Thursday, July 25, 2013

Birthday Brain

South Dakota Peacock Museum (my dining room)
I recently had a birthday. Yes, another one. That makes well over 35 of them now. And birthdays, like everything else in my life, are different since last October’s little BS (right ischemic brainstem stroke). My birthday gave me ample proof that my brain has become a whole 'nother can-O-worms...

It used to be that on my birthday, I wanted a BIG fuss—a 60’s themed Annette Funicello-ish beach party (girls in high-rise polkadot bikinis, boys with bongo drums); non-stop sushi & sake with 25 of my loudest, closest friends; a spontaneous roadtrip to Area 51; cliff-jumping in Mexico. Okay, maybe not cliff-jumping, but something wild and memorable. This year—and this is Proof #1 of an altered brain—I wanted home, calm, low lights, no drama, peace.

The SassCam 9000
Proof #2 was my birthday wish list. Past lists included things like guitars, clothes, shoes, jewels, a winemaking kit, or a sequined princess costume. This year, I’d already gotten Mom’s gift—a fabulous trip to Louisiana to see my nieces—and the only other things I wanted were a new Kindle I could read outside in bright light, and a digital trail camera. Seriously…what midlife woman in her right mind wants a Sasquatch camera for her birthday?!

Anyhoo, Ray gave me a Kindle Paperwhite and a lovely, relaxed dinner out with good friends; my youngest son gave me a frameable work of peacock art, friends gave me bird/peacock accoutrement galore, and…ta-da! My older boys gave me a 4 MP Simmons Whitetail Night Vision trail camera—my “SassCam.” I will finally catch (on SD card, at least) that Sasquatch, wolverine, hyena pack, chupacabra, pride of lions, or pteradactyl that’s been picking off our peacocks!
Where's my pattern for knit coyote sweaters?

So here’s our new routine: every evening, we walk the dogs and find a new spot for the SassCam. Every morning, Ray retrieves the camera, so we can see what was slinking around the night before. So far, we’ve “captured” coyotes, raccoons (many…often), and a feral cat, all potential pea-snackers.

Hamming it up for the camera.
We’re not big on shooting things (we’re a disaster at it, actually…see, so we’ve come up with an alternate plan to protect our dwindling flock of four peacocks (possibly three…we haven’t seen our nesting hen for quite a while): Ray will “mark” our territory everywhere we’ve spotted wildlife, and I will dump cayenne pepper in any burrows we find. If that doesn’t work, I’ll knit some cozy catch & release snares. If that doesn’t work, we'll wire the pasture for sound and play Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” 24/7. If that doesn’t work, we'll give up peacocks and start raising raccoons for the pet industry. If that doesn’t work, we'll import—only as a last resort, mind you—a velociraptor. (Proof #3?)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Gooseberry Grandeur

“He could not imagine a homestead, he could not picture an idyllic nook, without gooseberries.” Anton Chekhov

This is not a food blog, but I must digress today to sing the praises of that humble fruit about which Chekhov clearly knew the score: ribes uva-crispagooseberries. Gooseberries may be the world’s most underappreciated and underutilized fruit, but they’ve always been a staple in our family life.

Gooseberries are more well-known in the UK, where gooseberry “fool,” a rich, sweet-tart pudding, is fairly common. As a Nebraska girl, I’d never heard of gooseberries until I met Ray. His mother knew the secret, and the berries had been part of her summer garden haul for decades. In fact, our original gooseberry bush came from her, and our gardens have never been without gooseberries since.

Gooseberries grow on extremely dense, head-high, very thorny bushes. Peacocks love gooseberries, too, so our bushes are in the corner of our garden, inside the fence. The berries are small, maybe ½-1 inch. They mature from firm, green and very tart to soft, blush-pink and semi-sweet. Most recipes call for green berries, and this is when most folks pick. The berries freeze well with no pre-fussing. They’re packed with Vitamin C and phytonutrients, and they’re a good source of fiber and potassium. You can buy canned gooseberries, but they’re expensive and not the same. I’ve never seen fresh gooseberries in a market or store, even though desserts and bevvies made with fresh green gooseberries might just be the perfect combo of sweet & sour. I’m drooling on the keyboard…

So apparently, last summer’s extreme drought, Ray’s irregular watering, and our total lack of pruning and weeding formed the perfect trifecta of gooseberry cultivation, because this summer, we had a bumper crop like nothing we’ve seen before. Ray did all the picking—an hour or two each evening for six evenings straight. He armed for battle: long sleeves, heavy jeans and boots, thick gloves, mosquito-netting hat, ice cream buckets (one has to pry one’s way into the thorny heart of the Thicket of Doom—the center of the bushes—to find the best berries). In spite of his armor, I would still hear occasional loud outbursts of profanity punctuating the summer calm, and I’d know he was pulling another thorn out of his hand.

While Ray picked, I made the really tough sacrifice: I suffered inside, in the air-conditioning, watching TV while I “topped & tailed” picked berries (each berry must have its stem and dried blossom removed by hand). It was meditative and excellent physical therapy, and thanks to DVR’d episodes of Mountain Man, I’m pretty sure I could field dress a squirrel now.

We ended up with about 30 quarts of berries in the freezer, and we swapped a gallon for a tray of fresh-picked strawberries. I’ll make our old standby’s: Ray’s mom’s gooseberry pie and gooseberry “pudding” (sticky cobbler). This year, I’ll also make some jam, and (best of all), I found several recipes for gooseberry wine—a light, lovely white wine. I’ll bet you can guess what everyone’s getting for Christmas this year…

Here are some classic gooseberry recipes:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dear NSA: Have a nice day.

This whole Snowden/NSA business has me pondering…did we EVER really have the presumption of privacy? I’ll tell you a funny story that explains why I’m terribly intriguing and notorious, and why the answer is NO.

When I was 16, I worked as a maximum-security teller, deep in the vault of a major Omaha bank. I counted, sorted, and balanced deposits of 500K to a couple million every day. I counted and sorted brand spanking new money that came from the Federal Reserve. I trained straw-brained ex-Nebraska football players so they could move upstairs into management and make 100 times my salary ([growling] another blog post someday).

Anyway, when new money came from the Fed, it came bundled between two dollar-sized pieces of pine called “fed boards” that kept the bills all nice & neat. Sometimes, the ink on bills was so fresh when the Fed bundled the money, that the impression of bills would be stamped on the boards. And when a teller unbundled bills, or took rubber bands off bundled bills in large deposits, sometimes a corner of a bill would tear off. We had a guide to show us how big the tear could be for the bill still to be usable. So the girls (all females in the vault, except the manager, of course [growling], another blog post) in MaxSec had a habit of saving fed boards and torn corners for me. I had plans to make a wonderful collage out of it all—a mushroom cloud, an atom bomb, a weeping woman…I dunno, something was the 70’s.

When I left the bank after a 1½ years, I took my garbage bag of boards & corners with me. And when I moved into a little rental house in Lincoln with my friend, I took them with me. And when I ran off with musicians to New Mexico and my roommate joined the Moonies and left town while I was gone (another blog post someday), and my mom had to move all my stuff back to Omaha, somehow the bag got left behind.

Now I’m back from New Mexico (tense shift intentional), and I get a job working as a teller at an Omaha drive-through bank ([growling] another blog post someday—I got fired for objecting to sexism on the job). One day, I get a call at work. It’s the Omaha Secret Service. They want me to come to their office. NOW.  I go downtown. They escort me into a tiny room, where two nondescript men in grey suits (seriously) are waiting. One’s sitting behind a desk, one’s sitting on the edge of the desk. They’re both young, barely older than my then 19 years. As I recall, the conversation goes something like this:

SS: Do you know why you’re here?

ME: No.

SS: (pulls a black garbage bag from behind the desk and opens it a smidgen to let me look inside) Do you recognize this?

ME: Hey! Those are my fed boards!

SS: Where did you get these? What were you planning to do with them?

ME: (long story about MaxSec, many side comments about sexist business practices, substitute “doll house” for “atom bomb,” laughing)

SS: Ms. P (me)…do you think this is funny?

ME: Yes.

SS: (pulls out an envelope from the desk, lets me peek inside) Do you recognize these?

ME: Yes. They’re torn corners of bills (started another long story, interrupted)

SS: Do you know defacing American currency is a crime? What did you plan to do with these?

ME: (various non-threatening collage ideas)

SS: Ms P, did you live at (Lincoln address) from X-date to X-date?

ME: Yes.

SS: We received a report from witnesses who claim you were engaged in counterfeiting, and that they observed you burying things in the backyard at this address.

ME: (busted out laughing so hard, I nearly fell off the chair)

SS: Ms. P…do you think this is a laughing matter?

ME: Are you kidding? Can I have my stuff back?

SS: No.

It turns out, two old wino brothers moved into the Lincoln house after my roommate and I left. They found the boards & corners, left behind in the house. They were delusional and paranoid, and they ended up reporting us to the SS. According to the brothers, in addition to counterfeiting and burying things in the yard (bodies??) while they were sleeping, we also followed them everywhere they went, although they really couldn’t say what we looked like.

Two things: (1) I totally have underworld cred from this, right? I should have a gangster name, like Mavis Moneybags or Doris the Digger. (2) I’m pretty sure I was on some “keep an eye on her” list long before the NSA started keeping their bajillion fly-eyes on us all.

I like to think the young SS guys laughed their arses off after I left that day—it was probably the most fun they had their entire careers. I also like to think the SS, NSA, or whomever is tasked with reviewing homeland spy data, is so horrendously bored by our lives that they can barely get out of bed in the morning to go to work.

I’m glad Snowden filled us in on what the NSA is up to, but I’m not worried them spying on my life. If they’re listening, they’ll find out I adore my kids, I dream about retirement, I knit like a fiend, I worry about my ailing dog, I love poetry, I don't have much patience with apathetic students, I’m slightly obsessive about coffee and wine, and like any good daughter, I call my mother. Wow. Fascinating.