School Daze, Season’s Peak, & Random Musings

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The last week we’ve been hearing… drums, and occasionally the theme from Spider Man played in the hot afternoons. Rather than aural hallucinations, it turns out that we are now experiencing … the golden splendor of having a high school around the corner, an elementary school around the block, and a junior high school two streets away. It is MADNESS in the morning; we opened the garage to find four cars in some bizarre U-turn situation in front of our driveway, and a line of cars piled up at the stop sign. We can only look forward to more of these delightful shenanigans. We’re also going to have to walk a lot earlier in the morning, or at least a lot later, once first period has started, otherwise the sidewalks are rather …full.

It’s so strange to live deep in suburbia with so. many. kids around. We expect to be asked to buy …just about everything, and to support various booster clubs. Or, maybe that was from some 1950’s TV show, and no one does that anymore. (You can tell some of us didn’t go to public school.)

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Late summer means that we’re finally beginning to see the big harvests happen for our lovely tomatoes and peaches. We have only three tomato plants and they are all for some varietal or other of plum tomato, so we have VERY many, and they are low acid and tasty. The number of peaches we’ve harvested, even with fighting the squirrel for them, is very exciting! The plan is to make peach preserves, and maybe a fresh peach chutney, though we don’t know what we’d do with it after we made it. Grilled peaches may also be on the menu. Our peaches don’t… look ripe, but they are small and firm and surprisingly delicious. We think they might dry well for chewy goodness later in the year, but we’ll have to see how many survive our eating them out of hand — and the privations of our family, ahem.

Though the pomegranates are getting bigger every day (and the tree encroaches further and further into the space that should be the lemon tree’s next to it, poor thing) we expect the jujubes to come ripe next. We actually tasted one of the fruit which had dried on the tree, and were surprised – SoCal aficionados who have frequented I-10 know about Hadley’s Fruit Orchard in Cabazon, where there’s a Costco sized warehouse full of dried fruit products, and you can get date shakes… well, sun-dried jujubes apparently taste like date shakes, according to D. T, who hadn’t been a fan when introduced to them, just thinks it tastes like …a date, and since one of its nicknames is the Chinese Red Date, that makes sense.

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This has been the Summer of The Project. T painted multiple Adoption Day t-shirts for her sibs and niece as they celebrated their adoptions, and D surprised T with a hand-made brass wind chime – she was mainly surprised because who knew you could just make those with enough time and a saw? It sounds lovely – do click on the image to hear it.

D’s latest project is leather working. D is making T a barrel purse, which necessitated a trip to Tandy Leather… a store she hadn’t been into since she worked at summer camp. We will not be making any badly stitched moccasins or dreadful tooled leather wallets, however. T is intrigued by this new and creative streak, and wonders what else she can get out of D while he’s in a maker mood. Perhaps shoes? A footstool?


Other random meandering: One of the dubious gifts of social media is the realization that so many of the people with whom you are acquainted or know/like/follow also know/like/follow other people with whom you are acquainted. In the last (endless) election cycle, there was much talk of “bubbles” and intellectual filter theory, and while not all of us put much stock into it, it is apparent sometimes that types of people tend to stick with types. Or, as they said in Ye Olden Days, birds of a feather flock together, water finds its own level, like attracts like – please, Choose Your Own Ancient Saying. What’s weird is the near hostility which sometimes accompanies this …grouping. Having grown up in a conservative faith, this level of angst is unfortunately familiar… some of us got “It’s Us Against Them” preached to us from the pulpit weekly. Others of us learned to distrust the more obvious groupings at our mother’s knee, and it’s been easy for many people to get their backs up if others vary in looks, faith, social status or belief … just check your Twitter or Facebook feeds.

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The human brain likes patterns, and it’s always striving to make sense of things. Like a sheepdog, endlessly herding things, our brain says “Look! One of these things is not like the others!” when we find differences. That “Look!” is at first just knowledge, acknowledgement, but for so many people it goes straight into fear… and since many of us would rather eat nails than admit to fear, we substitute anger. We become hostile.

(Some of you are bristling, saying, “Well I don’t.” Okay. The “we” is general, of course, but this might go a ways toward explaining some of what drives public attitudes on social media these days…)

And what we decide to do, think, or say next we can’t blame on the way our brains work. We are not all alike. We would be bored if we were. So, why can’t humanity seem to get over the idea that societal differences and divergent opinions exist?


The local paper lists each week what one is meant to be doing in the garden, and now is the time to be raking up fallen fruit, pruning apricots (apparently before it gets wet and they get some sort of fungus, though this presents the question and why not the plums, too?) and… raiding the plant clearance bins at Lowes. August, September, and October are fine times to check and see what’s there – perennials with the flowers fallen, annuals that look a bit wilted, succulents that aren’t flowering anymore. T’s parents’ front yard is the recipient of the generous variety of lovely and colorful plants to be found in the half-dead-from-summer clearance bins. One must merely be sharp-eyed and patient, and one can coax all sorts of goodies back to life. T, who worked in downtown Walnut Creek, ended up with a bunch of landscape plants one day because she asked the workers why they were tearing them out. No reason, except that someone decided it was time for new ones… patience isn’t valued in commercial landscaping, but if you’re quick, you can take advantage of that. Happy hunting!

High Summer Shenanigans

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Why, yes. Hrafen probably is judging you.

It was the best of fruit. It was the worst of fruit. It was… another lovely summer.

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It’s August already… the calm before the storm. We’ve been thinning apples from the two trees like mad, but we already know it’s going to be an interesting autumn. After being inundated by the neighbor’s cherries and our own plums in June, we were grateful for the five apricots we got off of our tree in July and a teensy, single nectarine. We’re bracing ourselves for the goji berries, jujubes, peaches, and apples that are coming next, followed by the poms and persimmons. We put up some plum jelly which is delicious – and experimentally flavored with allspice. This is not to everyone’s tastes, which means there’s more for those of us who like it! We were happy to be able to share it with friends visiting from Scotland and the Netherlands.

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The goji berries were a surprise – we mistook the small bush in the corner of the yard for some kind of peppers! We’re still not quite sure what to do with them, but T’s sister loaned her a dehydrator, and we know that many people make and drink tea from dried goji berries, and also eat them – also dried – for the incredible boost of Vitamin C. They have such a mild flavor that the drying seems important. We figure if we treat them like raisins, that’ll be about right. The jujubes… are going to be a bigger challenge, but more and more people are growing these pretty little trees, and we’ll …taste them and figure out how best to treat the fruit. They’re called red dates, and so drying them might also be a possibility. Some varietals are crisp like apples – but we won’t know what we’ve got until a bit later.

The tomatoes are in full swing, and we’re eating them every day. We’re also already making plans for next year… for some San Marinos, because why not make sauce while it’s hot? Those who remember our green tomato mincemeat pie filling will have to wait a year – only three plants really isn’t enough to have that much of a green tomato surplus. Maybe…

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When we haven’t been overwhelmed by the garden, we’ve been frantically trying to pull the house together ahead of T’s minor surgery. We are ecstatic to have donated a whole ton of stuff, which means the car can now fit into the garage. We’re – once again – bound and determined to rid ourselves of so much stuff, and keep the sleek and streamlined way of living. Of course, we say this every time we move…

Meanwhile, T is fine – and sh’s meant to be sitting back and relaxing for six to twelve weeks, but there was a much spoken about Swiffering Incident the third day after surgery which probably bodes ill for her resting properly for the entirety of her convalescence. It also bodes ill for the state of the house as well, but D is stepping up admirably, and keeping the cookies coming. This is really all anyone can ask for in recovery, is it not?

Summer’s for the Birds

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Somehow, it doesn’t seem to be summertime until you hear that first lazy drone of a plane while you’re lying on your back basking in a clear, blue morning. We’ve not heard many planes of a morning here because the dawn chorus is downright raucous! Not only house sparrows and waxwings but gray warblers, finches, phoebes, robins, and starlings abound…. and then, of course there are the hummingbirds and Hrafen, Morrigan and Bran, the crows. (They looked through the skylights on our first day in this house and helpfully announced themselves while eying us like they were watching People Planet.)

Given all the garden and fruit trees, this house is Summer Bird Central (obviously; someone had to eat all the cherries and menace the squirrels over the apricots and glower at us over the plums), and it’s both a joy and a pain. The crows leave cherry pits underfoot, the hummingbirds wage war and explode into shrieking fits if we so much as set foot in the yard on the way to the garage. The phoebe, of course, is the most social of birds, unbothered by our coming and going, and hopping over closer when we come out. They do complain if we don’t pick up rocks or shift fruit off of the ground every time we’re out of doors – the phoebe are fairly convinced that we only exist to disturb the dirt to kick up bugs for them. (They may be right… so far, we exist to forget that fountains have to be run and maintained in order to prevent mosquito larvae! The phoebes are feasting, but we’re getting mosquito dunks posthaste. We have enough problems without extra bloodsuckers! And, if you, like us, didn’t know, the mosquito dunks we found ONLY kill mosquito larvae and are safe for tadpoles and everything else.)

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We found these little guys the other weekend in Balboa Park. We were walking through the gorgeous Japanese Friendship Gardens there, and they were quietly stuck around the back of one of the little art gallery. We share them here to remind you to look for the unnoticed – and to pause in gratitude for the abundance of the season – even if it’s an abundance of hot days and loud birds who decorate your lawn chairs. Despite the grim news cycle, may your heart still find hope, and may your hands stay busy doing what you can.

Chaos and Upheaval

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Hello – it’s June! We had other things to say at other points last month, but the Chaos Unleashed has robbed some of those things of their immediacy… on Memorial Day, our landlord popped by to announce that he was selling the house, so we’re moving to the town next door. We had lease papers signed within a week of him telling us, and we move in on the 10th. We really do NOT want to live through somebody showing the house with us in it. We did that once and…nope. So, T. went looking and found a pretty little place that’s within a 15 minute walk of where we rehearse for choir. Unlike many of the houses around here, it’s a real house, which means it’s old, but it has a very thorough remodel and an owner who adores it — and says he will never, ever, ever sell it. Which is good enough for us just now.

We are (nearly) all packed and ready to go, with most things staged in the garage, so the movers can do the heavy lifting. We really had settled in here, which makes it all the more difficult to move, because there were really only a couple of things which didn’t get unboxed (Christmas ornaments, a stash of sewing fabric). But, this is our 17th move in 25 years of marriage, so it’s not like we haven’t gotten the drill down by now.

The new place is all one level (yay, no more stairs!), has air conditioning (most houses around here don’t, relying on the afternoon breeze), has a bunch of mature fruit trees in the back (plum, cherry, persimmons, white peach, pomegranate, and citrus galore), and has garden space (with like 16 square feet of Chinese chives planted as well as Thai bird chilies, and, surprisingly, dragonfruit). It’s a quick across-the-block hop from the nearest branch of the public library, the weekly farmer’s market, and the aforementioned rehearsal space. Since it is older, it doesn’t have a lot of closet space, which is just the excuse we need to do a once-and-for-all winnowing of the many, many, many coats, blankets, gloves, and woolens we brought back from Scotland.

Otherwise, we’re sailing on calmer waters these days. Hope you are, too.

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-D & T

The Gift to Sing


Happy Weekend!

This is our last concert of the season, and it’s already been a doozy, as we’ve had a seven hour rehearsal for it last weekend, and we have tech rehearsal next week. Somehow T ended up being in charge of producing the program (she has SUCKER tattooed on her forehead in invisible ink which only shows up when directors look at her in daylight), and so between working on her revision (first deadline: May 27! Aaargh!) is doing a lot of proofreading and squinting at font choices and proper spellings of names and such.

In the process of working on the program, though, she came across this gem of a poem which she found in an old book given to her last year by her 8th grade English teacher. (Yes. The woman still kind of gives assignments, some twenty-odd years later.) It was written during the Harlem Renaissance, and T thought of it this morning as she heard D singing in the living room.

(Poet and writer James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938, is perhaps best known for writing the song, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”)

We’ve been very blessed that no matter what’s gone on in these past months, we’ve been able to remain at peace with each other – in spite of provocations. We’ve kept faith with each other, and with ourselves, as far as possible. We’ve never stopped finding the ridiculous, and we’ve never stopped singing. And – better still? Himself got almost six hours of sleep last night. It’s not over yet – by a long shot – but this feels like progress.

The storm is passing over, hallelujah.

Floating Into May

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Trust

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.
~Thomas R. Smith


Ah, May.

It’s a good time to note that May is National Mental Health month, since we’re kind of a nation on the brink of madness at the moment. It’s tough out there, but you’ve GOT this. As you move through your world and maintain your boundaries, remember that the best way out is through, that “No” is a full and complete sentence, and that “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

You’ve got this. Promise.

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We’re feeling at one with the season, since we’ve had a pause in the rain. A brief pause, since it looks to be starting up again later this weekend… but no one really minds, since as of March, our Fair State is out of drought for the first time in a full decade. You would THINK this means that we’re having an easier allergy season, but… nope. More water means even more crazily blooming everything. Plus grass. And mold. And fungi. Ah, well. Bring on the clouds.

T’s little sister sailed gloriously through her course at the Paul Mitchell school, and graduated just shy of a year after she began. She is planning on taking her boards eventually, as soon as she gets over the luxury of sleeping in again, and then, look out world. T would like everyone to know that her sister is an awesome colorist, and that she is happy to serve as a billboard for her mad skills. (T would also like everyone to know that if you don’t wash your hair with the right kind of shampoo, your pillowcases WILL pay the price in grubby teal dye that will NEVER LEAVE. Oy!)

T’s been busy with Actual Work for a change, and has deadlines in May AND June, so she’s trying to stay focused, which is not easy with the extra little joys her autoimmune and The Devil’s Drug, aka Prednisone, has brought into her life. Still, we’re all excited to see her with another book contract, and look forward to summers 2020 and 2021 with nervous happiness. Mostly nervousness, at this point, because …deadlines. But, we carry on.

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A tiny bit of excitement because our young pear tree has FOUR pears on it, and we identified the little bushlet in our backyard that has so faithfully bloomed every year and then… basically done nothing else but sit there. We thought it was an avocado, or another citrus – and it’s actually a lychee. We identified it after seeing a MASSIVE one in Hawai’i in bloom last month. We have never had fresh lychee (Show of hands? Anyone?), and while we’re not fans of the canned variety, we’re told we’ll LOVE the fresh. Yeah, well, we’ll see if the plant actually does anything with the hundreds of tiny fruit we’re not sure how to thin!

While things have been challenging, there have, of course, been the little serendipitous blessings. We were the Easter “ringers” for a venerable old Presbyterian church in Livermore, and were meant to pick up the trumpet soloist who wasn’t able to drive, due to a cycling accident (and a broken pelvis). Of course, all this occurred on a day when our car wouldn’t start… so, we drove his car after having met him for three minutes. This was a leap of faith for all involved, but in the end, we got a slightly dinged up trumpeter and his wife as friends. We’re sure we’ve met other bipolar people before now, but it’s no coincidence that we’ve met one now, a functional and amusing human being who gives us hope that the worst of things will pass.

Another little joy has been T’s new instrument. It’s only THEORETICALLY T’s, as she is in that state of just sitting and touching it, and not really, you know, playing, it, but it’s a pretty little visitor from the Northern California Ukulele Festival.

Pear-shaped, or mandolin-shaped ukuleles have a bright, open sound, distinctly more sweet and melodic than the traditionally shaped ukulele. The bell-shaped ukes were first popularized in 1927, and though the shape is less popular, it’s one of the best we’ve found. We’ve named it Baliset, because we are those nerds.

T is slightly horrified, as she has never wanted to play a ukulele, and considered them only slightly a step above the recorder she played in the third grade and muttered something about “hipsters,” but… she is promised, this one is different. No, really…

One of the Devil’s Drug’s little side effects is “agitation,” as the doctor puts it, and “not sleeping again, ever,” as T puts it, which puts her in good company, since D doesn’t seem to sleep that much, either these days. There’s a LOT of reading going on – D reads medical books, while T reads whatever she can get her hands on. Shocking, huh? That they’re actual books with PAPER?! Yes, well, we’re pretty proud that acquaintances and friends are being published this year as well, and are vicariously enjoying the thrill of projects finally completed after years of work – and those are somehow the books one simply HAS to get in actual print, no ebooks allowed. What have you been reading lately? We hope it is something equally as engaging.

With all the reading Himself is doing, T fully expects D to publish some massive paper on …well, some theory or other. There surely ought to be some recompense for all these hours spent wakefully.

On that note, it’s high time to try for a nap, before the HOURS and HOURS of rehearsal time scheduled for this weekend.

PS – This is seriously one of the more gorgeous covers we’ve ever peeped. We’re biased, as friends of the author, but seriously – what a cover!

The Dark Fantastic

Rubber. Glue. And… Sugar.

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One might imagine that with Himself out on medical leave, all kinds of cooking and travel would be taking place. Well, no… medical leave, in this case, means you feel cruddy enough not to go to work and don’t know what the cause is, unfortunately. We’re working through it – and we’re mostly doing well, but sometimes it’s a slog, without a doubt. Still, there has been some experimental foodie-ing going on, because we wouldn’t be us without this aspect of our lives.

People talk about “adulting” in the sense of eating all of the foods in one’s farm box before it goes bad or eating all the produce in one’s fruit bowl before same. These are huge and worthy goals, dear people. We’ve extended our personal goals to really looking critically not just at our consumption, but at our waste, which the U.S. does a lot of – wasting food, that is. People on a budget considering seriously the impact of really using every single bit of a fruit or veg find that they can save a lot of money while expanding their creativity. It’s definitely a challenge. We discovered an entire cookbook for that purpose. It’s gorgeous and full of interesting recipes, but the one which caught our attention the most was… a banana peel cake recipe. Oh, yes – Banana Peel Cake With Brown Sugar Frosting.

NB: If you have a latex allergy, like T’s youngest sister, remember that banana peels contain latex – please, DO NOT EAT THIS CAKE or even try to make it, as boiled or processed banana peels release more latex than fresh.

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Normally, the idea of cooking with something that is limp, brownish, and usually crumpled up and put in the trash would seem problematic, but the cookbook author swears by this recipe, and said it tasted like the best banana bread, ever. Like the majority of West Coast folk, we’re big fans of banana bread, and the idea of a recipe with a controllable amount of sugar and carbohydrate, yet with still a rich banana flavor seemed remarkable – too good to be true.

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Not even going to lie – it kind of was.

This is not to say that it wasn’t a banana bread-shaped thing in the universe of banana breads, but for all of the accolades, etc., the cake itself was kind of …well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The directions state that you need to remove both blossom and stem ends of the peel, then pry out and discard the white strings from the interior of the peel. Next, one is meant to boil the peel, drain it, preserving some of the water aside, and then to puree the peels. All of that was kind of fun, because it was… just so weird to be messing around with peels, which are so very obviously trash. We started the cake on an impulse, after making a morning protein shake — and if you look, our peels are just of normally ripe bananas. Not nearly overripe bananas. The cookbook strongly suggests you use very brown or almost fully covered in speckles peels, as one does when making banana bread.

But – without the gift of hindsight, we went with what we had, impulsively trimmed our peels, and tossed them into a pot. The kitchen smelled of bananas, as it always does when one makes bread, but it was a slightly …different smell. More rich, but also more bitter, and slightly tinged with an almost vanilla edge.

And speaking of vanilla – or spices of any kind – the recipe is utterly lacking in those. And that was a point of contention with our Baker. There are far too many baked goods in the world which don’t include, at minimum, vanilla. It might be argued that bananas are a relative of vanilla, thus not in need of it, but to us a good banana bread typically includes allspice or ginger or cardamom or at the very least, a simple pinch of coriander, or a bit of cinnamon even — anything, just so the bread doesn’t just have the flat, slightly insipid flavor of banana alone. But, no, not this time. The Baker compensated by adding in ground vanilla powder, but since we were trying to actually follow the recipe, we didn’t take it further than that. We probably should have.

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Something – the peel? the latex? – really informed the texture of this cake in both its baked and unbaked form. Baked, it is slightly springy to the touch, but sticky – really sticky, like Scottish Sticky Toffee Pudding stickiness, as if it is made with dates and a sugary syrup. Unbaked, but the batter is thin and unprepossessing. It didn’t really raise much, despite all the leavening, and it sort of came away from the back of a spoon like …well, not even like pancake batter – like a crepe batter. Noting the batter texture, the Baker decided to bake it as a roll cake, which turned out to be the best call.

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Like Sticky Toffee Pudding, this cake might best be served in the British way, with a sticky sauce, and eaten less like a cake and more like a bread pudding. The whipped cream in the center lessened the effect of the general stickiness, and everyone who had some enjoyed it. We …tasted it, and then said… “Meh.”

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Though this was our first exposure to Peel Cake, it’s apparently quite common in, of all places, the magical land of Oz. The Oz – or Aussie – version of Dateline had it on their show way back in 2009 when cookbook author Edna Toledo came on to the show and made it. Her recipe uses far, far more peels and she says you can use orange peels in it, too. (Hm!)

A more recent NZ version has both peels and… avocado frosting, so you can… be… super… green? Or something.

We may have to try this again, because we must have done something wrong. Everyone says this is fluffy and delicious, and it’s hard to compare our ambivalent response to the rapturous descriptions of what is clearly a beloved cake, but… nah. Sure, the cake is okay, but life’s short — too short for cake that isn’t absolutely amazing. Why waste the carbohydrates? We’ll try something else.

Until next cake…

A Threshold in a Liminal-land

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It tells you a bit about the year you’re having if you’ve already run through your health insurance deductible by the second week in January. This won’t make much sense to NHS users overseas, but suffice it to say it’s the two-edged swords of American healthcare, and it means the last few weeks have been a bit pinching on the pocketbook…

So, now is the winter of our discontent… or something like that. It’s at the very least the winter when Himself is taking a break from work, to plumb the depths of his symptoms (chills and sweating, heart racing, fight/flight responses) and determine their cause (medication interaction, physiology, psychology), and straighten them out. In between, we are discovering and rediscovering things we like about where we live. Today, it was Quarry Lakes Park (which we keep calling Crater Lakes Park, which is… apparently elsewhere).

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Quarry Lakes (Regional Recreation Area – whatever) Park is essentially the correction of a mistake – as a quarry is manmade, while a crater is the result of a no-fault, act-of-God large-item-impact. Alameda Creek was the original boundary between Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties, and in the mid-19th century transcontinental railroad race, railroad prospectors scooped the gravel from the banks of the creek to help form the western end of the line. By the time the railroad was built, there were just vast, unsightly holes in the middle of the countryside, collecting groundwater – which Alameda County (named and organized in 1853) used to top up local aquifers. In the 70’s when the big push came to celebrate the earth and stop making giant holes in things for not very good reasons, the city bought the property back from various business people, between 1975 – 1992.

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Quarry Lakes Park is 350 acres of lakes, and 121 of land and hills surrounding it. At the central lake, the city put in a gravel-and-sand beach, and buoys where in the summer it must be a hoppin’ place for swimmers who don’t mind swimming with geese and egrets and frogs. On other lakes, there are boat launch areas, they seed it with fish for the fishing fiends, and there are tables and shaded pavilions all over. There are several looping semi-paved biking/hiking trails surrounding the biggest of the lakes, and some of the biggest pelicans we’ve ever seen, gliding smug, fat and happy through the mirror-bright water. They leave wakes. Like boats. They land on the surface with the inelegant thump of a heavily loaded 747. (They have cartoonishly short legs, and look like they’re part of an anime from Studio Ghibli.) The ones we saw had bumps on their beaks – because it’s apparently breeding season, and those bumps are the equivalent of a peacock’s tail advertising virility or somesuch. In a few weeks the bumps will be gone, and in a few weeks more, we can look forward to their ugly adorable, spindly-legged offspring.

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Though there are apparently snakes and hares and foxes as well (though we saw no sign of them), this is one of the best areas for bird life that we’ve discovered. T’s remark years ago that photography was a gateway drug to birding has proven true. We saw that there are wood ducks, herons and egrets in the ponds with swallows and red-winged blackbirds in the hills surrounding. We were surprised by the aforementioned GINORMOUS water birds (American pelicans are between ten and seventeen pounds, which is not bad for a creature with hollow bones) and the expected seventeen hundred Canadian geese, Scrub Jays, grebes, and scaups, we chased a pair of Northern Flickers across the parking lot without getting a good picture. That’s definitely going to happen next time. What’s also going to happen is more photography – we realized that in the past eight months or so, we’ve not gotten out as we liked to record our experiences and see the world. Even if we don’t visit any of the other numerous parks in our area, Quarry Lakes is going to keep us happily occupied for some time.

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Half paved paths with manicured lawns, half scrub oaks and dirt-and-gravel trails, this place is so, so big, we almost missed a little corner of it which houses a Showcase Garden, a Master Gardener’s display piece to show off native species and plants which do well in our particular zone. There were herbs and succulents, cacti, roses, and fruit trees. On a cool morning in the spring and summer it will be delightful, but even on a cool and gray winter afternoon, it was gorgeous and smelled fresh and clean. The green was almost surreal, as the sun sliced a bit through a bank of clouds.

It’s hard to describe the effect of an unexpected garden when your hearts are already full from birds and water and a lot of sky. The tiny paths and bright colors were a treat that lifted us out of ourselves all over again.

When you’re feeling a little rattled by circumstances, a walk in the park (or, regional recreation area, fine, whatever) solves …basically nothing. No voice from above, no angel choirs, nothing miraculously solved. What it does do is suffuse blood into your prefrontal cortex (no, seriously). What that does is disrupt repetitive thoughts. What movement does is raise your endorphin level, lower your stress levels, and reduce anxiety. Sure, everything is still a mess – you’re still waiting in the liminal threshold of a change, trying to determine your direction, but for an hour or so, it certainly gets you out of your head. A brief sabbatical from indecision or angst is worth celebrating.

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A Bit Of History & A Little Grain: Spoon Bread

Hello from the other side of the first storms of the season, washing away the stench of smoke and the dust of summertime. Mornings now are frigid and damp, and it’s time for December baking.

Most Californians are familiar with horchata, one of several central-Mexican drinks which both refresh and feed. Horchata is made of ground rice, cinnamon, and sugar in its most basic form. Agua frescas were kind of A Thing back in the day — and instead of a rice-grain drink, central Europeans took water and grain and let it ferment — the addition of that yeast turned it into what historians called liquid bread. It’s interesting how many feed-and-refresh drinks from Mayan times there actually are – an exploratory visit to a tiny Salvadorean pupuseria introduced us recently to atol de elote.

Atol – the Spanish word for kernel – is grated fresh from the elote cob and combined with milk and cinnamon. Sounds a lot like horchata, right? Well, it’s exactly like horchata, in that it is sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet. So sweet. TOO sweet. We ordered it to go with burritos, and — nope. We were expecting something more like a naturally sweet chowder, and we got more of a milkshake carbfest. So, the little take-out cups sat in the fridge until we had a moment to figure out what to do with them.

And then we thought of spoon bread.

If you’re native Californian, spoon bread probably doesn’t automatically occur to you, either, but folks from the Southern U.S. and the East Coast likely think of it more often. (Like, MUCH more often. Did you know that The Linguistic Atlas survey of the middle Atlantic and Southern states collected over 330 terms for cornbreads? We are slightly out of control with this dish, people. Just SLIGHTLY.)

Historically, the world was first formally introduced to the dish in the 1847 cookbook THE CAROLINA HOUSEWIFE, by Sarah Rutledge, with the idea that the dish had evolved from the Algonquian languages’ names for baked cornmeal, suppone, appone, and apan. Awendaw cornbread, named for an Sewee tribal settlement outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is close-ish as a sibling, and probably what Rutledge referred to, but it’s …mostly unlikely, as traditional spoonbread, with its light, soufflé-style structure, is the furthest thing from plain cooked cornmeal. Still, however we got to it, spoonbread exists, and the now cold and gelatinous cups full of fresh corn and milk (some recipes call for corn starch as well) had a destination.

The idea wasn’t for this to set up properly like a cornbread, which could be cut into squares, nor was it to be a the consistency of a hoecake, which relies on the buttered pan and crisp edges to keep the inside creamy and the outside firm. This was much more dense bread pudding than soufflé — but it worked. Should you want to try it yourself, sans the side-trip to having the atol de elote languishing in your fridge in take-out cups, try this:

West Coast Spoonbread: Lightly whip two eggs with three tablespoons of canola oil, 1 tsp of salt, a teaspoon of baking powder, and a scant teaspoon of soda. Add this to roughly three cups of corn frehly cut from the cob, and a cup of milk – whether coconut milk or sweetened condensed milk or a full-fat dairy is up to you. Add this slurry to 3/4 cup of finely ground polenta meal and 3/4 cup of AP flour. We added 3/4 cup of rye flour for color and nutrients, but you may substitute with AP, white, or white whole wheat as well. We also added an additional cup of frozen corn kernels just because. Pour into a very well oiled container, and bake for 55 minutes. Expect this spoonbread pudding to puff, and then subside.

Corn bread is the easiest thing in the world to vegan-ify, with plant milk and a couple of flax eggs. We often make it this way, but since we had this dairy-milk slurry, it made sense to just add eggs. This spoonbread is dense, slightly sweet, fresh, corn-y, and delicious, but we’ll be tweaking this a bit as we go on!

Happy December baking to you.

Through All The Tumult And The Strife

Skyway Drive 411

My life flows on in endless song,
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far off hymn
That hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

Glorious Days of Gratitude to You!

Whatever you name it – Turkey Day, Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving – and whatever it means to you, we hope you have a relaxing and gratitude-filled long weekend. Even if it’s nothing more than a kick-off to Christmas shopping for you – truly, enjoy the time.

2018 Fruitcake 10

We’ve been told our fruitcake production level is approaching “scary,” but truly, we don’t need a bakery, we swear. These little cakes don’t stay at our house, but tend to feed our community, to good effect. People are a little sweeter, in this time of stress and hurry, and that can only be A Good Thing.

This is the time of year to fling ourselves joyfully into the food of other cultures, acknowledging that this addition to our nation is for what we should be truly grateful. Unmired from the colonial mythos of saintly pilgrims and simple savages (neither saints nor savages in true history), we greet pancit, sushi, and tasty pupusas Salvadoreñas as part of this year’s favorite foods – and lately, we’ve discovered the tragically delicious La Michoacana, with their fruit sorbets of every imaginable flavor. We blame, with love, our friends Yadira and Jose-Luis for this tiny addiction.

And now it’s time for the list — privileges, duly checked, and acknowledged with gratitude:

  • The D&T show, which has been renewed for a 25th season next year,
  • Our snug little abode – which suits us perfectly for now,
  • Improving health outcomes – D’s recovered from metabolic freefall to gain a pound or three. Additionally, after only a year of fiddling with medication, T’s autoimmune disorder has stabilized. While health outcomes can change at a moment’s notice, the trick is finding joy in the now in which everything is just fine,
  • Our work – while D’s job is a lot like playing whack-a-mole some days, one can at least say he is never bored, and he is well-known and appreciated by the people in his company. Though work relationships aren’t the “40 years and gold watch” variety anymore, D has the skill to move in and out of companies, leaving friends behind. On T’s side, the sale of two more books with a new imprint, coming with the threat promise of a multi-city book tour is a gift she’s not going to squander,
  • Peachtree 216

  • The joys of artistry – whether (badly) playing piano, (badly) embroidering, (badly) knitting, or baking (which some of us Can Actually Do), singing in our chamber group, or glue-gunning anything that won’t be still, we’ve had many ways to entertain ourselves and create serenity this past year,
  • The coming rains – at last – which should heal our poor state,
  • Is it odd to have an entire line to be grateful for sleep, and finally getting some? No? Good.

Obviously, there’s more – always more. Gratitude for the public servants who arrive at every tragedy – the “helpers” for whom adults tell children to look, and which every adult should strive to be. We can be grateful for small movements toward the restoration of checks-and-balances within our government. We can be grateful for our communities, in their richness and diversity, for the expansion of our families from blood to choice, for dresses with pockets. The paean runs ever on – how can we keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?