Travel Like a Chipmunk

Photo: Lolitas

Not the most predictable of sights in Boston. Unless you happen to have a kawaii-Lolita events calendar on your desktop, maybe. But just getting out for a meander might also find you on the heels of a trio of Lolitas. 

The idea of having ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ has appeal. It has many useful applications. A life enhanced by travel needn’t be dominated by such notions, though, or I risk being too fixed, both where I have landed and in my expectations and experiences wherever else I go.

Like most people, I suppose, I find comfort in the familiar, in anticipated pleasures and good things I expect, but—especially when I travel—there’s another sort of wonder and happiness that abounds when I can let go of these supposed needs and just allow life to happen.

From my very first major sans-parents sojourn, the privileged joy of an undergraduate “sophomore sabbatical” of untrammeled European travel with my older sister, I’ve continued to discover the enrichment and the thrilling frissons of serendipity and surprise. Hearing a great performance by a renowned orchestra in a glorious concert hall is well worth saving and planning for, of course, but even its excellence is not more fulfilling and memorable than following an unexpected tune through the byways of a foreign town to find myself joining the local crowd as they cheer on a community parade, marching bands blaring and uninhibited children dancing alongside.

Making the pilgrimage to a must-see historic site with the hundreds of other tourists is often not only worthwhile but sometimes enhanced by the very circus-like atmosphere engendered by the regimented masses. But it can barely compare with, never mind eclipse, the almost clandestine delight of having the ‘inside scoop’ from a city native who directed me to a certain narrow side street to knock on a certain undistinguished door, to borrow from the house’s owner a wonderfully heavy antique iron key that unlocked a creaky gate around yet another corner and let my sister and me into a stone-walled, fog-shrouded, hidden ancient cemetery there. That side-adventure on my first big travel expedition was every bit as gorgeous, astounding, meaningful, and artful as the historic sites on the trip, yet as far as I know, it remains unknown outside of its quiet Irish neighborhood. Making reservations and having tickets for the plan-able parts of that journey were both predictably well worth the time and effort, but a couple of hours spent wandering with my sole travel companion among the storied gravestones in that magnificently green and weedy private burial ground, and then climbing the narrow stone spiral up the tower ruin in that enclosure, peering through the mists out of its mediaeval arrow-slit to catch glimpses of the dark houses outside the walls—that was a sweet afternoon no amount of planning could have bought.

Nowadays, my favorite parts of most travels remain the random and coincidental joys of going down appealing alleys on a whim, following the sensory lures of a wafting scent here, a fugitive melody over there, a flash of color or a movement more felt than seen on my periphery, that can pull me off course in a curious second, redirecting my attentions to livelier things. That’s how I’ve found myself in a cafe kitchen helping the chef pipe his handmade ricotta filling into cannoli while ostensibly just grabbing a bite of supper before a baseball game, or watching the splashy finale of an unadvertised international fireworks competition from a perfectly positioned hotel room balcony; how I ended up discussing the virtues of tuna salad sandwiches with a television actress in an airport security line, stumbling onto and being escorted off of a missile site, standing backstage and meeting Lord Whatsis before the opera, and learning from the groundskeeper at a Victorian-style public garden how he grows weeping mulberry trees from cuttings.

Like the chipmunk that found its way into the building when I was walking up the hallway toward it just the other day, by merely rambling aimlessly in an attempt to get myself oriented in unknown surroundings I sometimes discover I’m right in the middle of a fabulous new treasure-house of wonder.Digital illo from a photo: Intrepid as a Chipmunk

DIY Weddings are Easy When . . .

. . . you have a world of friendly resources at your beck and call. So, technically, it’s not DIY at all of course but rather Così fan tutte. [Ed: roughly translated, ‘Everybody’s doing it’.] It’s not, even then, for the faint of heart, because let’s face it, unless you’re having the always admirable super short, informal adventure of standing in front of a Justice of the Peace or of surprising your immediate family in the middle of dessert one weekend with a five-minute ceremony, there are a host of details that might need to be given eventual consideration. Beyond simply making sure that the two people who are getting married actually show up at the same time in the same place, there are a handful of legal elements that generally should be taken care of before the event, if it’s to have any official standing. And from there, the possibilities expand exponentially. I suppose it’s not wholly shocking that the process might lead to the development of a few dysfunctional bumps and bruises among family, friends and support staff along the way.photoBut I hate confrontation and stress, and the very idea of becoming such a parody-inspiring Marriage Monster appalls me. And when we decided to marry, I don’t doubt it occurred to me that my intended, Richard, might equally abhor the idea of a painful process and wedding day. So we were both very happy to treat the whole thing something like an elaborate concert performance, perhaps a cheery semi-staged operetta, and to act as artistic directors and performers, yes, but also to let a great slew of friends, relatives and acquaintances carry out as much of the heavy lifting as possible along the way. After all, though we intended to have a good time and hoped everyone else would too, the real point of the occasion was that at the end of the day we would be more married than we were at the beginning of it.

Being a visual artist, I had no shortage of ideas about how I wanted various things to look, from invitations and service bulletins and guest books to the floral arrangements, wedding party dress and church decor, to the tables and food at the reception. And I had pretty extravagant ideas, at that. But I didn’t have a huge quantity of money to invest in it (nor did my parents) and I deeply dislike the idea of spending ghastly sums on a single event that, while important and hopefully happily memorable, is still only one actual day of life. What, I should spend my life savings on a single party?

That’s where one’s personal fortune in community has so much more than monetary value, though I’ll readily grant you that ours, in sharing their talents and efforts with us for the occasion, saved us a ton of money. We married in the church across the street from the university where we both worked, since not only were we members there but it was so handily located for so many of our friends, students and colleagues who were also part of the university community. I had a fairly easy time imagining how to use and decorate the church, since a few years previously, I’d served on the committee that oversaw a massive renovation of the space, taking part in all elements of the design from seating arrangement to finishes, and designing the new altar, font, pulpit, rail, crosses and incidental furnishings that were built for it.photoSo I opted to fill the space with a different kind of design, making a couple dozen banners to hang on walls, fly from the light boxes in the ceilings, display on stands in the narthex and chancel, and be carried in procession by fine young friends strolling in en route (to light candles) and out (to the reception hall) along with the wedding party. Already a banner maker for church and event commissions, I had lots of material and experience, so I sewed, painted and otherwise assembled the banners myself (from the flying ones at about 36 inches in length to the main chancel banner that was about 26 feet), and I got good help with putting together the stands and hanging mechanisms and installing them all at the last minute when we could get into the nave to do the montageThat’s a constant with weddings and parties in all sorts of venues other than Home: no access for prep and installation and other setup work until the last minute. So because I am a control freak, a design nut and also someone who really wanted to just have fun and enjoy my actual wedding day, I plotted and planned and prepped everything I could, along with my Intended and a slew of family, friends and other helpful conspirators. First, of course, it was essential to get all the actors on board and ‘synchronize our watches’, since it’s a busy crew and driven by a multitude of crazy calendar iterations. Once that was established, the work of service and reception planning commenced.

The earliest necessity, since I didn’t want predictable or expensive floral arrangements but love flowers, was to plant and tend flowers in Mom’s garden and that of our good friend Claudia, next door to her. By the time our July wedding rolled around, I had gathered the ribbon and wire and other essentials and been offered by the lovely Linda, a friend who was chief florist for the university’s official events, that if I handed over the materials she would provide us with her gorgeous bouquets and boutonnieres and corsages for all and sundry, so all I needed to do at the last minute was go a-gathering in their yards with my two beloved garden-gnome ladies and then give buckets full of fresh beauty to Linda on the day.

Meanwhile, much brainstorming and list-making was underway with the able assistance of others, so that everything essential would be pre-arranged too and not worrisome. All of the print materials derived from a combination of my photos of iris leaves, text typeset by one of my sisters in fonts I’d chosen, getting printing done by the local quick printers (with whom I’d done many work projects) on their green ink printing day of the week and then doing all of the black ink stuff on copiers and folding/collating things myself while I was calligraphing the invitation envelopes, closing them with an inexpensive gold seal and a swash of purply interference paint and a rubber stamp message noting that the music would begin a full half hour before the service. We did, after all, know that there would be lots of my fiance’s fellow musicians both participating and attending.

Clergy? That was about the easiest part to decide, since as a cleric’s daughter I could just tap Dad. So the church’s lead pastor presided, Dad officiated, and a sweet retired pastor friend served as lector. Since Dad was robing up for the pastoral gig, I decided to have one of my uncles sashay down the aisle with me, and he kindly acquiesced to my request for an escort. Our organist, our great friend Jim, was also standing up for us, so he did a bit of trotting up and down the aisle, but in great Jim style. As one of four sisters, I had the easiest time choosing three attendants, but it was simple for my groom to line up the perfect support team, too, between his one brother and Jim and another of our close friends who happened to be Richard’s choral conducting partner at the university as well. Friends from various places rounded out the team, serving as greeters, acolytes, and our wonderfully hospitable reception hosts. One of our brothers in law was chief photographer, taking a batch of group wedding party photos just before the church began to fill, and all of the rest of the pictures came from a combination of photos friends sent us and the box full of disposable cameras we’d distributed on the reception tables and collected for development at the end of the day. This proved a serendipity because it both gave us some fun candids from the kids’ point of view and kept some of the younger partiers entertained during the reception as well.


I designed and made stoles for Dad and the presiding minister, too.

My sisters readily agreed to help pick out simple black dresses they’d actually have a hope of wanting to wear again later, and we managed to find a great deal on them and choose a design that, happily, was made of a very stretchy fabric, since it turned out that one sister was curvaceously pregnant by the time our wedding day rolled around (no pun intended). I sewed a violet voile shawl edged in emerald green for each of them, and a scarf of the same to tie back my hair rather than having a veil, something that would anyway have looked a bit odd since I didn’t want to wear a white gown. Besides that I tend to look a little too much like a corpse when wearing white, I too wanted to have a dress with reuse potential, especially if I was investing a couple hundred dollars in all of the fabrics, so I made my shawl from iridescent emerald voile, the same fabric that I lined with dark emerald taffeta for the body of my skirt and bodice. The bodice, made in a sort of weskit shape, I stitched with self-colored silk soutache. While I cut and serged all of the pieces of my layered fabric for the dress and made my underskirt, my mother generously did all of the finish sewing on the top and skirt. Designing and sewing just the soutache provided enough adventure for this semi-skilled seamstress. I did, however, go dress shopping with both of our moms, and we found one a perfect-condition consignment dress for a great price and the other, a clearance two piece dress/jacket combination for $10. The guys wore rented tuxes, mainly because the groom owned a white tie and tails conducting getup and nothing like a plain black suit, and I figured if I was going to have a wedding more formal than a zippy elopement, I still did want to get all spiffed up. Not averse to having fun, and all that jazz.



[Ed: No, we weren’t all pretending to be The Dread Pirate Roberts–I’m just providing a dash of privacy for family and friends.]

The fabrics and ribbons left over from manufacturing banners and dresses and shawls got trimmed and saved up for dressing the reception tables, along with a multitude of candlesticks from home that I loaded up and lit. To keep reception food fuss to a relative minimum, we opted to have the party in the fellowship hall at the church. That way, also, there was no monkeying around with additional travel, hall-finding and parking issues, party setup in a separate venue, or the time required for all of those add-ons. And we figured the social aspect was the primary reason for having a reception at all, not fussy edibles meant mostly to impress people, so we went to our favorite farmers’ market and bought a bunch of lovely fresh fruits to complement the array of nuts, chocolates and home-baked cookies that were the main bites. Friends and relatives gifted us with many of the cookies, and the baked centerpiece was a traditional Norwegian kransekake (more a stack of crisp-chewy almond meringue biscuit rings than cake) made by our Norwegian brother-in-law and my mother. As it turned out, yet another set of friends surprised us with a second lovely kransekake, so we were all in cookie heaven. A very fine place, indeed, and not only on a wedding

I’d Rather be Clean than Tidy, & I’d Rather be Tidy than Frustrated

It’s possible that, given my genetic descent from a pair of neatnik parents, I keep a slightly fussier house than average. But I must emphasize the word ‘descent’, because the Czarina of Creative Chaos and the Lama of Laziness are my spiritual parents too and often win out in the balance between controlled environment and bombing aftermath. What this means in practice is simply that I often settle (and therefore, my housemate and our guests must, too) for ‘clean enough for safety’. I don’t like any sense of living in the bottom of a rubbish tip, let along canoeing a sewer [the kind with appalling effluents in it, not the kind that makes things out of fabric]. So I think I can fairly claim that I have never–barring being bedridden–let my environs fall into utter wrack and ruin, but there are times when I’d rather let sleeping heaps lie and be satisfied with relatively germ-free untidiness than spend all of my energies on a pristine home.


Use every tool around, and you may find sufficient space for everything. Shelves, hooks, boxes, crates, and so much more can coordinate to make everything fit together. Pretty is nice, but pretty practical suits me better!

I can’t imagine wanting to have a ‘show house’ anyway. If I can’t slouch around a bit and put my feet up on the furniture (yes, dining surfaces excepted), it doesn’t feel comfortable enough for me to call Home. All the same, I enjoy those times when I’ve been in my cleaning-tornado mode enough to find whatever I need to find without pulling all of my remaining hair out by the roots, and to have the house all spiffed up and looking its prettiest beyond merely being generally non-toxic.


Plastic milk crates, bound together and bolted to the wall, lined with clean cardboard salvaged from packing boxes, make handy closet shelves that won’t trap dust and can easily be moved and reassembled.

For that reason, deep cleaning is not saved exclusively for the Spring, and a few spates of active reorganization throughout the year are not only helpful but refreshing. When those bouts result not only in unearthing and offloading unused, excessively worn, dated, or redundant things from closets, cupboards and spaces that ought by rights to be airier or at least better used, that is exceedingly pleasant. When the result is more practical organization, it also means that not only are things pleasanter than before in the short term but they will be easier to maintain in that state and even to return to it when the busyness of the everyday has overridden good intentions and available time for a while. I may never have that DIY-goddess glory of everything in pretty and cute and magnificent containers, all labeled alphabetically with gorgeous calligraphy and stored so beautifully that the cabinets should remain forever open and on display, but I have what I want where I want it. At least for the time being. My putative parents of Chaos and Laziness do come calling, and they’re ever so much more trouble to have around the place than my biological ones. Ah, well; I’ve learned to live with them.


Necktie hangers and clothespin-style clips work for holding all sorts of other things and can tuck behind the clothes so no extra space is required–and all of the ‘trimmings’ are easily visible.



Sighhhhhhh . . .

I’ve got this little problem, see. It’s about my name. No, I am really pleased with the one I was born with–Mom and Dad did a bang-up job with that, as far as I’m concerned. Parents have it easy with the baby-naming stuff; it’s not their fault if the kid doesn’t match up with the moniker, considering that they had no way of knowing the shrimp beforehand to fuss over pairing name and gnome perfectly.

My problem is with my blog title. I’ve winged it with my online place’s birth-name, a version of my own, since I started the gig a little over a year ago, but in truth, it was pretty much a place-holder since I had no inkling then that I’d not only stick with the process but have people beyond the borders of my immediate family visiting with me here. So the problem is, if there’s nothing in the name of my blog to tell anybody outside of the aforementioned familial borders what the heck this blog contains, or why on earth they would have the remotest reason to bother visiting here. If, indeed, they did.

Now, then, I’m having a good old identity crisis. ‘Cause I don’t know what the heck to tell anybody either. On Tuesdays, yeah, you’ll generally find food-related ramblings when you show up. Other days, though, swerve from one topic to another so loosely and with such unpredictable abandon that I don’t know when I sit down at the keyboard what direction I’m bound to take. New drawing? New photograph? Reminiscences about travel, DIY monkeying, garden plotting, commentary on freeway drivers or a freshly minted and wildly ridiculous poem–I just haven’t figured out any sort of way to describe in a couple of words what’s on the non-Tuesday menu around this blog.

I’m open to suggestions. Thanks to my obsessive dilettantism, my spouse suggests that the family nomenclature for me of Short Attention Span Artist might just do the trick, but as accurate as it is in describing me (and probably what I do, too), it still doesn’t seem to me likely to tell a total stranger what to expect on arrival. Tangential adventures like mine could possibly be described as, uh, Tangential Adventures, but of course that’s pretty cryptic too. Art, Poetry, Photography, Essays, and Ingenious Insights combines the pompous and the dully categorical in a way remarkable only for its long-windedness.

I guess I’ll just keep a-sittin’ here in my little corner twirling my ponytail for a while and see if some astounding inspiration happens to alight upon my bedazzled pate. Ooh, Bedazzled Pate! Nahhhh, sounds like some kind of yummy mousse studded with masses of rhinestones. The truly big question remains. Who am I? Doubt that can be answered in this or any other lifetime. But perhaps I’ll figure out my blog’s identity one of these days, at the least. Feel free to help!


Little Things that Make Me Happy

Having Gotten some Stuff Done around the house is high on my list of everyday joys. It should be noted that I don’t say ‘getting some stuff done’–that, to be fair, would be slightly disingenuous, as I’m lazy enough at heart that I prefer the finished product to the process much of the time. Not always; I can get off of my haunches and get active, it’s just a rarer occurrence than that I’m pleased to perch on them surveying my handiwork as an end in and of itself. So I’ll just show off a few of those chores and projects that have given me that sort of pleasure, and perhaps inspire you as well: after all, some of the enjoyment, as you’ll see, comes from the knowledge that each of these items succeeds in making my daily work simpler, and thus, my laziness more tenable. Which, not to be too tautological about the whole thing, is the point of the Doing in the first place.


Putting latches on closet doors that, no matter how they’re hung or how the hinges get adjusted, refuse to stay fully closed. I apologize to the poltergeists whose chief form of entertainment this may have curtailed, but not so much that I am going to remove said latches.


‘Customizing’ the laundry room on the cheap. I’m the sort that teeters between an out-of-sight = out-of-mind mentality, generally, and liking my tidiness too, and since like many homes mine’s most frequently entered through the laundry room (the garage entrance lies there), I can’t abide a junked-up laundry space. So I have over-the-door hooks for quick hanging and access when it comes to day backpacks and *nearly* dry laundry, wall hooks for baseball caps when it’s time to dash out in the blast of sunlight, a wire shelf cut to fit on top of the two opposing door jambs so I can put my laundry basket out of the way but in reach, and my favorite new tweak, replacing the hall door that used to overlap the garage entrance one when they were both open (every time we left or entered the house) and was wont to grab my fingers and scrunch them nearly every time they met. The new door is a bi-fold, and so sits neatly out of reach of that garage exit door and unable to do its dirty deeds any more. I was seriously cheap on this one and bought a closet door that’s unfinished on the laundry room side (plain Masonite), but when I paint it I am planning to use some blackboard paint I have around, and I figure we can use it as a coming-home message and reminder board after that.


While I think it’s nice to have a bookshelf with an assortment of books and magazines in the guest room, ready for any visitor, I know too that many of our guests are en route elsewhere when they stay here, so I like to keep a shelf of it filled with books, magazines and pamphlets about any of the sites, sights and adventures available in this region, in case they’d like to plan further while here. If they happen to open a box with a little sweet treat in it while rummaging, that can’t hurt much either, can it?


Having illogically arranged spaces tends to make me *un*happy. So after a couple of years of being piqued that the cupboard door over the kitchen peninsula, which happens to be the one closest to the kitchen table, open the wrong direction–thereby making the cupboard unreachable and useless–I decided it might be time to cash in on the open shelving trend. Now my drinking glasses are reachable both from the sink and from the table, and are in visible proximity to the tea-and-coffee mugs hung simply on the end of the cabinet. Much easier all ’round.


One of my pet peeves in a kitchen is not being able to find towels for hands or dishes when I need them. But I don’t like having them hanging where they can be schmutzed or pulled down accidentally by any passing person or pet, nor do I appreciate when they block drawers, doors, oven windows and the like from their normal uses. So I took advantage of the sides of the cabinets flanking my kitchen sink window and put up hooks for towels that I think are reasonably identifiable for their respective uses on either side–the hand towel over the side of the sink usually used for hand-washing and the dish towel over the side where the drying rack lives perpetually on the counter. Yes, I am gifted with enormous work spaces in this kitchen and can spare the room for air drying dishes. That, of course, makes my lazy soul happy too.


I’d be lying if I said that having the thermometer outside the kitchen window makes me *happy*, exactly, since it usually tells me nothing more than that It’s Boiling Hot Out There. But forewarning or at least a reminder that the great outdoors might not be as splendidly inviting as it appears here is valuable, at that.


Admittedly, a dish towel hook may not seem like such an impressive possession, but if the one thing it simplifies in my life makes me more willing to actually *do* the dishes, that’s worth something, isn’t it. Having a pleasant view out the window there doesn’t hurt either, even if it’s always a work in progress itself.


My stack of well-worn flour sack dish towels is evidence that doing dishes is not anathema in my kitchen. The wholly holey character of a few of them, I’ll admit, is not dish-related but due to their also making perfect straining cloth for fresh cheeses and home-brewed broths and ideal for drying all sorts of leafy greens and fruit and veg as well. Many trips through the bleach load take their toll, no matter how kindly I try to treat the cloths otherwise.


Replacing what has given its all for many years of intensive use is a source of happiness, too. While it may make interesting textures and patterns and colors, a pot whose nonstick surface has finally converted to everything-sticks status and whose base has warped into a minimal-contact bowl that teeters on the cooktop is facing retirement as soon as I can get my hands on a choice replacement.


On the other hand, being able to refresh the old geezer items with new life is worthwhile and can be fulfilling in its own way as well. A lamp with wiring that has officially hit the half-century mark is probably best not turned back on until I rewire it. The one I have on my work table just now may prove to be an intriguing enough project that I’ll share it with you–when I disassembled it I discovered it was made from a commemorative Jim Beam decanter. Oh, the little things that can bring me happiness. Hmmm. Suddenly I’m inexplicably thirsty. Wonder if there’s any whiskey around.

Vita Brevis! Carpe Diem!


digital collage

Let us mind our history lessons, each of us . . .

There’s nothing like sorting through one’s personal archives to stir up the notion that life’s short and memory shorter. Go through the files of family photos, yes, and there are ghosts staring back at me that I never even knew, let alone can name or place without my mother (perhaps my grandmother or great-) on hand as reference. How many thousands of stories have I ignored or forgotten among only the few handfuls of fading images I keep boxed up in storage, I wonder?

Delve into nothing more exotic than the household files, meaning only to rearrange what’s there more neatly and perhaps cull a few records that are far out of date, and I find I am plunged into a well of information that, even in those records and bills and receipts not older than a year, escape me like ephemeral puffs of ether as I try to grasp what they meant or why they were recorded in the first place. An atomic cloud of ideas and ideals sprays out of the folders that I thought would only hold a few needful numbers, a name or connection I must think I needed at tax time or on my next appointment with the named practitioner. Stories trail out in smoky wisps.

Reach back into the recesses of the cupboard or closet, hoping to simply rearrange my goods for daily use, and I always discover that my tidying has turned archeological, that items long forgotten lurk in the shadows and recall to mind grand plans since erased: a superb meal here, a skirt to hem there, a pint of paint bought specifically for a project that has lain neglected so long that the other parts were used eons ago for something else entirely. My life is a tale of constantly shifting shores, tangents taken and those unnoticed ones that might have led me in a completely different path to who-knows-where.

What is my legacy? I cannot know, other than that it is short and small. My life’s story will disappear in a hiccup about as soon as I shed my human shell. But in the meantime, what adventures can I take? How shall I flesh it out to my own satisfaction? That is the time of relevance to me, not history past or future but my own small window of experience. Shall I forget the stuff of my life long-shelved, my ancestors, the wide unfolding scenes of history and space? Oh, no, never by choice. But what will shape my happiness the most is none of that, is rather my living in this moment, possibly with a tidier cabinet here and there or a better sorted box of memories to visit from time to time, yet always with an eye toward the light, toward the rising and setting of the sun. Day in, day out, forever.

Life is astoundingly brief and runs away apace. But grasping the essence and ecstasy of any day need not be gigantic in its way, only enough to fill an undemanding heart with some small measure of contentment that might overflow, only enough in turn, to run out toward another heart or two.


What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 4: Luxurious Tools

photoSome people love cars. Some are attracted to bling (you would think I’d be quite the blingy specimen, given my magpie eye, but I don’t at all like to wear it, generally) and others are collectors of shoes, antiques, sports memorabilia, whatever inspires them and warms the cockles of their hearts. Me, I’m a fool for tools. I try to restrain myself reasonably when it comes to actually buying them, since I haven’t the budget, storage space or skills to use many of them in reality, but there are some that do have a place in my pantheon of tool treasures. Some, also, in my pantry.

photoSimple is often best, to be sure. I do love my two cast iron skillets. And when it comes to kitchen tools, good knives are just about the pinnacle of both necessity and happiness for most cooks I know. I have a selection of knives (looking exceedingly dusty here after the granite was re-cut to fit our new cooktop properly), and I use all of them on occasion, but I pretty much devote my favored attentions to using one particular knife, a fairly modest Henckels 6″ stainless sweetheart that keeps its edge with very little sharpening and is just the right heft and balance for my ordinary purposes. I’ll bet there are plenty of others among you that are like me in this: no matter how many lovelies you collect of your most-used sort of tools, find you’re using the same one ninety percent of the time. When it’s right, it’s right. And knives, while they can’t make a chef out of anyone, can bring the average home cook closer to mastery than possible otherwise.

photoI’ve mentioned a few times before that I also luxuriate in the privilege of having some more specialized and, indeed, expensive kitchen tools. The sous vide immersion cooker that my husband kindly presented when we moved into this house isn’t used constantly by any means, but when I want fall-apart ribs or a beef roast as near to perfection as I can make, it’s absolutely the go-to favorite tool for those sorts of labors. The internal temperature monitoring version of my heavily used slow cooker, if you will, which gets a fairly constant workout cooking my various broths down to dense savory heaven, with the occasional chili or pot roast thrown in for good measure. The more high-tech tools in my kitchen arsenal include, of course, a good microwave; besides being so convenient for warming lunchtime leftovers, it’s great for steaming vegetables quickly, making a one-person egg souffle, or melting butter or chocolate for the current concoction.photoI like my hand tools, too, both the powered (I use my stick blender not just for pureeing things for soups and sauces but for whipping cream or eggwhites, too) and the old standbys of a small whisk, tongs–updated with nice gripping heat-proof silicone ends–or that lovely construction tool that has moved into the kitchen, the Microplane, which is a snap to use for zesting fruits or rasping nutmeg or finely shaving some nutty Reggiano. And that large strainer to the left is so very well-suited to my broth clarifying. I just wish it could work on my thoughts too. One present thought that is crystal-clear, however, is that the new cooktop–that smooth black glass on which the hand tools are resting–is going to be such a boon to this cook as has seldom been seen. While we’d love to have afforded the line plumbing and cooker for using gas, this functional and even topped electric will be such a stupendous improvement over the literally half-dead and wholly uneven old coil burner stove that I am elated just to have made scrambled eggs for breakfast. Such is the improvement in life of a new and improved

The oldies are still goodies, as well. I am so fortunate as to have bought a house with (albeit thirty years old) a double oven. The pair shows its age visually, to be sure, but once I painted the two oven doors with a slightly glittery metallic black finish they don’t stick out of the updated kitchen decor too terribly, and they operate remarkably well in general. I’ve pulled together some meals for largish gatherings without much difficulty in finding enough space to roast, bake, broil and warm whatever was needed for the crowd. That’s when I pull out lots of my more specific and seldom-used other tools from my bag of kitchen tricks, too, to go with the less common ingredients I might use for special occasion eating events. Okay, the ice cream scoops and the wine bottle equipment aren’t all that rarely used around here, nor are a number of the other utensils here in these drawers. More often, it’s the pretty old silver and plated serve-ware–those sugar tongs with claws, and the beveled-bowl spoons and ladle, the pewter handled Norwegian forks and spoons–that makes me smile on mere

Some of the tools I treasure most are, of course, sentimental for various reasons. Probably among the best of those in my kitchen are ones I don’t necessarily give constant notice precisely because they are so constantly in use and so well suited to their uses. My everyday stainless flatware is a perfect example. My paternal grandmother was a rather tender and sentimental lady (in her eighties, she still couldn’t hang up photos of her little daughter who had died at age two) but almost never showed it; she wasn’t much good at overt expressions of such emotion so it arose in subtler ways, like her declaring that it wasn’t right for young women of my generation (and my sisters’) to wait until we might-or-might-not get married to have well stocked home lives, so she told each of us when we entered high school to choose a flatware pattern, and she would give us Christmas and birthday gifts each year of a place setting of that pattern. The pattern I chose–Design 2 by Don Wallance–turned out to be singularly interesting in the event: first of all, I immediately found out that the company producing it was being bought by another and as it was produced in Europe and the new company favored an Asian manufacturer the pattern was likely to be discontinued (it wasn’t, as it happened, but the switch to a different mfr. changed some significant details, as well as the heft, of the pattern). Grandma, bless her, went off and bought a complete 12-place set of it and then just doled it out after. I, being forewarned, bought up serving pieces and extra teaspoons. And I have never once regretted my selection. I guess I’m not alone; at some point I discovered that it’s one of the few flatware patterns that was chosen for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art‘s design collection in New

All things considered, it’s practicality that does win my heart most readily in my kitchen utensils as with my other tools. The true affection I have for my flatware is that it sits in the hand so very comfortably, the forks have strong, even tines and slight spoon-like bowls, the knives have no joint in them to collect food or get weak but do have a remarkably good edge, and both men and women seem to appreciate their balance and utility. They are in fact very attractive to my eye, yes, but if they didn’t do the job so well they wouldn’t have remained favorites for so very long (high school was an eon ago). It’s the same way I have come to be so pleased with my choice of kitchen sink when we renovated on moving in here a couple of years ago. I do enjoy it for its handsome looks and the way it neatly complements the granite counters, but more than that I love that its black composite surfaces are so incredibly easy to keep clean, are heat resistant when I stick in a hot pot to fill it with soaking water, and those deep and deeply useful double bowls could even, if some accident should demand it, be sanded back down to perfection. Now, if I could easily apply that sort of abuse and restoration to my body, that would be a welcome technique. But at least in this kitchen I have the tools to feed my body pretty well and–I hope–forestall any such extreme

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 1: Cheap Organizational Tricks

digitally doctored photo

A selection of inexpensive reusable plastic containers serves not only for food storage but for a multitude of small miscellany–kind of like my stomach and my brain, but probably in a far more effective sense.

Since I spent my anniversary hauling everything out of my kitchen cabinets, scrubbing everything down, and reorganizing about 90% of the kitchen’s contents, I shall give myself the pat on the back of showing off a bit. Mainly, in reality, because I was struck yet again on doing this necessary and not entirely unpleasant (thank you, Results) task at how much benefit is got from the process and how little it needs to cost besides effort and a tiny bit of ingenuity. The sort that comes from use and practice, in fact. And because when I rein in my high-end urges I often find it satisfying that my inner (and too often, very well hidden) miser can make a positive difference in my life.

Let me explain.


In the lower cabinets facing the kitchen table, a ‘breakfast center’ of the simplest sort for guests who want morning tea, coffee, toast or cereal (the latter goes on the empty middle shelf when grocery shopping has occurred again!). At the bottom is a bucket of birdseed for our avian guest who might appear at any time on the patio just on the other side of the table, a box of lightbulbs and a seldom-used steamer dish.

The biggest thing about cleanup and re-org is that it satisfies my inherently neatnik soul. Though I crave tidiness generally, I can be as sloppy and untidy and dirty as the next person, especially when, as now, there are projects afoot–and underfoot. We are having some work done on a widely dispersed set of items that take the mess all around our house despite the majority of the individual projects’ being relatively small. A back door adjustment, where last month’s under-slab hot water leak led to re-plumbing the line to bypass the slab by going up and through the attic, which in turn led to the soil under the slab drying out, settling into the void left by the leak, and pinning the nearby exterior door frame shut. Removal of three horribly outdated and worn countertops and sinks and faucets in two bathrooms for replacement–and waiting, sink-less, for the new stuff to arrive. Getting the living room wall put back together after it was disassembled to run that new plumbing line down for reconnection after the leak about fifteen feet away was repaired. And pulling the old kitchen cooktop out to replace it with new.


Another set of lower cabinets houses the large pots and the small appliances. It’s amazing how much putting a few of the latter into a clean, open-topped cardboard shipping box can do to keep the space from getting ridiculously cluttered by ‘floating’ parts and cords.

This latter, necessitated by the persistent crabbiness of the mistress of the kitchen about having a wildly un-level cooker, each burner skewing a different direction so that none could offer an even surface for a pan and finally, only two of the four actually, well, burning. So I was more than willing to forgo having any functional cooktop for the short term, thinking that it was not terribly different from having had a barely semi-functional one for the two years since we moved in here. Tomorrow we expect the stonemason and his crew to be in to install our new bathroom sink counters, and he will re-cut the cooktop opening to fit the slightly deeper configuration of the new appliance.

In the meantime, it was essential to pull out the drawers directly underneath the cooker for removal and replacement access. And there you have your ‘trigger’–the moment when it becomes clear that once a half-dozen dominoes of order have been tipped in the house, the rest will soon follow. As they did. The immediate effect of pulling out the drawers was a reminder that as neat as I can be at times, the world and our actions in it fill up the neatest of spaces with bits of detritus; things shift in moving drawers until they are nestled invisibly in odd corners and buried under other things, and stuff entirely forgotten as soon as it was put away and out of sight may be well past its shelf-life, if not the half-life of radium. In short: time to clean and reorganize thoroughly once again.


Sometimes it’s the littlest things that please me most: having airtight plastic boxes to keep tea sachets together and fresh, and a cheap little plastic basket to keep the boxes proximal and easy to carry to the breakfast table, and a quick scribble on the boxes to remind me what the heck I’ve kept in stock–that makes breakfast time ever so much more relaxed.

Being a visually oriented magpie and loving things to look ‘right’ and living within moderate means can work at decidedly cross purposes from time to time. What I have begun to acknowledge as useful wisdom in my encroaching antiquity is that there are places I can compromise comfortably on having everything look (my definition of) perfect or designer-coordinated or fancy-schmancy or otherwise idealized. One simple rule for me is to remember that what is in a drawer, a cupboard or a closet does not get seen when the drawers and doors are properly closed between uses. If they are neat, clean and practical enough in their order for my purposes when open and in use, they needn’t be expensively or extravagantly stored, only tidily and securely. So although I may cock my glinting magpie eye with a tinge of lust at those magnificent custom closet installations and the exquisitely artful antique containers that fill some people’s pantries and the fantastic item-specific systems adorning someone’s million-dollar shed or garage, I look for a way to repurpose the extant and then ‘shop low’–look at the thrift stores and dollar-an-item bonanzas for bargains before I look elsewhere.


Another tea-basket, this one with the sugars for visitors’ tea *and* coffee, lives by the first and by the one with the instant coffee–that, more for flavoring my cookery than for drinking, since most guests happily prefer using the French press or drip coffeemakers that I keep handy nearby.

Even this is hardly necessary for the quality of life. I know that plenty of people manage to keep their belongings in check by merely tending them carefully enough and placing them wisely enough that they are where they should be, in the required condition and easy to get and use at all times. I, on the other hand, find that grouping things with their fellows helps me immensely in having a sense of order and functionality and to survive the intermittent bombed-out adventures of a project taking over any part of house or life. So I love to find well-suited containers that fit the occasion and the objects and go forth from there with my space-arranging efforts.

To be Continued!

I have Slain the Housework Monster

It’s not your standard condition, that of being born loving to clean and tidy things. Some of us, as we get older, build up our own versions of tolerance and even gradually, a craving for neatness and blissfully shiny-clean stuff that grows strong enough to not only require that we do the work to make it possible but even, sometimes, to teach us to like it a bit. I’ve been fortunate to meander my way into the latter category, but of course the journey wasn’t without its bumps and twists. Because I was born with a natural aversion to Effort. Besides which, I figure if something is not actively imploding, it probably doesn’t need all that much help from me.

digital painting from a photo

If it ain’t broke . . .

No surprise, then, if I looked at the laundry basket with something like loathing, even in my extreme youth when it was my mother who had done all of the labor of collecting, washing and folding all of the dirty clothes and filled the basket with them before I ever laid eyes on it. The mere idea of what it had taken to get from Point A (filthy kid coming in from playing in the woods) to Point B (pretty basket of neatly folded clean clothes) horrified me. The very thought of all of the tedious drudgery it would take to remove the neat and clean things from their current attractive assemblage and put them into the proper drawers and closets exhausted and demoralized me. And seeing Mom poised over the ironing board, sweeping at lengths of unforgiving wrinkled stuff with iron in hand–ohhhhh, don’t get me started! I had to dash for the nearest fainting couch at the slightest whiff of laundry. I will tell you right now that I never recovered fully enough to become friends with an Iron, and have not allowed one in my home or vicinity for lo, these many years since.


The Dreaded Laundry Basket.

But laundry; well, if I don’t exactly go door to door begging my neighbors to let me wash their linens, at least I have learned to simplify and organize my laundry days to the point where there’s a sort of easy rhythm to putting a load of clothes in the washer, going off to prepare a little something and tuck it in the oven, putting the clothes in the dryer and second batch in the wash, going over to organize my desk, taking the food out of the oven, checking the dryer, and so forth–and I don’t find I’m quite so bogged down by the immense weight of one task when it’s sandwiched rather innocuously between several others. By the time I’ve got clean things to fold, I rather like the reverse-zen mindlessness of being very methodical and fussy about putting creases just so and stacking like with like and sorting shirts by color and any other silly pattern that lets me quiet my thoughts or just free them to wander where they will.

digital painting from a photo

Beware the snarl of the hairy, dragonish Duster! Flee before its smoggy breath!

Dusting has always seemed so futile as to be nigh unto ridiculous. If I don’t make a mark in it, it’s practically invisible, right? [I heard that!] More importantly, any dust stirred up–and you know some will stir up even if you use a duster coated with super-glue–is going to settle somewhere as soon as it can. Where? Directly below your duster, where it came from, of course. Don’t tell me that isn’t simple physics telling me I shouldn’t bother to try dusting. My elders, of course, have never had any particular respect for the laws of physics (as witness, trying to convince this square peg she would be happy learning to fit into any number of round or even triangular openings, at least until said Peg got too full of herself to fit any pre-drilled holes). So there was a regular expectation that I ought to better acclimate myself to the concept of dusting and do it anyway. Not only did I, however churlishly, do it then, I now own a duster as a fully independent adult. Only for the direst emergencies, mind you: I can still recognize the menacing beast’s mane at the end of a duster’s handle, thank you very much. Those jokers can kill you with one wheezy breath.


The lineaments of lint, in all of their mountainous glory.

I did finally succumb to the duster-buying pressure when I spent a little time contemplating what emerged from my dryer’s lint trap. Because it seemed to me that if freshly washed clothes gave off that much accumulated dust and hair and assorted dismembered insect components and stuff in one short tumbling exhibition, there might actually be a pretty fair amount just casually drifting around right under my nostrils and landing willy, nilly, hither and yon if it didn’t go straightaway into my lungs. Call me a pessimist. [Yes, I heard that, too! Cheez, people, cut me a little slack. I’m trying to keep a clean house here.]

digital painting from a photo

Vacu-Man is coming! Hide the children! Save yourself if you can!!

The other answer to the dust problem is of course the bigger beast, the one that can eat larger quantities of dirt and disgustingness with wide slurps of its massive maw. There’s no wonder at all that pets and small children scatter in fear before the ‘Transformative’ power of a vacuum. Have you really looked at that scary mechanical menace lately? Every time I open up the closet and see that grimacing Succu-Droid glaring at me I get a little queasy thinking it’s about to drag me all over the house, growling fearsomely the whole time. Talk about being hauled on the carpet! Making me trudge all through the dark corners of every room, yanking my arms out of their sockets and working me up into a grubby sweat in an eyeblink, but seeming to take forever every time. And for what, to pull up enough loose grit so that it uncovers just how worn and stained and discolored the actual carpeting under the dirt is in the first place? That’s just plain mean.


Clearly I *am* capable of getting everything sparkling clean until ‘we’re all in our places, with bright shining faces . . . ‘

I still end up evading the vacuum for longer periods than is strictly optimal, keeping it in an intermediate parking spot outside of the storage closet so that it’s in brighter light and can’t pull its scary-face stunts on me so easily, so I can work my way up to grabbing it by the neck and hanging on for dear life until the rodeo’s over again. After all, I’ve got plenty of other things to do. The outside of the windows I can make less of a big deal because I can just jet-wash them with the garden hose while I water the flowerbeds–in Texas the heat dries them so fast they don’t have time to streak much. But the dishes, I’ve yet to find that hosing them down on the patio has quite the same desirable effect as actually putting them in soapy water in a sink or dishwasher. And we don’t have any pets that will lick them clean for us. So I credit any time spent immersed up to my elbows in bubbles or loading up the ol’ dishwasher as time I don’t have to spend vacuuming. It’s not like we have to eat directly off of the carpeting anyway.


Everything dirty does deserve the occasional bubble bath.

I do like my food to come into and out of a reasonably sanitary place, whenever possible, so I’ve been known to get seriously aggressive from time to time when it comes to kitchen cleaning. Once the food’s prepared, it may be that all bets are off, because hey, I already swept the floor, so how many cooties can already have occupied that little spot where I just now dropped a bite? I’ll take my chances. ‘Thirty second rule’, that’s nothing. I’ll give it a good thirty minutes if I happened to be on my way to another chore and can’t get back to pick up that morsel until the return trip. No wonder I dropped a bite anyway, when my hands were so full of the Good Deeds of good housekeeping! And it all came through a supremely safe and clean kitchen. I’m almost sure of it. I’ve even been known to clean the oven, though of course that’s only likely to happen by virtue of living in a house with a self-cleaning one, so I only had to figure out the arcana of its antiquated workings.


Look, Ma, no grime! (You may need to put your sunglasses on.)

All in all, I like to think we live in a relatively toxin-free, moderately tidy home and that the various arrangements I’ve made to survive the chores more sensibly contribute to a place that, if not up to royal standards, isn’t utterly slouchy either. When you come to visit me you can go ahead and put up your heels on the coffee table, because we’re big on ease and comfort around here, but I won’t let you stick them on the dining table. If your pants get direly dirty with our dusty red Texas clay, I’ll happily wash, dry and fold them for you, but ain’t no bucking rodeo bull gonna get me to iron them for you. You can fold them under your mattress for the night or even go find an iron and press ’em yourself, but there are some demons of the homemaking variety I’m just not willing to battle any more. I’ve seen enough of that combat in my time.


Weed or Wildflower? Does it matter? Everything here looks perfectly in order to me!

It’s why I have my relaxed attitude toward weeds on the property, too. If they’ll stand up and look pretty and behave sweetly toward me, I’m certainly not inclined to cut them down just because they showed up uninvited. Why, it’s what I’d do for any good guest.

Don’t Blame Monday

It’s true, I’m among the horde of cruel people who put the onus for all our Monday growling and grumpiness and grunge on the day itself. Many of us see Monday as the End of All Things Fun, coming as it does on the heels of any sort of weekend respite or recreation we might have enjoyed. I’ve long had that nasty habit of looking in the mirror on a Monday and seeing monstrous presence there, only thinly veiled by the black cloud of my ill-humor.P&II think perhaps it’s time to take a little responsibility for the ogrish attitudes myself and reclaim Monday as the Beginning of something fresh and new–by making it that, if need be, by force. The end of one thing is almost inevitably the beginning of another, and if the follower isn’t to my liking, then who’s to change that but me? Isn’t it just possible that in the open spaces between my crotchety complaints and snarky remarks, there could be room for the tiny wedge of reinvention to be driven in for a start? I think I should see what I can accomplish in this. No need to keep glowering at a meanie in the mirror morosely.P&IOne of the first things, I suppose, is to make sure that my Mondays hold something that I look forward to eagerly, something to start my week with a measure of pleasure. So I am taking that step in a small way already: Monday is my day for planning and for clearing the decks. As an inveterate list-maker and lister-of-lists, it’s my day to ‘walk the fences’–and since my Spread (no, dears, my Texas ranch, not my posterior measurements) consists of a house on a typical city-sized lot, it’s not too hard to accomplish that part, at least in temporal terms. But I must do so with eyes wide open for details that need attention so that I know of all the things that require mending, tending or improving. Those light switches that are going to be replaced. (The replacements have already been bought–check!–so it remains only to install them: Note!) The wood handles on the washtub need a preservative oiling. The seed starters are lined up as kits in the garage work area but need to be assembled now. And with the Must Do list is the ever-mutant list of how-abouts: would the window coverings in the reading/TV room be better insulation and easier to open and close if I redo them? Can I put a more comfortable seating angle on that chair by shimming the front legs? Do I have all of the supplies from my shopping list for finishing that little art project? Is the grocery list for Tuesday complete?

There is a surprising amount of satisfaction in not just being able to cross little things off those perpetual lists as Finished but being able, as well, to refine the remaining items so that they are more clear and purposeful and prioritized, and give shape to the rest of a busy week for me. It’s just the way I operate. It also makes me feel a little freer and lighter about what pleasurable things I can do while accomplishing my list-work, how I can distribute things in the short and long term, and when I can break up the flow of Projects with Fun–this latter being an essential thing and not, then, needing to feel like a disruption of the flow but rather a welcome island in the stream. Me, I like a wildly numerous and exotic archipelago of what others might admittedly think purposeless delights in my life’s flow.

So I am on a campaign of making Mondays a favorite day for me by turning my old attitude on its ear. I always had a fondness for forcing a change in point of view by whatever literalistic or foolish means necessary, after all: if I can’t see my artwork with enough objectivity to make intelligent editorial decisions about it, I need to shift how I look at it in order to adjust how I see it. Stand on my head. Come into a dark room and turn on the light on it suddenly. Imagine I’m a six- or ninety-six-year-old looking at it and how I’d describe it.

In the case of Mondays, I’m guessing many a 96-year-old with healthy feelings toward life would simply be delighted at being alive for another one. And six is an age when everything is still new every day, and electric with possibility. Why shouldn’t I adopt both of those attitudes?

P&IFor now, I intend to arrange at least one additional Fun Thing to be included in my Mondays on a regular basis, but perhaps a different kind of fun each time, so that I can’t get jaded and lackadaisical about it. Certainly it should have elements of silliness included, because that’s something that never does grow old with me, and perhaps is part of the reason I expect I shan’t grow old myself any too soon. Looking out my window, I see that the bare-branched trees of winter are suddenly covered with black lace, that the intermittent wind gusts have kicked up a ballet of curlicued oak leaves in the corner of the patio, and that the cardinals stopping by for a nibble of grain have somehow taken on a much deeper and brighter hue of red. Is it a change of seasons coming on? Perhaps it’s just that I’m letting the seasons change within me.