A Whimsical Year

A few years ago, my family adopted the tradition of no “new” gifts at Christmas. You could make something, provide a service, regift, or even buy something used, but buying new was forbidden. It has been a lovely tradition, and has migrated far beyond my family Christmas.

The best idea I have come up with so far is the Whimsy Box.

This grew out of an original idea of coupons to be redeemed over the year (e.g., homemade meal of choice, dinner at favorite restaurant, a day getting lost in Fort Snelling State Park). I originally thought big—a special meal out, a special meal in, a full day at the park), maybe 10-12 a year. A lot of them were fun, but we didn’t do them all. Mood, life, timing. Sigh.

This year, as Christmas rolled around, I didn’t want to do coupons. I wanted to do something a bit more fun, with a spark of spontaneity. Hence, the Whimsy Box.

Partly the idea stemmed from the box: a fine tie box (a Native Northwest design that we got in Victoria, British Columbia; it has hinges)—a box I had thought to use as a box for a gift (thinking the box half the gift), but I changed my mind (thinking 95% chance recipient will throw said box in trash).

Not a box I was ready to part with. Beautiful box. A box for ideas. A box of the imagination. A box for suggestions. Suggestions!

Hence the Whimsy Box: I took this tie box, and filled it with whimsical ideas—things I think we will both find fun, often at the drop of a hat. More than 10. A lot more than 10. More like 50. Some examples:

  • Happy Hour at Dixie’s (great catfish basket)como-tropical
  • Take a walk by the river
  • Spend a winter afternoon at the Como Conservatory
  • Go to the downtown library (Minneapolis)
  • Spend a day at a state park
  • Walk to the mailbox
  • Learn a yoga pose
  • Visit our friend in Hastings
  • Go for a walk in the snow at night
  • Take the bus to Uptown and go to the bookstores
  • Go to Minnehaha Falls

And, since Hal has taken an interest in learning to cook a bit (ever since reading Real Food, by Nina Plank), I included several kitchen basics: learn how to fry an egg, learn how to make French toast, learn how to make pea soup, for example. And also, I thought it might be fun for us to learn how to make something together (even in our small awkward kitchen) and so I threw that idea in the box as well. We have talked about possibly doing a frittata.

This is a super easy and very personal gift you can tailor to individual preferences, whether it be to spend more time together, explore new places, spend less time together (not as crazy as it sounds—example: “I will leave the house for an afternoon and you can have the entire house to yourself.”), get more exercise, try new restaurants, get more culture, etc.

We have already had a lot of fun with it (a walk to leave books at a Little Free Library, learning to make French toast), and this weekend, I think we may make the frittata.

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May Reprise

May was mostly about establishing new patterns and routines with both of us home on a full-time basis. It is hard! I am a major lover of solitude and silence and will be forever grateful for these last two years. I found having full days to myself led to a desire to write. Ideas bubbled up based on books, conversations, current events; I would develop a framework in my mind.

The ideas aren’t bubbling up so much anymore, much less the framework to hang them on. I thought about taking the summer off from the blog, or even stopping. But I don’t want to quit writing (and I did keep up with the daily haiku project) and I think I’ve come up with a nice bridge/solution. That’s my next blog post.

Back to May: I read 12 books in May, and for the first time in a while, poetry ruled (5), followed by fiction (4) and nonfiction (3). My hands-down favorite book of the month (2 stars) was Farmacology, by Daphne Miller. This feels like an important, ground-breaking book, kind of along the lines of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. I’m not sure why it has fallen pretty much under the radar. If you are interested in health issues and/or our ‘write a prescription to take care of a problem’ medical culture, you should definitely take a look at this book.

The May reading theme was one-word titles. Super fun. Here are my titles:

  • Georgia
  • Farmacology
  • Pinhook
  • Exterior
  • Fidelity
  • Nurture
  • Fortune
  • Gravity
  • Nimona
  • unflux
  • Pure

Doesn’t it make you want to go to your bookshelves right now and look for one-word titles? I thought so.

I did not do as much birding in May as I should have or wanted to. Lots of rain, and then busy on the days good for birding. Ah well. Still, I added 23 birds to my year list, with highlights of Northern Harrier, House Wren (backyard), Sandhill Cranes (about 30 of them!), Common Loon, Hermit Thrush, Indigo Bunting, and Gray Catbird (also in the backyard, and nesting nearby—very loud!).

In the kitchen I made apple-rhubarb sauce (very good, includes a lot of cinnamon), ham steak (also good though a little dry), scalloped potatoes (first try, not so good), and braised turkey legs (excellent).

We got rid of 6 more bags of books. I can actually see most of the floor in the blue room. Progress.

Haiku for May:

rampant raspberries
want to march across the yard
cheers for the home team!
early morning dark
before getting out of bed
I smell the lilacs
the saucy catbird
ever bold and curious
poses for Kathleen
last night I dreamt that
god is a small blue corner
dusky seaside blue

On to June. In the meantime, good books, good birds, and lots of laughter.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

January Reprise

How did it get to be February already? January sped by, possibly because I spent much of it with my nose in a book. The January reading theme was day/month/year (any book with one of those words in the title, or if you want to get a little stretchy, akin to one of the words; I read a couple of morning books, for example, and almost read a book with September in the title, but ran out of time). I finished 16 books in January, almost equally divided between fiction (5), poetry (5), and nonfiction (6).

In a rare occurrence, I had three 2-star books in January. (My rating system: Most books don’t get anything; if I like a book a lot it gets 1 star; if I love it, it gets 2 stars; and if I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, it gets 3 stars.) A Sense of the Morning, by David Brendan Hopes was a wonderful book about the natural world, and more specifically, Hopes’s observations of and interactions within the natural world. Beautiful writing, and a good reminder that if we don’t look, we won’t see anything.

Another nature-related book that got two stars was The Years of the Forest, by Helen Hoover. For many years Hoover and her spouse lived year round in a cabin in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. No electricity, no running water, and for a good part of the book, no car or telephone. They, too, were finely attuned to nature, most especially the animals (deer, birds, groundhogs, mice, spiders, pretty much the entire animal kingdom as they encountered it).

The third 2-star book was A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr. A short novel, the story of a man recently back from serving in World War 1 and his time in a small village restoring a mural in a church. I know, it really doesn’t sound that interesting, but it took me quite by surprise. It is very quietly powerful, and I appreciated it even more after discussing it with a friend.

January also brought some mighty cold weather (a few days where the temp didn’t go above zero) but a lot more mild days and very little snow. So far, for a winter, I am finding it a bit disappointing (I do like a good snowstorm) but there’s still plenty of time for snow.

In the cooking world, I braised a pork shoulder in apple cider and fresh-squeezed orange juice (also with celery, onion, garlic, and orange slices) and it was wonderful—my best success with braising yet. I also made a kind of cheesy wild rice casserole which turned out pretty good, and was even better reheated and topped with beans (a type I had never heard of before, called Jacob’s Cattle; who could resist getting a bean called Jacob’s Cattle? Not me!) and more cheese.

Also some typical winter fodder: chili, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, vegetable soup with lentils, spaghetti, etc.

I also started my new annual bird list, and so far I’ve seen 22 different kinds of birds (12 in my backyard) including one lifebird—the ivory gull up in the Duluth harbor.

I have continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, which gets mailed on a postcard to a friend in Montana)—it’s been more than two years now! I think I’ve only missed a day or two, and those at the beginning. It’s a very good way of staying grounded and it also makes me aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Here are a couple from January:

afternoon bookclub
Bully Pulpit and a beer
the magic of Skype

my car didn’t start
but four cardinals visited
balancing the scales

And I’ve started a new postcard project: I am sending both of my U.S. senators (Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar) daily postcards, urging them to vote against the Dark Act (which would make it illegal for states to require labeling of GMO foods). I am hugely against this dark act. Poll after poll has found that upwards of 90 percent of the population supports the labeling of GMO foods. To pass an act that would deny people the right to know what’s in their food, when there is such overwhelming support for labeling, is a stupifying example of the power corporations have in our government. On this both Republicans and Democrats agree—that GMOs should be labeled and that corporations have far too much power in Washington.

So, a postcard a day—each with a new fact that my good senators might not be aware of; on an entertaining postcard (I have quite a large variety now) that postal workers and clerks can read as well. I hope they vote on the Dark Act before I run out of facts (but not before I convince them to question it!). It’s an uphill fight in this neck of the woods because we have both Cargill and General Mills (not to mention Land O’Lakes and Hormel).

This may not be your issue, but whatever your issue is, let your representatives know! Corporations are very vocal about what they want, and have millions of dollars to spend getting it. Most of us don’t have millions of dollars, but we do have phones and pens. Pick one issue. Just one.

Okay, off my soapbox. Time to sign off and go read a book.

October Reprise

October was about reading, presidential debates, repairing, and replacing. It was also a much more social month than is usual for me. But first, the books.

I read a lot in October—24 books. Half were fiction (and three of those were graphic novels, two of which were Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I read 5 poetry books which was nice after last month’s drought, and 7 works of nonfiction. The reading theme for October was scary/Halloween. Some sample titles:

  • Ghostwritten (David Mitchell)
  • Boo (Neil Smith)
  • Goest (Cole Swensen)
  • Night With Its Owl (Anne Love Woodhull)
  • Talking to the Dead (Helen Dunmore)
  • A Man Lay Dead (Ngaio Marsh)
  • The Boggart and the Monster (Susan Cooper)
  • Ghosts in the Garden (Beth Kephart)
  • Ghost World (Daniel Clowes)
  • Murderer’s Day (E.M. Schorb)

FC9781844673315The best book I read last month was The Food Wars, by Walden Bello. I learned so much about agriculture and world trade (scary things, depressing things and yes, some hopeful things)—too much to get into here. That will have to be a separate post. My other favorite book of the month was fiction, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. I read this in one day. If you have a friend who loves books (I’m not just talking loves to read, but loves the books 9781616204518in and of themselves), hie thee to the nearest independent bookstore and purchase The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for the next gift opportunity (a sunny day will do).

Also in bookworld, we attended the Twin Cities Book Festival at the state fairgrounds. This is always a fun event with lots of authors and speakers and books for sale. I got 6 poetry books for $3 (total, not apiece), which was amazing.

As for the repairs and replacements, we have a new computer (which I’m slowly getting used to) but still a less than perfect (am I becoming too impatient?) internet connection. Also, the dryer vent fell away from the wall/vent hole and I could no longer fix it with duct tape, so that was replaced. And then the sewer backed up (doing laundry, always more pleasant than other indicators) so we called Ron the Sewer Rat and that problem was resolved. Whew.

And such a social month. One of the highlights was my mom’s 95th birthday. We went out for a birthday lunch to her place of choice, thinking it would just be a few of us, and imagine how fun when all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren showed up. They found a table big enough for all of us and Mom just glowed.

Also in the social world were the presidential debates. We prevailed upon our TV-owning friend Kathleen, who kindly invited us over for the first Democratic and the second Republican debate. Go Bernie!

Plus visiting the apple orchards with my friend in Hastings, making more dishwasher soap with my neighbor (love it—cheap and works well!), a reception and lecture at the University of Minnesota, happy hour with some former coworkers, and sundry lunches and other engagements conspired to fill so many days, I see a couple notations of “blessed day alone” in my journal.

I also turned up the stove in October and did more cooking. Nice to be back in cooler weather where I actually want to turn on the oven. Mostly the basics: beef stew, Cuban beans, applesauce, chicken adobo, spaghetti. I want to make a soufflé. Maybe in November.

October is a lovely month in Minnesota. We had our first hard freeze so I picked all the tomatoes and took in some herbs for hopeful overwintering. Then it warmed up again, and I took advantage to immerse myself in reading on the front porch while I can. They are rare days now and to be savored.

September Reprise

September was mostly about not having a working computer (also part of August and much of October). Not having a computer makes a lot of things different. Sure, I could check email and get the internet on my phone. But I mostly use email for lengthy correspondence, and small screens don’t work so well for that. I found myself sending more things through the mail.

I missed my morning email update from the Washington Post; I missed reading news in general (again, not as fun on the small screen). I started reading the newspaper in the morning. I find it a fine start to the day and even just paging through the paper for 15 minutes I realize I am gleaning a lot more than I do when I catch the news online. All those inside stories.

I missed blogging but I didn’t miss blogging. I got a lot done around the house. I slept better.

We have a new computer now, and I’m starting to learn at least some of the new gadgets that have been added in the many years since my last computer purchase. It’s a mix of annoying and fun. Annoying if I’m in a hurry or it crashes (still some glitches to work out) and fun when I have the “aha!” of “Oh That’s how that works!” Whether I’ll be able to figure out pictures for this post remains to be seen.

We also took our first vacation in several years in September, to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Highlights: Northshire Books, a new independent bookstore in downtown Saratoga Springs (it earned several visits); a drive through the beautiful Catskill Mountains; a few hours wandering around a relatively deserted state park, where we lost ourselves in a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies; and a most wonderful dinner with the in-laws (sister and husband) which was a perfect blend of banter and laughter and serious talk, and everyone had a second drink. I bet we sat there for three hours. It is very rare for me not to want social engagements to end, but this one I would have liked to extend for an hour or two.

As for the rest of life in September, I read fewer books than average (only 9), but it was a bit unusual in a majority (5) were nonfiction and none were poetry. The huge standout of the month was Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. Who hasn’t had this experience? The experience Solnit relates was particularly egregious (but oh so funny): She was a guest at a party in Aspen, and the host said he heard she was a writer and asked what she had written. Solnit mentioned her most recent book at the time, River of Shadows: Edward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. He cut her off and asked if she had heard about the Very Important Muybridge book that had come out recently. He then proceeded to tell her about her own book. When he finally realized she had written the book he was lecturing her about, he at least had the grace to turn ashen. Punch line: He hadn’t even read the book; he had merely read a review of the book! Men Explain Things to Me is a slim volume, easily read in a day. I recommend it to everybody.

Much of the rest of September was about being outdoors. Harvesting, pruning, weeding, and just hanging out. We also finished the seventh (and final) season of West Wing, which I found to be a most excellent television series that I missed when it was airing. Perhaps not as good as Star Trek or Buffy or Xena, but still probably in the top five.

Oh. In the kitchen I made crabapple sauce and it was a total disaster. So much work with those tiny apples, for just a little amount of sauce, that was way too sour and crunchy. I also made my first batch of applesauce from the apple orchard season, even though it was a bit early in September. I now have Honeycrisp and Haralson apples, which will make the most excellent applesauce of substance.

Finally, we celebrated the equinox. The balance of light and dark, the start of autumn. The trees are beautiful here. The maples are flaming. The trees turn early in the Mississippi River valley, so I am happy to experience a really long autumn.

More soon I hope!

The Zen of Cooking

A couple of decades ago, probably around January or February, I found a drawer full of apples that I had forgotten, needing to be used quickly. It was mid-afternoon Sunday; back to the work grind on Monday. I was already stressed about work the next day, and now had to deal with these apples.

I hadn’t baked in years. No mind. I jumped right in and made—apple turnovers? Apple dumplings? I don’t remember exactly, but it was something requiring a crust of sorts, and it was small putzy work, and they turned out looking horrible but they tasted just fine. I had diced more apples than I needed for the tiny turnovers, so I made something else (I can’t recall what this was either, although I think it, too, was something I had never made before). It turned out okay, as I recall.

What I recall most poignantly about the whole thing is how I felt afterwards. Absolutely zero stress about work the next day. Also kind of on top of the world. Perhaps the kitchen equivalent of the runner’s high. I went to bed after midnight, but had one of the best night’s sleep I’d had in months. I made it a bit of a ritual, baking on Sunday evening. In baking, attention to detail matters—the exact measurement—leveling off the teaspoon; fluffing the flour before meting it out; firmly packing the brown sugar. Focus. Blocking out everything else, totally in the moment.

I got pretty good at baking.

I always thought that it was the attention to detail in baking that made it so meditative and relaxing. I also knew that cooking wasn’t like that. Cooking is more creative, more intuitive, less by the book. I did not think there was a zen of cooking. I only thought there was an anxiety of cooking. And certainly intuition wasn’t my strong suit.

However, I did want to start eating healthier, and healthy eating mostly starts with eating at home. Also, being as I was no longer working, I wanted to cut down on food costs and eating at home is one of the best ways to do that, too. And plus, really—I just wanted to learn how to cook. I used to love to cook when I was in high school. I even threw dinner parties for my friends! (Just lasagna, but still.) But then I was in a long-term relationship with someone who derided my cooking, and I gradually just stopped cooking pretty much altogether.

But life moves on, and with more time on my hands and a renewed interest in cooking, I decided to develop a relationship with my kitchen (a small and awkwardly shaped kitchen that I am finding very useful in terms of minimal steps from counter to refrigerator to stove—basically, just pivot). And joy of joys, I have discovered the zen in cooking. Much like baking, it requires attention. Chop chop chop chop chop. So methodical, so meditative. But it also involves a knife and you must pay attention.

And even without one iota of intuition, I can learn. Much of the joy of cooking is in the doing; even failures are fun. This is the one area of my life where I embrace failure because I learn so much from it. And I’m also learning that most disasters can be salvaged in some way.

But what I enjoy most is the varied nature of the attention required. It’s in the stirring and the watching, the checking and the tasting. It’s in the herbs: harvesting, grinding, measuring, mixing. And always the tasting. Sometimes constant attention is required; more often I can read on the porch with occasional checking in.

So I have indeed found my zen of cooking. And surprising me to the max, I am finding that I like cooking at least as much as baking. No more cooking anxiety. Failures? Sure. But who cares? Exult in your failure, learn and move on.

Possibly this approach would work in areas beyond cooking.