Essays, general essay

Stray Thoughts – When It Feels Like the Trolls Are Winning

St.ThereseQuoteThis morning I woke up in a foul mood. Now, this may have something to do with some minor hormonal mess-up that we believe I’m dealing with (as in we don’t even know if that’s the problem). In any case, I spent a good chunk of my morning raging internally at a former partner of mine who done me wrong then tried to blame it on me because she couldn’t get a hold of me.

Let’s not get into the fact that a) she did get a hold of me twice, and b) I am not at all hard to find. The bottom line is that the situation has been dealt with. I came out ahead. I do know better than to let these sorts of things take up real estate in my brain. And, finally, silly me, I keep aspiring to a vocation of love. I may not be able to do much, if anything, to change our world, but I can be as loving and kind as possible.

Except that what I wanted to do was scream at this freaking idiot about what a freaking idiot she is and maybe slap her around a little. Not very loving. I get that. May I point out that this loving thing is mostly aspiration, not actuality yet?

So I’m talking to my girlfriend, who has a real-life troll persecuting her, and we both agreed it’s frustrating as hell. The ding-a-ling in this case is also going around pretending to be a pillar of the community and supporting business even as she’s doing everything she can to malign my friend and her business.

The author of a blog I like to read came out with her latest – and largely legitimate – rant about the generally hell-bound state of the world. Now, it may be my historical bent, but I am of the opinion we’ve been pretty much hell-bound since we crawled out of the soup. But let’s take it as a given that things are looking particularly hell-bound of late.

In all of these three situations, decent people are feeling downright ornery for very good reason, and there isn’t a heck of a lot we can do about it except be the bigger person. Even if I wasn’t trying to be more loving, calling my former partner a freaking idiot isn’t going to change a damn thing. My friend’s troll has been called out as a hypocrite and it went right past her. The blog author conceded that screaming at the idiots of the world doesn’t do anything.

And it’s not surprising, really. If someone calls me a freaking idiot, you can bet my response is not going to be “Oh, you’re right. I will reform my life now.” Nor does calling these idiots out as idiots feel anywhere near as good as you’d think it would. Okay, the well-aimed and witty riposte to someone’s stupidity can be fun. But raging at someone, even when I’m right? Nah. That pretty much sucks.

But I have to admit that being the bigger person, that’s not very satisfying either some days. There may be part of me that is worried that I am going to have to call the lawyer on my former partner at some point, something I don’t want to do, let alone that she might prevail (not likely given that she couldn’t even find some current paperwork). My friend is definitely worried about her business, which faces enough challenges as it is. And the rest of us worry about what might happen if the idiots get elected.

But maybe it’s not about being satisfied. That’s what I like about that quote from St. Theresa of Lisieux above. Here was a woman who was obviously very keyed into God and frequently didn’t feel the love and the kindness and compassion. But she chose to sing as if she did, not to fake it, but to connect herself to the person she wanted to be.

So maybe it’s about going beyond what we wish we felt and keeping up the struggle to reframe our thinking in ways that address the idiocy, but with love and kindness. Maybe my job is to look past my former partner’s stupidity and see the panicked, hurt woman that she is and find some compassion for her. And I probably won’t succeed all the time. But it’s better than giving the troll more brain real estate than she deserves. And ultimately, it’s not about being the bigger person, it’s about becoming a better person.

The Sewing Report: The end of the Pants Fitting Saga

The end of the pants sagaSo-o-o-o-o, a few months ago, I reported on sewing the most perfect patch pockets I had ever made only to find the pants didn’t fit. Which was beyond aggravating and last month I whined a little more about it. Well, I finally got the verdamnt pants fitting and done. Raised the back waistband a bit. Added an inset along the side – which my good friend Hilary had suggested and I resisted until I realized that the original pattern included one on top of the inset along the inner legs. The waistband is still a little low and keeping them up will be a challenge, but I’m done. I’m getting suspenders and I will wear the pants. It’s just going to have to wait until November because they’re corduroy and it’s too hot now.

Granted, the weekend schedule around the Old Homestead has been a little packed. But I have to say, it’s pretty cool what happens when I finally get a problem project done. I finished the pants during Memorial Day weekend and cut out a few more projects, never mind that I had at least three waiting for me. Oh, and I made bias tape, but I’m saving that for a later and skirt

But this weekend, I finished the skirt I’d cut out on Memorial Day. It was a way-easy straight skirt, which meant I could draft the pattern straight onto the fabric (a useful tactic since my measurements tend to be a moving target). Better yet, I could put reminders, such as seam widths, right onto the fabric, and, boy, did that help. I did remember to document my notes, though.

I also sewed up a blouse I’d cut out, sheez, maybe a year ago? It’s been a while, certainly over six months ago. Figures – I’d put on a bit more weight since then and the blouse is a little tight, dummit. But here’s the cool part – if you look at the top part and see those diamond-shapes?I made trapunto embroidery, which is not at all hard to do if you have a double needle. It does help if you make it on a piece of fabric that matches your eventual outfit and one that is large enough for the pattern pieces you’re using. It also helps to cut out enough collar pieces the first time around.shirt close up

So, the lessons learned are 1.) when you’re stuck on a project, sometimes it helps just to power through the mess and get it out of your face; 2.) documenting little things like what seam allowance you’re using where makes it a lot easier when you’re putting everything together; 3) taking good notes for your future self will save your backside; and 4) you don’t make mistakes – you take advantage of them and create design details instead.

Anybody know where I can get some really cool suspenders?

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

From the Dark Side of the Fridge: Learn to Cook


Last month, I went on a tear about how TV (in the person of Chef Gordon Ramsey) is totally messing us up about what is good home cooking. Shortly after my little call to action to encourage folks to cook more at home, I realized that I’d stepped in it. Part of the reason a lot of folks don’t cook at home is that they don’t know how to cook.

I’m not talking about following a recipe. That’s not that hard to do, and many folks do it quite successfully. But being able to recognize that there’s a problem with a recipe, knowing what to substitute when you discover you don’t have a critical ingredient, being able to figure out when you really need to follow this or that step and when you can buzz on to the next one – you need to know how to cook to do all that.

And even if you do know the basics of cooking, day to day cooking is a grind. I’ll admit it. I don’t particularly like cooking. Come 6 p.m., I would much rather be folding my hands around a dry martini than a wet flounder, to quote my patron saint Peg Bracken, author of The I Hate to Cook Book. I know foodies snub it because so many of the recipes rely on canned soup. But, seriously, it’s actually an early feminist tract. The book came out in 1960, the heart of The Mad Men Era, when women were expected to find caring for their loved ones the end-all, be-all of their lives and here’s good, old St. Peg suggesting that women could find other things more fulfilling, even if the cooking still had to get done.

In any case, I began to understand the real reason for this space. I need to teach folks how to cook. And I’m the best one to do it because, unlike folks who genuinely find it relaxing to come home and start chopping veggies, I don’t. I get it that you’ve got a mess at work to untangle, three kids to keep from killing each other, and a guilty conscience for giving in and stopping at the drive-through window for the third time this week. No, you’re not particularly interested in whipping up a meringue by hand for a dessert after making a full dinner (another skill Ramsey thinks everyone should have).

I’m also a darned good cook – which has a lot to do with the fact that I love to eat. And I’ve learned how to make tasty food that’s reasonably healthy, but more to the point, how to get it onto the table with a minimum of fuss and mess. I’ve had to deal with the picky eater, being tired to the bone and too broke to afford delivery, waltzing into the kitchen to make dinner and realizing I forgot to take the chicken breasts out of the freezer again. I get it. You’ve got something on the stove that’s just about done and that’s when the kids decide to start throwing blocks at each other, you have to deal with that right then, but then what you were cooking ends up the color and consistency of a hockey puck. That sort of thing is very discouraging.

Which is why I’m here to help. You can boil water. More to the point, I’ll let you know when you need to and when it’s a waste of time and energy. You can eat healthy meals made from scratch that don’t contribute to global warming and labor injustice, and still have some money in your bank account afterwards. And some time to sit down with the people you care about and relax. I’m here and I will lead you through The Dark Side of the Fridge.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

From the Dark Side of the Fridge: Real Home Cooking

DinnerPlatesWineI forget when Master Chef premiered on Fox, but it was about three or four years ago, back when I was a TV critic. That’s the competition show in which ordinary people put their cooking skills up against each other in the usual challenges and eliminations. It features Chef Gordon Ramsey as the head judge. I was watching the advance screener of the show and realized I was getting really annoyed. At first, I thought it was Ramsey, who is annoyingly full of himself, and wrote it off as his schtick.

But then he kept going on about how the competition was about celebrating home cooks. And I realized he was celebrating home cooks by turning them into restaurant chefs. Huh? And then there was his big thing about having to use only the finest ingredients? Say what?

That’s when I started feeling a little insulted. It was as if Ramsey was saying the only good cooking is done in restaurants by people who use only the best. Excuse me, it does not take any great talent, though maybe some training, to make fabulous ingredients taste good. You want to make Kobe beef taste good? You sprinkle some salt and pepper on it and make sure it doesn’t overcook. That’s it, baby. The finest ingredients are easy. The really talented cooks are the ones who can make the lousy ingredients taste good.

If you think that’s impossible, then you have been brainwashed by Ramsey and others of his ilk. Women have been making lousy cuts of meat, entrails and borderline vegetables taste fabulous for generations. Some of the great French classic dishes, including coq au vin, boeuf bourgignon and cassoulet started out as hearty peasant fare, cooked by women trying to figure out how to make stringy old chicken and scraps of stringy meat taste good. African American women took the worst bits of the pig and made chitlins a delicacy. Chinese women made chicken feet tasty.

I’m not saying there isn’t a lot to be learned from restaurant cooks. There is. And I love eating in restaurants, so please do not take anything written here as negating any of that. But home cooking is a different beast and if you want to celebrate it, then don’t focus on the hobbyists, who spend the weekend carefully shopping, then using every pan and dish in the kitchen whipping up some fabulous gourmet treat, placed perfectly on a plate worthy of a magazine layout. Focus on the women and men who day in and day out, stretch their food budget out to buy what they can afford, then get dinner on the table night after night, after long days working at whatever they do. Who create delicious meals out of nothing and a warm and welcoming space for families to come together and share their lives and be present to each other.

There’s a lot being said about the obesity epidemic in this country. There are many, many factors, including inactive lifestyles, and over-processed foods loaded with sugars. But I would argue that a big part of the problem is too many meals eaten in restaurants. I know that’s when I start to gain weight. And I start losing when I eat at home. Which also means that a good solution to the epidemic might be getting folks to start cooking and eating at home. We, as humans, connect over food. Meals form the basis of religious ritual in both Judaism and Christianity. Food is community.

There are those who insist that connecting with each other through food and meals is dangerous, that it’s what’s making us fat. I want to knock those idiots upside the head. The obesity epidemic started when the tradition of the sit-down family meal started falling apart. The solution to obesity isn’t making us afraid of our food, but instead (and counter-intuitively) it may well be to make us fall in love with our food again. And with spending time together in the kitchen and at the dining room table.

Yes, daily cooking can be a real grind. It’s not easy to come up with dishes that are tasty and healthy and budget conscious every night. But we do it because it’s important, not only for our physical health, but the health of our spirits. Because it’s important for growing healthy, loving families. Kind of like what our moms did for many of us when we were growing up. And generations of mothers before that.

Gordon Ramsey does not believe in home cooking. He believes in restaurant cooking at home – which has its place. But real home cooking isn’t about showing off. It’s about getting it done. It’s not about the finest ingredients. It’s about making the ingredients you have taste great. Real home cooking is about bringing families – however you define that – together in what winemaker Wes Hagen called “The last great analog ritual.” It’s the most important work there is.


Carless in L.A. – Trippin’ Out

It seems that at the moment we are neither carless, nor in L.A. (although by the time you read this, we should be just getting home).

As I have noted in past posts, when those times come up that we simply can’t get to where we need/want to be without a car, we will rent one. For example, two years ago, as we were beginning our carless adventure, we had a very sick dog who was too big to take on the bus. So I rented a car to take him to the animal hospital and bring him home after his surgery. It was well worth it. Fred (who was already 15 years old at that point) was with us for another 18 months before he went to his reward.

We also take extended trips by car. Last summer it was a remote section of the Northern California coast. This year, Monterey and the San Francisco Bay area. Although this trip is about family. In any case, renting a car is still cheaper than either flying or the train. There are buses, but I don’t think we’d get to Monterey that easily.

I do think one of my next vacation goals will be figuring out how to get to some of these spots without a car. That could be fun. We’ll have to see. I have to concede driving is fun, too.

The Sewing Report: Mike’s New Shirt

The wild print. Fun, huh?

The wild print. Fun, huh?

This month’s project was a shirt for Michael (aka The Beloved Spouse). And as I was thinking about how I was going to write it up, I found myself indulging in some introspection on why I sew in the first place. Frankly, buying our clothes is a whole lot less aggravating and probably cheaper, too. And the shirt didn’t turn out like I’d envisioned, which is what generally happens when I make something, so you’d think I’d be used to it by now.

Part of the problem is that I have no patience. I hate ripping out seams and will live with stuff I shouldn’t simply because I don’t want to re-do it. I frequently rush through a project either because I need something to wear or, more often, I’m just sick of working on it. So why am I doing this?

I think it’s the creativity. I love matching fabrics to designs, coming up with some new way to do things. Laying out a pattern used to be my least favorite part, now it’s my most favorite. At that point, I haven’t really messed anything up and I can see what my new garment should look like. So the hope is still alive at that point. Plus, there’s always something to learn, even in making a simple bowling/Hawaiian-style shirt, like this last one.

Quick background note – this was Michael’s Valentine’s Day gift – and instead of just making it, I let him weigh in on all the different aspects, choosing the fabric, which also meant choosing the style. I’d found the cotton with the eyeglasses print on it online while looking for something else. We both loved it, so that’s what Michael picked, never mind the six other fabrics I had for him to choose from.

Choosing the wild print meant that this was going to be the simple sport shirt (bowling shirt/Hawaiian-style shirt). It also meant that I was going to have to practice matching the fronts. This is thanks to our friend Mr. L, who gets really picky about pockets and fronts lining up on his Hawaiian shirts. And not that he’d fuss about anything I did, but it’s in my brain now. Have to make the fronts and pocket line up.

Lined everything up here.

Lined everything up here.

Oh, I thought I was being so clever – I cut each front piece out separately, folding back the self-facing so that I could see it matching the other front piece along the pattern line. And since this was going to be a one-day (more or less) project, I took my time while sewing. I only had to rip out one seam – got some nasty tucks while sewing on the collar. I made a point of doing things in all the right ways. The pocket went on straight and the print matched beautifully. The construction was a far more relaxing experience than I’d had in a while, with a minimum of foul language.

Matched it at the wrong line, dummit

Matched it at the wrong line, dummit

Until I tried to line up the fronts to install the buttonholes and buttons. I’d forgotten that the fronts needed to overlap. When I’d cut the fronts out, I matched them at the folded edge of each front, not overlapped as it should have been to account for the buttonholes and buttons. ARGH!!!

Fortunately, the shirt turned out okay. I’ve got something new to try on the next one – which there will be. Once I’m confident there, then there’s the windowpane-checked dress shirt I want to make for Michael. Lessons learned this time out? Remember the overlap on the fronts. Take the time to do things right not only makes a better product, it makes for a more relaxing experience.

Which, if I’m really going whole hog on this introspection thing, are not bad life lessons. Thinking about how things go together makes for a better story. Or dinner. Or cleaner dishes or bathroom. Taking the time to do things right not only makes a better dinner/story/cleaner whatever, it’s more relaxing than trying to rush through just getting things done.

The final product. Looks pretty good and the pocket lines up.

The final product. Looks pretty good and the pocket lines up.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

From the Dark Side of the Fridge – Planning Your Valentine’s Dinner

I’m all about getting dinner on the table quickly and without fuss or muss. So you’d think my idea of a nice Valentine’s Day dinner would be to go out, and indeed that is just my idea of a nice Valentine’s Day dinner. However, if I’m going to do something nice for The Beloved Spouse, it won’t be to take him out for dinner. It’s not that he doesn’t like going out to restaurants. He just really likes my cooking, drat him. It’s a case of what Peg Bracken wrote in the “I Hate to Cook Book,” about your basic husband. “He’s not going to want to take you out for enchiladas if he knows he can get good enchiladas at home.”

Note – the above quote was written in 1960 or so, when women were expected to be the primary cooks in the household and going out was a very special occasion. It still holds up no matter the gender or marital status of the primary cook and primary eater in a given household. And, alas for me, the primary eater in my household knows he can get good enchiladas here. It’s become the running joke whenever I make something particularly good, meaning he has one less reason to take me out, which I’d generally rather do. As much as I love good food, cooking it is not my favorite thing to do.


A nice romantic dinner of something not fish or steak

But pleasing The Beloved Spouse is a preferred activity and fortunately for me, there are a number of great classic dishes that are insanely easy to do. It makes sense. The best food is all about playing up the basic elements, not smothering them under a host of spices, herbs and other ingredients. Take sole, or fish, meuniere. If you remember the film Julie and Julia, the scene where Merrill Streep as Julia Child is in tears of ecstasy while eating a fish being fried at the table. Sole meuniere is the dish and it takes no time and almost no effort to make.

You take a filet of a white fish – tilapia works great here, or even real sole, you dredge it in flour, salt and pepper, then sauté it over medium high heat in melted butter until the flour is golden brown, then serve right away alongside some steamed vegetables and a salad. You can add a lemon slice if you want to get really fancy, but I don’t. Make your salad before you start the fish, then prep the veggies for the microwave and press the start button about the same time you start cooking the fish. No sauce, no nothing, just a light, tasty fish and a couple tablespoons of butter, which if you consider the rest of the menu, isn’t going to add that much to your waistline. Besides, this is a special occasion dinner.

Or one of my personal faves, steak, salade, frites. Or steak, salad and fries. This is a bistro classic that is wonderfully delicious, even though I generally substitute oven-fries for the classic French fry. You don’t even need sauce, although I do like to chop up the leaves off a couple stems of tarragon and mix it with a generous spoonful or so of mayonnaise while the oven is heating for the potatoes. Crank your oven on to about 475 degrees. Cut a potato – or two if they’re small – into wedges about 1-inch wide. Plop those on a cookie sheet, dribble  just about a large spoonful of oil over it all (not olive because that doesn’t handle the high heat well), shake some salt and pepper over everything, and mix it all up until the potatoes are completely covered with oil. Then spread them out on the pan and put in the oven for about 10 minutes. Make your salad – just lettuce, some radishes, oil and a splash of vinegar with salt and pepper. After 10 minutes are up, turn the potatoes over, then put them back in the oven for around 10 minutes or until they’re cooked through.

Then get good, thin-cut rib-eye or New York steaks – boneless. You can buy a thick-cut one and cut it in half horizontally, but that’s a bit more work. After the potatoes have been turned, take your heaviest fry pan, put it over high heat and let it get hot. Sprinkle a pinch or two of salt over the surface of the pan, and lay in your steaks. Take a deep breath, kiss your sweetie, and turn the steaks, two kisses if you like them more done. Grind some pepper over the cooked side, flip the meat again, then once more and dinner is served. If you didn’t do the tarragon mayonnaise above, you can sprinkle some crumble blue cheese over your steaks. Or not.

Pick a nice chardonnay for your fish or your favorite red for the steaks, light the candles and you’ve got easy-ish romance. Or you can go out to eat.


The Sewing Report – Not Quite in Stitches

20140830202938257I have always wanted to write about sewing mostly because it has always been one of my passions. I love looking at patterns and fabric and trying to imagine how this style would work with that print or whatever. But I’ve always faced one major obstacle – I’m actually not a very good seamstress. My topstitching is routinely crooked. Corners bulge and facings are in continual rebellion as opposed to laying flat, I don’t care how carefully I understitch and iron.

But inasmuch as my lack of skill has never stopped me from  tackling projects I probably had no business taking on, there’s no reason it should stop me from blogging about it, either. So consider this blog more of a cautionary tale – a lesson in what not to do.

Like me assuming that just because I see a picture, I can recreate the garment. In this case, I saw a jacket in a drawing from Art In Dress (1922) by P. Clement Brown. The version I saw is copyrighted, so I can’t show it here. Also, there’s a nasty racial stereotype in the picture that’s a sad reminder that it wasn’t all that long ago that such images were considered acceptable. We are making progress. Really.

The jacket is a loose, flowing one, with a contrast lining and collar. What makes it especially cool is that the contrast also forms a shawl down the front, and the pocket, also of the contrast fabric, folds back over the shawl and is attached to the front. The skirt in the drawing is shown as your basic plaid walking skirt.

Except that I really didn’t want another skirt. I have tons of them and don’t wear them that often. But I also had this gorgeous white, black and gold plaid somewhat loosely woven with nubby yarns, and a tighter woven black with gold and white horizontal stripes. And I had a lot of the plaid. So I decided to make a skirt, too, and use the mainly black piece as the main body of the jacket. Only I’d have to cut it crosswise because horizontal stripes do not make a Margaret Dumont body look good.20140831095820125

Now, keep in mind, I write a murder mystery series set in the 1920s. So I get the clothing. I just didn’t start collecting patterns and the like until I grew the aforesaid Margaret Dumont body. So the straight lines of the era aren’t just interesting to me from a historical standpoint. They look good on me. Which is why I found another skirt that I liked better than the one in the book. Again – copyrighted drawing and I don’t want to compound the sin because I didn’t buy the pattern. I just drafted one based on what I saw. The skirt has a front flap that forms an oversized pocket, and while I couldn’t see how the original design was put together, it wasn’t too hard to figure out.

Funny thing was, I decided to make a trial version of the above outfit out of some green printed corduroy that I’ve had hanging around for-freaking-ever. Plus I had yards of a lavender mystery blend with embroidered jacquard that was lightweight enough to make a lining. I mean, I’m more or less adapting a basic jacket pattern, I’d better try it out before cutting into the good stuff.

Well, it really wasn’t that hard. I made the skirt front in three pieces – the top, cut long enough to form the pocket; the bottom, which had a button tab along the center and was drafted significantly wider than the top to create the gapping side pockets; and a facing for the bottom that was as wide as the bottom, but long enough to form the pocket bag with the top piece. I gathered that piece onto the front and voila – gapping side pockets!20140831095917559

The jacket was crazy-making, but still straight forward, except for those wrap around pockets. I finally decided to hand-sew those onto the jacket. Big mistake. They tore off almost immediately. Argh. Now I have to re-sew them back on.

The finished product is in the photo below. That’s Bertha, my dressmaker’s dummy. She’s also above in the header image. And I liked the result so much, I did something else with the plaid.

The final result on Bertha

The final result on Bertha