Saturday, April 30, 2011

Kansas troubles

Around the middle of March I got ensnared in a completely asinine conversation with my mother-in-law, the gist of which was how she resented paying higher taxes for other people's kids to go to school & not learn anything because the schools are completely broken.  While I do have issues (many, many issues) with the state of public education, I had never entertained her solution-that the whole system should be privatized or pay-as-you go.  My only response (I was a bit unprepared- not that I couldn't anticipate her opinion but that her son would ditch me with her for so long) was that didn't she think it was good thing that the person who handed her her medication could read?  She countered that no, she did not think that was important because the doctor can read & the pharmacist can read & she can read & papa can read & they can all check that the medication is right.  OKay then.

What she mostly kept flapping on about was some internet e-mail thing-y of an exam students used to have to take to graduate high school.  I cannot link to the original for you to view because the document was formatted landscape but my in-laws printed it portrait, making the headers & footers & therefore the source unreadable to me.  As for what did print, they could only read that mostly because the type was waaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyy oversized (but they don't need glasses, no sir).  The whole thing boiled down to her assertion (& that of the chain letter, I gather) that no one could answer these exam questions today & therefore public education was completely decayed & should be trashed.

For future visits to my in-laws, I am thinking of carrying a copy of the equation sheet given to students taking today's FCAT so the two of them can use it while they answer those questions on-line (I am not printing the whole test & killing all those trees just to make a point that will not be taken), but on the day itself I was lucky enough to spot the one & only complete question (completely printed question, that is):  Discuss the origins of the State of Kansas.

It was a gift, I tell you.  I (& pretty much every other person who has ever had a glance at a quilt history guide of any kind) can do 15-45 minutes on Kansas...Kansas Troubles that is.  & it all began today in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase.

I will spare you the history highlights & get straight to my favorite part:  the quilt blocks.  That is except to say I think the intention of the original exam question was to probe the students' understanding of the ratification of an abolitionist state that could have gone either way (free or slavery I mean).  I can do neither the history nor the quilts justice, but you can see quite a bit more here if you are interested (& you should be, it is interesting).

Kansas (OKay, a few more highlights are necessary) went on to make itself miserable, while trying to achieve a higher moral standard through narrow definition of the idea "high moral standard", by maintaining prohibition way longer than any other USState.  Voters approved the state constitutional amendment 30+ years before the change was made to US constitution & kept it on the books until after WWII ended.  Much more restrictive laws than any other state were still enforced well into to 1980s.   It is just the shortest step from prohibition to Carrie Nation & her legendary hatchet.  I have the vaguest recollection that the Kansas Troubles block is intended to represent her (hatchet, specifically), but I promise my mother-in-law was not listening any longer anyhow & never did get the quilt block connection.  Also, I think I might be wrong & the hatchet of the block is actually...something else.  History by quilt block is not an exact science.

Anyhow, we now arrive at the Carrie Nation quilt block, which looks like a cross between Puss in the Corner & Jacob's ladder to me, but hey, why not?  There are all kinds of other temperance related quilt blocks including the Temperance T & Drunkard's Path.  You could spend quite a while on this branch, but let's get back to Kansas, shall we?

There are other lovely Kansas-specific quilt blocks; Kansas Star is one of my favorites (although I did not know it was called Kansas Star until I started writing this blog entry-kind of like a FBQBS member who works for The Hartford but did not know the block she had chosen was called Hope of Hartford, not that I think the quilt block is about the insurance company).

It is hard to know exactly why quilting & Kansas are so linked; I know the Kansas City Star was one of the primary sources for quilt patterns (newspapers with declining subscription rates today don't have to buy a clue-I give them this one for free).  It was probably one of those crucible things.  For whatever reason, the Kansas City Star pretty much set the high-high standard of quilt patterns for decades & not surprisingly named many of the blocks after, well, Kansas & things Kansasian...Kansasite?    If I really wanted to know (& I do, now, kinda) I could get the book by Barbara Brackman.

Finally, I decided I should make some Kansas blocks of my own so I went to Quilter's Cache & printed the directions for Kansas Trouble (sic) & the variation & made one of each.  They are constructed on the same 4-patch idea with the swinging hatchet look.  I (& again, most contemporary quilters) can see how the variation could become more popular with the tools & techniques currently in favor, but I think I prefer the look of the traditional block.  To make the original, make four of the block on the left, to make the variation, make four of the block on the right.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The other life

The final exam for A's physics class was Saturday afternoon so bright & early Sunday morning he got to work.

Coco is always scratching her big horse rump against something.  After she did this, she moved down the fence line to the corner post & started rubbing on that.  As the fence sawed back & forth, this particular piece wold flex open & closed like an elbow.

& I am not sure who did it but someone kicked a chicken-sized hole in the back of the hen house early Friday morning.  I went out & found one small bird in the opening looking out.  By the time I got the materials for a temporary repair, the biggest fattest birds were trying to force themselves en masse through the opening. 

The donkey entertains himself on cold winter nights pulling down fence boards; this winter being what it was entire stretches of pole & board were just hanging off of their neighbors or gone entirely. But by lunchtime yesterday the fence looked like this:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What would Adolf do?

Yea, I mean the Nazi icon himself, Der Führer.  & there is absolutely no reason to ask what he would do because, well, we know.  A better question is what would we do without him.  That's right, let's imagine a 24-hour period in which no one called anyone else a Nazi/Fascist/the New Hitler.  I am thinking we could roll-back all those cable channels to just the evening news.

Early last year I got so fed up I crossed all Nazi references off my radar.  If a book had Nazis or Hitler references of any kind, I didn't read it, movie-I didn't see it, song I didn't sing it... Sorry about that last one, I've been listening to a lot of Petula Clark lately & apparently it is rubbing off.  Which brings us to why I have not yet read The Girl With/Who Whatever books (or seen the movie Inglourious Basterds); I was trying to have a Nazi-free year. 

It is harder than it sounds.  Okay, parts were easier.  Not that I was ever likely to watch much Glenn Beck, but now I had a reason because the Nazis come up a lot.  Also, I no longer had to even pretend to read the books my in-laws try to foist on me because well, they are all about Nazis.  But there are some perfectly other-wise unobjectionable books with Nazis:  Pink Slip for example (where the Nazis are oh-so-incidental but still quite vivid for all that), & The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society (which I had just read, so I was Okay with that).

Which bring me back to What Would Adolf Do? & I guess I should be embarrassed to say he just might do exactly what I am doing, throwing perfectly good literature, art & science (Okay, I tossed no science, but you get my point) out because it contains a reference I don't like.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

By any other name

When we first moved here, someone had planted three roses (of different colors & types, although I did not know that until later) in a very narrow, smallish space right next to the main gate out of our backyard.  By main gate I mean the one we used from the cars, the one the meter reader used, etc.  The couple we bought the house from had made many positive changes in the few years they lived here; this was not one of them.  By the following spring, the first rose bush had grown the 2.5" inches or so required to start interfering with the gate itself.  Digging out all three of them for replanting (as opposed to just hacking them out) was quite a task & I am not sure would not have bothered except R***** said she wanted them & it seemed churlish not to pass them on.

Anyway, they got planted outside the bay window in her kitchen & that is how we learned one of them was a yellow climbing rose (it was eventually moved to her back fence), one of them was lightly bushy with very few large red blooms (Mr. Lincoln, I presume) & one produced a lot of the tiniest pinkish, yellowish little flowers you ever saw along with many, many, many thorns.  I have not thought much about roses from that spring to this.

That is when the local community education catalog came & there was a one-day class on varieties of antique roses.  One day I could manage & something more obscure (& frankly denser green without the super-abundance of fast dieing blooms that need a super-abundance of deadheading) appealed.  Let me stop here & say this is what I thought antique roses were:  less work, fewer flowers, more likely to be fragrant, not the same rose every local housing development would have somewhere in the landscaping of their show model.  & surprise, surprise I was mostly right.  I might be wrong about the fewer blooms thing, that depends on what varieties you compare.

I came home with an overload of information-I was without question the least gardening person there; which is not to say they were not all excellent & experiences gardeners, the truth is I do not set the bar very high.  So I had several handouts & a list of vocabulary used in class to look up later (I'm not shy but it seemed obnoxious for me to keep interrupting with "& what does that word mean?").

I also came home with three small roses to plonk down somewhere I can smell them & the name of the once-a-month antique rose dealer within walking distance of my front door (I know, right?).  I will let you know how we do.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Le Grand Coeur Galoot

There is, as you may know, a lot of chatter about pitbulls:  how they are dangerous, how they make great family pets, how there no such breed as pitbull, how they are a clearly identifiable set of physical characteristics linked to aggressive behavior, how long do I need to keep this up before you get the picture. 

I am rather ambivalent on the whole thing.  I know lots of lovely pitbulls (there, I said it) & for each one I have met one whose owner got it BECAUSE he/she hoped it would be aggressive.  I think maybe it is just possible that all this profiling has made pitbulls (said it again) ATTRACTIVE to people who want to look badass.  The upshot is that the laws that are passed are challenged left & right (that's your tax money defending it people) & heartbreaking &/or unenforceable even where they are not challenged.

So I have decide to take another road, not a higher road, but certainly one less traveled.  When asked if my flat-headed, under-slung-jawed spaz is a pitbull, I react with horror.  No of course not, he is a Grand Coeur Galoot. I have even toyed with the idea of doctoring papers (from L'Académie de Chien?  The Óstlann Gadhar-dhiúité? The sky is the limit, really).  The reactions are mixed:  "Oh, he looks like a pitbull, but he's so friendly" is the most frequent,  my vet & his tech laughed out loud, & my personal favorite "what's wrong with a good old american dog?  Why do you people always get some fancy french thing?"  Actually that last one was paraphrased; I took out at least one Gawd dammmm.  

As it happens our boy did not get as big as we thought he would & when standing next to a male *ahem* pitbull of the same age he looks kind of puny.  So we have revised it:  Petit Grand Coeur Galoot.

This breed renaming thing did not start here for us: this little girl on the right (your right, my left) is not a dachshund mix (dachshunds being the biting-est breed there is, just look at that other killer in the picture,  No, not me, although I was quite the biter as a child) or even a chihuahua mix.  She is Schnitzel de Hua Hua (prounonced Vah Vah).  & my brother has a Wall-eyed Dingo...OKay, it's not his dog it's just visiting...for two years & counting.

While I didn't tell you that bit to tell you this one, it seems like as good a time as any.  You know the show The Big Bang Theory?  I L*O*V*E it.  Love it love it love it.  The first time A saw it he was irritated.  Why do people make fun of physicists, why is it OKay to make fun of physicists, there has never been a more stereotyped group than physicists.  He said this to me, his wife, an actual natural born blonde.  I pointed out all the implied dumb blonde jokes in the same episode & oh by the way, get over yourself, which to his credit he did.

My final point is to all the people wringing their hands over unfair canine stereotypes, there is a small ungenerous part of me that wants to say "tell it to a french poodle".  Yea, I know there are no laws saying poodles must be shot on sight, but when you start tracking the breeds of the dogs coming into vet clinics because some one kicked them, threw them out a window, tried to microwave them, etc. miniature poodles are winning.  Or losing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Log cabin count down

A brief interruption to just nudge anyone interested in the log cabin swap.  Blocks are due here Saturday April 30th.   I was not sure what I would do if the gov't shutdown & non-essential services were turned off (i.e. our local mail delivery staff would have been halved for the second time in

We have a 6th block person, who is making a quilt (or quilts, if we get enough blocks) for kid(s) in her local foster care system.  If you want to participate, send your five blocks to swap (with return envelope, et cetera) & a 6th block which I will send on to her.

The block is a semi-traditional log cabin.  The specifics of the block can be found here & here, but sometimes a photo of the actual swap blocks helps, too:

The centers should be RED, one side either dark or light & the other side three fabrics, one of which should have a "nature" theme (ideally a leaf pattern but flowers are fine, too).  All the planks should be cut 2.5" & the unfinished size is 14.5" (14" finished, which you can see is bigger than my dog, so that is a pretty good size.  Nine could easily make a baby-sized quilt.

PS:  Please please remember the deadline for this swap is "due by" not "postmarked by".  It is true that if you tell me your blocks are in transit (especially if you are on another continent or even at the other end of the US) & they do not arrive by the deadline, there are a few sets I can hold for re-mix (those going to people I actually see in the course of the week or so following the swap & of course, those going to me), but this usually means you get at least some of your own back unless it has been a particularly popular swap.  Our local post office has taken one of the worst cuts I have heard of (we suspect they are trying to get us to all get post offices boxes so they could faze out rural delivery entirely), so delivery has been slower than usual.  Within the US-48 blocks should be in the mail no later than Monday, April 25th to get here on time.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Magnolia mothers & daughters

We have two of the largest, most wonderful a Magnolia grandiflora in almost opposite corners of our backyard.  While certainly the same kind of tree, they are obviously not from the same cutting:  they bloom on slightly different schedules (one always a week or so later than the other & somehow finished sooner), when they first emerge their buds are dramatically different shapes (one looks just as yo would expect, the other is long & narrow like a cigarette & thickens to a more bulb shape over a few days).  They are so big & so healthy that on a hot humid afternoon you can sit between them & feel the fragrance hanging over you like a curtain.  They are wonderful.

In the fall, they produce large prickly seed pods with very dramatic red, red seeds.  I used to hurl them into the no-man's-land between our front yard & the road (a space about 16' wide we let grow wild so we have some barrier from the dust of the road).  Over the years I have tossed many things in there & as a result we have quite a a mixture that more or less does just fine.  I mentioned once to a more experienced gardener that was doing this & he told me it would never work.  The seeds need to be soaked, et cetera et cetera & it was more work than I was interested in especially once he said it was unlikely any of the seeds had been fertilized anyhow (in his defense he had never been to my house & I am not sure I mentioned I had two adult, almost-adjacent trees).  So I stopped doing this about five years ago, after doing it for seven or so years in a rather haphazard way with no discernible results. 

Did you know it takes up to fifteen years for Magnolia grandiflora to flower for the first time?  & in an undergrowth of young cedars, virginia creeper, varieties of sumac & mimosa, not to mention an airy but thorough ground cover of ferns along with various other take-a-chance plants, it can be hard to catch  sight of those signature leaves, especially if you are not looking for them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Spring is over, long live spring

In mid-February, when my mom was visiting, we took a walk around the local botanical garden.  I used to spend a lot more time there than I do now; I had not been since the last time we took my mom.

When we went our own backyard camellias were peaking & slipping down the other side, theirs were as good as over; their azaleas were in full bloom, ours opened later in March; the bulb garden was in full swing, ours were also in full swing, mostly because I force them indoors BUT the amaryllis someone planted outside the back door, when the house ended at the kitchen & now that garden is in the corner behind the Trane were not blooming yet, then.  They are just opening now.

These seasonal pockets can be quirky: my yard lags behind a neighbors by about a day & of course on the grand scale, what is already waiting for next spring here is just this spring springing where my mom actually lives, so she is kind of having two springs.  I wonder if that is why she always tries to visit in February?

Whatever the reason, that day spring was everything it should be & we were in a garden.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Not your mother's tofu..not that I know your mother, maybe it is her tofu

More than a few people have told me recently that they might be willing to eat more tofu if only they knew what to do with it &/or they had a bad (i.e. bland) tofu experience 20+ years ago & have not been back for seconds.  Also, I have had a few husbands say they would not eat tofu, not matter what including one guy who had been eating tofu for let's just say a while without ever questioning what it was.  It might be chicken.  Very square chicken.

For those who do not know, tofu is what happens when milk made from soy beans coagulates & is then pressed to remove moisture.  & before you get all EWW disgusting, chicken nuggets are primarily made from offal.  In the game of I-may-never-stop-gagging, chicken nuggets win.

When you buy tofu at the store, it is usual to open the container & move the block to another container of fresh, clean water although I admit if I know I am going to use it within the next day, I don't bother. Once you have moved it however, you will want to change the water every day or so until you do use it.  Because tofu blocks are large for a single meal, it is likely you will not use a whole block at once.  Just tip out the water, add fresh to cover the remaining block (& then put the cover on the container so you don't slosh water all over the fridge) & put it back in the fridge.  Because there is so much water in tofu, I have never frozen it.  I am quite sure the texture would change dramatically, but for all I know it changes back, or it is a pleasing change.  Someone will have to try that & let me know.

If all of this water changing sounds like too much work, you can do what I do which is cook it all at once & then use it in salads, casseroles, sandwiches, scrambled eggs, etc. over the next few days.  If you are going to go this route, you want to cook it in a spice or spices or flavors that will 'match' the rest of the menu for the next few days.  Or not, I suppose, if you want something completely different.

This is what I do:

I buy extra firm tofu & cut it into cubes no bigger than my thumb.  I have small hands so think small cubes.

I take whatever pan I will be using; I like a big flat pan with high sides, but anything you have would work.  If you have been looking for a reason to use that old wok, here it is.

At this point I either cook something else in the pan (sauteing onions is the way I am most likely to go) or in a cold (Okay room temperature) pan I put in as little light oil as possible to cover the bottom.  This will involve adding a few drops, & swishing the pan around.  Again, because tofu has so much water, you don't want to add any more moisture than you need to.  At this point I often also add whatever spices I might be using.  Lately I have been favoring a mix of spices from Pakistani cuisine, last summer I was on a kind of chili powder kick, but I have been known to go with curry or sage or sesame or paprika...anything really.  A friend of mine puts bouillon cubes in the pan with the littlest bit of water, lets that cook away & then adds the tofu.  Whatever you fancy will probably work; tofu picks up flavors readily (another good reason to keep it covered in the fridge).

Then I turn on the heat, let one side sizzle, gently stir, let the next side sizzle.  The sides exposed to to the hot pan & spice will shrink a bit, giving it a lopsided sort of look until all of them have shrunk down.  All told, it probably won't take much more then ten minutes or so giving you ample time to call your mother or make next weeks grocery list or empty the dishwasher or whatever between stirrings.

When it is done, maybe tip it onto a plate covered with a paper towel to cool.  Or spoon it, depending on how wet/oily the whole thing is.  After it cools, you can put the cooked tofu into sealed containers & refrigerate a day or three until you are ready to use them.

It doesn't sound like much but added to salad it will add well, calcium & protein.  & yes, it will also add some fat, but compared to what you might eat instead, it is an improvement.   As for all those studies about increased dementia, keep in mind the study looked at elderly japanese men who 1) ate way more tofu in their lives than you will even if you eat it every day starting today & 2) the same group also had a much lower incidence of heart disease colon cancer, etc & lived way longer than you are going to if you are eating any other fried crap, so stop worrying.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pascua Florida Day

I confess I have lived here for a while, longer than I lived anywhere except the house I grew up in, but this year is the first time I have ever heard of Pascua Florida Day.  This is doubly odd as it IS the state holiday & my husband works for the state.  Pascua Florida Day is actually April 2, but this year Florida is observing it on -you guessed it- April Fool's Day. 

It is just too easy to make fun of Florida (recently a state representative was reprimanded for using the word "uterus" while talking about abortion rights); fool doesn't really seem like enough. So, let's stick to tomorrow's holiday today.

When Ponce de Leon first discovered Florida (& he was here first, no matter what the Timocua thought), he named the place for the flowers that were all around him (Florida = Land of Flowers).  Specifically, he named it for the easter-time feast of flowers or Pascua Florida.  I went looking for information about Pascua Florida but it turns out there are A LOT of spanish flower festivals.

Every school child knows (well, when I was a school child I knew) that Ponce de Leon was looking for the Fountain of Youth.  The gold every other spanish explorer put at the top of his list is just sort of implied.  He didn't find it but every little-bit older school child knows/knew that for much of the 20th century the people moving to Florida were still looking for the Fountain of Youth; at the end of the last century, 20% of the population was over 62 or older, while nationwide less than 15% of the population was over 62.   Plenty of other people come here to recapture youth temporarily, they tend to hang out & about around Disney.  Lost youth is big business here.  Anyone who has taken a look at the state of education knows that current youth doesn't have quite the same importance.

Don't get me wrong, I love it here.  I would have a lot of trouble uprooting & moving someplace else, even some place that used to be on my top ten I wish I lived there list (which Florida never was).  Still when I hear things like "as California goes, so goes the nation" I think about Florida, because here just might be where good old bad ideas come to revisit their lost youth.

In the end, Ponce de Leon was killed by a poison dart from the manchineel tree (the dart was dipped in the poison, I think, not made from the wood although I am told the wood IS poisonous, so maybe) a tree which has both male & female reproductive parts on a single plant.  Also, the flowers are really not all that much to look at, but they do pack quite a wallop.