Taming the Beast

Doris in a rumble seatAt the time I began to learn how to drive, I must admit, I knew nothing about cars. All I knew was what I had learned in the portable classroom at Petaluma High School.

The thin newsprint pages of the California Department of Motor Vehicles Handbook offered plenty of theoretical information, what-ifs and wherefores, but nothing in the way of practical how-tos. In that classroom, awash with fluorescent light, crowded with graffiti-emblazoned student desks, I took my turn at the faux driving console to test my reflexes. When the light changed from green to red, “Hit the brakes,” we were told. I did, though how fast my reflexes were, I can’t say; still, I was certainly acquiring a valuable skill.

I was learning how to drive, how to get from A to B in a new kind of vehicle. At home on the backroads of Sonoma County, in 12 acres of empty fields and fallen-down chicken barns, I had learned to ride a horse and drive a pony cart. I could rollerskate and ride a bicycle; I could even ice skate backwards.

But I knew nothing of cars. In my mind, they were like wayward horses that had to be held to a tight rein, else they’d veer from the trail. As with a pony cart, one would have to be careful not to turn too quickly or the whole thing would tip over. A sense of balance surely helped. On roller skates or a bicycle, one didn’t go far without a little effort, and I knew I would have to push hard on a gas or brake pedal to make the car respond. On the other hand, like ice-skating backwards, the whole thing looked deceptively easy, but with a little practice I could soon show off my graces.

After months of waiting, I got my chance. Mr. Donovan, the Driver’s Ed teacher, finally said it was my turn to drive. Raymond T., another student, was my driving partner. We showed up at the abandoned high school at 9 a.m. on an overcast Saturday, ready to take a spin behind the wheel. My boyfriend, Devin, had found great humor at the thought of me driving. He found it so funny that he’d invited a group of his friends to come and watch. The teenaged boys, members of the cross-country running team, stood around in running shorts and ratty tee shirts, all elbows and long legs and acne, waiting to laugh at the dumb blonde.

When Mr. Donovan came out of the building and unlocked the car, he nodded at me, “You first.”  I exchanged glances with Raymond, who, cool and self-assured, shrugged and got into the back seat. I got into the front seat and closed the door, the vinyl chilly against the back of my legs. Devin and his friends jostled together and waited for the fun to begin.

Mr. Donovan handed me the key and I pushed it into the ignition. I had never done this thing before. I didn’t even know which way to turn it. Guessing, I got it the first time, and the engine started with a satisfying roar. I waited for Mr. Donovan to tell me what to do next, to teach me how to drive.

“Well?” he urged. “Drive it out of the lot.”

I took the wheel tightly in my hands, knowing that if I didn’t hold on, it would jerk away and we’d all die a grisly death. Gingerly, I eased one hand down to the automatic gearshift on the steering column. Gotta shift it into Drive, I thought. I knew that much. I pushed my foot down onto the gas as hard as I could, determined to control the beast, and shifted.

The stick popped into Reverse and we shot backward a good 10 feet before Donovan’s foot stomped the teacher’s emergency brake. All of us lurched forward as we stopped, my forehead bouncing off the steering wheel. Devin and his friends howled with laughter outside, some of them actually falling and rolling on the lawn. Cool Raymond adjusted his sunglasses and looked out the side window, doubtless imagining himself elsewhere. Mr. Donovan reached over and pushed the stick back into Park, keeping his foot hard on the teacher’s brake.

“I can see,” he said, “that we’re going to have to start at the beginning.”

This story was previously published in Tattoo Highway. Need driving lessons? Go ask your Pop.

the Ayatollah of plastic

Do you think I’m judging you? By the looks on people’s faces these days, they do. Since I started the Plastic Purge, just about everyone who talks to me says, “Well, it was plastic, but…” or, “You would have hated it, there was so much plastic…” and, “I know it’s plastic, but…”.  There are the more aggressive folks who kind of snarl at me, “Is that plastic? Are you drinking out of a plastic cup? Is your Bandaid plastic?”
It’s kind of funny. I suppose I’m making them think about their own choices, and that might make them a little uncomfortable. I’m not really the Ayatollah of plastic, though. I’m just a poor slob dragging along and trying to make plastic-free choices. If I were the Ayatollah of plastic, I’d start chopping off fingers for every infraction. You’d have 10 chances to mend your ways, and then you’d pretty much be hosed and have to live in my Plastic-Free World, under my rules. On your knees, heathens!

I’d much rather be the Green Queen (as opposed to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland). I wouldn’t say “Off with her head.” (Much.) I’ll say, “Off with your plastic!” and trade you a real silver fork for your plastic one, offer you a waxed paper bag for your sandwich, a ceramic mug for your beverage, a reusable canvas bag for your vegetables, and perhaps some wooden chopsticks or hair ornaments instead of plastic ones. Then we’d scamper naked with whales and butterflies and eat homemade tofu together happily under Mother Redwood Tree while fairies sang.

So back to reality. I spent some time Friday shopping for some necessary household items, and took a turn around the local mall just to see what kind of plastics were for sale, and what alternatives. In the clothing department store (Kohl’s), all that clothing has the stupid little piece of plastic with price tag, and their bags are plastic. I recommend that you take your own large bags when clothes shopping, and try to recycle those little plastic scraps in your weekly bin. The cosmetics counter is redolent with perfume and with plastic — hard to escape the cases and compacts. I was able to purchase a pretty, vintage compact the other day at Thrift Town for about $3, and that is refillable with powder. I notice that if you spend more, you can often avoid plastic — true in cosmetics as well as in food. Glass bottles of perfume and boxes of talcum powder are two pricey examples.

Bed, Bath & Beyond had many plastic and silicone choices for use in the kitchen. I don’t own any silicone products, and frankly am skeptical as to its safety with food use. We thought plastics and non-stick pans were fine until recently, when their toxicity was reported. So I plan to continue avoiding silicone bakeware for the foreseeable future. Call me suspicious, but I just don’t trust manmade materials, based on past performance (silicone breast implants, anyone?) However, there were many bamboo implements, cutting boards and practical items like towel bars. Bamboo is very sustainable since it regrows so quickly. Lots of glass and plain metal pots and pans, tools and gadgets, too. I also saw the eco-non-stick pans, but I think I’ll just leave these be for now.

Alameda Beauty Center has a very nice selection of sustainable and vegan hairbrushes and combs (vegan means no boar bristles). There is also a nice variety of Burt’s Bees cosmetics and soaps. Surprise! Burt’s Bees makes a spray deodorant in an aluminum bottle. It has a recyclable plastic cap and inner tube, but this is the first packaging I’ve seen that is not entirely plastic. I (heart) Burt’s Bees. We have often purchased large bottles of shampoo from the beauty supply store, because we figure that one large bottle is the same as three individual bottles, and less packaging is better than more. I don’t have a way to actually measure this belief — it would be a complicated algebraic formula.

“If gasoline costs X and the shampoo is shipped from State Y to State Z, and if the plastic is made in State F and shipped to State G for packaging, and if the shampoo is made from baby squirrels which are not endangered but the exhaust from the shipping kills X many squirrels on the road, then buying one large bottle of shampoo at Store Q is/is not a better eco choice.” (falls down in mathematical coma…)

If anyone can actually work out a formula like this so that we all have a simple rubric at hand, with a tap on the screen of our favorite pocket devices, please let me know. Is there an app for that? Until then, I’m going to continue to try and avoid plastic, excessive driving, imported items in general, and toxic substances.

By the way, Alameda Beauty Center has a nice punch card and takes off $5 when your card is full. I take my own bag because they offer plastic bags. As far as the mall, it’s also nice to note that See’s Candy is almost next door (at our mall), offers delicious free samples, packages mostly in paper and foil, and adds sunshine to my day. Plastic-free chocolate…mmm.

My last stop was at Beverly’s, where I fondled the yarns and stroked the fabrics and flipped through crafty books. Lots of plastic here, for sure — but also many paper-wrapped or unwrapped items, if you want to get your craft on. The bead aisle, scrapbooking and the fake floral departments scare me, with whatever mountains of plastic-making fumes spewed into whatever Third World country in order for us to make necklaces, memory books and floral centerpieces for our hapless friends and families. (This is as good a time as any to mention “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute short film by Berkeley gal Annie Leonard, which shows you the consequences of our cheap stuff and where it comes from and where it goes after we’re done. It’s online and it’s free. Be brave and watch it, and then tell me if it doesn’t affect what you plan to buy next.)

I didn’t go into Radio Shack, Anna’s Linens, Old Navy or Big 5 Sporting Goods — I was already exhausted from touching and looking and the smell of all that new stuff was actually beginning to nauseate me (really). But I imagine those stores, as in any store in any mall in America and beyond, that there is plastic aplenty, and that you can easily take your own bag, and that if you choose to avoid buying plastic, you probably can.

Caveat emptor, as always.

about the dustmop

Update on yesterday’s post, wherein I yearned for a dust mop to swipe up the furballs: I don’t currently have a mopless handle, as it turns out, but a nice person on Freecycle is going to give me one, and my nice friend LisaPie says I can crochet a mop top out of cotton yarn, of which I have aplenty. So I will not be buying one. It was just a momentary flicker of lust and desire…a new dust mop…(swoons).

Lovely reader Heather was telling me about her indoor laundry-drying system, and how she also uses wool balls in the dryer. I’m like, wool balls – huh? She sent me this link, and says these felted (handmade) wool balls cut your drying by about 40% in the dryer. Who knew?Guess what I’ll be working on?

These are some other goofy things I’ve been doing lately, Compact-wise.

  • I’ve been using the extra sticky strips on packets of stamps as tape to hold the envelope closed. The other day I had a large (reused) manila envelope to mail, and at the PO, realized it was not sticking. I was going to ask for some tape, but I spied someone’s trash from a packet of stamps on the counter. All the sticky in-between strips were still there. So I didn’t have to buy a roll of packing tape nor ask for the borrow of some. Cheapskate me, huh? Well, it worked. And then I found a penny.

  • Just got a tasty recipe for some protein-filled snacks, made from our cheap friend, the lowly garbanzo bean. This recipe courtesy of April, a friend from high school, who posted it on Facebook the other day. I buy garbanzos dry, then soak and boil. April buys the Costco-size can, rinses, then makes them into snacks. So overnight I soaked, today boiled for 30 mins, then drained, and proceeded with the snack: drain well or pat dry with a towel. Arrange in 1-2 layers on a cookie sheet (no need to grease sheet). Sprinkle with your choice of seasonings — salt, pepper, taco seasoning, onion or garlic powder, chile lime salt, chili powder, whatever. Put in the oven at 350 for about 2-3 hrs til dry and crunchy. A whole potful filled a cookie sheet double layer, then baked down to a single layer and filled a 2 lb peanut butter jar. And the guys are eating them by the handful, like peanuts. I think that potful of these crunchy beans cost about 50 cents, and they are pure protein, plus a little salt. No fat!

  • Looks like the season for appliances to poop out, and last night it was the rice cooker. Mr Husband has had it 20+ years, and it warms things but doesn’t cook rice anymore. So I might keep it as a warmer for a while. Or plant something in it. I cooked the rice on top of the stove instead. It was just as good.

  • I’ve noticed in the great Coupon Savings Challenge that almost every single time I buy something at the store, on sale or with a coupon, that at least one price is wrong. I get so flustered in line when it’s busy, and they go so fast. We used to have to call out the prices (a million years when dinosaurs roamed the planet and there was a class called “Beginning Cashier Training” in high school). But they don’t do that anymore. You’re supposed to watch the checker/machine – but also watch the baggers who keep trying to give you plastic bags because it’s easier on *them*, and then seem incapacitated by the problem of where to put the gallons of milk. Um — they don’t need a bag. So while I’m keeping an eye on the bagger, the checker just jams everything through, and then I have to read the receipt and catch booboos after the fact. It’s a little annoying because I feel like The Problem Shopper, always complaining. They see me coming and their faces say that they recognize me — not that happily, or am I imagining it. Doh! But what the heck? They ought to get their advertised prices right. If it says 2 for $4, they ought to charge you that price. Just thought I’d kvetch about that a little bit.

  • Still eating our way through the pantry and freezer. Interesting that we’ve been eating better now that I have to work harder to make a decent meal out of the weirdest stuff. (Although we cooked apparently bad bacon on Sunday and made Mr Husband sick. Oops. Sorry.) But they keep telling me, “Great dinner!” I made a different 3-bean salad out of last summer’s frozen green beans, more of the garbanzos (boiled, not baked) and some edamame. It’s pretty, healthful and tasty. Last night’s Chinese-Japanese-Korean dinner included more of the frozen edamame, brown rice (dead cooker), stir-fry veggies with everything in it (clean out fridge), some Aidell’s chicken-pineapple meatballs (freezer), and a fruit salad I made out of fresh oranges, 1 persimmon, 1/2 a grapefruit, the last pomegranate, and a can of tropical fruit in juice. Plus green tea and some vegetarian “pork” buns that I had made and frozen a few months ago. Very tasty, all of it.

Here are a couple of photos of the dead garden just now. One shows the hot pepper plants under glass with 3 hens having a dig for worms.

Happy days, keep your fingers warm, and don’t forget to floss.

not ready for prime time

Working on my challenges this week has kept me busy. Want the deets? Read on…

1) FYI, don’t put nonrechargable batteries into a recharger. They blow up. This happened a few minutes ago and we then had a nasty battery acid spill to clean up. It was my fault — I’ve been hounding the corps about recharge the batteries! I stuck them in there but apparently didn’t realize. I just stuffed them in. Oops. Sorry. Mr. Husband not amused.

2) We are coasting toward payday and I’m sticking to my no-shopping-til-payday mini-challenge, because we had so much leftover holiday foodstuffs that I couldn’t see the back of the fridge. I’ve spent a few days actively eating down the extra and preserving, freezing, feeding to the chickens, etc. Today, for example, I emptied the cookie jar into a gallon ziplock bag and rolling-pinned it to make cookie crumbs. These will make a sweet pie crust for an ice cream or pudding pie, can be used to make a parfait or trifle, or merely sprinkled over ice cream or yogurt. A tablespoon of mixed up cookie crumbs is better than munching my way through a mountain of Christmas cookies. Far fewer calories, no waste. No leftovers. (I know, whoever heard of a leftover cookie?)

3) My ever-over-achieving friend Max at My Roman Apartment is doing a 52-kinds-of-jam-in-52-weeks, and I guess that means one per week. Well, rock on, Max, my dear, I can’t go along for the ride. But I did make marmalade out of a bunch of citrus fruit that was going south. A couple of hardening pink grapefruits, a lime that was turning into a golf ball, some sliced lemons that we had with seafood, a handful of orange peels, plus 5 homegrown oranges that were not exactly Sunkist quality…are now about 7 jars of beautiful sweet citrus marmalade. It’s very orangey, but you can taste the lemon and the grapefruit notes. It’s just divine. (hold out spoon) Taste it! I reused several jam jars for sealing, and a couple of other jars for the fridge that have lids but couldn’t be sealed. I will play Marmalade Fairy later in the week and deliver jars to some local friends who asked. I think I’m getting some Meyer lemons and yellow grapefruit in return — yummy!

4) Simplify, pare down, declutter — we got all the Christmas stuff off the walls, tree, front porch and floor, into boxes, and finally up into the attic. As we did so, we started rearranging the living room, and now it’s a spacious, wide-open modern-looking place to sit. I would take a photo of it, but my batteries died, and then I exploded them trying to reload, and…anyway, I’ll get a photo in a day or so and post. Also noticed that we need a dust mop of some sort. Something to grab dust bunnies better than a broom, which just seems to chase them away.

5) The savings and couponing are all going well — nothing to report, since I haven’t been shopping this week, but I did some work toward taxes, I’m sniffing out coupons and savings every day, and have pretty much decided it’s foolish to pay full price for anything if you can find a discount  or a barter for it. We’re working on getting a new computer for The Boy, for example, for his room. A friend of ours is assembling a Frankenstein model out of lots of leftover parts. He — our friend —  does this for a living, and naturally, his living room is full to the brim with extra computer bits. We’ll be getting a super fast up to date computer with sound system, fully loaded, made outta leftovers saved from oblivion or landfill, when all is said and done. This is a lot for a 13-y.o.’s birthday gift, but we decided a) it’s an investment for his middle and high school years that can be upgraded easily, since our buddy is creating the computer, and b) it’s actually a safer deal to let him have his own computer for homework and such, so that he won’t monopolize and crash the house computer (with financial records on it). If we went through Best Buy or wherever, we wouldn’t be getting this good of equipment for anyone — not even the house.

6) The Handmade Challenge/MIY continues as well. We needed jam, I made marmalade. We needed salad dressing, I whipped some up. I need my shoes polished; I’m doing it tomorrow. As we continue through the living room and into the next few rooms, there will be a lot of making it myself. Curtains, pillows, painting furniture…and back into the kitchen, where I’ll throw some stuff in the bread maker tomorrow and see what pops out. I’ve got to find that half-made Scrappy Sweater I was knitting last winter (out of scrap yarn, of course) and get back to work on it.

Time for bed, sleepyheads. May your days be filled with ruth and grace, and your nights full of dreamless sleep, or dreams of wonder.
(PS: that’s the chalk board on the kitchen door. Fabi, our German student, added the I <3 U.)

still life with yarn, harvest and sneezes

We added another hen to our flock, a cull from another flock across town. This one is also a golden-laced Wyandott but she is altogether darker than Violet; we’ve named her Dahlia (which we liked better then Waffle, her previous name). All of our “flowers” are prospering, still enjoying daily run of the backyard, grass, worms, bugs, seeds, and household leftovers. In return, a clutch of eggs for the house, and companionship. There’s nothing like a chicken looking in the door at you and asking for food to make you feel wanted.

I had been making crafty gifts to sell at Sunday’s craft fair at Temple Israel, and so looking forward to it, but I caught Fabienne’s cold and am still in the middle. Since the sale is tomorrow, I would have spent today baking and labeling, but instead I’m drinking tea in my bathrobe and reading old National Geographics and wishing I could bake and label. Oh, well. Clearly the Universe is telling me to chill out. So I chill.
I’m not much for television, but I did watch a little Food Network yesterday and mildly enjoyed Paula Deen and Rachel Ray and Giada de Laurentiis. I think I liked Giada the most and Rachel the least — but cooking is fun and it’s nice to watch masters (mistresses) at work. I wish they’d say “I’m gonna compost this” and that they’d use the “unpretty” parts of vegetables — I saw Giada throw away half of some scallions that were perfectly usable — they could have a stock pot for vegetable bits or a compost bucket somewhere, but nope, not very green, any of it. Rachel Ray was serving veal, which I have never eaten and never will, and a truckload of garlic, which I don’t eat too much. Paula was very entertaining and I loved her homey accent and cheerful count of how many sticks of butter she had used thus far, but I couldn’t eat like that and I don’t think anyone should, really. Talk about gilding the lily.
So there’s my assessment of the only daytime TV I could stand to watch — aside from a little PBS international news. That was also instructive — to remind me how many people there are in the world, and those on the edge of poverty don’t give a rat’s ass about composting or recycling; they just want to get by. It is terribly alarming, actually, looking at numbers in China and India, where people who drove rickshaws and bicycles now drive cars that need gas and spew exhaust — the smog, pollution, toxins, fuel consumption and other issues are just frightening. And then I go get into my car and tool around town buying stuff and playing chauffeur, and how is that any different? It isn’t.

So many troubles in the world. [deep sigh]

I’m not the sickest I’ve ever been — the Swine Flu 18 months ago was the worst — but when I have a snootly-sneezy cold, I ought not to be in the kitchen handling food. On the counter is a bowl of tomatoes asking to be made into sauce, and a bag of apples that really want to become a pie, a cake and some muffins. I hear their little voices calling me, and I can’t answer — wait a few days, I think, but the fruit flies race for another meal, and pretty soon it will all end as chicken feed. So I feel a little sense of urgency to recuperate. And I would have liked to have done that craft fair, dang it, because I have the stuff to sell, and that was gonna be our Christmas budget, and instead we’ll have to reach deeper and find more pennies and resources. Disappointing, to say the least, and the table fee is non-refundable.
Well, that’s the way of it sometimes. Happy weekend to you, and start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas and how to stay warm and be jolly. If jolly’s what you do.