Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Save The Frogs Day

According to the people at Garden Rant (& many others, this just happens to be where I found it), today is save the frogs day. & why not save a frog. What the hell, save more than one.

I think it makes sense to get the information closer to the source, so here it is:

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Guns don't kill people

I do not know what is going on lately but it is shotguns shotguns shotguns all day long. I do not know if it just dawned on some of the neighborhood that hunting season mostly wraps up this month or if B***'s dogs have gotten into W*****'s henhouse again or what but it has been like living in a recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg.

I admit I am not the world's biggest hunting fan, but why would I be? I do not eat much meat. I do not like loud noises. Frankly, I have a limited interest in all sports that involve an armed fat guy drinking way too much beer (yeah, I am not fan a NASCAR either). But I do know enough about deer overpopulation to know that something has to be done, especially if you are going to shoot all their natural predators. I know of at least local two families that eat what they hunt & it makes a big part of their winter diet; they would have trouble making it without this food source. Finally, unlike hunting where I grew up, more historically interesting hunting is also practiced here, bow-hunting & muzzle loading rifles for instance. I still do not want to myself, but I can see there is more to it than buying a gun, buying ammo & shooting at paper targets (why not just play a video game?).

I also know a lot of hunters are feeling marginalized these days. After 9/11, the nearby army base closed their doors to the local hunters they used to invite to week-end shoots (some how the shooting they were doing was not enough to scare away the deer) & canceled most clubshoots (my favorite would have to be the muzzle loading groups, but it might just be that word: muzzle). They have opened back up for a few events, but it is a fraction of what they used to do.

One group of local hunters was very surprised when the new owners of their old hunting buddy's land were not only not going to let them hunt through but would have them arrested for trespassing if they even came on to the property. When A told me about I***'s encounter with his hunting neighbors, I could not help but think of the stories I had been told about Indians, laughing at white-men who bought the land for a few trinkets, after all who can own land, only to see trees come down & fences go up.

My favorite story is one told to me about a neighbor who has since died, so I think I can tell this without hurting anyone's feeling. Many years ago, when she was new to the area , N****'s husband left her home alone to go work his pecan groves some 40 miles away. Hard frost had been forecast & he expected to be out all night. A few of her husband's buddies decided to 'hunt through' their land & either they never mentioned it to him or he forgot to mention it to her. I bet you can see where this is going...

The short version is, N**** was out feeding the livestock they had near the house, heard the rustling of people moving, saw guns, picked up the shotgun they kept for just such emergencies & started blasting away. I was one of the few people on our street N**** really talked with (years later she still hated being a country wife), but I have always thought she warmed to me as quickly as she did because my response to this story was to laugh so hard I had to sit down.

Now of course, there are more people here than ever before. Larger lots have been cut down, some for big housing developments, some for smaller. What was once an ordinary ranch house with a large yard is now three houses with much smaller yards, but very pleasant & welcome families. Some expansions have been less popular: a nearby family (now moved away) added an unzoned trailer home to their property that eventually burned down, catching our back pasture & consuming our entire back fence.

One of the remaining large lots is the blueberry field I have mentioned in previous posts. They are also the source of the recent gunshots (& an air cannon for extra umph). I have learned since I began this post that they have been shooting at Cedar Waxwings, a protected species.

Many of you might ask: is it the same farmer who insisted my hen was a rooster (& that I needed that rooster so my real hens would lay eggs), the same farmer that burned all the old, pressure-treated fencing, releasing poisons into the air, is this the farmer now illegally shooting birds & keeping the neighborhood awake for the past 72 hours. You betcha.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I missed Earth Day completely

One of the things I have noticed about not having children is that our relationship with the calendar seems to be so much different from everyone around us.

First, in the big way. Days, weeks, months, years go by without any significant changes in our lives. Dogs get old & die, but that can take a decade (we are not killing them off early, most of our dogs were not puppies when they arrived). Not like kids. Ideally a kid will live more than ten years, but in any given year they will change (taller, bigger- new shoes, new clothes; schoolwork - new books; peer pressure - new gadgets, new ideas). It is easier to see the broad passage of time with more small changes in time.

Second, there is a whole host of events, holidays, call-them-what-you-will that just do not happen in a grownups-only house. The first one I remember breaking through my consciousness was "take your daughter to work day". Our office person (she hated secretary; I had once held that same job & my attitude was if what was good enough for Kissinger was good enough for me, but she did not agree) showed up one day with her elementary school aged daughter & was shocked that I did not know What Day It Was. She then had a second shock when it turned out I thought she would actually work on The Day (my argument remains if the point is to show children what work is like, shouldn't you expect to do some?). I gather other offices planned things, luncheons & balloons. As it happened, we had an special time, too. I still think of it as meet your copier repairman face-to-face & then watch him explain to your supervisor that chocolate milk in the toner is not covered by the warranty agreement day. These festivities took place a while ago & toner was not yet available in pre-packaged cartridges.

Now that you know this you will be unsurprised to learn I had no idea yesterday was Earth Day. I would like to be able to say something snotty here, like "every day is Earth Day at Useless Ranch" but that would be a lie.

Yesterday, I turned off the AC after A left in the morning. I do this most mornings NOT because I am earth-conscious or even money-conscious but because it is FREEZING. It is like the polar bear house at a tropical zoo.

I went on to burn plenty of electricity using the sewing machine, the computer, the phone. I also took digital pictures of the loquat trees. & then I drove around the neighborhood taking pictures of the wildflowers in the medians before they were mowed. Then I came home & uploaded the camera & fussed with the pictures (I am hoping to use them in a project for an upcoming quilt show).

Around 6:30 I turned the air back on so it would be nice & frigid when A got home. By then I had been pre-heating the oven for 45 minutes because he was late. I found out he was late, but forgot to turn the oven off . Then we watched TV. When I went to bed I saw the walk-in closet light had been left on all day. Also, the toilet was running.

//just to show you how clueless I am: I did not know TODAY take your D&S to work day until I looked for the link.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Welcome rain

It seems that I only have to predict drought (when everyone else says "oh yea, drought") & that will make it not so. I could not be happier to be wrong.

Yesterday I grabbed my camera & headed out into the light shower that became a deluge, washing away all the dog bombs & horse piles, saving me hours of a rather yucky chore. Not to mention the whole my-house-is-less-likely-to-burn-down-this-year-than-any-year-since-we-moved-here thing, which is not just good, it is divine.

The goats hate rain, or water of any kind. They run for the barn at the first taste of moisture in the air. They will brave the back hooves of a very cranky mare rather than risk getting wet. They are, apparently, made of spun sugar.

The donkey also hates water, but I do not know if this is universal in donkeys (it does seem to be in goats). He will not brave mean hooves but he will lower himself to stand with the goats in their open stall, if the big girls really will not let anyone in with them.

The plants, of course long for rain. Everything has been struggling to get above ground, tall, thready stems, dense thick leaves clumped at the base & sand, sand, sand. The dust from the road so completely coats everything, I forgot what actual green leaves looked like.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Blogger's Quilt Festival

The idea is to choose my favorite quilt, show it & tell the story. This would of course require that I actually take pictures before I ship them off (sad admission for a professional record keeper, but there we are). But there is one quilt I do seem to make over & over again. It appeals to me in so many ways: it is graphic, it is simple while looking complex, & it is so forgiving we taught it at Arbor House helping new residents learn how to use their machines (& prove to them, no really you CAN make something) & that would be the Foundation Free String quilt.

The idea for the blocks had tumbled around in my brain for a while, but gelled when I saw the cover of Gwen Marsten's book Liberated String Quilts. I backed into the sashing (I call it Reconciling the Disparate; I am a big Daisy Parker fan) while trying to put together my guild's bingo block squares & discovering we had a size variation of more than 3/4" across the blocks & a shocking number of the squares were not square. This layout takes care of all that.

I really have lost track of how many of these I have made myself (10? 20?) & how many I have taught (30? more?) & I never stop being amazed at how different each one is, even when people share the same random pile of scraps. But of all of them that I have made, this is my favorite.

When C***** told me she had painted her bedroom black I thought "oh dear" & then when I saw it I could not believe how peaceful & restful it was. Black walls, windows with filmy white curtains & light blue accessories. It sounds gloomy but it really is one of the nicest bedroom color schemes I have ever seen. & this quilt was made especially for her in that room. I think what I love most about this quilt was my complete conviction that it would not come together (the black & white is tooo contrasting, the blue tooooo flat), but I used them because they were the colors I had to work with & it it turned out to be more than the sum of its parts.

//thank you Park City Girl for hostessing this great idea! & welcome to my 100th post.

Friday, April 17, 2009

How is a used book sale like the stock market?

Our local library has two book sales a year & they are impressive. The next one begins tomorrow & I would not miss it for the world. A will be out of town but I still plan to face the crowds (& there are crowds, believe me). Typically, we will drive downtown just before lunchtime; the real hardcore booklovers will have been waiting for the doors to open & will be trickling away by then. Sure, it will be blisteringly hot, but we will be able to find a parking spot.

We go to at least one sale a year & may go more than once in the course of the sale, each day getting progressively better bargains. I have never once been & not run into at least one person I knew would be there at some point (either because they said so or because it was so patently clear they must go at some point) & at least one person I was not expecting to see (not because I think these people are idiots, but because they just have not passed thru my brain in quite some time).

Last year we ran into several good friends including C***** who had brought J***** with her. He was going through old VHS tapes; she was looking for old 33rpm records to use in art projects. I also ran into M*** L** who talked at length about the GED program she volunteers with at the county jail; she was at the sale buying books to loan to the prisoners to meet their GED requirements. I learned that haiku is very big in the prison (or was last Fall) & a number of her books dealt with the history & architecture of that style of poetry. S** & R***** had traveled from their new home in North Carolina to volunteer at the sale because they miss it so much but did not happen to be there on the day we went. I wonder who I will see this year.

ANSWER: The initial sale (of book or stock) is the only time the originators (the author, the publisher, the principal of the company) really benefit financially. After that, the buying & selling of used books/stocks profits the seller. There are exceptions. My favorite is when a company goes public & the principal stays on as an 'adviser'. If the stock does well, the shareholders might vote him a big fat bonus.

If you are asking yourself why then does a company care so much what its stock is worth you are asking the wrong question; the company does not care (sort of), but the guy who is hired or fired on shareholder say-so cares very much.

//On re-reading this I realize I inadvertently implied I think people who do not support their local libraries &/or go to library book sales are idiots. Let me clarify: I think they are willful idiots which is so much worse than just plain old born stoopid. Glad to have the chance to clear that up.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April's famous deadline

April 15th is rolling around & that is a major deadline in this house. That's right, it is the final submission date for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Never heard of it, you say? Well fear not, you still have time find out what it is, complete your original entry & get it submitted.

There are so many things to love about Bulwer-Lytton & his writing, but I think what I like best is how sure we are that he was a bad writer. I recently found a quiz that brought home that point to me again; although to be fair I am not the biggest Charles Dickens fan walking the planet either (It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Bite me.).

Writing pulp fiction is harder than you think. I have been trying to write a romance novel since C****** was 11 years old. Somehow there is always a donkey (I do not mean a euphemism for jack ass I mean an actual donkey) & he ends up getting most of my attention. I have tried pretending the romantic nemesis is a donkey, but it just does not translate.

& so, in the spirit, or maybe not, of Edward Bulwer-Lytton & maybe or maybe not the contest that bears his name, I am giving you the opening lines to a few very good books (truly) books that could themselves have been candidates:

...But I should tell you that, come the apple festival of Transfiguration Day, when the sky begins to change from summer to autumn, it is the usual thing for our town to be overrun by an absolute plague of cicadas, so that by night, much as you might wish to sleep, you never can, what with that interminable trilling on all sides, and the stars hanging low over your head, and especially with the moon dangling just above the bell towers, for all the world like one of our renowned "smetana: apples, the kind the local merchants supply to the royal court and even take to shows in Europe.

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolunged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish plague which occured in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

I hope you will be ready to own publicly, whenever you shall be called to it, that by your great and frequent urgency you prevailed on me to publish a very loose and uncorrect account of my travels; with direction to hire some young gentlemen of either uiversity to put them in order, and correct the style, as my cousin Dampier did by my advice, in his book calld A Voyage Around the World.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Modest majority has moral misgivings OR How the infidels came to have Good Friday off

The Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) set the date of Easter as the Sunday following the 14th day of the paschal full moon, which is the full moon whose 14th day falls on or after the vernal (spring) equinox.

& it came to pass that our Houston consulting office was told (by a payroll auditor from the State of Texas) that we needed one more holiday to be in compliance with state law. The news was broken to all of us at the weekly staff meeting & I immediately moved for Ramadan. Not that I ever expected this would fly, but only the boss/owner laughed. The others actually said "but none of us are Muslim".

There was a list of choices, among them Good Friday, which also happened to be the next holiday on the calendar. I voted for Good Friday. The owner voted for Good Friday. The remainder of the staff stood with their mouths hanging open; the two of us did not have a great track record when it came to supporting group absences for religious holidays & it caught everyone off guard.

& then we explained. In this particular year, Good Friday coincided with Passover & my in-laws would be in town (for those who are curious Passover is NOT one of the holidays that State of Texas will consider an official or optional holiday but LBJ's birthday is). This accounted for my unusual sympathy.

But the best was saved for last. The boss wanted Good Friday because his golf course was not open on Mondays, so another Monday holiday was useless to him. There was pandemonium while the ethicacy of selecting a religious holiday for wholly unreligious reasons (unless you consider golf a religion, which F**** kind of does) was debated. & then we moved for a vote.

In the end, Good Friday became an official holiday in our office. & F**** got his golf game in. & I privately swapped Good Friday for whatever day Passover really was (someone has to deal with the calls from clients who do not observe Good Friday) & all was right with the world.

Monday, April 6, 2009

World's laziest hummingbird

There is an L-shaped small garden-y space at one corner of our big family/tv/window room. The space has house-outer-wall making two borders & poured-concrete-walkway making the other four. Parts get either full sun or no sun depending on the time of day or time of year (one of the walkways hemming it in is converting to a pergola that is slowly being covered with confederate jasmine). In short, whatever anyone (even previous homeowners) planted in this hostile (full sun, no sun, poor drainage) area, not much survived multiple seasons. Even weeds did not do well. Until the aloe.

The aloe was actually already there. A single small soap aloe plant was at the back edge, furthest from the sun (but int the days before the confederate jasmine this was less of an issue). My guess is it was leftover from an attempt to make this an herb garden. In principle it looks like the perfect spot for an herb garden. Until the rains come. The concave roofline made a waterfall out of the gentlest spring rain, the daily summer thunder-boomer flattened everything there. Everything except the aloe.

By the end of the first few years, the aloe had flowered, seeded & then her daughters flowered & seeded until the whole side immediately under that dangerous corner was thick with aloe. So thick, they were pushing each other up out of the ground.

& so I dug them out. Not all of them, just the biggest ones. I realize this seems counter intuitive but I figured the smaller ones would fill in soon enough. & they did. I gave many to W*****, who now has quite a crop herself, others I spread out in the sunny gaps under the banana tree, thinking they might hold back the weeds & to an extent they do). The others I planted in the newly cleared front portion of the same flower bed in which they had been born.

& there they have thrived. The stalks of blooms are tall enough to be seen through all the windows on that side of the room. The stalk in the picture above is well over three feet tall & others are growing up alongside it. All those hanging red blooms are more than the local hummingbirds can resist. We can see them even in winter on very warm days.

But this weekend we saw a pair of the biggest, slowest moving hummingbirds we have ever seen. The abundance has gone to their little brains.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The secret of flakey pastry

Trust me when I say I know flakey. I backed into my own barn (painted bright yellow) in the middle of the day while sober TWICE in one month. I saw the barn, but somehow forgot it was solid...? & that is just a small, recent example. I do flakey things with almost every breathe.

I think A's favorite must be the time I told Rick Smalley I was really sick of looking at all that bucky-sh*t & from now on if I found any magazines with C60 on the cover they were going straight into the recycling; A was interviewing for a job with Rick at the time. This turned out to be not such a bad thing actually. Rick's then-current wife had an I-cannot-believe-I-am-stuck-at-another-one-of-these-meet-&-greets look on her face most of the evening, but after I opened my mouth she perked up. I am sure A had mentioned why he was interviewing for this job, but it must have slipped my mind.

Now that my flakey credentials are established, let me pass along my recipe for flakey pastry. You can use it for empanadas or turnovers or you can roll it flat & use it for pie crusts (of the main course or dessert variety). Unlike most of my recipes, there will be some actual measurements involved. Please understand this means they are important, but it is still all mostly about proportion.

You will want a big mixing bowl with a wide opening (to work in) & another smaller bowl (for refrigerating the dough at the different stages). I like to mix in a ceramic bowl & refrigerate in a metal bowl, but that's me.

- in the large mixing bowl dry mix 3 cups of flour & of 1.5 teaspoons of sea salt (I think it matters but there are plenty who disagree). More flour than this will be unmanageable, so if you want 'more' you are better off making the dough twice.

- after these ingredients are well mixed (you can just keep spooning if through a sifter if you worry you will not be able to tell when the white grainy ingredient is well mixed into the white grainy ingredient), push it all into a mound in the bowl & make a small hollow in the center.

- add cold water to the empty center slowly. Stop, mix everything around a bit, make another hollow, add a bit more water, repeat (just like lather, rinse, repeat or faire mousser, rincer, répéter if you use salon brands). Ultimately it will about .75 cups of water, but in a humid climate it might be less; in a dry heat it will be more.

- during the repeats, slowly add 3.5 teaspoons of vinegar. I have always used a light (white wine or rice) vinegar, but someday I will use balsamic, just to see what happens.

- in a separate bowl, whisk 2 large egg yolks (or 3 medium or 4 small). Once all the water/vinegar has been absorbed by the flour/sea salt, mix the eggs in. The best way is with your clean, lightly floured hands. Keep a butter knife handy to scrape that sticky-eggy-goo back into the bowl every so often.

- it can be hard to see (it always looks not-quite-mixed), but you will be able to feel when it is well mixed. no really. Pat the dough into a ball shape & tip it into your refrigerator bowl (if you are changing bowls, which I really do recommend). Cover; you can use saran wrap or whatever & put in the fridge for not less than 30 minutes.

Now for the secret part. Earlier you should have taken one stick of unsalted butter & one stick of regular, lightly salted butter & put them on the counter to warm up. I should have mentioned this at the beginning but it is flakey pastry after all...

- in a small clean bowl (a third bowl, maybe), mix the two sticks of butter together. By the time you are finished, it should be easy to scoop some butter on a spatula & spread it evenly. The two sticks will be slightly different in color & texture, so you can see when they are blended. Do not substitute anything for this butter; margarine oils will separate & your pastry will not flake. Do not use either two salted sticks (too salty) or two unsalted sticks (wrong texture). One of each, I mean it.

- remove the chilled dough from the fridge, flour your counter (or board, but it will need to be a big board) & roll as flat & square/rectangle as you can. Let it rest for a minute or two. Then spread about 1/3 of the butter across the surface. Let it rest & then fold the dough back on itself. DO NOT KNEAD. Lift back into bowl, cover & refrigerate for another 30+ minutes.

- roll out, rest, spread another 1/3, rest, & fold. Back in the fridge & repeat one last time.

- after the butter has all been spread, leave the dough in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Overnight is fine, too.

Now you can move forward in an ordinary way. You will need to roll it out flat again & cut to fit your pie pan or dumpling press or whatever. Stuff with whatever please you. I have stuffed small empanada-style shapes with our regular pizza topping (cheese tomato sauce & broccoli in our house) , I have made larger ones filled with left-over chicken/potato/carrot casserole. Whatever you use, be sure it is either already cooked OR the cooking time will be adequate. If you are making a pie crust, bake (filled with pie filling) 350F for 35-45 minutes. If you are making smaller stuffed pastries, cook (filled with stuffing) 350F for about 15-25 minutes.

The secret is, of course the butter & how it behaves when cooked. You need thin thin layers of butter to create the light flakey dough. If you knead the butter in, the dough will not separate into layers, making light flakes & you will not get the desired effect or taste. It is still good, just not as good.

I have never made this recipe with anything other than butter but I was once served it made with margarine. Not only did it not flake, but it was a denser dough & did not roll out as smoothly. As a result, although it was lower in calorie it took more to make the pastry shells. I am sure it was not a calorie-for-calorie match, but if you ARE going to eat something fattening, shouldn't it be the best something it can be? If you are avoiding butter because it is a meat meal, let me suggest you go with something else all-together.

//the day I took these photos I used a whole wheat flour. I do not usually, but I did not have as much regular flour as I thought. As a result the dough was not as elastic & it did not spread as thin or fold as easily as it usually does. The results tasted different, but flaked just fine.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Salvaged wood

I was wandering around a local yarn store (not the new one, the other one) & came across a wooden version of something I have seen before: a disk, open in the center with a stick of the same material. I have seen glass ones & fimo ones & probably even wooden ones before, but never this far south. They are used to hold two sides of a knitted garment (shawl or kimono or even a sweater) closed. The stick goes thru the layers of knit stitches & across the disk, holding everything in place. It took longer to describe than it would have to show you:

I have mislead you. This photo is NOT of the one I saw that day. This one was made by Caleb Burton a local woodworker-cabinetmaker person. The wood is African, left over I believe from a larger project. He made several of these for me out of different woods after I gave him a not-nearly-so-nice-as-his example.

Actually, I gave it to his wife, Michelle (who you can reach at michelle_treewater@yahoo.com if you want him to make them for you). These pins are sanded as smooth you can imagine (my skin is rougher, no kidding) & oiled, but not sealed at my request. I want time to make her mark on them as I use them.

The knit shawl in the photos was a gift from my mom; last week I was no longer just 43 years old.