Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice Letter

I really create everything I do from the heart.
Kenny G

Well, it’s that time of year again, when we send our family update to all our friends (except the illiterate, i.e. most of them).

It’s been a good year in our household, and nobody I’m related to slept with Tiger Woods (that I know of). We even re-decorated the living room this year. Billy Bob found some perfectly good freeway furniture that's pretty-much level and we tried to fix the smell of the couch by dousing it with a bottle of fabric deodorant. When that didn’t work, Ma poured some Wal*Mart brand Pine-sol on the cushions and hung them on the clothes line strung between the old refrigerator and Grandpa’s rusty old Ford in the backyard for a couple of weeks. Once dry, the cushions worked fine, and once we all got used to it, we don’t mind the crunchy sound the cushions make when you sit on them. It smells like a forest. As an extra bonus, we found that even Grandma smells better after spending a day sitting on the couch. The Pine-sol seems to overcome Grandma’s natural smell better than putting slices of Spam in the pockets of her apron did when we tried that last summer during the heat wave.

You all may have caught the episode of Worlds Best Car Chases that featured brother Lou Bob. You can see how much weight he lost the last time he was in jail, because it only took two cops to bring him down and his arms even stretched over his belly far enough for two sets of handcuffs to secure him. And once he stops being on the crack, he’s pretty nice most of the time, not like in the TV show where he’s cussing and whatnot.

Mabel Bob has finally finished beauty school after six grueling years, but is having a bit of trouble getting a job. She told Ma she thinks it because her front tooth is a bit loose and she’d probably get a job if only she had dentures. So I loaned her my upper plate for an interview last week, but then she blamed the yellow tobacco stains for their decision not to hire her. Sometimes, it seems like you can never please Mabel Bob. Let’s hope she gets a job soon, because we can’t collect on her as a dependent child much longer since she’s almost 40, and the profits from Pa’s still aren’t as high as they used to be, probably because the rotten potatoes he’s using don’t impart the velvet palate or crisp finish of hooch made with good potatoes.

That dog with three legs what used to live with us has finally moved on. We told Grandma the dog crossed the rainbow bridge, but there’s a good chance she saw when the tractor hit it one day because we park her powered scooter on the front porch most days so when she spits tobacco juice, it don’t stain the living room carpet. Next time we redecorate, we’ll find a brown rug at the dump instead of a pastel-colored one like we got now that’s kinda brown shag flattened into a lovely paisley pattern made by all them tobacco stains. We think it was once a pale ivory, but Mabel Bob insists she remembers it was pink because she lost her bus pass once and remembers it was the same pink color as the shag rug used to be because she spent a whole afternoon combing the rug with a fork looking for the lost bus pass. In vain as it turns out, but Grandma says what don’t kill you makes you madder, so that might explain why Mabel Bob is mad so much. That, or she’s going through the change, you know.

You might remember how tough that was when Ma went through the change in 2004. That was the year she killed a hobo with a shovel, but we luckily won that case on self defense because Cousin Willie Bob convinced the jury Ma’s cuts and bruises were signs of self defense rather than a result of her run-in with that rabid badger who cornered her in the outhouse the day before the hobo passed. And good news, Ma still has the asthma but the scabies have almost cleared up now that
she don’t volunteer down at the saloon no more.

Merry Xmas from our house to yours, and may your hooch be made with good potatoes, your dreams not be filled with raging zombies, and your freeway furniture not smell too much like something died on it and got left there for a good long spell.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Garden of Dreams

"We live in the city of dreams
We drive on the highway of fire
If we awake and it gone
Remember this my favorite son."
- Talking Heads, City of Dreams

My back yard is totally like an abandoned city, slowly decaying back in to desert. We’ve had two good rain storms over the past week or so. Heavy rain, accompanied by strong gusts of wind from the south, have cleaned up years of dried shedding bark from the eucalyptus trees, dead branches, pine needles and small boughs, and other fallen clutter. All of that is now on the ground, covering great swaths of driveway and making it difficult to drag the trash cans out to the street.

The shade cloth over the patio immediately outside my window has been hanging like a shower curtain blocking the door, one side having been blown down to the ground while the other side is still connected to the overhead guy wire.

I may no longer be able to swing a shovel hard enough to kill a hobo, but I’m still in whatever category it is that can take down the already-half-removed shade cover. That's my job today, while the sun is shining. My weeping cherry will probably be cooked next summer without the meager shade cover overhead, but it’s probably time for me to accept the reality that I live in a desert. I did manage to get some lovely red basil, mostly gone to seed. I clipped some of the seeds to save, but couldn’t resist putting them in a stark arrangement to dry.

The silver lining is that the view and the mess encourages me to stay inside. Our Xmas wrapping theme this year is very green. I do all my shopping using the internets. Everything is wrapped in the mailing box or envelop it arrived in, or in brown packing paper from another box. Once corner of the living room looks like a scene from my new favorite reality show “Hoarders” which features pathologically disturbed people who live amid the junk they slowly bury themselves in. Watching this show gives me that horrible sense people get from looking at the devastation caused by a train wreck: what sickos these hoarders are, and how positively normal my own domestic mess is.

Besides, while I’m inside, I can look at pictures of the yard in better seasons past, remember it like a garden of dreams.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Roasted Pepper Saffron Pasta Sauce

I made some roasted peppers and saffron pasta sauce. Sweet yellow bells and a few bright sweet red bells. I amped up the garlic and added a large shallot. I can show you the golden roasted peppers before blending, and the glittering golden sauce they made, but I can only describe the smell. There’s something about roasting vegetable in the oven on a dingy chilly day. As the fragrance builds, I acquire this sort of olfactory superpower and feel the spicy sweet fragrances through my skin. Well, maybe not quite so ethereal, but certainly mouth-watering.

The basic recipe is by Andrea Chesman, from “The Roasted Vegetable.” (My modifications are in parentheses.) I would call it Saffron Roasted Pepper Pasta Sauce, but she calls it:

Saffron Pasta with Roasted Peppers
(serves 4 – 6)

4 yellow bell peppers
2 red bell peppers
(2 stunted but lovely sweet purple peppers from the Veggie Garden)
2 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole (WTF? Clearly more garlic is required) (6 fat cloves, sliced into chips)
(1 large shallot, sliced and separated into rings)
(1 T olive oil, in which to soak the shallot and garlic and add to the red pepper roasting pan for the final 10 minutes of red pepper roasting.)
1 cup high-quality neutral-tasting chicken or vegetable broth (I used organic chicken)
Generous pinch of saffron threads, crumbled (I used more than J would have)
1 cup half-and-half
1 pound linguine or rotini (I used egg noodles)
¼ cup chopped fresh basil leaves (I cut red basil and Thai basil in chiffonade)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
A few springs fresh basil, for garnish (All I had was lovely purple Thai basil which added to the bright color of this amazing sauce)

1. Preheat the broiler. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet (I had only a 4-pepper sized ceramic dish that would fit, so I did the yellows first, then the red together with the garlic and onion)
2. Place the bell peppers on the baking sheet and space between them. Broil 4 inches from the heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until charred all over, turning several times. (I did 5 minutes on each of 4 sides, turning in between. This is where the smell first gets you.)

3. Place the (broiled) peppers in a covered bowl, plastic bag (yuck), or paper bag. Seal and let steam for about 10 minutes to loosen the skins.
4. Cut slits in the peppers and drain briefly into a small bowl to catch any juices. Scrape or peel the skins and discard. Scrape and discard the seeds and membranes.
5. Chop the yellow peppers. Combine them in a food processor or blender with the garlic and pepper juices. Process until finely chopped. Add the broth and wine and process to make a smooth puree. Transfer to a saucepan and add the saffron and the half-and-half. Heat gently over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
6. Cut the red peppers into thin, 1 ½-inch-long strips.
7. Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain well.

8. Transfer the pasta to a large serving bowl. Add the saffron sauce, red pepper strips, and chopped basil. Toss to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve at once, garnished with the basil sprigs.

Next time, I plan to try to can the sauce (excluding the half-and-half) but including the chopped red peppers and garlic/shallot mix. That way, when I open the canned sauce later, all I will have to do is heat and add the half-and-half and some fresh basil, and make my own egg noodles.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Rain, dammit!

“And now, hark at the rain,
Windless and light,
Half a kiss, half a tear,
Saying good-night.”

- Edward Thomas, Sowing

The rain is coming. Not yet, but soon. The bird feeders are dry and filled to their brims yesterday, already half full. Before the rain, I have to give everybody a drink of water (there’s no such thing as a gentle “soak”) so the ground softens enough to open and drink when the rains finally arrive. If I don’t gently hand-water a bit first, the first rain just makes the surface of the dry dust damp. The first water to fall from the sky rolls off my dry yard like a duck’s back, right down the storm drains.

So I go outside to water before it rains. The birds resentfully quit the bird feeders at my approach. Some of them are too fat to stand on the dainty feeders and, like the plump morning doves (aka, hobo chicken) who are content to forage on the ground below the feeders. The wren pictured here is actually too obese to feed from the hanging feeders . The morning doves also waddle around, sorting through the sunflower hulls for any dropped seeds.

In early spring rains, the seeds who have escaped the birds begin to sprout. I’ve sometimes managed to transplant the fragile sprouts into a sunnier spots where they survive and prosper. I’ve never had much luck buying sunflower seeds and attempting to cultivate real live sunflowers. Which is a shame, because I love sunflowers. Big, gaudy, and vulgar like their humble beginnings as subsistence food for poor farmers. Now the darlings of the Farmers’ Markets, the icon of the Art Nouveau which was beginning to fade and be eclipsed by Art Deco about 100 years ago. I insist that I liked sunflowers when I was poor, before they became trendy and sustainable and green and junk.

Some day, I will stumble my way into the perfect combination of sun, soil and rare rain to cultivate wildly successful sunflowers. My timing is also probably off, a sad metaphor for my gardening skills in general. I am the Almost Gardener, who may insist on not remembering all the right botanical names, but I garden for love and for physical and mental therapy, and probably enjoy it all the more because it relives me of my obsessive need to name what I see.

But someday, I will grow sunflowers deliberately. Meanwhile, my yard is overrun and run amok with mint: the perfect barometer of my measure of care in the yard. I practice gardening like a clinical drug trial doing the LD50 phase. This means the dose at which 50% of the patients die. I probably am doing better than 50-50 these days, but it was not always so.

One day, I will all arrive at the exact right time and deliver the exact right dose of all the ingredients needed to grow monster sunflowers. But first, let’s have some rain, dammit!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Xmas Shopping

“He realized now that to be afraid of this death he was staring at with animal terror meant to be afraid of life. Fear of dying justified a limitless attachment to what is alive in man. And all those who had not made the gestures necessary to live their lives, all those who feared and exalted impotence – they were afraid of death because of the sanction it gave to a life in which they had not been involved. They had not lived enough, never having lived at all. And death was a kind of gesture, forever withholding water from the traveler vainly seeking to slake his thirst. But for others, it was the fatal and tender gesture that erases and denies, smiling at gratitude as at rebellion.”
- Albert Camus. A Happy Death

Did some xmas cybershopping till I didn’t exactly drop, since I shop sitting down. Boy my butt is tired. And I’m a super cypershopper. I like, made a macro of my Visa card number. I use a Visa because when you select the type of credit card to use, Visa is usually listed at the top of the drop-down list. I’m listening to Hey Sinner Man, by the Long Beach Children’s Choir. Pretty xmasy, eh?

I did go outside briefly to loosen up my wrists and avoid fatigue. I was confronted by the glittering eyes of the tiny stone frog at the right of the mushroom. The yard is in it’s neglected minimalist pallet that would be conjured by Basho – stark monochrome of bright light against dark shadow.

There is nothing more likely to cause cognitive dissonance than my afternoon shopping on line, followed by than a walk in the dry warm air as it moseys around and then settles silently on the yard like a cat who circles around in your lap before finding the perfect configuration for sleeping.

Ahhhh, another day in the life of a non-working retiree with good health insurance.

All it would take to make my life perfect would be a snow-ball martini with some actual coconut on the rim. Godiva white chocolate liquor? Check. Coconut vodka? Check? Kalua? Check. In lieu of caramel sauce, I used a splash of butterscotch liquor the other night and it worked.

Like I see in the mirror on the mornings I’ve slept in my cat t-shirt: efil si doog.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Where Credit is Due

"If your grad school gives you a full ride you can easily afford to go. Or if you can afford to pay for your schooling yourself with money left over. Or if you don't want children and are completely indifferent to material considerations. A rule of thumb is that you can afford to go to grad school if you can afford to spend an equivalent amount of time lying on the beach."
Can I afford a PhD?

Recently, there have been a number of student and labor actions, aka “strikes”, at the University where I have a young relative now in law school. He has posted here and here some perceptive and insightful reflections on these strikes, and on some of the actions taken by “The Regents of the University of California” and the administration at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), Law Schook, aka “Boalt”. The irony that UCB is the founding member of the Free Speech Movement from way back in my own college days.

His undergraduate professors and his graduate professors were able to attend the University of California in the 60’s and graduate without any debt, and get a good job in the academy or the still shiny new corporate world. In contrast, Laz graduated with a PhD in 2009 and a debt of >$30k, as did his spouse with her own $30k school loans. Through hard word during and between academic responsibilities, they managed to buy a house when the market was at the top of its game, back before the Bush Crash of 2008. Having graduated without job prospects last May, they moved to Berkeley. Being prudent, they put their house on the sale and rental market more than a year before their anticipated move. It has not sold or rented to date, partly due to professional incompetence of real estate and property experts and partly to the global financial meltdown. They are flat broke.

Half the student loans come due next month. Some people look at their scholarly pursuits as if they are selfish in not procreating and consuming. What if these people admitted how easy they had it compared to this generation? What if we gave them affordable, good healthcare now, while they are in the prime of their lives and working harder than we did with less to show for it?

In their exceptional dedication and determination, my relatives in the same cohort as Laz have sacrificed material wealth in favor of what they consider a more worthwhile goal: to make the world a better place. Some have decided to forgoe adding to the weight of the world by making little copies of themselves to overdress and spoil. Others - in their wisdom and compassion drawn from a life experience in much harder times than we boomers ever had - have insisting on taking a course that meaningful to them: fostering a sound and compassionate community. I think that’s a better choice than my generation’s own self-absorbed insistence on our inalienable right to our own individual happiness.

They may fail. Just like the Hippies failed to change the world when we were young. They may also succeed. You’d think we’d all be looking for a better world, no matter who got the credit.