Tuesday, November 27, 2012

riveting post about the conundrum of fall leaves

kids in front yard - 2001

On Sunday afternoon, I mowed all the leaves in my yard.

Since then, I've been mulling and mulling over how to talk about that.  How do you make a pile of dried and shriveled leaves sound sexy and interesting?

You don't man.  After two days of trying, I've come up empty handed.  But I refuse to give up (lucky you) because the bulk of them presents such a conundrum. 

Every year when the leaves fall, thousands of people bag this perfectly good organic material in plastic and send it to the dump.  Come spring, many of these same people drive to the store to purchase perfectly good organic material, also in plastic, and bring it home to use as mulch in their yards. 

This drives me crazy!

The problem is so obvious (too much energy to get rid of something we shouldn't be getting rid of to begin with), but the solution: not so obvious.

If you must remove your leaves, there are lots of ways to improve this process: use paper or compostable plastic bags for your leaves; find a community garden that will take them for mulch, participate in a county mulching program.  And for god's sake: use a calorie-powered rake, not a fossil-fuel burning leaf blower!

By chance, we don't have to use bags because our county picks up our leaves.  They use a truck that resembles a Snuffaluffagus on wheels: big, brown, noisy, and sporting a vacuum hose big enough to suck a person up into it  (but stay out of there because it mulches too).   The county uses the mulch in public spaces.  They make any left over available to residents at no charge.  Not a bad deal at all. 

Except those darn trucks.  They rumble and lumber along, guzzling gas to power the truck engine, the vacuum, and the mulcher for hours and hours without end.  They come around three times per year. 

Is this necessary? Why do the leaves ever have to leave the yard--especially when we need them for mulch in the spring?

I can only speak for us.  If we didn't rake, we'd live in a mud pit.  Also, the mold that would grow in all those leaves would make us sick.  With 1/2 acre and a lot of mature trees, I acknowledge: the leaves have to go somewhere.

If you only have a few leaves, you can stick them in a corner, or in your garden.  If we raked ours into one pile, however, it would threaten to bury our house. We'd quickly run out of room as the leaves wouldn't have time to decompose from year to year. 

If we tried to spread them out in our gardens, or even around the perimeter of the yard,  we'd still have such big piles the leaves would blow right back out.  Again, enter mud and mold.  Less significantly, gobs of loose leaves in the yard are like mice, they find their way into your house and multiply.  And even if we could keep them out of the house and in the garden, they'd make a layer so thick and impenetrable they'd kill all the plants trying to grow there.

Every year, as we rake our leaves to the street, I fret about this.  While I enjoy the fresh air and the time spent working with family, I inwardly mutter and connive: why didn't I invest in a chipper/shredder?  What's so bad about mud? How much gas does that Snuffaluffagus use?  I could have used these leaves in my compost heap this winter!

And here's where it finally gets sexy (because nothing is sexy like a compost heap).  Remember my smelly compost problem?  It smells because I never add enough brown stuff like dead leaves and dried grass clippings.  I'm always scavenging around the yard for weeds, or a few stray leaves, or a clump of collected grass clippings.

Then this summer, I discovered something very interesting.  Our mulching lawn mower has a bag.  Yes it does.  I actually started asking about this bag a few years ago.  It's amazing - knowledge is power, y'know? 

Yes.  I am the foolish woman in this scenario: ignorant of the workings of lawn equipment and it's paraphernalia.  Like a pre-feminist woman, left woefully uneducated about sex and birth control, I had some idea that there was a contraption to catch this fertile substance as the mower ejected it, but I didn't know enough to avoid being put off by the man who deliberately withheld information from me.  I asked and asked, but never really got anywhere.

I heard all manner of evasive replies: our mulching mower didn't come with a bag--the clippings are supposed to fertilize where they fall.  There might be a bag but I don't know where it is.  I think I know where it is, but I don't think it works.  I found it but I didn't have time to put it on (we've all heard that before). 

Until one day this past July, it finally happened.  Steve used the bag. 

I was so happy!

All summer I collected grass clippings to mulch my herb garden and to layer in my compost.  Then, with Steve out of town several weeks ago, I mowed the first round of leaves.  He didn't want me to do it (men don't like you to change their lawn routines).  It worked so beautifully, however, that even he had to agree. 

As I mowed for the third and final time on Sunday, Steve emptied the composter for winter.  He saw first hand the benefit of including clippings.  My intermittent supply of them had created compost that resembled a layered and stinky cheese - with one layer mild and pleasant and the next rotten and smelly.  During one particularly bad layer, he stood up and said, "I think I'm going to vomit" (In defense of my heap, I think he had a little bit of a hangover).  I dumped my leaves in the pile and smiled. 

Now, instead of a mountain of leaves to be hauled away by the county, I have two piles of chopped leaves that together, could tower over me (instead of the house).  And next time we empty the compost, Steve will have no need to feel like vomiting--hangover or not.


But even though I've reached a horrifying 1,000 words, that is not the end of this not-so-sexy post, because, as you probably already know, I have created a new problem:

The lawn mower.

Ugh.  I know the lawn mower is SO BAD.

I will save just how bad for another post, except to say the EPA claims that 5% of U.S. green house gas emissions comes from lawn mowers.  So, if everyone mowed their leaves, would this prove worse than all those plastic yard bags, all those plastic mulch bags, and all the production, shipping, storage, and transportation involved in our current system?

I really have no idea.  I'm trying to go with the whole philosophy of process and lessatarianism.  My new system is certainly less than perfect, but I hope it is also less than the bad it used to be, and I know it is way better for my compost and garden.

So never fear.  My sexy lawn saga will continue as I try to figure this out.  We need a new mower anyway, so maybe next spring we'll end up with something really earth friendly like this:

I'm just kidding.  That's too old and rusty.  Let's get modern.   Like this!

now we're talking!!

Then I can jazz up my summer lawn care post with the tragic story of my divorce.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

got collard balls?

It sounds like we’re going to talk about something that hangs in a rather grotesque fashion off the underside of a creaky old donkey.  Disappointingly (?), this post will just be about vegetables. 

When I first registered "smallhouse" over at Blogher, I listed it under "family," "feminism," and "food." I have figured out, however, that a food blogger, I am not.  I don’t really want to write about how you cook or preserve stuff. 

I so admire the bloggers that do this (and there are a lot of them!).   Quite honestly, although they spend a lot of time explaining how they do it, I don’t have any idea how they do it.  Most of them seem to have little kids underfoot as they cook fabulous recipes (don’t they have to be original? do they make them up? steal them? I don’t know), while photographing every step of the process in a seemingly pristine kitchen.  They even have fantastic photos of their spices arranged in mesmerizing little pyramids that look like gold dust, or perhaps, cocaine. 

I love looking at those blogs, but making one seems ungodly tedious to me.  Plus, who has time for pictures and recipe writing? I need to get that meal in the oven!

So, while I do talk a lot about food, I’m more interested in the poetry and rhythm of eating than I am in the "how to" of it.  I'm drawn to the activist and spiritual aspects of eating local and seasonal food; you don’t necessarily need a recipe for that.  And while it’s deeply meaningful to me, it’s not always pretty.   So while someone else may have posted a succulent brie spread they've arrayed with candied cranberries and toasted pinenuts for the holidays, today I have: collard balls.

Last week marked the end of our summer/fall farmers' market season, as well as the end of my vegetable coop.  With winter looming and the markets closing, I did a little panic buying last Wednesday.  I returned from the market with, among other things, 4 bunches of humongous collard greens. No, I don’t have a picture.  I actually really enjoy photography, but as I looked at the greens already wilting on the counter, I didn't think photo; I thought freezer. 

I wanted to get them into the freezer while I had time.  But how? you ask, probably desperate for information from this blog that is all philosophy and no instruction.  Well, you clean them, stem them, chop them (optional), boil them for 3 minutes (fancy word=blanch), plunge them into ice water, wring them out, and freeze them. 

Wew! There’s my cooking blog for you, in one sentence.  If you want more, check out  Pick Your Own for tips on picking canning and freezing just about everything.  Anything I  can tell you will have been plagiarized from them anyway. 

I don’t like freezing food because of that double f-word thing.  You know: fossil fuel.  Freezers guzzle it, plastic bags embody it.  I much prefer to can foods, but canned collards?  That spells slime in a jar to me.  As I reluctantly prepared my greens for their individual freezer bags, I had an idea.  When I wrung out the greens, I pressed them into hard balls (enough for one meal), then put them on a cookie sheet to freeze.  Once frozen, I could put them in just one big gallon plastic bag.  Not perfect, but better. 

Here they are (because once I was nearly done, I felt like I had time for photos.  Also, I'm pretending to be an aspiring food blogger--and who doesn’t want to see a picture of collard balls?):


Then I went all food blogger photographer on you and took this:


I've notices that it's a very trendy food blogger thing to focus on just the foreground of your food picture, leaving the ingredients and accoutrements to fade into the fuzzy background (a way of hiding a messy kitchen, I am sure--it's working pretty well for me here). 
Why am I telling you about these “balls” anyway?  Because they will probably be the last thing I store for the winter.  Right now, my refrigerator is packed – turnips, green beans, cauliflower, broccoli, ginger, arugula and kale: the last of the harvest. I feel both panicked to eat it all before it goes bad, and sorry to see it go. 

It is no accident that this end of harvest coincides with Thanksgiving.  We rightfully focus a lot of attention on family during this holiday, but family is only half of the story.  Thanksgiving is also about food--a celebration of the food that will get your family through the winter.  With grocery stores that carry canteloupe and blueberries year round, we can easily lose touch with the rhythm of harvest and the battle against scarcity that inspired this holiday.
To be clear, we're not survivalists.  Although I would love to, we don't live off the grid, or even live without the conveniences of the grocery store.  I still buy dry goods like pasta, rice and potato chips.  However, I do everything I can to continue our practice of eating local and organic meat and produce throughout the winter. 

I appreciate this way of eating for so many reasons.  It makes old things new as foods come in and out of season; it instills us with an awareness for the fragility of our food system, especially when a local crop fails and we realize with dismay: no tomatoes this year.  It reminds us to think about where our food comes from, (how it was produced, who did the work, how they were treated), and it teaches us about scarcity so that we can truly appreciate what we have. 

This way of eating has a spiritual aspect because it puts us in rhythm with the earth as it changes around us.  Each season gives something and takes something.  Honoring that cycle feels almost like religion to me.  It also has an activist element because we reject so much of the industrial food system we disagree with while supporting sustainable farming in our community.  Finally, it's not perfect.  I cringe at the stuff I still buy from Trader Joe's which is based far away in, egad, California). 
Our attention to the cycles of food make Thanksgiving a really important holiday because it marks the end of abundance.  We celebrate that by overindulging, by symbolically (and sometimes actually) fattening our selves so we can better survive a winter of scarcity.  By the end of the holiday weekend, I will probably have plowed through the last of the fresh green stuff in my fridge.  We will be sure to appreciate every last bite before we hunker down to spend a winter cozied up in our small house with a big freezer bag full of...collard balls--and the hopeful idea that we have enough.

With that, let us go forth and eat pie!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Friday, November 16, 2012

body politics at the pool: an old bird goes swimming

Remember how I got all fired up about body image after watching Miss Representation? I posted my fat roll on the internet; I railed against misogynistic media moguls; I stood my ground: forty-something; pudgy, and proud? Remember that?

I went to the rec center to swim yesterday evening.  Because I tutor after school, I usually workout in the mornings when everyone else is at the office.  That means I take yoga with people who need instructions like: “Don’t cross the midline on this if you’ve had a hip replacement!”  

Old folks.  I just love ‘em.  Not only because I’ll be one soon, but because they have a certain humor and humility about them.  Also, they understand that a fully functioning body is a thing to be revered, but not necessarily looked at.  When I do yoga or swim with them, no one judges my ass.  If pressed to express some kind of interest, they’d only make a functional inquiry like: "Can you still sit on it?"  Who wouldn’t want to hang out with folks like that?

However, when I entered the locker room at 5:30 last night, I discovered the lovely old folks had taken flight.  In their stead, a ginormous gaggle of high school girls greeted me; their swim team apparel flung like exploded feathers in a great mess about the place.  As they chirped and primped en masse, I marveled at the crowd of them.

I think I’m a typically modest person.  I fall somewhere between the lady who needs a private dressing room and the lady who blow-dries her hair wearing nothing but a pair of skimpy flip-flops and bright red toenail polish.  But I love my body, remember?  So I found a smidge of a spot where I could put my bag and began to unpack and undress.  I tried to blend into the crowd around me, but I couldn't help it, a song from my childhood began to play in my head.

So true.  One of these things just doesn't belong!  I may as well have been wearing that hat with the twirly thing spinning on top. I slithered into my suit as fast as I could and got the heck out of there, seeking the cover of water.

But it didn’t end there.  Apparently, I'd missed the flyer that announced "beautiful hour" at the pool.  Usually, I could find all of my old-folk friends in the deep end doing water aerobics to Rock Around the Clock.  Instead, as I came up for a breath, I noticed a whole crowd of 20-somethings gathering on deck.  They appeared to be looking for a place to swim.  Weren't they supposed to be at happy hour somewhere? To my chagrin, a hot young guy ventured over and got in my lane.  Really?

I suppose now is as good a time as any to remind you that this is the season of armpit hair.  Sigh.  I haven’t shaved my legs in more than ten years, but every summer, I succumb to suburbia’s poolside imperative for shaven pits.  I just can’t take the pressure.  Once the summer pool closes, however, the razor goes away.  I’m not a very hairy person, but after two full months of growth, trust me, there’s enough there to note.   Plus, my very tight swim suit has gotten even tighter over the past year, so parts of me clamor to get out of it as I lumber across the pool.  This is no fashion show.

Wondering if I'd have the guts to do backstroke, I pretended to clean my goggles so I could check out my new friend.  He was brown, muscular, and sort of beautiful in the water.  He had a sun tattooed on his shoulder and some kind of mesmerizing bird across his shoulder blades.  I realized, as I forced myself back to my workout, that aside from my very sweet niece, I almost never spend time with 20-somethings.  My house regularly bulges with young men--but they are teenagers.  When I look at them I see boys, and you can bet that when they look at me, they see an old hag.  And that feels exactly like it’s supposed to.

But this guy was no boy.  When he finally started to swim, I thought I might save face on technique.  I followed him with a surreptitious eye, hopeful that he’d turn out to be a flailer in a fancy suit, but alas, he had a smooth stroke and an intense flip turn—an ex-swim team type for sure.  

I can’t compete with that!  Even if I could do a flip turn, no way was I going to tip myself over, like a duck diving for fish, and show my padded backside to everyone on deck! 

So what to do? 

Well.  I think you already know.

Just keep swimming.

Yup.  Just keep swimming.  And try not to look quite so freaked out as Dory while you do it.  Oh.  And try not to think about her buddy, the whale:

You'll be pleased to know that eventually, I got into my workout and forgot about Mr. Beautiful with his svelte body and his trendy tattoos.  When I finished, I heaved the bulk of my sodden self out of the water, shook myself dry (right down to my padded tail feather) and waddled walked, unvanquished, to the locker room. 

The moral of the story?  Of course, all of us middle-aged folks can and should love our bodies.  But a word to the wise: it's a hell of a lot easier to pull that off if you can steer clear of beautiful-hour at the pool.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

yet another election post: kids, twitter, and victory!

Did your kids pay attention to the election?  We got just a little fired up around here. 

The debates came off like Super Bowl parties, with Olivia making popcorn for the events, Gareth asking to stay up past midnight “to see who wins,” and me hollering “foul!” at the TV like I’m Steve watching the Maryland Terps in the final four. 

Meanwhile, Twitter stepped victoriously out from under the shameful mantel of secret-late-night-addiction and took its long-coveted place at the center of “family time.”  Like a 1950s family mesmerized by the antics of Howdy Doody, we gathered around my computer to snuggle and giggle and gawk at the endless stream of humorous political tweets that galloped through my account. 
Lest you mistake us for a hypnotized bunch of jelly brains, you should know that Twitter is interactive!  Olivia especially thrilled at inventing very mature less-than-140-character quips for me to tweet like: “My 12 yr old daughter thinks Mitt looks like a 50 yr old Ken Barbie.”  

Oh, we laughed.

During the VP debates, Olivia became a Joe Biden fan.  Now she giggles with glee at the idea that this boisterous, guffawing, laughing-too-loud, tell-it like-it-is-whether-you-like-it-or-not-guy, whose sometimes indelicate honesty so resembles hers, will be around for another 4 years.   She loves him enough that I’m thinking, “Hmmm, maybe she’ll slap a poster of him up over that horrible Niall Horan poster that currently takes up half the wall in her small room. 

Then I’m thinking, “Ew. Perhaps we are taking our politics too far.”

As they watched various pundits and politicians stream across the TV (because, as all good well-rounded families know, Twitter is so much more fun if you watch the news while you tweet), they’d ask, “Is he/she good or bad?” 

How easy for us to order their world: lining people and opinions up in neat little columns for them to digest and arguably, carry into adulthood.  You see, most kids adopt their parents’ political views with little consideration for other perspectives. 

Ouch.  That’s a lot of responsibility.  It’s also very tempting.  Think of it, the opportunity to create a gaggle of political little-yous running around voting your way and proving how right you are for a lifetime! 

And for us, this will happen sooner rather than later because I realized: Gareth will vote in the next presidential election!

I tried to do the right thing: to represent Mitt Romney with more nuance, but I may as well be honest.  I failed miserably.  Why couldn’t I have gotten the more moderate Dwight D. Eisenhower, or the benign Gerald Ford to work with? 

Flummoxed, I did the next best thing.  I told the kids that I should be more fair and admitted that I just couldn’t dig deep enough.  My aversion for Mitt had temporarily run the well of fairness dry.  So I told them what I thought Romney would say if he were in the room, then I told them how I’d squash every one of those pesky arguments with the relentless whap! of my unforgiving fly swatter. 

I actually think this is OK.  I disagree with the relatively new idea that balanced news should paint every viewpoint in a positive light.  I think balanced news should do its best to represent every viewpoint for what it is.  If it’s a bad idea, we shouldn’t sugarcoat it in the name of misguided equity. 

So I didn’t.

Meanwhile, election night finally came.  I vowed not to watch:  too much stress; too much speculation; too much waiting.  Steve put on a movie and I…(sigh)...logged on to Twitter…and…you know you can’t properly appreciate Twitter without the news… 

So we watched and tweeted and laughed and barely breathed.  When it got late, we tried to make Olivia go to bed, but the beauty of living in a “small house” is that you can still participate in a family conversation from your bedroom.  Hearing the commotion when Ohio fell to Obama, she reappeared, eager to share in our celebration.  And why not? 

By late night, only Gareth and I remained.  He wanted to see Romney concede, but the guy took too long.  Didn’t he know this was a family event?  All these high school-aged Democrats who wanted one last glimpse of him had to be up at 6 am! 

No matter, we had plenty of HAPPY to carry us through the next day, and the day after that!  I recognize, however, that the kids’ happiness still derives more from our feelings than it does from their independent views.  We will continue to work on developing their political literacy, hopefully helping them to see the big picture and to think for themselves. 
In the meantime, I feel our parenting success lies in having at least shown them that there’s something even more interactive than Twitter.  It’s called: Democracy!

Monday, November 5, 2012

vote Obama: hatred just isn't our cup of tea

By a string of unimportant and not interesting events, I visited the grave of Jefferson Davis last weekend.  Remember that scoundrel?  He was the president of the Confederacy.   His ambiguous headstone claims he was a "Defender of the Constitution." 


He said cool stuff like:

"African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing."

He also said, "We recognize the negro as...our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude." 

As I stood there looking at his statue with the Confederate war flag run up the flagpole behind him, I thought about hatred.  Thank goodness those days are over. 

Except wait.

No, Mitt Romney hasn't argued to reinstitute slavery.  At least that still rings ridiculous in our political landscape.  But only that.

So much of the Republican platform smacks of hatred.  Hatred for women (attacking reproductive rights), hatred for minorities (attacking the safety net), hatred of LGBT people (defense of marriage), hatred of immigrants (opposition to the Dream Act), hatred of the old, the sick, the infirm, the unemployed, the working class, the middle class...the 47%. 

Then they roll all that negative energy up into a racially based hatred for our president that they can barely contain.  Words and phrases like birther, food stamp president, shuck and jive, and boy come to mind. That's not to mention the shameful frontyard "lynchings" of empty chairs in Texas and my own state of VA that occurred after the debates. Nor the racist protest poster I saw at the Obama rally I attended back in July. It portrayed President Obama's face, superimposed onto the face of a monkey.  I just couldn't believe the ignorance, the audacity.

Is it ironic or fitting that the name of the movement that brought all of this hatred to the fore is "The Tea Party?"  A bunch of folks sitting around sipping Oolong and Darjeeling feeling all civilized, right?  They imagine their tea party is all inclusive.  If you're a woman, they'll let you make the tea.  If you're a minority, they'll let you serve it.  If you're an immigrant, they'll ask, with their pinkies raised, if you could be so kind as to go home and grow it. 

Bullies never play fair.

Bullies also don't like it when they don't get their way--and they certainly didn't in 2008.  I think that over the past four years, the visage of our black president has driven them stark raving mad.  In their  frenzy and froth, they've taken a lingering backlash against civil rights and whipped it up into a super storm that challenges even the power of Sandy. 

Don't despair.  You know how a child that plays hard also crashes hard?  I think the Tea Party is like that.  I believe we have such power to squash it tomorrow.  The reelection of president Obama would be a referendum on hate and a rejection of the backlash. 

So if not for healthcare, diplomacy, the economy, student loans, the safety net, veteran's benefits, renewable energy, and climate (as if all of that isn't enough!), then stand tomorrow, on the side of tolerance, compassion and community.  Vote for President Obama so that we can move Forward to face our economic woes together.

Vote Obama to show the rest of the world that hatred just isn't our cup of tea.