Fix-It Fixations

Any homeowner or even mildly obsessed apartment-dweller who likes customizing his or her nest, office, cubicle, or living space knows that there are numerous ‘projects’ that are never officially finished. Most DIY projects of any sort, in fact, are only satisfying right about the time they’re in their last stages of preparation and very, very newly finished. Then we’re on to the next change or update we’ve been itching to see transform our spaces. For me, the Next Big Thing is perpetual: I never quite settle down and stop having new ideas and fantasies. My now-spousal partner knew even before my dad jokingly warned him when we sprang the (not especially surprising) news of our intent to marry that it was not merely in jest Dad told him to expect to come home virtually any day of the week and find the furniture moved all over the place, half the house painted, or the chairs reupholstered. Thank goodness he’s a very flexible, tolerant guy…of course, he wouldn’t be with me in the first place if that weren’t true.Photo: The '70s Called...

Nowadays I’m lazier and less willing to spend much money on concrete Stuff if I can save it instead for our various retirement plots and plans or spend on current doings. But the urge never dies; there’s always some little tweak or To Do lurking in the back corners of my brain’s attic. The one thing I’ve learned to appreciate better about the process is the slowness of it all that used to irk me immensely. Over the intervening time between idea and execution, the possibility of improving both process and product grows, and in many instances, the availability of a better set of materials and solutions arrives as well. Though I had in mind a nifty reboot of the existing dining room fixture that was, sadly, thwarted by the outdated wiring’s channels being too narrow for me to fit the necessary updated wiring through them, my time pulling apart and cleaning and fiddling with  the entire fixture in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass the problem was long enough for a more suitable modern fixture to at last appear on the market at a price I was willing to pay.Photo: Let There be Better Light!

Likewise, the wildflower and sapling “nursery” meadow I made out of half our backyard a couple of years ago has taken that long to begin coming to recognizable fruition as such a space instead of merely a raggedy weed patch. The time spent waiting for the (semi-dead, weak little one-dollar end of season) plants I picked up here and there to take root enough to survive longer term, let alone bloom, was well worth it, since those were not seasons of rich encouragement. This year’s mild winter and spring and its extraordinarily generous rainfall are providing a much friendlier environment for the plants now old and established enough for bloom to make their first appearances. So, though you can’t see it behind the blast of rose blooms in the last photo, there have been much more encouraging bursts of growth on a number of patches of chrysanthemums, Echinacea leaves, and myriad wild cousins, with some Salvia and Cynoglossom amabile (Chinese forget-me-not) throwing bright blue sparkles into the mix of pink primroses and green leafy things even before others come into bud.Photo: A Long Winter's Nap

Kind of the way that one new idea breaks in upon the muddle of all the old ones stirring in the brain while they wait to be put in order for becoming DIY projects and household fixes.Photo: Spring has Sprung

All Features Great and Small

Homemaking and decorating, housekeeping and DIY, major construction and minor tweaks: these are the things that turn a building into a true home. It might be as humble as a tiny apartment in a crowded part of town or an expansive villa, or even a palace or a tent, for all of that, but until it is arranged the way that makes the residents feel safe and comfortable enough to want to retreat there from the wider world, it’s just a space, and once it has been nested in the way that makes the residents feel not only that comfort and safety but also a sense of identity within it, it’s genuinely Home, and will remain so whether anyone moves away from it or not.

I’ve said before that I feel amazed and fortunate beyond words to have lived in regions, cities, neighborhoods, and especially Homes that embraced me in those ways over my whole life thus far, and where I have always been allowed or encouraged to express my own wishes and ideas to help me fit into them as well. And that is an incredible gift. But you also know that I can never resist personalizing “my” spaces, improving them where I can, and being extra-happy if I can do that on the cheap.

Photo: Garage Tidying

A clean, functional garage doesn’t have to look like a magazine cover, glamorous and pristine enough to lick, but when even the empty boxes (that whole left corner, plus everything behind the removed and stored interior doors on the right, for example) are in order and clean-ish, it makes all of my daily life a bit better.

Keeping a moderately clean and tidy house is the easiest way to accomplish that sort of thing, in my view. Relative wealth or poverty has less to do with how comfortable and beckoning a place is, for me, than whether anyone takes care of it, takes comfort and even some pride in it. Occasional massive cleanups of my garage (when I have one) so that I can not only park any vehicles I own in it, not just in the same neighborhood, but store what I don’t want in the house of my tools and supplies and even find them when I need them, that helps to make the place home.

For a small example, I need go no further than the kitchen and a look at an object I’ve been using about once a week for many years: my slow cooker. The first I had is long gone, but this model has been around for nearing two decades, I guess. It’s not the newest or fanciest model, but it still looks fairly decent, at least when I give it a major scrubbing, and it still works with impressive reliability. Unlike my creaky old oven, this little appliance is so dependable that I can confidently leave it on the low setting for a couple of days at a time, only checking to be sure that it sits where if it did sputter or overheat it has nothing overhead to damage and my big enameled-steel broiler pan underneath to catch any small volcanoes. Neither of which has ever happened, but still. The heavy crock insert is still, astoundingly, un-chipped and good-looking in its black glazed ruggedly handsome way, enough so I can haul it to the table without transfer to a different serving dish.

The one part that finally died this last year is so small that I was loath to replace the whole rigmarole for want of “a nail”—but I wasn’t about to spend huge amounts of my time hunting for such a little replacement part, for a probably obsolete model anyway, so on the day that the former lid handle literally dropped off in my hand, the hardware corroded through after years of various kinds of steam attacking it, I made a quick-fix with a wooden spoon and a piece of string. Better than scalding my hands while my soup stock was evaporating into thin air. But of course, that wasn’t going to last. When I finally did get time to go through my hardware, the obvious solution was stainless steel with rubber gaskets: stainless, to avoid the previous corrosion problems for as long as possible, and rubber, because the lid itself is glass and the steel, especially bolted under pressure, would put it at high risk of shattering. Like a similar glass pot lid had done the very first time I used a very expensive pot. Insert angry-face here.

Photo montage: Stainless Steel & Rubber

Hardware-store replacement for a pot handle: not just a little life-hack but a useful reminder not to overcomplicate things.

The little fix, though hardly an aesthetic thrill, seems to do the trick perfectly well, so as long as the electrical innards of the cooker hold up, there will be broth and sauces to fill my homely home with slow-cooking perfumes and our bellies with well-integrated nutrients.

A bigger problem in our household was that while we had lived for so many years near family members with bigger houses and the visiting relatives and friends had always stayed in those places, whether with us or without, once we moved across the country it was clearly time to return the favor and see that there would be welcoming space for overnight guests chez nous. The space itself was easy to finagle, both in our rented house of the first year here and the place we’ve now owned for five years, but putting in a comfortable and versatile bed for the intermittent users without breaking the bank was another issue entirely. We had our old slatted bed frame, nothing fancy but perfectly adequate (once I did some serious shoring-up of the flimsy joinery that had suffered a bit over the years of use and house-moving), but mattresses are so expensive!

For a while, I used an air mattress on the platform of the bed, because those are, after all, much cheaper and generally better made than those with which I’d grown up, and the slats are designed to be used without box springs. But after the night when Mom and Dad Sparks had slept (very little) on a mighty ridiculous slope because one end of the mattress had sprung a slow leak, it was definitely time to find a better solution there, too. Turns out, I did. I made a Bed Sandwich. Or a sandwich bed. Whatever it is, we’ve had a number of guests offer to move in with us. Or pack up the bed and haul it home with them.

It’s a hodgepodge of a bed and looks decidedly lopsided and goofy. The Princess who was so sensitive she could detect that irksome Pea under a mass of mattresses would undoubtedly turn up her royal nose at the very idea of reclining upon such an odd-looking conglomerate bed. But our visitors, from those of a certain vintage with replacement body parts and dodgy spines to youngsters who do daily yoga and could go ziplining in their sleep, seem to love how it feels so much that they feel at home in our guest room, and that is my idea of a good DIY project. I’ll bet even the Princess would be willing to give the bed a try, if persuaded by those reviews.

Photo montage: Bed Sandwich

From slatted bed frame, through a series of offbeat layers, to a humble-looking bed that guests don’t want to leave, the Bed Sandwich is one of my most successful homemaking DIYs thus far.

What’s the secret? Nothing fancy. Layers. The bottom layer is, literally, pieced together hunks of 6″ thick foam rubber, old camping mats, that I’ve had for years, assembled into a queen-sized mattress shape and held together with old cotton bedsheets, several layers of them to be sure none of the foam rubber falls or is squeezed out. The middle layer is the one that cost real money, back in the day: when we bought our master bedroom mattress, a very expensive and entirely-worth-it natural latex behemoth, we’d invested in a mattress topper, three inches of natural wool encased in a beautifully hand-stitched natural cotton cover, that was cushy and comfortable, but as it turned out, also a little less smooth and level than I typically like. I bought a memory foam topper for our bed and put the cotton-and-wool one on the guest bed. On top of that, I decided to put a memory foam topper as well, and it works both for additional padding and to smooth out the middle layer’s wavy surface further. Evidently it works. The bottom foam rubber layer, together with the slatted platform of the bed, is firm enough to support those who prefer or need a firm mattress, and the middle and top layers of padding seem mighty popular with both firm-mattress fans and those who just want the bed to give them a big hug all night long.

I am more content both because our guests seem to sleep very well, and I sleep better knowing that they do, especially since I have my sweetheart handy to give me a big hug all night long. Did I mention that as another thing that really turns a domicile into a home?

Because I Can

Photo: Homemade ToothpasteEverybody does certain things for no particular reason—sometimes to show off just a little, sometimes to test our limits a bit, and sometimes for the Everest-scaling excuse “Because it’s there.” Some of the things we do with the latter brand of casual offhandedness might, of course, be far better thought through, given that the utterer of that famous phrase died on the mountain and his body wasn’t even found until about 75 years later. But I’ll grant you that sometimes, too, a seemingly aimless act can lead to more useful ends.

As a person seriously devoted to both comfort and safety, I am more than content to leave any because-I-can acts of physical or psychological derring-do to anyone who wishes to live on the edge. I like my secure and restful life, thankyouverymuch, most especially the life part of it. But I’m willing, on occasion, to do small and non-dangerous experiments, if they seem to offer any interesting byproducts of use or entertainment.

Like making home-mixed shampoo, skin lotion, and toothpaste.

Sorry, if you were hoping for something really exciting! My inner life of fantasy has all of the elements of danger that I have the slightest interest in experiencing. But my day-to-day life and its practical requirements offer plenty of areas for potential improvement. If I can make my chores simpler, my needs smaller, the products I use slightly less expensive or toxic or complicated, and any other kinds of fixes that seem likely to make daily living pleasanter in any way, I’m generally glad to make the attempt at some point.

I don’t like most perfumed products. Nature gives me lots of wonderful smelling stuff to enjoy without my wanting to complicate those scents with artificial add-ons, so I’m more likely to buy an unscented, hypoallergenic version of any product if I can, and just enjoy the benefits of some of my favorite real-life ‘byproduct perfumes’: coffee brewing, freshly cut alfalfa hay, wet sidewalks after a long-awaited rain, a sleepy baby’s milky breath, sun-heated cedars and Douglas-fir trees, yeasty cardamom bread coming out of the oven. Flowers bursting into bloom in the garden. Salt spray at the shore. Spiced cider steeping on a cold night. Maybe it’s because I just recovered from a two-week cold, saw my poor spouse go through his own afterward, and woke up stuffy-headed again this morning, but the idea of all of those very lovely perfumes is the more alluring without thinking of their being masked by any artificial ones.

Then again, not only do I like to be clean both in my home and my person, there are some scents that do enhance my sense of cleanliness and good health in their ways, so I am not averse to adding those that I like, in the quantities I find appealing, to home-brewed stuff of personal- and home-care when I do make them.

My shampoo is almost always the all-purpose blend of a very plain liquid hand soap like Ivory (one could also use a similarly simple, if slightly more expensive, liquid Castile soap like Dr. Bronner’s) with nothing more complicated than tea tree and peppermint oils added in for their refreshing and slightly antimicrobial/antiviral qualities. The plain, oil-free soap is good for nearly any sort of (personal or house) cleaning that doesn’t require scrubbing, and with the oils it’s sufficient for my showering or bathing and hair care, no creme rinse needed. I don’t invest in any special skin treatments beyond the same home-mixed blend of skin moisturizer I’ve used on my face since my eccentric old dermatologist gave me his “recipe” of one part oil-free, hypoallergenic skin cleansing lotion + 1 part oil-free, hypoallergenic skin moisturizer + 1-2 parts water to use daily about 35 years ago. I have far better skin now than I did back then, so I guess it still works just fine.

The toothpaste-making is a work in progress, but I’m generally happy with that little science project as well. I have excellent teeth to begin with, so I wouldn’t recommend everyone jumping into fiddling with homemade toothpaste without consulting your dentist first, but these are also pretty standard toothpaste ingredients, so I’m not especially fearful of ruining my pretty white choppers. The blend at the moment is 1 cup baking soda (very mildly abrasive, and has some ability to remove or lessen stains and freshen breath—not, mind you, baking powder, unless you’re intending to bake your teeth into some sort of snack food) +1 cup coconut oil (melted for blending) + 1/2 cup powdered xylitol (the sugar alcohol sweetener, currently thought to be a cavity-fighter when used in moderation) + 2-3 Tbsp peppermint extract (flavor and breath freshening) + 2 drops blue food coloring. The latter is primarily to remind me that it’s toothpaste, since it’s just stored in a 2-cup jar in the medicine cabinet at the moment and I am, after all, occasionally forgetful. I might try the addition of a little Bentonite clay for better light abrasion, but didn’t have any on hand.

Let me just add that this little project is not my attempt to avoid fluoride. You are all free to choose to use it or not, but I am delighted that my first dentist happened to be among the first adopters of dental fluoridation and my home water district among the first adopters of fluoridated water. I have as near to perfect teeth as any 50-something I know, along with my three siblings, and our parents had typical earlier-generation rates of cavities and other dental problems; my dentists since then have agreed that early and consistent application of fluoride is very probably a significant contributing factor in this one-generation upgrade on general oral health. I don’t doubt that there are potential problems with overexposure or tradeoffs in other areas of health and well-being, and yet I wouldn’t trade any of those for a set of strong, healthy teeth with no caps, fillings, or other major interventions having been necessary, never mind growing up without fear of dentists and their tools. That’s my story. But I’m dubious that the occasional batch of homemade toothpaste without fluoride, at this point in my life, is going to threaten my dental magnificence. If my dentist tells me otherwise, I’ll switch back without a fuss. I’d hardly risk my teeth any more than I would life and limb for a little experiment.

I’m not, after all, that much of an adventurer.Photo: DIY Dentifrice

I Made It Myself!

Funny, isn’t it, how proud we are of things we think we have accomplished, no matter how silly and shoddy they may turn out to be. As often as not, we are the engineers of our own destruction; whether we stubbornly and hubristically fail along with our ridiculous doings and inventions or not is sometimes a matter of mere luck and circumstantial adventure.

Digital illustration from a photo: I Made It Myself

Digital illustration + text: Engineers of Folly

I Did It Myself…*to* Myself

Do It Yourself (DIY) projects, when well executed and realized, are impressive and admirable. They double one’s pleasure in the end product by being not only beautiful and useful as desired but also the satisfying result of her own skilled labors. Personal investment increase value exponentially.

I can claim a few DIY accomplishments on my resume, happily, despite my ordinary limitations of resource, monetary or of expertise or ability for the project in hand. But having mentioned hands, I must also confess to having a DITY (Do It TO Yourself) record as well. On the occasion of the hand-made hand injury, I was fortunate that my second of inattention resulted in no worse mishap than a tiny nip on my finger.

Being an artist, I did however do this with a certain degree of style: when I stuck my finger with a single tooth of my nice, sharp little hand saw (too aptly named, perhaps?), I did manage to insert the steel into the only small spot on my hand that already had a visible scar. Puncture becomes punctuation, so to speak.

As always, the tiniest wound is magnified by other pains, not least of them the injury to ego and dignity when on the instant of infliction I succumb to a combination of reactions that to the uninjured could only have a sort of serio-comic ridiculousness perfect for cutting me down to size. The unpleasantness of having made an unwanted incision in my personage is compounded by the leap back that threatens to throw me over a chair and onto my tailbone; the pinching clamp of fingers on the cut to stanch the bleeding hurts almost more  than the initial stab; the yell of pain that, in my nephew’s youthful terminology ‘scares my ears’ is also loud enough for the neighbors to hear and enjoy. On top of all this is the diminution of my sanguine pride, reminding me that my handy skills are sorely limited no matter what I tell myself.

Does this prevent my attempting further DIY projects? Hardly! Being by nature a timid and lazy and not-so-brilliant craftsman hasn’t made me give up but instead tends to make me plan and work things out fairly exhaustively before I begin, and to assume that I’ll make mistakes or need help before I finish. It all slows me down, to be sure—and that’s not a bad thing, mind you. Any DIY work is bound to be only as polished as patience and occasionally remedial work can make it.

When I speed up too much, I get sloppy and unfocused; I make silly mistakes like sticking my finger on a saw tooth/a saw tooth into my finger. Luckily for me, I didn’t have a power saw going there, so all I lost was a few minutes, my composure, and a few red cells rather than a digit. In return, I got a good reminder to sharpen my attention, to use tools with greater care, and to call in expert help when needed.

After all, I’d far rather sacrifice some dollars and a touch of my DIY pride than an appendage. This is how I’ve survived to my advanced age without losing any body parts or breaking any bones. I have recovered numerous times from being an (or falling on my) ass. Self image is ever so much more resilient than such things. Arguably, a little too much so in my case, or I wouldn’t tend to get into these fixes at all.

Of course, getting into a fix is something I can easily do all by myself. For that task, I do have all of the necessary experience and expertise.Digital Illustration: In Which I am a Silly Ass

All Gardens should be Herb Gardens

photoI am prejudiced. It seems logical to me that any garden grown for beauty should be grown for utility as well, and any garden grown for use ought to be pretty to look at and full of great sensory experiences well before it gets put to work. Why shouldn’t gloriously pretty edible and functional plants be shown off in all parts of the landscape, and why shouldn’t we take better advantage of what we have growing around us anyway?photo

Thankfully, these biases of mine are becoming more widely put into practice all the time. While kitchen gardens have a grand tradition of being ornamental and landscape design has long had its elements of utility inserted, those approaches have tended to be rather exceptional than the norm. So I’m thrilled to see such a proliferation, a flowering, if you will, of the whole concept that these belong as integrated into a delightful whole.photo

My friend Christopher’s interest in starting the garden personalization of his next home with herbal inclusions and infusions (not to mention his appreciation of adventuring in the kitchen) got me thinking about my own past and present herbal operations. What do I consider a good framework for inserting my own preferences, herbally speaking, into the garden nowadays? And what, in turn, is actually happening in that way here? Not surprisingly at all, this thinking turned into a lengthy exercise in list-making. Herewith, my mental inventory of herbal ideas. Foremost among them: that I plant every and anything in my garden where I think it will thrive best, then opt for where it will provide the most splash and panache in complement with the nearby plants, and finally, tuck in some elements of surprise wherever I think they can inspire even the casual visitor to the place. Herbs, fruit, vegetables, common or exotic. So long as I’m not trying to subvert the laws of nature too far, let alone encourage an invasive alien species anywhere, it’s all fun.

For the moment, though, I’m focused mainly on herbs and a few similar animal (human or otherwise) friendly options.photo montage

Easiest to keep as perennials or self-sowing annuals are some of the best kitchen basic herbs and also some of the prettiest flowering or border texture plants, so they’re what I’d call genuine bargains in the herb dept:

Parsley (curled and flat-leaf); both can get pretty large over time, but are also pretty easy to cut back if necessary. Be prepared for gigantism, since parsley can easily top two meters in height when it’s stretched out in bloom.
Chives (common and so-called Garlic Chives); both give that nice light oniony flavor, and of course the ‘garlic’ variety has a hint of garlic in it as well. The purple pompom-like head of the common chive is attractive in the garden or as garnish and also edible, but I’m especially fond of garlic chives as a garden plant–they don’t look at all like the common chive, having a flattened stem and clusters of tiny white lily-like flowers in place of the purple variety’s.
Rosemary comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and leaf lengths, most tasting similar. It’s a woody, shrubby plant in general, but some are upright, some trailing. The blooms vary: white, pink, lavender, purple, even quite blue, depending on the variety. Pretty and fragrant even while still in the yard, and bees and butterflies tend to like it too.
Thyme also comes in a ton of forms. Its types vary slightly in the pink-to-violet bloom range (quite tiny flowers) and quite a bit in the leaf type: white- or yellow-edged green, solid green, silvery; some, like Lemon Thyme, have mildly differing flavors as well, and some, like Woolly Thyme, are more strictly ornamental. Me, I’m quite happy with common thyme (Thymus vulgaris); it’s really quite easy to grow, even as a sort of ground-cover plant in borders, easy to control, has those cute little blooms, and is a very versatile herb for cookery. My favorite with chicken.
Sage is pretty easygoing, too, and also has numerous colors. I like growing the purple-leaf and variegated yellow- or lime-and-green varieties for what they bring to the flowerbeds. They can get big and leggy and woody, so sometimes sage plants require some good pruning, but it’s not hard to do with them, and sage is so lovely with poultry and winter vegetables, not to mention that their fried leaves are fabulous with lots of dishes!photo montage

Some of the less common ones I love are well worth mentioning, too:

Lemon Verbena is better started from a live plant than seed and is fragile. I suspect it could work as a kitchen-window dweller for longer life, though I’ve not tried it indoors. I got lucky with it wintering over last year! As I said, great to add to tea (hot or iced), and would be dandy in anything where you want a less astringent lemony, kind of perfumy, flavor. There’s a lemon verbena ice cream recipe on epicurious.com that is sheer HEAVEN.
Borage is an annual, but I got lucky last year and it self-sowed from the previous season. It’s a kind of straggly and tall plant and has hairy, even lightly spiny, leaves and stems, but the hairs actually look kind of pretty in daylight, adding a lacy aura to the plant, and they don’t outright hurt when you touch them at all. Both leaves and flowers have a lightly cucumber-like flavor that’s nice in salads or cold drinks (chop the leaves finely or smash ’em to keep the fuzziness from being an off-putting texture in food), and the blooms are gorgeous, starry, true-blue dainties.

&    Sweet Bay, if you have the room for an actual tree, is a pretty one and exudes a faint resinous perfume on a windy day as well as providing bay leaves for all sorts of cookery. In a former home I had a 4 foot tall lollipop shaped semi-bonsai one I grew in a big galvanized tub and wish I could’ve taken it with me.
&    Saffron is both useful and a glorious choice for the garden, being the dried stigmas of a very pretty kind of crocus. These bulbs don’t naturalize readily like some crocus, but are of course worth the effort and expense if you can get them.
&    Sorrel‘s bright acidity makes it a welcome herb with which to spike a salad, my favorite use for it. The zippy sourness comes from oxalic acid, so it’s not something you want to eat by the bale, but it’s not so potent you can’t safely make soup or just eat it raw in small amounts. The flower stalk is slightly weedily aggressive, and the leaves are very popular with munching insects, but since it’s not a virulent spreader the flowering isn’t hard to nip, literally, in the bud, and those insects are often butterflies and moths, so I’m happy to share with them.

Some herbs are big on flavor but not worth trying to grow in the wrong climate or simply too short-lived for my lazy wishes:

&    Cilantro: I love it, but it bolts (goes to seed) so fast that unless I grew a huge patch of it for one-time harvest and freezing or kept planting it repeatedly through the season, it’d be sprouted and dead in no time, so I’m happy to pay farmers to grow it for me.
&    Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and ginger (okay, that’s a rhizome, not an herb) are exceedingly delish in all kinds of Asian foods but require more tropical conditions than I’ve lived in for their happiness!photo montage

Some annual herbs are worth the effort, even if they don’t tend to self-sow:

&    Basil is one that I have been known to plant in a couple of varieties a season for different purposes: the purple leafed types are pretty as well as decent tasting; Thai Basil gives a specific and welcome familiar spice to Thai and Vietnamese cookery; Sweet Basil is the most versatile flavor king among them. They all have nice blooms, though not showy; if you let them bloom, though, they tend to wind down as their work is done, so you want to keep beheading at least some if you plan to keep using it through the whole growing season. Then basil tends to keep proliferating. Cruelty pays! 😉
&    Lettuces are of course lovely, but cabbages too are often forgotten as ornamentals, but as you know, I like planting them for their leaf color and texture, can cut occasional leaves for food or garnish, and when I leave the rest to do so, they bloom in very hummingbird-friendly ways and are a fun novelty in the flowerbed as well. Another lettuce cousin I like a lot is chard (silverbeet), whose leaves are tasty spinach imitators (raw or cooked) and whose varieties include some with great colorful stems that make them look like rhubarb or Pop Art versions of it in yellow and orange. Mine wintered over this year in the front flowerbed, surprisingly. Radicchio is a great member of this whole group, too: edible and showy burgundy colored leaves, and if you let some or all of them go to flower, they’re tall blue daisy-like things. Quite delightful.
&    Shiso, or Perilla, is a less commonly used leafy herb in the US, but the popular Japanese treat comes in a number of often quite attractive leaf shapes, textures and colors. I grew a gorgeous one some years ago that had a slight scallop on the leaf edges, a gracefully veined texture, glorious purple and green-black hues, and a spectacular metallic sheen. I confess I didn’t use it much for food because I couldn’t bear to snip it.
&    Garlic and Onions, on the other hand, have distinctive and fun flora, and can survive longer term if you don’t choose to dig all of them up to eat.

Some herbs are potentially invasive pests but I still like them for their beauty and/or culinary gifts, so I’m willing to keep massacring them occasionally to keep them in check:

&    Oregano spreads fairly easily but is a pretty bloomer as well as a tasty leafy herb, and not awful to control.
&    Mint is a genuine monster that wants to take over the world, especially my favorite commonly named ‘apple mint’ (huh??? I’ve never figured out what’s apple-y about it) that’s so incredibly versatile, but I try to plant it in places where it can spread without turning into square-stemmed kudzu. There are a number of interesting and fun varieties of mint ‘flavors’ available, but I stick with my old reliable despite the allure of Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, and even true Peppermint and Spearmint, since one aggressive invader variety is enough for me. Wintergreen is a beautiful plant but, besides not being a mint variety at all, is pretty hard to find. It’s a broad-leafed evergreen with small white flowers and big pinky-red berries, and the crushed leaf is wonderfully fragrant, but it’s not commonly found, isn’t a snap to prepare for edible uses like most of these others, and has a picky attitude in climate and growth requirements. Still, I did grow it once in Washington because of its peculiar attractions. Maybe I feel an affinity with it by virtue of my husband’s having chosen me for my peculiar attractions. Ha.
&    Dill is sometimes known as Dill Weed for good reason, as it can run rampant in friendly climates and it’s a large, blowsy plant despite its delicate thread-like leaves. But its starburst flora and subsequent seed heads are pretty among the leafy lace, and it’s so danged delicious in so many meals that even if your climate is conducive to such running amok it’s worth the trouble. Besides, in that case you can at least put in some of the dwarfish kinds of dill. Pretty unbeatable with fish, and indispensable in deli pickling!
&    Fennel is similarly a member of the uncontrollable-toddler plant type, moving aimlessly but at speed all over the garden and being a big showoff of a thing, but even if you’re a little hesitant about the licorice-y hints it gives food, it too has a nicely delicate look for such a tall plant, and you can bring some nice color into the beds by planting bronze fennel. Just chop it ruthlessly when it wants to flower to keep it in check. I’ve never tried growing bulb fennel myself since as rarely as I use it, it’s easier to buy it and give the garden space to something else.photoClearly, I could wander on like this for ages. My experimental wildflower mini-meadow out back has behaved modestly well in its first half-season last year and appears to be letting a few sprouts emerge for a good beginning again now. I will go out in the next few days and give it a thorough haircut with the weed-cutter so that it has its own mulch through the remaining unreliable chills of late winter and early spring, and have been feeding it a kind of pre-compost over the winter by tossing the chopped and blended remains of the kitchen’s dregs in and letting them freeze and decay gradually as they would have in a regular garden, and will add to that with some other treats as the patch begins to revive. I am very curious to see what of the multitudinous kinds of seed I’ve planted out there now makes an appearance and what will take hold for the long term, as much of what I put in was intended to be naturalizing perennial feed for the birds and insects as well as soothing wildflower beauty. The bonus, if all goes well, will be lots of herbal fun for my dining companions and me. Only time and Mother Nature will tell.

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Leave It that Way

How irksome that constant tension between the urge to grow, move and change and the undoubtedly more natural desire for stasis! Isn’t good-enough good enough? Can’t the ol’ universe cut me a break a little more often? I like it when I get something done, especially something I’ve really wanted or needed to finish, and most especially when it turns out well. But I can’t say I’m crazy about the long slog from here to there. Most of the time it’s just work. Drudgery. Laborious, effortful, tiresome and irritating, endless to-do lists of work.digital illustrationThat, as you know, is the unwarranted whingeing of a privileged, well padded and wilfully late-sleeping creature. I am the human equivalent of a Slow Loris, desiring fervently that the world would slow down to my own pace and let me seem to catch up with it—that is, if anyone as lacking in will and momentum as I am could be called fervent. But like the Loris, I am masking with my ever-so-slow progress through life a fair quantity of deliberation, because I do indeed have wishes and plans. They tend to be so vague and changeable that it’s useful to move at the slowest possible pace in order that my ideas will catch up with my motion before I need to act or make any significant alterations in my trajectory.digital illustrationThat’s how a person with seemingly no ambition or energy or intention of doing anything whatsoever that is not forced upon me can have, in quiet reserve, a fair treasury of plots and plans, ideas and inspirations all waiting for the right moment when I decide to take them up in the public view. Like seeds and bulbs, these unfold into leaf and then, as leaves, transform from season to season. Like artworks, they begin as the meeting of a barely formed thought with a pencil mark or two and gradually evolve into drawings that in their turn can change to other kinds of drawings or paintings or parts of collages. That’s how a little book that took about a decade to get from the slightest inkling at its inception to publication can have in its wake another ten books or so that will seem to spring fully formed from the printing press in relatively short shrift because they too were being built and tended, ever so stealthily and quietly and ever so slowly, all the while I’ve been creeping and plodding along.

It may not look like anything’s happening yet, but don’t worry; unless I’ve stopped breathing, I’m still moving imperceptibly and you can safely leave it that way for now.

Huntin’ ‘n’ Fission

I’m told that it’s both fun and useful to have hobbies. There are certainly plenty of books, magazines, news articles, classes, clubs and social organizations devoted to leisure-time pursuits, all of them trumpeting the value of such avocations. Some of them are decidedly age-specific: I haven’t seen a large number of free solo rock climbing promotions aimed at senior citizens, for example. There are hobbies considered preferable to persons of certain economic strata, fitness levels, sexes, nationalities and any number of other identifying categories, some active and some quite passive or spectatorial, some of them expensive to learn and requiring extensive training and practice and others free and simple to master. Regional favorites abound, like, say, noodling (catching catfish by hand), which would be hard to enjoy in desert climates unless you happened to be both a big fan of the sport and dedicated enough to stock your own evaporation-protected pond. Some of the more intellectually stimulating hobbies, like competitively designing robotics for cage fights or nuclear plants for home use, are highly entertaining to their practitioners but utterly escape the attentions of us more modest-brained folk as either too highfalutin or just plain incomprehensible. Sudoku, popular with millions of people cleverer than I am, falls into that too-challenging category for me since I’m so mathematically unfit, but I do like some kinds of word puzzles reasonably well if I’m in that rare mood.

Should I take up golf, having decided to move (when my spouse gets around to retiring) to a place on a golf course partly for its–surprise!–affordability and its location in a great town in a great part of the country, and in no small part as well for its great view into the green and leafy first fairway of the course? That would require my learning which end of the club is the grip and which the head, not to mention a whole bunch of other stuff, and on top of that, paying dearly for the privilege.photoWhile I’m still living in Texas I’d certainly be in a logical place to take up hunting, but that doesn’t appeal to me at all, unless it’s with a camera. For that matter, I’m more inclined to practice target shooting with a longbow, something I’ve enjoyed briefly in the distant past, than with a gun as well, being mighty skittish about those things. Being on the fast track to old age, I could probably pick up something more sedentary like knitting and crocheting if I had the patience. My single brief fishing moment post-childhood actually garnered me a cute little throw-back bass (as a kid I never caught anything but one big scary looking White Sucker that even my older boy cousins wouldn’t touch) and was enjoyed in good company while sipping a fine Texas brew; maybe that should inspire me to get busy with fishing.photoThat’s the thing, though: I just don’t enjoy games and sports, puzzles and pastimes much at all. Whether this arose or was reinforced by my longtime social phobias, perfectionistic fear of being seen as incompetent, dyslexic inability to keep anything I’m doing on a standard track, hilariously hideous sporting skills or any combination thereof is probably irrelevant. You see, there’s no separation of church and state in my life. I spend my days and evenings doing the very things that lots of folk can only do on an occasional basis and to fill their free time.

If I took up drawing, concert-going, reading and writing, cooking, DIY projects, gardening, photography or collecting weird bits of Stuff as a so-called hobby, what would I do with my day job? The truth is simply that I’m a fully fledged frivolous person. If eccentric creative activities and ways of thinking are on the periphery of real life, then I am a bona fide fiction, an imaginary character myself. If on the other hand art is, as I’m convinced it should be, central to existence and well-being, why then I’m just ahead of the curve; I won’t need to retire to any old rocking chair or go in a desperate search for something to keep me occupied, because I already have too many fun and pleasing things to do. Either way, I’m keeping busy.

Under the Influence

mixed media drawingWhen I hear that phrase, of course I’m immediately reminded of its use to describe those persons, so much dimmer witted than a barnyard fowl, who drive or operate heavy machinery or otherwise behave inappropriately (and most likely, quite dangerously) because they are under the influence [UTI] of drink or drugs. Personally, I would go further, with my concept of UTI encompassing other, equally dangerous things like ignorant social, political, religious or philosophical views that give their disciples delusions of superiority, imperviousness, entitlement, and so forth.

But it behooves all of us to remember that the phrase isn’t inherently negative, for one can be under positive influences as well. Even better if one can manage to be a positive influence. It’s notable enough in a long and active life if one succeeds in generally doing no serious harm (intentional or otherwise, and to be in fact benevolent and able to enact good and fine things, why, that’s remarkable and admirable stuff indeed. I know people who can do so right here in the blogiverse, teaching and leading us all to do and be better versions of ourselves, and doing so not only by sharing their stories but by being living examples of what they teach. My years of classroom teaching proved to me that I was better suited to being a student than a leader, yet tutorial and mentoring settings gave me a much greater level of comfort in that they allowed me to operate as a fellow learner and thus engage more deeply and without as great a fear of steering anyone (myself included) astray.

The bloggers I most admire, immensely entertaining and humorous and dramatic and artistic in ever so many ways, are always, at heart, teaching, whether it’s overtly and with carefully designed pedagogy and prescriptions or it is so inherent in their natures that it comes fully interwoven in the fabric of their posts. These favorites include, but are not limited to, logophilic, ecological, travel-oriented, cuisinal, community-building, arts-centric, historical, and in many cases, wildly multitasking blogs. Some bloggers are small fry like me, known only to a cozy circle of great friends who come by to read and sometimes comment, and some of those I greatly admire are large-scale bloggers, people with lots of published work elsewhere or major accomplishments in their fields (whether related to their blogging topics or not!); a few have multiple blogs and the amount, whether on one blog or many, of posts published varies from one every few weeks to daily. There may, in fact–given electronic media of all kinds nowadays–be people putting up posts every few minutes, but I haven’t the time and energy to keep visiting such volcanic sources and tend to keep to my group of favorites with an occasional foray outward.

So who are my influences among bloggers? Friends who give us invitations to visit them at places like The Bard on the Hill, Spanish-English Word Connections, and Year-Struck, Just a Smidgen, The Valentine 4, David Reid Art, and The Complete Cookbook, like Bardess DM Denton, The Kitchens Garden; like the blogs Cooking-Spree, O’Canada, Nitzus, Peach Farm Studio, and  Bishop’s Backyard Farm, like Blue Jelly Beans, One Good Thing by Jillee, Road Tripping Europe, My Little Corner of Rhode Island, Promenade Plantings, L Scott Poetry, Poetic Licensee, and Gingerfightback, and blogs like From the Bartolini Kitchens, Rumpydog and The Human Picture. There are many more I enjoy and admire, but each of these, whether longtime blogging friends or a site new to me, have proven to be influential and inspirational for me in many ways, both as bloggers themselves and often as encouraging and educational commenters here at my own place. We don’t always agree, which is part of what’s so powerful: the diversity of the world and its ideas and passions and hopes and loves, this potent brew is what makes the fellowship of bloggers such a joy.

That we can share it with so many, most of whom we know only in and through this forum, is a great gift indeed. Also shared among fellow bloggers: awards and recognitions. Some accept them and participate with great alacrity in sharing them, and others are happy to be complimented thus but have no interest in or simply no time for such things. All quite acceptable responses. This post, in fact, is in response to my having been ‘tapped’ by the gracious and yes, influential blogger Samina Iqbal, whose Forum for police support is a notable effort by one passionate blogger to garner greater recognition and appreciation for those who serve and protect the populace as members of the police force–indeed, a job few of us would dare or relish, yet most have great reason to be grateful that there are the admirable folk who do so on our behalf. She was named a Most Influential Blogger and has passed the torch here.

While I think she is over-generous in her estimation of what happens here at my blog, I am happy to carry out the task of sharing the aforementioned blogs and their authors with you, because they really do deserve the attention and I hope you’ll visit as many of their sites as you’re able; you, too, will find many things to influence you: ideas and passions, skills and arts, love and human drama and many a good belly laugh in the mix. Best of all, under the influence of these luminaries you will likely pose no additional danger to the general public if you should, say, get behind the wheel of a car. With the possible exception of the belly laughs, which could cause you to steer right into the ditch. But at least you’d be guffawing all the way to the emergency room, possibly accompanied by some helpful police officers. And don’t blame me!mixed media drawing

It’s Good to Set a Poor Example

photosI’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.photosThe photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.photosPeople even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.photosThing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.photosSo the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!photos