchini bread and a wide range of cookies (okay, a narrow range of cookies--oatmeal, chocolate chip and ginger snaps). Not so much for me as for the boys, as I'm trying to keep my sugar intake to really good dark chocolate these days. Again, it's all easy, but it takes time. We've also been doing homemade pizza lately, to cut down on food bills, so there's more dough for you.

I've been reading a lot of books about food and nutrition, and one thing everyone emphasizes is cutting out the processed junk and sticking to whole foods. The good news is, eggs seem to be back in vogue. When you're not eating processed stuff, an egg can be your best friend. And since I finally learned how to scramble an egg from reading Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking, I'm addicted to them (the trick is not to overcook--who knew?).

I picked up a copy of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon after reading about it on Tracy's blog, and Fallon, like Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why, believes that red meat is not the bogeyman (bogeyfood?) we've been led to believe it is, at least not when it's been raised on grain (as opposed to corn) and not charred to a crisp. Nourishing Traditions is a fascinating read and will also convince you to stay away from processed foods.

It will also, if you're like me, make you feel somewhat anxious. Banish white sugar? Banish the thought! White flour will also remain in my pantry, right next to the whole wheat. I can cut a lot of sugar out of my diet (and should), but I'm not cutting it all out. Same goes for white flour. A whole wheat chocolate chip cookie's just not the same. Still, after reading Nourishing Traditions, you'll never look at refined flours and sugars the same way again.

Here's the one thing that's true for sure: All the homemade, unprocessed stuff tastes better. And the more I do it, the more efficient I get at it. Still, I get the feeling to live a truly homemade, one hundred percent unprocessed life takes more time that I have at the moment. I'll do what I can and try not to beat myself up when I end up running out to the store for frozen waffles.

Friday, March 20, 2009

8:30 Again and Supposedly Spring

This morning in the paper there was a wonderful article about the vegetable garden the Obamas are planting on the White House Lawn. I just got to say it: Michelle Obama makes me happy. In the article, she says everyone, including the President, will have to weed. Well, except maybe her mom. She said her mother will probably just watch and say, "Oh, that's lovely. You missed a spot." The job of grandmothers everywhere ...

Yesterday I picked up a pile of gardening books from the library. Since Will and I are going to be flower gardeners this spring, I'm trying to get excited about flower gardening books, which seem to mostly be in Latin, but I'm not there yet. In a book by master gardener Allen Lacy, he begins by comparing becoming a gardener to having a religious conversion. One day you don't care a thing about dirt, the next minute it's your whole life. I can see that. And this may be the year I'm struck down on the road to Damascus myself. Get a few Cosmos growing in the backyard, who knows what might happen to a girl.

Now, I love books that preach about backyard farming--get you some chickens! Spread their poop around! It's all good! Vegetable farming books excite me to pieces. Probably because fresh tomatoes and beans right off the vine excite me to pieces, too.

The only thing that concerns me about the Obamas putting their garden in already is that the frost date hasn't passed yet. The Man says since the Obamas are from Chicago, they probably laugh at frost dates the way President Obama laughed at school being closed in D.C. because of a little ice. Well, his arugula won't be laughing if it drops below 32 on the last day of March, which has been known to happen, even below the Mason-Dixon line. But then, it is the White House lawn. They probably keep it heated.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quick Update

It's 8:30 and I need to get writing. But I thought I'd go ahead and say hello, say that amazingly nobody is sick, that I've sat down to work every morning this week at 8:30, just like a real writer.

Last night Jack and I went to see "Fiddler on the Roof," starring Topol, who pretty much is Mr. Tevye, and who starred the the 1970s film version of "Fiddler." I bought cheap seat tickets, and now sort of regret that I didn't shell out for orchestra seats, just because Jack seemed really into the show, and while even as far back as we were we could see everything, you lose out on some of the theater magic from such a distance.

Oh, well, Yet another decision I regret. The good news is, Jack will have five hundred other chances to see "Fiddler" in his lifetime. It's such a great show, though, like any musical I've ever been to with the possible exception of "Jesus Christ Superstar," it goes on too long, and has at least two songs that should be cut.


Yesterday I tried eating oatmeal for breakfast. I put a little brown sugar in it and a sliced banana. It smelled great. It looked great. This was really, Irish steel cut oatmeal, not that instant junk. Oh, if only I had liked it! All that fiber goodness! But no. The fact is, I've yet to meet a breakfast grain (including grits, but don't tell my southern husband that) I liked. Maybe there are secrets to enjoying oatmeal? If you have any, let me know.

In general, I'm trying to heat healthier. I've quit Weight Watchers; it just wasn't doing it for me this time. I should say that I recommend WW highly if you want to lose weight and feel group support would help. I lost a lot of weight my first go-round with WW, and found it to be a sensible, easy-to-follow program.

The problem is, I've been dieting all my life, and sooner or later I flunk whatever diet I'm on. So now I'm trying not to be on a diet. I'm trying to eat whole foods (and I'm not doing any processed foods for Lent, by which I mean foods with additives, etc.--I'm perfectly willing to buy a jar of organic spaghetti sauce that has been "processed" in a factory, as long as it doesn't contain much other than tomatoes, herbs and a little olive oil), focusing on nutrition and calories. Yep, I'm writing down everything I eat and counting calories. I don't always meet my goal, but at least I'm aware of what I'm eating, and because nothing is forbidden other than processed foods, there's no way for me to "cheat." I can either eat enough calories or too many.

We'll see how that goes.


Our seed order has shipped. Now I'm just trying to think of ways to convince the Man (i.e. my husband--I'm trying out a nickname for him) to let me plough up the front yard. We have a big sunny spot in the backyard, but that's for vegetables. The only other big patch that gets full sun is in the front yard right by the road. I think a front yard filled with flowers would be lovely, don't you? And then nobody would have to mow it.

Really, I'd love to have a big, crazy folkart kind of garden a la Howard Finster, filled with whirligigs and craziness and amazing flowers. Just a big whacked out space. Slowly I'm going to convince the Man that this is a fabulous idea. It will take five or six years, but over time I'll wear him down. You just watch.


Off to write like the good little writer that I am. Have a most marvelous day, everyone!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Back Again

I'm back from Michigan and back from being sick. Fortunately, I got sick first. After my husband (who really needs a nickname--I'm thinking about referring to him from now on as The Man) got sick two weeks ago, I knew my time was coming; I only prayed it would come before I got on the plane to Grand Rapids. Thank goodness it did. By the time I boarded Continental flight 5122, I was right as rain. The turbulence threw me off again, but that's another story.

Today we get back to the routine. Last week was spring break for the boys, who mostly just flopped about the house in between playdates. It was a low-key week once I got home from Michigan. Everyone stayed up too late and slept late in the morning. We still haven't recovered from last week's time change.

Today, I start working on the book again--I'd written around twelve pages before the plagues hit our house; today I hope to reach page thirteen.

Last night Will and I sat down with the Johnny's Seeds catalog and made our list. We are going to be flower gardeners this year. The Man will handle the vegetable beds while Will and I tend to glorious foxgloves and delphinium. Jack will sit on the screened porch with a book and watch everything grow.

I woke up around 4 a.m. on Saturday morning haunted by the thought that Will is slipping out of our grasp. He got sent home from school the Friday before Spring Break for fighting. It embarrassed him horribly, but it probably won't be the last time. He's not aggressive or a bully, but if you do him wrong, watch out. So there's that and the fact that he has spent the whole winter playing family room hockey and not doing much of anything else. What has happened to my creative, imaginative boy?

So Saturday I got out the crayons and paper, and we sat together at the table watching "Tales from Avonlea" on DVD while he drew and I worked on my quilt. Saturday afternoon, I unpacked the puzzles.

When I opened up the seed catalog last night at dinner, Will got very interested. We made a list of the seeds we want to plant, and he said that today he'll cut out the pictures from the catalog so we'll remember what the flowers are supposed to look like.

Poor Will, the second child, the boy left to his own devices by his exhausted, distracted parents. It's so easy to engage him in projects and plans (unlike Jack, who mostly likes to be left alone to read), that it's a crime we've let him wither on the vine with his hockey stick this winter. We've led him to a life of crime!

But the flowers will save him. And the coloring. And all those lovely, irrascible folks in "Tales from Avonlea" with their old fashioned exclamations--"Fiddlesticks!"--that crack Will up, make him laugh and laugh.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tuesday Report

You will be happy to hear that Will has recovered from his bug and is back to playing hockey in the living room every chance he gets. Why a child born and bred in North Carolina has decided to take up hockey is beyond me. We've tried to explain to him that we live in a state that produces no ice whatsoever, but he doesn't care. He's never been ice skating, is not related to anyone who's ever been ice skating or for that matter has had the least bit of interest in skating, ice rinks, hockey pucks, or protective sports gear, and yet, there he is, every afternoon with his souvenir hockey stick and a tennis ball, running around the living room as he announces the action taking place in his head. He scores a goal approximately every thirty seconds. He also on occasion commits penalties, for which he makes himself sit in the penalty box for three minutes. If I'm in the kitchen, he asks me to set the timer.

So Will is well and back on the ice, but Jack got his bug and spent much of Saturday night ... well, you know. He has the only carpeted bedroom, but fortunately his aim is true and he hit the bucket every time. Whew! Tender mercies and all that.

My husband just walked downstairs. His stomach feels funny. He appears to have a fever. Oh, why, oh why, did I clean all the bathrooms yesterday? They are doomed.

I'm not working on the new book, by the way. It is hard to write when everyone around you is throwing up. And I've been doing some school visits. On Sunday, I go to Michigan for a big to-do, and return on Tuesday. On Wednesday, back to work, if the vomit has stopped flying by then. Fingers crossed!


Other then the plague and pestilence surrounding me, I've been sort of enjoying Lent. Is that proper? I've been thinking about what people say about altruism, that we do good unto others because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Sometimes that's true, though I've been so humbled by parenting that any good feelings I have about myself are trummeled by pictures of me screaming at my children like a drill sergeant. Parenthood will show you what a wretch you truly are more effectively than just about anything else, I've found.

I'm working on the theory that when you do good for others, you are closer to being the person God wants you to be, and therefore you feel--more in balance, I guess. When I set out to do a good deed, I'm not thinking, "Wow, I'm such a wonderful person to take the time to do this." Lately what I've been thinking, "This is so much fun, why don't I do it more often?"

Of course, it helps that much of my Lenten do-gooding has involved buying really nice yarn and knitting it up for other people. But I've felt that way working at the soup kitchen downtown, too. It's deeply pleasurable. And it's always a relief to stop thinking about your own self. I guess that's what's interesting to me: Altruism seems less about self-congratulation and more about self-negation than people would have you believe.


Well, I was going to spend the morning cleaning the upstairs, but as it is now nearly fully occupied by ailing males, I suppose I have no choice but to do the breakfast dishes and pick up my knitting needles. Knitting for charity--whoever came up with that idea should be given a Nobel prize.