Hanging around in the cloud…

Archive for May, 2011

Bread and Soup

The starter sat loosely covered in a plastic tub in a windowsill away from the cook stove.  The tub was good sized, and had once held cottage cheese in “Costco” quantities before it happened.  Tea colored water had risen to the top of the slightly fermented flour and water mixture.  Jeanne added a quarter cup of flour and the same amount of warm water, stirring it in to feed it.  After a few hours in the warm kitchen, the starter bubbled and expanded, and she fed it again.  When the starter had doubled in size, Jeanne  cranked the handle of the grain mill, slowly changing the red wheat berries into fine flour.   She ground six cups, resting for a few minutes between each cup.  Shylock begged to crank so she stood him on a chair and helped him crank until he tired of it, and went back to playing with his blocks in front of the cook stove.

She scooped about half of the starter into a large bowl, and added the fresh flour and warm water slowly, until it formed a large sticky ball.  Then she sprinkled flour on a cutting board, slapping the slightly gooey dough onto it.  She kneaded this mass for fifteen minutes, slowly adding flour onto the board, and letting the dough take it in as she pressed and folded.  Satisfied that the dough was developed, she rounded it up and put it back in the bowl, covered it with a clean moist towel, and set it near the stove to proof.

Unlike working with store bought yeast, the starter worked slowly.  The first proof took four hours, and Jeanne periodically used a spray bottle to re-moisten the towel.   She punched it down, pulled it out of the bowl, and shaped it into three long loaves, wrapping each in special cotton cloths imbued with flour.  She kept these french bread cloths in a precious zip lock bag under the rolling pin in the second drawer down.  Before, that drawer had held parchment paper, plastic wrap, foil, and wax paper.  Now, carefully recycled foil pieces, plastic bags, and bits of plastic wrap hid in the back of the drawer, only used when cloth or a container couldn’t be used.  Arly had a knack of flattening wrinkled foil with her fingernail, painstakingly smoothing it back out, but all of them were very careful with these things because they knew nobody would have any for barter again.

Choosing a good sized stock pot from the array of pots and pans that hung from the kitchen ceiling, Jeanne dropped a big venison hip bone into the pot, filled it with water, and set it on the surface of the cook stove to simmer.  After an hour or so, she added a little precious sea salt, pearl barley, dried peas (not designated for seed), and a bay leaf.

The loaves slowly expanded inside their wrappings while Jeanne started the soup and stoked the stove to bring the oven temperature up.   She removed the racks and leaned them against the wall behind the wood stove, keeping an eye on Shylock even though he knew they were hot.   She ground a little cracked corn in the mill into a coarse meal, then sprinkled a third of the meal onto a wide wooden paddle.  Carefully she unwrapped a loaf and placed it on the paddle.  She slashed three diagonals on the top with a serrated knife, opened the oven, and slid the loaf onto the oven floor.  Quickly she repeated the process for the other two until all three sat evenly spaced on the floor of the oven.  She took a half a cup of water and threw it on the side of the hot oven wall, where it made a lovely hiss and spattering sound as she hastily shut the oven door to keep the heat and humidity inside.

The old white cook stove had no window to see into the oven, so she set a kitchen timer for fifteen minutes to remind her to throw more water in.  When the loaves had become a beautiful brown, she scooped them out one by one with the paddle and set them on racks on the counter to cool.  The whole house smelled of wonderful sourdough desem bread, and the aroma pulled Brian in from whatever he’d been doing outside.   He peeked into the soup pot, and added a couple of handfuls of home made noodles, dried zucchini, dried carrots, and some home canned Lima beans grown on a trellis in the greenhouse.  He took a wooden spoon and tasted the broth.  A smile spread under his beard and shaggy mustache, revealing slightly crooked teeth.  He added another pinch of salt, crunched up some hot peppers to substitute for black pepper.  Digging around in the big bottom cupboard he popped back up with an onion.  He set a skillet on the top of the stove to heat up while he diced it, then went into the front room to get a bulb of garlic from the braids that hung behind the flat screen TV.

The onions got happy with a little lard in the skillet, and soon had the minced garlic for company.  Finally, the whole joyous mixture went into the soup, and Brian added some dried thyme, sage, and basil, then chopped and added half a head of cabbage before putting the lid back on for a final half hour of simmering.


Clear November

A soft blanket of fog had boiled up from the river and flowed over the prairie causing the pines and Mary’s willows to float on an ethereal ocean of wispy white against an impossibly blue sky.  The house sits above the fog, looking north towards the approaching winter, with the sun poking through the pines and into the west facing windows.   I stand looking out thinking how each day ferries me further away, as if the house was a spaceship. I drink my latte watching the world recede beneath me from this beautiful observation port facing north.  Perhaps that’s why they call these mobile homes, even though the wheels are gone.  The sense of motion seems to speed up each day, and I have to surrender because I can’t keep up with the dizzying rush of time and the complicating factor of my body becoming a heavy sludge encumbered lump wracked with pain.  A rustling noise breaks the foggy silence so I galumph and lumber on stiff legs back to the center room.

Ragneesh pecks and putters on the porch, his crop filled with Feline Science Diet K giving him a nutritional edge over the others that live across the road.   He’s itchy and not finished with his first molt, and several tatty tail feathers cling stubbornly despite his efforts to extract them.   Back in August, I would find the plumes here and there, and put the best ones in a vase filled with them in the living room.  He should have finished shedding all of them then, but not being a peacock expert, I don’t know if this is something to worry about.  I wonder if I should try to catch him and pull them out for him.  But I can’t move that fast, and besides, he would think I was trying to kill him or something.

I can’t not worry about winter.  The storms, the power outages, the creeping arctic air and our waterline not quite deep enough under the long slope up to the house from the pumphouse all crowd into my thoughts.  But today the sun is trying to burn through fog, and the air is starkly transparent bringing the mountains with their skiff of snow north of the river even closer and into sharp focus.  That snow line drops lower each week, and soon a big wet system will hit the dry cold air, and snow will be back for the duration.  Winter adds more distance, sometimes burying prairie roads with huge drifts that push the plows aside like toys, and the county has to hire bulldozers to hack their way back through.   I slide the door open and shut it behind me to gimp my way over to the woodpile still wearing PJs and slippers.  Ragneesh steps off the porch, which looks more like a drawbridge to a double wide castle than a porch, to watch me get an armload of split pine, and totter back to juggle with the wood and the sliding door before dumping the wood loudly in a metal tub next to the stove.  No matter what, this little stove will heat the house.  I wonder about some of the neighbors who don’t have wood stoves.  How do they stay warm during the frequent and sometimes lengthy outages?   Snow gets rid of the lightweights in winter, and fire could get rid of all of us one day, if it isn’t kept safely in the stove.



Afterlife sketches 1.3

A fierce wind tore at the house, banging a flashing against the soffit, and roaring around and through the top of the metal chimneys.  Jeanne and Sue kept stoking both stoves with seasoned Ponderosa, that burned fast and hot keeping the house warm and cozy as the blizzard raged.   To conserve kerosene, they burned just one lamp and sat around the kitchen table.  Outside, the temperature slowly rose as the wet system from the Pacific hurled itself into the frigid arctic air that had held sway for nearly two weeks.  Winter had come early, and evidently, planned on staying late, as it was almost March.

“How about a little Global Warming,” muttered Cameron, Shylock’s grumpy dad, sick to death of the indoors.  He’d coped with all the changes, the hard physical labor, the demise of texting, gaming, and loss of job, friends, and worst of all, his car.  But sitting in the dark while others tried to read or crocheted drove him nuts.  Cameron had never been much for school, reading, or such things.  He liked music, partying, cars, getting tattoos, and hot chicks, especially Arly.  He’d really had to beg Marshall to let him bring Arly out to the farm after it happened.  It really would have sucked to be the only 20 something in this group of old farts.

Shylock had been a total surprise for him as well, and being a dad had helped him miss his old life less.  His little son cocked back and punched him in the stomach with all of his toddler might.  Cameron pretended it hurt, making a pained face, and then tickled Shylock until he punched him again.  Cameron tickled him with both hands and the baby shrieked with laughter.

“If he pukes, you’re cleaning it up, AND hauling the water you use to replace it.”  Arly snorted, wishing with every bone in her body for a cigarette, although she hadn’t smoked one in over a year.

A particularly strong gust slammed against the house and rattled the back door.

Jeanne brought out a plate of steaming hot muffins, followed by Sue, carrying a tray full of cups of hot cider.   Arly broke one open, releasing sweet steamy aromas that ended the tickle torture game.

“Too hot!”  She cried, and set it down.  Brian grabbed one and plunged it into his mouth, showering his beard with moist crumbs.

“Oh my GAWD these are good!” he said with his mouth full.  The cider, pressed from last fall’s apples had fermented in the root cellar.  The beverage perfectly complimented the whole grain muffins.  Sugar in or on anything was a special treat, and Jeanne had added some to the applesauce she used along with goatsmilk yogurt to shorten the batter.

Both dogs suddenly growled and ran to the front door, barking.  A well rehearsed scramble ensued.  Jeanne grabbed a shotgun from behind coats hanging by the wood stove.  Marshall pulled a 1911 .45 from a shelf.  Brian whipped out a similar pistol, a 9mm, and Sue clutched a 30.06 with a scope and laser.  Cameron dashed into the front room and returned with a Kalishnakov, but the rest of them had poured out of the house ahead of him, not letting the dogs out.  Zombies saw dogs as dogmeat for supper and they were never left outside at night without somebody watching over them.  He stepped out onto the porch and swept the area with his eyes, the rifle following his gaze.

He saw nothing but snow, driven horizontally by the blasting wind.  Instantly, his hands started to freeze.   A muffled report from…it sounded like the 30.06, then another, louder, one of the 1911s.  Shapes emerged from the whiteout, materializing into his parents, Jeanne, and Marshall, all looking very cold and making for the porch.

They all hustled back inside, snow plastered on their clothes and began dripping pools of snowmelt on the floor.  Sue set the rifle down, put on a coat, gloves, boots, and scarf.  Then she went right back out the door.  The rest did likewise except for Cameron, whose job was to defend the front door and protect Shylock and the dogs.

All the while, the two dogs barked.  They were chows, one big black one and one smaller red bitch.  They only barked if something or someone was there.

Cameron heard Sue hollering and stepped back out onto the porch.

“I got it.  Come help me drag it in.”  She yelled over the wind.  “Get a tarp or something.  It’s bleeding all over the place.”

A few minutes passed, and Sue and Marshall dragged a blue tarp folded in half through the deepening snow while Brian walked the fence, or more like waded the fence line as he pushed through the drifts.  Any time they had a disturbance, they walked the fence and checked all the outbuildings just to make sure.   The first year after it happened, Zombies tried every trick and con to get into the root cellar, house, and barn.  Luckily, they hadn’t shot any of them because they were with it enough to run when warned.  After two winters, the steady stream of Zombies slowed, and this winter, the coldest so far, with deep snow, had apparently ended their junkets to the country.

Sue had bagged a deer, a doe looking for shelter in the “moat” on the east side of the house.  They had no choice but to bring it into the house.  Otherwise it would freeze solid before they could dress it out.

They sat down and finished their cider and muffins quickly before tackling their prize, glad it wasn’t a Zombie.  The dogs couldn’t have been happier with this turn of events.  They lapped up the blood pooling on the tarp.  Everyone tried not to look while they ate and drank, except Shylock, who stared wide eyed at the dimly observable spectacle in the front room.

After the dishes were cleared away, they lit two lamps and Arly held one, while Marshall held the other over the dead animal.  Jeanne slit the doe’s belly from pelvis to throat, and raked the hot guts onto the bloody tarp.  She had a fetus in utero, which Sue wrapped in a towel, after pulling it loose from the placenta.   It moved, and she nearly dropped it.  Rubbing it with the towel, the little fawn began to breathe.

“Oh for Christsakes!”  Brian exclaimed as he came in the back door and beheld the scene.

Arly found the canning kettle and put the innards in it, and then brought a basket and blanket for the fawn.

“It probably won’t live.”  Sue declared as Arly wrapped the little thing, all ears and legs, in the blanket.   She laid the little creature in the basket and set it close to the stove, and wiped tears away before anyone noticed.

Jeanne did her level best to skin the deer with Brian and Cameron holding it up this way and that as she hacked away with a sharp butcher knife, or snipped with poultry scissors.  The cats joined the dogs lapping up blood and bits of flesh.  It had been hard finding food for the cats, and they craved protein.  The blood and entrails would do them good.

None of them had enjoyed deer meat since October, when Jeanne had shot a forker buck from the back deck with the 30.06.  This time, however, they could freeze it for later in the garage and canning kitchen, while before they’d  feasted on the fresh meat, and made jerky from the rest in the smoker/BBQ.  Jeanne did a better job skinning this time, but she had a hell of a time getting the head off.  Marshall ended up dragging the carcass outside and using the axe on the chopping block to chop the skinned deer into sections, and then into smaller sections that looked about right for pot roast.

Brian already had the “Joy of Cooking” out and was at the table looking for recipes for brains, tongue, and organ meat.    Tomorrow, someone would have to take a mule and cart down and fill all the water jugs at the pump house, as they would likely use all they had on hand to deal with the slaughter, but for that night, they just wrapped the tarp back over the cut up meat and bones, sliding it over to the canning kitchen where it could freeze and not be carried off by coyotes.

Jeanne, her back and knees aching, thought wistfully of aluminum foil, freezer paper, paper towels, and plastic bags.   Arly sadly watched as four more bath towels, and about five kitchen towels were thoroughly soiled and perhaps permanently stained mopping up the mess that had spilled beyond the tarp onto the laminate floor.  She checked the fawn before going to bed, and it was still breathing.

Barking dogs woke them during the night.  Lighting a lamp and srambling for the guns they met in the front room, only to see why the dogs barked.  The little fawn stood on a throw rug, wobbly, but trying to walk towards the red chow, thinking she was mommy.

“Oh for Christssake.”  Brian said, putting the pistol away and padding back to bed.  Arly got some of her milk from the windowsill lined with items that needed to stay cool, poured it into a bottle, and set it in a cup of water to warm on the stove.

“You are not going to feed that thing Shylock’s milk!” cried Cameron, aghast.

“I am, and it’s MY milk.  I have plenty, and he likes real food better now anyway.”

When the bottle was warm, she cajoled the little fawn into taking the nipple.  It didn’t take five minutes before the fawn heartily drained the bottle, his little tail twitching back and forth with pleasure.

Afterlife sketches 1.2

Arly suggested clearing the house of unused appliances, gadgets, and electronic devices to make room for everyone over the winter.

Arly was very strong for her size, and fearless.  She brought the dolly in from the garage, slid it under the empty refrigerator, and wheeled it out the open sliding door onto the deck, and then headed down the slight incline towards the garage.  Her one year old, still top heavy and tipsy toddled behind.

“No, you stay in the house!” Arly snapped in her odd, gravely voice.  The child ignored her young mother and happily broke into a trot.  Her arms, covered almost completely in tattoos looked black and blue from a distance, and contrasted starkly with the alabaster white chubby hands reaching askance to be picked up.  Arly picked the baby up and swung him up astride her hip, kissing his golden brown curls and admiring the ridiculously long curly eyelashes framing huge green eyes.  The little booger had a face adults couldn’t stay mad at very long, even when he shed his soiled diapers and left them on the couch.

Little Shylock did not like shoes or clothes, seeing no point in them as he developed this preference over the summer.   Arly had no idea how she would find shoes for the kid anyway, and hoped that someone saw her post at the Fire Station about getting some at the next Barter Gathering.  Jeanne had made him clothes, and Grandpa Brian had crocheted booties, but Shylock not only refused to keep them on, but outgrew them quickly.

Jeanne could run the sewing machine with the battery and inverter, so everyone’s clothes got mended, or replaced with new ones, often sewn from strange, inappropriate fabric.   Jeanne had collected fabric for years, and before everything changed wondered what the hell she’d do with all of it.  Everyone was glad she had.

Arly carried Shylock as she wheeled the fridge down the slight hill to the shop, but had to put him down to maneuver the thing with both hands through the doorway and into the big, but cluttered garage.  Marshall’s twin sports cars still sat side by side, taking up most of the shop’s space.  He was adamantly stubborn about moving them out, and they had all given up arguing the sense of housing useless cars in precious interior space.  It was his place, his garage, and his decision, even though Jeanne rolled her eyes and flipped him the bird behind his back as soon as he walked off in a huff after each and every attempt to reason with him.

Shylock ambled towards the barbed wire fence, causing Arly to chase him down.  The kid was drawn to danger like a magnet.  She held his hand as they walked back up to the house, and he blabbered in a fizzy, nasal voice that promised to be as strange as his mother’s, given time.  Clothes hung on the clothesline, parachute cord suspended between big Ponderosas alongside the south end of the house.  Jeans, flannel shirts, and raggedy tidy whities flapped in a rising wind from the southwest.  Arly had spent most of the morning washing laundry, an endless task because the washer and dryer now sat behind the garage under a tarp, totally useless like the refrigerator.

Someday, Arly thought, the power will just come back on.

Afterlife sketches

They called the people that stayed in the city Zombies, because of how they looked, all thin and sickly from drinking bad water and eating rotten food.

One very hot day Sue knelt in the lower garden, filling a basket with pea pods.   They had pressed the seed peas into frosty ground back in March, or maybe early April.  She wasn’t sure about dates and times anymore.  All the clocks had long since stopped and they couldn’t get more batteries for them.  Brian had a wind up watch, so they had to find him to get the precise time.  Sue thought about before when time ruled her life.  Now the motion of the Earth, Sun, and Moon governed them, telling them when to plant, defining months, days, and years.

The intense dry heat signaled the garden to demand everything be weeded and harvested and planted for fall all at once.  Pole and bush beans needed picking before they got woody and fat.  Corn needed someone to oil the silk to flush out earwigs.  Ripe plums needed picking before the wasps got at them.  Three apple trees and a pear tree needed to be thinned.  All of it needed careful watering constantly.  Someone needed to push a wheelbarrow through the lower pasture and scoop up the cow pies, then shovel all the goat shit up in their pen, and finally use the dung to start another compost pile.

Sue felt a wave of fatigue pull at her from both the heat and from sitting watch for Zombies the night before.  But she pressed herself to finish picking all the pods with perfect sized peas, leaving the too-small ones, and sighing when she found a few that bulged with too-big ones that got away.  They’d have to keep those and dry them for seed.

The Sun, high overhead slid over the meridian.  Satisfied that she’d found all of the pickings for the day, she stood up to stretch her petite frame.  A deep ache spread through her lower back as she arched back raising her arms, posing like DiVinci’s drawing of a man in a circle.   She stretched further, wishing the pain away.  They used to have pain relievers like Tylenol and Aleve, but had used them up.  Marshall had traded for a Willow Bark start at the last Barter Gathering at the old Fire Station, and the pain in her back prompted her to give the potted plant by the gate an extra drink, and pinch a leaf or two to chew.

Brian and Marshall hollered at her from the lower pasture for water when they saw her shutting the gate.  She waved, hoisted the bucket to let them know she’d heard them, and filled the bucket from the hydrant with sparkling forty eight degree water.  They practically worshiped that water system, its solar powered pump letting them enjoy running water most of the year.

Sue practiced carrying loads on her head, gradually strengthening her neck and developing balance simultaneously.  First she took a big PLO scarf and twisted it, then coiled it around her head to create both a cushion and a platform for the bucket.  Then she hoisted the bucket up and balanced it.  Just in the past month or so she felt confident enough to let go and walk without holding it.  She made it to the lower gate, but had to hang on to it while she fiddled with the latch, opened it, stepped through, and shut it behind her.

The fellows knelt next to a section of fence, almost finished with splicing a broken section of barbed wire and field fencing to fix a gap.  Both wearing ragged cargo shorts and no shirts, Sue marveled at how both men in their mid 50s had grown to look so young and fit since everything changed.  Brian had been portly before, yet now stood slim and freckled with his broad brimmed hat shading his bearded face.  Marshall, stubble chinned, deeply tanned and muscular, especially his legs, stood up, all vestiges of his former beer belly long gone under a bit of a six pack.  Both men had long pony tails, and Brian’s beard, streaked with white, tickled his chest.

They drank their fill, then splashed the rest of the water over themselves, delighting in the sudden cooling.

“Any idea what Jeanne is fixing for supper?” Brain asked, as water dribbled deliciously down his arms, chest, then seeping into the waistband of his shorts.

“She found a can of coconut milk way back in a cupboard, and said something about Thai food tonight.”  Sue answered, swinging the empty bucket around her thighs.

“Oh boy, I can’t wait”.  Marshall grinned like a little kid.  Brian wished he could cook with the coconut milk, and began to plot his escape from the field.  He could have to use the bathroom in a big way, or need something from the house.  He decided he would use the bathroom idea later, about the time Jeanne would start cooking.  Jeanne was the de facto housekeeper and cook, because she had very bad knees and couldn’t squat or lift.  But Brian and Sue, both excellent cooks like Jeanne, somehow found their way into the kitchen to participate in the culinary pursuits, and Jeanne always had plenty of tasks waiting for them.

Jeanne, Marshall’s wife of three decades, had indeed found a can of coconut milk.  It sat on the fake wood grain countertop in the kitchen, like the centerpiece of an altar, surrounded by offerings of spices, dried peppers, garlic bulbs, fresh basil, cilantro, and onions.  She grabbed her digital camera and flicked it on.  The rechargeable batteries still had life, and still took a charge in the charger, so they allowed the camera to live on.  She snapped a couple of shots of the array on the counter, satisfied herself that the pictures looked like an edible still life, and shut the device off again.

Then she sat down at the computer, plugged the power strip into the inverter, and fired up the computer.   Slipping the SD card into a reader, she transferred the pictures to the hard drive, and then opened them up in Photoshop.  Endorphins flooded her brain with the pleasure of it as she adjusted the brightness, contrast, and tweaked the color.  She was especially delighted as she cropped out the intruding handle of the grain mill, removing it’s Pinocchio wooden nose from the left side of the frame.   After looking at it lovingly for a bit, she closed the window, shut down the computer, and disconnected it once more from the battery and inverter, remembering to unhook the red pole to save the battery.

Art Jag

Shekere    Painted bottle gourd beaded with African Trade beads

"Quadrille": Acrylic on canvas with mini slab sculptures.


Quadrille (detail)

Abstract Dazzle  Triptych Acrylic on Canvas

Lena’s Trees  48″ x36″ acrylic on canvas.  This is a technique study of a painting by Lena, hers is a triptych.  Her work inspires me, and I wanted to practice her impressionist technique before applying it to my own compositions.  This piece is sold (at cost).   If you’d like to see Lena’s work, check out

Landscape  Acrylic on Canvas

This Day will Last Forever  Acrylic on Canvas panels

Winter Coming  Acrylic on Canvas

Abstract  Acrylic on Canvas