Friday, April 5, 2019

The Solace of Green Spaces

Irises at Armand Bayou Nature Center
Our lives have been upended with Tom's diagnosis of cancer. The clinical trial he participates in requires travel, and we are also working to settle an estate of Tom's aunt. 

Just a few days ago, Tom asked, "Are we going to have a garden this year?" Gardening has long been our shared hobby, from the very first years of our marriage when we had a gardening plot on Texas A&M University property as undergraduates and graduate students. There is solace in growing things, in being reminded year after year of the magic of a dry seed becoming a living plant. Gardening is hope.

We may not have a garden this year beyond my herb garden and the plants that flourish in our sunroom. And so we seek other green spaces for solace.

On a recent visit with our son in Texas, we checked out Armand Bayou Nature Center, near where our son lives and works. It was a lovely cool spring day, the second best kind of day in Texas to me, the first being a lovely cool, clear day in October or November. We started out taking the boardwalk, admiring Louisiana irises blooming on the edges of ponds and spotting alligators and many turtles. At the Interpretive Center we spent about 30 minutes talking about invasive species with a young woman with a display chart. Then we headed out to some of the trails. We walked part of the Ladybird Trail in order to meet up with the Prairie Interpretive Trail. Tom, whose master's degree is in native grasses and his Ph.D in forestry, wanted to see up close the restoration efforts of one of the last remaining stands of Texas tallgrass prairie.

One of the educational plaques on the Prairie Interpretive Trail included a photo of bison. "Did buffalo live in this area of Texas?" I asked Tom. He answered yes, and I tried to imagine herds of 1000s of buffalo foraging in an area that now is mostly home to petrochemical plants.

Later, on the Discovery Trail that led us through the restored Martyn Farm, we stopped to look at the two live bison there on display. They seemed as calm as cows, and it took some effort to imagine the long-gone time when millions of these animals thundered across the great plains of America.
Tallgrass Prairie Restoration Project, Armand Bayou Nature Center

At 2500 acres, the Armand Bayou Nature Center is the largest urban wilderness in the United States, according to its website, and its peaceful retreat is a balm in this part of Texas. Just that morning a fire had broken out at a nearby waterfront tank farm. Tom and I had spied the smoke from the Fred Hartman Bridge as we drove to our son's home. As the days went by, the fire increased, and a heavy cloud of smoke hung over Deer Park and much of the surrounding Houston area. Although at first the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality assured local citizens that they had nothing to fear from the fire, the organization later had to warn people that hazardous levels of benzene were detected in the air, and people were cautioned to shelter in place. Toby Baker, executive director of TCEQ, compared the environmental devastation of that fire to Hurricane Harvey:
Baker, who noted there is still a significant amount of those substances on site, rattled off a variety of stunning figures to demonstrate the breadth of response to an incident he said is the most serious he's seen since Hurricane Harvey: Nearly 184,000 barrels of contaminated water collected, an estimated 100,000 barrels of petrochemical product spilled, hundreds of response boats and nearly 2,000 response personnel on the scene.  (Kiah Collier, "Texas Environmental Chief: There's Still a Fire Risk at Deer Park Facility," The Texas Tribune, 4 April 2019)
 At a time when the Trump administration is rolling back many environmental regulations, it's even more important for citizens to support places such as Armand Bayou Nature Center and to demand that the government strictly enforce the regulations that keep our air and water safe and clean. I thought of this as I watched that dark cloud grow to the north of Armand Bayou Nature Center. Just a shift of the wind, and that cloud would be above us at the Center, with cancer-causing benzene filling our lungs. 

And so we ended our walk at Armand Bayou Nature Center, a study in contrasts: the good work of people trying to salvage green spaces in a steadily growing urban area and working to save the environment versus the toxic stew from a company that had been notified and sued several times in the past for its lax environmental controls.

Father and Son

Thursday, April 4, 2019

So Many Unshed Tears

Cassie in our back yard , 4 April 2019
In December of 2017, Tom was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, a diagnosis that came as such a shock for an 8X marathon runner and, we thought, such a healthy person. Since that diagnosis, our lives have greatly changed. It's as if the future suddenly collapsed, a cliff's edge that moves forward just a bit every day that Tom continues to live. If we focus on our changed situation, we suddenly are standing at the abyss, overcome with grief over a future that seems to have hauled ass and jumped.

We are now 16 months into that diagnosis. Chemotherapy worked for about a year, and now Tom is in a clinical trial with, as yet, an uncertain outcome. The hardest part for me is seeing my 60-year old husband go from a man who could run marathons to a man who is often in severe pain, unable to do the activities that brought him so much satisfaction. Second to that is coping with the damage to our hopes and dreams for a shared retirement. Of course, we continue to hope--that this treatment will work, that we will have a lot more time together--but we are also realistic. And in the recognition that we might not have that time dwells so many unshed tears, so many unvoiced cries of despair and sorrow.

 I have no words of wisdom for dealing with such sorrow. Sometimes we share our grief, but mainly we just handle each day as it comes. 

Tom continues to work, at his place of employment when we're home and remotely when we have to be away for cancer treatment. I stay busy with housework or the art car project I started before Tom's diagnosis. When we're home, I work in the yard--as I did today, weeding-- or do housework or some of the chores that we once shared. We just carry on the best we can.

Friends who read this post can contact me for more information on Tom's health. Tom is private and doesn't want me to provide many details online. 

Meanwhile, I hope to come back here to write about the progress of my art car, about what we're experiencing outside the big "C" that looms over everything now in our lives.

Persey in the back yard, 4 April 2019
My herb beds: We had a very cold winter, but most of the perennials are sprouting.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

I will return soon--but first, a photo

I have been away from my blog for many months because a family member is dealing with a life-threatening illness. This family member is very private and doesn't want me writing publicly about the struggles, so I will be soon be writing occasionally about the art car I am working on for the next Houston Art Car Parade (if I can finish it in time). But as we are now at the Christmas holidays, and Tom and I went out with a tree permit this morning to cut a tree on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, I will post a photo of Tom with our tree. We are looking forward to having family here this afternoon and for several days.

Happy Holidays to all who land here.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Despite what's happening in my personal life

I am even more concerned about what's happening in the public life of our country. We are led by a bullying authoritarian whose attacks on the press are more and more reminiscent of a fascist regime. I agree with this writer: 
The solution for journalists is not to hedge the distinction between truth and lies, or to somehow orient themselves to respond to their critics. Those critics will never grant them the distinction of Unbiased Objective Journalist, because it is not politically fruitful to do so. The solution is to print the unvarnished truth, over and over again, until the share of this country that has retained its grip on reality can wrest control of it from the forces of unhinged resentment, paranoia, and lies. (Jack Holmes, "While Everyone was Crying about the WHCD, Trump was Staging an Authoritarian Circus," Esquire, 30 April 2018)

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Facing the Blows of Fortune

When I was fifteen, a favorite uncle died suddenly, drowning in marsh waters while he was working cattle with his father, his brother-in-law (my father), and several other men. I can still recall details of that day and the days that followed, the disbelief I felt as I received the news and the images that the word "drowning" conjured in my mind (the smooth, clear waters of a swimming pool rather than the opaque waters of a Texas Gulf Coast marsh), the sadness of being separated from my parents and sent to stay with members of my dad's family while my mother and her family absorbed the tragedy of losing a young brother and son, the absurdity of daily activities (I remember being determined to get some pantyhose to wear with the dress I was to wear to the funeral and then feeling ashamed of focusing on such trivial details in the midst of our grief). 

The stories of that drowning haunted me for years: my uncle kicking himself free from his horse in the swirling waters, my father and grandfather in a boat rescuing another cowboy in the water, my uncle calling out to my dad, my dad turning around to rescue my uncle--too late. In my mind, I always see a hand reaching out and another hand disappearing under rippling waves of muddy water.

Death, I knew then, can come suddenly to those in the prime of life, and rescue impossible.

About this time, I also began reading the Roman and Greek Stoics: Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor; Epictetus, the Greek slave who won his freedom; Seneca, the tutor of Nero sent into exile and then later required to take his own life. The Stoics, I thought, seemed to have a better understanding of life and death than the fundamentalist Christianity in which I was reared; it was clear to me then that the hand of God did not always reach out to touch the hand of man.

"It is not that we have a short time to live," Seneca writes his friend Paulinus, "but that we waste a lot of it." And later in the letter, he advises, 
[t]he greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today....[T]he whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately...So you must match time's swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.
Later, Seneca in exile writes his mother: "No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours."

The Stoics taught me that the best way to live is each day at a time,  recognizing that tomorrow could bring calamity with little or no notice. They also taught me that I could choose how to react to life's vicissitudes.

I haven't always adhered to those lessons, but most of my life experiences have taught me the truth of them again and again.

In 1987, my husband and I stood with the rest of his family, watching his 54-year-old mother breathe in and out the last air of her world. Mary had been diagnosed with cancer--melanoma--just a few months earlier. She had noticed the symptoms long past the possibility of any medical remediation available at the time. I remember looking out over Houston from the window of the hospice where my mother-in-law was dying, listening to her rasping breath in the background, and thinking of the similarities of birth and death, the labors in this case of the person dying rather than the person giving birth.

And so we leave life as we enter it, taking our last breaths of the amniotic fluid of the familiar present into an unknown future or annihilation. 

Three years later, Tom and I were standing in a funeral home in Baytown, Texas, discussing with a local funeral director the deteriorating state of the body of Tom's father. What remained of my father-in-law, George Nystrom Greene, lay in an open casket before us. With some precision, the funeral director described to us the process of that deterioration, speculating on how possible it might be to mask decomposition enough to have an open casket funeral the following day, which was Thanksgiving. 

Ten to eleven days earlier, on November 15th, George emerged from a dive in the Cayman Islands and took his last breath of air before collapsing from a massive heart-attack. It had taken several days for the body to be flown back to Texas, during which time my husband and his sister had to attend an inquest on their father's death in Cayman Brac.

Listening to the mortician describe how the embalming could not eliminate the decomposition which had already occurred and how he could enclose most of the body in plastic to prevent any noticeable effects, I felt as if there were two of me standing before that open casket: one the daughter-in-law, numb with grief, the other a detached observer noting the macabre situation with a dark sense of humor.

My father-in-law was 57 years old when he died.

This second death in Tom's family, coming so soon as it did after that of the first--and Tom's parents' being so young when they died--had a profound effect on me as we went through all of George and Mary's belongings. I remember opening up the bag that contained the clothing George had taken with him on his trip to the Cayman Islands, the material suggesting the living body that had just inhabited it. I remember how items in the house revealed George's expectations of return: the Christmas list with presents purchased and names of those for whom the presents were intended, the pistol loaded and tucked carelessly beside the bed, dirty clothes left in a hamper. All these details--and more--were melancholy mementos of life's fragility.

Just a year before she died, Mary's aunt Mary (Mimi) Ophelia Nugent Armstrong had died at the age of 90, and not long after Mary died, her uncle Baker White Armstrong had died, leaving with George and Mary what remained of generations of Robbs, Armstrongs, Greenes, and Nugents. Going through their belongings was like an exhumation. People came alive briefly in the hundreds of letters we found and which I slowly read over the years. 

I was determined, myself, to ward off regret and to be aware always that the unexpected could occur. I kept diaries and journals and wrote long, descriptive letters of my own in which I actively attempted to alleviate my own intense emotions with records of observation and reason. Every trip I took required attention to detail--to the leaving and to the going. The plans I made might have seemed exercises in predictability, but they were actually acknowledgements of unpredictability: plans were meant for keeping one on a course that could, nonetheless, change unexpectedly. I meant to be in control as much as possible.

Before departing on any trip, I made sure every bit of clothing was washed and put away, the house tidied. My goal--and I recognized it as such--was to ensure that anyone having to go through my things would be spared as much grief as possible if all my plans went to hell.

Today I carry with me a well-marked paperback text of Seneca's three letters, "On the Shortness of Life," "Consolation to Helvia" (his mother), and "On Tranquility of Mind." When I am home, the text is in my desk or on the bookshelf beside my desk. I know that Seneca was flawed, as are we all, but his words ring true to me and to my experience: 
[The wise man] has no reason to fear Fortune and will never give ground to her. He has no reason to fear her, since he regards as held on sufferance not only his goods and possessions and status, but even his body, his eyes and hand, and all that makes life more dear, and his very self; and he lives as though he were lent to himself and bound to return the loan on demand without complaint....
Should it surprise me if the perils which have always roamed around me should some day reach me?... [quoting Publilus] 'What can happen to one can happen to all.' If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you, too, you will be armed long before you are attacked...
 Know, then, that every condition can change, and whatever happens to anyone can happen to you.
 The consolation of philosophy cannot prevent grief, ward off evil, ensure a regret-free life, or promise equanimity in all situations, but it certainly helps. I think if it as a ballast in a ship. The ship may list terribly, but the ballast can be shifted in order to right the ship....steady as she goes.

These days, I vacillate between grief and hope...but I hold on to the idea that "no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it."

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Yes the political is personal...but in THAT way?

Last year, not too long after the election, someone told me that politics didn't matter. The suggestion was that in matters of relationships--to one's family and one's religion--politics were immaterial, ephemeral. Because I didn't want to exacerbate an already tense encounter, I didn't bounce back with a rejoinder. Of course, politics matter, I wanted to say and then list extemporaneously all the ways in which it does. Our country having just elected a man whose authoritarian tendencies and fascist-comparable rallies reminded me and many others of the election of a man who was responsible for the deaths of millions of people came immediately to mind. But I didn't want to equate Trump to Hitler, just demonstrate the suggestive authoritarian comparisons...and that would take a longer and more nuanced conversation.  I wanted to point out that Hitler was elected by democratic--though manipulated--process and that he used similar themes in his campaign as did Trump: fear of the other (Jews and communists, in Hitler's case; Muslims, Mexicans, undocumented immigrants, terrorists, in Trump's); resentment (against those who diminished Germany's global aspirations in WWI, Hitler; against "elites," minorities, and the decreasing power of white privilege, Trump); nationalism (Hitler promised to make Germany great again; Trump's campaign slogan was to make America great again).

Political decisions have personal consequences; personal decisions have political consequences. The recent presidential election so clearly illustrates the political consequences of personal decisions. Think of all the people who couldn't bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, not because they didn't agree with most of the political platform on which she campaigned but because they didn't like her. Several weeks before the election, I volunteered to canvass Democrats in the small town in which I live and in the cheek-to-jowl neighboring town. As I solicited their votes, several said that they could not vote for Hillary Clinton; personal animus directed their decision, not a thoughtful analysis of the party's platform or of Clinton's expertise. So these people voted third party or for a party that didn't truly represent their personal politics. Their votes, collectively with others such as they, helped cost Democrats the election.

What are the personal consequences to that political decision? Lack of health care access for women, the poor and the rural (Republicans hate Planned Parenthood even when local Planned Parenthood centers don't offer abortion); lack of health insurance (Since Republicans couldn't get rid of Obamacare altogether, Donald Trump is trying to sabotage it illegally); increasing power of the oligarchs in our society, further declining power of middle and lower classes; the overt rise of white nationalism and increase in racial hostility, with its associated consequences--just to name a few.

I, also, take annihilation pretty seriously, and the president flirts with nuclear destruction in a way no president before him has done. But I conclude that my possible annihilation is not the result of a direct threat to me, Anita Dugat-Greene, as if a nuclear warhead had my name only emblazoned on it. Others will suffer the same consequence as I.

There is, however, a level of the personal few of us expected in politics and that is a president who as chief of state represents mainly himself rather than the unity of a sovereign nation or even the leading member of a political party. Every morning--and sometimes evening-- our commander in chief vomits his personal animus on Twitter. He can't let go of Hillary Clinton; he attacks her frequently on Twitter as if he were still campaigning against her. He calls out by name journalists who criticize him or his administration. He even attacks private individuals. Of course, there were clues to this behavior during his campaign--his public attacks on journalist Katy Tur, his mockery of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski, his criticism of the Gold Star family, the Khans, among others. But perhaps some people thought that being president would make Donald Trump more presidential.

Unfortunately, no. Donald Trump takes everything personally, as in, a personal affront or a personal attribute to himself. He sees previous presidents and their accomplishments as affronts to himself and lies about those accomplishments or actions in order to aggrandize himself. Stung by criticism that he hadn't publicly or privately responded to the deaths of four American soldiers in an ambush in Niger, Trump claimed that previous presidents--including Bush and Obama--hadn't called families of fallen soldiers to offer support and condolences and that he called every family. He walked back the claims a little when a reporter directly challenged his statement by asking for clarification. And, of course, Trump's claims were lies

As Paul Waldman writes:
For this president, everything is personal. The purpose of the State Department isn't to represent the United States to the world but to tend to Trump's personal image. Anyone who criticizes him becomes an enemy. There is no substantive agenda beyond what will lead to the greater aggrandizement of Donald Trump. 
 Trump must, then, be truly rankled by recent findings of the Pew Research Center, that trust in the United States presidency has plummeted on his watch compared to that of the Obama presidency:
According to a new Pew Research Center survey spanning 37 nations, a median of just 22% has confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. This stands in contrast to the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when a median of 64% expressed confidence in Trump’s predecessor to direct America’s role in the world.
I just hope that Trump doesn't take those percentages so personally that he chooses to destroy the world that despises him. So far, my fears aren't allayed.


I've linked below to an interesting article on why Trump's narcissism maintains a hold on his followers. Its conclusion is very troubling to me:
Many of his supporters don’t care that his relationship with truth is shaky and opportunistic. They don’t care that he trades in anger and hate, and that he invites violence against his enemies. They don’t care that he as much as admitted to sexual assault. The difficulty in explaining Trump and his appeal lies in the fact that he has prevailed not despite but because of all of his lies, anger, contempt toward losers, intolerance of dissent, and bombastic grandiosity. His flouting of just about every political, social, and sexual norm has only enhanced his appeal to his devotees. In short: His narcissism is a resource for — not an impediment to — his electoral and political success.
Elizabeth Lunbeck, " The Allure of Trump's Narcissism," Los Angeles Review of Books, 1 August 2017.! 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The End of Summer: Harvesting and Canning

Pasta with homemade pesto & homegrown parsley & tomatoes
Yesterday I took the last big batch of basil that I had harvested from my kitchen garden and whipped up some pesto. I had meant to freeze some of the pesto in ice trays but then couldn't find the ice trays because they had been stored somewhere I can't recall when we had the kitchen remodeled this summer. My son-in-law, whose recipe for pesto I mostly followed, freezes his pesto in a small jar to use as needed. For last night's dinner, I mixed the fresh pesto with warm pasta, Sungold tomatoes and parsley that I had gathered that day in the big garden and in my kitchen garden. What a yummy dish that was.

Adam adds arugula to his pesto, and I have done that, too, as well as making an all-arugula pesto. The last time I made arugula pesto, however, the pesto was so bitter that I threw it out. Perhaps the leaves had been too old and tough, or maybe I need to do what Adam does: include a small portion  of arugula and a larger portion of basil in the recipe (Adam also substitutes spinach for the smaller portion of arugula).

What is the best thing about gardening? Is it the winter planning, the leafing through gardening catalogs or, these days, scrolling online through gardening and seed source websites?  Is it watching those first seedlings magically appear? Or going out every morning to check on the ripeness of tomatoes? Or is it harvesting the produce, eating it fresh, or canning it for later?

This past weekend, in the middle of tomato canning, Tom said, "I love doing this!" The tomato canning continues over weeks as tomatoes ripen on the vines in the big garden and in the greenhouse. We grew a lot of yellow tomatoes this summer (Lemon Boy, Golden Jubilee, Big Rainbow) that Tom canned separately from the red tomatoes.
On the left, Tom's canned tomatoes; on the right, his canned beets
After we returned from our daughter's wedding in Georgia, I gathered grapes from the large vine that we've trained to grow on the chain-link walls of my Secret Garden room (a dog kennel left by the previous owners that I decorated as an outdoor room). Birds had eaten quite a few of the grapes--I often startled a juvenile robin among the grape vines this summer--but there were enough grapes left for sixteen half-pints of what I labelled our Lavender Blue Grape Jelly. I suggested to Tom that he add some lavender blooms from my kitchen garden to flavor the jelly.
a bunch of grapes on our grapevine
more grapes than apples this year (late freeze killed the apple blossoms)
Here at the foot of the White Mountains, an early freeze can take out a garden with tomatoes still green on the vine. Several days ago we had a couple of nights of predicted freezing temperatures, so I gathered all the peppers and many of the tomatoes, leaving a lot of green tomatoes, hoping that temperatures wouldn't drop so low as to kill the vines completely. We are still in the process of freezing and drying the bumper crop of poblano peppers. Tom has put to good use the dehydrator I bought for him a few months ago.
an anxious harvest before a freeze
a tomato galette I made with Sungold and Indigo Ruby tomatoes
My aunt Lynelle Sikora suggested that I make chow chow out of the green tomatoes, so we did a test run of a small batch this past weekend.  I knew I liked chow chow as I had grown up eating it as a side dish, but I wanted to make sure that we both liked it well enough to make several pints instead of a few half-pints. The end result was tasty, so I have decided to can more of the sweet tomato relish this week.
The tomato mix (green tomatoes, red and green peppers, onion, pickling and canning salt) stands in the fridge overnight. Then the mixture is drained before cooking it with spices.

green tomato relish mix cooking in the spices (light brown sugar, yellow mustard seeds, whole cloves, minced garlic, celery seed, red pepper flakes--I used three red peppers from my kitchen garden rather than dried pepper flakes)
a small batch of chow chow

After the next round or two of tomato canning, it will be time to clear the garden in preparation for next year. I will then clean out the chicken pen, raking up all the straw, chicken crap, and vegetable matter remaining from the scraps I and my neighbor have thrown to the chickens this summer. I'll fill up a wheelbarrow with the yard waste as well as the waste from inside the henhouse and spread it all on the garden. Winter's snow will pack it down, and in the spring, Tom and I will dig the composted chicken waste into the soil to feed another summer garden.

I still have a few herbs I hope to dry for the winter, and then my gardening for this year will be done. But our firewood gathering for the winter has just begun.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

At Casa Malpollos: Chickens, of course

When I was a child, my father bought several unusual chickens, among them Turkens (Naked Necks) and Frizzles. There were others, but these are the ones I remember the most because they were so unusual,  so unlike the white Leghorns that my dad's mother, Margaret Cole Dugat, raised for meat and for eggs. Daddy wanted us to experience these unusual chicken breeds, and I credit, to some extent, a tendency to delight in the exotic and different to that early childhood experience of watching these chickens peck around the yard on our 8 acres of family land in Old River, Texas. Our home place had been carved out of woodland that was passed down through several generations and was situated on a hill across an oyster shell-covered road from my dad's parents' home and his birthplace. I and my siblings ran around barefoot all summer long, and as sharp as oyster shells can be, they did not penetrate the tough soles of our hardened feet.

These days, though I walk around bare-footed or sock-footed in my house all day when I am home, I can't walk barefoot onto the gravel-covered backyard that we now own without wincing and pussy-footing just as my cats do. The cats are smarter; they walk on the gravel for the minimal amount of time it takes to get to a smoother surface, such as the railroad ties that border the gravel surface or the larger rocks in the faux stream bed that winds through the back yard. 

As soon as Tom and I had a big enough place on which to raise chickens, I ordered a full run of chicks, choosing a mix of Silver-laced Wyandottes and Ameraucanas. This was the  late 1980s and early 1990s when we rented a small house on a large ranch in Bryan, Texas. The chickens, when grown, roosted in a small wooden henhouse that Tom built on posts. They ran free on the ranch during the day. Because I had ordered a straight run of twenty-one chicks, we had no way of knowing the ratio of hens to roosters until the chickens got old enough to begin demonstrating male or female behavior. There were eleven roosters in that run, and they gave the hens hell until we put all but one rooster in the freezer.

When we moved from Bryan, Texas, to Cloquet, Minnesota, we gave the remaining chickens to the young couple who rented the house after we did. We didn't have chickens again--Ameraucanas--until after we moved to Georgia in 1996. Of that batch of chickens, I chose to keep the prettiest rooster, who also turned out to be the meanest. Our daughter hated that rooster. It met an untimely death when it attacked Tom one day as he was carrying a large flat of tomato seedlings to the garden to be planted. 
the mean rooster in our backyard in Georgia
These days, however, Tom is a quasi-vegetarian (avoids meat except fish and crawfish and eats dairy products such as milk, eggs, and cheese) and I am a flexitarian in that I occasionally eat meat, so we are most interested in having laying hens. We had inherited some chickens from the previous owners of this house: one met death by hawk, two died of illnesses, and the roosters ended up being stewed with dumplings. Nine hens now roost in the henhouse: three from the previous flock and six Silver-Laced Wyandottes that we purchased as days-old chicks from a local feed store. The three old hens are a white Leghorn, a black hen that may be an Australorpe, and a red hen that could be a Rhode Island Red. They are almost past their laying years, with the red hen and the white Leghorn still laying eggs but the black hen not.

After a little bantam hen of the original flock was killed by a hawk one evening last fall, we hadn't let the hens out to free forage for almost a year. To make sure they don't become supper for some predator, we have to remain outside to watch them if we let them out of their covered chicken run. However, I like for chickens to have some freedom of the yard, and I was just waiting for the Wyandottes to get older and for me to find the time to sit in the yard to watch while they roamed. I found that time one day last week.

I placed a patio chair under a large juniper tree in the backyard and opened the chicken yard gate. No sooner had I returned to the chair to sit than a small hawk flew into the tree, landing on a branch right over my head. "Oh, no you don't," I screamed and startled the hawk. It flew away, and I moved my chair next to the chicken yard to keep a closer watch on the hens as they ventured out. 

A closer encounter between hens and possible predator occurred later when our cat Persephone (Persey) approached me, mewing for her evening meal. But neither of our cats seems interested in the chickens for food. Cassie is so cautious around them as to seem fearful at times. Persey's first encounter with the young hens outside the hen yard was almost anti-climactic, with the hens showing more interest in her than she in them. 
One of the Wyandottes checks out Persey
Persey seems to be avoiding a direct encounter with the hen.
More hens wander over to investigate.
Some kind of confab seems to be going on.
Eye contact is made and perhaps some secret deal struck between them all.
The meeting is over. Persey is outnumbered and outweighed.
Cassie watches more cautiously from a place in hiding.
I don't really view my chickens as pets, but I am fond of them. I feed them seeds that I have gathered from the stalks of cowpen daisies that bloomed wildly in the back yard in late summer, vegetable matter left over from chopping veggies for dinner, and greens that are going to seed in my kitchen garden. The hens hear my shoes grating on the gravel as I walk to the pen, and they come running, suspecting that I am bringing them something tastier than the gray laying pellets that fill their feeders. I have seen too many chickens slaughtered, have plucked feathers still warm from the hot water into which the limp, dead bodies have been plunged, to be any more than an enemy at truce. 

But even enemies can develop a cautious affection in the right circumstances. I watch these birds that are distantly related to dinosaurs and realize we are all evolving.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Up, Up, and Away: Making a Wedding Pinata

pinata by Anita, photo by Joe Le Doux
A couple of weeks ago, we flew from Phoenix to Atlanta to attend our daughter's wedding at the Trolley Barn. Mary-Margaret and her husband Adam had tied the knot earlier in March (on Pi Day) at a courthouse in Seattle, so the wedding event in Atlanta was the family and friends celebration, with Mary-Margaret wearing the wedding dress that my mother had worn at her wedding, that I had altered to wear at my wedding, and that Mary-Margaret had restored and altered for her wedding. Rather than throwing rice (verboten, anyway, at most wedding venues these days) or blowing bubbles or lighting sparklers at the end of the event, I suggested that I make a pinata. I had made a pinata only once before, years ago, for Tom's birthday, so the first task was to find really good instructions on, of course, the Internet. And came through for me.

In my research, I discovered that pinatas are frequently included in weddings these days, with a hot air balloon being a favorite design, along with wedding cake-shaped pinatas and heart-shaped pinatas. I did a trial run on the shell, making a test pinata with a large punch balloon as the form over which to paste the the strips of newspaper. Pinataboy advises that punch balloons make an oval shape, just right for the design I had in mind--a hot air balloon, an idea originating  with my remembering the hot air balloon mobile Mary-Margaret had made for Adam a few years ago that now hangs in their apartment. I ordered a set of 12 punch ball balloons from Oriental Trading CompanyThat should be plenty, I thought, for my test run and final edition of the wedding pinata. Having those extra balloons was a good idea as I popped at least two of them by blowing them up too large, startling the cats.

Months before starting on the pinata, I had cut strips of paper from the free local news and market publication that gets thrown near my mailbox once a week. These strips of newspaper, soaked in flour paste, would create the paper mache layers of the pinata. I then created a hook from the pinata out of a clothes hanger, cut down to size. I punched the top of the clothes hanger through a rectangular-shaped piece of cardboard and bent the ends of the metal over opposite ends of the cardboard. All of this went into a box in my craft supply closet until I was ready to make the final shell of the pinata toward the end of July. (We were having our kitchen remodeled so I waited until most of that work was done before taking over the kitchen island again with pinata-making supplies.)

Here are a few photos I took of the process: 

The first layer of newspaper is taped to the balloon and over the cardboard on which I had attached the hook (the loop of a metal clothes hanger).
Here I have finished a layer of the flour paste-covered strips of newspaper, and I've placed a fan near the pinata to hasten the drying time.
I completed at least five layers of the flour-paste covered newspaper strips, with six or seven layers in areas that I wanted to strengthen (such as around the hook). Since mostly adults would be whopping away at this pinata, I wanted it to be strong enough to withstand several attacks with a pinata stick.
After finishing the shell of the pinata, I had to cut crepe paper streamers (also ordered from Oriental Trading Company) to size (about 6-10 inches, to be further reduced in size to fit the shape of the pinata design) and then to snip fringes in the streamer pieces. This is a tedious process; I much prefer the messiness of coating the strips of newspaper in flour paste and smoothing the wet pieces onto the pinata shell.
Finally, after days of working on the pinata shell, it's time to paste the crepe paper fringe to the pinata. One starts at the bottom and works upward toward the top of the pinata. The blue sticks you see there poking out of the bottom are wooden chop sticks that I punched through the pinata and then painted, to serve as holders from which to hang the basket of the hot air balloon.
Gluing the fringe is also rather tedious.  It didn't help that I got very sick for a week during this time. In the background, in front of the mirror, is the shell of the test pinata.
Almost finished with the fringe
A bit of bling for the top: satin ribbon, paper roses, and rhinestone stickers purchased from Michael's in Flagstaff
I recycled a small box for the basket of the hot air balloon, covered it with matching crepe paper fringe, added some satin roses and ribbons for decoration, and hung it from the painted chop sticks with red satin ribbon. 
Completed hot air balloon with basket
For the finishing touch, I wanted to add small dolls to the basket to represent Mary-Margaret and Adam. My first thought was to look for used Barbie dolls, but in a search on Etsy and E-bay, I couldn't find anything really appropriate, so I began looking for alternatives. I found the perfect dolls in Lottie Dolls, dolls created as alternatives to the weirdly proportioned Barbies, and ordered a "Fossil Hunter Lottie Doll" and a "Kite-flyer Finn Boy Doll." 
Lottie Dolls added to pinata
And so my work was done. I packed up the pinata, along with the goodies I had purchased to put inside (packages of seeds from Renee's Garden Seeds, packages of single serving tea from Tea Forte, pin-back buttons with photos of Mary-Margaret and Adam, and a few miniature Star Wars figures), and mailed it to the in-laws in Decatur, Georgia. There Adam's mom had gourmet candy, Star Wars-packaged jelly beans, and some more miniature figures to add to the fun. I didn't cut the access panel into the pinata until I arrived in Decatur and we were ready to stuff the pinata.
The pinata arrives safely in Decatur, Georgia, while the area is still feeling the effects of Hurricane Irma, six days before the wedding.
A young cousin prepares to hit the pinata (yes, we removed the basket and dolls)--Note the pinata stick, which I made from a one-inch dowel rod. I covered the bottom of the rod with turquoise-colored craft electrical tape for the handle and pasted matching crepe paper fringe on the rest.
Adam holds the rope while his friend and marriage officiant Joe takes a whack.
Taking aim
Finally, Mary-Margaret and Adam took center stage with the pinata.

Pinata bashing was a perfect end to a wedding that began with music performed by the wedding party with guitar and kazoos and wedding vows that included quotes from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.