Thursday, August 26, 2010

Slowing Down: Picking Grapes

I realize that I write enormously long posts.  To help off-set that, I'm going to start a series of posts called "Slowing Down" that will be interspersed with my more verbose writings.

Picking Grapes on the Melby farm

From the windmill, vines high and low

Into the egg basket

For some homemade wine!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Greatest Generation

Yesterday Jake and I visited his grandparents, Rollie and Lorraine.  We're back home in MN visiting family and gearing up for my cousin's wedding this weekend.  We knew that we'd make it up to Madison at some point to see them, and the visit gave me a lot to ponder about marriage and what I value in my life. 

I first met his grandparents in the summer of 2006 after we started dating.  I remember the first time walking into their house, getting blasted back to past from the smell of it.  Strangely enough, their basement smelled exactly like my own Grandma Lorraine's house, who passed away in 2003.  Even then, I knew it was a good sign that Jake and I were meant to be!  At this point, Rollie was already diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, but he was still living at home being cared for by Lorraine. Jake used to tell me all sorts of stories about things he would do with his Grandpa, the bottling company Rollie ran for many years and that Jake worked for as a teenager, and all the work around his grandparents' house that he would help with.  Jake used to say "I wish you could have met my Grandpa before he got sick," but even now I can still see the twinkling in his eye of the perpetual joker that everyone tells me he used to be, and that's all I need to see to love him dearly!  Eventually the disease's progression became too overwhelming, and Rollie was moved into the nursing home a block away from their home. Lorraine hasn't slowed down one bit, though, since I met her.  She visits Rollie numerous times each day, still does his laundry, and even just washed her car by hand this past week!  She's going to be 89 this year, but with the way she still moves around and how sharp her mind still is you'd never know it! 

Lorraine met Jake and I at the nursing home yesterday afternoon around 4 o'clock.  Rollie was listening to some oldies on his Ipod, and besides being a little tired, seemed to be in good spirits.  We sat down with them both, chatted about what was new, and showed them pictures of our garden and from our honeymoon in Jamaica.  Jake and his Grandpa shared a beer together, and we took some pictures.  They were just amazed at the technology of the digital camera, being able to see the picture right away!
Jake and Rollie sharing a Hub City Brown Ale.
Two hours flew by, and by then Rollie was ready to head off to supper.  Lorraine said, "Goodbye honey," and leaned in and gave her husband of 60+ years a big smooch on the lips.  It took everything in my power not to start crying from the bittersweet moment, and even thinking back on it now brings tears to my eyes.  How hard it must be for her to say goodbye to him every day, for both of them to be alone at night, when for so long they had always been together.  But also how wonderfully sweet it is to see such love, dedication, and devotion after so many years, especially when no one seems to take marriage vows all that seriously anymore.  I'm sure that they have had their bad times just like anyone in any marriage, but to witness the love that years have built up was something quite special.  Both Jake and I remarked upon later that it's at this point in someone's life--when adults become children again and need to be taken care of--that it suddenly becomes so clear why having a partner, children, and family are so important.  I don't think anyone ever wants to be alone, but when you start to think forward to your later years, the need to keep your family close and strong becomes so much more apparent. 

Tom Brokaw rightly called their generation "The Greatest Generation" for their sense of duty, love, and practicality.  I lament that my own generation doesn't have more of those three things, three things still so evident in his grandparents today.  We talked with his grandparents about all the hard work they had to do, raising their families, working without technology, through the Great Depression and numerous wars.  But it was that kiss between two people who had made it through tough times and good that spoke volumes.  I hope that someday Jake and I can live up to their standards of duty, love, and practicality.  Because if it ends with a kiss like that, it'll all have been worth it. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Morning-time Stretches

I have always liked the idea of yoga.  As a longtime dancer, anything that gets my body stretching, bending, and twisting feels amazing.  I distinctly remember my first introduction to yoga.  I was at my neighbor Barb's house.  Her husband at the time had a book about yoga.  I must have been 7 or 8, and I tried to read all the words--including the Sanskrit names--but really the pictures were what floored me.  I tried to contort my body into the positions, try them out in any order that I like, but more often than not, it hurt and didn't really feel that good at all!

Only later in life, after many a theatre warmup with sun salutations and an official yoga class here and there, have I begun to understand the philosophical and physiological underpinnings to yoga that make it what it is.  I don't practice a particular style of yoga (more out of ignorance than anything), although what I do is probably most akin to Hatha Yoga.  First and foremost, it's about breath.  This was obviously one aspect that went right over my head when I was younger.  Second, it's about slowing down and going deeper.  Each breath brings you deeper into the pose.  Third, yoga shouldn't hurt.  Even now as I push my body further I have to remind myself to pull back and listen to the signals my body is telling me.

I've begun to practice yoga every morning on our newly finished back porch.  There is something magical about doing sun salutations as the sun is peeking over the rooftop.  Although you can't see it in this picture below, you can imagine how cool it would be.  And I even saw a rainbow this morning!  Beautiful...

I get to listen to the sound of birds chirping delightfully (and the occasional chainsaw from a neighbor who is up and at it far too early).  If the wind is blowing just right, the chimes blow and add their own soft mellow music to the mix.
Pentatonic-scaled wind chimes.  Ethereal...

At first my goal was to do 20 minutes of yoga every morning.  I managed to do that and much more as time seems to whiz by.  Although I had to stop during my recent illness, I just jumped back into my routine, and I feel great.  I start with breathing and centering, then gentle warmup twists and forward bends (usually seated).  I move into cat and cow pose to warm up my back, then child's pose for a rest.  Next I do sun salutations--12 simple flowing moves that get my body all warmed up and aligned.  I typically do between 3-6 sets of sun salutations (a set is two times through, one on each side of the body).  Sometimes I stop here.  Other times, I go through more pose sequences.  And I always always always end in relaxation pose.  Even if I can't stay there for very long, going forth into my day relaxed and calm is the best feeling in the world.
A face-down view from my yoga mat.
To find out more about the poses (and their Sanskrit names), go to  They even have a cool "build your own sequence" application!

And after yoga?  I enjoy a freshly brewed cup of coffee.  I start the coffeemaker before I go out to the porch each morning.  It's my treat to myself for morning-time stretches done well :-)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Value of Value

Frugal, green, thrifty, "locavore," coupon-clipping, shop the sales--while all of these ideas are something I aspire for, I feel that often these ideals conflict with one another.  What to do when your values are odds with the value of a dollar?

Take my recent food shopping for example.  Yesterday, in preparation for a "trailer trash" party we were hosting (classy, I know), I went shopping for food at our local Giant Eagle.  For a mere $20 and shopping strictly on the generic value brands (except the Oreos, which were one sale 2/$6), I bought:
  • (2) 8-ct. bags of hamburger buns, 
  • (2) packages of Oreos, 
  • (2) small cans of mandarin oranges, 
  • (1) container cool-whip, 
  • (3) 2-liters of soda, 
  • (1) half-gallon buttermilk, 
  • (2) boxes of instant vanilla pudding, 
  • (1) bag of potato chips, 
  • (1) frozen orange juice concentrate, and 
  • (1) box of Lean Cuisine pockets.
As it turns out, this is quite a bit of food for only $20!

Then this morning I went shopping at our local food co-op, the East End Co-op.  We just recently joined in an effort to support a smaller, locally run operation which has lots of local and organic food.  We had been going to Trader Joe's throughout the past year and really like that as well, although there's something about the lack of transparency with where they get their food that sometimes irks me.  I will likely continue to go there to stock up on stuff as they have good organic and green products (we love their toothpaste!), but we're trying to spend our money more wisely these days.  So with our 10% member discount on "member day" at the co-op, I spent $70 and bought:
  • 5 lbs. of bulk rolled oats (on sale)
  • 3 lbs. of bulk yellow popcorn (on sale)
  • 3.2 lbs. of bulk garbanzo beans (on sale)
  • 1.6 lbs. of bulk raisins (on sale)
  • 2 lbs. of pearled barley (on sale)
  • .25 lb. of bulk ground cumin
  • (1) 12 oz. package of Bike Fuel Coffee (on sale)
  • (1) 32 oz. blueberry blend juice (on sale and used coupon)
  • (1) jar of organic peanut butter (on sale)
  • (4) boxes of Annie's Mac and Cheese (on sale)
  • (2) lbs. of bananas
  • (1) 32 oz. bottle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (on sale)
  • (1) 8 oz. frozen blueberries (on sale and used coupon)
  • (1) Seventh Generation dish soap (used coupon)
  • (1) 1/2 lb. block of pepper jack cheese
  • (1) 32 oz. container of plain yogurt
  • (1) loaf of wheat bread from a local bakery
You'll notice I shopped the sales and used what coupons I could find, but even then--it's kind of expensive to eat healthy, green, and local!  We routinely pay an extra 20 cents for a gallon of local milk, $1 more for local eggs, and the list goes on for local things, which is so ironic because if it's local, it should cost less because there's no shipping involved!   

We've also been going to the Farmer's Market in East Liberty every Monday since the beginning of the summer.  Each week we bring $20 and hope to try new things, but frankly, once we buy peaches, half our budget is blown (but they are oh so sweet and juicy and absolutely worth it!).  So even shopping at the Farmer's Market, too, has put me into more than one conundrum.  Pay a little more for something we know is organic, or go to one of the bigger producers that is selling cabbage 2/$1?  Now that we have our garden, it's been easier to make those decisions, but they are decisions nonetheless that reflect what I as a consumer feel is important. 

Over time, I've noticed our move towards local and organic food start to add up.  So what am I supposed to do?  It's hard to put a price on the importance of eating local, supporting local business, attempting to buy bulk, and being more green, and at this point, I am willing to pay extra for making what I feel are more ethical spending choices.   On the other hand, it's amazing all the food--albeit nutritionally bad food--that you can buy for just $20!  It's really no wonder that our country has such a weird relationship with food once you begin to crunch the numbers.  And while Jake and I have both lost weight because of our consumption of more vegetables and less food overall, man those oreos are delicious! 

Jake reminded me the other day that although we're making this move towards more local, more organic, we still shouldn't forget to look in the sales ads that overtake our mailbox every Monday.  With our freezer and dehydrator, we can stock up on veggies and fruits while they're in season, and take advantage of other sales for things we use every day.  He's got a good point.  And certainly the least I can do is at least look at all the paper the ads waste each week.

I am certain this debate will not end soon.  I'm going to continue to struggle with this as I make more of a concerted effort to manage our finances, structure the meals of our house, and stay true to our values.  So in the meantime, I'm going to go enjoy those Oreos while they're around and before Jake gets to them :-)  Oreos with local milk, anyone?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bring on the Apron

I couldn't believe when I took my students to the library on Tuesday how many large brown leaves from the 100+ year old oak and maple trees there were scattered all over the sidewalk.  The cicadas have started their nightly humming, a drone that almost lulls you to sleep, until you remember the old folk wisdom that once you hear them, only 6 weeks til the first frost.  Some would say this the sad part--summer coming to an end--but I welcome the fall with open arms.  The warm days and cool nights, the color of a different hue and deeper lushness, the smell of crispness, and all the wonderful comfort foods that come with it.

But it's not just the change to fall I am excited for; this year, fall is bringing changes to me.  Next week I start my foray into the freelance teaching artist world with my part-time job as Education Director with Prime Stage Theatre holding me somewhat steady.  I'm excited for what this next year will bring--and terrified at the same time.  But if I wasn't, I'd be worried.

I am also bursting with anticipation at the thought of being able to be home more.  I am undeniably a homebody.  I will take a movie on the couch or a fire out out on our back porch before a night out on the town any day.  When we first moved into the house 3 years ago, I was all into "keeping a good house" for my first "real" home--keeping up with cleaning, cooking, etc.--that I thought I was "supposed" to do.  And then graduate school came and that all went right out the window.

But now I find myself with another opportunity to reconnect with my home, all the changes it has gone through since we moved here three years ago.  Physically, the kitchen and back porch remodel, the switching of the rooms upstairs, and all those added details we've brought in piece by piece.  Emotionally, our connection to our dog, Beau, and to each other as married partners.  I am learning to value my home in an entirely new way.  It is not just that I feel as if I am supposed to keep a good home, but now I genuinely want to and am looking forward to having the luxury of time to be able to do things my way.  I want to get on a routine of homemaking activities, including cooking, cleaning, laundry, baking my own bread (oh I can't tell you how excited I am to endeavor down this road!), organizing paperwork, and other little projects around the house, like fiddling with the sewing machine, working in the garden, making natural products, etc.

Underneath it all seems to be a strong desire to be self-reliant.  I remember looking at this old Reader's Digest guide to Homesteading (or something like that) which my Dad had lying around his house.  In it was every kind of activity you could imagine, from dying your own yarn, to building a smoker, to raising livestock, to home preservation, to maple syruping.  And even then I remember thinking--how cool would it be to be able to do everything for yourself.  Cool and unbelievably hard.  I don't know how those pioneers did it, but dang--I want to give it a try. Couple my desire for self-reliance with how much I like to be thrifty and green, and I'm feeling really good about my potential success at this whole "homemaking" adventure.  On a tangentially related note, a friend asked us a while back if we wanted to "go off the grid."  No, not entirely, but wouldn't it be cool if in 2010 you really could?  Think about out society today--consumer-driven, lacking in hard-skills, disconnected from food and energy sources--and to know there's some people who are actually doing it?  It amazes me.  While I don't think I would want to distance myself from mainstream society that much, I definitely empathize with their motivations. 

Perhaps all this makes me sound like I want to be a 50s housewife (or a hippie radical--take your pick).  While I do not want to have the inequality that went along with the 1950s (Jake will still be expected to do his share of dishes!), I do want that sense of deep connectedness to the place I call my home (and the pearls, if possible).  I will admit--I am proud of all we've done with our home and all we continue to do with it.  Just like Home Improvements are never done, neither is Homemaking--there's always things to do and things to improve.  And if saying this makes me sound like a 50s housewife, then bring on the apron (and if it be of the tie-died variety, I shall not complain).  I'm not ashamed to admit that I am choosing to make my home and everything I do to make it a home a top priority.  Because as it changes and grows, so do I :-)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Attack of the Zucchini, Part 4

Oh, it feels so good to be back blogging! I took a few days off, or rather my days took off to the point where I had no free time, but the joys of a relaxing Sunday at home in my p.j.'s--ah!!  So I'll now be taking this time posting yet again, and perhaps even later again today if something pops up.

The Zucchini are still coming in droves.  I froze some more grated zucchini on Friday, but saved part of it for some delicious stuff Zucchini pancakes:

We found the base recipe on Food Network for a Goat Cheese Stuffed Zucchini Pancakes with Tomato Sauce.  We didn't have goat cheese, so we substituted Feta instead.  And the Tomato Sauce looked a little to time intensive for our tastes, so instead, we served them on thick slices of an heirloom tomato from our garden, the Pineapple Tomato.  Sprinkled with Parmesan, it was delicious.   The only thing that I would do differently next time is make the pancakes as thin as I could in order to get them to cook all the way through--not that they were not done, but I would have liked them a bit more done if that makes any sense.

Also, I want to say a special and huge "CONGRATULATIONS!" to my dear friend Emily (or Awillix on the blog) who just had a beautiful baby girl, Lily.  While you likely won't be on the blog for a while now that you've got your hands full, know that I'm thinking of you and wishing I could send you some of the zucchini :-)

Honey honey!

No, this post is not about my personal honey (Jake), nor is it about the deliciousness of honey, although certainly I would never dispute this fact.  This post is instead on the wonders of "honey honey" for the body.

The health benefits of honey: honey is a rich anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, and has been used for centuries as a natural first-aid treatment.  People who eat local honey are less likely to develop allergies as their body ingests local pollen, thus building a tolerance for local plants.  Honey acts as a natural diuretic, is easy for the body to digest as it contains an equal amount of fructose and glucose in it, and is often used to treat throat and chest ailments in combination with other herbs.  Honey is also a great skin softener when used in conjunction with milk.  (*caution: while honey is great for children and adults alike, it should not be given to infants under the age of 1 due to the potential for infant botulism, while rare and can also be found in dirt and dust spores, can be debilitating*).

For these many reasons, I have tried to incorporate more honey into my life.  For over a year now, I've been making my own face wash made from honey.

3 simple ingredients:
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup vegetable-based glycerin (a natural humectant and skin softener)
  • 1/8 cup castille soap (I use Dr. Bronner's unscented "baby" soap)
Honey, Castille Soap (in a reusable bottle), and Vegetable Glycerin

With 3 simple materials:
  • Measuring cup
  • Small rubber spatula
  • Pump container (I used an old Neutrogena face wash bottle)
  • funnel (optional)
Pump container, funnel (optional) measuring cup, and rubber spatula.

Combine all ingredients in measuring cup, stir well with spatula, pour into pump container, and that's a wrap.

The gunk on the outside is from the old label.  Boo for glues that won't come off!
Another use of honey that I just recently tried was as a first-aid treatment.  On Thursday night, I burnt my hand.  Sheer stupidity on my part--I reached for a plate that was sitting on the stove, next to a hot burner, thinking that there couldn't possibly be that much residual heat.  Wrong!  It stung and hurt like a you know what!  I immediately ran it under cold water, and for 10 minutes held an ice cube wrapped in a washcloth in my hand--all the while trying to complete dinner!  Then, I put on 3 drops of lavender essential oil.  Lavender has been used for centuries to treat burns and in general it is very soothing to all skin types.  It is one of only two essential oils (the other is tea tree) that can be used undiluted on the skin without trouble for most people; otherwise, essential oils should also be diluted in "carrier oils" or in a water-based solution.

After the lavender, what did I put on next?  You guessed it--honey!  I slathered it on, licked the stuff of my fingers that ran away from my palm (an added bonus amidst the pain) and then wrapped it in gauze.  Perhaps my burn wasn't as bad as I thought it was, but this burn healed almost overnight with no problem.  I also believe that the honey helped to soften the skin that had been burned, making it more pliable and not so stiff.  If you've ever burned your hand before you'll know it's not always easy to move your fingers and such with a burn!  I will definitely be using this again for the next time I get burned, which is ultimately more often than I would like to admit.  You think I would learn :-)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Attack of the Zucchini, pt. 3--getting creative!

I'm taking creative license here. I'm including yellow squash in this post.  Please forgive the culinary transgression.

I'm happy to report however that we have even more summer squash of both varieties.  So let me count the ways we've dealt with this lovely turn of events:

1. Freeze it--in slices and grated.  We are making Ziploc one very happy company this summer.
2. Pickle it--yummy zucchini pickles loaded with ginger--sounds delicious!  Can't wait to try them.
3. Pasta it--every kind of way you can imagine, including a surprisingly simple and easy linguine with zucchini, raisins, walnut, and Parmesan cheese.  Delicioso!
4. Grill it--oh, what a little extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper can do to bring out the flavor.
5. Load it--sadly I don't have picture for this one, but two weekends ago on our ill-fated trip to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Arts on the Allegheny (in Kittaning--it got stormed, we had a great picnic before hand consisting of a pseudo Tex-Mex dish.  Use thick zucchini slices as your base, top with a black bean spread, avocado, tomato, pepper, and pepper-jack cheese.  Surprisingly, this was scrumptious, if messy.  The only thing missing was tequila in our lime juice.
6. Bake it--very tasty muffins and bread!

Put za zucchini in za batta and a stir stir stir (until just moistened).
Final product: 6 muffins and 1 small loaf.

7. Stuff it--finally cool enough to turn on the oven, we decided to give the stuffed thing a try.  So glad we did!  I sort of mashed a bunch of recipes together, and here's what I got:

3 zucchini or yellow squash
1 lb. ground beef
1 cup quinoa, cooked
1 medium red onion, diced
3 small peppers, diced
3 large roma tomatoes, deseeded and diced
Parmesan cheese, finely grated
Fresh cut 1/4 cup basil and 1/8 cup oregano
Salt, pepper, and other seasonings to taste
Broth if the mix seems too dry. 

Slice open the squash (if using yellow, will have to deseed).  Scoop out pulp onto a cutting board until you have a 1/4-1/2'' left int he shell.  Roughly chop up the pulp and put into bowl.  Cook the zucchini halves in the microwave for 3-4 minutes.  Place in a greased pan that tightly fits the halves in it (you don't want the stuffed halves to be rolling all over the place, do ya?)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Bring 1 cup quinoa mixed with 2 cups of water to a boil; cover and simmer on low for 15 minutes.  Brown hamburger together with onion and peppers; drain if desired (I didn't--it was pretty lean and added good moisture to the dish).  Mix quinoa, hamburger mixture, pulp, herbs, tomatoes, and seasonings in a bowl.  Mix thoroughly. 

Scoop your filling into your halves.  Press down firmly to fill as full as possible.  Sprinkle liberally with parm cheese.  Bake for 20-30 minutes until "crispy" and the cheese is browning on top.

Finished product:

I like to think all the fresh veggies cancels out the burger and cheese.

Oh, and did we forget to mention the double zucchini?

Please share below what you think this looks like ;-)

Don't see this every day! 

Monday, August 2, 2010


Reflection is key for the growth of knowledge.  I firmly believe this, yet for one reason or another, often times find myself avoiding it at all costs.  Probably because reflection hurts sometimes, be it the very literal reflection in the mirror after a long night of various and sundry activities or the figurative examination of the soul under a harsh white light.

So here I am after a long Monday. A very long Monday filled with fires to put out left and right, challenges to overcome every five minutes, and spills to clean up.  And that's just with my classroom of 5-8 year olds!  I'm feeling filled with worries right now, about my past actions and how they will affect people, about my current situation, and for things far off into the future. 

1. I worry that I am too selfish.  I know that sometimes I don't give my husband enough of my attention, I don't call my friends often enough, and I don't think outside of my immediate circle of life very often.  Part of the reason I joined AmeriCorps was to get outside of myself a bit, but I still don't feel that I've done enough.  I berate my husband sometimes for not congratulating me on a wonderful dinner or for not understanding how hard I work at my 2 jobs  (or 3, or 4, or 5 jobs, depending upon the time of year).  But I do the same thing to him all the time.  I am a hypocrite in this matter and I don't like it.  There have been so many times recently when I've caught myself ready to say "you have a good day too" when someone has said the same to me only to stop short.  Why don't I say it?  Because deep down I feel that I'm owed a "good day" and this person is not?  Because I don't say it right away and then think the person will think it stupid if I say it later? Certainly this is an awful position to hold either way you look at it.  I just need to say it.  Better late than never. 

2. I worry that I don't have enough gratitude.  Caveat: I'm not a religious person.  I explain this because I feel that--perhaps rightly so--religion demands of its followers gratitude for the things that God provides.  So I don't have this ready made structure in my life that elicits gratitude from me.  Even so, I am thankful for all I have--my family, friends, home, job, nature--but I know I don't show it enough.  I hardly ever send thank you cards for ordinary gifts, except under certain circumstances which dictate they be sent (weddings, showers, etc.)  I hardly ever take a moment in my day to think about all I have, to wonder at how I've gotten to the point in my life, and to ponder on the mysteries of nature's cycle, an idea I keep coming back to for its simple beauty.  And then there's the difference between real gratitude and "fake" gratitude.  Like when I tell my students "thank you" for behaving the right way.  Yes, it's helpful when they do start behaving, but all the while I'm thinking "well you should have been behaving in the first place, punk!"  So my heart's not in it as much as it can or should be. 

3. I worry that I'm not going to be a good parent someday, if my present performance in the classroom today is any indication. I had one student who defied every word I said, every action I took.  All he was looking for, I realize, was attention.  And what did I do?  I gave it to him every step of the way.  I gave him exactly what he wanted and what he didn't need.  I couldn't ignore his behavior and instead tried to control it, or rather get him to control it.  And this whole exchange between him and I backfired.  And it sucks knowing that I failed him today.  Frankly, my inability to ignore him showed a lack of self-control on my part, something I'm not very happy admitting. 

I feel ugly inside right now.  Like I have turned into this giant monster with four heads and creeping snake hair, part-ogre and part-Medusa.  Surely, this is how my students must see me on a regular basis. 

Now comes the hard part--changing my own behavior to act upon my worries.  Perhaps I can start with one very small but worthwhile step:

"Thank you for reading this.  It means a lot to me to know that you are listening."