579300_10152390569614698_1755223128_n(This column first ran in July 2007, right before I became a Mrs. again.)

I drove up to the home county of Sonoma a few weeks ago to pick up one of our girls from a visit to her grandparents. I had some time to spare (shocking but true) and wanted some quality time with my parents, so I hung around for a while.

I picked some plums with my mom and she gave me some geranium and penstemon cuttings for the garden. I gave my parents their wedding invitation and I got to see the latest quilts that she was planning to show at the county fair. We talked and looked at pictures and made plans for later in the summer. After a while, and a glass of iced tea, it was time to go.

As we stood outside near the car, my mom looked at me and laughed a little laugh. “You’re me, you know,” she said.

Now I know plenty of other people who would bristle at such a statement if it were made to them, and plenty of times that I myself would have driven screaming away and never returned, but this time, finally, it is true. My mom raised five kids, and here I am, embarking on the next phase of my life, taking in two more to bring my total of children to five as well.

When I stood there with my bowlful of sweet Santa Rosa plums and my geranium cuttings and my packet of scraps for the next quilt I’m going to work on soon — har de har freaking har — there was a moment, I’m not going to lie, when I did want to scream. Just a little bit.

Because, you know, everyone wants to be themselves, not their mom, or dad, or elder siblings. No one wants to be the apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree, and no one wants to be “junior” anything. We all want to be special and a bit more advanced or evolved — to do better in our generation than our parents did, if that’s even possible anymore.

But how does one do it better? I simply can’t beat the 53-plus years of marriage that my parents have shared, with five healthy kids who all graduated college and made something of themselves. I may never get the 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (including all the step-grandkids). Maybe our kids won’t even have babies.

My parents worked hard, played by the rules, did the right thing even when it wasn’t their personal choice or even what they could bear. They just did it anyway, for the sake of the kids or the family or the whole shebang, and here we are today: an agricultural water plant manager, an attorney and CEO, a financial analyst, a commercial construction manager and a writer, and our kids are coming up behind us, traveling the world and taking it by storm.

I learned a lot from my mother about how to feed a large family, and it wasn’t just “add more water to the soup.” She was a champion at filling our bellies in even the hardest of times. There were always bread and butter and vegetables and a main course on the table, and we learned our manners and how to say grace before meals, and took turns setting and clearing. We did our homework and got ourselves to school by foot or by bike or by bus, and none of us coasted; we all got jobs and did farm chores and learned to do the right thing, too, mostly.

Alack and alas, though, a daydreamer like me comes along and lives an uncharted life: Unexpected pregnancy in college! Scrimping along as a single mom! Married to a Catholic priest! Divorced! Writing a book about it! Single parenting again! Eek! May I just offer kudos to my parents for keeping the faith? I’m a peach now, but I was a prickly pear for a very long time.

Ah, well. What can I say? My mom says, “You’re me now.” Am I?

We spent the last weekend painting the kitchen what I call “olive,” but let’s be real here – it’s that classic ’70s paint color, avocado. Then I finished up the valance I was sewing, made from a novelty print featuring a cheerful vegetable motif, hung it up and we made ourselves some vodka tonics. The kids were scattered around the countryside but they’d all be back at the dinner table in a few days. We toasted our weekend’s work and got ready for the next week.

Dinner for seven? I am indeed my mother.

Guest Post: Kay Ellington, Author of Paragraph Ranch

Happy Groundhog’s Day!

Groundhog’s Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. I know, it’s not really what you consider a holiday. You don’t even get the day off from work or school. As a gardener, I find winters to be challenging, living on the plains of West Texas. The short days. The lack of warmth and sunshine. The demise of the perennials. Perusing seed catalogs only goes But Groundhog’s Day—whether the little furry fellow (are they always male?) sees his shadow or not– kicks off the beginning of the end of the dormant season for people and plants. After November and December rife with holidays and festivities, in January, we sit and wait—inside.

With Groundhog’s Day comes Valentine’s Day, the Day the Time Changes (my personal favorite), St. Patrick’s Day, and then we’re off and running again in the spring and the sunshine. As an author, Groundhog’s Day provides the perfect metaphor for assessing the work. In January I sit and wait and plan and write. By February 2, I are able to assess what I have done. When I come out of hibernation and observe the work I have written, sometimes I am comfortable with the craftsmanship and sometimes I see the glare of a lack of clarity and run inside the warren to revise.

I hope this Groundhog’s Day –and all of the ones going forward—provide you with a day to assess the new year, and to see if you’re happy with the direction you’ve taken, or if you decide to change course, it’s still so early in the year that your changes have plenty of time to take effect and be meaningful.

Cotton fields, pumpjacks, and Friday Night Lights defined the world KAY ELLINGTON grew up in West Texas. A gypsy of newspapering for three decades, her career took her from New York to California to the Carolinas–and finally, back home again to Texas to stay–and write. 

many changes instantly

Farewell, White House.

I used to work for MCI, one of the early long-distance companies, which came into its own after the breakup of the telephone monopoly. Sprint still exists, but MCI was bought up by someone else and is long gone. However, back in the day (this was about 1986), we workers of the early telemarketing plantations often received new edicts from above. So many that we said the company’s initials must stand for “Many Changes Instantly.”

So here we are, in MCI mode — many changes instantly. Three months ago I was enjoying a full house of offspring and a healthy husband, chickens, a lovely piano, 5 bedrooms and a lush garden, a clothesline, a compost heap and about seven different kinds of recycling and trash containers. Mr. Husband said that you needed a PhD to figure out what trash went where at our Big White House. Today, however, we’ve done a few backflips.

Mr. Husband had a pain in his back around Christmas that got worse very quickly and they eventually discovered two ruptured discs. With a quick change in employment and where the Boy is going to school next year, we decided we had better move sooner rather than in summer. Found an adorable 2-bedroom apartment in central Alameda and started packing. Our motto was “Everything must go!” With a full attic, a full garage and large yard, plus all those bedrooms, this was no small task. The chickens had to find a new home, as did the coop. The bales of straw. The tiki bar and all the decorations. The hammock. The piano. One of the three cats. Two of the daughters. Most of the holiday decorations. Our large dining table that seated 12. Dishes. Canning jars. At least two-thirds of my fabric and yarn stash. Everything must go. And off it went.

We rented a Dumpster, but put amazingly little into it. Instead, green-hearted gal that I am, I worked tirelessly to find homes for everything and everyone. We had a “free” garage sale, in which just about everything we had in the garage went out and was given freely. I donated to Goodwill, ThriftTown and Salvation Army countless times. Sold books, CDs, DVDs and albums. Sold anything relatively “antique” to a dealer in town. Donated books to the Friends of the Library. Gave tons of books and art/school supplies to local schools. Gave a single mom down on her luck just about everything she could want for setting up an apartment for herself and her daughter — dishes, furniture, clothes and more. Gave the piano to our neighbor with 6 children. We downsized our personal library by about 75 percent. Maybe more. Garden goodies went to several Freecyclers. Old blankets and towels went to the pet shelter. Empty boxes came from Freecycle and have since been given back to be used again.

Softball team to the rescue. Mr Husband crouching in pain,
with smart-aleck friend copying him.
(Self, center, which is where I should be.)

Through all this, we had one mishap after another. Daughter #4, just two days before moving out, had a Saturday night spill that fractured her elbow. The Boy got bonked in the head at school in PE, suffering a minor concussion. Right after that he got a horrendous cold. Mr. Husband couldn’t lift anything or even sit or stand without excruciating pain (but he moved things anyway. Stubborn as a burro!). I won’t even tell you how messed up my shoulder, neck and sciatica got. We were able to borrow a truck from a friend for a couple of weeks, which made short trips with boxes much easier. We corralled a dozen strong guys for the big moving day and it was over, I kid you not, in 2 hours. Had a few days of searching among the boxes, and then it was time for Mr. Husband’s surgery.

That was last week. He’s well, thank you, and improving daily. We take little walks and he starts physical therapy next week. Yay for modern medicine! We’re here in the new place (see photo of our living room below), with another 20 boxes or so to unpack, and a new more urban lifestyle to discover in our upstairs Victorian flat:  our Red House (since I like to name our houses).

How are things different?

1. No laundry line, at least so far. We have a plumbing problem with the washer and dryer that the landlord is going to fix. Some day. I went to the laundromat last week and hope I can get this resolved soon. Also bought an indoor clothesline but the critical bracket is missing so I have to return it. Grrr.

2. No compost or chickens to eat leftovers. That means I have thrown into the green waste can things which chickens would have eaten up — plate scrapings, cereal crumbs, stale bread. On the other hand, there are just 3 of us now, so there’s a lot less green waste overall. I wonder how bad it would be to feed the local ducks with old bread crusts?

New living room, with stuff still in
boxes and pictures awaiting a nail or two.

3. We have heat now, where we didn’t before, and that’s new and different for us. It’s delicious! But we’ll have to look at our usage and not overdo it. Not sure how insulated this (drafty) house is, for one thing, and then — well, global warming and all that.

4. Garden. There’s isn’t one here, but I have been paying attention to where the sun falls, and where it is always shady. I brought over several container plants (herbs) and there’s a lemon tree and a tangerine tree on the property. But how can I garden in a shady, compact way?

5. Shopping locally/walking everywhere: This will be possible, finally, with a small grocery store with sustainable meat and organic produce nearby. But I have hardly had a chance to walk around and see what’s what, what with surgery and moving and all. Looking forward to this greatly.

6. Living lightly. Not having to drive everywhere, not having to support such a large family, not having so much stuff — it’s all good. I expect to feel the impact of the move in our budget as well as in what we bring in/send out as trash. Life is different in a downtown apartment than in an outlying rambling house and yard.

It remains to be seen how green we can be here, and how can I/we make it ever more so. Keep me company while we figure it out, will you? (Oh, please, say yes!)

progress and purpose

We’ve been busy at the Green House these days, painting with my Freecycled paint, or paint I purchased at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which sells rescued building materials. I look forward to painting our living room walls some interesting shades of green/sage, but they’re still working on the ceiling. Here’s what the living room ceiling looks like ( <--) after repairing the damaged roof, removing a desperately leaking skylight, and adding beams and trusses where there were none. (That’s right — none.) But now there are many, just the right number, in fact, to keep this roof up and over our heads for another 50 years or so. Falling trees notwithstanding (heh heh).

The light bulb in the middle is actually going to be a ceiling fan, repurposed from the dining room where it had no business being, as there are windows and a nice door already. You can see a window and part of the door below in the dining area.

While I was waiting for the plumber to show up the other day, I primed the wooden panel and trim, aka wainscoting, in the dining area. I didn’t think I had time to do it. But the plumber was late, then actually did not show up at all. So I got the priming done, and am going to call a different plumber. I used an old sheet (Thrift Town, bought for a bed, but full of cigarette holes, yuk!) instead of plastic for a drop cloth, and have been taking good care of my paintbrush. In the past, I would use it, forget it, find it all dried out and ruined, throw it away, buy a new one, repeat, repeat…. Funny how taking care of one’s stuff actually works for the good of one’s wallet and one’s planet. Simply amazing, in fact.

When the guys are inside, hammering, sawing and making noise and mess, I tend to stay outside and work on the garden-that-will-be. The garden area is a rocky hillside, to wit:

Challenge: to create a terraced garden out of a desert-like patch of sloping, infertile ground. I started with a compost corner (at right) to make some good dirt. Food scraps, green weeds and grass, dead leaves, and the addition of some wormy compost from my big garden in Alameda will help. I have harvested rocks from under the deck and around the house to make the rock-lined flower beds in front. I planted sunflowers in front of the deck, not sure if they’ll come up this year or not. I will be planting lavender in the next week or so, because they are very hardy, don’t need a lot of water or TLC, and they’ll attract bees and hummingbirds and add a nice scent to our cottage garden-to-be.
That cement slab is just a boring cement slab, not the top of the cesspool, but very big and heavy, so we won’t demolish it (yet). We started to make a mosaic out of random pieces of marble that are lying around the neighborhood (someone’s leftovers from a remodel, or an art project, perhaps?). When we get the top covered in marble, we’ll affix it with some grout and call it art. I have a potted dwarf lemon tree in a tub that will be lovely in that spot, as soon as I can get it into the car (it needs 2 people to life it, ugh.)

Here’s the kitchen door from the deck. I plan to paint it bright red or perhaps green — something cheery and colorful that will really say “cottage!”

The deck is quickly becoming our favorite place in the world — lovely in the morning and gorgeous in the late afternoon. The Stellar’s jays come for peanuts, the tiki torches burn with citronella at night, and it’s a perfect place for morning coffee or evening glass of wine. The only time it’s unbearable in summer is about 2-5 pm, when the sun beats down without mercy. You just sit there and melt into sweaty goo. That’s when its time to go inside for a siesta or run some errands. Or go jump in the river.

Meanwhile, back on the Isle of Style, my garden is going crazy with green beans that are purple and tomatoes that won’t turn red yet. There are tons of them, so I feel like there’s a ticking tomato bomb about to go off back there. Tick. Tick. Boom. Then it will be salsa, bolognese sauce and Caprese salad time. Looking forward to it. Big time.

I have laundry on the line right now and it smells so sweet. Cats are loving the heat, and prove this by staying indoors. Chickens prove it by refusing to lay ANY eggs for several weeks, yet continuing to eat their stupid heads off. They also continue to poo everywhere. Is there justice here? I think not. However, we are eating baby beets and turnips for dinner tonight, and when the sun goes down I will bake some banana muffins with the black bananas that died on the counter while I was painting wainscoting 60 miles away. The fridge turned out a pack of frozen spinach and a packet of tortellini, so I think we’re set for dinner this evening.

I wonder if a glass of wine on the Island patio is as nice as a glass of wine on a country cottage deck? Luckily, we don’t have to choose. Amen, amen.

green day

This is how I spent my day, but it’s not unusual. It’s fairly typical of how we live these days, and I wanted to give a baseline of how life is at Chez Tracey before the Plastic Purge begins. Note my regal attire, left, as I hold my royal scepter and show off my tiara. It’s not easy being the Queen of Green, you know.

Outside (photo): I’m in our vegetable garden, which I’ve grown every year except the handful of years I lived in apartments in San Francisco and elsewhere. But even on my apartment balcony in Concord, a jillion years ago, I grew tomatoes, herbs and strawberries. What can I say? I’m a farmgirl at heart. Behind me in the photo are two compost bins, both from Freecycle, because I have that much going on with my green waste. We don’t put much into the green bin on trash day unless it’s big branches; we compost everything else (or feed it to the chickens). I also have a separate spot where I compost the cat litter in winter (far from any food or recreation — outside the fence, if you must know.) If you didn’t know this already, animal waste is a major source of greenhouse gasses, and the clay cat litter is a BAD environmental choice; the U.S. Geological Survey that 2.14 million tons of clay is strip-mined each year for kitty litter. Start using wheat chaff or shredded newspapers, because that clay litter is bad news.

Back to the photo: I’m standing on mulch that we got for free when a neighbor had a tree chopped down. The raised beds are made from scrap lumber and found wood — one is a former dresser and another is made from a broken park bench — both creative reuses that kept stuff out of landfill. The round vegetable planters are former wine barrels — a Craigslist find. The stepping stones were scavenged, a few at a time. I think even the clothes I’m wearing in the photo are second-hand. Because why not? We rarely buy new here, partly because we (I mean our family as well as the Western world) already have more stuff (that we don’t even use) than we could possibly need in five lifetimes. We continue to work on downsizing and simplifying, and the upcoming Plastic Purge is part of that goal.

So: my Green Day.

Morning is about the animals: Creatures first, people second. That’s a rule on the farm and it’s a rule here, too. I try to make cat food from scratch when I can. More often, I feed them canned stuff that I got with coupons or in bulk at Costco, and this is an area I continue to work on: too many cans to be recycled, and what’s in that stuff anyway? I need to perfect the cat food recipe because, actually, they hate it. And then it’s a waste of food (chicken livers, wings and backs, plus oatmeal, carrots and eggs), and it’s also a waste of energy. What to do, what to do…

At least the chickens will eat cat food if the cats won’t. (I know — gross, right? But chickens are not picky. They will eat each other, given the chance.)

After the cats and chickens are fed, watered and let out to roam the yard, I make coffee — trying to judge how much we’ll reasonably drink in one day. Leftover coffee gets poured into a container and used as hair rinse (try it if you’re a brunette; it helps cover gray naturally); I also freeze it as ice cubes during summer to use in iced coffee. After making a pot, I turn off/unplug the maker and pour the fresh coffee into a Thermos pitcher, which keeps it hot but not acid and bitter all day. Saves energy, and the coffee doesn’t get gross from reheating. I found the Thermos at the Portland Goodwill for $1. If there is any leftover or funky coffee any other time, I pour it on the compost. By the way, a few years ago I bought a copper mesh coffee filter and use it every day. I have not purchased another package of coffee filters in four years. I bought the filter at Lucky and it cost about $9, a great “green” purchase.

If it’s a work or school day, I make lunches, but I have not used plastic wrap, baggies, paper napkins, paper towels or lunch bags for many years. I do use waxed paper (compostable) and I make great use of Tupperware and other reusable containers (yes, these are plastic). I put real spoons, forks and cloth napkins in everyone’s lunches. You think your kid will forget and throw the spoon away? Maybe once or twice (buy a couple of thrift-store spoons til they get with the program). As with any new scheme, it takes a little while to get used to. Mistakes happen. But in the long run, it’s a more sound ecological practice to use and reuse your own silverware and napkins and Tuppers than it is to throw away a plastic bag or fork or a paper towel after one use.

I work at home so I don’t have a commuting cost — how green is that? My usual day includes household chores like laundry — which I try to wash early in the day so I can hang the clothes to dry. If it’s later in the day, I’ll just set the basket of damp stuff aside til morning; I might hang wet clothes on our small indoor drying rack or put them on hangers to air dry inside.
Since we air-dry on the line, that means ironing. Dry cleaning uses lots of harmful chemicals, plus the plastic bags, so I use this service only for silk, tuxedo shirts or delicate eveningwear or maybe a vintage dress. Ironing is a commitment of one or two hours a week for shirts, pants, and other odds and ends. I don’t iron our cloth napkins — it just isn’t that important to us. And that goes for sheets, too.

Since I’m at home during the day, I’m able to cook from scratch — dry beans, bread, cookies, soups and stews — these have no extra packaging or processing, better for our health and the planet. I spend a portion of most days in the garden pulling weeds, watering or other yard chores — this keeps it organic, since I don’t use Round-up or fuel-powered machines like a Weed-whacker. I compost or feed to the chickens whatever I pull up, weed-wise. Dandelions are a delicious treat for the hennies. Plus, any slugs or snails are literally dead meat when I find them — chickens make very short work of the poor little mollusks.

I have many errands to run every week — my shopping routine is much more like hunting and gathering, and I find it serves us best if I do it myself in the car. I make a meticulous list, take a snack or lunch and my own water or coffee, music for the car, and plenty of cloth bags. I shop locally and in bulk if possible, and I keep my mileage/gas to 25 miles or fewer per week. I also go on my errands in a circular route so that I am not backtracking, and will often park in a central location and walk to several stops. My errands include the grocery store, shops for bulk buys, the bank, the post office and the library. These are not shopping trips for pleasure, although I find it very satisfying as I provide for my family. But shopping as a hobby is not sustainable in any possible way, and is terrible for our household budget, besides. We are much more financially secure since we eliminated recreational shopping from our lives.

In the afternoon, after the massive erranding, the putting away of provisions, the checking in on the finances, and the completing of work-related writing and research, I chill out with a glass of homemade sun-tea (zero calories, zero energy, and costs about 5 cents a gallon to make). I knit or crochet (usually with rescued yarn), read books from the library (free) or magazines from the Friends of the Library magazine exchange (free). When the Boy gets home from school (he walks or rides his skateboard, since he has those two healthy legs and school is just a mile away), he has a snack, does homework and plays some video games with friends (his limit is one hour a day, 2 hours a day in summer).

Between then and bedtime, there are more animal chores (collect eggs, put chickens back in the coop with fresh water, hose down patio after chickens visited and pooped), plus dinner to cook, dishes to wash, and usually a mountain of laundry to fold. Some nights there’s kung fu or a baseball game to go to, or a movie we want to watch together. My daughters and Mr. Husband get home from work via the ferry and Bart or the bus. We eat dinner together as a family (proven to improve healthy, welfare and the state of the world as we know it) and I turn in early — 9 pm, so I can read some more before sleep.

Is that much different from your life? In what ways could you greenify? I could ride my bike more — many of those errands can be done on a bike. That’s on my list, and so is exercising more — by walking or biking. And I’ve got to stop Mr. Husband from bringing home another plastic bag, after forgetting the reusable one.

How green is your valley, anyway?