The Smudged Star

Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 5.52.06 AMNew Year’s is time to pack up the tree. I remove each ornament and ponder its significance as I gently wrap it and put it in its special box. Except for the generic balls and fillers, each has a very special meaning–the power to make me travel to a time and place in my life represented by that little piece of wood, plastic, or glass. Twice a year–when I put them up, and when I take them down, I hold these little time machines in my hand.

Every year I get a special ornament for everyone. Mom began this tradition. Her thought was that everyone would have 20 or 30 of their own special ornaments when they struck out to start their own tree.

This year I bought three ceramic shapes on which to paint–one for Rusty, Brittany, and Declan. I made dinosaurs on Declan’s. He found and broke the snowflake that would have been Brittany’s. The star that would have been Rusty’s went missing. I cleaned. I searched. Gone. Too late to get another.

I gave Declan his ornament, since he’d already seen it. It’s usually part of a Christmas Eve pre-bed ceremony which includes putting out carrots for reindeer, a cookie for Santa, and tossing the boy into bed so I can sleep, too. “Mommy made this special for you this year.”
He looked at both sides. “I LOVE it!” There were two dinos. He examined each carefully reading the text. “I have something special for you,” he said. He went to his room into his “special box.” It’s a glass-topped wooden box with an etched compass–looks like it came out of a Kipling novel. He keeps his treasures inside, including his already been chewed “world record” gum, some pom poms, an elastic, and a plastic dinosaur. He pulled out a small crinkly-wrapped package and handed it to me.
“Open it, Mommy!” I did. It was the star ornament. “I hope it didn’t get smudged.” It did. Clearly, he’d used the wrong markers. “It says ‘To Mommy, Love Declan.” On the other side was a picture of stars. Smudged stars, but stars, nonetheless.
I can’t help but think that’s the best present of all. That’s what I told him, “I will never get another present better than this. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mommy. I love this ornament. Even though you put PLANT EATERS instead of CARNIVORES on it…I really love it, though.” I got the biggest Christmas hug.
==
When I was about 4 or 5, my grandmother was visiting. I found a pile of Hallmark cards she’d amassed for birthdays and such so she wouldn’t have to go to the store. I took each. I wrote, “I love you, Grandma, Love, Dawn.” I wrote happy birthday on the birthday cards, but I didn’t know what an anniversary was–I could read, but I didn’t know the word… I just put “I love you” on those.
There were about ten cards.
Mom found me. I’d ruined all of Grandma’s cards. Mom was really mad.
Grandma wasn’t.
Packing up the stolen star reminded me of that story from a generation ago, which I remember clear as if it were this morning.  Interesting how timeless the innocence of a child really is.
[image: marthastewart.com]
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Paying the Idiot Fee

boilerI just got a bill for fifty bucks. I had a leak in my boiler. As a rule, I don’t fix things that explode, flood, or have the potential to cause international incident. I’ll sheet rock a hole, patch, paint, lay flooring like a drunk Irishman, tile, and hack. I’ve got my own power tools. I once created and installed a system of shelves in my closet using just a jig saw, the “f” word, and piece of dental floss–an organizational breakthrough in a house that had one 18″ closet.

But leaking boilers are above my pay grade. The oil company sent out a super nice man–a trained musician who liked my dog. He’d decided that music wasn’t making him enough clams to eat at a sit-down dinner, so he went into something “practical.” Now he can fix anything. I could’ve listened to him forever.

It took him a full five minutes to diagnose the problem, four and a half of which were hanging the light, finding an outlet, and bullshitting with me.

“I checked under the boiler,” he said, “And I noticed that the leak’s not coming through the foundation.” I’d checked that. That one’s in the Moron 101 Handbook, which I read from cover to cover since I do things like put fans in closed windows and troubleshoot appliances that aren’t plugged in.

“Here’s the problem. A small leak right here.” There was a tiny pinhole leak in the 1939 copper pipe. It was spraying water on my head like a sprinkler system. A fine mist. But a mist nonetheless. Anyone with glasses who had looked up and really thought outside the box would have wiped off her glasses and noticed this fine mist. I don’t recall looking up. Just staring at the puddle on the ground.

“I can fix this, but it would be better for you to call your plumber.” “Better,” meant “much more economical.”

He recommended that I buy the insurance plan for all these parts which are not covered under the regular plan. My plan didn’t include water parts. Just oil tanks blowing up in the event of the apocalypse. As such, three days later I received a bill for $49.99. That’s approximately $600/hour if I subtract the time we spent bullshitting and run the math. He was a great guy. I’d pay $50 for the conversation, but still…

This made me think about my career choice. There’d have been no chance of me being a musician, because I suck, but nobody ever told me I could learn to fix pipes and boilers and make $600/hour while petting people’s dogs. I’d have paid off all my friend’s mortgages if I’d done that.

Heck, I’ve memorized and forgotten more facts and figures than I care to admit, but when the chips are down, I call in $600/hour musician-fix-it-genius to tell me water is falling down on my head.

I don’t want to make my students groan doing a “close read” of a bunch of Lincoln speeches because it’s listed in the Common Cores. I want them to read a ton of things about which they are truly passionate, ask questions and discuss when they need my guidance, dig deeper because they’re interested, then make a million dollars doing something they love.

Or better yet, take my money and fix that pipe. Because no one taught me how to do it.

 

Never Waste Good Cheese on Children–Feed them Processed Food

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 5.48.14 AM“Mommy!” Declan stood in front of me with a Lindt truffle. “Please don’t put these in my lunchbox anymore. They’re yucky.”

I’ve been sick, and I haven’t been fun. I feel guilty. So, I put some extra treats in the lunchbox. The Halloween candy went missing, so I put a single milk chocolate truffle in his box. The kind that I save for adults and dignitaries. Sharing that’s a big deal. I was being extra nice…like when I give up my seat for an old person or lay out the best spread for company.

“They’re yucky. They’re caramel.”

“They’re not caramel, they’re truffles. Really good chocolate. They melt in your mouth and make you happy.”

“Well, I’m not happy. They’re yucky.” I remembered a lesson my brother taught me. You don’t waste good food on children. I went downstairs and found the bag of Halloween candy so I can chuck in a little Kit Kat tomorrow.

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 5.44.06 AM

Cato Corner Farm, where Elizabeth MacAlister and her son, Mark Gillman have been making some of the world’s best cheese since 1997.

Kids don’t appreciate good food, so they haven’t earned the right to get any. Nothing that costs over three dollars a pound should be given to kids in the single digits. Cheese comes to mind. My brother,  has worked with some pretty impressive foods and chefs. One day he taught me this lesson I hold dear to this day, “Never waste good cheese on children.” I buy Declan cheap American cheese. In this way, I am able to afford the best cheeses for myself, and not feel like I am breaking the bank. I can get the best chèvre, Manchego, brie, Stilton, camembert, Roquefort, and even try something new whenever I want. I love cheese, but it’s not cheap. Turns out, one of the nation’s renown cheesemaking operations has popped up in my hometown of Colchester, Connecticut, in a little farm called Cato Corner Farm. I’m proud to have some awesome cheese near where I grew up, but when it’s $10-$30 a pound, nothing would strike terror in my heart more than, “Mommy, can I have another hunk of that Drunken Hooligan?” It’s an amazing cheese even at $30/pound. I’m surely not going to waste so much as a sniff on Declan. He can sniff the cows while I sample the cheeses.

Declan hates the cheese aisle, too. He tries to escape by saying, “Uncle Dan said you should never waste good cheese on children. Get away from here!” It’s amazing that the boy can overhear a conversation three rooms away but can’t follow a simple direction when I’m staring right in his face.

Along these lines, I’ve started keeping a few inferior ingredients in the house. The emergency box of mac and cheese for lowbrow kid company, and a couple burgers in the freezer. I hate that Thomas Jefferson’s beloved mac and cheese has been bastardized and put in a yellow and blue boxes. I make it from scratch every time.

The last straw was brownie mix. Declan had his first boxed brownie at an event.

“Mommy, can you get boxed brownies?” My heart died a little bit. I make brownies from the highest quality fair-trade cocoa or melted chocolate with farm-fresh eggs from down the street and local butter. Mea culpa. It’s time to stop wasting good ingredients on children. He’s in school now, he sees the tasty processed food everyone eats. He feels left out. He needs to feel like an all-American boy. So, instead of making cheese pizza by hand with homemade dough, sauce and home-grown basil, he can have school lunch cheese pizza today. He’ll be happy as a clam, and I’ll save money for things that really matter–getting good food for the adults around here who appreciate it.

Maybe, just maybe, he can taste my brownies and the Drunken Hooligan in a decade or two. For now, I’ll keep my grocery bill down.

 

[images: catocornerfarm.com and rainbow.reisan.tumblr.com]

 

Frugal Is a Lie

Yes, it is an awful lot of work to can tomatoes.

Yes, it is an awful lot of work to can tomatoes.

I’m canning. Canning everything in sight, actually. Somehow, in the process of doing all this work, I live under the illusion that I’m saving money. It’s a lie.

It’s a lie I refuse to confront as I swim up to my chin in tomatoes, wash, and get ready to switch modes to apples. Somehow, returning to the arts of my grandparents seems the right thing to do–modern-day victory gardens, quasi-homesteading, shopping at the farm, foraging, DIY sewing projects, making cheese from scratch…living a simpler life.

But is it cheaper? Am I really the baroness of frugal that I pretend to be?

“Did you ever calculate how much you got from your garden and how much it cost?” asked my husband earlier in the season.

“No,” I said. I left it at that. The real answer is “No, because I’d have to confront the truth, which is ridiculously stupid.” I read “The $64 Tomato” just like every other wanna be urban homesteader. Then, I was ready to move to the country.

Frugal was easier in some respects when we lived in the city. There were coupons. The stores were four feet away in any direction. I got a ton of stuff free–I don’t think I paid for toothpaste for four years, and I just used the last bar of soap from my double-coupon-match-the-sales-free-soap-victory-extravaganza a very long time ago.

What? You want me to calculate the value of my time and add it into the equation, then tell you how much I saved?

Back then, it wasn’t much, because it was the height of the Recession. The world was crashing. I had time, but cash was at a premium. Matching the coupons, running around to the sales, keeping track of all the cluttery nonsense… it was effort, but it paid off in the end. It was a part-time job, to be sure. I got paid in free toothpaste and ten-cent shampoo. Money would’ve been more convenient.

I ended up with bags of free stuff. I brought the extras to the shelters. I enjoyed getting resources where they need to be. But I’m done with that clutter. Living out in the sticks, I’m not near a bunch of drug stores that let me run around matching sales. Cows don’t take coupons. I do it differently now. Use less, waste less, get better stuff.

My coupon life has come to an end. I think I’m I still frugal. I’ve worn that like a badge of honor. I hope I don’t have to give it up…to admit I’m more bohemian boutiquey than frugal after all. Maybe even a frugal poser. This is getting worse by the minute.

Let’s think. First, I buy the mason jars. I give stuff away. Then, I buy more jars. To make my jams and apple butter this year, I used fair-trade organic vegan sugar, local B-Grade maple, and local honey. Not frugal. The opposite of frugal. What I lack in frugal, I make up for in taste, I rationalize. But can I still qualify for frugal status? It means a lot to me. I’ll run the math.

Today, I’m canning tomatoes. I got 60 pounds for $25. If I pay myself $10/hour for this arduous kitchen task, that’s $80–a pittance for someone of my talent. I could be making at least $12.50 at the fast-food joint in town, and I wouldn’t even have to can the tomatoes–I’d just open last year’s vaccuum-sealed packs.

Back to the math. Running the stove for about 4 hours–a pound of propane is a bit over $6. That’s $24. The mason jars are around $7/case. The total cost of today’s project–approximately eight hours of my life (small pots mean two batches)–for a grand total of $136. I made 12 pints of sauce. That’s roughly $11.33/pint if I don’t factor in the actual cost of my time or the opportunity cost of my having done something else.

Frugal is not frugal. It’s a lie. But it is quirky, and I’m a pretty darned good cook. I’ll cut costs somewhere else.

Please return my mason jars.

On to the apples…

apples

Nobody Bought the Farm

farm1“I like what you’re doing to the place,” I say to the man working at the farm stand. I’m getting a couple of onions and putting in my order for B Grade tomatoes. It’s what I do. Forage, trade, find, and pick food, and then preserve it. I ate the tomatoes I grew so I have nothing to can for the winter. I don’t like the tin-can taste of the stuff from the store.

I’ve been coming to this particular farm since I moved to Rhode Island two decades ago. I look around at the decorations. There were no decorations when I started coming here for the local fresh food. Just a shackish outbuilding with a simple old-school butcher shop and produce stand where the farmer sold pies he made that morning, made sandwiches to order, and cut you a nice steak for dinner if you weren’t a vegetarian like me.

I snap a quick picture of the artfully arranged bins of local in-season fruits and vegetables. There are now shelves of maple syrup, maple sugar, local honey, and little gift-baskety type things. This place is emerging as a New England boutique roadside farm stand. It has all the nuances of a shop that would attract locavores, GMO haters, store avoiders and foodies. There used to be time for a conversation when I came in. Now, I often have to wait in line.

It makes me smile, to be honest. I like waiting in line because someone who deserves success has a lot of business in front of him.

“Thanks,” he says. “But in ten years, places like this won’t be here. Everyone will shop in billion dollar businesses.
“I disagree,” I reply. “I think there’s a market for this, and it’s growing. I’ve been coming here forever. Back when shopping for boxed and frozen food in the grocery store was what cool people did. People laughed at the way I got my food. But now everybody will come here because it looks so beautiful…you have such a selection. Farms are cool these days. A lot of people don’t want to shop at the billion-dollar industries where food tastes bad.”
I’m not trying to make him feel better about his hard work. I’m simply stating a fact. Food freaks like me who used to live on the periphery are nearly mainstream. I’ve just come from another farm. There were lines out the door for both.
“Well,” he says, “I hope you’re right, but let’s look at this town. When I moved here, there were four Mom & Pop pharmacies. Now, there are other none. They don’t make it illegal, but they make it so difficult that you can’t pay. You have to be networked in. You have to get your discount. Otherwise you can’t keep pace with the prices. Stores are the same. Nobody who’s not a billion-dollar industry can do this. Just look around…”
Pause.  His voice trails off.
What he says is the truth. I can’t argue. We’ve built small businesses. I’ve lived this. Between building and fire codes that change a smidgen but cost a ton for no understandable increase in safety, tax regulations that reward big business outsourcing  production to underpaid labor elsewhere while ignoring local places with eight or ten employees, and new health insurance regulations, it’s really tough out there.
Some of today's fresh offerings

Some of today’s fresh offerings

It’s tough to be the little guy, even if you have a product the community loves, the best team in the world, and a business that makes the world a better place. He’s right. I can’t argue. There are no more Mom & Pop drug stores in town.

I’ve got nothing to reply, because who wants to say, “You’re right. It’s tough to hang on to the chin-up bar, but I hope we both do,” so I nod, take the onions, and say I’ll return Wednesday for the tomatoes.
I really love going to the farm. I’m secretly glad the tomatoes aren’t ready, because I get to go back when it’s slower and have another conversation, not only about produce, but about Yankee ingenuity and life.

Blueberries and Pickles–No, I’m Not Pregnant

Rocky Point Blueberry Farm, Warwick, RI

Rocky Point Blueberry Farm, Warwick, RI

Last week, I picked blueberries in the rain. It wasn’t that pleasant. I was cold. When I reached into the bush, water shook from the leaves, soaking me to the bone. I got colder and wetter. I started to frown. There was one drop of rain on my glasses I couldn’t get off. When I wiped it on my wet shirt, I smeared both lenses until I couldn’t see the blueberries. And I had a migraine. Annoying.

I thought about homesteading. How I planted my garden, how my husband chopped the wood, how we try to get off the grid. How the stuff we can’t do–produce eggs or meat–we get from the farm around the corner. About how close I am to getting rid of boxes, store jars, and tin cans. As I sat in the middle of rainy blueberries wishing the weather would clear, I thought, “A couple hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have had a choice to make homesteading my…(dare I say)…hobby.”
Not picking very fast. Pioneers didn't check email while farmingI never thought of homesteading as a hobby. It’s a good activity–I started out intending to save money, produce better quality food, and maybe stop global warming, prevent a few small nations from blowing each other up, or attain enlightenment. It doesn’t save money. Farming is expensive and I give stuff away.  Friends visit and remind me they like my peach salsa.
“Homesteading” is cool, though. What people once mocked me for, comparing me to their grandmother, is now chic, hip, and in. I’ve never been any of those things–I’m enjoying my fifteen minutes of fame.
But whining about wet blueberries–weak. I could never be a real homesteader on the prairie…I felt somewhat disingenuous. The pioneers didn’t have an option. They would’ve picked blueberries in the rain. And been grateful. The work would’ve been there every day. No one’s great-grandmother in Oklahoma would have skipped a day because of a weather, a lunch date, or a migraine.
Because if they did, they would have died. I watch homesteading shows on the Discovery Channel. The Alaska ones are cool–no one comes to their rescue. “Excuse me Stop & Shop Peapod…can you deliver?” I think not. Conversely, I watched a few shows where modern families pretended they were pioneers–shows where people dress up and cry after the first few days. The Alaska people never cry. I have to toughen up and be more like them. Today, In the true spirit of Alaska, I’m weeding my garden and making pickles again because I killed my last crock of kosher dills.
“HOW did you ruin pickles??” asked my friend of Russian Jewish descent. No Russian ever ruins food–that might be the last vegetable you’d see until the reincarnation of Lenin. And a Jew ruining a Kosher Dill? Heresy. Doesn’t happen.
“I didn’t weight them down. The top ones molded.” I asked around, “Can I eat them anyway?” I was so looking forward to them–I’d just eat one off the bottom. My husband said no, it’d kill me. I rationalized that cheese is mold, and the life insurance is paid up…would the pioneers scrape off the mold? They wouldn’t have had mold to begin with. Because if they did, they’d have starved.
Prairie women. My heroes.

Prairie women. My heroes.

I googled in case everyone was wrong. Google said, “Don’t eat it, moron, you’ll die.” Not trusting Google is sort of like not trusting Jesus or the threat stated in a chain letter. I tossed the pickles.

I’d be a crappy homesteader. I didn’t pick enough blueberries–too busy finishing off a text conversation and dictating ideas into Siri. Pioneers wouldn’t have stood for such behavior. And I killed the pickles. I’d have eaten them anyway because Google wouldn’t have been there to save me. I must drink some imported french-roast coffee and contemplate ways to improve.
The weather cleared midway through picking.  I remembered why I love it. I go deep into the middle of the bush, where lazy people don’t pick. Then, I crawl under the bushes, where no one goes, either, except the grandmothers who are serious about their homesteading, and little, tiny kids.
When I’m  looking under the bushes, I see an entirely different view. Seeing the berries under the leaves where no one goes reminds me of teaching. The berries at the top shine for the world. They hog all the sunshine, tasting nice and sweet. But when you climb in and under the bush, you see the berries the world forgot. They’re there, clumped together waiting for someone to pick them. I like those best–they’re bigger and sweeter because they were left alone to grow at their own pace. They leap into the bucket with excitement ready to become part of something great. This reminds me of my students, the ones who get left behind by traditional academics and need someone to peel back the branches and leaves to let them see the sunlight, too. But when they do, it is always magic.
Maybe I’m a bad pioneer and homesteader, but thinking about the blueberries this way, I decide I’m a pretty good teacher.
I smile. And I pick one more bucket before it’s time to go home.
[image 3: candgnews.com]