Sunday, July 31, 2011

On Summer Days and Nights Circa 1976

A fading Polaroid shot of a stream on the property of
my childhood home.
Even as I wish for this summer’s rapid demise, I cling to the days, oppressive as they are, reluctant for early sunsets and cold winds.  I am not a fan of winter.  But I’ve noticed that over time the flavor of summer has changed and I enjoy it less.  Maybe it’s the unbroken string of heat, maybe it’s the weight of adult responsibilities – but the spell of summer is cracked, if not broken.

1976.  The price of gas was .59-cents/gallon; Apple Computer Company was formed; America was celebrating its 200th birthday; Paul McCartney was singing silly love songs and Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford to become the 39th President of the United States.  I remember the bicentennial and Jimmy Carter (dad kept an unopened can of Billy Beer for many years) and even at 10 I was a Beatles and Paul McCartney fan; the other things were not even blips on my radar.   The most important event of that and every other year was the last day of school.  The opening day of summer was field day -  when there were games on the playground, a special boxed lunch, ice cream and last moments with friends we wouldn’t see again until after Labor Day.  At the end of this exuberant day, signing yearbooks and a final bus ride, I experienced a child’s fleeting sadness which was quickly replaced by the anticipation of long summer days spent without textbooks, bells ringing and raised hands, the pepperminty smell of the janitor’s mop, hall passes and Miss Rossi telling me to pay attention.

During the days my siblings and I would be lost to the outdoors.  I would roam the four hills behind our house, dodging branches, mucking through the stream that trickled at the base of the hills searching for shell fossils and broken bits of glass and clay.  To cool down I’d spend some time poking through the dark corners of the old barn where the smell of horses – long gone – lingered, rabbit cages stood empty and discarded furniture was stacked in precarious piles layered in dust and cobwebs.  Most days the four of us would troop the mile of dirt road to the swimming pool, towels wrapped around our heads to keep off the deer flies that circled us the whole journey.  In the morning we’d start out all energy and anticipation; in the evening we’d trudge home, lungs aching with pool water and stomachs empty.  At least it was downhill.  We were brown as fall leaves.

Ohio has great, banging summer storms and heavy rain provided entertainment, too.  We’d get the okay from mom and head outside to stand in the downpour and wade into the water that collected in the depressions in the yard, the submerged grass swaying like seaweed.  The air was warm, the drops of rain cool and thick.  Lightning meant we had to come in until the sun broke through the thunderheads and the storm passed.

After dinner and while the light was still bright and yellow, we’d be back outside, riding bikes, playing with the dog or doing cartwheels and somersaults in the lawn beside the house.  Reluctant to go back inside, my brothers and sister would sometimes play “ghost in the graveyard,” and I could hear them moving around the yard, searching under bushes or behind trees.  I was too afraid to join in, but I’d sit on the wooden stoop and sometimes give a hint as to the ghost’s hiding place.  As the woods I played in all day yielded to night and became the domain of nocturnal creatures, the outdoors shrank to the small circle of light thrown by the lamp by the back door.  Raccoons appeared in the circle, pawing into the dirt of a flower bed, dipping hands into puddles of water.  Night was noisier than day: crickets; the pulsing hum of peepers, the guttural bursts from bullfrogs in the bog behind the hills, strange rustling sounds among the dried leaves.  A heavy moistness hung in the air.  Finally, worn out, to bed upstairs and the old wooden sashes wide open with a gently thumping fan working hard to pull in any hint of coolness.  I never had to wait for sleep to come.

Waking in the mornings to bright sunshine filtering through white curtains and the sound of the wooden stairs creaking as someone thumped downstairs to breakfast.  The dog lay at the bottom of the steps, waiting for her playmates to get up.  A summer day starting all over again in a seemingly endless procession.  Freedom, green grass, tall trees, warmth, carelessness, the promise of a day left unplanned; the spell of summer circa 1976.  

For more trivia on the year 1976 - and any other year - check out The People History.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Today's Dough: Multigrain Extraordinaire


Another bread from Peter Reinhart - this one from his book The Bread Baker's Apprentice.  The multi-grain part comes from the brown rice, quinoa, oats and wheat bran that speckle the dough and the extraordinaire is because it makes an extraordinarily delicious grilled (soy) cheese sandwich.  Could be my favorite bread to make - a very easy, soft dough with which to work, lots of good texture from the grains; it bakes up big and airy and it's delicious plain or dressed up. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Purple Martins: If You Build It, They May Come

Certainly we were willing and open.  We followed the directions to the letter, positioning the gleaming white plastic “gourds” near the house and near water, yet with some trees nearby – but not too many trees; with open grassy areas – yet not too much openness.  The pole was set in cement and was of the telescoping kind so that we could be good landlords and check on the birds, clean the nests out at the end of the season.  We read that we needed to provide string for their nests and egg shells for their diet.  We read that purple martins seek out people and even like to be chatted with so that they come to know their landlord’s voice.

Two summers ago a flock of eight young purple martins hung about the property for about a week.  They would sit side by side on the electrical wire above the garden, practice their flying and preen.  They spent the day zooming around the garden catching insects.  We thought it was a good sign and felt sure that next spring some of these same birds would return to take up residence in the spotless martin complex near the pond.  How could they not?  We never saw them again after that week.  Then this spring a pair spent about half an hour carefully and thoroughly investigating each gourd.  Again our hopes were raised and again they were dashed as the couple flew off never to return.  There are all kinds of things you can do wrong when trying to lure purple martins to your home and sometimes it doesn't matter if you do everything right; it's a delicate balance of human involvement, timing and location.  It's a little like it must've been for a gentleman to court a proper southern belle before the Civil War.

Even the sparrows, grackles, cow birds, wrens and bluebirds show no interest in the houses.  Crows broke off the perches on some of them to be used in a manner only a crow would understand.  All around town there are purple martin houses, most of them faded, falling apart, tipping over, and all of them are at 100% occupancy, or at least it seems that way to us.

But we are still open and willing...and waiting.  The purple martin condo will remain as long as we live here.  Sure, each time we see the white gourds they are a painful reminder of our failure.  Standing empty like half-built houses abandoned during the housing bust, forlorn and sad.  But you never know, after the gourds fade and crack and the pole starts canting, we may get our birds.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Strenuous Life

In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.

- From the speech The Strenuous Life, April 10, 1899, Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt's idea of the strenuous life involved bagging exotic animal specimens, thundering after cattle in North Dakota on a horse, charging San Juan Hill in Cuba and not letting a bullet fired into his chest put a halt to finishing a speech in Milwaukee.  Admittedly he meant much more than all of those things in his famous speech, The Strenuous Life; more than mere taxidermy (a skill he learned as a child) or cattle ranching.  He was speaking of imperialism, “righteous war,” responsibility to self as well as to homeland.  He was talking about individuals, families and nations.  My version of the strenuous life is much less global and certainly less noble but definitely kinder to our animal friends.  And we call it cross-training.

When the work in the garden becomes tedious, repairing the fenceline gets tiring or digging holes to plant trees becomes hot and boring, either Kel or I will say, “It’s good cross-training,” in an attempt to motivate ourselves or the other. Carry two full 2-gallon watering cans down a steep hill and up another one and you are cross-training: alternately working the quadriceps and then the hamstrings and glutes, not to mention the workout your arms, shoulders and back are getting.  Holding one end of the pipe (while your companion holds the other) that supports a thick, heavy roll of barbed wire while doing a walking lunge as you string the wire along each fence post?  Cross-training with a partner.  Wearing your knee-high rubber boots as you negotiate hillocks, gopher holes and cow patties works your thighs and calves better than any late night infomercial contraption, and except for the cost of the boots, it’s free – and it works.  What about pushing and prodding square bales of hay, soggy with rain, and lifting them onto the back of a trailer?  Excellent cross-training opportunity.  Maybe you’re the one shoveling that “mature” horse manure into 5-gallon buckets or maybe you’re the one lifting, carrying and dumping those same buckets into the garden beds.  No matter; either way you are getting some serious cross-training.  I like to think the Teddy would approve.

Every activity that doesn’t happen behind a desk and in front of a computer, that has me moving or using my muscles is an opportunity to challenge my stamina and fitness in different ways.  I wouldn’t trade the dirty, fatiguing chores I do out here for one minute at an office job.  I’m not sure I could ever go back to one.  And I don’t think the management would appreciate me doing reps with the water cooler bottle or combining filing with a few sets of deep squats.

(In my opinion, real life trumps fiction every time and T.R. is one of the more fascinating characters in American history.  There are lots of books about T. R. out there so hit the bookshelves.  The Strenuous Life is an illuminating glimpse into Theodore Rex’s era and yields, at least for me, some chilling advice for modern times.  You can read the complete text here.)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Scene at Twilight

The heifer was still there, lying in the grass, slowly chewing, as the sun dropped behind the dark wall of woods.  She watched us as we walked westward and then again later as we returned, walking downhill and east.  Earlier we’d seen the rest of the herd, far off in the southern pasture, dots of caramel brown, black, weathered bone, but now her companions had disappeared, leaving her where she’d been for most of the day.  Her dark brown skin must’ve been a sponge for the heat, but she didn’t seem to mind, and now as the day reluctantly cooled, the color of her coat and the brown of the dry grass merged into the gray scale of dusk.

When we looked back, we saw that she’d gotten to her feet and was facing in our direction.  Slowly she walked towards us and towards the barbed wire gate that leads to water.  Kel went to open it and I sprinted to the pump so that I could fill the deep black trough.  As Kel unlatched the gate and moved into the small paddock near the house, she ambled behind him, like a dog on a long leash.  She made her way slowly to the trough and dipped her head down, pulling the water into her in long drags.  We could hear the sound of the water being sucked into her body.  When she lifted her head to breathe, long strings of water poured off of her muzzle and dripped back into the trough.  She watched us; she watched the dog sniffing around in the grass.  

Kel and I sat on the driveway across from her, giving her some distance; the stored heat from the pavement seeping into us.  Guinea fowls chattered somewhere far off, their sound like a dozen screen doors badly in need of oil, opening and closing simultaneously.  At some point the buzzing of the cicadas dwindled and ceased.  Water dripped from the spigot onto the grass.  The dog turned to bite its tail and the sky changed from pale lavender to a tired gray, like white socks washed with the dark load.  The young cow stood at the trough until the leaves finally lost their color and the rounded edges of the sky grew darker, then she turned and headed back towards the pasture and her herd.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Today's Dough: Power Bread


Power bread.  I don't make this loaf too often as it is a 3-day process; not labor-intensive, but it does require some planning.  It's a whole wheat bread loaded with sesame and sunflower seeds, raisins, and flaxseeds.  Through a pre-soaker + biga + a long, slow rise technique the loaf acquires a complex-flavor with a deep wheat taste.  It toasts up beautifully and loves to accommodate natural peanut butter.  The recipe for this bread comes from Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads.

Hand-me-downs

Among many of the special humiliations reserved for the youngest member of a family is the hand-me-down.  As the baby and also the runt of the family, I was the reluctant recipient of anything my older sister out-grew or cast off.  The olive-green jacket with embroidery around the collar and a few mysterious stains, snags and tears that revealed glimpses of the interior white “stuffing”; the burgundy-colored corduroy pants faded to pink at points of wear; various pairs of tights all with knees stretched out and dotted with fabric “pills,” the Easter Sunday dress with the drooping hem.  Sometimes I’d get my older cousins’ clothing – but that was a happily rare event.  A more reliable source was my best friend.  Her mother would gather up my friend’s out-grown, out-dated shirts, coats, pants, dresses – and hand them over to my mother when she would come to pick me up after a day spent playing at my friend's house.  Sometimes the arms were too long or the knees were giving way.  Admittedly there were times when I was pleased.  There were those few items that I had been coveting, biding my time until they were mine.

Fast-forward 35 or so years.  What used to be called hand-me-downs are now considered recycled.  Part of the “green” movement; stretching the lifespan of good, if worn, clothing, sharing, re-purposing. Recently I received a package in the mail and as padding around a birthday gift were two pairs of used jeans and black yoga pants.  Cast-offs from my friend in Colorado.  I immediately tried everything on and the next day put one of the pairs of jeans to good employ – I’m always in need, it seems, of pants that don't mind getting dirty.  I return the favor when I’ve lost interest in an item I think she might be able to use.  I no longer consider receiving a friend’s used clothing as humiliating.  I’m just patiently waiting to inherit those items of hers that I secretly covet.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"Dust Can't Kill Me"

Go to the post office, Walmart, the hardware store, anywhere where people gather - and we all want to talk about the heat.  Someone in town said that we are over 26 days in a row of 100+ degree temperatures.  Starts to make one think.  The conditions outside of the air-conditioned comfort of our house are ominous.  Leaves shriveling, grass crunching, one of our ponds about dried up.  The cracks in the pastures, along the garden beds, running through the brick walkway, are growing into deep and dark fissures.  To get from one side to the other we’ll soon need ladders laid across them, like traversing the Khumbu Icefalls.

Direct route to China?
Kel and I talk about The Dust Bowl relative to our own situation and laugh, but shallowly and without much humor.  Stories about the recent dust storms in Arizona don't help.  The Dust Bowl is part of the collective memory of Oklahomans, native-born or transplant.  The former owner of our ranch was a child during that time.  He and his family left Oklahoma for California to escape the conditions and look for work.  Okies who weren't even alive during that time share stories that sound like fresh and sore memories. 

Most of us know three things about Oklahoma: there are lots of tornadoes, it is mostly flat and The Dust Bowl happened there (and elsewhere, of course).  There is a sensitivity here to weather phenomena and every unusually dry and hot season carries the potential for becoming the catalyst for catastrophe.  Oklahoma’s reputation for wind is well-deserved.  It either blows torch-hot or bitterly cold.  It can feel like a freight train sweeping unfettered from the Gulf straight up through Texas and across the flat geography of the state and the wind sometimes doesn’t stop for days.  When it’s whipping you can’t hear yourself think let alone what the person next to you is saying.  What the tornadoes don’t carry away, the unceasing winds will coat with dirt.  On the plus side, out in the panhandle, acres of windmills spread across the open land, taking the wind, making energy.  

The voice of The Dust Bowl, Woody Guthrie, was born in a small town not too far from us.  Okemah boasts a neat main street with a memorial dedicated to Guthrie and an annual festival in his honor.  Guthrie is inextricably linked with The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.  As a teenager I read “Bound for Glory" and loved it while (happily) missing most of its social and political overtones.  I just enjoyed his story.  Not long afterwards I bought his The Dust Bowl Ballads.  I appreciate the spirit of the songs, but I find them hard to listen to – they are sparse and plaintive, evocative of so much sadness and despair, yet still I have a hard time relating.  It was so long ago.

A more resonant accounting for me was reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, which chronicles individual stories of survival (and not) from those who experienced The Dust Bowl.  Most of it is hard to believe, the pictures fantastical.  I knew that the Great Plains suffered, but the rest of the country was not immune.  In May 1934:
…a flock of whirlwinds started up in the northern prairie…Carrying three tons of dust for every American alive, the formation moved over the Midwest.  It covered Chicago at night, dumping an estimated six thousand tons…By morning, the dust fell like snow over Boston and Scranton, and then New York slipped under partial darkness.  Now the storm was measured at 1,800 miles wide, a rectangle of dust from the Great Plains to the Atlantic, weighing 350 million tons.
If your Dust Bowl history is a little sketchy it’s a book worth reading.  

My guess is there are plenty of Okies right now worrying, saying goodbye to their crops for this year, remembering the stories their mothers and fathers told them, hoping for relief in the form of thick clouds that are full of moisture; that it will rain for a few days straight and refill stagnant ponds and refresh the land.  I’m worried, too, but feel that the heat and dry will eventually break and although the cracks and splits in the ground look bad, and though the southern wind and cloudless sky only serve to exacerbate conditions, the roots in the prairie are deep and will keep the earth from blowing east. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Today's Dough: Whole Wheat Pizza Dough

From inauspicious beginnings...

Please don't buy the pizza "dough" that comes in the exploding tubes.  There's about 5,000 ingredients in that mystery material when all pizza dough really needs is flour, water, salt, agave nectar, yeast a hint of olive oil and maybe a dash of pepper, thyme, flaxseed, basil, garlic... This is the easiest, fastest pizza dough recipe I've come across and it bakes up to a delicious, crispy-crunchy crust in about 10 minutes.

The recipe will be posted under the Recipe tab along with photos of the risen dough and the finished product.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I'm an Enabler

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird looking to score.
I gave up refined sugar a couple of years ago, yet I’m buying more than I ever did as the cookie-cake-pie-cupcake baker that was the former me.  I buy 10 pounds at a time and it’s not unusual for me to go through 40 pounds over the course of five months.  I haven’t fallen off of the wagon; it’s not my habit I’m feeding.  The fact is…I’m an enabler.  I’m providing the sweet junk in unlimited quantities to a flock of hooked hummingbirds.  This stuff is so good, hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico get a taste.

It started out innocently enough.  I’d seen some hummingbird feeders around town and I figured there was no harm in putting up one, just to see what happened.  Sure enough, mid-April, there was a male Ruby-throated hummingbird sampling my homebrew.  As the days passed, more hummingbirds arrived looking to score, but the original hummingbird was guarding his stash with the ferocity of an unhinged, jealousy-addled lover - dive bombing, cursing and sometimes resorting to stabbing.  Male or female, he didn’t care which was the recipient of his drug-fueled wrath.  The situation couldn’t hold, so I bought up another four feeders, filling them to the brim and hanging them around the yard and garden.  Soon each feeder was being mobbed and the insanity, the mayhem, the bulk sugar-buying ensued.  There are now seven feeders out there and heaven help me if I’m a little slow in keeping them filled.

Remember us?
The flowers that I planted with hummingbirds specifically in mind - the bee balm, the Russian Sage, the coneflower and hibiscus - are in the main, neglected and ignored.  The birds crave the high-octane, instant high of the pure white stuff.  The thing is, I get it.  I was there once, not too long ago - a sugar junkie - but now I'm feeding their habit, not mine.  And I realize I’m in too deep to get out now.  These tiny, seemingly sweet and charming, delicate birds – and their unending thirst for sugar water – have taken over my life.    

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bring on the Tomatoes


Ashley at the lovely blog  The Inspired Lens wrote up a nice post about tomatoes (and other veggies) starting to ripen on the patio of her apartment.  I’m impressed with the number of things she’s able to grow in a small space.  Perhaps we should’ve downsized ourselves this year...

Our tomatoes, too, are starting to come on strong, though the continued heat will probably spell the end of harvesting, as least for a while.  When it gets too hot, the blossoms don’t set and you don’t get any fruit.  Like Ashley, I’m now having to think of creative ways in which to utilize the bounty.  Each day I use 2 or 3 and each evening Kel replaces those with 4 or 5 new tomatoes.  This morning he came in with a bucketful.  I know I'll miss our truly vine-ripened variety once we have to go back to the tasteless supermarket tomatoes, but the current "feast" of fruit is a challenge.  The other night’s tomato creation was a roasted tomato sauce with white beans, plenty of garlic and onions and topped with fresh basil from the garden.  Really simple.  I’ll post the recipe under the Recipe tab.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Ode to Songs (the good and the bad) That Make for Great Running

A good song at the right time during a run is like downing a Gu packet – except it works a lot faster.  When it feels as if I’m carrying my legs and not the other way around and the sun, the poor night’s sleep, the cramps and side stitches and the thirst are all powerful forces acting against my desire to locomote, a song can make me feel as if my shoes sprouted wings, as if I could keep running forever. 



Like most anyone, I would guess, my playlist includes a strange mix of songs.  Most of the selections reside there because I genuinely like the song no matter in what context I may be listening, but others are there solely to provide motivation.  In any circumstance other than running, I more often than not hit “next” when one of these songs comes up:  Kid Rock’s “Fist of Rage" isn't on my iPhone because I admire the lyrics; it’s there for when my run feels powered by my own sense of self-satisfaction (a la Ed Begley, Jr. in an old Simpsons' episode).  Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly” guarantees a few minutes of seemingly effortless, smooth running – right up until the point when he forgets that all songs must end and I move on to the next tune.  C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” needs no explanation.  There’s the Justin Timberlake song, "Cry Me A River" (why is he singing about the Crimea River?); Journey’s “Send Her My Love” for when I need to drop the pace and Juliette & The Licks’ “Sticky Honey” to help pass the time by pretending I’m on stage.

Several eras provide motivation.  Fats Waller’s “Your Feet's Too Big” makes me smile no matter how my feet are feeling at the time.  "Candela" from Buena Vista Social Club is a five-minute Spanish language lesson (I've extracted gato and bailar and that's about it) and has great rhythm for a run.  Sometimes 70s disco is what I need: Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, Vickie Sue Robinson.  Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, ELO, Joe Walsh, Steely Dan – the bands my older brother was listening to during his teens are good for a mile here and there and anything from a John Hughes movie or from MTV’s heyday (according to me, anyway) in the 80s – back when the rocket blasted off a set of videos.  No run would be complete without “Rock Me Amadeus,” “Smalltown Boy” or “Thieves Like Us.”

Songs fall in and out of favor.  My playlist is an ever-changing thing (btw, Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" is a great song whether running, walking or sitting).  That all-important first song of the run used to be "Joe's Head" by Kings of Leon; currently it's James' "Getting Away With It."  Thankfully there is a bottomless pit of great songs out there from which to choose - so long as my heart, lungs and knees are willing to keep hitting the pavement.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Rural Courtesy: The Four-way Stop and The Wave

When I moved here from the city, I brought my city driving with me – the impatience, the quickness to largely unwarranted anger, the belief that everyone else was a bad driver.  But city driving doesn't belong here.  Going at or over the speed limit is plain bad form (unless you're under 25), the solid yellow line is just a suggestion and driving on the wrong side of the road - forgivable.  But there’s another difference here.  Time slows at four-way stops.  There’s some kind of wrinkle that occurs when four stop signs are pounded into place next to two roads crossing each other.  The effort it takes to overcome the inertia of a car at rest becomes monumental.  Here’s how it plays out: you come to a four-way stop and maybe there’s one other car or two other cars to your right, left or across from you. Clearly they arrived at the intersection first and in fact, it looks as if they’ve been there for some time.  You wonder whether or not they are even looking at the road, wonder if they are aware that they’ve even left their driveway.  

That’s when time begins to shudder to a standstill.  Your fellow driver leans back in the seat, scooching down in to get a little more comfortable, hands resting patiently at 10-and-2 on the steering wheel, eyes staring off into the distance, into some memory about which you’ll never know; mentally writing a shopping list, a poem, a novel - or lost in a song playing on the radio.  Then they nod at you, real slow-like.  Raise their hand up through the molasses of their own lethargy and sweep it in front of them, giving you the go-ahead.  You find yourself a bit dazed and with great effort you press on a gas pedal gone spongy and haul yourself and the car through the intersection; as you look in the rearview you see your friend, a courteous stranger, still sitting, idling next to his stop sign.  

This move is closely related to the wave.  Drive down any road around here and pass another car and you are almost guaranteed to get some kind of acknowledgement.  It might be the full wave - hand completely off of the steering wheel, big and friendly and open as the sky above; or it might be the non-committal four-fingered wave, thumb still wrapped firmly around the wheel or finally, the passive one-fingered wave for those harboring some suspicions about you or maybe they’re just conserving as much energy as possible for sitting at the upcoming four-way stop.  Often this last wave is so hard to notice that you have no time to respond with your own wave and you end up gesturing to the empty road in front of you.  It leaves you feeling a little bit guilty, a little bit like an unfriendly neighbor.

After four years on these roads, my driving is toned down, countrified.  I still have moments of frustration with my fellow drivers, but it sure is nice to see some courtesy offered to a stranger, a wave between us as we pass, a nod at a four-way stop letting me know I can just go on ahead, there’s no hurry.

Party

Party
This card is available at: Empty on the Inside

Friday, July 15, 2011

Today's Dough: Sunflower, Poppyseed Wheat

A Trip to the Vet

Sleeping it off; after the vet.
The vet in town is just about three miles from us and has a mailbox painted to look like a Guernsey cow, full pink udder on the bottom and a fraying rope tail at the back.  He has a small stable surrounded by a fenced pasture and there are always a few horses there nosing around the grass and one or two cows, occasionally a donkey or mule.  Once as we drove by a brown calf got loose and we watched for a few minutes while a young cowboy tried in vain to shoo him back inside the fence.  Calves can be fast and slippery when they spy fresh grass just beyond the fence.

Yesterday we took our vagabond puppy (temporarily named Blunder) to see the vet, to get his shots, find out how old he is and maybe what mangling of breeds he might be.  Our little guy did beautifully – took to a leash like it was an expensive necklace to be shown off, wandered around the waiting room investigating corners and under chairs, sat down in front of a woman who came in and waited for her to rub his head.  

When the vet came out I was happy to see he looked the way a good country vet ought to – kind eyes, ginger-colored hair washing out to gray, baseball cap, dark blue coveralls a little tight in the middle and a gruff-but-reassuring Oklahoma drawl.  He handled Blunder with firm but gentle hands, administering the shots so fast that none of us even noticed.  Blunder didn't bark, yip or nip once, despite the manhandling.  The vet told us that Blunder is about 3 months old, can eat as much as he wants (but don’t bother with that expensive canned food), and is probably part dachshund and part bird dog.  He chuckled when he said that last – the long, stout body of a dachshund paired with the short ears and small head of a bird dog struck him as funny, I guess.  It’s true that our pup has a tendency to lift a front paw and more or less point in the general direction of something.  When he commented on the size of the front paws (huge) I asked if that meant he’d grow taller or longer and he replied, “Yes.”  And laughed again.

So now we know a little more.  But what I’d really like to know is what we will never know: what is the dog’s story?  Where did he come from and how on earth did he find us, so far off of the road with a thick stand of trees and underbrush to traverse before coming close to the house?  And could we really possibly call him Blunder?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Whole Wheat Pita Bread

Homemade pita bread in action; stuffed with white bean salad.

Pita is one of the easiest of breads to make for yourself.  The dough is a pleasure to work with, you don’t need any special equipment, they bake up in minutes, are soft and full of flavor and best of all, they taste a whole lot better than what you can buy in the store.  I’ll post the recipe under the Recipe section in case you want to give them a try.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Vegan in a Strange Land

There are three grocery stores in town.  One I’ve never been in – I find the bars on the windows a bit off putting; one has aisles stacked high with generic label merchandise with names that mimic big brands (Fruiti-Os!) but is reliable for having cilantro and then there’s the other one, the one that I go to fairly regularly.

Soon after we’d moved here, we went to this store, detailed list in hand, optimistic.  I was doing well until I came to tofu on the list.  I looked in the produce section and the dairy section; I didn’t bother trying to find a health food aisle.  Kel suggested I ask someone, but I have a real loathing of asking for help in stores.  So I’d decided that they didn't have tofu and I’d just strike that meal off of the menu.  Finished, we rolled the cart up to the check-out area, tofu-less.  We queued up, putting our items on the small counter, a couple of people lining up behind us.  Then Kel did the unthinkable.  Acting on his own initiative, he leaned over to the cashier and with his next words, sealed our fate forever as the town’s wacko treehuggers: Do you carry tofu?  Blank stare, long silence from the female cashier – before turning to her neighboring cashier and asking: Do we carry tofu?  This produced a frown from the other cashier who cocked her head and bellowed: Soul food?  Do we carry SOUL food?  Every head in the market turned our way.



A few weeks after that, I noticed four boxes of tofu sitting in a basket in the produce section, the unrefrigerated part of the produce section.  The boxes had puffed up and appeared to be about to burst.  I did not buy any tofu that day.  After that I never saw tofu there again.

That’s a few years back now and we’re more or less regulars, accepted as being a little bit different when it comes to food.  The Soul Food cashier never fails to say, “Still eatin’ healthy I see,” whenever we come in.  And I always say, “Well, we try.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Oracles of Doom


There are a couple of guys we know – old-timers, locals – in another time and place they might've been called townies.  They’re good guys.  Honest.  Hardworking.  I call them The Oracles of Doom.

I picture them in their clean and pressed overalls, in their crisp white button downs and tidy Justin boots, sitting in the local diner (or the other local diner, or the other one just down the road from that one) with their cups of bitter black coffee going lukewarm, discussing the latest crises to befall the town, the county, the state.   

In general, nothing is good.  Meth addicts are everywhere; break-ins are rampant, petty theft a given.  Jobs are scarce and those that are available go unfilled because kids today would rather collect welfare than break a sweat.  If it’s winter it might be that the ponds have frozen up leaving cattle without water or maybe an ice storm has taken down the power lines.  Sure hope you remembered to buy propane back in August while the prices were low.  Spring is always too short and in summer there is either too much rain or too little of it.

This year if you were smart you sold your cattle a few months back, right after you realized that it was a dry spring and would only be a drier summer.  You should probably also cut your losses and disc in the vegetable garden and the feed corn.  No sense pouring good water in after bad – you couldn’t possibly water them enough this year.  Forget about getting a second cutting of hay off of that field of yours and say goodbye to that little bit of money you saved up, because you'll need it to buy bags of "creep."  Of course, price of beef is so low you won't make any money when you sell them anyway.  Have you noticed that there are a lot more grasshoppers this year?  Hasn’t been this bad since 1980.

It’s easy to get pulled into the gloom, the seeming hopelessness of it all.  Especially when air conditioned stir-craziness sets in brought on by being trapped inside day after day due to the 100+ degree temperatures.  Perspective is the thing.  Fall is coming (with its own problems, of course).  I have to remind myself that it wouldn’t matter if conditions were perfect: crops vigorous, cows fat and happy, an equal mix of nourishing rain and gentle sunshine, upstanding townspeople and high-paying jobs galore  – The Oracles of Doom would find something negative on which to gnaw over their cups of coffee.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Coastline

My newest greeting card, Coastline.
Long before I knew better than to go camping or to try and make a friend fall in love with me, I went camping with a friend who I hoped would fall in love with me.  Before we even got to the campsite the trip had started to fall apart.  We’d left the city later than we’d planned and then on the drive he told me about a woman upon whom he had a crush.  She seemed to like him, too, and there went any chance I had.  Once at the site – a secluded, rocky hollow overlooking the ocean, sheltered by wind-gnarled pines and soaring hardwoods, we struggled with the tent as the last of the day’s light faded.  By the time the tent was up, it was too late to make much of a dinner.  As the sun disappeared below the horizon, we sat on the rocks overlooking the ocean.  Far out we could see a tiny string of lights, a freighter moored in deep water.  Despite the poor start, it was hard to deny the lure of the sound of the waves, the deepening sky and shadow hewn rocks rising from the water.

The next morning I dropped a contact onto the ground and thereafter squinted into the day, the spectacular scenery melting into colorful shapes blurred beyond recognition, the last wisps of the trip’s promise disappearing in astigmatism and nearsightedness.

The drive home was hard.  Our friendship had changed, though he probably hadn’t noticed, and I felt deflated, tired and anxious to be away from him.  Time has softened the pain of that weekend, of course.  Our paths diverged and now I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But a thin film of those strong emotions, tender to the touch, remain and resurface from time to time as on the rare occasions that I’m along a coastline; the rocks, the thin strands of sand shining under a powerful sun, the ceaseless sighing of waves coming in and going out all have a sense of melancholy.  Beautiful, remote and undeniably solitary.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Stray

Maybe it's not a phenomenon particular to Oklahoma or even to rural areas, but just about everyone we know out here has had it happen.  The day dawns like any other - and the next  moment a dog (or cat) saunters up your driveway and you're a pet owner.  I don't know if there's an official name for it (other than some obvious choices: lousy, cruel, pathetic, heartless, cowardly), but I call it pet-dumping.

For nearly four years now we've dodged that particular bullet.  We've come close a couple of times: a black and white cat seemed interested in finding out if we would be the recipient of its time and attention.  We failed the test and the cat moved across the street.  And then two dogs appeared one freezing winter morning and seemed in no hurry to leave.  They had collars, but no tags.  We bought a gigantic bag of Ol' Roy, bowls and a brush.  The next day we drove around the area putting fliers in mailboxes asking if anyone was missing their dogs.  No one called us.  They were great dogs, followed us everywhere, barked when they should have and were quiet when they were supposed to be quiet.  Then one morning they were gone.  No goodbyes, no thank you note.

Yesterday when I got home from running errands in town, I saw a small black dog hugging Kel's heels as if his very life depended on it.  I figured it was one of the neighbor's seven dogs that I just hadn't seen before.  No such luck.  It's a full day later and we still have a small black dog hugging Kel's heels - and mine when Kel escapes for a few minutes.  He's a sweet dog, a puppy still, loving, gentle and obedient.  Someone obviously spent time with him, trained him.  Now we have another giant bag of dog food and the dog bowls have been pressed into service again; can't find the brush.  He's worming his way into our hearts.  We let him sleep in the garage last night and later I need to head back into town and see about getting some treats, maybe a toy for him to chew on.  Will we keep him?  We haven't decided yet.  Maybe the better question is, will he keep us?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies

Said in my best commercial voice-over:  Made with half of the fat and half of the sugar of the original recipe (without skimping on chocolate chips, nuts, flavor or texture). 

Want to know how I did it?  Leave a comment or email me and I'll give you the recipe.

Three Coyote Pups at Breakfast


Rough video of our three new friends.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

It’s Good Pasture: Another Oklahoma Gardening Lesson

The orchard, December 2007.

On Christmas Day in 2007, Kel and I were still planting fruit trees, the last six before we could pack up the car and drive east to spend some of the holiday with my parents.  We’d been busy planting 80+ fruit trees: apple, cherry, apricot, nectarine, peach and pear for the past week.  Kel had been digging holes for weeks before that and I’d put together large chicken wire cages to go around the trees in an attempt to keep gopher’s from eating the roots.  

I don’t know about Kel, but I was already imagining the trees when they were mature, fruit hanging down – more fruit than we could possibly eat, sturdy branches reaching up and out, creating a shady canopy over the entire orchard.  Probably Kel was thinking the same thing.  He’d had a dream of having his own orchard ever since he was a kid and had spent a summer with his uncle in Indiana.  A neighbor had an orchard and he was free to pick and eat as much fruit as he wanted.  It seemed magical.

 A few weeks after we finished planting, we sat out in the orchard with Mrs. C, a friend, neighbor and cattlewoman, showing off our hard work.  In her slow and considered way, she surveyed the thin, branchless twigs stuck into the ground in neat rows and at the grass, thick and green even in January, settled back into her lawn chair and said, just loud enough to hear, “Sure is good pasture, though.” 

We chuckled about her comment as later we chuckled when an Oklahoma beekeeper told us how he once had an orchard but that he’d given up on it long ago.  Too much work.  What did born and bred Oklahomans know about orchards anyway?  Turns out they know a lot.  They know what not to grow in Oklahoma. 

The first spring our trees leafed out and branches magically appeared.  They grew like crazy.  The second year we had a wet spring and the pear trees were hit with fire blight.  We lost a tree or two, but figured that was all part of the deal.  Later that same year we noticed bright orange spots on the otherwise perfect leaves of the apple trees.  Cedar Apple Rust.  Recommendations were to remove all cedar trees in the area (a Sisyphaen task) and to spray with a copper solution.  There went our idea of a pesticide- and herbicide-free orchard.  

Yet somehow the fruit trees continued to grow; they looked pretty good.  We started to see some fruit coming on the apple trees and that aroused the interest of other kinds of pests.  Birds started pecking the young fruit even before it was ripe.  Raccoons and opossums climbed the trees and pulled off the fruit, breaking branches and bending my chicken wire cages.  One year deer stripped off every single piece of fruit on every single apple tree in one night – despite the 6’ electrified fence surrounding the trees.  Leafrollers chewed the branches completely bare of leaves.  And this year, there’s no rain.  

So the question now for us is: when do we call it quits?  When does the time expenditure outweigh the payoff?  I haven’t made one pie from the apples or cherries.  Kel not once has been able to walk into his orchard and pluck a perfectly ripe, unblemished piece of fruit off of one of the trees.  Yet thinking about abandoning the orchard completely is painful.  Letting go of a life-long dream is painful.  And they’re trees after all, beautiful trees – they were just planted in the wrong state.

A long time ago, farmers used to grow peanuts in Oklahoma.  And there are still some acres of corn being cultivated (and corn is just big grass).  Some people are trying their hands at growing grapes for local wineries.  But you don’t see orchards here and there’s a good reason for that.  Oklahoma is just good pasture.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Road Through Oregon

Treeline

In the early '90s I made the obligatory journey of the searching soul, the directionless youth, the dreamer, otherwise known as the recently-graduated: a cross-country road trip to the land of the endless summer.  The car was packed with all of my worldly possessions and I had high hopes for a new and exciting life in northern California.  Reality hit pretty hard and pretty quickly - I knew California was not for me - and knowing of my distress, two good friends, a couple, offered a rescue of sorts and asked me to visit them over Thanksgiving.  So I ran away, at least briefly, and headed up to Tacoma, WA.

My trusty, nine-lived car, a tiny white Hyundai Excel hatchback and I motored onto I-5, atlas on the seat next to me, a pile of cassette tapes at the ready.  Now so many years later, there isn't a lot from that journey north that I remember - mostly that I was trying to get to Tacoma as quickly as I could - but I do remember the green of Oregon.  The highway at times cut between mossy mountains misted with wisps of fog; moisture was everywhere, was on everything.  Glimpses of houses among the thick of the trees.  The swooshing sound of tires on wet road.  The deep greens and soft grays of the landscape felt comforting to my eyes.  It all struck me as fresh and clean and I kind of envied those people living among the pines and hills.

Those brief but vivid memories only came back to me the other day after a friend of mine, an Oregon native transplanted to southern Ohio, asked if I could create a card to mark a sad occasion.  She suggested muted colors and maybe pine trees, something comforting.  I immediately pictured Oregon and the mist suspended in the air over the trees and the mountains, the soothing colors along the road traveling north.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Studio Time

A lot of studio time the past few days, very productive days, happily.  I'm wrapping up the project depicted in the photo here - one or two more tweaks and I should be able to mail off the final art.  It was a tall order to depict what is one of the most beautiful places on the planet - the undulating acres of mountain meadows in hues as challenging as the scale, the backdrop of blue, blue-gray and white snow-topped mountains - unending layers of them - and the most important piece of the puzzle: the metal sculpture of Miguel which announces to visitors that they've come to the right place: A Poodles' Place.  I'm not sure I bested the challenge, but it was fun trying.

Do Coyotes Fear the Sound of Fireworks?

What's the matter?  Coyote get your deer? - bumper sticker, via Edward Abbey

All along the back roads and state routes of Oklahoma, small shacks - their coats of paint turned a soft gray-white, exploding rockets and bursting stars decorating the wood siding - are shuttered most of the year, but come to life on and around July 4th.  They sell fireworks.  Throughout the long weekend, distant pops and sizzles can be heard and occasionally we see flashes in the sky as bright beads of sparks soar, flare briefly and fall to earth as tiny dark spots.  

Today I’m thinking about coyotes.  I’m thinking about the young family of coyotes living somewhere to the north of us, in the woods, or maybe to the west of us, in the grassy hollows, in a large den dug into the roots of a big tree.  If we’re lucky, there are coyote families in both places.

Do coyotes fear the sound of fireworks the way the family dog, Violet, did, running to find the nearest dark place to hide?  Or do they just howl in response the way they do when a train whistle blows?  Maybe the sounds resemble the sound of a shotgun, in which case, they know to run and hide.

There are a lot of folks in Oklahoma who hate coyotes more than just about anything.  Coyotes are routinely shot, poisoned and trapped.  Some idiots even hang the lifeless bodies from barbed wire fences, a ridiculous and futile warning to other interlopers, as if coyotes recognize fences and property lines.  Or maybe it’s misplaced pride in their kill.  Ranchers say that coyotes kill their calves and I say coyotes mostly eat rodents and only cull out the ill or the dying among cattle, performing a needed function on the range.  Ranchers complain that coyote lovers always rely on emotion-based logic and we coyote defenders fume that ranchers use the same myopic price-per-head-of-cattle reasoning.  So the same arguments spin out over and over and over again and coyotes keep getting shot and hung from barbed wire fences.

What I know is that coyotes are safe on our land.  I wish I could communicate that to the coyote family, tell them to stay here, that I welcome their hunting and their howls and yips in the night when I’m lucky enough to hear them, their loping trots across our fields, quick but not hurried – when I’m lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one. 

Recipe: Mediterranean Barley Salad


Not sure where I found this recipe – maybe Cooking Light – but anyway I’ve messed with it sufficiently that I’m going to call it mine.  This is a perfect meal for when the thermometer tells you it’s 105 degrees outside.

Mediterranean Barley Salad
Serves 4 

1 cup uncooked pearl barley
1 cup packed arugula (or spinach)
1 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
¼ cup chopped kalamata olives
5 scallions, chopped
3 tbsp. finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)
1 15.5 oz. can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of red pepper flakes
2 tbsp. chopped pistachios

Cook barley according to package directions, omitting salt.  (My method is: 1 cup barley + 3.5 cups water; bring to a boil, then turn down heat to a simmer.  Cook for 40 minutes or so until the barley is tender.  Drain.) 

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the lemon juice, olive oil, salt & pepper and red pepper flakes.  Whisk together.

When barley is cooked and drained, add it while still warm to the dressing.  Toss to coat.  Add the arugula, bell pepper, olives, scallions and garbanzo beans and mix together.  Divide salad among three plates and top with the chopped pistachios.  This tastes best when served at room temperature.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Homemade Dirt

Too much information?  Where the kitchen scraps are collected.
My partner, Kelly, years ago was a city dweller, as I was, and though being a city dweller in a compact DC townhouse he used every outdoor nook and cranny not covered in cement to grow things: figs, lemon, apple and pear trees, tomatoes and peppers.  He also composted. 

We met in late summer and by fall he could be heard muttering about “brown gold” – how there was so much “brown gold” going to waste all over the city streets.  I thought he was way off of his nut until I learned that brown gold was the bounty of fallen leaves packed into black plastic garbage bags, ready for trash day, that lined the streets of DC.  It was incomprehensible to him that people actually considered this stuff garbage.  He’d drive around and cram bags into his Acura until there was only space for himself in the driver’s seat.  

Now we have 160 acres, none of it paved and we can (try and) grow anything we want.  And we compost.  All of our produce scraps get thrown into a green bucket and taken outside to be dug into wherever the compost pile happens to be at that moment.  Kelly moves it around based on reasons that do not need to be understood by me but are perfectly clear to him.  That’s how it should be.  I provide the organic material and he piles it wherever he wants.  Right now the compost lives at one end of the row of tomatoes and it’s covered in black plastic.  He gives it fresh air now and then, turns it and adds the kitchen scraps, cuttings from the garden, a bag of flour gone bad.  A faint odor of cabbages emanates from it.  The pile is a growing mystery – whatever is underneath the plastic may get up and walk one day.  One day, it will be dirt.

As for “brown gold,” we have it here, too.  Here we use the leaves (mostly scrub, pin and black jack oak) as a protective mulch around the base of other trees, on the asparagus bed and blueberry bushes or we dig them, too, into the compost pile.  The leaves attract earthworms and the earthworms aerate the composting leaves and assist with breaking them down.  And then one day, you have...dirt.  Which goes into the flower and vegetable beds.  Amazing.

We’ve even been known to foray into town during the fall, looking for bags of leaves left for the garbage man.  A few of our neighbors, knowing how we covet dead leaves, collect what they rake from their yards and bring the bags around to us.  They probably think we are way off of our nuts, but that’s alright; it’s how it should be.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Artisan Bread in OKC: Prairie Thunder Baking Company


Raisin-nut boule.  My attempt at artisan bread-baking.

Breakfast is a challenging meal for a vegan when eating out – especially here in Oklahoma.  During a recent overnight in the city, a friendly staff member at (the wonderful) Forward Foods on Western Avenue suggested several places to try, but when she mentioned Prairie Thunder Baking Company, my ears perked up.  I’d been meaning to stop by but we aren’t often in the city and when we are, our meal times haven’t coincided so well with their hours. 
 
The next morning we walked into Prairie Thunder and thankfully there was not a big breakfast crowd that Tuesday as we would’ve driven anyone waiting behind us nuts.  We gave a thorough once over to the beautiful pastries (maybe they’ll come up with some vegan versions); studied the menu, asked lots of questions and tweaked our orders to make them meat- and dairy-free.  My partner and I being raging bread junkies, however, we mostly admired the piles of beautiful, crusty breads behind the counter.  Through a pass-thru window we could see an enticing rectangle into the heart of the bakery – the colossus of the bread oven.  Apparently John McBryde, owner and baker, could see a bit of us, too, because once we’d placed our orders, he invited us back for a tour.  My shoes left skid marks on the floor I moved so fast.  To a home bread baker a glimpse into the workings of an artisanal bakery and a chat with a master is a priceless encounter.

Mr. McBryde took a lot of time with us, explained how he built the support for the oven and how long it took to bring it up to temperature; what the rows and rows of pipes did and how he took bread in and out of the oven.  Next to us were rolling shelves lined with rising dough – future rolls, focaccia and loaves.  I wanted to set up a cot in a corner and just hang out for a while.  If I lived in OKC, I’d beg Mr. McBryde to take me on as an apprentice, starting with sweeping the floors if need be.

Our order was up so we headed to a table to enjoy our breakfast burrito and a bowl of real oatmeal topped with banana.  We went home with a couple of loaves of his bread – purely for testing and research purpose. Thanks to Prairie Thunder for accommodating two hungry vegans and to Mr. McBryde for the tour of his fabulous bakery. 

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