Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Two steps forward, one back

I did something today I haven't done in probably two years - and thought, quite honestly, that I'd never have to do again. I bought eggs at the supermarket. Brand-name eggs from a poultry operation that isn't local, but does claim to be humane and organic. I know these labels are treated vaguely in the law, totally unenforced, are manipulated by an open door at one end of the standard long hen prison, a patch of grass - are, at the end of the day, just this side of meaningless.

But, I needed eggs. Or, more precisely, I wanted eggs. And my hens are 100% on strike until it warms up. Most of them won't even venture out of their now extremely ripe coop. They peep and chirp and squeal; they fly in my face and try to dive into the giant trash can where their feed is stored. They hate the feel of snow on their feet, are pretty much coming to hate each other and are just all-around cranky as hell and not one bit interested in sharing anything of any value, like an egg.

So, I stood in front of the egg case, which of course, this being our beloved Thriftway, means in front of 25 different egg selections. And most people must surely behold this refrigerated shrine to Choice a wondrous or at least precious thing. But, I was just sad. I have plenty of projects under construction and even more abandoned or yet-started dreams, but eggs are my success story. Our farm offers up the best, very best, eggs there are. So buying eggs is a special kind of failure for me. Because I know that it's not just me buying eggs - by the time I buy eggs, there's a lot of other folks in the neighborhood who've been walking and driving by...and seeing none, go to the store and buy eggs. That makes me sad.

Sometimes I wish I had a driveway sign for all these nuanced occasions. Today, it would say "We'll be back!"

On the other hand, just three years, one day, and 8 hours after we moved in, we (Mark) are (is) putting the handles on our kitchen cabinets! It would be frankly tough to overstate the thrill of this occasion. Handles, schmandles you might be saying, but these particular handles were chosen through tortuous decision-making nearly four years ago, have taken up exquisitely-precious shelf and drawer space, and, truly, are the jewelry that sparkle up a kitchen. Not to mention that they also make opening drawers and doors easier. I am not giddy on this front yet, however, because we could only get through about 60% today...and anyone with a home knows the danger this portends.

And, in the midst of this unprecedented winter chill, another small victory. I may have bought eggs today, but I did not buy lemons. At last, my spidery lemon tree has kicked into gear for real, offering up luscious sweet Meyer lemons and throwing a show of flowers so thick and brilliant, I can finally hope for my own supply of winter citrus, ready for the picking whenever food or drink commands.

Two steps forward, one step back.

Monday, December 22, 2008

It works!

A giant shout out to my pal Jennifer!  She loves to cook and learn about food as much as I do and gave me the revolutionary new book "Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day," by Hertzberg and Francois.

If you love artisan breads like I do, hate paying $6 a loaf, like me, and have yet to produce a decent loaf via machine, as is my history, this book is for YOU.  I bake bread fairly regularly - I actually enjoy it - but I don't always feel up to the physicality of beating the crap out of my food before allowing it to "rest."  

These two authors, one a scientist the other a chef, both long-time artisan bread freaks, have conducted a zillion experiments to arrive at a specific way you can make up a big batch of dough - with no kneading involved - and keep it in the fridge to use over 2 weeks.  

The down side?  I've made 3 loaves since last night....

Oh, well.  Please pass the butter!

And still it snows on



Sunday, December 21, 2008

Celebrating the light

December heralds festivals and celebrations that mark a broad palette of significant events, but all encompass and incorporate an ancient honoring of light in the darkest moment of the year. At our house, we are neither Christian, nor Jew, nor really any other traditional faith, but we appreciate the opportunity to pause and revere those who have brought wisdom and love and faith into the lives of humanity across the millennia.

We welcome Santa here, but we have also adapted the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah because it so beautifully celebrates ourselves, our family, our communities, and our world. We each light a candle each night, in order by generation, giving each of us two nights to create light and utter an affirmation.

Here, now, on this first night of the Jewish winter holiday, our family's own adapted citations, yours for the taking if you ever wish to incorporate such a moment into your lives. From our family to yours-


First Night
Thank you for the gift of life. Tonight we light this candle to remember our obligation to be the light in our lives and our world.

Second Night
Thank you for the gifts of talent, creativity, and inspiration. Tonight we remind ourselves to use these gifts to bring light into the lives of those around us.

Third Night
Thank you for the gift of family. Tonight we light this candle to celebrate those who know us best, who stand witness to our days and months and years, whose love is without condition and sustains us.

Fourth Night
Tonight we light this candle to celebrate Faith, to hope that always we will have the wisdom to accept the limits of knowledge and accept the presence of the inexplicable.

Fifth Night
Thank you for the gift of community and for the special collection of people in our neighborhood. Tonight we light this candle to celebrate the joy they bring to our lives and to committing to reflect that joy back into the world.

Sixth Night
Thank you for the power to change the way things are. Tonight we light this candle to celebrate the flame that burns within each of us for justice and peace and to commit bringing about that change.

Seventh Night
Thank you for the collection of ideals and principles we call America. We light this candle to celebrate the light of democracy and to commit to restoring and expanding it.

Eighth Night
Thank you for this beautiful, wondrous planet. Tonight we light this candle to celebrate our earth and commit to using the lights of wisdom and action to restore our planet’s fragile health.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Scenes of Winter

Stop Sign Farm under a blanket of the white stuff.  Hides all the mud and 'hillbilly piles'!

View of the garden and fields beyond from the bedroom.

Douglas Firs along our driveway laden with snow.

Happy winter days to you and yours!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winter Wonderland

Snow is such a novelty here on our island.  To be sure, it's not like Australia, where Mark grew up, where they read stories about snowmen and Santa and reindeer and all the countless winter-based traditions we take for granted while they sweltered in 110' heat and mall Santas arrived in emergency rooms regularly.  But, still, we're "cool," not "cold," here generally.

Not this year.  This year, it's snow, snow, snow and all the grown-ups are flummoxed.  There's ice on the roads, snow in the fields, more snow in the forecast, and we're all, well, at a loss.  Huh?  Do we chain?  Do we board-game?  Where is the tipping point at which school just becomes Too Much Hassle?

For us, as farmers, the biggest weird thing is making sure our sheep and chickens have water.  In the coastal Pacific Northwest, we rarely worry about water.  Too much mud, hoof-rot, mineral-deficiencies, yes.  But, unless we're in August, water just doesn't appear on the radar.  Suddenly, this week, we are stomping on the sheep trough twice daily, hauling kettle-hot water from the kitchen out to the chickens.  There's a blanket of "ice-water" about, but no farmer can rely on his or her animals to recognize it as water.

Cold spells bring special thrills and unique challenges.  Dylan brings out his coveted sled, his ski bib, his gloves.  We light candles (due to power outages) and gather together each evening in the light of the Christmas tree and votives.  But, chickens and sheep must cope with the limited offerings available to them and it's our job to make sure they survive.  Enough food?  Enough shelter?  Enough non-frozen water?  Non frozen water this morning turns into frozen water this afternoon at these temps, so water is a constant refrain when the thermometer dips below freezing.

No matter where you live, winter brings unique challenges.  And insights.    We struggle with heavy coats and big boots and longer get-ready times and somehow just getting to school seems harder.    But, here at least, where true winter is so very rare, it is special indeed.  We cherish the white stuff and kind of love the cold - except that we are so woefully ill-equipped to deal with it.  We don't have chains, we don't - until this week - have snow plows with sanding ability (thank you king county!!!!), we don't have winter mitties and hats and scarfs.  We're total neophites. We're amateurs.  

But, we know that.  That's why we live here.  And we bare our badge of shame with honor.  No, we cannot navigate a long, icy road.  No, we do not own balaclavas.  No, we would like to ski, but only if we can drive there.  

Snow is not our thing.

But, we are enjoying this snow, as long as it goes along it's merry way in a reasonable timeframe.  We're good-natured, we're just not stupid.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Found Family

Most of us regard family as a mixed blessing. Some of us choose to stay close to the family we grew up with as we grow the next generation. Others make a different decision, to create a new life far away and control the duration and locale of extended family interactions. No matter which path we point ourselves down at the beginning of adulthood, one thing is almost certain: it will change.

My parents both fled their families for wider, more open social spaces. Both were the eldest of large numbers of brothers and sisters, both experienced poverty, and both wanted an education and a new life. Mom crossed the continent from one coast to another; Dad crossed hemispheres and a couple oceans, saying good-bye to the apartheid world he grew up in to make a new life in the fabled Land of Opportunity.

But, one result of these very reasonable decisions in my parents' life is that their next generation, me, was raised in a sort of extended family vacuum. The pros and cons of this can be debated for the rest of my days, but one benefit is undeniable: It has allowed/forced me to build my own extended family. I consider this journey one of my deepest lifelong pleasures and frankly greatest accomplishments.

My Life Family now consists of probably 4-6 friends and their families spread across the land. I am both proud and humbled that these relationships span from less than five years to over three decades. I find that as I get older, I understand the importance of having people in your contemporary world that carry the arc of your life in their psyche. It grounds you. It gives audience to red flags. It keeps you honest.

Today was Cookie Decorating Day. When this tradition started, I can't quite recall, but CDD is a simple pleasure Dylan and I await anxiously each December. Our roundtrip from door to door actually lasts longer than the event itself, but we don't care. We leave the house at 9AM, catch a ferry, and after a quick stop for coffee and hot chocolate, head north on the freeway to arrive at the warm and lovely home of the parents of one of my Life Family members around 11AM. Associate Life Family Members you could call them.

We all have our roles. Mamie and Linda have prepped the whole event by mixing the enormous quantities of cookie dough ahead of time and separating it into plastic-wrapped batches. Soup is simmering on the stove. The rolling station is usually in full swing by the time we arrive (not late 2 years in a row!). Robert rolls and cuts. I usually stand around and bla bla for awhile before a meaningful job presents itself since decorating is neither my forte nor my passion.

Evolution unfolds before us as the children's creations take on new complexities and their attention span lengthens each year. Talents are discovered or abandoned. New faces join. Every year is different; every year is the same. We start out full of chatter and ambition; we finish by making the largest cookies possible, accompanied by quiet musings and the final determination that every batch needs at least one tray of plains.

Whatever path you choose, it will change, revealing unexpected joys and surprise yearnings. My father ended up in the bosom of the very close-knit family of his second wife and revels in the ups and downs of family life. My mother now lives 40 feet from her daughter's family. My husband, also a family escapee, has come to enjoy his brothers and sisters in ways he could never have imagined when he boarded the plane leaving Melbourne.

And I have the joy of Cookie Decorating Day and some of the finest people around each holiday to remind me that we are all part of something larger and more wondrous than ourselves, if only we make a little space in our lives to let and keep others in.

Thanks to Mamie and Linda and the people they gather in their kitchen each December. Tradition is really the backbone of any family. See you next year.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Mousers of SSF

It probably does not come as news that everyone on a farm has a job.  Jessie keeps the raccoons at bay so the hens can lay.  The sheep produce fleece for someday and meat for the year.  The bunny I guess is here to make sure I never run out of things to nag my son about.

And this guy here is our LIttle Game Hunter.  I adopted Buster and his arch nemesis girly-cat Karona six months after moving in and the third time I had to completely dismantle our under-the-stairs pantry.  There's nothing fun about mice in your house, except as nostalgia after the rats move in.  Having been through the rats-running-up-the-pipes routine in our city house, I wasn't prepared to sit through Act 2.  Between city-tame raccoons, squirrels, and rats, I often tell people we had to move to the country to escape the wildlife.

I put Dylan on the bus and drove directly to the ferry and on to the Tacoma Humane Society.  It was harder than I'd expected to find 2 cats, not kittens, that seemed suitable.  I had this insane idea that I should adopt 2 so they'd keep each other company (?!), and it's a good thing they each came with their own carrier or I probably would have arrived home one feline short.  In their nearly three-year tenure they've developed for the most part a sort kitty detente, with occasional cross-border flare-ups.

Instinct is sometimes shockingly raw.  Buster wasn't in the house a full minute before he was in the pantry.  That night, Mark and Buster worked as team and the emptied pantry gave up 3 mice.  By the end of a week, the house was cleaned out, the surrounding grounds were a veritable mousey graveyard and whatever Mickeys and Minnies were left must have packed their bindles and skeedattled because I've yet to come across a nasty surprise indoors since.

I think Karona does a little lite mousing, but Buster takes his job very, very seriously.  Curiousity - or instinct - almost killed this cat a while back.  He silently followed me into the attic one day, unbeknownst to me, and I shut the door behind me when I'd found what I was looking for.  Shamefully, it took me 2 days to realize I hadn't seen him for a while.  He was a little dazed, but otherwise fine, and we were all very relieved.  

But, the very next time I went up to the attic?  Yup, right behind me.  He can't help himself - he knows the hunting's good in there.  If I could do what I need to do as well as he does what he does and still have time to sleep 18 hours a day - well, I'd have to bottle that and sell it.

Thanks Buster!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Eating Our Own

I wish this were a post about food, about the joy of consuming food grown in one's own garden, about the sustenance of farm life. But, it's not.

Instead, it's simply a post that asks a question.

As we watch our hundreds of billions of dollars magically disappear into the ether of the wall street bailout, with little or nothing to reassure us that this blank check to the captains of finance was good policy, why are we so resolutely determined to send what's left of our manufacturing sector to the bottom of the sea?

Can someone please, please explain to me how, at the end of two decades of spectacular and even celebrated CEO greed, our chiefs making literally hundreds of times what their workers make, retailers like Wal-Mart sucking at the teat of public subsidy by paying their workers next to nothing and then "helping" them apply for food stamps and other assistance...how, how now does the imminent collapse of our automobile manufacturing industry fall into the laps of its line workers?

Please put 1 and 1 together for me. While real wages have actually declined, and pensions first became rare and then become gone, while productivity has steadily increased and for the first time in history not been met by a corresponding increase in family income, while jobs have been relentlessly shipped off-shore to nations where people are paid pennies on our dollar...we teeter as a nation on the financial precipice of total disaster, and the devil we deem responsible for this is, really?, the American worker.

The American worker - this person that squeezes more out of a day than any European counterpart and in fact has nearly caught the icon - the Japanese worker. The American worker, who has gone from one wage-earner per family to two. The American worker who has to find and pay for private day care. The American worker who has to stay healthy and pay for health care, who can't afford to lose the job because the health insurance goes with it. The American worker who is asked time and time again to stay on long enough to train his or her replacement, often from or in India or China. The American worker who increasingly must find a way to care for not only the next generation, but the last. These slovenly, lazy, good-for-nothings. Not me, of course, and certainly not you. But, you know...them. Those other American workers.

As things seemingly crumble into the sea and we as a nation flail about for some collection of strategies we can take with confidence into the future, I hope we can remember who calls the business shots and who's got 2nd, 3rd, and 4th houses to match their helicopters and Gulf Streams. These people are taking our money, and our children's, and probably even our grandchildren's, and stuffing their pockets instead of rewriting the mortgages of your neighbors. The American worker is not doing that. The American CEO is.

Are the Big Three CEO's any different? No. But, the hundreds of thousands of people who work for them, the people still left in America who actually make something, deserve better than this. The finance sector has a multiplier effect of 1:2 - two jobs are dependent on every actual finance job. The auto industry's multiplier effect is betwen 1:7 and 1:9.

Why is this a race to the bottom? Why are we asking experienced workers with families to agree to make $15 an hour? Why would we do that and yet not breathe a word of disgust at the shocking level of CEO compensation in this country?

We don't cap CEO pay. We don't limit shareholder dividends. We openly fretted during the election that if the economy got too good we might all pay more on our new $250K incomes under this new president. Guess what? That's a problem I'm willing to tackle.

I don't care about the CEOs of Ford, GM, or Chrysler. But I damn sure care about the men and women who work for them. And I'm sickened at the way they are being asked - no, demanded - to shoulder the financial burden their leadership and this nation has created. Until we get health care handled and thus can compete with every other industrialized nation that would like to build things, until we invest in a manufacturing base again in this country, until we hold accountable the men and women who make disastrous financial choices, we will continue to exist as pawns on a very unstable chess board.

But, the UAW is not to blame for this. Advocating for a working wage and expecting compensation for a job well done and years on the line are not sins. They're rights. And it's our right to stand with these men and women and demand a halt to the war on the middle class that has brought us to the edge of this cliff. I want a 40 hour work week and good health care and day care and some way to save for retirement. I want to know that American corporations are working to create and save American jobs.

Don't you?