Sunday, February 2, 2020

Trees I Have Loved


I am not a January person.

Living in the Midwest, January means the the arrival of truly cold weather and the ice, snow, and bad roads that go with it. I joke that I must be part bear, because hibernation until about April or so seems far more attractive to me than scraping the windshield of my Subaru, crunching down the snow-packed roads to work, and hoping to warm my bone marrow drinking pots of tea in my windowless office.

The hibernation bit is probably not so much a joke as a strong tendency to seasonal blues and depressions. I found out a few years ago that my body is terrible about maintaining enough Vitamin D levels to keep me, well, sane enough to function during the dark winter months. Knowing that and supplements have helped.

So has lowering my expectations. Not in a defeatist sort of way, but acknowledging that I am not at my best in January, and that maybe some forms of hibernation are not only okay, but a good idea. Recent interest in the Danish concept of "hygge," which I think Americans have culturally translated to mean "fireplaces, warm socks, and hot cocoa?" Definitely a good idea. Going back to the actual roots of the word, which mean something like "courage, comfort and joy?" For Pete's sake, sign me up for all three.

In the last year or two my interest in all things green and growing has intensified, and so I've also attempted to embrace the concept of hibernation in that cycle of plant-life sense too-- it's not a season of death, or nothingness. It's a season of necessary rest. I suspect that humans are not as immune to the cycle of seasons as we think, and that winter is the time for me to give in to what my body is pushing me to do--sleep a little more, keep my thoughts and perspective inward so that when the time is right, I have the energy to flourish.

It makes me think of trees. They cycle through periods of necessary rest so that they can flourish later. Their life spans in some ways are similar to we humans; we relate to them in that way. But they also spend their life rooted to one spot, achieve immense size both above and under the earth, and age often through generations of humans. Trees are about as monumental and immortal of a living thing as we'll ever be able to know. I see them as a metaphor for a larger truth about existence that we can't grasp with our small minds. Those are the sorts of things I think about, while hibernating in January (and waiting to write about them until February). It also makes me think about the trees in my life which have brought me "courage, comfort, and joy."

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Like my sweet gum tree. It grew right outside the window of my bedroom in a little ranch house in southern Missouri where I was a small child. I thought that because it was outside my bedroom window, it was "my" tree. And maybe the little girl me meant that in terms of possession, but I like to think of it as the first real friendship I had with a tree. It was young, and so was I, and so we understood each other the way childhood friends do. Every September and October it filtered sunlight into my room in dancing bits of fiery yellow-gold and purple. When playing outside I picked up the spiky seed balls for pretend kitchen cooking, threw them at neighbor kids, and hooked them together into improbable shapes and stacks. Sweet gum tree is a playmate I remember fondly, miss some days, and wonder what has become of it. I hope it grew up, like I did. I hope it belongs to another little person looking out that bedroom window.

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If my young childhood was a sweet gum tree, my tween and early teen years were the backyard ash. It was the 70s, we lived in a duplex apartment full of harvest golds and browns in a university town in Iowa, and I was disinterested in everything life was serving up to me at that time. My parents had split, my mother was struggling to start a new job and a new life in a new state, my baby sister was SUCH a baby sister, and junior high school was SO junior high school. I was outraged that I was not allowed to go to rock concerts, and equally outraged that I was teased for playing with my sister's dolls. I did not feel like I really had anything mastered, except for climbing that tree. I think of ash trees as being the plain vanilla ice cream cone of the tree world. There are fancier ones out there, but vanilla ice cream is better than no ice cream at all. This was true. I could grasp two small lower branches and hold on, walking my rough bare feet up the bark until I could hook a knee over the first large branch, and haul myself the rest of the way up by my hands into the canopy. I often did this with a book tucked under my chin; there was a little crook that exactly fitted my behind and lower back so that I could recline and read. That tree wasn't so much a friend as a necessary shelter from long, boring, hot summers when I was too young to do anything, and too old to do anything, and too confused to know which was worse. I discovered Ivanhoe and Judy Blume and Lois Duncan and Kurt Vonnegut and How to Care for Horses (that I would never own). I hurled a copy of Little Women down to the ground when I grew impatient with it, and then felt guilty about returning it, the spine-end a little grass-stained, to the public library. I owe a debt of gratitude to that tree, for giving me the space to just be.


Magnolia was a tree at the southeast corner of my mother's house, and somewhat of a miracle. Iowa isn't exactly the place for saucer magnolias; they don't thrive in windy frigid prairie winters. And yet, she was elegant and spreading and magnificent--as if she'd relocated to the rough frontier from a garden square in Charleston and simply refused to accept that she wasn't a Southern lady anymore. She was pretty dramatic. When she bloomed we'd all go out into the yard and just stand and look at her and say, "Wow." But the porcelain pink blooms were fleeting, and fell to the grass like breaking teacups in just a few days, even fewer if we had a badly timed windy day. Her satiny leaves shaded a little green cavern of hosta, astilbe, and ferns from hot Midwestern summer sun, and the saucer of water for the birds. Altogether she struck a somewhat ridiculously romantic pose at the corner of the patio, but we loved her for it. It was the best thing about that modest house. Eventually her high maintenance ways and flair for drama caught up with her, and her demise was a hurt that I still feel when I think about her. But I do think about her, for the guts to bloom where planted, and to do it without apology in a foreign landscape.

I say hello to this crabapple nearly every time I take a walk around our neighborhood, where the houses date from the 1910s to the 1940s. It's growing on the backside of a condominium complex that used to be my husband's elementary school. The tree has likely not been there as long as the school, which was built in 1924, but still qualifies as a senior citizen of the tree community here. I am glad she survived the remodeling of the school and grounds into condominiums. I'm glad she hasn't fallen into the hands of people who deem trees like this to be "too messy" for city street trees. I love that she produces her guts out in September, so much so that her branches wobble under the strain of all the fruit. I love watching the birds clamor around her, eager to get every last bit they can before the winter freeze. It's my "way to be" tree, because it seems to understand itself, and glories in being that very thing-- a crabapple tree, the best damn crabapple tree it can be. I wish I could be half so aware of, and accepting, of myself.


I don't often name things. But when I do, it's not because I made it up. It's because they introduce themselves and tell me their name. This is Harald, the patio cedar in my back yard. My relationship with Harald (yes, that's with the second "a", probably because the house was built by a Dane, and I expect that the trees would also have picked up the Danish way of spelling) is complicated. First of all, he's not all that pretty in many ways-- his top was lopped off at some point well before I purchased the house, and so he tends to spread out in all the weird ways that conifers do when their main leader branch is lost.  He likes to snuggle a bit too close to the eaves for comfort and needs a regular pruning back so he doesn't wipe the shingles off. He sheds needles like crazy and we're forever sweeping the patio. But. He shades the table where my family and friends gather all summer. He holds aloft the string lights that make the garden so enchanting in the evening. He protects the back half of the house from the worst of the late afternoon summer sun, and the worst of the northern winter winds. He is a filtering protector of my houseplants, who get kicked out of doors for their own good every May. He has been witness to some of my worst frustrated ugly cries over the years; and the canopy to my wedding day. We grumble about Harald, we sweep up after Harald, we love him anyway. There are actual people like him in our lives, so we should be able to see and accept that best-and-worst sort of dichotomy in a tree. I think. Ask me again when he's dropping his tree schmutz into my chardonnay in July.

There are so many trees on the place my Dad calls "The Hill," that I could forgive people for overlooking the little cedar. He's cuter than Harald, but that's because my Dad keeps him groomed for a string of Christmas tree lights during the holiday season, and it explains his picture postcard shape. He's situated in a picture postcard landscape too, in the Ozark hills where my Dad lives, and where my paternal side of the family came from generations back. It would be too simple to say this landscape and that little cedar are a part of me. They are. But I also had to lose them and win them back, and that part is complicated. I reckon that is a story many people could tell, not just about trees and landscapes, but about the struggle to grow a fully functioning human heart. Maybe there are more majestic trees to symbolize that kind of stuff; but for me, a scrappy little cedar up on a rocky ridge seems just about right.


My children call this the White Tree of Gondor. It's a sycamore, beautiful in summer, but at its best in winter, when all the white branches are bare. While it's spectacular against a clear blue sky on a sunny winter day, I prefer the soft look of it against gloomy clouds and the gentle monotones of the winter landscape. It's in a difficult location, at one of the busiest intersections in town right next to the entrance of our large public university. I'm always driving past it, admiring it, and wishing it was some other place where I could walk past or around it instead of buzzing by on my way to whatever life was dishing out that day. I realized I couldn't write this blog post without getting a photo, and that a photo wouldn't happen without actually walking to it, even though that street corner isn't particularly pedestrian friendly. I ended up parking on a side street during my noon hour, crossing a bridge over the creek, stumbling a bit on the path that hadn't yet been cleared of snow. I had nothing but my car keys and my phone in my coat pocket, and knew I probably should have brought my 35mm camera but dammit, at least I was there.  I was highly aware of all the cars whooshing by. The snow on the side of the road was black with the tiredest kind of dirt. The tree, in contrast, seemed to possess its own clean quiet, even so close to the road. I gave a twig-end a polite little jiggle with my bare cold hand, like a hand shake. Close up, the bark was even more subtle and beautiful, with markings that can't be seen in a speeding car.


January is like that stumbling walk to the corner just for the sake of seeing a tree that I love--inconvenient, incompletely planned, cold, and I hate to admit it-- necessary for the sake of its own discoveries. I'm still working that concept out in more detail, but intend to revisit it next year when I need to. And, it being January and all, I know I'll need to. Until then.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Girl in the Song

This Associated Press photo was originally printed in my high school yearbook, 1984

Bruce Springsteen released the album Born to Run on August 25, 1975. I was born a little too late to run, being not quite eight years old at the time.

My parents were still married. From the deep backseat of their Chevy Impala, I remember Glen Campbell. Johnny Cash. Dolly Parton. Loretta Lynn. Tennessee Ernie Ford. It was the kind of music that was on AM radio in small town southern Missouri, where we lived.

At the pool and at the park and at the ice cream stand, roasting through those hot humid summers we had down there, the big kids in the little towns would have their transistor radios on. I got to hear what actual teenagers were listening to, even though I was far from one myself. Philadelphia Freedom. War. Wings. Janis Ian. It was different than my parents' music.

Like most kids, especially then, the music wasn't something I chose. I was a passive absorber of the adult culture around me; so when Captain and Tennille sang that love would keep us together, I didn't even really think about it. It was a song on the radio that I didn't control, and like bedtimes and homework and wearing uncomfortable shoes to church, it wasn't something that even occurred to me I could reject or even ask for something else. I didn't even know there was a something else.

I do not remember Bruce in any of this. I don't think he was there yet-- for me, anyway.

In just a few years' time, my life changed dramatically. My parents split up; my mom moved north with my sister and me, to a different town in a different state. That wasn't something I chose either. It was a painful time for my parents, so it was a painful time for me. I seemed to land with a hard thump in junior high, chubby but stretching rapidly up, ratty sneakers, knee socks that kept slumping down, thick eyeglasses, and long bangs that flopped in my face. Grown-ups had proven themselves to be too indifferent, or insensitive, or insistent, or too much of all those things all at once, to be trusted. I read a lot. My bedroom door was closed a lot.

It was into this scene that Bruce Springsteen walked. I giggle a bit at the drama of that sentence; as if the curly-locked and leather-jacketed Boss had leaned off the Big Man's shoulder on the cover of the Born to Run album, and into my doorway instead, guitar still at the ready.

The beginnings were actually a bit murkier. By the time I was thirteen, I'd acquired a cheap turntable stereo. I'd discovered that 45s were 99 cents at the record store at the mall, which I could walk to from our harvest gold apartment. I had some spending money every once in awhile, some time to myself, and just enough freedom to choose-- if not my life, exactly-- then at least the music I listened to. I might not have been born to run, but I wanted to catch up. To what, I didn't yet know; I just knew I liked the sound of it.

It was during this time that Mr. Springsteen eased his way in to the metaphorical doorway of my life. First Born to Run. Then back a bit, with Darkness on the Edge of Town. I wasn't sophisticated enough yet to be interested in Nebraska yet, and I couldn't afford The River, because double albums cost too much for a kid with no job. But it was enough. And even though I was also listening to all the other stuff that was coming out at that time, prog rock and new wave and punk and metal, I kept coming back to Springsteen.

In that "I'm the only freak of my kind" way that teenagers often think of themselves, I was crazy enough to believe that Mr. Springsteen was a secret that I alone possessed. Yeah, you could read about him in the pages of Rolling Stone and there were other people standing in line at the record store to buy his stuff, but music critics and other fans didn't know what I knew.

His songs gave form and recognition to feelings and thoughts I'd been having, things I didn't have the experience or vocabulary for-- yet. It made me feel part of the human condition called adulthood that I was only just beginning to understand, and wasn't quite ready or sure I wanted to enter. I was tethered to my turntable by bulky headphones behind a closed bedroom door. It was a secure vantage point, not just to love the music, but absorb the stories Springsteen spun about life.

It has been said over and over again that the appeal of Springsteen's songs is their narratives, universal themes of the working-class everyman and everywoman. For all I know academic papers have been written about that very topic.* But I want to write about the universal made particular, made singular, made Laura Beth, made her want to be the barefoot girl on the hood of a Dodge drinking beer in the soft summer rain.** I want, and am trying to write, a love letter to the maddening, skinny, dark-eyed, wild-hearted, day-dreaming woman-child I was at seventeen. I owe one to her, the one who thought of herself as the girl in those songs.

In the summer of 1984, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band released Born in the USA. It was a post-Vietnam era rock assessment of the most difficult relationship any American will ever have, the one with the place you were born-- the ideals you want to keep, finally recognizing the wrongs you need to walk away from. Did the sixteen-going-on-seventeen girl listening to the radio in that Chevy Impala she now drove, consciously and deliberately recognize these metaphors between country and home, citizenship and family?

Oh, hell no.

That didn't come until much later. But the people in Springsteen's songs were people I recognized. They were never promised perfection, and they certainly couldn't buy it. They were all too aware of what they didn't have. But they were willing to work. They were willing to prove it all night.** They were willing to give what they had. I wanted that in myself. I wanted it in other people. If I saw myself as the girl in those songs, I wanted no less than the boy in those songs too.

As it so often happens at exactly that point in a young woman's life, a Boy in the Song appeared. He came along as part of a small circle of friends who delivered one of the first of many best gifts from the universe-- a feeling that I belonged somewhere. His eyes were intensely blue when he looked at me, and he spent a lot of time coaxing words and emotions out of my quietude. They all made it feel good to laugh. On November 16, 1984, this new group of friends went to see Bruce Springsteen live and afterward, the Boy in the Song kissed me lightly on the cheek, outside the concert stadium in the frosty night.

It is hard to put words to the revelation, for these people and that Boy to arrive in my life at exactly that time. They seemed to hold a different map, one I never got, and they showed it to me and pointed "you are here." I was able to put a pin down somewhere, anywhere, and with people who were just like me. Now I knew, for the first time, that it was possible to belong somewhere other than to the place you were born. It wasn't just an important thing. It was everything.

In the profound joy and relief of that moment, compounded by inexperience and teenage hormones, it was too easy to overlook the fact that the reason they found me, the reason they were so happy to see me, is that they were lost too. And as much as I wanted and needed them to be my rescue party, we were all just lost together.

But at least we had each other, and all the moments we could steal from reality. We had old sofas in dark basements, and hands held under tables in the high school lunchroom, and phone calls late at night when no one could yell at us to "get off the phone!" Just like the friends in the song, we made our commitments to love and friendship like they were weapons against all we'd ever known. We made a promise we swore we'd always remember-- no retreat, baby, no surrender.**

But the Boy and the friends and I, we failed each other. Not just in the typical teenage ways that everyone experiences growing up, but also in ways that were very specific to our particular brand of damage. Our parents had done their best with what they had, but across all our families poverty, divorce, addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, Vietnam-- all those things cut a wide swath through our upbringing, whether our parents could help it or not. And mostly, they couldn't. Neither could we.

I expected a lot of that scared, wild, rapturously angry and romantic young man, and that scruffy, rebellious tribe of friends. They expected a lot out of me. But we were still lost, some of us getting more so, and life was about to launch us out into the world.

By the time I left high school, the music industry had rolled into cassettes and quickly on into CDs-- my life and even my music went on to other formats whether I wanted them to or not. Bruce recorded albums without the E Street Band. Those songs sounded like bumping into an old friend with a new life that didn't include me. I knew what that felt like. It hurt. It made me think that all the things I believed in, including the Girl in the Song, were at least wrong, and possibly worse, didn't even really exist.

So I stopped listening. I dumped Springsteen for R.E.M., the Offspring, U2, anything and everything but the songs that had led me to pain in the past. It was comfortable to like music without being emotionally invested in it. I went to college and kept writing but for the sake of a journalism degree rather than for myself, another comfortable choice. I also ended up marrying a nice boy who was not in any song whatsoever, just to be on the safe, comfortable side. During those years, I couldn't bother to stay informed of Mr. Springsteen's latest musical endeavors. When his concert tours were in town, I was invariably vastly pregnant, nursing, or in some other way tied to a domestic life I couldn't have escaped if I'd wanted to. I didn't want to.

But another strong theme that weaves its way through Springsteen's music is the idea that, however much running or leaving or walking away you do, your truths are going to be there, waiting for you in dark bedrooms, on lonely highways, and through the hard lessons life serves up. You can't escape yourself. I certainly didn't.

That was the reason I spent the last decade struggling to become, if not found, at least un-lost, locatable on a map I had drawn myself, in a landscape that felt like the best kind of home. It was an act of survival, and like a lot of acts of survival it involved desperation, poor choices, fear, exhaustion, and loss. Eventually it also began to involve things like independence, home ownership, self-regard, and if I am being completely honest, some more exhaustion and loss. Because this shit is hard.

It also came to involve Tom. One night this summer, I came home to find him, asleep in his armchair, deeply tired out from his day's work. On the television, Springsteen on Broadway played to this lightly snoring audience of one. Tom had been re-watching it without me. It would be a good story, a perfect story, if Tom loved Bruce Springsteen as much as I do. Somewhere in the struggle to find my place in the world, in a way almost as complicated as the struggle itself, Springsteen's music came back to me. But Tom isn't a passionate fan, and has a way of referring to him as "Phil Springsteen" just to tease and annoy me.

It occurred to me that night and more and more as time goes on, that the longer Tom is in my life, the more he seems to be in all the songs, in just the right way. If I need someone to wait for me or for a sunny day, to cover me or to be tougher than the rest, Tom seems, always, to be that.** On our wedding day in 2017, our program quoted Springsteen: "There's another dance. All you've got to do is say yes." So, we did.


As I write this, it's been 35 years to the day of that night in 1984, when Bruce took the stage in my hometown.** The girl who saw herself in those songs wasn't wrong about herself, or what she wanted. She knows that now, and still has the music to prove it.
_____________________________

*The minute I typed that sentence, it got me on the academic journal search engines, and I found THIS. I will most likely read it, because I am that kind of fan. And geek.

**All the references made to Bruce Springsteen's words and music are not in any way intended to be an infringement of any copyright belonging to him, the E Street Band, or to their publisher. His work is entirely his own. Moreover, the writer owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Springsteen. Thanks for helping me with the growin' up.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Buttery White Bread


After a great deal of difficulty with my skin last winter, during which I desperately hoped I could peel like a snake and grow a new, healthy, and non-itchy layer, I learned that I had developed some allergies. Through a process of eliminating from my diet, in turn, gluten (not fun, but not impossible), dairy (I'm so sorry for the things I said when I was cheese-less), and quite a laundry list of other things (I'm so tired of reading labels), I finally sussed out two valuable pieces of hard-won information.

1. My skin is allergic to a particular kind of preservative found in a lot of liquid soaps, laundry detergents and shampoos. If interested, here's a website that discusses the issue and alternatives, though this is a tangent that doesn't get us any closer to the recipe, or the food. And I am all about the food.

2. During my gluten-free phase, my skin problems continued. So I added wheat back into my diet. Skin and immune system, ticked off again, flared more intensely. Next I eliminated yeast from my diet. My skin improved, and I was bereft. Because yeast is the reason for so many of the foods-- wine, beer, cheese, bread-- that I love, this depressed me more than I even care to admit. Then, after I got my skin to a relatively stable point, I decided I'd rather be miserable and itchy for awhile than eternally pizza-less, and I made a pizza with my own home-made dough.

I didn't have a reaction. Nor did I any other time that I ate home-baked goods. Or cheese or wine or beer.

Huh.

I went back to my internet research, and considered what was left. While I don't know for sure and there can be many overlapping factors in allergic reactions, I concluded I'm most likely allergic to some common preservatives or shelf-stabilizers in commercially baked breads and similar products. There are so many of these types of ingredients, often listed together in a single product. I decided it wasn't worth trying to narrow it down further. I've just started avoiding store-bought bread and baked goods. Things are going much better-- my skin doesn't look like raw hamburger.

I've always done a lot of home baking because I enjoy it.  Now I'm doing it because I am trying to avoid those preservatives. Do not think, however, that I now have become some baking-all-the-time type person. I'm not that crazy. I work full time, and I have other things that need doing, as well. Like laundry and blogging.

Despite the relief that my allergies don't appear to be gluten- or wheat-related, it's better for me if I don't have wheat and white flour things all the time, anyway. As I get older I'm trying to stick more and more with meat and veg. If bread is something I have to bake in order to have it at all, it means that I eat it less often, and it's a bit of an event. Something to savor and celebrate. If it doesn't cause an allergic reaction, so much the better.

One of the recipes I make a lot is this one for buttery white bread. The recipe developed gradually over the years from a multitude of other white bread recipes that were not quite completely right, so I kept experimenting. I fiddled with more and less sugar, more and less butter, eggs and no eggs, until I came to this buttery loaf. This one is simple, not too sweet, and has enough fat in it that it doesn't go instantaneously crumbly and stale overnight. It is divine as buttered toast, with jam or honey. It is also a good sandwich bread. Since September is here and the weather has cooled down enough to have the oven on, I thought I'd share it with you.

Buttery White Bread
  • 2 cups milk (2% or whole milk. Don't use skim milk, because you want it to taste good!)
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup, or 8 tablespoons) of salted butter (Don't use alternative fats. It will give your bread the sads.)
  • 1 Tablespoon or 2 packages active dry yeast (Don't use quick-rise for this recipe)
  • 3 T white sugar 
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt (if using salted butter) or 1 tsp kosher salt (if using unsalted butter)
  • 6- 6 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, but I've also used grocery-store brand unbleached all-purpose when on a budget, so that is fine too.)
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 375° F. Pour the two cups milk into a large mixing bowl. Chunk up the stick of butter and put it in the milk. Microwave the milk for 20 seconds, and then check the temperature with your finger or thermometer. Microwave in 20 second increments until you get the milk feeling nicely warm but not at all hot to your fingertips, with the butter chunks beginning to get melty and soft, but not completely liquid. Depending on your microwave, it takes about a a minute, maybe a little more. If you've got a cooking thermometer, you can check that you're in the 105-110° F range, but it's okay to just do it by feel. It should look like this: 


Step 2: Add the yeast and sugar. Stir once or twice to blend, and then let it set for about 10-15 minutes. It will get foamy, but still have chunks of butter in it, and look like this: 


Step 3: Measure flour by scooping it into the measuring cup and leveling off. Measure four cups of flour into the bowl. Add the salt. Using a sturdy spoon, mix the flour into the liquid until the dough is a rough, sticky batter that mostly clings together, though you may have a few clumps or bits that are not fully incorporated. At this point you may still see some lumps of butter, but they are beginning to incorporate into the dough.

Step 4: Sprinkle a clean countertop with flour. Stir the 5th cup of flour into the bowl, but don't worry if it's an even rougher mass of clumps. This is where it all starts to come together. With clean hands, dump the dough out onto the floured countertop, and knead it by folding the dough in half toward you, and pushing it away from you against the countertop with the heels of your hands. It's messy, but will start coming together as you work it. Flour your countertop lightly if it starts sticking, and sprinkle the dough with flour lightly while you knead, but don't use more than the upper limit called for in the recipe. In cold, dry weather, you'll use less flour. In hot humid weather you'll use more. Keep kneading, for about 8 to 10 minutes. By the time you're done the dough will have completely absorbed the butter, become smooth and elastic, and will form a ball like this:


While many recipes call for putting the dough in an oiled bowl, I admit I'm too lazy to be bothered with this nicety. I scoop the dough back into the bowl I mixed it in, cover it with a clean dishtowel, and set it aside. Let it rise until double in size. This takes anywhere from about an hour and a half (in warm weather) to up to three hours if your kitchen is pretty cold in the winter). Go somewhere else and have a cup of something hot. Fold some laundry. Answer some email. The time will go faster than you think.

When it has doubled in size, dump the dough back out on the counter and knead a few times to get excess air bubbles out and get it feeling smooth and elastic again. Divide in half. Shape into two loaves, and place in two oiled 9X5 inch bread pans. Cover with the dish towel, and let rise until the dome of the loaf is just barely an inch above the rim of the pan. This time, keep a closer watch, as it should take as little as twenty minutes for this step, and if the dough rises too much now it won't rise as much in the oven.

Bake at 375° F for 30-35 minutes, until the loaf is well browned, not just on the top, but down the sides that are in the pan. A good way to tell if it is done is to gently shake the loaf pan. If it's nicely brown down the sides and on the bottom, it will shake loose from the pan without much trouble. If it seems tightly stuck in the pan, it probably needs another five to ten minutes to bake off a bit more moisture and to brown up the crust. Remove from the oven, and turn the loaves out onto a rack to cool. Don't leave them in the pans; this steams up the crust and makes it soggy.


Store tightly wrapped, and remember that since this is fresh bread without any preservatives, it will go stale in about 3-5 days, even faster if the weather is warm and humid. In warm weather I store mine in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage. It will freeze unsliced for about a month.

Happy toasting!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Acts of Rebellion



I grew up believing that acts of rebellion were large and spectacular and often involved young, extremely idealistic people who smelled like patchouli, belonged to "movements" and crowded public streets to chant and wave signs. I also knew that it often involved violence and destruction. The 1960s were just beginning to hit the history books when I was in high school, and those pages showed things like the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in Vietnam and U.S. cities that convulsed with rage during the "long hot summer of '67."

That, paired with my upbringing, which insisted that I be polite, quiet, cooperative, responsible, and well-behaved, meant that rebellion didn't fit my or anybody else's idea of who I was then.

Now at 51, I'm a whole lot less enchanted with cooperative and well-behaved, but I'm still mostly quiet. Patchouli is one of the worst smells in the world to me, and it's really not in my character to march about with signs and shout about injustice. To be clear, I'm not criticizing those things in other people (well, except for the patchouli. I'm going to criticize that no matter what.)

It's just that my introversion and quiet make me a bad bet for those loud, crowded, and strident demonstrations of resistance. On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option for me in these turbulent, frightening times. Pretending everything is okay is a luxury increasingly fewer people have. Pretending everything is okay is exhausting to an even half-aware soul. Pretending that everything is okay is giving away my own power in situations where what I really want is change.

I decided that my definition of rebellion needed some reframing.

Which is why the photo accompanying this blog post is of my kitchen compost bin. It's an old lidded enamel container that sits to the right of my kitchen sink, and it's where I throw all our plant- and paper-based refuse.

It was a new practice as of this year, to reduce the amount of food waste going to the landfill, to provide fertilizer for our small backyard vegetable garden, and to create a small but self-supporting environmental circle between our table and the soil.

So was buying cotton mesh produce bags for carrying home fresh produce from the grocery (we already use cloth grocery bags), and my switching to solid bar shampoo instead of using bottled, to reduce the amount of plastic our household consumes.

So was turning over a little extra territory in our yard this year, expanding what is already a Monarch Way Station, to continue providing habitat for pollinators-- not just monarchs but other butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps that are so vital to the production of the foods we eat.

So was continuing our experiment in vegetable growing this year, trying out carrots, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus for the first time.

In the context of these times, I believe them to be acts of rebellion. Not the sign-waving, marching-down-the-street kind, but the kind that reflects upon one's own behavior, and quietly resolves to do things differently. Differently enough that it subverts the status quo.

Composting is a rebellion against waste.

Reducing my plastic use, even a little bit, is a rebellion against the kind of consumerism that encourages convenience at the expense of the environment.

Planting vegetables and eating what I grow is a rebellion against corporate agriculture, and returns control over the quality and kind of foods I eat to me.

Planting flowers instead of lawn is a rebellion against wide-spread use of the insecticides and herbicides that harm our ecosystems.

Is it perfect? Oh hell no. My zucchini crop failed spectacularly this summer, I still need to grocery shop, I can't avoid all plastic, and I'm not a big enough hippie to go into subsistence farming or veganism (or wear that danged patchouli). Is it enough? Also no. No one person is enough. Is it better than nothing? I think it is, especially if my acts of environmental rebellion, however quiet and small, are being repeated by others across my city, state, nation, and world. That's how the needle moves.

I'm not likely to rebel by protesting. I'm glad other people are out there who do a fantastic, loud, noticeable, sign-waving, yelling, First Amendment with a capital F and a capital A push-back to those who are doing harm. We need that volume right now, for the environment and a long list of other enormous concerns.

The rest of us need to bring our gifts, whatever they are, to an increasingly difficult situation. My gift is growing things, and I can use it to address the threats our environment is facing. For that, I consider myself a rebel.