Rooting Out

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One thing I’m still getting used to with home ownership is the ongoing stream of projects and maintenance.  Having rented for the vast majority of my adult life (12-13 years), I’m familiar with reorganizing and cleaning, but landscaping and painting – among others – are new ventures.

After a couple of years of living here, we decided it was time to tackle the outside of the house in a meaningful way.  The first year we lived here, we mostly just watched to see what plants came up in the yard and beds.  Last year, we evicted The Shrub That Ate Our Front Window, put in some new beds around the patio, and placed fresh landscaping fabric/pebbles around our firepit.  This year, we realized that the gorgeous silver maple tree in the backyard was planted just barely far enough away from the house and we also didn’t particularly like the Norway spruce in the front.

We called in an arborist to evaluate the silver maple.  Silver maples have shallow, invasive roots – the kind that can crack foundations and get into sewer lines.  The minimum distance to plant these trees from a house is around 20 feet, and ours is 21 feet from the base of the house.  The tree was actually one of the things we loved about the house when we bought it.  It’s one of those perfect trees for bird feeders, for climbing, and for shade.  I hoped it didn’t need cut down, but if it was a choice between the tree and our foundation, it was a no-brainer.

The arborist came out, looked at all of our trees and, happily, told us he could save the maple with no major issues.  In the fall, he’ll come and prune the roots to prevent them from reaching the house and take a limb off that’s starting to stretch up to the point where it will eventually grow over the roof.  He told us that the spruce in the front yard wasn’t going to invade the foundation since spruces apparently don’t have those kinds of roots, but that it’s planted too close to the house and showing signs of stress.  The arborist advised taking it out, and since we didn’t like it anyway, we’re looking forward to having it down sometime this summer.

One of the things the arborist noted in the evaluation was that when the spruce comes out, the stump grinder would damage the yucca plants at the base.  Well, the yuccas had gotten entirely overgrown and weren’t really in my vision for what I eventually want in that bed.  We decided to take them out.

Turns out, yuccas grow thick, fibrous roots that are an absolute nightmare to hack through.  What we thought would take one person about an hour took two of us about two and a half hours of hard work.  One of us grabbed the top of the plant and pulled, the other dug the shovel in over and over to break the roots.  The end result was worth it, however, and it all looks much neater.

House Before Yuccas

Before, with the yuccas in place.

House After Yuccas (2)

After – we didn’t even realize there were landscaping rocks under all of that!

Next up is getting rid of the bush behind the pine.  Having pulled a similar one out last summer, I know what we’re in for there.  Eventually, we’ll get to the fun part: figuring out and planting the landscaping we actually want.

This post is a part of Microblog Monday.  If you want to read more posts or submit your own, head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Currently Reading: The Widows of Malabar Hill

Mysteries are one of my defaults when I’m looking for a new book.  I had started Michelle McNamara’s nonfiction about the search for the Golden State Killer I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but while it was engrossing, it also gave me literal nightmares.  I shelved it a little over a third of the way through.  Not the right book for right now.

Fortunately, Modern Mrs. Darcy had a blog post with a list of gentle mysteries (not too gruesome or disturbing) that came out right as I was casting about for new reading material.  On the list was The Widows of Malabar Hill (by Sujata Massey) centering on a female solicitor in 1920s India.  Truthfully, I picked it up initially because it was the first one on the list available at the library for e-book borrowing, but I was pulled into the story almost immediately and glad that I had been able to nab it.

Protagonist Perveen Mistry is a young Parsi woman who studied law at Oxford and now an associate in her father’s law office.  While she cannot present cases in court as a barrister, she works as the first female solicitor in Bombay.  When the law office is presented with three Muslim widows who wish to put their inheritance into a specialized trust, Perveen is sent to speak to the women who live in purdah, an enclosed life where no males outside of the family are permitted.  Within the house, Perveen finds secrets, simmering rivalries, and, eventually, the murder of the women’s male protector.

One of the qualities I really enjoyed about The Widows of Malabar Hill was author Massey’s deft ability to make India’s pluralism and society in the 1920s comprehensible to someone like me who knows relatively little about India.  Perveen and her family are Parsi: descended from Iranians who fled religious persecution to India somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries CE and practicing Zoroastrianism.  Massey also brings Muslims, Hindus, and the British into the story, picking through the social distinctions and interactions.  These differences bear heavily on the story as Perveen must understand Muslim law surrounding inheritance to work with her clients, navigate the social conventions around her friendship with Alice Hobson-Jones (the daughter of a high-ranking British official), and the Parsi marriage laws that have personal significance for Perveen.

Perveen is a compelling character to anchor the story.  Massey gives her protagonist realistic strengths and weaknesses – Perveen is upper class, well-educated, and intelligent, but Massey doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of being a trailblazer or the exhausting, constant explanations Perveen has to give around what she does for a living.  Perveen doesn’t fall entirely into the “plucky heroine” convention that often happens with women in novels.  Her path to becoming a solicitor is more complicated and the triumph of becoming a solicitor is more muted than just the usual sexism and misogyny to overcome (though these certainly factor in).  Massey also makes Perveen’s sex an asset as well as a liability; as a female, she is the only solicitor who can go behind the screens to meet the women clients in purdah.  I also really liked the fact that Perveen has a genuinely supportive and kind family who love her and want to see her happy and successful.

The novel had two distinct plotlines: the mystery itself, which kept me guessing, but also Perveen’s backstory.  While sometimes fleshing out a character as an equal storyline can detract in a mystery, in this case, it blends well with the central plot.

I really enjoyed The Widows of Malabar Hill and am excited to pick up the second book in the series, The Satapur Moonstone.  It’s wonderful to find a new series that is as promising as this one!

Good Bread

One of my absolute favorite things in life is excellent bread.  I have a particular affinity for the chewy, crusty, open-structured artisan loaves that have proliferated in recent years – to the point where they’re easily available in most grocery stores.  Over the last few years, I often asked Arthur to grab one on his lunch to bring home for dinner that night.

Obviously, the pandemic changed that.

I’ve been baking since I was small, but artisan loaves have always eluded me.  Commercial bakeries have steam-injected ovens that help immensely with the crust texture and while I’ve tried most of the suggestions for home bakers (ice cubes to the bottom of the oven, small pan of water, throwing water onto a hot baking sheet underneath the bread), I’ve never gotten the combination of chewy/crunchy that comes so easily from the grocery store.

Since dropping by the grocery store isn’t the usual quick stop now and when I’ve tried to order artisan loaves the store hasn’t had any, I decided to tackle the project.  Armed with baker’s tools amassed over nearly fifteen years of adult life and cooking and fortifying myself with some of the bread episodes from The Great British Baking Show, I pulled out the flour, yeast, salt, and water that was supposed to turn into excellence.

I started with French baguettes following this recipe.  While my rise times were slightly longer than the recipe indicated, a cast-iron skillet preheated in the oven with boiling water poured over to create the steam was a revelation.  I don’t know how, exactly, it’s different than the other methods of making steam, but it worked better than anything I’ve tried before.  I suspect it has something to do with the way the skillet holds and diffuses the heat in the oven.  Leaving the baguettes in the cooling oven with the door cracked a couple of inches also helped the crust texture – much better than putting them on a rack on the counter.  I cut the number of loaves to two (I like a slightly thicker loaf) and while it’s not quite commercial bakery perfection, it’s also pretty darned good.

Ciabatta for sandwiches came yesterday (recipe here).  With my trusty stand mixer to knead the incredibly wet dough and a baking stone, I was amazed at how easy this particular bread turned out.  It also was every bit as good as anything I buy in the store, making me wonder why I’ve been paying $2.50 – $3.50 a loaf for years.  The crust was perfect, the open texture fully present.

The irony, of course, is now I have no dinner parties to plan, no people to host, and no small groups for places like church to throw open the doors.  Bread feels like it should be baked for people.

There’s a lot of clashing think-pieces generated by the pandemic and quarantine: chance to learn a new skill!  Collective trauma!  Optimize your life!  It’s okay to not be productive!  We can figure this out!  We’re all sitting in the corner with no attention span!  Learning to bake these loaves seems to fall under all of the above for me.  It feels like the kind of thing that I could post to social media as proof that I am doing great under quarantine, but that belies the quiet desperation and anxiety that’s somewhat soothed by shaping dough, the crash that comes after the picture of the pretty loaves: what’s next?

I don’t know.  Nobody knows.

It reminds me a bit of when I was pregnant with the pregnancy that turned out to be ectopic, that rollercoaster of hope dashing into unpleasant realities.  Desperately clinging to any good sign, cognizant of the many bad ones, hoping for the best, all with an underlying suspicion that this is not going to turn out well.  One of the qualities of trauma that the TV shows tend to elide is the long stretches of waiting and boredom and worry.  The bad news is preceded by hours, days, weeks of build-up.  It’s sitting with a book in my hands, unable to focus more than a few minutes, counting the time before the next lab result, the next ultrasound, when the doctor arrives, the phone call (then) or the next news report, the next zoom gathering, the next phone call (now).  Trying to find ways to fill the time.  It could be better.  It could be worse.

I miss people.  It’s a weird thing for an introvert to admit.  I miss running into acquaintances at the zoo or the grocery and chatting, small talk that I usually feel awkward making and used to dread a bit but now feels like a lifeline.  I miss my parents visiting, miss hosting two of my SILs for dinner periodically, miss visiting with BIL/SIL and niece and nephew, having my MIL and FIL come over.  I miss choir and church and the collective responses: Peace be with you!  And also with you.  And also with you.  And also with you.  The absolution, the communion, and then the other communion of doughnuts and institutional coffee and talk.

Perfecting recipes feels like faith.  Faith that someday there will be dinner parties and small groups and people to bake for again.

At least there’s good bread to eat while I wait.

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The ciabatta loaves.

Currently Reading: The Splendid and the Vile

My library system has long done e-book borrowing, but in the last few months, they carried a program they’ve long used for print books over to the electronic borrowing system.  High demand books are available for a seven-day borrowing period with no renewal possible (instead of the usual 21-day borrow) but with no waiting on the long hold lists.  As someone who reads fast, I’m enjoying this program and have been able to get several books on my to-be-read list that I hadn’t anticipated reading for several months.

One of these books is Erik Larson’s new nonfiction The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.  I was engrossed by several of Larson’s previous books, including his contrasting saga of serial killer H.H. Holmes/architect Daniel H. Burnham during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair The Devil in the White City (there are true crime stories and then there are the ones that give a person nightmares, and for me, this was definitely the latter) and Dead Wake, Larson’s account of the sinking of Lusitania.

While I’ve read a fair amount of WWII history over the years, my history work in that era has largely focused on central to Eastern Europe/Russia, so other than mild familiarity with Churchill’s endless quotability and the basic outlines of Britain’s perseverance through the Blitz, I went in knowing relatively little about the details of this particular battle.

As with his other books, Larson is good at taking a sprawling story and lasering in on a few characters in it to explore the whole.  Churchill himself, of course, is the main focus and a colorful character, but Larson also brings in Churchill’s daughter Mary, son Randolph, daughter-in-law Pamela, wife Clementine, as well as advisers such as Frederick Lindemann, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and Jock Colville.  Larson also throws in some fascinating snippets of ordinary Britons to round out the picture, including the tragic story of the Café de Paris bombing.

One of the stories Larson covers – that I’m a little baffled I had never heard in years of history classes – is that of high-ranking Nazi Rudolph Hess parachuting into Scotland, being arrested by a farmer, and Hess stating that he had a message for the Duke of Hamilton.  It’s a thoroughly bizarre tale that historians can’t quite explain, but Larson’s recounting of it is fascinating and vivid.  The careful look at Churchill’s advisors also really distinguish this book, as many of them are quite noteworthy in their own rights and incredibly key to many of Churchill’s accomplishments.  Larson fleshes out their personalities and quirks – for example, Lindemann was a teetotaler, vegetarian, and an ascetic – making them less grim historical personages and more human.  Larson’s a gifted storyteller, taking all the strands and weaving them into a very readable narrative.

It’s either a fantastic or awful book to read in the current moment, because there are times the situation feels eerily familiar with everything that’s going on today.  A passage about the bombings during the Blitz resonated deeply with me: “The raids generated a paradox: The odds that any one person would die on any one night were slim, but the odds that someone, somewhere in London would die were 100 percent.  Safety was a product of luck alone.”

I found it a good read overall.  Larson doesn’t sugarcoat the very real death tolls, destruction, or the ongoing concern that Britain was going to be invaded by Germany throughout.  Churchill’s anxiety and that of his advisors is palpable at times.  At the same time, Larson manages to also highlight the resilience that helped Britain persevere through the bombings.

Step, Step

We take everything one day at a time these days.  I’ve heard that as advice a lot over the years (and mostly ignored it), but now it’s all but impossible to do anything else.  It’s strange to see our normally bustling calendar stripped bare of notations, just the date in each square. We’ve been listening to the Frozen 2 soundtrack in our house and one of the songs, titled “The Next Right Thing” has a resonance it’s impossible to miss right now:

Take a step, step again

It is all that I can do

The next right thing.

In a moment I’ve been dreading since the news broke about the Life Care home in Seattle back in February and I more fully began to understand what we were dealing with, my grandfather passed away last week, Covid-19 the most likely cause of death.  The staff at his nursing home took great care of him and for him and I am grateful for them and their good work.  We grieve our private loss, but I know we are also grieving in a community that extends from Italy to Spain to China, across the United States, around the entire world as the virus grimly marches forward.  Friends have lost family members or had relatives seriously ill.  Others are laid off or furloughed and worried.  Still others are parted from living loved ones that they desperately miss.  So many unique losses for so many people, so much collective sadness.  I haven’t decorated the plain wreath I hung on our door at the start of Lent or put up flowers to replace the bare branches in my vases.  No matter what the church calendar may say, the light has not burst forth yet in this season.

And with the dawn, what comes then?

When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again…

Yesterday morning, when Arthur got ready to leave for work, the car refused to start.  This was not a total surprise as we knew the battery’s getting old and we’re trying not to do too much with it since we know we’re going to most likely be buying a new vehicle in the fall.  With no time to try to jump it right then, we hustled everyone into the other car and I drove Arthur to work.

It was the most novel, lovely thing, just going out and driving an essential 30-minute round-trip.

The route to Arthur’s work is fairly scenic, which helps.  There was a heron wading in the marsh and the sun shining across the waters.  After weeks of not leaving the house for days at a time other than work and picking up groceries every once in a while, though, it was such a strange, pleasant feeling to drive further than my extremely short commute.

It’s funny how these little events that I barely would have noticed in The Time Before are taking on such significance now.  Sitting on the porch swing as the weather gets nicer has become a welcome break from indoors.  Having a conversation with a neighbor across the yard and safely socially-distant is wonderful.  We watch the birds at our feeders, mostly goldfinches now.  There are also some events that never would have happened in The Time Before: we got to watch our local Air Force wing take the fighter planes for a flyover to salute the hospitals and all the healthcare workers.

We are – like so many others – okay and also not okay.

We stay home.  Go to essential jobs.  So far, all healthy.  Wait.

But break it down to this next breath

This next step

This next choice is one that I can make…

The next right thing.

 

Raspberries and Chocolate

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One of my great pleasures in life is good food.  I’m a decent cook and I like baking, but I also really enjoy going out to eat.  There are simply some recipes too fiddly (even if I know the technique) and ingredients/equipment too expensive to buy for home.  Unless I’m entertaining or have a special occasion, I’d rather pay for the occasional dessert out than buy a spice I’ll only use once in a while, an ingredient that will mostly go to waste after I use the small quantity required in the recipe, or spend hours on a single creation.  Not being able to dash over to the fancy grocery store down the street and grab a mille-feuille or fresh fruit tart from the bakery every now and again is one of the smallest, extremely first-world problem things I miss right now.

I do, however, make a very low-fuss but excellent chocolate mousse involving a basic simple syrup, high quality melted chocolate, and whipping cream.  It’s something I tend to keep the ingredients for on hand as it’s a quick, delicious dessert to whip up either when we’re in the mood or I have surprise company (in the time before social distancing).

Taking stock of the freezer the other day, I realized I had some chocolate cupcakes and raspberry coulis I’d made and frozen last month.  This represented some possibilities.  I chopped up the cupcakes, made the mousse, and thawed the raspberry coulis, layering them to make a parfait or trifle sort of dessert.

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It’s not going to win The Great British Baking Show for presentation, but it’s as good as anything I’d have bought in The Time Before.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or submit your own, please head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Truly Amazing

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I keep seeing a lot of graphics and such popping up about doctors’ and nurses’ service right now, which is lovely.  I’m happy to see more and more acknowledgement of hospital/nursing home housekeepers and laundry as well as cafeteria/food service, incredibly important and often very unseen groups of workers.  They work beyond hard and a huge amount of infection control in facilities comes down to what they do on a daily basis.

One group of workers I’ve seen overlooked at times recently is the respiratory therapists (RTs).

I’ve been incredibly privileged to work with the most amazing RTs over the years, both from a professional standpoint and from a personal one.  They’re the ones adjusting ventilator settings, checking endotracheal tubes, monitoring oxygen settings, checking tracheostomies, setting up hi-flow systems, and doing breathing treatments – plus about a million other things.  They were the ones in NICU who were adjusting c-pap, checking and adjusting E’s hi-flow settings, finding flow meters that could give the tiniest liter flows as we weaned her off, and generally checking her ability to oxygenate properly.

In short, they are awesome.  Absolutely necessary and totally key in the fight against a virus that is hugely a respiratory issue.  Really, there are not enough thanks for everything they do.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or participate yourself, head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.