Thursday, January 29, 2009

Look What I Found!

My countertops! I knew they were in there, because I intentionally spec'd them during construction, but they have rarely revealed much of themselves since. Just three and a quarter years after moving in, I have purged and organized enough to uncover actual kitchen real estate.

It is depressing how long everything takes when you start from scratch. There's the inevitable inertia of being overwhelmed by the long list, but even when it feels like I'm in action a good deal of the time, progress is measured in inches. Like, inches of countertop in my kitchen.

It's not yet spring, but the yearly sweep is already beginning. Time to rid ourselves and our life of stuff. Stuff we don't use, stuff we don't need, stuff that sits around and makes our small house that much smaller. I live with two guys who have a particularly difficult time parting with things they "may need later," so it can be an uphill battle.

So, I celebrate any and all progress.  Even countertops.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The First Blogger

Before there was Blogspot, before there was HuffPo, before free personal email, before the internet was even a mere glimmer in Al Gore's eye, Eleanor Roosevelt kept in touch daily with a depressed and fearful nation. For 27 years, she delivered her syndicated column six days a week, breaking this tradition only once, when her husband died, and then missing just four days. She was, truly, the nation's First Blogger.

Perhaps contrary to the image its title might conjure, "My Day" was not always a daily muse on the frustrations of running the White House, the endless demands on a first lady, the finer points of proper State Dinner etiquette. No. In many ways, it was a response to these sorts of First Lady limitations. Trapped in an "office" to which she was not elected, bound in a politically and financially imagined marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt developed her column as a means of reaching out to a desperate nation, one reader at a time, and educating it on the policies and politics that affected one and all.

She tackled many subjects and at times, in hindsight, seems remarkably prophetic. Here,for example, excerpted from PBS's American Experience website on her, are Eleanor Roosevelt's thoughts on the new device known as "television":
"November 5, 1958 - If the use of leisure time is confined to looking at TV for a few extra hours every day, we will deteriorate as a people.

Actually, preparation for the use of leisure time should begin with our schoolchildren. The appreciation of many things in which we are not proficient ourselves but which we have learned to enjoy is one of the important things to cultivate in modern education. The arts in every field - music, drama, sculpture, painting - we can learn to appreciate and enjoy. We need not be artists, but we should be able to appreciate the work of artists. Crafts of every kind, the value of things made by hand, by skilled people who love to work with wood or clay or stone will develop taste in our people.

These are all things that can give us joy and many of us will find that we are capable of acquiring a certain amount of skill we never dreamed we had, which will give an outlet to a creative urge. But, these things must be taught, and in the age now developing about us they are important things. For if man is to be liberated to enjoy more leisure, he must also be prepared to enjoy this leisure fully and creatively.

For people to have more time to read, to take part in their civic obligations, to know more about how their government functions and who their officials are might mean in a democracy a great improvement in the democratic processes. Let's begin, then, to think how we can prepare old and young for these new opportunities. Let's not wait until they come upon us suddenly and we have a crisis that we will be ill prepared to meet."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Our Kids

This is a photo of my son and his robotics partner and friend hovered at their temporarily-assigned computer, desperately trying to retain their, also temporary, lead in the robotics programming "race" that had emerged among the students pretty much immediately upon receiving their kits. Next door, my GFF's daughter and her partner struggle to keep pace. Note the dedication to their task - if only every subject drew this intensity of focus, this determination to succeed!

Of course, little can compete with the pure thrill of a 3-week section on building and programming your own robots, competing against one another in accuracy and speed, adding your own flourishes, and ultimately imbuing your creation with a style and mission all its own. For 5th graders? Bliss.

2-3PM each day might be tense with raw competition, but it is fun and exciting and somehow pure and simple in its goals. I'm glad, because the rest of 5th grade is fraught with dangers and missteps both social and academic. In many ways, 5th grade feels like 1st grade - the expectations and skills my child and I have honed in recent years lie like so much rubble at our feet. It's a new world, a new day, and we are unprepared.

As some consolation, most of my peers were caught unaware as well - all of us, I think, having filed 6th grade as The Turning Point in our psyche. But, it turns out that these days, 6th grade begins in 5th grade, and unless you are one of those parents who has carefully choreographed since preschool your child's peer relations with an eye toward the middle school lunchroom scene, you might feel that a lump of helpless fear has taken up permanent residence in your throat during this last elementary school year.

Rejection, hormones, constantly shifting cliques. These are front and center for girls in 5th grade, but boys are grappling with them too. More shadowy, less obvious, and perhaps less extreme, the knives of exclusion still get drawn, and wound. In 5th grade, kids have been exposed to enough media to understand instinctively the weak points. Thankfully, for some of them, empathy has blossomed and now in 5th grade, true friendships are formed of common interests and mutual alliances are born as well.

Academically, it's no less complex. Middle school looms, with AP classes for the smart and lucky, a workload unimagined in the lower grades, and the institutional distancing of the parents' role. No longer are notes needed for after school, no longer are signatures required to ensure that parents understand and agree to homework or test expectations. 6th graders are expected to manage their own homework, their own challenges. Parents are brought in on a need-to-know basis.

Most of us are looking at our 10 year olds and thinking...WTF? Really? Six months from now it's sink or swim for this kid - KID - who can't remember where he put his socks? And then we find the nearest paper sack we can breathe into. And of course, we will choose to involve ourselves. We will insist on being present, on seeing the homework anyway, on knowing when the test is. We will instruct, support, cajole. Beg.

5th grade, so far, has been hard. Hard for my kid. Hard for me. I feel tool-less in the face of new challenges. So, we've been taking it day by day, doing what works for us. Talking. Playing. Keeping what seems to work, tossing what doesn't. My secret hope is that we are laying a good foundation for next year...that maybe this year is sort of next year so next year won't be as hard as we feared. Stay tuned.

Tonight, I had a meeting at the elementary school. Our elementary school, middle school, and high school are co-located on a 100-acre campus in the middle of the island. There were a fair few cars in the parking lots when I pulled in at 6:30, for what I'm not sure. When I left, at 8PM, three high school boys were congregating near the front doors I passed through - pretty unusual, especially this time of night. Huh, what were they doing here?

Well, our school has a giant art piece, created by the entire 1st grade some years ago, in which each student made a tiny tile and together an island artist formed it into a beautiful turtle - and all involved named it Speedy.

The boys had come over to admire the handiwork.

As I walked past them, I heard their words of praise and surprise at the quality of the little kids' work, and their discussion of individual tiles and their merits. I smiled, inhaled a deep breath of relief and gratitude and faith, and walked on to my waiting car.

You know what? I think he's going to be just fine.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obsessing on bread

At the risk of being labeled maniacal in this regard, I just have to revisit the bread conversation.

Here's the deal: Truly great bread is the foundation of many wonderful things (not to mention, civilizations). Yummy snax, excellent accompaniment to salad, soup, or even pasta. Truly wonderful bread - the kind you buy at the bakery or the specialty grocer, with a floury crusty crust and a deep earthy smell, this bread means something to you. In general, it means between $5 and $7 to you.

So, to finally - after literally nearly 20 years of trial and error - find a method to make this kind of bread, daily, in our home is nothing short of miraculous. And it takes almost no effort, no time. We've been doing this for about a month now and we still get excited each loaf! We can't help ourselves - "look! how beautiful is that?!" is our general reaction. We've made the basic loaf, the European peasant loaf, the Olive Oil loaf, and none have been short of spectacular.

And, it makes amazing pizza dough - a huge discovery for our family. I like to pile all sorts and sundry healthy veggies on a foundation of thin crust and call it "pizza" b/c I know anyone is more likely to enjoy it that way. We had Kale, bacon, and green onion pizza the other night and it was amazing. (recipe will follow tomorrow, along with others)

Like most things home or farm-based, it makes me wonder why it isn't more widespread. Wow, this is so easy and the results are so fabulous, why isn't just about everyone just making their own bread? Why isn't "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" at the top of the NYT bestseller list?

Coming together over homemade anything is a good thing. Making bread together can only join your family. Have fun.

Bon Appetit-


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tears of Joy

The inauguration of President Obama. Could it have been any more inspiring?

Here on Vashon, our 700 seat vintage theatre was worthy of a fire marshall visit by 7AM. We packed every seat, the aisles, the back, the lobby. Mark, Dylan, and I arrived around 6:45 and there were few seats left already. The downside: we had to sit in the front row just feet away from the giant screen, slumped way down, our necks cricked. The upside? We got to sit in the front row just feet away from the giant screen, slumped way down, our necks cricked.

Thank you to Vashon Theatre for opening its doors at 6:30 to the community for free, allowing us to come together and experience this moment side by side.

We all clapped and clapped at every image of our new president and his family. We roared with agreement again and again throughout his speech. We proudly stood to sing the national anthem. And, finally, we laughed through our tears at the beautiful, modern, funny benediction.

Thank you President Obama. Thank you America. Thank you World. Our sheep send out a ruminant butt bump to one and all.

Where were you when Barack Obama took the oath? Please share your story!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Occupational Hazard

As bleak as winter on a muddy farm in the Pacific Northwest can feel, it seems it feels bleaker still with a fractured coccyx. I have no idea how this happened, but I've apparently been walking around with a broken tailbone for nearly two weeks now. I went to bed fine on January 2 and woke up in excruciating pain January 3. Happy New Year!

Sleepwalking? Extreme nightmares? Falling out of bed?

Well, I didn't know what was wrong and tried to ignore it and hope it resolved itself, but I finally had to admit defeat. I took myself into Seattle, perplexed my physician, and at last the big round CT machine revealed the problem. By that time, we were murmuring the possible presence of a tumor, so a mere fracture turned out to be good news.

The doc and his assistant muse that the physical labor that's part of my day may have caused a stress fracture. Unusual, but not impossible. Sigh. And as I move through time, I can't help but notice that one uses one's tailbone in virtually all movements and positions. Walking hurts. Also sitting. Driving, especially down our bumpy driveway, is fun. Bending is the worst, and even lying down is not the relief you might expect. Still, I'm grateful there's no crutches involved.

The Rx? Rest and more rest and "managing the pain," AKA painkillers. No heaving bags of chicken feed and dragging mineral blocks into pasture. No shoving bales of straw off the roof of the SUV. That probably sounds like a vacation, but it worries me. I know Mark will do what he can and my friend Shelley has pledged her help. I'm lucky to live a life where I face virtually nothing alone.

OK, six weeks! Here we go...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Most Unlikely Farm Kitty

Perhaps 3rd in a series of introductions to our many and diverse beings, meet Karona. Arch nemesis of our chief Mouser, Buster, Karona was adopted from the Tacoma Human Society on the same day, but that is where the cats' similarities part company.

Karona is pure in her hatred of Buster. And Jessie. She doesn't much care for the chickens, either, and has very little time for the sheep. Could care less about Mark and probably doesn't even realize my mother exists. Dramas over ways to avoid others erupt each day.

However, she adores Dylan, as much as she can, and has developed a very specific relationship with me. She loves the bathroom. In the bathroom, the upstairs bathroom specifically, she is, well, my slave. She is putty. She is a purr machine. She lolls on my feet, she purrs up a variety of interesting guttural sounds. She flogs, squirms, wriggles, meows... generally loses her mind. Part of this can be attributed to her desire for me to turn the tap on - she will only drink water from this, particular, running tap - but even when such formalities are done away with...still the geographically-specific love affair persists. It doesn't matter what time of day or night I enter the bathroom or how long I'm in there, she's in.

I finish up my business, be it shower, constitutional, or simple dental hygiene, open up the door, tripping over her supine body as I attempt to exit, and the tryst is over. She is aloof and annoyed once more. She enters the hall with a flip of her tail and a squinty-eyed backward glance at me that makes it clear her affections have been left upon the vanity shelf.

She makes a big show of scratching the hallway rug with front claws her last owners callously removed, flips her tail in my general direction, and moves on to hide in waiting for the next errant string, or foot, or, goodness help them, household pet to cross her path.

As always, I am left to wonder at the bizarre and unknown lives our animals have known before they landed here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Hello 2009

It is Sunday, the last before school begins, the first of this new year. While the real Day was Thursday, it is today that truly feels as though a new beginning is just around the corner. We have weathered serious weather, exchanged precious and silly gifts, celebrated the calendar with good friends, and treated ourselves to a sumptuous and frankly divine 24 hours of city life, courtesy of my generous father and stepmother.  The tonic effect of leaving the farm and the island is invigorating.

Now we're ready for 2009.

I think we are in good company - almost everyone I know or read has happily closed the door on 2008 and thrown away the key. A new president, a new hope, and lots of work to be done to create a new future. Folks are ready to roll up their sleeves and see what some elbow grease generates.

Here on the farm, some of our next generation of hens have begun laying, plopping out the tiny gems that are the first few eggs of any chicken's production. Our raggedy-looking ewes are showing signs of carrying this Spring's lambs, and our plans to develop farm-based products for market are taking shape.

Dylan and Mark are learning our recording software by making music together in Mark's "studio," (AKA our den). Nothing makes me smile more than watching the two of them together creating art. Years of piano angst, tears, fights, and the tedium of practice are finally turning into a shared love of making music with Dad. Recently emerged is a self-awareness that this skill, this knowledge of notes, this reading of music, is a gift earned and taken into his future forever. Over the holidays, Dylan played Christmas tunes in public - at our local coffeehouse. The joy of applause and tips lasted across many days.  I hope it will inspire him throughout this next year.

In so many ways, now feels like a new beginning.  A new year, the end of ice and snow and housebound-ness.  New projects in Dylan's classroom, new ideas to bring Stop Sign Farm into self-sufficiency, new adventures for the eldest among us - teaching islanders oil painting the Midge Grace way.  2009 could prove very interesting indeed.

We've got Mark's job ending sometime in the fall, an economy either in free-fall or on the cusp of a new New Deal, a farm with a foundation finally almost laid.  It's scary, but most precipices are.  It's time to jump, and 2009 is our appointed year to explore our options and see what makes sense.  

At other moments, it all feels like so much folly and gloom.  The property is all mud, the animals are wet and miserable, the plants are suffering from recent frost and heavy snow, the claws of free-range chickens, and all-around neglect.  I have a month of pruning duties stretching before me and still have to plant dormant nut trees and protect the roots of babies I planted in the fall from curious and hungry hen feet.


But, the fall of the greenhouse has, perhaps thanks to our friend David, released us into rethinking where things should be.  We have re-imagined our greenhouse to live alongside our chickenrun and our chickenrun to co-exist more harmoniously with our garden and suddenly a sort of symbiotic compound has taken shape in our minds.  Out of the gray, desolate, and seemingly interminable winter comes some new beginnings.

Welcome, 2009.  We're ready for you.