The ever-marvelous Celi, she of the sustainably-farmed wonders at The Kitchens Garden, challenged all of us to share what we see from our back porch, patio, stoop, door, window or patch of land, and the images pouring in have been a delight. Each so different, each from some other far-flung locale around the globe–but each seen from the home turf of a person joined together in this fantastic community of blogging and readership that makes the otherwise disparate styles and locations seem we are all next door neighbors. What a superb thing, to shrink the world down to a size that can easily fit into a single embrace!So I give you a glimpse of what I see behind my home, too. Our house is situated on a city lot (about the typical suburban US standard of 50 x 100 feet), but it feels both less like a suburban place and much bigger because it backs on an easement, a small ravine for rain run-off and city/county service access. The ravine’s seldom wet (this is, after all, Texas) or used for services, so it’s mainly a tree-filled wild spot and a refuge for local birds, flora, insects, and an assortment of critters that have at various times included not only squirrels and raccoons but also rabbits, opossums, armadillos, deer, foxes, coyotes and bobcats. There have certainly been, along with the delightful bluejays and cardinals and wrens and chickadees, doves, grackles, hummingbirds and killdeers and all of those sorts of small-to mid-sized birds, plenty of hawks and vultures and, I suspect (since I know others not so far from here who have had visits from them) wild turkeys, though I’ve not seen the latter.What I have seen recently that is infrequent if not rare, is some very welcome rain pouring down on us here, so I’m showing you slightly uncommon backyard views today. The second picture is taken from our raised patio, but the first is the view as I most commonly see it: through the kitchen window, where I can stand safely out of the lightning’s reach (as on the day shown) and more comfortably in air-conditioned splendor than in the 90-105ºF (32-40ºC) we experience so often here. Believe me when I tell you that the intense green of this scene as shown is rather unusual for this time of year, when we would more often have much more brown and bedraggled plants all around us. But we also have the luxury of a sprinkler system, so if the ravine begins to droop in dry hot weather, we’re generally protected from terrible fire danger and can still be an inviting spot for the local wildlife to take its ease. To that end, and because I generally prefer the beauties of the more native and wild kinds of landscapes to the glories of the manicured, I have my new wildflower swath in place and it’s just beginning to show a variety of the flowers and grasses I’ve planted there; seen to the left of the grey gravel path in the second picture, it stretches from the patio all the way back to the ravine.
Though he may well have sprung from the roots of ancient earthbound deities, the Green Man remains alive and well and, at this season, inhabits garden and woodland alike, filling sun and shadow with his mischievous magicks. And this presence is a very welcome thing indeed. Few things can compare with the appearance of those tender sprouts, however miniscule and vulnerable, that bring new signs of life to the winter’s loamy floor, unfurl their banners on the tiniest twig of the smallest shrub. The mere sight of one small tip of leaf can bring an upsurge of life to the dormant veins of even a hardened person who’s waited through the dark and chill for newness to arrive.
Did the long freeze of January kill that little sapling that I found? No, here’s the faint, alluring swelling of a bud, the blushing edge of a leaflet, soon to open wide in exuberant yellow-green shouts of Spring. Has the ice of the short days and long, long nights wholly buried and killed my favorite herb, both branch and root? No, I see a hairline stripe of promising verdure in the bony bark of its woody little stem. Life is a bold, determined act, and with its brazen call brings out the denizens of Earth, first the bud and then the bloom, one small broken seed shooting out a multitude of growing things at the conjuring wave of the Green Man’s hand. Like him, I cannot help but grin when the world begins again to wake in leafy laughter.
I lived most of my life in northern climes. My childhood and many subsequent years spent in the Seattle area naturally color my view of nature and my connections with it, so even though I’ve spent the last four years putting roots down into Texan soil my inner imagery of the season of growth is of sprouts and blooms native to alpine, temperate, rainforest and coastal territory. I appreciate and admire the vast and varied beauties of this wildly different terrain that is my new home, and my heart still resonates joyfully when it comes to those northwest marvels of green and gorgeous living things as well. I don’t think I’ll have to tell you which region inspired these two poems.
The drawings, though, could be a bit more nearly universal. Dandelions, in particular–I can’t think of many places I’ve visited so far that didn’t have a substantial contingent of that sunny little weed blossom. I hardly ever see their smiling faces without thinking of the adorable little enthusiast next door who peered over our fence and, seeing my mother pulling dandelions–and perhaps interpreting this as her enthusiasm for cultivating their charms–piped up to boast enthusiastically (much to her own mother’s chagrin): ‘we’ve got a MILLION of ‘em!’ In Return
Willingly as daffodils stretch out of the earth
At the first invitation of the sun,
So I come from the dark when my winter ends,
Turn my face up to the blessing sky,
And sigh at the promise of the spearing green
Arising by my feet, even if the icicles
Have not yet
Melted wholly away.
Amid the muffling drifts of downy snow
That draw the pearly winter sky down low
To kiss the earth once more in early spring
Are sparkling spears of palest glimmering
Green newness, first to show upon the white
And break the slope of frosted winter light
Uncurling soon to show the youthful face
Of spring’s renewal in this sleeping place
If still surrounded by the icy pale
Wild woolliness bedecking hill and vale—
The snow, though mighty, cannot fully stanch
The burst of springtime’s sparkling avalanche
It’s possible that, given my genetic descent from a pair of neatnik parents, I keep a slightly fussier house than average. But I must emphasize the word ‘descent’, because the Czarina of Creative Chaos and the Lama of Laziness are my spiritual parents too and often win out in the balance between controlled environment and bombing aftermath. What this means in practice is simply that I often settle (and therefore, my housemate and our guests must, too) for ‘clean enough for safety’. I don’t like any sense of living in the bottom of a rubbish tip, let along canoeing a sewer [the kind with appalling effluents in it, not the kind that makes things out of fabric]. So I think I can fairly claim that I have never–barring being bedridden–let my environs fall into utter wrack and ruin, but there are times when I’d rather let sleeping heaps lie and be satisfied with relatively germ-free untidiness than spend all of my energies on a pristine home.
I can’t imagine wanting to have a ‘show house’ anyway. If I can’t slouch around a bit and put my feet up on the furniture (yes, dining surfaces excepted), it doesn’t feel comfortable enough for me to call Home. All the same, I enjoy those times when I’ve been in my cleaning-tornado mode enough to find whatever I need to find without pulling all of my remaining hair out by the roots, and to have the house all spiffed up and looking its prettiest beyond merely being generally non-toxic.
For that reason, deep cleaning is not saved exclusively for the Spring, and a few spates of active reorganization throughout the year are not only helpful but refreshing. When those bouts result not only in unearthing and offloading unused, excessively worn, dated, or redundant things from closets, cupboards and spaces that ought by rights to be airier or at least better used, that is exceedingly pleasant. When the result is more practical organization, it also means that not only are things pleasanter than before in the short term but they will be easier to maintain in that state and even to return to it when the busyness of the everyday has overridden good intentions and available time for a while. I may never have that DIY-goddess glory of everything in pretty and cute and magnificent containers, all labeled alphabetically with gorgeous calligraphy and stored so beautifully that the cabinets should remain forever open and on display, but I have what I want where I want it. At least for the time being. My putative parents of Chaos and Laziness do come calling, and they’re ever so much more trouble to have around the place than my biological ones. Ah, well; I’ve learned to live with them.
I’m thinking about flowers. [I'm not talking about my cousin's family, though they'd be a welcome sight in this part of the world as much as any!] Perhaps it’s because, here in Texas, signs of sprouting, budding and even outright blooms are beginning to show all around us: the flowering pear trees are starting to burst like giant batches of popcorn, my infant fringeflower is sporting a deep fuchsia-colored tassel or two, and even the local redbud trees are bravely showing off glimpses of their own hot pinks and purples. It may also be that the influence of a few days spent recently on seasonal cleaning and prep in our yard brings, along with the seasonal sneezing and watering of the old eye-bulbs, the welcome scent of earth and sightings of green specks that seem to increase in size while I watch, reminds me of spring and summers past and favorite blossoms I eagerly await on their return. The recent speedy trip to San Antonio, just enough farther south from us to be a week or two ahead in the race to renew its flora, certainly enhanced my longing for the sight of flowers while it was giving me its own preview. And of course, there’s simply the persistent infatuation with all-things-growing that grips me year-round that might be one of the main instigators of this present hope.
Too Early to be Called Springtime
Leaning back into the shade
Next to a mirror foxed with age but
Gleaming still with that low glint,
Mercurial, that holds onto its ghosts—those
Pale vapors that have passed
Through the pavilion and its garden greens,
Have dreamed while leaning in
This selfsame shade
Of fading memory and of
Incipient bloom, in this
Just-waking secret garden—
Here I will stay at rest, a shade myself
In the pale green gloaming
Here at the ol’ Sparks Ranch (well, just a ranch-style house, but we are in Texas after all), DIY projects happen for a variety of reasons, but there are three main motivators that have the best chance of eventually getting me involved in them. The first is that I get, ahem, the spark of an idea for something that could be better than it is. The second is that I don’t often have the moolah to purchase such an item or bit of action ready-made and fabulous. And the third is that sometimes just the right piece of the puzzle arrives on my doorstep to nudge me into motion after all.
These three inspirations converged recently when my longstanding desire to spiff up our built-in bar–an item I’d never been accustomed to having in my home, but what the heck, it came with the house–complicated by my unwillingness to spend much on the project, met with the gift of our renovating next-door neighbor’s removal of the built-in bottle and stemware rack from the bar in her house. (Thank you, LM!) As our houses are of similar vintage and share close cousins of the woodwork stain variety, the ejected cabinet was a close enough match to those already in the lower half of our bar to make a fine fit.
What began as a modest set of lower cabinets, a set-in [and nearly stainless] bar sink with a cheap but functional faucet, a nasty very fake looking ‘wood’ laminate countertop and some glass shelves on a simple bracket style rack is now, I think a reasonable bit better: it’s both a fair amount more functional and a little less sketchy looking, and I think I won’t be quite so worried about keeping it closed constantly as I had been in its shaggier state.
What I did: first, I remembered that I’m now over half a century old and therefore should not lift a couple-hundred-pounds cabinet up and bolt it into place solo, something I would undoubtedly have been dumb enough to try in times past. Okay, and I was silly enough to lift the thing onto the counter by myself before I decided that not being hoist on my own petard was a really appealing concept. So after I cleared all of the previous bits out of the spot and plugged up the screw holes from the old shelves, I hired a carpenter friend to come and heft the oak box up, herk it into position, and bolt it generally in place with me. I’m cheap but not [entirely] insane.
I masked off the space and did the most gruesome part of the job: prepping and spray painting the countertop and the lower half of the walls, along with the sink and faucet, with my old friend Hammerite paint in the bronzy brown hammered finish. The walls and hardware (including the light switch and outlet) were all in extremely rough shape and it seemed to me the better part of valor to just embrace the rugged look and be a tiny bit old-school industrial in style. Then I brought in all of the scraps of trim and moldings I had left over from our previous reno projects here, along with my little hand-saw and miter setup, and pieced together some legs to support the front of the already weighty empty cabinet and horizontal supports for shelves over the sink, cut two short shelves out of a couple of old bookshelves no longer in use elsewhere, and then trimmed out the whole conglomeration. Under all of the paint, if you look too closely, you’ll see that it’s one wild concatenation of mismatched trim profiles and caulked, spackled, sanded and glued odd parts, but I did my best to pull it all together with the finishes by painting the bottom half all in Hammerite and the top half (including the ceiling) in plenty of primer and a finish coat of satin latex in simple cream.
I borrowed a couple of unused curtain rod finials to hide some of the weirder joinery at the corners and loaded the cabinets, and I believe I’m now within an nth of Done with this particular DIY. Or, if I’m to be honest, I suppose I should admit it’s DIM (Did It Myself–and yes, dimly enough). I just took the globe off of the ceiling light and stuck a reproduction Edison bulb in the fixture for now; eventually, I’ll want to either move the fixture itself or get a swag to relocate the bulb over the sink, so it doesn’t sit right next to the wine rack and heat it up, however briefly I keep the light turned on in there. And I’m going to put some of those little chalkboard labels on the front of the ‘new’ cabinet in those flat spaces so I can write in what’s in the rack and change it as the inventory changes. At the moment, I’m done with what I have materials on hand to do, so I think I’ll just enjoy it. Probably ought to sit down and have a drink!
It’s a time of year when a whole lot of concerts and recitals are reawakened in the College of Music hereabouts, so tonight we headed out for the usual eight-in-the-evening music making. The sunset led us west to the concert hall–but just barely, as the evenings are shortening already by now–and the house was well crowded with people eagerly pressing in to hear their first of the orchestra’s season of performances. Arturo Márquez – Danzón No. 2, Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, Béla Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra–the latter, a scintillating performance of the virtuosic, wonderfully evocative and cinematic piece to set the bar very high for the year.
It’s also time to get another day’s post up on the blog, if I’m to meet my ‘local midnight’ deadline. Time to gather up my thoughts for the day into whatever package has offered itself, arrange my neurons into a more restful, sleep-invoking mode than last night’s (not another wake-every-half-hour one, please! What was that all about?) and recharge my batteries for tomorrow. Time also to look ahead in the autumn and think of when we can invite friends for visits, what is next on my long list of projects and chores and art making events that fits with my current resources and mood.
In short, it’s That Time: life as usual. The good, the busy and the unpredictable continue to flood my days and nights with change and, as it’s said, the more things change the more they stay the same. I don’t know for certain what tomorrow will bring beyond the few enigmatic things noted on a fairly bland and unadorned seeming calendar, yet every hour that ticks by in my existence brings with it some new piece of knowledge, a surprise visitor, events not planned or expected, a whole array of shifting atoms that make each moment quite different and generally much larger than I feared or hoped it would be. And that is how, in a sort of cosmic conundrum, I manage to find mystery and adventure and the impossible all utterly normal and quite the logical thing to happen to me, time and again.
Ha! Just when the 100°F+ (38°C) weather has dragged on long enough for me to start whining about the lack of lively things happening in my garden and haul out the photo albums of earlier spring and summer shots to moon and maunder over, This. We came driving down to the end of our driveway last night after a concert and I saw something shining in the farthest reaches of our headlights. Then a twitch of movement. Saw a flash of pinkish color in the dim illumination.
After three years of living in Texas and only one sighting of an armadillo other than the variety occasionally spotted in a sort of worn-area-rug likeness on desolate stretches of highway, there in my own backyard were a pair of waddling ‘dillos searching the perimeter of the house for tasty bugs and grubs. I’ve known, of course, that living on a property that shares its back border with a little greenbelt ravine, we have all sorts of creatures–possums, raccoons, birds, insects, squirrels, wild rabbits, and the assortment of neighborhood cats and dogs that keep an eye on them all–there were likely armadillos too. I’ve heard from various locals of such residents as wild turkeys and coyotes, as well, and heard from a bobcat itself that it at least formerly inhabited our little slice of the semi-wildness. But other than the one unfortunate flat armadillo that I once found run over on a neighboring street, I’d not seen any hard evidence of their inhabiting this spot.
So it was a delight to see these funny, eccentric looking and shy nocturnal visitors not only in the neighborhood but in our own yard. They were remarkably unmoved by us, even when my chauffeuring spouse stopped the car, rolled up the automatic garage door and let me clamber out with my little camera to try to catch a glimpse of them to keep. They were already rounding the corner of the house almost immediately after we spotted them, so I crept indoors and out the front door. Our porch lights are meant only to light the porch, so there was no real way to see the critters in that dark, but as soon as I stepped out into the black I could hear bits of rustling off to my right. Yes, they’d come out to investigate the front flowerbeds and rummage in the buffet at the foot of the oak trees.
Lacking any fabulous infrared spy camera or night vision goggles for the occasion, I simply took my little point-and-shoot in hand and, well, pointed and shot. Aimed for the scuffling and shuffling sounds as best I could. Caught a couple of quick little glimpses as the flash went off in its nearly random way. And rejoiced that these delightfully surreal animals had decided for once to pay me a visit when I could actually be on hand to appreciate it. Life does go on, no matter the weather, the season or the condition of my plants. After all, if the plants had continued to be too vigorous, the insects wouldn’t find such rich dining on them and there would be little fascinating forage for my miniature garden-zeppelin friends. And I do thank them for helping with the insect-control efforts here. And probably, for some free fertilizer in the bargain, especially if I startled anyone with my camera flash.
I’ve got this little problem, see. It’s about my name. No, I am really pleased with the one I was born with–Mom and Dad did a bang-up job with that, as far as I’m concerned. Parents have it easy with the baby-naming stuff; it’s not their fault if the kid doesn’t match up with the moniker, considering that they had no way of knowing the shrimp beforehand to fuss over pairing name and gnome perfectly.
My problem is with my blog title. I’ve winged it with my online place’s birth-name, a version of my own, since I started the gig a little over a year ago, but in truth, it was pretty much a place-holder since I had no inkling then that I’d not only stick with the process but have people beyond the borders of my immediate family visiting with me here. So the problem is, if there’s nothing in the name of my blog to tell anybody outside of the aforementioned familial borders what the heck this blog contains, or why on earth they would have the remotest reason to bother visiting here. If, indeed, they did.
Now, then, I’m having a good old identity crisis. ‘Cause I don’t know what the heck to tell anybody either. On Tuesdays, yeah, you’ll generally find food-related ramblings when you show up. Other days, though, swerve from one topic to another so loosely and with such unpredictable abandon that I don’t know when I sit down at the keyboard what direction I’m bound to take. New drawing? New photograph? Reminiscences about travel, DIY monkeying, garden plotting, commentary on freeway drivers or a freshly minted and wildly ridiculous poem–I just haven’t figured out any sort of way to describe in a couple of words what’s on the non-Tuesday menu around this blog.
I’m open to suggestions. Thanks to my obsessive dilettantism, my spouse suggests that the family nomenclature for me of Short Attention Span Artist might just do the trick, but as accurate as it is in describing me (and probably what I do, too), it still doesn’t seem to me likely to tell a total stranger what to expect on arrival. Tangential adventures like mine could possibly be described as, uh, Tangential Adventures, but of course that’s pretty cryptic too. Art, Poetry, Photography, Essays, and Ingenious Insights combines the pompous and the dully categorical in a way remarkable only for its long-windedness.
I guess I’ll just keep a-sittin’ here in my little corner twirling my ponytail for a while and see if some astounding inspiration happens to alight upon my bedazzled pate. Ooh, Bedazzled Pate! Nahhhh, sounds like some kind of yummy mousse studded with masses of rhinestones. The truly big question remains. Who am I? Doubt that can be answered in this or any other lifetime. But perhaps I’ll figure out my blog’s identity one of these days, at the least. Feel free to help!
Okay, you are all very well aware that there are more like ten squillion things I’ll never know, but it doesn’t make for as mellifluous a title, now, does it? Ahem. Confession is all well and good, but I might as well please my inner critic, too.
I am referring, in the title I did choose, to the multitude of cool tricks and fabulous skills I am quite unlikely to learn and/or acquire as a chef in this lifetime. Some of them I could undoubtedly get the hang of, if not exactly master, were I to make a dedicated effort. But I’m such a dilettante by nature and so easily moved to any attractive tangent, that such dedication is a fairly rare commodity in my personal performance toolbox. I certainly admire all of you artistes and culinary technicians who have such an abundance of graces in the kitchen, at the grill, and around any old fire pit you can conjure out of architectural rubble, used tuna tins and flammable leaf-mold. And I’ll leave such things to you.
If I were a serious student I might be able to learn how to poach, candy, spherify, souffle, smoke, sear and pulverize the universe of edible things into perfect submission, but I am instead the kid who sits in the corner and stares alternately out the window and down at my left shoelace until galvanized by the lunch bell, whereupon I am first in the cafeteria line and probably sticking my fork into my food well before I have sat at a table. So my hopes of becoming a great chef are limited at best. Part of the problem is getting practiced and patient enough to merely remember what I just did in preparing a dish to have even the remotest chance of either replicating it at some future date or–if it turns out it’s awful–avoiding said replication, at least by improving those things that were unsatisfactory about it in the event. That makes one of the Ten Thousand Things that ranks very high on my list the ability to prepare and eat the same thing twice.
While I’m all for playing Variations on a Theme and enjoying change and novelty, I’m not entirely free of the rather common human urge to indulge in familiar favorites. That means it’s often wisest not to stray exceedingly far from the few techniques I do know and the moderate batch of ingredients that are well-loved in my cookery adventures, or I’m surely doomed to a perpetual cycle of this battle with my limited memory, always eating whatever random concatenation or ridiculous concoction happened to come out of my latest crash course dans la cuisine.
Today, I was faced with a fair fridge-full of unrelated leftovers that, if I didn’t want them to die of old age, needed to be made into something approximating tastiness that I could at least freeze until we would be home to heat-and-eat them. Combined, there were the makings of a whole simple meal; it only required my ‘repurposing’ everything, if that’s not too odd an application of the term, and the time was decidedly now. Tonight the garbage and recycling bins get put out for morning collection, and if we’re not going to actually eat the stuff, it’s clearly better to cut losses before that cleansing event than after it.
So, since the ingredients presented themselves, I prepped three simple recombined dishes as follows. The main course: a BBQ meatloaf of sorts. Sides couldn’t be simpler than yet another version of my mainstay potato casserole and steamed vegetables, and that’s what we’ll have to feed our hunger and clear out the refrigerator this time. What I’ll do with the leftovers of the leftovers is anybody’s guess. I’m quite sure I won’t remember how they got this way in the first place.
Meatloaf probably sounds a bit better, or at least a little more identifiable, than A Hunk of Barbecue-Sauced Meats Put Together, but either way, it’s the simple truth. This loaf came out very tender, indeed, almost to the point of falling apart, so there’s clearly a spot that I could adjust in the recipe, if there were a recipe. Ah, well. I simply took equal parts of leftover pit ham and roast beef (both thoroughly cooked already, obviously) and a little bit of roasted chicken that I had, too–a little under 3 cups of meat in total, I suppose–and put them all together with about a quarter-to-half a cup of barbecue sauce plus two eggs (raw) in the food processor and chopped them all together into a light minced meat ‘dough’, pressed it into a lightly greased loaf pan, and baked it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or so. Pretty nice tasting results for so little effort, really. Even better when I will have only to warm it up when it’s time to eat. And when, of course, I will already have forgotten entirely what I did with what ingredients to have made the food.
The other food is and was equally easy. The potato casserole this time is a mix of a cup of leftover good french fries (chips) plus one raw Russet plus 1/4 cup of queso blanco, all diced into similar small-sized pieces and mixed with a tablespoon of butter, a handful of shredded Parmesan cheese, and sprinklings of ground black pepper and salt and a small pinch of grated nutmeg and microwaved until the queso was just beginning to melt. I cooled this mix and put it in the fridge, and when it’s time to fix it for eating I’ll put it in a heat-proof container and warm it through thoroughly with a half cup or so of heavy cream. That always gives potato casseroles a nice texture somewhere in between baked and mashed potatoes, both of which I think are pretty fine, and helps the cheeses blend into the mix well.
The steamed veg is prepared in the way that makes the dish, if you can even call it that, the easiest of all of them. Carrots and celery, cut into 1″ pieces and steamed with a pat of butter in a half cup of chicken broth (vegetarians can obviously substitute veg broth, wine, water or juice) plus a splash of Limoncello–that’s all there is to it. This one will get salted at the table because I don’t want to get any of that metallic hint of mixing salt and booze in cooked food that can sneak through when the dish is so wholly uncomplicated. The carrots and celery should mostly speak for themselves. And they will still taste pretty fresh and sweet, even in a day or two, rather than wilted and antique as they would have been had I not preemptively cooked them today.
Best defense is a good offense, so I’m told, and nowhere do I see it demonstrated as often as in getting food at least par-cooked before its shelf life has ended. A pseudo-science I learned because, among all of the other kitchen cuteness I will probably never know is the refined art of getting everything prepared and eaten exactly when it’s at its peak, never mind not having odd-lot leftovers or not losing time, tears and groceries if we get invited out to dinner after I’ve half-prepared a meal so it sits around extra days waiting for our attentions. Perfection in the kitchen? No, never. But this old dog does know a tiny trick or two, and that has kept us alive reasonably well so far.