Sunday, December 26, 2010

Comfort & Joy

Last weekend, I made my very first loaf of real bread. Oh, sure, I'd made quick breads--banana, zucchini, etc.--but never anything requiring yeast.  I decided to try the no-knead bread from the New York Times, which is perfect for the lazy. It requires only flour, salt, yeast, water, and about 20 hours rising time, in a room that was at least 70 degrees F. This presented the only obstacle: our 1927 farmhouse does not have central heat, is not well-insulated, and is rather drafty. We use the woodstve in the fireplace and lots of down comforters to stay warm. There are small space-heater-like units in the wall of each room, but none of these is capable of getting and keeping the room at a balmy 70--except for the one in the bathroom.

Cat and dough enjoying the warmth

Yes, I know: food in the bathroom. Ewwww. But, I reasoned, it's in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and I'll put it up on top of the hideous, laminate cabinet (bathroom was sadly "renovated" in the late 70s/early 80s--all 20s charm is gone, gone, gone). With the door firmly closed, it was possible to keep the windowless bathroom warm enough for the yeast to do its thing. My bread got a little more than 18 hours rising time, because I got confused calculating times and started the bread at 9 AM, which gave me a choice of getting up at 3 AM, or letting the bread rise for a few extra hours--you can guess which I chose. The extra time didn't hurt it at all, and it baked up beautifully in my cast iron Dutch oven. I was so proud and excited you'd think I'd discovered penicillin. The bread was enjoyed with soup, and the remnant used to make the "Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good" on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, date of the Winter Solstice and lunar eclipse, was our first wedding anniversary. The rainy weather on the west coast made it impossible to see the eclipse, which was huge disappointment, and a family illness put a bit of a damper on anniversary festivities. We decided to wait and celebrate on the 22nd, when the loved one was out of danger. My dear husband bought me books because, as he noted (to my amazement), the traditional gift for a first anniversary is paper.  I, jumping inadvertently ahead to the traditional fifth anniversary wood gift, got him a wooden cutting board made by the farmer from whom we buy our vegetable out of wood from a white oak on his farm. We had dinner at the wonderful Bistro Maison, a marvelous French restaurant. The rain stopped long enough for us to walk there and back--a great way to justify the calories consumed in the baked Alaska we had for dessert.

As I've noted previously, Christmas is not my favorite time of year and I try to ignore it as much as possible. My grinchy-ness was alleviated somewhat this year by a number of examples, some local, some far away, of generous and unselfish giving that offset the annoying orgy of consumerism I associate with the holiday. I made it through five hours(!) of Christmas music on Christmas Eve before I snapped and started throwing things. And on Xmas day, though I lost my ambition to make the full turkey/dressing/cranberry sauce dinner I'd planned, I did manage to roast a turkey breast and make a ginger-pear upside-down cake while recruiting my ever-indulgent husband to make the sauce, mashed potatoes and green beans with almonds.

We even had a minor Christmas miracle: two members of the household managed to catch fire Xmas day, and neither of them was the accident-prone moi! My husband was sitting on the hearth in front of the fire, watching a basketball game online, and I was in the kitchen peeling pears. Suddenly, I heard him shout "Fuck!" and I ran to see what was wrong. A couple of sparks from the crackling fire had landed on his fleece pullover which, being basically plastic, promptly began to melt onto his skin. I helpfully observed, "Oh, you're on fire," as he wrangled his way out of the smoldering, smelly mess.

Later, we were sitting at the table, candles lit, when our long-haired cat Baxter (pictured above) decided to saunter across the table to see if any stray turkey might come his way. Sadly, his magnificent fluffy tail brushed against a candle, causing a shower of sparks and the ever-so-appetizing smell of burnt hair. Kitty was luckily unharmed, although he kept looking at his tail and trying to figure out if it was the source of the extremely unpleasant odor.  As my husband said, it's not a successful party until someone catches fire. And so another Christmas is survived--this time with the comfort and joy of a partner who is understanding of my neuroses about the season and who will turn off the music when I just can't bear another note.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bah, humbug

Just enough room for kitty to rest his head. Apple is so thoughtful.

Today I bought my very first pair of long underwear. I've had thermal long-sleeved tees before, but never a real set of long johns, for very good reason: I've never needed them. If it was that cold outside, them obviously the right thing for me to do was to stay indoors where it's cozy and warm.

So why now? Because I need to walk every day, and I won't be able to force myself to get up and do it if I'm going to be cold and miserable. Yes, it's true, I'll admit it: exercise makes me feel better--not just physically, but mentally. Happy, every know-it-all doctor I've ever had? You were right. God, I hate saying those words.

Since the rainy season started a month ago, my walks have been few and far between, and I definitely feel the worse for it. Here's hoping the thermal undies can help me overcome my reluctance to leave a warm bed to walk on a cold, dark morning.

So, only three weeks until the horror known as Christmas is behind us for another year. I don't know about you, but I can't wait. I despise the Christmas music everywhere, the orgy of consumerism, the waste, the forced cheer. Now, I'll admit that I don't have warm, fuzzy memories of wonderful childhood Christmases--the one that stands out most is the time my grandfather, drunk by noon on Xmas day, ran over a dog on the way to the big family dinner and didn't even slow down--and perhaps that colors my feelings for the season.

To the extent I can, I ignore it. I don't decorate at all, and I only buy gifts for the children in my life. It helps enormously that we don't have a TV and I only listen to public radio, so I'm not overwhelmed with commercials. I stay away from stores as much as possible, and give thanks that I live in a town without a shopping mall.

I made slice-and-bake cookies for the first time in years this weekend. I grew up on Pillsbury slice-n-bake cookies, the only kind my grandmother ever made. The ones shown above did not come from one of the dough boy's neat round tubes, however. They are maple-pecan sandies, and they're an odd shape because I couldn't get the log of dough very round. The recipe calls for them to be dipped in melted bittersweet chocolate, but I can't decide whether to do this or not. They're really good plain. Probably should test a few more before I make up my mind.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In Memoriam

Boys' Night Out at Ayers Rock with Jenny by N. J. Irza

Thanksgiving was long my favorite holiday. This probably has something to do with the fact that I stopped spending it with my family when I was in college, always electing thereafter to be with friends on that day.  More importantly, it lacked the pressure, consumerism, and expectations that haunted Christmas and turned me into a grinch at an early age. Thanksgiving was about gratitude and good food and friends, all things I could support wholeheartedly. 

Bird, by N. J. Irza

One friend I shared Thanksgivings with was Nick Irza. He and his partner, Jim, were my gay godfathers, and Nick in particular became the father I never had, and I was his princess. Nick was an artist--these are his paintings here.  After Jim passed away, we became especially close, and spent most holidays together. He was a wonderful cook, and I had inherited lots of china, silver, and crystal. We made a great entertaining team. On Saturday, November 22, 2006, Nick and I were decorating the Thanksgiving altar at the Episcopal Cathedral. In addition to being a member of the congregation, Nick was an amazing florist. He was feeling unwell and sat down to supervise while I did something simple like put chrysanthemums in brass urns. Suddenly, he said, "I think I'm having a heart attack." 

Spirit Cats, the first painting Nick did after his partner's death

I looked around and he was white as a sheet, he head gleaming with perspiration. I called 911, and foudn the sexton to tell him what was going on. He called the priest and brought in reinforcements from the altar guild to finish the altar. I followed Nick's ambulance to the hospital and let the medical staff think I was his daughter so I could stay with him. Nick was uninsured, and we were not the medical staff's highest priority.  By the time we saw a resident, lividity was setting in. By the time the cardiologist arrived, I knew from the look on her face that he was going to die. They took him to surgery, but were unable to repair his ruptured aorta. He never woke up. 

Persephone Moon

His funeral was held in the Episcopal Cathedral we'd been decorating on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. He and I had planned to spend the holiday at my house with two other friends. Nick was to cook the turkey, while I made the jalapeno cornbread dressing, praline sweet potatoes, and pecan pie. I was too devastated to face the traditional meal. I made pasta and got extremely drunk, then lay in the back seat of the car giving incoherent directions while the friends who'd joined me for dinner drove around my neighborhood to look at the elaborate Xmas lights.

Matthew, a sketch in pencil of one of Nick's 12 cats

Thanksgiving was kind of ruined for me for several years. It wasn't until I moved to Oregon that I made a turkey with all the trimmings again. The holiday is still bittersweet, because it's forever linked to a devastating loss. But I have much to be grateful for, not the least of which is that I had Nick in my life, and that I am still surrounded every day my his beautiful paintings. Artists have the only kind of immortality I can believe in, a legacy of work that lives on and tells the world who they were. Nick left some magnificent creations that will bring joy for generations. I also have a living, breathing reminder of him: one of his cats, a black female named Nikita in his honor. 

Phoenix Pear

I will spend this Thanksgiving with my husband and a friend who is coming to stay with us. This friend also knew and loved Nick, came to the hospital to sit with me while he was in surgery, and went with me to his house afterwards to feed his cats and parrots and to honor Nick's final request that I get rid of his porn before any lawyers, executors, or family arrived. 

May you spend this holiday with people you care about, and may you be thankful for their presence in your life. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When you get lemons, make lemon bars

It was a lovely, productive weekend here in the Valley.  I remembered to start my paperwhites, so perhaps they will be blooming in time for the solstice next month. I love their scent, and the bright white blooms in the midst of winter. I was excited to find a tip to keep them from getting too tall and falling over: water them with gin. Not pure gin, but about 7 parts water to 1 part gin (or vodka or other liquor you have on hand). I'll be using gin because, in a foolish, foolish attempt at economy, I tried a less expensive brand and it was ghastly. Never economize on liquor, darlings. It's always a mistake.  

The pumpkin in the background is in the oven right now, after being stuffed with everything good--in this case, rice, bacon, aged white cheddar, some blanched winter greens, a few black trumpet mushrooms, lots of garlic, and scallions. 

When baked in the pumpkin with a bit of cream for an hour and a half, it produces a sort of risotto. When you mix in the pumpkin flesh, it makes a great meal in a bowl.Another benefit? No pots or pans to wash. And plenty of leftovers for lunch tomorrow. My kind of meal.

There were a couple of errands I'd needed to do for a few weeks--dropping off items at a consignment shop and at Goodwill after the lastest round of closet purging. The way I dress has changed dramatically since I moved to Oregon and started working for a small, home-based business instead of for a university library. Unless I'm at a book fair, I only see my four colleagues at work, and we all wear the usual Oregon uniform of jeans with tees, fleece, sweaters, or hoodies. When I was a child, I loved reading biographies, especially those of women. There were few of these to choose from in the 60s, so I read several bios of Dolley Madison, First Lady, famed hostess, and the woman who introduced ice cream to the U.S. I always remembered Dolley's Quaker mother rebuking her for her interest in fashion: "If thou art clean and warm, that is enough." Add "and dry" to that and you have the Oregon dress code.  So off go the skirts, heels, and cashmere overcoat I haven't worn in two years. May someone else find them useful. 

The most exciting event of the weekend was the arrival of the first Meyer lemons of the season at the local market. These are my favorite citrus fruits--tangy and tart, but not sour. They're wonderful for baking and, of course, for one of my favorite cocktails, the Lemon Drop. No sugar needed for the latter, just vodka and lemon juice, as God intended. 

I used this week's lemons to make one of my favorite desserts, lemon bars. It's amazing what one can do with just a half pound of butter, almost a pound of sugar, half a dozen eggs, some flour, and half a dozen lemons.

I got to use one of my most beloved kitchen tools, the Microplane zester. Truly, this thing changed my life. 

I get my eggs from a local farmer. Her chickens are laying fewer as the days get shorter and colder, so a half dozen in one go was quite the extravagance, but oh-so worth it. 

My hands were sore from juicing and zesting, but the final product eased the pain. Kitty cookie jar approves. 

They're not really lemon bars until they're dusted with powdered sugar. Only problem? You have to wait for them to cool. 

But then, suddenly, they're ready. And they're amazing. So rich. Tart and tangy, not too sweet. Perfect.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sun and Shadow

It was delightful to wake up this morning to sunshine, especially when the forecast called for rain. I hate getting up in the dark, so I was happy to say goodbye to daylight savings time. This morning I went for a walk--the first time in a couple of weeks I've been able to do so in the early morning. I've missed it. Afternoon walks after work can be nice, too--I look forward to getting out after sitting at a computer all day--but the mornings are so quiet and peaceful, and really set a tone for the rest of the day. 

An unexpectedly sunny weekend day also meant an opportunity for gardening. I cut back the dying peony foliage and fertilized the plants, transplanted the hyssop to a better location, pulled weeds, cleaned up dead plants, harvested compost for the bulbs and roses, and mulched the back beds with leaves.  It was a perfect day to be outside.

The afternoon was taken up with baking cookies, doing laundry, and searching the house for my purse, which I can't find anywhere. All I can figure out is that I must have left it in my car when I got home for the farmers' market on Saturday, and that someone took it from the unlocked car. At least it had no cash in it, so it's just the inconvenience of canceling my debit card, three credit cards, and replacing my driver's license (the picture sucked anyway) and library card. No point getting upset about it--it's just stuff. I'm just glad there was no cash in it (I was looking for the purse to put a significant-for-me amount of cash into it when I realized it was gone) and that the car was unlocked so I didn't have a broken car window, too. 

While looking for my purse, I went through closets and found some things to take to the consignment shop and some others to donate to Goodwill. I realized for the first time that another purse I had once loved--and that I had spent far too much money for several years ago--had been in the suitcase that I lost at O'Hare airport last March. If I didn't even realize it was gone, I must not have needed it in the first place. I find myself caring less and less about possessions and wanting to pare down more and more as I get older. I'm horrified to look back and think about how much money I wasted on things I didn't need. 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Planting of the Bulbs

Misty morning

The autumn rains have arrived, just at the same time as the spring bulbs I'd ordered. Friday was our one sunny, gorgeous day this week--all of which I spent at work. I was thrilled to wake up this morning to find it merely foggy, not raining. I've been missing my morning walks, so I got up and headed off for a tramp through the neighborhood. The leaves were lovely, the jack-o-lanterns were out in force, and the kitties were relishing the lack of rain as much as I was.

Cat on a Subaru. Pretty much sums up my neighborhood.

After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with leftover salmon cakes and a croissant, I headed out to the garden to plant bulbs. I go crazy ordering bulbs every year--I can't help myself. There is no such thing as too many daffodils, a strong contender for my favorite flower. When I was growing up in South Carolina, they were sometimes in bloom for my late February birthday. Later, when I was grown up and had moved away, Mama sent me a pot of daffodils for my birthday every year until she died.  I always thought they looked like ballerinas in yellow tutus and green tights.

Pretty overhead . . .

and underfoot.

So anyway, I had ordered a grab bag of 25 daffodil bulbs to be put in the beds out back for cutting flowers, three heirloom Rose of May daffs for the white garden, 50 blue and white anemones to go around the fountain, some winter aconit out front for a mid-winter splash of yellow, 10 dark, dark purple heirloom crocus bulbs, and 25 bluebells and 25 snowdrops for the shade garden. The heirloom red and white flame tulip bulbs are cooling in the fridge for another couple of weeks, since our winters usually don't get quite cold enough for them.

First, there were two blueberry bushes that had to be transplanted to a sunnier spot. Then, the gargantuan cosmos--seriously, these things were taller than I am--had to be chopped out of the bed they had commandeered, and the always opportunistic mint brutally ripped out where it isn't wanted. Then compost had to be worked into the soil, and only then could bulbs be planted.

It took more than four hours, but I got them all in. Then a hot shower and 800 mg. of ibuprofen before putting together a big pot of chili to simmer for dinner. It's a recipe from a friend who grow up in Texas, and the spices and peppers did magical things with simple beef, tomatoes, and onions. Shout-out to SFL for the best chili I've ever had!  With some homemade cornbread (look Ma, no Jiffy mix!), it made the perfect Halloween supper.  Darling husband was in charge of handing out candy to the Trick-or-Treaters, whom he also entertained with his Elmo and Grover had puppets (he has the voices down).

My husband's dream is to own his own vineyard and winery, and he's often asked me what my dream is. I've never had an answer, until today. My dream is to create a beautiful garden. Not a fancy formal garden, but a simple cottage garden filled with old-fashioned flowers, herbs, and some fruits and veggies.  Not a very exciting dream, but my own, and one I can chase after forever.

Happy Halloween!!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Domestic Blitz

I have been in a fit of domesticity this past week or so. Last weekend was a gorgeous, perfect Indian Summer weekend--probably the last sunny weekend we'll see for months. So what better time to spend three hours cleaning my kitchen? What can I say, the urge struck to go through cabinets, pick out items to donate or recycle, and to clean everything thoroughly. No doubt my fabulous new cleaning gloves--a gift from a friend who knows me well--were part of the inspiration:

I rounded up sufficient items in the cabinets, along with a desk, an A/C window unit we've never used, a box of tile, some shutters that had been languishing in my basement, and a few miscellaneous tools, to put together a nice donation for the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore.  It felt great to get rid of things we don't use and to organize the remaining items. I did make some time to spend outside, walking through the neighborhood, reading in the garden, and picking some flowers. The cosmos that ate my garden continue to bloom profusely, and they make lovely, long-lasting cut flowers.

It was a tough week at work, so I tried to rally the troops with some no-bake cookies, a combo of butter, sugar, cocoa, vanilla, peanut butter and rolled oats that comes out somewhere between cookie and candy. When in doubt, make cookies, I say. My husband has been putting in insane hours at the winery for the grape harvest, and at last all the fruit is in. There's still plenty of work to be done, but getting the fruit in before the rains started was everyone's #1 concern. Big sighs of relief all round. We actually got to go out for a drink Friday night--first time since early September--and he was off this weekend, and thus available to be put to work around the house. I have a bad back (no, really!) and he does the heavy housework like floors and the garden tasks like mowing (did I mention I'm also allergic to cut grass? It's true!).

Partly because I'm tired of paying the ridiculous prices for cleaning products, and partly because I'm concerned about chemicals in common household cleaners, I've begun to make my own. Laundry detergent, all purpose spray cleaner, and furniture polish were whipped up within minutes at very little cost. Better Basics for the Home and the Care2 website offer much assistance and easy recipes. I used my fabulous formulas to clean the bathroom and polish furniture this weekend, while adding to my "good Oregonian" bona fides by making granola and yogurt for my favorite daily breakfast.

I also did some canning. The autumn rains arrived in force this weekend, and it was clear the rest of my tomatoes were not going to ripen. My grandmother used to make this green tomato relish I adored, but I didn't have the recipe. Internet to the rescue--I googled about until I found something that sounded very similar to what Mama used to make. I chopped up the tomatoes (50 or so, mostly very small) along with green peppers from my CSA, red bell peppers, some not-hot Pacific Northwest jalapenos, and some onions in the food processor, producing a mush that looked like this:

Thanks to Cuisinart, it was much faster and easier than in Mama's day. I remember she and our maid, Jay-Ola, would set up an old wooden kitchen table in the yard and attach a metal meat grinder to the edge with a vise grip. Then they would feed in the vegetables, taking turns cranking out a similar mush into an enameled washtub. My way lacked the atmosphere, but was much easier on the arms. The veggies are tossed with pickling salt (yes, it is different--I had to look it up) and left to stand for a few hours, then cooked in boiling vinegar with spices before being put into glass canning jars and sealed in a water bath.

The end product at least looks like Mama's, but I'm sure it will lack that "je ne sais quoi." Is any attempt to recreate the beloved foods of childhood ever entirely successful? Maybe we just remember things in a rosier light (though really, that 's not usually one of my failings) or maybe the difference in ingredients or methods is just enough to make things taste not quite the same. I know Mama would have been horrified at the idea of me canning, sure I would injure myself. Okay, so I splashed a little boiling vinegar on my hands when I was putting in the tomato mix. It's fine. I won't be scarred for life, Mama.

Now, if only I could find  clever use for a tree full of unripe figs . . .

Sunday, October 10, 2010


After raining most of the weekend, the weather turned sunny this afternoon, so we headed up to the vineyard my husband works with a friend. Grapes are getting close to ready here in the Willamette Valley, but they probably need a couple more weeks.

It was a beautiful day in the Chehalem Mountains, and the baby vines planted last year are coming right along. We tromped through muddy fields, played with muddy dogs, and were thankful for four-wheel-drive.

My daffodil, snowdrop, and bluebell bulbs have arrived, and I can only hope we will have a sunny weekend soon. Right now we seem to be in the usual fall/spring pattern that gave rise to the joke, "What comes after two days of rain?" "Monday." Last year I was very late planting my bulbs--thanksgiving weekend, I believe. I had to hack through an inch or more of frozen soil to get them in the ground, and they understandably did not perform terribly well this spring. Ah, well. Nature is the boss, and we will deal with what she gives us.

It's amazing how quickly we've gone from Saturday afternoon reading in the garden with a Pimms cup to reading by a fire while drinking Irish whiskey (the winter drink chez moi, as gin or Pimms is the summer drink).  The shortening of the days is what I mind the most. In the dead of winter, it will be dart by 4:30. For those of us who work at desks, there will be precious little time outside. I think that's why Oregonians practically live outside in summer--we need to stockpile vitamin D for the long dark months ahead. 

I am finally and at last buried in tomatoes, which I thought would never come. I dried two batches this weekend for later use, and have been enjoying a tomato sandwich for lunch each day. I found a recipe online for a green tomato relish like my grandmother used to make. Her recipe was sadly lost when my evil grandfather cleared out the house and sold her things after she died. My tomato plants are still setting fruit, but at least some of it probably won't ripen, so I'll have green tomatoes that need to be used. Now if only I could figure out what to do with a tree full of green figs...

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Book Quiz

I saw this recently on Stuck in a Book, a blog I enjoy very much, and simply couldn't resist the opportunity to talk more about moi and especially about the things I like to read.

1. Favourite childhood book?

The Anne of Green Gables series.

2. What are you reading right now?

The Temptress by Paul Spicer, about Alice de Janze and a scandalous murder among the British colonial set in Kenya. 
Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I by Edward Gibbon

3. What books do you have on request at the library?

Two upcoming Charles Todd mysteries.

4. Bad book habit?

Buying too many.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?

The Temptress.

6. Do you have an e-reader?

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

Mostly one at a time, but when I'm tackling something big like the Gibbon, I have to have fun reading breaks.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?


9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far?)

Nothing springing to mind. If I don't like something I just stop reading. I'm getting older and don't have time to waste on books that suck.

10. Favourite book you’ve read this year?
The More I Owe You by Michael Sledge.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Occasionally, usually for book group.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?

A comedy of manners (Jame Austen, Nancy Mitford) or a good murder mystery. 

13. Can you read on the bus? 

14. Favourite place to read?
In my armchair, with my feet up on the ottoman and kitties cuddling around me.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

Happy to do it, although I've lost several books I really like this way. I probably wouldn't lend something I couldn't easily replace.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

I do dog-ear favorite recipes in cookbooks.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Rarely. I do underline (in pencil) from time to time when I passage is especially beautiful.

18. Not even with text books?

I was a terror with a yellow highlighter.

19. What is your favourite language to read in?

English. I can stumble along in French but have to look up every third word.

20. What makes you love a book?

Different things in different books. Sometimes it's the writing style, sometimes the subject matter or characters.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

If I really couldn't put it down.

22. Favourite genre?


23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

Science non-fiction.

24. Favourite biography?

Life in a Cold Climate, the biography of Nancy Mitford by Laura Thompson

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?

When I was in my 20s. They didn't help. Can one blame the author for this, or does one have only one's self to blame?

26. Favourite cookbook?

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters and A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

The More I Owe You.

28. Favourite reading snack?

Tea and scones. Yes, I am that affected. 
29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

Confederacy of Dunces.  Everyone raved and told me I would love it and I just couldn't stand it. 

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

Don't read many reviews. 

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

The only time I "review" books is at book group, where I have no problems whatsoever saying exactly what I think. 

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?

Classical Greek. And I wish I read French well enough to tackle Proust in the original.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

The Divine Comedy by Dante. 

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

I'm not easily intimidated. Mostly I avoid books I find off-putting or pretentious (*cough* Finnegan's Wake *cough*).

35. Favourite Poet?

John Donne before he got religion, and Elizabeth Bishop, whom I discovered thanks to The More I Owe You.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

Three or four.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?

Rarely. Usually when it's a new book I can't renew and I just run out of time.

38. Favourite fictional character?

It's a close race between Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables).

39. Favourite fictional villain?

Baron Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on holiday?

Mysteries. I prefer murder to romance.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.

Two or three months in my 20s when I was clinically depressed and didn't have the attention span to read anything. 

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.

Water for Elephants.  I knew on the first page "whodunnit", and I refuse to read about animals being mistreated. Brutal serial killings, yes; circuses, No.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

If the book is riveting enough, nothing.

44. Favourite film adaptation of a novel?

The Merchant and Ivory Room with a View,  although Emma Thompson's treatment of Sense and Sensibility  comes a close second.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Even Daniel Day-Lewis couldn't save it for me.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
I shudder to think, although working for a rare book dealer has put some of my past sprees in perspective. 

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
I must steal Simon's reply: "Where is it that someone says 'I've done some pretty dreadful things in my time, but I've never skipped to the end of a detective novel'?" I'll read the first few pages to get an idea of the style and voice, though.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
Boredom. Annoyance. I used to force myself to finish books, but now that I'm pushing 50, I figure I don't have the reading life left to waste on something I'm not enjoying. Also, any foreshadowing that something bad is going to happen to an animal--the real reason I never made through Moby Dick.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
I'm a librarian. What do you think?

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
Depends. If I love something,I have to own it. Otherwise, it can go on its way to another reader.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
The Help. 

52. Name a book that made you angry.
The revisionist history and junk science being put into American school textbooks (Thanks, Texas!) makes me insanely angry.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
Comfort of Strangers  by Ian McEwan.

55. Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?Agatha Christie and Nancy Mitford.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cats, Big and Small

I like to walk every morning, taking the same route through my neighborhood like the creature of habit that I am (also, I can't make creative decisions like where to walk before I have my coffee). This is a very cat-friendly area and there are always a number of kitties out enjoying the sun, meowing to be fed, or stalking the squirrels.

This sweet kitty greets me almost every day. She's very chatty and always has a lot to tell me.

Porch kitties

The marmalade cat seems to know exactly how well the blue and white set off his good looks. I don't think that's even his house.

Last Sunday, I was visiting friends in Oklahoma City, where I lived for many years. One of my host was a cat named Todo. who likes to stretch out with this feet behind him, looking rather flipper-like:

OKC offered the opportunity to see some larger cats as well. THe OKC Zoo welcomed two baby snow leopards earlier this year, and I have wasted many hours watching their webcam. I was anxious to see them in person. We could just get glimpse of them, perched high in their habitat, with Mommy leopard standing by protectively. I'll spare you the photo of leaves with a blurry background and move on to a cat who loves the camera, the Tiger:

The jaguar had found something to scratch her itch:

And the African black-footed cat could easily be mistaken for a domestic tabby:

Though they're not felines, the meerkats are too cute not to include:

It's lovely to be back home, especially with fall really here. Leaves are turning, it gets dark earlier every day, there are dozens of delightful apple varieties available (I'm currently partial to the small, crisp Empire apples), and I am officially a "wine widow." Crush--the harvesting and processing of wine grapes--is upon us, and my husband is spending about 12 hours a day at the winery. It will be like this until sometime in November. In the meantime, I make cookies, clear up the flower beds in preparation for planting bulbs, slow roast tomatoes for pasts, and otherwise amuse myself. The winter rains will be here soon, so I'm trying to spend as much time outdoors as possible. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Giving in to Fate

After breaking my prescription reading glasses for the third time this year, I have given up and gotten the dreaded librarian chain. Yes, I am a middle-aged cataloguer with four cats who wears her reading glasses on a chain. Yes, I do own a twinset. The transformation into my grandmother is nearly complete.  Perhaps I can at least avoid breaking glasses by sitting on/stepping on/twirling them, and I will free up an extra hour each day that I don't have to spend looking for my glasses.

We finally got a slicing tomato from our CSA, so I was able to have the best lunch ever, a tomato sandwich. I used my favorite bread, 21 Whole Grains from Dave's Killer Bread, slathered it with Hellman's (Best Foods here in the West) mayonnaise, piled on the tomato and added salt and pepper. Bliss.

This may be the last weekend my husband has off until after Thanksgiving. Crush--the grape harvest and processing of the grapes to make wine--is almost upon us, and then the Thanksgiving weekend is one of the big wine tasting events each year. We had hoped to go to the beautiful Silver Falls State Park, but the weather refused to cooperate. It has been raining for almost a week now, just when we need it to be sunny so the grapes and other produce can ripen. Since we were kept in by the rain, I decided to make stuff. We had carrots and cucumbers needing to be used, so I pickled them.

Carrots soaking in brine . . .

. . . and in the jar

Cucumbers and onions

Old peanut butter jars do come in handy

After pickling things, I made a peach and blueberry cobbler. Not as healthy as a day of hiking, but every bit as pleasurable.  It was so chilly last night that we built a fire, and tonight we're making the first pot of chili of the season.

Later this week, I'll be heading to Oklahoma to visit friends, and will finally have a chance to wear summer clothes that have mostly stayed in the closet or drawer this year. Our current high temperatures are lower than their low temperatures in any given 24 hour period. It will be like a trip to the tropics! In the meantime, the cats and I enjoyed a few hours of sun in the garden this afternoon, where Gwydion reveled in the catnip harvest.

Size 6 cat in a size 4 pot of catnip

I'm not taking the laptop with me on my trip (gaahhh, separation anxiety) and next week I'll be spending Sunday in airports instead of in the Valley. Back soon though, with more riveting updates!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Simple Gifts

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

It was a perfectly beautiful weekend here in the valley, and I spent as much of it outside as possible, storing up vitamin D for the long rainy winter ahead. I've never been a sun worshipper and generally react like a vampire to the thought of sunbathing, but the cats and I were sunning ourselves like lizards. I took a walk Saturday afternoon, and because it was so lovely everyone had their windows open. From most of the houses, I could hear college football games and cheering or moans--'tis the season--but as I passed one house I heard someone practicing the cello. The person was obviously pretty new to the instrument, but the tune was easily identifiable as the lovely Shaker hymn (actually a "Dancing Song") "Simple Gifts." Even with missed notes it was beautiful, and it was the perfect song for such a lovely day, and the perfect expression of the way my life is now: far less complicated than it once was, far more frugal and simplified, and very much "the place just right."

It was a weekend of very simple pleasures: getting 3 books (West with the Night and two gardening books, one by Penelope Hobhouse) for $1 at the Friends of the Library book sale), watching birds and insects in the garden, baking scones, drinking wine, taking naps, and eating figs. We're finally getting ripe tomatoes and other summer veggies from our CSA, and the vast amounts of green tomatoes on my vines are occasionally getting some color. Still, I wish I had my grandmother's recipe for green tomatoe relish. I think I could make good use of it. I remember her and our maid setting up a wooden table in the garden and putting wash tubs of green tomatoes through a meat grinder, then cooking them with spices and canning them. We ate the relish on hamburgers, and it was incredible. The recipe was one of the many things lost when evil grandfather (infatuated with his nurse) cleared out the house and sold everything that wasn't nailed down after Mama's death. But I digress. I was talking about pleasant things.

Another simple gift for which I am most grateful is a partner who allows me to be myself. My husband works in the wine industry, and there was a huge pre-harvest party this weekend. Darling husband is a typical Leo who loves a party, while I am the retiring Pisces who would rather have a root canal than face a large crowd of people I don't know. They give you darn good drugs for root canals. So he went to the party, tasted dozens of wines, listened to music, and made lots of new friends, and I spent a quiet evening at home with Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Everyone is happy, and no one is made to feel bad for their choice. 

Allowing others to be who they are is one of the simplest and greatest gifts we can give.  I am not much of a music fan, but I do love Bach and jazz. Both make great use of counterpoint, over our harmony. That is what I prefer in relationships. Harmony usually requires one person to play the boring cello part in Pachelbel's Canon, the same eight notes over and over again. In counterpoint, each hand (or person) plays their own melody, and the way those two interweave and play off each other is immensely beautiful and infinitely more interesting than mere harmony. So, from the valley of love and delight, I wish you counterpoint in the week ahead.