Monday, September 2, 2013

The Answer To Your Question

Changes in life often bring the questions and concerns of others into sharp focus as we struggle to move our vision of life a little closer to reality. The quintessential question in middle class American culture what do you do? is replaced, when you're transitioning, by what are you going to do?  The underlying assumption, that what I do is of primary importance, ignores and devalues the reality of who  I am.

My knee jerk reaction to this question, no matter how kindly meant, is to sneer Napoleon Dynamite style and offer a Whatever I wanna do, gosh.  I try to rein it in, truly, because I hope that the usual questioners simply have no concept of what it might be like to eschew traditional bourgeois values.  Our ideas about what constitutes real life simply don't geehaw.

It is easier, by far, to list all the things I will not do. I will not settle for a life of corporate drudgery, no matter how well paid.  I will not pursue material things with such fervor that a loss of income could reduce me to bankruptcy. I will not trade my leisure time for extended work hours that benefit only my employer. I will not opt-in.

There are some in my life who seem to mistake my antipathy towards middle-class, suburban life as an inability to succeed. An easy mistake to make, I'm sure. Let me be clear: I don't have a high powered, high paying job, because I've never sought one out. I don't have a MBA because I have no use for one. I refuse to pay the equivalent of the median household income for a family of four for a vehicle that I will wear out and consign to the junkyard eventually. I do not value the typical consumerist lifestyle.

When asked what I will do, the asker typically wants to know how will I support myself. In the same way I always have: by trading as little of my time as necessary for the amount of money I need to live. Only once in my life, for a period of around a decade, did I find something, professionally, to be passionate about. I was so drawn to my work in outdoor education that I financed it by serving steaks to rednecks for 8 months out of the year. My love for that time and place has never gone, but I find that my tolerance for major sacrifice to remain doing it has lessened. I won't live in Minnesota or Vermont, thousands of miles from home, to remain at camp. So that time has ended.

As we transition to Florida, a decision that has mystified as many as it has elated, know that we have a plan.  It won't surprise a core group of friends and acquaintances, many of whom share our lust for living on the bohemian side of things.  We are not going for no reason; we are going to homestead more fully. We're not just buying a house, we're building a livelihood too. In the tradition of all the current (sub)urban homesteaders, we're creating a small (mostly) self-sustaining island in the middle of traditional America. 

We're trading our clock punching for beekeeping, cheese making, gardening, crafting, composting, baking, fermenting, and preserving. We will help ourselves to some local bounty by foraging, gleaning and fishing. We'll use our cottage industry to help us achieve a better life/work balance than what we see around us.

This is nothing new. The bookshelves are currently lousy with memoirs of people my age, many with Ivy League educations, who just opted out. They found more value in learning to make sauerkraut than in selling stocks and bonds. In my parents time it was buying small remote farms to get away from The Man. In the early 20th century it was self sufficiency on 5 acres. 

The irony, of course, is that because we hail from middle class America, we have the choice, the luxury of opting out. We can become purveyors of honey at the farmers market, make very little in the way of cash, and yet never actually be part of the working class. We exist as something else, something difficult to define. Educated, primarily white, usually progressive, back-to-the-landers abound in this generation, as more and more of us acknowledge that the rat race is for suckers. 

Maybe you still worry about what we'll do, maybe you can't help it. Remember that what we'll do is live. On our own terms. Just as you and everyone else must.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

At the Zoo

Yesterday was yet another anniversary of my 30th birthday, oh bother. In an unprecedented move, Fuschia allowed me to design a perfect day for us to spend, without censure.  Breakfast in bed, a luxurious spa morning, spending the day on beautiful water riding jet skis, and finally retiring to the local Capitol Grille for filet and lobster. That's a perfect day, my friend. 

Unfortunately, the current budgetary situation and economic climate of our household, combined with Fushia's fiduciary responsibility, did not allow for perfection at this time.  Such is life, right?

We went with the runner-up day, instead. Recently, I've been engaging in a little frugal living via couponing. That show, you know which one, made me wonder if I could also pay 15% or less of the sticker price for my groceries and whatnot. Long story short: I can. So when I was planning a day of whatever I wanted to do, coupons became the theme.

We started with a quick pharmacy store run which netted me 4 bottles of dish detergent and 6 snacks for $.94.  Bagel sandwiches for breakfast should've been $5, but I forgot the paper money in the car, so we paid the full $8. Bummer.

Our main entertainment activity of the day was the Louisville Zoo. I'd heard good things, happened to have a coupon and a whole, cloud-free day to explore, so off we went. Fuschia and I happen to be veteran zoo goers, passing many a weekend day wandering around the local menagerie. Zoos, I know about.

Louisvillians, I apologize, but your zoo is not so great. The exhibits are kitschy and underpopulated, the paths lack adequate shade and the interpretive info (a must for people like me) was sadly underwhelming. There were exactly three decent moments in the wild yesterday: I had a bonding moment with an orangutan; I saw a Pygmy hippopotamus for the first time ever; and I was able to buy a sno-cone with my plastic card at the little cart.

Two hours after arrival, we left, heading off to search for a light repast.  Because I'm me, and I'm a pizza addict, we decided to kick it old school and use a Pizza Hut coupon. We both flash backed to the summer reading program while eating our little personal pan pizzas, but they were so tasty.

We ended the afternoon with a craft store trip for fall crafting supplies, followed by the most luxurious nap ever taken by two adults.  The night was capped off by dinner (yummy Chinese) and couponing run to Target and Kroger. 80% and 75% savings, respectively.

Wile my birthday bore no resemblance to what a perfect day would be for me, it was exactly the day I wanted and needed this year. A whole day to putter around, be ridiculously tight-fisted and hang out with Fuschia. Perfection, after all.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Beat Goes On

When I last left you, I was busy failing at making cheese despite multiple attempts with a friend from work. Fear not.  We did eventually get it right (fifth times a charm), making mozzarella that proved yummy enough sliced onto homemade pizza despite us not being able to master the round ball aspect of mozz making.

Just a few weeks later I spent some time with my kiddos in the kitchen, teaching them how to make a variety of fruit desserts.  Like all good Georgia peaches I grew up eating homemade cobblers, fried pies and ice cream. As a Girl Scout I later learned to make an excellent dump cake, which if you can get past the name, is an excellent  last minute recipe to add to the ol repertoire.  When it came time to teach the Mini Chefs, I figured a basic Peach Cobbler, a no fail Black Forest Dump Cake and a new (for me) Blueberry Buckle would set them up for a lifetime of easy desserts.

The Blueberry Buckle was attractive to me for one reason: streusel topping.  I LOVE streusel, truly I do. I'm not sure why butter and sugar become, in a fit of alchemy, an entirely new, sinful experience, but they certainly do.  And I love it.

Enter the Buckle, which turns out is essentially a cobbler with a streusel topping. Easy to make, delicious to taste, it proved a close runner-up among the kiddos taste buds which opted for the oh-so-refined Dump Cake  in droves.

Furthering the lesson on fruit desserts we then moved on to baked Banana Pudding, which despite being warm and covered in meringue, is still the yummiest way to make it.  By baking the bananas you get such a lovely caramely flavor missing from the time-saving one bowl, cold method.  The kids were game with the traditional method so we gave it a go, realizing too late that  beating meringue by hand is an exercise in torture. We did soldier on, managed to produce an excellent fluffy cloud to top the pudding and by some miracle rescued it from the oven mere seconds before "golden brown" could take the final baby step to "charcoal".

After adjusting to the warmth of the pudding, everyone agreed that this was a sweet they could get behind.  Proving their point they ate until the dish was clean and had to be restrained from resorting to licking it in search of further morsels.  Desserts? Check.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Little Miss Muffett...

On my most recent 25th birthday anniversary I received a lovely gift from The In-Laws to a little place called Amazon.  The wonder of that store is that I can literally buy anything my heart could possibly desire. There are thousands, if not millions, of items that I wasn't aware that I wanted, til I saw them on Amazon.  So when it came time to pick out my birthday indulgence, I spent a good amount of time looking at all the possibilities. Would I go traditional and buy books and music?  A DVD set of a fave TV show?  My search was long and intense, but eventually I placed the very best items in my buggy and clicked buy.

You might be wondering what I didn't buy.  The list of strong, Rocky-style contenders is varied and in true-Cactus style would only make sense to me.  A small sampling of rejected items: a case of Red Eye Gravy Instant Grits; all of True Blood on DVD; mushroom spore logs; a trailer hitch cover; a small greenhouse. Like I said, it doesn't have to be logical.

What did I end up with?  A nice assortment of lovely things.  Since the season of my religion, SEC Football, is upon us, I decided I must have some new GA gear. Most of you brought up in an SEC state know only too well that you are required to declare allegiance to a team and color scheme in early childhood. Maybe this is true in states where they play football in other conferences, as well.  I wouldn't know nor do I care.

My Mama can tell you that in an effort to rebel in high school not only did I declare myself a J.D. Rockefeller-worshipping Republican, but I also became a GA Tech fan. Don't worry, I quickly recognized the error of my ways and went right back to more traditional rebellious behaviors. Never has a parent been so relieved by a little underage wine cooler indulgence.

In picking out new fab merch this summer I decided that only a Tervis tumbler with lid and straw, sportin the big G would be appropriate for game day cocktails. To guarantee that I was well dressed on Saturdays this fall I picked out a lovely, vibrant red thermal Henley with the existential query "How Bout Them Dawgs?" across the chest.  After those purchases, I still had enough of my gift to make one more modest purchase, but what did I still desperately want?

For some time now I've been dyin to try my hand at making cheese. I asked my daddy, Mr. RTR himself for a cheesemaking kit last Christmas, but did not receive one. As my dad is not one to skimp in the gift department, I can only assume he thought I was joking.  I can assure you, I was not.  So with the last of my birthday money I finally ordered the Beginner's Mozzarella Kit from Ricki the Cheese Queen. 

I received this excellent package in the mail two weeks ago and have been impatiently waiting to make fresh mozz of my very own. Due to the fact that Fuschia and I are packing our house and relocating, as is our nomadic inclination, my own kitchen isn't fit to make a 3 minute Hungry Man in right now.  The only other option is work, which has a huge, if ill-equipped kitchen to offer. As an added bonus I could also use the milk that we buy by the case, saving myself the hassle of procuring my own.

Tonight a co-worker, Dr. Who, and I finally worked up the gumption to give milk alchemy a try. We faithfully followed the directions, setting out all necessary tools and ingredients, scrubbing our hands like surgery awaited.  It was a heady few moments when we began heating the milk, adding the citric acid, checking the temp, waiting for it to hit 90 degrees.  When it finally did we moved on to the all important addition of the rennet. We added.  We gently stirred. We covered the pot and waited. And waited.

Finally we pulled back the lid to discover that we, chunky milk.  The instructions said this was a possibility and to just wait longer, so we re-covered the pot and waited again.  After a respectable time for the rennet to do its flippin job we opened the lid again to find...chunky milk.  Epic fail. We quickly poured it down the drain and got to work on a second attempt. This time we made it all the way to the curd heating stage before we were forced to concede defeat. Our curds just weren't forming.

After a lengthy, bitter cleanup spent discussing how bummed we were at our inability to make the simplest cheese known to mankind, we retreated to the staff office and the soothing narcotic that is the interweb.  I immediately went to  , Rick the Cheese Queen's site in search of tech support in my cheese failure.  Almost instantly it became apparent that the real culprit is probably the chlorine used to clean the drinking water here in Louisville.

Evidently chlorine keeps rennet from working which is absolutely what prevented us from cheesemaking success. Strange that a 981 mile long vat of chemicals, human excrement and a little water would need extensive treatment to make it potable, but there you have it.  Since I attempted to make cheese with the Ohio River, post chlorine, I set myself up for failure.

Although we're officially moving next Wednesday, I still plan on getting right back to mozz-making next Saturday night.  This time, I think I'll pick up a little distilled water and see how we do.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Musings on Backpacking

The following post was written several, if not many, years ago during my days of adventure tripping masquerading as actual work.  It remains the coolest job I've ever had. 

Coming around a bend in the trail, I let out a gasp loud enough for my companions to hear.  I smile, they smile, for we all know the same thing: it is time for a break.  There could be no more perfect spot than this creek, under these trees, in the middle of a glorious, Georgia, July day; it approaches what heaven must be like.
                Here on the Gahuti trail, winding around Fort Mountain in North Georgia,   we’re a scant 2 miles into our trip.  The group, 12 beginners plus their fearless guides, is large and unwieldy and more than a little out of shape.  We’re taking it slow, walking for pleasure and fitness through the still forest.  When we happen upon a beautiful stream intersecting our path, we waste no time shedding our modern torture devices and relaxing on the best seats in Mother Nature’s house.
                For most hikers this could be a relaxing, beautiful day-hike accomplished in time to retire to town for a hearty meal.  For us, the 8.2 mile loop trail is a chance to take that initial baby-step into the strange and mysterious world of backpacking.  We’ve planned for a 1.5 day, overnight trip that breaks for the evening 5-or-so miles into the trip.  The assistant guide and I have estimated that we’ll reach our Adirondack shelter well before night fall. 
Sitting at the creek, waiting for a turn with the water filter, I’m rethinking our optimistic timeline; its approaching 3p.m with less than half the day’s distance completed.  I fill my bottle to the brim, knowing that this water will taste better than anything I’ve ever had; I’m not disappointed.  When I recover from my near religious experience, I get out the map and my luxury item, dried pineapple, to decide on a backup plan if we continue to make molasses-in-January  progress. 
                Knowing the group’s determination to complete this trip, I file away a few options in the mental folder and get to my feet; it’s time to move on.  Loading up is accompanied by extra sighs and groans as our bodies readjust to the packs.  Taking the lead, I start back up a gorgeous section of trail; humming despite my deadline concern, I’m feeling at one with the world.
                Through sheer determination and willpower, no doubt fueled by a wish to avoid sleeping scattered throughout the allegedly ghost-inhabited woods, we make our shelter with thirty minutes to spare.    Relief is apparent in the tone of the group’s voices as we set up tents and make chore assignments for dinner.  As so often happens, boundless energy arises the moment the packs hit the dirt, and we harness that exuberance to get food on the make. 
                Much later, after the group has drifted into their tents and bags, after the last headlamp has been extinguished, I sit alone with the assistant guide, soaking in the night noises.  We hear frogs, crickets, cicadas, and something much larger: maybe a bear, but probably a raccoon.  Admiring the stars overhead I think back on the pain and effort expended to get me to this place and smile, secure in the knowledge that it will all be forgotten by morning, when only the beauty remains.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cooking Rockstars

Life is not all fun, games and adventure here in Cactusland. Occasionally I have to go to work and make enough money to fund the next round of excitement. For the last two years I've been putting my undergrad to good use (novel concept, I know) by working with an agency in Kentuckiana that provides residential psychiatric treatment. Basically we're 1-2 (depending on which of our programs you're talking about) steps below a psychiatric hospital. 

I currently work with lower functioning clients in a group home setting, something I never could have predicted I would enjoy. Like all kids, our kids need structure and lots of it. One of the ways we provide that is to engage them in group activities, which may or may not be typical group therapy. I'm not much for sitting around talking about feelings, so when I was brainstorming ideas for a group, there was really only one option: cooking group.

In the way that all Southern women feel food is therapy, I embrace cooking as a treatment activity for our kiddos. My Mama and Mema both have shown me how much better the act of preparing a meal can make you feel; how the simple steps of a recipe can be more effective than any amount of pharmaceutical help. I was certain that if I could get them cooking, I could help them on their path to wellness.

The first meeting of cooking group had me a tad nervous, as I wasn't sure I could maintain the interest of 6-8 kids that are known for emotional outbursts.  I did spend many years teaching kids and adults, so my skills for providing informal education are there, but possibly a tad rusty. I picked a recipe for our inaugural group that I had learned on the fly with Reader several years ago: Thai Peanut Noodles. It's a homemade, decently healthy interpretation of a street food favorite and it requires a fair amount of actual cooking.

My lil cooking rockstars, 7 the first week, took to the group like ducks to water. Within our hour together they had learned how to mince, saute, boil and toss; basic ideas for an accomplished food wrangler, but heady stuff for those uninitiated into the kitchen.  After my groups had finished putting together the dish  we all sat around the table, Top Chef style, and tried that first bite together. I couldn't help but be impressed; they had gone to town on those noodles.

After a few minutes of slurping and chewing I suggested we go around the table and share any comments, constructive or otherwise, about the dish.  The responses ranged from "This is awesome" to "This is freaking amazing."  Clearly, we had a winning dish and some pretty awesome newbie cooks.

Last week we worked with eggs: scrambled, as french toast and as a fritatta.  This time when we went around the circle while sampling the food I was impressed to hear some comments that actually considered why the dish was good, what could have been better, etc. It was a great group.

This week I'm teaching them easy fruit cakes: a peach cobbler, a blueberry buckle and a black forest dump cake (unfortunate though the name may be) and I can't wait. To watch these kids that so often struggle to maintain their behavior focus on food for an hour every Sunday night is amazing. They are totally engaged, involved and on task.  I remain their fascinated, fearless leader. By Christmas, we'll be whipping up homemade figgy pudding. Trust.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Local Celeb at a Local Pub

Fuschia and I were too exhausted after our long week in FL to do much in the way of cooking this weekend. Saturday afternoon found us at Molly Malone's in St. Matthews, hoping for a quick bite.  The place was pretty much dead, something I was truly surprised by. Normally that bar is a haven for the yuppie crowd, with tons of people hanging out on the patio.  Maybe only late night draws a huge crowd, cause we were holding down the joint with no more than 20 other folks.

Like most American-Irish pubs, Molly Malone's has dark wood, fish n chips and Guinness on tap. They also have a a great space with high ceilings (a bit of a rarity in the average pub), an uncluttered feel and decently friendly waitstaff.  Fuschia and I chose the steak and onion sandwich and fish n chips, respectively, while electing to share a Magners Irish Cider for fun.

Over the years hard cider has become our go-to beverage, as neither one of us ever developed a real beer friendly palate. As most of you know, I can drink a beer or five, but I may not enjoy it to the fullest degree possible. But hard cider? I love cider. Introduced to me by my now bestie Spurs, hard cider is my fave indulgence; my beverage/dessert.  Upon trying the Magners, a blend of 15 apples, we both agreed that the dry finish and complexity of flavor was really appealing. We had no trouble finishing the pint.

Our food arrived piping hot (truly, I have a blister to prove it) and looked nearly as appetizing as pub food is capable of looking. Although I had cheated and gotten fish n roasted potatoes, I enjoyed my meal.  The roasted potatoes had a wonderful char on the skins, with a smooth interior that was perfect. They were instantly my favorite part of the meal.  The cod was beer battered, deep fried and served with two things that I detest: coleslaw and tartar.  I know, I know...I just can't make myself eat that stuff.

The fish was decent, although a tad undercooked, and I managed to eat 1.5 fillets.  Fuschia meanwhile was steadily devouring a steak sandwich that she reported to be okay.  Because she believes food is only a vehicle for condiments, Fuschia is often less than enthusiastic about sauceless entrees. That was how the steak sandwich offended her.  After applying some post facto mayo, she reported the plate a success, finishing her sandwich and my leftover cod.

Due to having to work just a few hours later, I abstained from additional cider intake, though I could've easily done damage to that keg.  As we're paying the check Fuschia lowers her voice, cocks her head and says "look who it is".  I slyly glance in the direction she's indicated, nod sagely and say "A really tall dude and a not so tall dude." With that my lovely Fuschia, in that classic way that Louisvilles' natives reserve for those of us that just aren't from here, rolls her eyes and says "that's Pitino". 

My incomprehension may have been obvious because she followed that pronouncement with a sigh and "you know, the head basketball coach for the Cardinals. you know, they were number 2 last year."  Oh yeah, that guy.  Clearly I was expected to know just by seeing him, but what can I say.....I'm a freaking football fan.  Mark Richt I would have asked for an autograph:)