The Clever Gifter
Imagine my surprise last week, when a medium sized flat rate shipping box arrived from my sister bearing at least 30 home-grown avocados. I had a little laugh thinking of the work that went into this effort -- sending a package is anything but simple, at least the way I do it.
And then I was touched. This is just SO my family. My dad would load you up on any visit with his garden-ripe tomatoes, or his fresh peaches, or his uber-handcrafted looking green peppers -- even if you were just in town on a layover. I had a lot of stained travel clothes, back in the day. It might not look pretty, but home-grown anything is simply irresistable. There's this moment of, "oh, right, this is what tomatoes taste like."
My brother-in-law has cultivated quite the little garden of eden, there in southern California. You only have to look around to see why people settled there. His roses are as big as dinner plates. He makes fresh orange juice every day during their long, long season, and visitors there can tomatoes that are still warm from the sun.
But his biggest crop has always been his avocados, harvested from a group of rather stumpy looking grove of trees. You can hardly believe they can be so productive.
And I guess this year has been better than ever -- which is why, according to my sister, they boxed up 9 shipments of avocadoes and sent them to people all over the country. It's their own little Fruit of the Month club!
My first reaction was, "what am I going to do with these?" And I have given them away to anyone who wanted them. But I do happen to have the absolute best recipe for guacamole that I've ever tasted, and -- big surprise -- it's as simple as it gets.
I don't know where this recipe came from, but it's one of those "more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts" concoctions. People always ask what's in it, an they always think I'm withholding information when I recite the ingredients from memory.
Best Guac Ever - (pronounced "whock" in authentic Spanglish)
3 ripe avocados: cut in half, remove pit, slice and dice the fruit, or simply mash in the shell and extract
3 chopped scallions (green onions), diced
1 tomato, chopped very small (or none, if you're one of those people)
Moosh all this together. Then, cover with
Juice of 1-2 lemons (I've used limes before, too)
Salt and pepper to taste
That's it! No garlic, no cilantro, no fancy wines, no additional condiments.
Actually I'll tell you the real secret of a fabulous guacamole experience: good chips. And in my world that means salty, salty, salty.
My current favorite Xochitl Totopos de Maiz White Corn -- pronounced "so-cheel"— made in Dallas using the traditional Aztec method of stone-grinding kernels, then mixing them with water, which creates a light flaky chip. I'm also not against a little grease on my chips = )
Hope these are available nation-wide. If not, well, so sad -- that's just why we (heart) Texas.
February is always a great time in Texas. It's the time of the big thaw, meaning that all of us liver-bellied heat-seekers can stop whining that it's only 40 degrees outside. The first lush tufts of grass and buds appear. The weather is crisp and cool, and the sky the amazing blue that we're famous for.
In Texas, February is spring.
February is the time when people visit Houston and say, "This isn't so bad," as they sit outside on the patio and drink mimosas, knowing that they are going home to a frozen tarmac and three more months of winter.
February is also the time of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which is a phenomenon in itself. On the Friday before opening day, there are literally hundreds of trail riders on the freeway -- well, the feeder road -- on their way to camp out in one of the largest urban parks in America. And provided you're not in a car behind them, they really are a sight to see.
Looking the part
Houston does not look like what most people expect, in that it is one big metropolitan mess of green. But we do our best to make up for that little oversight by embracing our inner Texans. This is a place that loves western wear.
We come by it rightly, I suppose. Great huge parts of Texas were really cattle ranches -- I think King Ranch is the size of Rhode Island and it's just one spread. But here in Houston, most of our history was made by swindlers and businessmen. I guess it still is. But they like their cowboy style.
It's hard not to get bit by the bug. Playing cowboy comes easily if you watched enough tv growing up. The best cowboys (and cowgirls!) are as smart as they are tough, and they're kind of known for their big hearts. The ones I've met are also wry (one of my favorite things for people to be). They' tell it like it is. And they will give you a good laugh if you earn it.
The worst cowboys are . . . well . . . see Rick Perry.
So, here's where I am after 35 years in Texas: I don't listen to country and western music much, but I like it when I do. The stories are simple and the lyrics are easy to learn.
I broke down and bought a pair of cowboy boots a couple of years ago, and I immediately learned to love the lift and the look.
I am a fan of good barbeque, and say "y'all," and exercise my right to yee-haw.
So why was I surprised that I got a big dang lump in my throat when I witnessed the tail end of the trail ride while walking the dog last week?
All these years have made a Texan outta me, I guess. Can I get a hell yes?
I've often wondered what it would be like if I dropped dead while running with my trusty iPod shuffle.
Not morbidly, not obsessively wondered -- it's more like curiosity. What would whoever found me think of my taste in music?
I was a huge fan, back in the day, of HBO's Six Feet Under, a dark series with a quirky sense of humor. There was a very compelling cast involved in a family funeral home. The formula for each episode was to begin with the crazy, grisly death of a soon-to-be-customer.
My personal SFU fantasy has someone coming up on the twisted body of a decidedly older exerciser (that would be me) splayed out on a running trail, with music still playing through my earbuds.
While from appearances, one would assume my personal listening would consist of old Chicago tunes and Glee revivals, instead the camera would pick up the x-rated lyrics of a rap song -- one of several in my collection.
Cut. Scene. Another entry in the "Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover" category.
Directing Our Lives
Lately, though, I've thought a lot more about the iPod shuffle itself -- and what it represents. What mine represents is about 20 years of random and very eclectic music collected on my computer, combined with several audio books and personal recordings.
Which means that, while running, I might hear "It's Hard Out Here for Pimp" right before I listen to Bill Moyers interview Joseph Campbell on the Virgin Birth. And you know what? I am equally interested in and fond of both.
The Shuffle allows me to be as complex and contradictory as I really am.
We create the same kind of entertainment mash-ups with our DVR's, of course. We pick our shows and watch them at our convenience, not when somebody wants us to view them. We skip through the ads, fast-forward through the slow parts, and instinctively trash any that don't hold our interest.
Any compromise or community that was part of tv watching is almost gone -- my husband and I finish dinner, then each go our separate ways to "watch our shows." And why not? Thanks to programmable devices, we have the freedom to create own little interest zone.
What power we wield!! What flexibility we have!!! We are the directors, producers and stars of our own show.
There's Always a However
But are we really qualified to, or interested in, controlling every aspect of our own lives? Without some kind of outside stimulus -- even stimulus you don't like and didn't ask for -- isn't there a danger of getting stuck in our own little ruts?
Don't we need an outsider prompting us, encouraging us, even shaming us into reading another kind of book, trying a new kind of food, venturing into a new activity?
As much as I love being able to create my own environment, I am a little worried about spinning myself into a personal, insular cocoon.
The world -- and I -- need new ideas. Maybe we should borrow each other's Shuffles?
Case in Point
Not much of a science fction fan by nature, I was forced to read The Sparrow through peer pressure in a book club. And guess what? I loved it. I also loved reading Ray Bradbury, in school and out of school. After his recent death, NPR replayed an interview with this surprisingly energetic and effusive author. The best line?
"So I've learned that by doing things, things get done." -Ray Bradbury
I have mentioned in previous posts the way I was brought up. We were green, old-school. Before green was cool. Take a look at the photo to see what green living looked like in 1969,
All the other mothers were cooking Betty Crocker cake mixes and heating up frozen dinners, Mad Men style. Alice was home-cooking fresh foods every night (though none too happily, I must add).
I don't think their decision to eat whole foods was based on their objection to preservatives or unprounceable food-like substances, which we now know all those convenience foods were/are full of.
Their eco-friendly approach was more of a habit, based on what I would call the original conservative lifestyle -- but it had the same effect.
So when people get all righteous about bundling their newspapers for recycling, when I read entire articles about not letting your faucets drip, or warnings about keeping your car filter clean, I have to remember, "These people were raised by modern Americans. " It's like they're from a different culture.
Drive Me Batty
One of the ways my parents managed to teach me about saving resources while infuriating my inner glamour-puss was by never wasting a car trip.
This whole thing about "running to the store" for something was just not done in our household. We would eat spaghetti noodles without sauce, and cereal without milk if supplies ran out before my mother was ready to go to the grocery store.
And it wasn't just the waste of gas, it was the waste of time they objected to. I totally get that now.
Every shopping trip we made, every errand we ran, was choreographed down to the nth degree to be the most efficient use of time and energy. There were no spontaneous trips or diversions.
We were literally on a business trip.
Park and Shop - Taking it to the Streets
Who could have predicted, just when I reached my impressionable 8's, that Milton Bradley would come out with a board game that turned general life tedium into a testy competition? Called sexist by some, demeaning, and totally vapid, this was a board game that I immediately credited with providing valuable life skills, skills I had witnessed first-hand.
Park and Shop of course became my board game of choice. I have taught it to my daughters and they love it too.
Here's how it works: You draw cards listing random errands to be run all over "town." First you have to plan your route, and then you have to execute.
Whoever returns home first wins, and just like real life, you get good and bad rolls of the dice. In every game, some unlucky bastards have to spend two turns in jail. Even in a child's game, it pays to know a good lawyer =)
Thanks to my early experience and summers down the basement playing board games with my friends, to this day I can run errands like nobody's business. My husband's head spins when he accompanies me: "This is not a timed event," he will say.
Says who, I wonder? Not Alice or Mitch.
One writer whom I truly love is Anne Lamott, who had me at her instructional book on writing, Bird by Bird. Just to give you an idea of her whimsical wisdom, a wonderful quote: "This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won't wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be."
A brutally honest, and yet ceaselessly hilarious person, she had a rocky start on adult life, followed by a slow, reluctant transformation into an authentic believer in God and religion -- and one of the country's most engaging writers on spirituality.
I find all of her work moving, and her thoughts so full of truth I sometimes have to put the book down. I don't think I cry, but I do wonder that any one person could be so insightful, and so wise, and so self-deprecating at the same time. Nice combo.
Read any or all of her books -- you'll see what I mean.
Early on in her story, I think it is in Traveling Mercies, she talks about knowing just two prayers. One consists of please-please-please-please-please!!!! and the other of thankyou-thankyou-thankyou-thankyou-thankyou!!!!!
I've never told this story to anyone who didn't relate to Ms. Lamott's, shall we say, transactional form of worship. It's what we all do, really.
Want to hear what I've been praying about lately?
please-please-please-please-please . . .
. . . let my credit card be found by the one honest person at the gas station.
. . . let me not see the rat everyone has been talking about at the studio.
. . . let there be enough postage on that contract I signed.
And thankyou-thankyou-thankyou-thankyou-thankyou . . .
. . . for saving my search when my computer went down.
. . . for letting me get the last box of day old sweetbreads from the bakery.
. . . for the rain today. please-please-please-please-please send more.
Street Art Hearts
It makes no sense: I'm a law-abiding citizen with a genuine respect for my own and others' private property But the truth is, I have a real appreciation for a certain type of street art.
Not the "let's spray paint a gang symbol on your fence" type. Not the obscene type.
No, I am intrigued by an entirely separate genre that uses images and design to actually add to the environment, in some kind of public space. My kind of street art is somewhere between corporate art and vandalism. And its own temporary nature is part of its appeal -- non-sanctioned, it won't last long.
I would describe it as naughty but nice.
Alex Luster, a studio-mate of mine has created a documentary about this very subject called "Stick Em Up!" which is debuted in 2010 in Houston, thanks to the Aurora Picture Show. His documentary chronicles a short period in the life of several street artists using their medium of choice, wheat pasting.
Alex's film tells a compelling story about the meaning of street art -- what it means to the artists who create it, and how it affects the people who see it.
You can get another view of street art via an Academy-award nominated documentary for 2010 called "Exit Through the Gift Shop." There is definitely more of a backstory here (let's call it the commericialization of art), but street art plays a pivotal role.
Greetings from the underground
My favorite street artist in Houston right now is Coolidge. His images are small and playful, and brilliantly placed.
I loved him before one of his images appeared on a studio wall near me. Now I "catch" him everywhere.
Coolidge's works come and they go, but they're fun and deft and clever, and always good for a "wow" and a chuckle. That might just be my favorite combination.
Art used by permission. Thanks, Coolidge!
I don't cook much anymore, but I can make a salad in my sleep. Anyone who has broken bread in my company has probably tasted "Mitch's Salad," which is my family's go-to recipe.
A friend of mind once said, "I think you have to like making salads," and I guess I do. You can't really rush it. Salad ingredients, in my mind, should be small and even, so the dressing coats evenly and so you don't have to go through the awkward exercise of cutting lettuce. Also, I like to get creative with ingredients -- I use whatever is handy and/or needs to be used.
The secrets to this salad are two: (1) the salt and lemon, which you ideally leave on for several minutes. This draws the juices out of the produce, and (2) a ridiculous amount of stirring, the longer the better. This is part of Salad Zen.
Mitch's Salad - A Masterpiece
Cookbooks show that this is an adaptation of the typical Lebanese salad, perfected by my father over the course of 60 years. We all make our versions of it, and they all taste different. It really depends on the particular ingredients -- which is how it should be, right?
Let agribusiness work on consistency. This is simple food.
Start with a wooden bowl - the older and more seasoned, the better. Plastic, glass, or anything else just won't work.
Mince a clove of garlic in the bottom. My dad used to pound it with the handle of the knife. You might be tempted to add more because it's a distinctive taste, but it's the thoroughness, not the amount, that counts.
Chop up very finely (like one-half-inch pieces) lettuce (I use romaine, but anything will do), green onions, celery, and tomato -- at the minimum.
Add, according to taste cucumber, black olives, toasted pine nuts, homemade croutons (the store-bought ones are too seasoned), feta chees. Tuna and canned shrimp make a meal of it.
Squeeze the juice of a lemon into and salt the entire mixture -- I use table salt, and more than I use on anything else. This will give you an idea: about 25 years ago my dad made this salad for some friends of mine. One of them pulled me aside and said, "I don't think your dad could see how much salt he was putting in." That has turned into one of our family stories -- he knew exactly how much salt he used.
Now stir, and keep stirring with a big spoon. Add some ground pepper. Work with the salad and/or let it sit for at least five minutes, more if you can spare it. You'll see liquid start to form in the bottom. That's the stuff!
Drizzle olive oil -- not too much. I use plain old olive oil, which is getting harder and harder to find -- I don't know what the deal is with the EVOO craze. The point is, you're just smoothing out the acidity of the lemon and salt.
I can't even describe how lovely this salad is as a leftover. I put it on sandwiches and on crackers, too.
People often ask me where I find the quotes that I use on my calendars, mugs, journals -- well, let’s just say words of wisdom are a recurring theme in the Beyond Her collection.
The answer is, everywhere.
I’ve got a couple of great books that I’ve had for ages (sticky tabs of every color, remnants of one project or another). I buy new ones when I see them (but they’re never quite as good).
I clip quotes from magazine articles, but I hardly ever use them, because I’m afraid anyone living will come and get me if they find out their quote is on one of my pillows. (Exception: I’ve used a couple from, of all people, Liza Minnelli - like this great one: “Reality is something you rise above.” Who would’ve known that underneath that crazy black pixie there was a deep thinker?)
The big challenge comes during calendar time, because then I need 12 at the same time. That’s when I go online and really start trolling.
The Resonance Factor
Then the question becomes, how do you pick them? That’s a little hard to say. I really just look for ideas, philosophies, phrases that resonate with me.
A few requirements: They can’t be too long. They can’t be too glib. No cynicism. No idealism. No happy ever after endings. They can be spiritual but not religious.
They have to be true.
I guess if there’s a theme, you could say it is my strong belief that it’s the every day things that matter. Because I really do feel like
Path to Discovery
At any rate, sometimes a quote will lead me somewhere -- to an author, a book, or in this case, to a poem that I wouldn't have known otherwise. Mary Oliver (b. 1935) writes beautiful pieces with natural imagery - I am so happy I found her.
The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grashopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
The one who has flung herself ouf of the grass,
The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the field,
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Just FYI, those last two lines became a quote on a pillow - a quote I always loved - but they are made more beautiful by all that comes before.
Everyone once in a while someone will ask me: Why don’t you write your own quotes? It’s kind of flattering that anyone thinks I have even one thought worth expressing.
The only quote I’m willing to take credit for is not surprising. “It’s beyond me.” I mean it, it is.
I mentioned once before that I, too, was a victim of the Great Depression -- not that I went through it personally (I’m not THAT old), but I was raised by parents who did. The suffering continued.
Alice and Mitch’s ultra-conservative approach to buying, using and disposing of consumables has stuck with me to this day. I am tortured by excess: Do I really need this extra lemon? Do I remember how to darn socks? Can’t I wrap that gift in the cat food bag?
I have horrified my own children with a very cynical approach to food safety in general and expiration dates in particular: “They just put that there to sell more yogurt.” I consume every single part of a piece of fruit, down to the stem and seeds.
In short, I really don’t belong in America. Especially not in Texas, where we like to keep our larders full. When we say "conservative," we mean politics, not purchasing patterns.
As time goes by, the world is discovering the wisdom of the Alice & Mitch lifestyle. If we don’t want to be pitching tents on top of landfills in the future, or lurching through smoke-filled megalopolises like Will Smith and Wall-E, we might want to take heed.
I started a list of tips for green living in September . But since then I’ve thought of a few more steps that were (a) maddeningly old fashioned to a wannabe hipster like myself, and (b) based on the best sort of eco-consciousness.
Welcome to going green, old school, part deux!
Anything other than soap is hogwash. The 1960’s were the boom days for Proctor and Gamble, Betty Crocker, Kraft and Johnson & Johnson. Most of us were ready and willing to buy all the little conveniences like instant breakfast, spray-on furniture polish, plastic bags, and press-on nails.
Alice & Mitch would have none of it. My mother used Ivory soap to wash her floors and vinegar to wash the windows until 1995. She believed then, and I believe now, that anything you put on a surface that doesn’t get rinsed off actually attracts dirt.
She saved a fortune on Windex and floor cleaner, and all those other concoctions that are living under my sink. And her house, in her heyday, was as clean as it gets.
If you’re not using it, out it goes. My parents never collected much in the way of worldly goods. But what they did have got used -- or it got gone.
I was bemused to read that a principle of feng shui states that unused objects collect negative energy (which in Alice's world meant dust). Now, we all know what happens when the sorting and sifting, the passing along and the reassigning of material goods stops.
The @#$@# piles up. The stacks get higher, the closets fuller.
No one talks about how much energy it takes to keep your worldly goods in check. This is one of those life lessons I’m just learning now -- The less I bring in, the fewer decisions I have to make, the fewer “What the heck is this now?” looks I get from my kids, and the easier goes my life.
So this is my new version of saving energy. What's yours?
Cloth Napkins - A Modern-Day Guide
People think cloth napkins are only for company, but they’re not. They’re really a very practical, very economical way to keep yourself tidy, and save on paper napkins and towels in the mix. What’s more, they can be beautiful, and much more useful than the flyaway things in the grocery store. If you’re fond of eating outside, no need to anchor.
Here’s the routine, again from the house of Alice & Mitch:
1. Get a few sets of napkins. For every day, you’ll want a color that won’t show every smudge and smear (but honestly, they don’t get as gross as you would imagine) • 2. Give each person in your family a napkin they can call their own, at least for the next 2-3 meals • 3. After eating, fold and store where their rightful owners can find them -- or use individual napkin rings to distinguish. Each child could create his/her own? • 4. Wash with the rest of the kitchen linens. And ironing? Only for neatniks -- not a BH best practice. At all.
Beyond Her Napkins are a great way to go green. Colors and patterns vary, depending on where we source our blanks and what images we're fond of at the time. See them all on the Beyond Her website.
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