Sunday, April 10, 2022

(Dis)lodging in Arizona

Sometimes, the only thing left is strong, sharp yank in another direction. Upend the norm, find the opposite, find thoughts so different from your own that it glues your feet to the ground while your brain tries to grow those first, shaky, tendrils of neurons around something....else. Not you, but you in a different place. 

That was Arizona in March. 

The trip started as something else entirely. It was a Christmas present to my Chicago Cubs fan husband; we planned to fly out for a fast weekend at a spring training game-- eat a few hot dogs, drink a few beers, sunburn our pasty Midwestern flesh, and run back home to routine and some more winter. 

Major League Baseball had other plans. The players strike canceled the game. But instead of scrapping the trip altogether, we ended up stretching it out on either end, packing hiking shoes, renting a car, and heading out in multiple directions from our hotel room in Mesa. 

When you spend much of your childhood and adult life in the Midwest, it's difficult to comprehend land that has value apart from the economy of agriculture. Row upon row upon row of corn and soybeans tends to brainwash your mind into thinking that if land can't grow anything you can sell, it isn't worth much. "You can't eat the view," an old farmer once told me, about wasting land on flowers and trees. 

It's a little breathtaking, then, to have your fields of monoculture, your soil-factory sameness, stripped away just by taking a few hours and a plane ride into the desert, a place so different from the plains that it might as well be another planet-- agave and prickly pear instead of corn and soy, saguaro and cholla instead of trees. 

I had needed that planetary travel sensation, that strong sharp yank away from everything I knew at home, knew with a tiresome and fretful familiarity lately. Too much time handcuffed to a laptop for a job that is taking too much out of me. Too much time in my corner of the sofa. Too much time walking from bedroom to kitchen to mailbox to kitchen again, looking at my own walls and floors. I needed something to interrupt the sameness of the days. 

In Arizona the sky is sharp, and clear, and the sun will have its way with you. The first couple of days Tom and I both drank water to the point it seemed to take up all our time, even though the weather itself was not warm. We acclimated. We had drinks (not just the water kind) on warm patios. We didn't miss the baseball all that much.

I re-learned important stuff. I remembered that talking with my husband is one of my favorite things to do. I remembered that I get carsick and panicky on mountain highways. We discovered the passport stamp book for the U.S. National Park System, and I was in eight-year-old sticker book heaven, filling it up with all our visits to the state's parks and monuments. 

I learned what a fresh flour tortilla tastes like, made by a woman who quietly rolled and cooked them, one at a time, outside the Mission at Tumac├ícori National Historical Park. I had never had one that had not come out of a plastic bag at a grocery store. 

I learned that history has weight. At Casa Grande National Monument, there are the remains of a house made by Sonoran people in the 1200s, mysteriously constructed with openings to align with the solstice and the equinoxes. These people populated the Gila River Valley for milennia, and then abandoned their villages and farms for reasons archeologists do not know. There was heavy energy there, made up of grief, and a kind of long waiting. A raven circled high up above the whole. I learned later that O'Odham and Hopi tribes consider the builders of Casa Grande ancestors, and the site sacred. I believe them. 

Things I have been doing:

Reconsidering what work setting is meaningful, healthy, and productive while reading this New York Times article

Buying gladiolus bulbs, the much maligned "grandma flower" of the past. I love them BECAUSE they are a "grandma flower," and remind me of my own, who grew them in her garden. They're in bins near the front door of every hardware store everywhere right now, and each new variety has me buying just a few more. 

Reading The Victory Garden Cookbook, an out of print collection of recipes based on the PBS television show. It's out of print, and I recently scored a replacement copy of one that got lost. It's a combination how-to-grow, how-to-cook book of vegetables, and it's been a real nostalgia trip for me to read and re-discover. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Crafting a Craft Room Out of a Basement Corner


In the past couple of years I've blogged more about thoughts and issues than home improvement, and part of that was intentional. I decided I was not really a home improvement or decor blogger, for a bunch of reasons. Mostly because I can't tap into fads, nor do I want to (white shiplap? So stupid, and banal. There I said it.) Mostly because as a normal, average person, I can't sustain "doing stuff" to the level that is necessary to have regular and worthwhile content for a strictly home improvement blog. I moved away from home improvement blogging because I had other things to say about my home and my life, things that didn't include paint chips and power tools.

That said, we have actually been "doing stuff" this past year, and I'm back around to the idea that maybe I could post more about that "stuff." Why? If I put out my normal, average person content, it's a voice that is different than those glossy fifty-shades of beige magazines, blogs, and TV shows. It's definitely real life, real budgets. I mean, does that picture up above get any more real life? 

My house was built in 1939 on a cinder block basement foundation. It does not have support posts. Instead it has interior cinder block walls that not only serve that support function, they carve the whole basement into six smaller rooms. We have a laundry room, a shop room, a furnace/utilities room, an area that we use as a second family room, an area we pile up crap in (let's be honest here), and a room

that used to be used as a darkroom by a previous owner. Which we also used to pile up crap in (more painful honesty).

I've blogged about that darkroom space before, here. At that time I schemed to get an additional bathroom in there, but have since realized that plan would involve jackhammering up the basement floor to add adequate sewer, plus other expensive work I am not in the mood to do, especially when our main, everyday-use bathrooms need money invested in them too. 

Instead, we decided that I, as a somewhat crafty person who also sews now and then, needed a craft/sewing room. Now if I get out a sewing project, it ends up being set up in the dining room. Inevitably I get pulled away to other responsibilities, then something comes up where I need the dining room for its intended purpose, or we have company over, and I have to clean up the project. It's a situation that is not great for getting said projects done, or managing clutter, or marital bliss, or for the creative process. 

The darkroom space was not an inspiring one; in fact, it was sort of murder-basementy-- windowless, dark, spidery, damp, dirty, rust stains on the floor, and with a sink that looked like it had been used to clean up after unspeakable crimes. At the basic level, we wanted the room to be clean, well-lit, and functional for crafting and sewing. It would be a bonus if we could rescue the sink, which was super vintage cool under all the grime. Here's another shot of it below in June, after we'd emptied our crap out of it, and before we started stripping out the random things left from the darkroom configuration. 

After emptying, we cleaned. That included a first run on cleaning the sink, to see if it was even salvageable. We were worried that darkroom chemicals had been dumped down this drain so much, that the enamel had been eaten away beyond the point of rescue. But the first attempt was promising, so we decided it was worth refitting. 

We also decided that we wouldn't be finishing this room with drywall and flooring; we didn't want to spend huge amounts of our home improvement dollars here, and we didn't want to make a small room even smaller by studding out the walls and building framed boxes around the exposed utilites. 

Instead, we spent the bulk of our time and money on lots of lighting, and lots of white paint to bounce that light around, to compensate for the lack of a window. That involved installing new lighting where none existed before, lots of wall prep, and gallons of masonry waterproofing (we used Drylok, linked here. This is not a sponsored post or a product endorsement). We used Sherwin Williams Emerald Designer Edition paint (again, not a sponsored post) in a flat warm white that would make wall imperfections (and it being a basement cinder wall, there were a ton of those) recede, and reduce glare from all the lighting. We also painted utility pipes and ducting so that they would disappear visually as much as possible. 

The sink got removed, then repositioned back where it started, but on a new sink base that Tom designed, built, painted, and slightly distressed. I removed another several layers of paint, grime, and staining from the sink enamel, using multiple products and more patience than I thought I had. 

The next project in this room rehab was the floor. I cleaned the rust stains up as much as I could, waterproofed, primed, and painted. I used floor paint in a taupe color that I hope will hide dirt, but will also be easily scrubbable. 

All of that work happened more or less during June, July and August. More recently, Tom has been working on the ceiling, so that less light escapes into the dark recesses of the unfinished floor joists. We're using a painted wood tongue-and-groove style product that's easier in some ways to jigsaw puzzle around all the odd surfaces and pipes, but also has to go up a strip at a time. We're not sure if this part has been easier than drywall, but at least it goes up finished; we won't have to tape, plaster, and paint like we would with drywall. We're not done yet with this part, but we're close. 

Remaining on our to-do list is installing a door, and cleaning up our construction debris and tools. 

For a person that dislikes all-white anything in decor, this room sure has a lot of it. But it was necessary to banish the darkness. I'm appreciating the somewhat industrial/utilitarian vibe we've created, but I'll also be bringing in furnishings, a rug, and some art that have lots of color to offset it, and I'm excited to get to that point. I want a warm, bright, interesting place to sew and craft, and I think we've built the perfect backdrop for it. I'm ready to move in! 

Things I have been doing: 

Reading this article from the Atlantic, about work/life balance. 

Making this butterscotch pudding, from Smitten Kitchen. Oh my goodness, perfect comfort food and several steps above the boxed powdered stuff. 

Planning my garden. My two current favorites for ordering plants for spring are Bluestone Perennials and Select Seeds.  

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Accidental Pumpkins

Life can be improbable at times. 

Our family has had a lot going this fall, from a couple of medical scares (we are fine, thankfully) to a prolonged bout with COVID, pneumonia, and some other viral crud (also, we are fine, but geez). Piled on top of the last year and a half, after the last five years, where we've collectively seen so many things that we never thought we'd see-- politically, culturally, environmentally-- you name it, October and November have seemed like a lot for me. Unfair, even. Nothing seemed especially easy. 

I'd originally started this post some time ago, when I took these pumpking photos that appear in it, but I had to walk away from it, and I'm in such a completely different place from when I snapped these images, I had to backspace-delete entire paragraphs, until the page was blank again. Except for the pictures. I'm keeping those. I persist in feeling there's a metaphor for the pumpkins (like I found for the zucchini in my previous post) that I'm not quite seeing yet and maybe I'll find it if I keep writing. Then again, maybe not, but it's a damn fine story, so I'm determined to tell it, even if I can't hook it into a broader meaning. Maybe that itself is the point. Maybe it's just the story. 

We have an asparagus patch that I would describe as beginner's grade. Asparagus is one of the rare vegetables that are perennial in our northern midwestern geography, and because it needs a permanent place and lots more sun that our backyard provides, we plunked our first crowns in the dirt in our front yard foundation beds. Then for two years, rabbits sawed what little plant growth we achieved completely down to the ground. It led to a lot of cursing before we finally admitted defeat and threw up a wire fence. This year we got a few handfuls of asparagus. It was divine and worth persevering through the bunnies to have. Then, as asparagus does, they grew out their tall feathery tops, and spring moved on to summer, and we also moved on, to carrots and cauliflower and other veg. 

While I was busy ignoring the asparagus patch, we realized that a long delayed project, replacing the aging main water line from the house to the municipal water supply, was now imperative. While we were at it, a chipped and cracked and uneven front sidewalk might as well be replaced. The first thing necessitated trenching up a big chunk of our front yard, and the second thing required uprooting the hardscaping around our our front perennial border. The new water main was done in May, and we waited until the very last minute before cold weather for the new sidewalk. While I'm glad they're both finally done, my front yard has never been such a mess. It was hard to regain my enthusiasm for imposing order while waiting to finish up the infrastructure projects. I mentally and literally walked away. 

Somewhere during the midsummer months of trying to ignore the unholy mess our front yard had become, I discovered a volunteer vine growing in our asparagus patch. I was able to identify it as a member of the curcubita genus-- the plants that give us summer squash, pumpkins, and gourds-- but since I didn't plant it, it was impossible to know what exactly. Probably spread by birds or animals. I usually weed these things out. This time, I shrugged. I don't even know why. Maybe because I'd already written off the front yard for the year. Maybe because I didn't want to climb into asparagus fence to reach it. Maybe because I wanted to to see what it might be. 

The vine grew, and grew, and grew, and started sprawling out into the yard, weaving itself into the uncut grass we were trying to nurture over the trenching scars in the lawn. While it looked robustly healthy, it didn't seem inclined to bloom, and what few buds I found on it seemed to shrivel before opening. Sometimes the offspring of hybrid vegetables are sterile, I reasoned, and this must be the case here. I still shrugged at pulling it out, though. I wasn't exactly embracing the chaos that was our front yard this summer, but I wasn't fighting back, either. I was exceedingly neutral about that vine. 

Then Tom came in from yard work one day and said "Did you know we have pumpkins?" 


The vine that hadn't managed a single blossom all summer (I thought), now had pumpkins growing. And not just small ones. 

Accidental pumpkins. It's the horticultural equivalent of not knowing you're pregnant. 

Perhaps I'd been in training for this all summer, with the zucchini I kept missing until they were gigantic. It's been that kind of year. The thing I love most, my garden, had to run on a certain amount of benign neglect. 

I'm always surprised when neglect (benign or otherwise) gives you good surprises, like these fat orange (and green)
pumpkins. It always feels like luck. Or perhaps serendipity is the better word. Either way, these were the best accident I've had in a long time. 

I am a person who leans hard into fall festivities, and only reluctantly gives them up for Christmas decorations. Accidental pumpkins are just perfect for this, and here, on Thanksgiving Day, they're still hanginout out on the front porch. They'll probably continue to hang out there until next weekend, because I don't usually start getting my Christmas on until early December, or even later. 

Maybe I'll bring the fully ripe ones in and decide if I can stew them. Maybe I won't and they'll just hit the compost heap. 

Today, we're having Thanksgiving dinner for only the nuclear family, since one family member is just now emerged from COVID isolation and the rest of us are starting to feel better from all our various sneezes, coughs, and ailments. It's a pretty simple meal with just the classic Thanksgiving basics-- turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, dressing, a vegetable, and pie. It seems like a real effort, given that we're still a bit tired from being sick. It's nice, though, to sit down at the sturdy table that serves up our meals every day, and eat something that isn't dry toast and tea. It's nice that we are trending back toward healthy. It's nice we have nowhere to go for a long five-day weekend. It's nice that even in the midst of all our recent chaos, the universe still saw fit to send us pumpkins, when we didn't even ask for them. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

My Life In the Season of Big Zucchini

It's been a big zucchini summer here at this household. Not big as in numerous zucchini, big as in BIG zucchini. The big fat green zeppelins that happen when you don't pick your vegetable patch on the regular, so that all the squash get seedy, tough, and outrageously over-sized. 

I like summer squash. I like the advantage of growing it in your own garden, so you can pick them when they are small, young, and tender. Sauteed in butter and herbs, they are a fast, easy, tasty side dish to all the grilling going on during the season. I like them on the grill too, and as a substitute for noodles in lasagna. 

But these giant squash? Yech. Don't tell me to shred and put them in cake or sweet bread, because zucchini is a savory food only for this girl. Desserts with green vegetables in them? No, thank you. Yes, I have tried them, and I think y'all have gone straight crazy. 

Up until this summer, I've considered it a sign of failure, a sign of even (Lutherans all gasp in judgement) laziness, that I keep missing, and then picking, these big green brutes instead of the tender little lovelies that we prefer to eat. I dutifully go out into the yard with my wire basket, peek under the giant umbrella leaves, and -- "Dang it. Again?!"

At the beginning of the summer I took all of this zucchini-picking failure quite seriously. If I'm going to go to the trouble and expense of gardening, I want to do it well. There is a small window (just shy of three months) where I can supply most of my family's fresh produce needs; I want to optimize that. Coming from a family that has experienced poverty, I hate wasting food. Large zucchini seemed to represent a lot of things to me: poor resource management, inattention, waste, and even ingratitude to the processes of Nature which provide for us. 

But zucchini is a distinct season of the summer. We watch it come along in expectation in early May, when the earth finally warms up enough in Iowa to germinate squash seeds, and in June, while the plants spread out their giant leaves and start to bloom. Come July and August, there are pyramids of squash crowding kitchen counters. The reason for all the jokes about summer squash stuffed in mailboxes, left on neighbors' doorsteps, piled on break-room tables at work is because we know that they are prolific. Sometimes too prolific. We balance our gratitude for all that plenty with the relentlessness of it. So, so much. And while we are grateful, we are also tasked with it. Peeling it, slicing it, sauteeing it, roasting it, pickling it, tossing it into omelettes, soups, quiches, pasta-- even if we love summer squash, we know it takes up space in our lives, requires work, and sometimes, is just too, too much. 

This summer, big zucchini do not represent laziness, or ingratitude, or even inept gardening. They do, however, still represent overabundance-- a distinct season in our lives. In the last several months our household has seen multiple major appliance failures, major house repair, a car vs. deer accident (property damage only, thank God), and storm damage. We've done several home improvement projects, and have several more that are needed or that we are considering. We have a grandchild we are over the moon for, and love to help care for him and nurture him. We have aging parents who sometimes need support. We are gone multiple weekends in a row, honoring milestones like a son's entrance into pharmacy school, or another son's move into his first home. We have welcomed home a son-in-law who was deployed in the National Guard. We have visited a sister in Georgia, paddled the Boundary Waters with a blended family of menfolk, gone fishing. We survived a school year complicated by the pandemic and are about to embark on a senior year of high school that is looking much the same. We are navigating menopause. We lost an extended family member unexpectedly. We're looking ahead at college enrollments, helping autism spectrum children find their way in the adult world, and empty nesting.

All of these things are piled up on our metaphorical kitchen counter, and we need to process all of it. Slice and dice, cut out the bad parts where we can, create our own recipe out of these ingredients we've been handed, simmer, chew, swallow, and digest. All that growing, celebrating, repairing, nurturing, grieving, planning, sharing of time with people we love, closing one chapter, opening others. A great deal of it is joyous work, and for that we are grateful. A great deal of it is work-work. Labor and grief and frustration and exhaustion and loss and expense and time. So, we balance our gratitude for all that plenty with the relentlessness of it. It is also so, so much. 

We are in a season of life where things are coming at us fast and thick, both the gifts and the trials. Big zucchini aren't our ideal, but can be expected when we'd rather take care of a grandbaby, or help an adult kid move boxes. They can be expected while we sort through trenching a new water main to our house. They can be expected when we neglect garden work in favor of ceremonies, milestones, funerals, jobs, and much needed rest. 

For that reason, I will make of big zucchini what I can. Some days, that will mean preparing, seasoning, and cooking those parts we like, and enjoying the results. Some times it will mean sharing our overabundance with others that can make better use of big squash than we can in the moment. Some days, it means I will send that big ol' squash sailing over the compost fence and into the pile, so that it can feed some vegetable garden of the future, in another season, where life will assuredly be different than it is now. 

Things I have been doing: 

Enjoying this, this, and this recipe as a way to use up those big zucchini. When I don't, you know, compost them out of sheer lack of time to do anything with them. 

Not reading. But looking at The Book of Taliesin: Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain sitting on my end table, and deciding it's a better book for cooler and cozier fall nights. 

Painting buckets of primer and paint on the walls of a basement craft room that we are working on. I'm looking forward to having a permanent home for my sewing machine.