December 13, 2010

Communing with Mother Nature


An Exercise in Stupidity

You can take your pick after you read this entry.

Taking one for the team, I volunteered to venture out to the farm last weekend to check on the chickens and kittens and make sure all was well at the cabin. Normally, this is not noteworthy. But, this weekend, the outside temperature registered a bit low:

Look again.

That is not 38 degrees. There is a little decimal point in there.

It was THREE POINT EIGHT degrees Fahrenheit at 6:00 Sunday morning! (That's -15.6 degrees Celsius for those of you across the pond.) This is significant because we have to come up with our own heat when we're at the farm. The cabin is not insulated.

But, I survived. The wood stove and oil burning heaters did a great job of heating the cabin.

Plus, the inside temperature was balmy:

December 8, 2010

Wanna See Something Obscene? Go Ahead. It's OK.

Good. You're taking the leap and reading on.

Since my children (ages 22, 19, 12, and 9) were young, I have asked my mother and other relatives (you know I mean you, GodCarol) NOT to give them so much at Christmastime. Hubby and I barely get them anything for the holiday because we know that so much is going to pour in from near and far.

Well, Grandma has tried, but she still can't bring herself to give them nothing but her presence on Christmas. GodCarol (our eldest's godmother, hence the name) has not been able to refrain either. I imagine they might have thought that I was being falsely humble.


I was tired of seeing so much nice clothing go to waste.

Which brings us to the obscene part:

This is a receipt from the Goodwill where I recently dropped off 28, count 'em, 28 bags* of items for donation. And mind you, this is not the first time, and, probably not the last, that I've gathered up unused and slightly used clothing and stuffed animals for the Goodwill, but it is by far the largest number.

I admit that I may have had more since my youngest has used all the hand-me-downs that she could and has no one to hand them down to anymore (Deo gratia). And, I admit that I have been in a "get-rid-of-it" mood lately. But still, 28 bags seems obscene to me.

There are two consoling facts about this milestone, however.

One, these things will go to people who can use them. I'm glad of that.

Two, my sis-in-law, who spent the better part of a day helping me go through all of the clothing, was so overwhelmed by it all that she cried out, "I will never give your daughters any kind of clothing ever again!"

Yes! Someone understands!!!

Grandma and GodCarol, you watch out! I may have to subject you to cleaning out the girls' room when you're here!

*These bags were 30-gallon, kitchen garbage-sized bags, not the puny plastic bags one gets at the grocery store.

December 1, 2010

An Irish Blessing

On November 18th, a good man left us. I know he was a good man even though I had never met him.

Arthur Bartholomew McGuire was the 14th of 16 children and he was born on January 3rd, 1926, in rural Nebraska. He married and raised a family. His first born, Erin, is my dear friend. So, when I heard about his passing, I attended his funeral.

I was struck by a number of things.

Estimating roughly, there were close to 1,000 people in attendance. The spirit of the mass was one of Irishness, faith, family, friends, humor, and love. Those Irish seem to have cornered the market on combining these qualities. Dennis, Erin's brother, gave a wonderful eulogy to his Dad. It was filled with laughter and tears, with emphasis on the laughter. "God took Dad's car keys." I learned that Artie was good, kind, funny, and loving. He'd probably agree with the following:

But I know even more about Artie than what I learned at the funeral. I know him through his daughter. She is the kindest person I know. She is a month younger than yours truly, celebrating her birthday just yesterday. In her half century on the planet, I know that she has had plenty of cause to be angry, upset, resentful. Haven't we all? But even in the face of terrible injustice, she has a way of putting a good face on things. She gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. She turns all things with a positive spin. She adds humor to the most difficult of situations. When I imagine her, I cannot picture her without a smile on her face.

Fortunately for thousands of international students over the years, Erin is a teacher. And she is usually their favorite teacher. (I used to compete with her, but haven't been a colleague of hers for some years.) I know because they say so in written evaluations, in person, on Facebook. I counted the birthday wishes on her wall yesterday...a whopping 103! (Sorry to cyberstalk you, Honey.) And I'm sure she had as many more wishes in other venues. And I'm not at all surprised. Her warmth and humor are contagious. Her sincere attention to, and interest in, everyone she meets is boundless. (No, Erin, I am NOT exaggerating.)

I just have to wonder what a different place the world would be if there were more people like Ernie in it.

Happy birthday, Dear Friend. Here's a little blessing for you, who are a blessing to so many! :)

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

October 18, 2010

It's All How You Look At It

When I was ten years old and in for an annual school physical, a nice, attentive, Japanese doctor in Seattle (where my family lived at the time) noticed a murmur when listening to my heart.

It turned out that I had a hole about the size of a half dollar coin that was making my heart pump three times harder than normal. If nothing had been done about it, they said that I would probably not live to see my 20th birthday.

The only pediatric heart surgeon in the country in 1971, Dr. Savage, happened to be a neighbor and happened to practice in Seattle and operated on me. It cost my parents the $50/month in group health insurance that they were already paying for the family.

Had it not been for this harmonic convergence in the cosmos, here is what I would have missed:

-- graduating from college

-- being a spy in Washington D.C., my first "real" job

-- spending a year in France, where I ate well, learned a lot, and made the acquaintance of my dearest, oldest friend, Jayne

-- teaching English to so many wonderful, interesting students from around the world in Europe and the US

-- the welcoming into the world of my four, beautiful girls who are turning out to be amazing women

-- enjoying marriage to a good and loving man

-- bringing new life to an old farm and enjoying the fruits of my labors

-- coming to realize that with age comes peace, wisdom, and happiness

So, it is with absolutely no embarrassment whatsoever that I admit that I have reached the half century mark...two and a half times what I was initially allotted.

With a little luck, I may get another 50.

October 8, 2010

Educating Amelia

A junior in college, my daughter called me yesterday, presumably just to check in and say "Hi!". Very casually, she asks if I am going to vote in the next election. Sure, I am. "Oh, and when is that?" she asks. "The first Tuesday in November," I reply. My child is finally taking an interest in the political process. How nice! "And what do you know about the electoral college?" comes next.

The gig was up.

After lecturing a bit about electors and the popular vote and the 2000 election, I asked for the next question on the study sheet. It was a doozy. "What president was responsible for popularizing big government?"


Big government? Who wants that?

I counseled her to go early to the test and ask the T.A. -- the limit of my poly sci knowledge having been reached.

October 6, 2010

Our Farm Kittens

Here is our latest batch of farm kittens:

They were born in the spring and are thriving. They eat almost anything we give them. Our farm cats are special in that they have to fend for themselves during the week and then get spoiled by us on the weekends.

I recently treated Hubby to some new beers after discovering the paradise of Brix* here in Omaha. Well, given the shotgun approach to choosing single beers, there was one that he didn't quite fancy. He drank a bit of it, but decided to treat the kittens to the rest of it.

It's the dark one of the three red dishes.

After a couple of hours, they still hadn't touched it.

Hubby's reasoning?

"It's probably too early in the day for them to start drinking."


*A wonderful new store that stocks wines, beers, cheeses, olives, and fresh French bread. What more could one want?

September 28, 2010

What a Day

Today I received my application for AARP membership.

Yes, I am turning 50 next month...get those presents ready!

I had a few hot flashes today. They were making themselves more evident than usual.

Do they have something to do with the arrival of the mail?

Hubby took me out for an early birthday dinner.

Yum, Thai food!

He also brought me the present that I have been waiting for for months --

something that is going to be hard for me to break --

something that is going to clean up the yard at both the house and the cabin --

a Stihl weedwhacker.

Yes, I really did want that as a present.

September 22, 2010

Cows in the Corn

Last Friday evening, Hubby and I were sitting on the patio at the farm on, arguably, one of the best evenings of the year. It was 72 degrees out, about 10pm, a starry sky above, and we had just finished a lovely dinner of Spanish lamb meatballs that we had prepared for ourselves. We were having a nightcap outside when I was startled by a specter blanking out the area in front of the chicken coop, some 30 yards away. We jumped up, grabbed the flashlights and, lo and behold, the neighbor's cattle appeared in the darkness. They had apparently decided to pay us a visit and drink from our swimming pool!

We called said neighbor, Tim, who responded immediately with, "I'm putting my boots on" (code for, "In order to deal with the likes of cattle, one needs foot protection" I surmised.) In addition, he mentioned that the fence they had breached had a hole in it that was "big enough to throw a cat through" (apparently a standard unit of measurement in farm circles).

Now, herding the cows back to where they needed to go was not as straightforward as one would think. You can't push them too hard or they will stampede and trample poor Tim. You can't leave them to their own devices or they will keep drinking from the pool (not the cleanest water around) and knock down the fence to the tender greens in the garden (also not desirable). You have to gently honk at them and go behind them in the truck and guide them to where they need to go. Which is exactly what we did.

Here is hubby driving the truck to corral the cows.

And here are some of the cows.

Most farmers around these parts would be pretty peeved that the cows had made themselves at home on their farms. They leave lots of "cow patties", which we happen to like and usually have to pay for; they trample crops, which we don't happen to have right now; and they knock down fences which, ok, we have to fix, but it wasn't that big a deal.

Being the naive, young farmers that we are, we experienced not annoyance but excitement at the prospect of activity in the late evening hours on a nice, late summer evening.

Thanks, Tim!

But let's not do it too often.

August 31, 2010

Russian Class

We recently started Russian lessons for our two youngest daughters. We have the good fortune of having my former Russian teacher, Tatyana, from the local university, to tutor them privately. All is going extremely well. The girls are already reading in Cyrillic -- a feat that took yours truly at least six months.

The books Tatyana had us get for the girls are very Russian. I love how true to the culture they are.

One of the first things I had to explain to my older daughter was


That's Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. OK. Yeah, she should know about him.

Then we happen upon


This is a car, the Moskvich, that was produced in Russia from 1945 until 1991. OK. I guess it doesn't hurt for her to know about this common item of Russian life for over half a century.

But, I had to laugh when she sounded out


Especially when she perfectly pronounced "Ka-lash-ni-kov"!

What a proud Mama I was!

August 17, 2010

A Meeting of Minds

Meet Joyce.

Joyce is the Food Service Director for the Clarinda school system. And she is a maverick in that she is committed to giving the children good, pure, local, organic food to eat.

Like myself, she was impressed by Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution.

She has already transitioned into homemade chicken nuggets from real chicken breasts in the school kitchens.

She is planning to take on beef next year.

She is even plotting to improve the sacred pizza that the kids love. (She knows that this is the last bastion, though.)

I'm so glad we found each other!

Last weekend, we began our working relationship. She came to the farm and bought all that I had harvested on Saturday morning -- summer and winter squashes, seven kinds of cucumbers, sweet and hot peppers, and a few tomatoes.

We finish each other's sentences about the quality of good food.

We both remember times when our mothers and grandmothers made meals from scratch, and in season.

We are both excited about the addition of organic produce to the school lunch menu.

She is going to have a few of the unique squashes on display for the kids to touch and learn about.

She has obtained a farm-to-school grant to promote local and organic food in the schools.

She is even going toe-to-toe with the USDA!

We represent the baby steps on the road to healthy, flavorful, wonderful eating.

August 3, 2010

Summer Camp

"Aim for the Stars" is the name of the Lego Robotics camp at the local university that Maya (aged 9, our fourth daughter) was excited to attend when she got the paperwork at school last May. Sunday night, before the start of the week-long camp, she was filled with dread at the prospect of actually attending it.

I hate this part of parenthood.

Do you make her go? Do you let her off the hook because she's scared? (And forfeit the non-refundable $160-payment you've made.)

It's not like I haven't had experience at this. You would think that I should be pretty well equipped to handle this stuff.

Let us review...

I spent almost a year with my eldest (now 21) when she was three years old and dying to be a ballerina, deciding whether to make her go to dance lessons. I did make her go (well, half of the time). Twenty years later, a quite accomplished ballerina, in a heartfelt moment, summing up all of her life to that point, she thanked me for making her go to dance class early on and couldn't even really imagine not having danced all her life.

I let my second daughter skip out of soccer. Not only did she not take to it, but also the other parents had the worst potty mouths! I couldn't believe my ears at most of the games. Anyway, this one ended up a ballerina, too. And a beautiful one she was.

Next we have our third daughter. She doesn't do anything she doesn't want to do. If you can make her do anything, I tip my hat to you. I've known her since she was born, and I defy anyone to cajole, bribe, threaten, or blackmail her to do anything. So, in a sense, she was easy. I don't make her do anything. It seems to work for all of us.

Then there's Maya. She's the baby. She still needs to explore things, try things, find what she likes. Hence, the camp. It promised to wed playing with toys and programming the computer. Here she is coming out on the first day:

I wished I had been the parent of the boy in front of her. (Not really.)

She hated it. It was boring. It was hard. No one helped her. There were no potential friends. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (What movie was that from?)

So, Monday night, I called the director of the program and told her Maya's findings at the robotics camp. The director assured me that she would contact Maya's teacher and get her some extra attention and even move her to another subject, more to her liking, after trying a second day at the camp.

Ok, Maya, here's the plan. You go one more day and see how it goes.

Kicking and screaming, she goes.

I cross my fingers on Tuesday when I go to pick her up.

Same deal.

She hates it. She is bored.

So, daunted by the thought of half an hour in the car on Wednesday morning with a sobbing child, I relented and told her she didn't have to go anymore.

What stuck in my craw was that she had left a rather nice lunchbox on Tuesday. Since I was in the area on Thursday, I stopped in to pick it up. I ran into her teacher.

"Oh, is Maya alright? Is she sick?"

No, she's throwing fits so I didn't make her come.

"We miss her! She had a bit of a frustrating day on Monday, but, by Tuesday, she was helping the other girls and showed a predisposition for programming."

What a stinker. I had no idea of any of this.

The gig was up.

I made her attend Friday, the last day of the camp, and she had a really good time. Here she is with Dad, both wearing their badges.

Thank goodness she's the last one. I'm really tired of figuring this stuff out.

July 15, 2010

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Our good friends, Jayne, (Liz's dear friend from ages ago), J.P. and Tiddler (Jayne's ducklings) are arriving tomorrow from Merry Old England for their annual visit to the Big "O" (Omaha) and to our farm in Iowa where Jayne and I plan to sit on resin garden chairs in the pool and visit for as long as we can stand it. Given the Brits' mad-cow scare some years back which resulted in a few years with no beef in the country, we also plan to eat lots of good ol' midwestern meat, some of it cooked over the open fire at the farm.


So, in anticipation of their visit, I thought we should tidy up a bit.

With the help of my ducklings, I took all the seedling trays and shelves to the basement where I should have put them in, oh, say, April (when I was done with them). I also put the peat moss and seed-starting dirt in the compost bin. I hung the Girl Scouts' painting (from May) on the wall instead of leaving it where it had been -- in front of the hearth. I vacuumed. I pickled cucumbers and made pesto, i.e., I cleaned out the fridge. I swept. I did dishes.

Then, today, I asked the ducklings to get me the sheets and pillow cases from their and the guest's beds.

Maya, my nine-year-old, after seeing this flurry of activity all week, finally asked:

"So, Mom, does it take someone coming from overseas for us to clean the house?"

Having sworn to myself years ago to always be as honest as possible with my children, I answered,

"Well, yes, I suppose it does."

Here is an ancient photo of the trinity of friends in our apartment in Paris in 1984 -- from left to right: Sarah (age 21), Liz (age 24), and Jayne (age 21). It was a great year!

June 29, 2010

There Goes My Baby

I am the mother of four absolutely wonderful girls. In the great cosmic roll of the dice, I got super lucky. The eldest is 21 and is a bi-lingual para-legal in Brussels, Belgium. The second is 19 and a Spanish/Psychology major at San Diego State University. The third is 12 and in the middle of middle school.

And the youngest, Maya, is 9.

Since it's summer, the rules around the house are more lax than usual, which is saying something if you know us. Maya has been spending time at her aunt's house lately and was due to come home a couple of days ago, but I got this short email:

i miss you but i don't want to come home.

AGH! My baby is growing up! The first taste of independence has struck!

As any mother reading this will understand, I felt thrilled and nostalgic at the same time. A former colleague once reminded me of an old saying that has stayed with me, "A parent's job is to give children two things -- roots and wings."

I closed my eyes and could just see my fledgling daring to eye the sky.

Given that her three predecessors had always been one step ahead of me, I was prepared for the leap into the air that she took the following day. While still at her aunt's house, she concocted a veritable grown-up plan for herself for the weekend. The only thing lacking was a little financing, hence the next email:

hey mom i love you so much can u please give me 86$ for 3 tickets to the Justin Bieber concert?

I suppose I can.

After all, how could I stand in the way of my baby bird taking flight.

June 15, 2010

Having a Field Day

Two months ago, Luke Gran from the Practical Farmers of Iowa contacted me as he was making up his annual field day schedule for the state of Iowa. He thought it would be nice if I had some folks over to our farm and talked about "going organic". No sweat, I thought. There would be a $500 stipend for half a day of showing off our farm and a $200 food allowance for putting on a lunch.

Easy money.


There's no such thing as a free lunch. (Why do we have to learn this lesson over and over? Maybe it's just me.)

Here's how things progressed:

We buy some local chicken at the Clarinda Fareway for the field day.
We buy paper plates, paper cups, and drink containers.
I order the grassroots movie "Fresh" to show.
I create the menu.
I plan the talks.
I make the schedule for the day.
I collect materials that may be of interest to farmers "going organic".
I order the natural, grass-fed beef patties for hamburgers.

Great. No problem. The Practical Farmers of Iowa will reimburse all these expenses.

I create an ad on Facebook to invite people to the event. The Practical Farmers place ads in various publications.

How many people will turn up? No idea. No problem. We'll wing it.

I put together a packet of information for people to take with them for reference. As I'm copying, the ink cartridge goes dry. I run to the store for a new one.

This is getting stressful.

As the day draws nearer, I try to locate tables. A neighbor suggests I call the local community center for them. I call and I call and I call. It seems Mike isn't always at the phone. I write a letter and Mike calls me...three days before the event. He says he has to check with the mayor and get back to me.

Are you kidding? The mayor has to "Ok" the use of the tables?

Mr. Mayor never does let me know, one way or the other, about the tables. Mike and I are both stymied. I even find the mayor's cell number and leave him a message. No response.

He won't get my vote the next time around.

Fortunately, the neighbors helped me cobble together enough chairs and tables for everyone who attended.

They've saved my butt more than once! God bless 'em.

The day before the event, I buy all the fresh ingredients we need. With help from Grandma Jan, we make salads and help Dec prepare her 15-minute talk. It takes about four hours.

Dec was supposed to either have her talk done so that she could weed today or pull it out of her butt at the appointed time so that she could weed today. Ugh!

I mow the aronia berries so that Hubby won't be embarrassed when he shows them off on the tour. I mow the expanse of field for the kids to play on. I turn to mow the heart of the compound so that it looks nice for all the visitors.

The mower seems to be sluggish. I get off to see what the problem is and find the back wheel completely shredded.

Are you kidding me?

The day arrives.
Everything is ready.
The skies open up at 5am and fire and brimstone (and two more inches of rain) descend on our lovely little patch of heaven.


Setting up the tables outside, I suddenly hear screams coming from the house. I rush inside to find the roasting rosemary chicken on fire in the oven.

Knights, new plan!

We moved the chicken to the grill with the hamburgers, the rain abated and the sun shone for the rest of the day. We had a nice turnout of about 45 people. Lunch was tasty. The talks went well.

I didn't get to a tenth of what I wanted to say!

While winding down watching "Fresh", I started to feel a little queasy in the hot, airless cabin. I excused myself to the bathroom and proceeded to toss my cookies.

"What cookies?" Hubby asks, apparently looking for dessert.

Gotta love that Russian of mine!

We're four days out and I think I've just about recovered.

Reviews of the day were pretty good, even though the garden wasn't weeded.

But, we offered Grandma a deal. If she gives us $500 next summer when she comes to visit, we'll agree to forego the field day! Heck, we may even forego it for free.

June 1, 2010

Putting My Feet Up

Yesterday, May 31st, was Memorial Day which meant an extra day off and, therefore, an extra day at the farm. And the weather couldn't have been better. On top of that, Meelie and her boyfriend, Tom, popped out to spend the afternoon with us.

Hubby grilled some perfect hamburgers. We all went for a swim. Then, there was a request to go horseback riding. (Meelie and Tom hadn't been for ages.) Our wonderful neighbor, Marlin, has horses that he likes us to ride as often as we like, to keep them from getting wild.

Well, we hadn't availed ourselves of this privilege for a long time. It's probably been about ten months since we took out a horse or two for a ride. The result of this hiatus is that the horses can get a little uppity, or lazy, or both.

I caught the sweetest of the horses, Slick, in his paddock and was leading him into the saddling area where he accidentally planted his foot onto mine (which, in violation of Marlin's hard shoe rule, was clad in only a flip-flop -- ouch, it hurts all over again).

Slick's half ton plus of horse flesh was firmly planted on my foot for a good ten seconds while I punched him in the gut yelling "side!" for him to go to the OTHER side and get off of me. Apparently, it took him that time to remember his training. He finally did move and seemed oblivious to what he had just done. He even licked me (as is his habit) as I was bridling him.

The picture doesn't do it justice. It's much worse than it looks.

The pity party can commence!

Amazingly, it hurt for the rest of the day but now is only a bit stiff, making me look like I have a peg leg when I walk.

Also amazingly, another of Marlin's horses stepped on me four years ago and the result was about the same.

I wonder how many swollen feet I'll need to go through before I start following Marlin's hard shoe rule.

May 20, 2010

The Way Not to Do Things

Here is Hubby with his brand new grill for the farm!

Good thing it's not a close-up view or you would see the dents and dings.

In preparation for our Going Organic field day on June 12th*, we decided we needed a grill for the farm. Actually, it is a good excuse. Hubby has been wanting one for a while now.

So, we went into town to stock up on supplies (don't we sound so 19th century wild west?) and made three or four stops for groceries, seed, farm supplies, and, finally, the grill. Since it was the last of our stops, we had gotten kind of lazy. We wedged it into the back of the truck and failed to strap it in. (Ominous foreshadowing there.)

We headed back out to the farm along Iowa State Highway 2 and picked up speed as we left town. Just as we hit about 55 mph, an oncoming semi truck, probably going a bit too fast to enter our quiet little Clarinda, sped past us. I felt the whoosh of wind and looked in the rearview mirror to see our new grill flying into the air like Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz. Well, since a house wasn't too heavy to be picked up and blown away, I shouldn't have been surprised that our grill was hefted out of the truck.

Needless to say, we pulled over and set about dodging traffic to retrieve the parts of the grill that we could find. Amazingly enough, we found everything and the grill itself was only bent out of shape, kind of like Hubby at that moment. The only casualty was the automatic ignition which can be ordered as a replacement part. (Happy birthday, Honey!)

After some minutes of expletives which I will spare you, we put everything back together and Hubby swore that he was going to write to CharBroil to commend them on the fact that their grills could withstand being swept out of a truck going 55 mpg down the highway and live to grill again!

Fortunately, Hubby had recovered by the next day when one of the neighbor girls commented on the new grill and was told the story. The immediate response from this 13-year-old country girl was incredulity, "You didn't have it strapped in??"

No. No, we didn't. But it's alright.

We not only have a not-so-new grill, but also a pretty good story to share.

*Please come out and spend the afternoon with us. It's a free lunch and a lot of fun!

May 5, 2010

The Way to Do Things

How about a few vignettes from the last few weeks in the country to elucidate rural protocol?


Number One:

Puttering around the garden one sunny morning, the girls and I heard a tractor coming down the hill from the neighbor's house. We assumed it was our great friend, Marlin, until it got a bit closer and stopped at the big barn up the hill and we saw that it was Marlin's son, Tyrel, loading up our tall ladder and taking it back up to his Dad's place.

It's customary around these parts to ask before borrowing items. But, as Tyrel headed up the hill, he was conspicuously looking back, waiting for me to notice him. Once I did, I waved, and he tipped his hat to me, and all was well.

Later, I came to find out that the menfolk had arranged for this transaction. They just hadn't informed yours truly about it.

No matter.

Number Two:

Since it's a busy time of year, I decided to go to the farm for more than a weekend. While I was there by myself, one of my chores was to acquire some seed for a food plot that we have which is in need of renewal. The Pheasants Forever people provide free seed to farmers interested in putting a few of their acres into a food plot for wildlife. I had the name of a man to talk to about this -- George. Andre had talked to him earlier in the week and George knew I was going to contact him. When I called him and said that I was at the farm alone, he was stymied. Not wanting to disappoint me, he asked if I would come into town and meet him at his office (he's also a realtor -- aren't all farmers something else?) and he would take me out to his farm, about three miles away, show me where the seed was, and, when my husband arrived, we could come and get it whenever it was convenient. (Oh, George couldn't help with the sack lifting because he had a shoulder in a cast due to a recent surgical operation. He is so hoping that he'll be able to cast in June when he goes on a fishing trip to Canada.)

It never entered George's head that I could heft those 50-pound sacks of seed into my truck. (I really could have, I swear.) I played the demure female so as not to disappoint him. I toured the two barns where the seed was located and I tried to make mental notes of all the good information that George was giving me..."this one is good for tall sorghum...this one for short...this one goes well with those two to create a good nesting ground...bring a bucket because this sack has holes, etc."

It's been two weeks and we still haven't picked up the seed. But I know where it is!

Number Three:

I was emailed from one of the Practical Farmers of Iowa* and asked about our wheat from last year. Could it be used for flour for baking? Why, yes, of course it can! And we have plenty in storage with our mentor, Dan. Ok, well, send us a sample of it so we can test it and we'll maybe sell it to bakeries in Des Moines. Sure! Will do.

I called Dan and asked if he could get us a few pounds of our wheat for this test. If it panned out, he may have an outlet for his wheat, too! "No problem," says Dan. "I'll get it to you this weekend."

We waited and waited.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, an hour or two before we were to leave for Omaha, I called him and asked if I could maybe come and get the wheat. Dan informed me that he had already left the wheat at the entrance to our property. He didn't want to chance coming the quarter mile to the cabin and risk tearing up our grass road. So thoughtful of him. Would have been nice if he had called.

No worries.

Just getting used to the way things are done out here.

*These are the same folks who are sponsoring our Field Day on June 12th! Hope you can make it. Go to this link to RSVP.

April 21, 2010

Playing the Game

I've mentioned the issues with Maya, my third grader, and the way she learns. Well, I had some new insight into the way she thinks last weekend as she was playing Scrabble with her Dad and a friend.

Maya had never played Scrabble before, so she needed the basic parameters of the game explained to her. Once she got them, she started trying to expand on them, naturally.

"So, can we go diagonally?"


"Can we go backwards?"


"Can we put letters on top of each other?"


"Can we put a word next to a word that's already there?"

No. Not unless all the crosswords make real words.

"Bummer! This game is lame!"

Right about now, I'm thinking that she could author a new and improved Scrabble. Would there be enough brains out there like hers that would appreciate it?

Some people are worried about the future of humanity. I, on the other hand, am optimistic. With the pace at which the times they are a changin', and with technology outstripping itself every few weeks, and with young people thinking "outside the box" like Maya does, I'm sure there's a recipe for success at the nexus of these things.

Which reminds me of my favorite reading about our offspring:

On Children
by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Here's to the future and to our children!

April 12, 2010


For those of my blog fans which may not know the particulars of my family life, it is a bit schizophrenic. We live in Omaha, Nebraska, where Hubby has a great job which subsidizes our farm and supports more people than he would like to know about. (We invoke the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on that one.) But our farm is located in Southwestern Iowa, exactly 97 miles from our Omaha door. So, our farming is done largely on the weekends and in the summer. The upshot of this rubric is that we tend to pack a lot of farm work into just two days each week.

Sometimes we work so hard for the entire weekend, then sit for an hour to behold our handiwork, then Hubby comments that the place looks really nice for the noble landowners for whom we toil and who will show up during the week to enjoy the place.

But this past weekend was a bit more relaxed than usual.

Here's what was planned (it's spring and there's a lot that needs to be done):

- till the garden
- fix the holes in the netting around the garden
- plant the spring seeds (about 20 items!)
- fix the lawnmower
- fix the tractor
- fix the other tractor
- count the aronia berries
- mulch the aronia berries
- mow the 25-acre field
- plant the new roses
- water new grass seed areas
- gather up hoses from fields

Here's what we did on Saturday:

- planted new white pine and weeping cherry trees (which Liz got a great deal on at the local hardware store)

- watched Maya with her newly caught fish (She's a veritable fish-whisperer!)

- were visited by our neighbor, Marlin, who, when taking his leave of a friend of Maya's said, "Well, Dear, I'm glad you got to see me!"
- watched the kids go boating and swimming in the pond

- went into town to get a couple of things and look at the baby ducks at the farm store
- cooked hamburgers over a campfire
- listened to "A Prairie Home Companion" on the radio
- put up solar panels on Hubby's new barn -- woot woot! (Eventually) free energy!

- tinkered in the barn for a few hours
- watched the solar lights come on in the evening while sipping some wine

So, I guess life is what happens in spite of one's planning.

But, I'll have you know, somehow, everything on that planning list got done on Sunday.

Needless to say, Hubby and I were both absolutely fried on Sunday night, but it was worth it!

April 9, 2010

Too Busy to Blog

Spring has sprung once again in the Heartland!

And it's been a more normal spring than the last two were (with all that rain!).

So, the upshot is that we've been out there planning and planting and enjoying...

the flowers,
the weather,
each other.

In lieu of a pertinent, pithy, poignant blog entry, how about a pretty cool pic?

Here are a couple of the crocuses, already gone, against the backdrop of the still leafless oak trees.

Now, I'm off to load the truck for the next trip to the farm!

April 1, 2010

A Good Egg

My youngest daughter requested rice pudding yesterday. I was happy to oblige. It made me reminisce about the old family recipe that I got from great-grandma Carmen.

This photo is of her when she had already forgotten me and everyone else who loved her. But her rice pudding recipe lives on and has been passed down through me to her great-great-granddaughter, Julie, who makes such a good rice pudding that Carmen would be proud.

Some people think that rice pudding needs an egg, but they would be mistaken. It's very simple:

6 cups of whole milk
1 cup of rice
1/2 cup of sugar
a couple of cinnamon sticks
a teaspoon of vanilla
a few whole cloves

Simmer all the ingredients together in a pan on the stove until the rice is cooked, about 30 minutes. Pour into a bowl and sprinkle with ground cinnamon and let cool. Refrigerate and enjoy, if you get the chance. (Some little ones don't mind it warm.)

Another person who came to mind was my sister, Dec. She was with me that day in Pamplona, Spain, many years ago, when Carmen was still with us (mentally and physically) and taught us how to make rice pudding and wring out a wet towel properly. She was the second wife of my great grandfather and was a bit younger than he, so we kids ended up with an extra grandma. She was warm, loving, and funny. When we were young, she served us individual bottles of 7-Up and cookies in the cool, shaded kitchen of her Fresno, California home.

In our twenties, Dec and I had the good fortune to run around Europe studying sugar and languages, respectively. Dec used to say that she would watch the luggage while I did all the talking. We visited friends, family, sites. We got to know each other and establish that we could get along traveling with each other (no mean feat).

Here she is some years ago, but she looks the same today. Not fair. She's only a year younger than yours truly, but she has very little grey hair (I've been coloring mine for 25 years). She is my daughters' favorite person. "Aunt Dece! Aunt Dece!", they cry. She had a little blip of some weight gain, but most of her life, she's been quite thin. I, on the other hand, have been fighting with my weight all my life.

While it seems she has all the advantages, she doesn't. She's actually a little bit crazy.

Last weekend, she agreed to come out to the farm with me to help plant potatoes. In the night, she started yelling in her sleep. It turns out that this is such a regular occurrence that Dec's nieces are familiar with it and not perturbed when it happens. As she was yelling, "Get off my f#^%ing property!!!", my eight-year-old and I were both awakened. When I finally got up to go and see to her nightmare, I was surprised to find my youngest already comforting her. She looked up at me and, with the wisdom of one far beyond her years, she assured me that she was on the job and I could go back to sleep.

The vignette reminded me of yet another old joke.

Man: "Doctor, my brother thinks he's a chicken."

Doctor: "Why don't you commit him?"

Man: "I would, but I need the eggs."

So, we're all a bit crazy.

Have a Happy Easter!

March 22, 2010


One of the qualities that first attracted me to my husband was his foreignness. (He says that this was true for him about me, too. The fact that he wanted a Green Card had nothing whatsoever to do with his pursuit of me. Wink, wink.)

I loved that he was from somewhere else, that he had a history so different from my own, that he had distinct family and customs and language. As I was growing up, the Soviet Union was full of mystery and foreboding. It was the height of the Cold War. Then it was the Evil Empire. I had dated men from Western European countries in my youth, but a Russian would be the gold medal of competition foreign dating.

I went for the gold and I'm glad I did.

While he is absolutely fluent in English, every once in a while, he digs down in his memory to find a Russian saying to express something he wants to say and simply translates it into English. These are my favorites:

Once, having sneaked up on him, he said, "You're as stealthy as a puma!"

After performing my toilette and putting some fancy cream on my skin, he caressed me and noted that it was "as smooth as a whale's".


And, now that I've been exercising and toning up, he's noticed the reappearance of my waist and said, "you're shaped like a bowling pin". He's changed that one to hour glass, fortunately.

I know that he always means these things in the best possible way. It's a very endearing quality, among all his other wonderful qualities, and keeps life light and interesting.

Happy anniversary, Babe! I love you. Here's to another 14 years!

March 19, 2010

This Stuff Writes Itself

I had the good fortune (?) to attend the semi-annual Southwest Iowa Gun Show last weekend with Hubby. After paying our $5 entry fee and having a chance to buy a raffle ticket for an NRA membership (which we passed on), we entered the rooms of a subculture of this fair country that is full of material for this blogger.

On the right as we walked in was the kitchen with wonderful homemade smells emanating from it. Posted under the menu of hot dogs, roast beef, and various side dishes, is a small sign which says, "Practice safe eating, always use condiments". This sets the tone for the afternoon.

Entering one of the side rooms of guns and war memorabilia, we pass by a seller who says, "Free to come in, a dollar to get out". Just above said seller's head is a sign that reads, "Lots of bargains, a whole bunch of BS". No kidding.

I learned the vocabulary of the day -- "Hi-Point Guns", "Black Powder Rifles", "P-90s" (just like in the Sci-Fi movies). I saw the uniform of the day -- camo-print shirts, baseball caps, denim overalls. I also felt a bit out of place since I was one of only two women following her man around. I was taking notes and knew I'd get a lot of material. The other was about 18 and obviously trying to impress her beau by taking an interest in his interests. Ah, young love!

Vendors not only display their wares, but also their advertisements, politics, and predilections.

"Dog carrier and gun storage for sale". Yes, that's one unit that serves both purposes. Makes sense, I suppose.

"Davey Crickett -- My First Rifle (22 gauge)" Get those youngins off on the right foot!

Then there was this, written on a vendor's t-shirt:

Any Questions?

Yeah, just one...

Why is it, Sir, that you seem to tip the scales at about 350 pounds? And why am I not surprised that you do?

I know, that was two questions.

There is also some humor.

From a Montana rancher:

"Prayer is the best way to meet the Lord.
Trespassing is faster."

At the NRA table:

"I like cats.
They taste just like chicken."

A vendor selling bumper stickers:

"Warning -- Driver only carries $20 worth of ammunition."

And a little advice for the two of us ladies that happened to pass through:

"Men are like floor tiles...
if you lay them right the first time,
you can walk all over them forever."

March 11, 2010

Honesty Pays

Gather all the kids around as you read this note from Aunt Lizzie about how it pays to be honest.


Here's what happened.

Hubby and I recently attended the Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. What was not mentioned in the previous post was that Yours Truly attended as a mentor. With that moniker came some responsibilities and some perks. One of the perks was that the conference people were covering the hotel charges for two of the three nights we were there. Nice!

Well, when we checked out, we were surprised to find that all three nights were paid for. I asked the person at the desk about it and she looked it up and said that there was no note that we were to pay for one of the nights.

So, what would you do? Let it go? Let the conference pay for all three nights? Eh?

Well, ever since that day, many years ago, when I was probably about 10 years old and my mother refrained from giving the checkout girl at the grocery store an expired coupon and I asked her why she bothered to do that and she responded that her integrity was worth more than 25 cents, I have tended toward the honest side.

I sent an email to the conference people explaining the situation and offering to reimburse them for the night that I was supposed to pay for anyway.

Have you figured out what's coming?

Angie, the organizer of the accommodations at the conference, going the extra mile in figuring out what happened, figured out that the hotel had actually charged MY credit card for ALL THREE NIGHTS at the hotel. (I had given them a credit card for "incidentals" but hadn't incurred any. They figured out how to use it anyway.)

I would not have noticed that the charge was on my bill. I had assumed that the conference had paid for all three nights. When I did look up my account, I found that, in fact, the entire bill was on my card. Angie got with the hotel people and I am being reimbursed for the two nights that the conference was planning to pay for all along.

In this incident, honesty saved me over $200!

Let that be a lesson to all you youngins.

March 3, 2010

The Farmers in the Dell

The Organic Farming Conference is held annually in La Crosse, Wisconsin, during the last week of February. A hopeful sign of the times is that attendance has grown from 90 attendees 21 years ago to a resounding 2,600 this year!

One of the fixtures of the conference is the appearance and irreverent folk songs of Sinister Dane and the Kickapoo Disco Cosmonauts. (Don't look for them online. They don't have time to put up a website. They're busy farming and playing music.) They write their own lyrics to popular songs. You can probably guess the tune to "Help me, Round-up, Help, help me Round-up". Or, how about the tribute to Patsy Cline, "Cra-zy, for feeding sheep's brains to cattle...".

All of the food at the conference was organic, of course. All that could be recycled, was. Each attendee was given a glass mug to use for the duration of the conference. (No paper or styrofoam cups.) It took some years, but there were even compost buckets for things like banana peels and apple cores. Bravo! There was more tea than coffee doled out. The conference organizers didn't even bother with vegetarians. They jumped straight to vegans and gluten-free folks.

There were farmers of all kinds -- Amish, Mennonite, Sikhs, certified organic farmers, Birkenstock-wearing students, crusty old guys in seed company caps, university researchers, even a smattering of conventional farmers (they'll be converted soon). An encouraging note was that there were many young, beginning farmers.

I've worn many hats in my life (teacher, traveler, designer, artist, spy) but I must say that that of a farmer has been the most interesting by far. If you are anything like I was before venturing into this vocation, you may have assumed that farmers were dull, unintelligent hicks. That is what society has shown us about them. And the image is further degraded by conglomerates like Monsanto which have turned farmers into little more than hired hands, caught in the genetically-engineered seed/Round-up pesticide cycle.

But the average family farmer is nothing like that.

There is an authenticity to farmers. There is a common bond among us, borne of the feeling of comrades-in-arms as we all work with, or fight with, Mother Nature. There is a true grounding, literally and figuratively, to those who work on the land. There is a leanness to life. There is an innate intelligence in figuring out any number of measurements. There is a keen sense of community, helping each other, joining forces. There is immeasurable respect among the ranks of farmers.

I am honored to be one of them.

February 23, 2010

Live and Learn

Lest anyone is actually following this blog and my tips on starting plants from seed, take heed!

After two weeks of fighting mold on my seed trays, I threw them all out and had to start over. It seems they didn't get enough air circulation. So, while I had the proper potting soil, the proper lighting (on timers, no less, to have more light per day than the sun can provide right now) the proper amount of water, the proper temperature (between 70 and 80 degrees), I failed to provide the proper air circulation!


So, it seems that one must open up those clear, plastic lids at least once a day for about an hour to allow for air circulation and, thus, inhibit the ability of that pesky mold to grow.

But it's still early enough to get new seeds going!

Ah, the cycle of life and death, the pas de deux with Mother Nature, the rhythm of the seasons, the thrill of the harvest, all come together to create the secret of happiness!

Happy gardening!

February 11, 2010

Happy New Year!

On February 10th, I spent the afternoon with my daughter's third-grade class. We wrote Valentine's poetry and the children played games and, even though I made my annual contribution of an attractive tray of fruit (which is always devoured), society still demands an obscene amount of candy. So, the children overdose on sugar. I try.

But what lends February 10th another degree of importance, at least in our neck of the woods, is that it is eight weeks before the last average frost date and, therefore, the day on which we set up the greenhouse and start our seedlings for the spring planting later on. This year, our first seedlings will be celery, cabbage, bear's garlic, and leeks. In another two weeks, we'll add peppers, tomatoes and eggplant.

(For more detailed information on how to do this yourself, see the original greenhouse blog entry from last year.)

The days are getting noticeably longer. The sun seems to be shining more brightly. The remaining snow may be fighting to hang on, but we all know it's a losing battle.

Here is the first two of what will eventually be eight shelving units taking over our living room and the table of lovingly mixed organic potting soil in the foreground:

A close-up of one of the seed trays with its own grow light:

So, while January 1st may be the official New Year, I would propose that Valentine's Day be the natural New Year. It is when life begins anew. It is when the birds return to the trees in our backyard, singing their morning songs. It is when the crocuses and tulips start thinking about popping up through the blanket of snow. It is when one's spirit is lifted out of its winter slumber to do that farming thing all over again.

Happy New Year!

February 9, 2010

The Spice of Life

Since getting into cooking again recently, I, of course, had to have some new cookbooks. So, my dear new Sis-in-law, who, like me, has the good fortune to be married to a Russian, recommended the following Russian cookbook:

It is encyclopedic in its coverage of the dishes of all the former Soviet Republics. Its recipes are very true to the authentic ones and we've already enjoyed Chatchipuri (Georgian cheese pie), Chibureki (meat pies) and tonight it's Chicken Tsatsivi (chicken in a walnut and spice sauce).

Which brings me to my spice cupboard. I'm going to do you a favor by NOT showing you the"before" picture. But, since I needed about eight different spices to mix together in my new mortar and pestle (yes, also a recent purchase), I decided it was time to dig deep into the cupboard to 1. find the spices I needed and 2. clean and organize the cupboard a bit.

Well, it was like going on a treasure hunt! There were green peppercorns from Guadeloupe, ground saffron from Moscow, real saffron from Spain (thanks, Dad!), various curries and garam masala from India, organic maple butter from Canada, Japanese panko (bread crumbs), and our own dried peppers and herbs from last fall's garden. There were three versions of cilantro and two of celery seed. There was whole mace. There was Kazak soup mix.

Here's the "after" picture:

My most surprising find was the ground mustard. Apparently, I forget that I have it and purchase a new bottle of it whenever I'm making a recipe which calls for it.

No one needs seven bottles of it, I'm sure.

February 1, 2010

Love and Death

Unlike the protagonist in Jose Saramago's recent novel Death with Interruptions, in which Death decides to take a vacation from Her duties, She is alive and well and making Her rounds in our neck of the woods.

She paid us a visit this morning.

Our beloved Felix, who was on the mend from recent ailments, took a sudden turn for the worse. At 9:30am, I noticed that his breathing was very labored. I called and made an appointment with the vet for 11:15am and, when I went to get him a little before 11am, he was already gone. The vet surmised that he must have aspirated something to have died so suddenly.

Here he is cuddled up on our other cat, Angel, just two days ago.

He sat and slept by Dad all day yesterday. He had been gaining weight. He seemed a little lethargic, but otherwise alright. His personal history had been much more dramatic than anything that was going on here.

After getting bitten by another cat, being duct-taped as his triage, chased off to live in the cold wilderness for six months, reappearing as skin and bones, suffering a respiratory infection, among who knows what else, it seems that he burned through his nine lives in short order. (He hadn't reached his second birthday.) At least he got to finish his days surrounded by love and warmth.

And while he may be "only a cat", and while "there will be other cats" to love, each being is unique. Felix was a lover, not a fighter. He got very attached to us, and we to him. He even maintained a peaceful coexistence with, almost an affection for, our spayed female, Angel (who is pacing around the house now wondering where he went).

As the breath of life left his fur and flesh and bones in an immobile, cool stillness, I realize that we must content ourselves with that small vestige of his spirit that remains -- memory.

Requiescat in pace, Felix.

January 26, 2010

Alice and Julia (and Lizzie and Beth)

Passion for food and cooking was recently rekindled in me when a few things converged harmonically in my little corner of the universe. First, my Mom gave me two great books for Christmas.

The romantic, impractical, often eccentric, ultimately brilliant making of a food revolution:

and the lively, first person story of one of my earliest heroes, Julia Child, when she lived in France:

Both books include very vivid, detailed recipes and mouth-watering descriptions of food. In addition, it is the dead of winter in Omaha, Nebraska, so indoor activities are preferable to outdoor ones. So, it's off to create in the kitchen for Lizzie!

Yesterday, I sent out this email to select family members so that they could look forward to the luscious dinner I was preparing:

Dear Family,

Chez Panisse is not the only place that can do this!

Bifteck Sauté a la Bordelaise
(Sirloin steak in a red wine sauce)

Pommes de Terre Gratin Jurassien
(Scalloped potatoes with cream and cheese)

Salade Verte a la Vinaigrette avec de l'avocat
(Green salad with avocado and vinaigrette dressing)

Asperges Braisées avec du Beurre Biologique
(Braised asparagus in organic butter)

Pain Francaise Multigrain
(Multigrain French bread)

Vin Rouge
(Red wine)

Fruits de Bois avec de la Glace et de la Creme Fraiche
(Berries with ice cream and whipped cream)

As Julia would say, "Bon Appétit"


In solidarity with Alice and Julia, I went foraging for the best, freshest ingredients for my meal. Fortunately, I already had on hand the grass-fed, naturally-raised, beautiful sirloin steak from our mentor and neighbor in organic farming, Dan Wood. For the rest, instead of the intimate markets of Berkeley or Paris, I made do with the local grocery store -- Baker's. It was liberating to shop for just one meal, not worrying about the rest of the week...not very efficient, but liberating!

I arrived home with my ingredients, set to work about 2:00pm preparing the strawberries and blueberries and setting them aside to make their sugar, cut and dried the lettuce and wrapped it gingerly in paper towels and placed it the refrigerator, chopped shallots and parsley, greeted the children about 3:00pm, welcomed them into the kitchen to help layer slices of potatoes, butter, and cheese for the casserole and mix the vinaigrette for the salad, sautéed the sirloin and made its sauce, broiled the asparagus and baked the bread.

Hubby arrived home about 6:00pm and opened the special bottle of red wine for the occasion.

The children set the table.

The food was served.

We said grace.

The phone rang.

The youngest ran to answer the phone. She is trained to let people know if we are sitting down to dinner and tells them that we will call back. This caller would have none of it. This caller was Beth Gaynes. She is a force of nature and a woman who has had a great influence in our lives, especially the lives of our oldest two daughters who studied classical ballet with her for many, formative young years. The eldest nabbed a berth at NYU with an essay in homage to Beth. But Beth has been out of commission for about two years after the death of her husband and a bad fall at home alone. She is on the mend and wanted to re-connect.

So, while my family enjoyed the fruits of my labors, I chatted with Beth.

Beth, you are one of the few people on this earth who would have kept me from this meal. Consider it another homage to you!

Beth and Julie in better times.

I'm off to make two kinds of quiche with homemade pastry crusts, another green salad, cream of asparagus soup, among other things. Set your clocks, folks, and don't call around 6:00pm CST!

Bon appetit!