Monday, June 27, 2011

The best part of any trip is coming home

The last leg in any trip is the dirt road home

June 27, 2011

Home.  What a wonderful word.  Only four letters but they encompass so much. 

I was away from my own home last weekend to spend time with my very pregnant daughter and her sweet husband in Northampton, Mass.  Jenny and Brett will soon be first-time parents to not one but two babies.  Before the twins are born, I was eager to spend time with the child I birthed 30 years ago. 

Northampton, Mass. is a vibrant college town nestled in a fertile valley where lush gardens and tall trees surround pretty wood-frame houses.  Jenny and Brett live on the bottom floor of an older two-family building.  It is a lovely place in an exciting area. 

Our visit was the perfect balance of at-home and in-town time.  We filled the hours with meandering walks through picturesque neighborhoods and intimate talks in the cozy quarters of Jenny and Brett’s house.  We perused weekend tag sales as well as the offerings at local shops.  In addition to tasty creations cooked up in their kitchen, we lunched at a favorite restaurant and participated in a strawberry shortcake supper to celebrate a nearby town’s 250-year anniversary.  I was able to catch up with mutual friends with enough time left over to pull a few weeds in Jenny and Brett’s garden. 

The trip was a success yet I was elated to return home.

Home.  How happy I was to be back in my own bed with my husband by my side.  My yard.  My garden.  My potted plants in the porch.  My kitchen table.  My favorite food in the fridge.  Patterns and routines of my own creation. 

Going away can be wonderful but coming home is the best.

I’m grateful to be so content.  Some people struggle their entire lives to find a place where they feel so at peace.  On my trip, I renewed contact with one such person, a young traveler friend who has spent years at a time in far off locales exploring different cultures. 

“What do you want to do,” I asked her, “now that you’re back in the States?  Where would you like to be?  Do you want to settle down?”

I found her answer unsettling. 

“I have no plans,” she said.  “I could be anywhere, go anywhere, do anything I want.”

I suppose some people think her situation idyllic but to me the thought of constantly traveling from one place to another is disconcerting.  Where is your home base when you are constantly on the move?  Where are your roots? 

In my mind, the very concept of home involves the putting down of roots.  Home is a respite, a safety net, a place where I can retreat from worries, disappointments and woes.  It isn’t always perfect but it’s always there.  It is shelter, security and asylum when needed. 

As I flew back from New England, I thought about home and pondered its meaning.  I was on a full flight.  Passengers who were either returning from or en route to a home of their own occupied every seat.  Although we come from different backgrounds and live in different places, I suspect each of us share similar yearnings.  At the end of our trip, we all want to arrive safely at our destination.  We want to feel welcome and secure.  We want to be home

I went away for a weekend and I had a great time.  But the best part – the part I treasure most – happened after my drive back from the airport.  It was when I stepped out of the car and into my husband’s waiting arms. 

Each of us defines home differently.  To my young friend, it’s a backpack and the excitement of exploration.  To others it’s four walls surrounding a big hearth.  And sometimes it’s as basic as a loved one’s embrace. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Effective weeding involves getting to the root of the problem

The EZ Digger makes weeding more efficient

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 20, 2011)

I've been pulling weeds. My body is sweaty and smudged with dirt, but my mind is surprisingly clear.

Before working in the garden, mental weeds had infiltrated my thoughts. A muddle of small (and some not-so-small) problems had taken root in the fertile soil of my imagination. Bit by bit, they had multiplied, overshadowing seeds of reason.

Fortunately, a desire for fresh tomatoes broke the cycle.

I got up and went into the garden, brushing past unwanted growth on my way to the tomato plants. After filling my basket, I looked over the situation and made a decision. I set the basket down on the bench, put on my gardening gloves and got busy.

I've always liked weeding. There's a certain satisfaction to be had thwarting the spread of insidious invaders. A few good yanks can dislodge an intruder. A couple of more tugs and a stack of spent greenery has filled the wheelbarrow. Weeding is honest work that produces visible results.

I can't believe how quickly time went by as I unearthed one tenacious sprig after another. My husband was already in the garden. Knowing my mood and seeing me so unexpectedly occupied, Ralph tentatively approached with a question.

"Want to use my weeding tool?" he asked, referring to the EZ Digger, a plow-shaped hand spear he bought from Fedco Co-op Garden Supplies in Maine.

Ralph has been singing the praises of this weeding tool for months. He loves the way the 7-inch-long by 3-inch-wide blade with the tapered point slices through soil to release deep roots.

"You don't want to just pull out the tops," he's always saying. "To do a good job weeding, you have to pull out the roots."

Ever since he first tried the tool, Ralph has encouraged me to use it. Unfortunately, I have always shunned his advice, casting a deaf ear on his repeated pleas. In my mind, weeding is supposed to be hard work best done with brute strength and sweat alone. Any tool that makes it easier seems oddly out of place. However, this time when he asked, I accepted his offer. I picked up the tool and took it in my hand.

The sharp, pointy blade reaches deep in the ground, loosening the soil around stubborn roots. Rather than replacing the "yanks, grunts and tugs," it complements them, making the job more efficient and satisfying.

Ralph and I worked alongside each other compatibly. He listened to music on his headphones while replanting vegetables while I discarded worries and unpleasant thoughts with every pulled weed. I tossed stress and unhappiness on the compost along with piles of pulled plants. By the time we were finished, the garden looked better, and my mood had improved.

It's no surprise that gardening is therapeutic. Tending a flowerbed or a patch of vegetables provides far more benefits than food for the table or blooms for a vase. Gardening is exercise. It's also relaxation. Digging in the dirt — with or without a useful tool — dislodges worries, along with weeds.

But my husband is right: Regardless of how hard you work, weeds will return if you just break off the tops. Whether mental or physical, getting to the root of the matter is essential.

Find the root. Pull it out. Start over fresh.

Sometimes the only way to get out of a funk is to get into the gunk of hands-on gardening.

Monday, June 13, 2011

An outdoor spigot keeps indoor floors clean

A simple spigot outside the entry door can help keep flooring dirt free

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 13, 2011)

We recently had our carpet cleaned for the first time in 20 years. After two decades of constant use, you'd think the rugs would be filthy, but they weren't bad at all. Except for a small area in front of the fridge and stove (yes, our kitchen is carpeted), we had no noticeable stains.

There are three reasons that our wall-to-wall covering stayed in such good shape for so many years:

•Instead of a plush texture, we chose a commercial-grade, tightly woven carpet.
•All spills and dirt are cleaned up immediately.
•We wash off shoes or bare feet before entering the house.

Residential carpeting tends to be thick and plush, chosen more for softness and appearance than function and durability. Commercial floor coverings are the opposite, selected for ease of maintenance, long life and lower cost. Of course, some carpets have all those characteristics, but they are usually pricey.

When we built our house in 1992, our wallets were thin and our needs were many. Instead of buying top-of-the-line residential carpeting, we bought an upgraded pad to put under an inexpensive, tightly woven commercial-grade carpet. The higher-quality pad provided a plush feel to an otherwise hard surface. Also helpful are the flecks in our carpet's predominantly blue color. The subtle shades of other colors help disguise dirt.

Although our carpet choice was somewhat unconventional for home use, it suited the needs of our family. At the time, we were two adults and four young children plus two (supposedly) outdoor pets. Comfort was as important to us as durability, since we have always spent considerable time on the floor sitting, stretching and playing with the kids.

We haven't been disappointed. Our low-end, commercial-grade wall-to-wall looks and feels good. It stood the test of time remarkably well.

With the right carpet, cleanup is easy. A battery-operated vacuum and damp washcloth work wonders to make messes disappear quickly. We seldom use anything stronger than plain water or soap and water to wash away those inevitable spills, "accidents" and tracked-in grit. The key to successful maintenance is on-the-spot spot cleaning. My cleaning mantra is: Immediate attention prevents retention.

An even more effective way to stop sand, garden dirt and assorted outdoor detritus from working its way into the rug is to make a habit of rinsing off shoes or feet before entering the house. In some cultures, removing shoes upon coming inside is a normal part of everyday life. Our family takes a different approach. We hose away potential problems. My clever husband installed foot-level spigots just outside our two main entry doors.

Ralph's foot-washing device was composed of a piece of PVC pipe tapped into a main water line. The pipe runs from the main line along the house to the doorway. At that point, a 90-degree elbow enables the pipe to turn upward for about three feet. Then, with the help of two more elbows and a valve, it crosses the wall before curving back down. This "U-shaped" design permits us to control water flow from a waist-high lever while rinsing our shoes or bare feet on the ground. It's a natural setup, very convenient and easy to use.

As someone who has owned rental homes for 35 years, I've seen my share of badly abused flooring. A careless resident can ruin new carpeting in a matter of months while a careful person can keep carpet looking new for years.

Living in a carpeted home can be pleasant if the floor covering meets the homeowner's needs. For us, comfort was as important as durability, low cost and proper maintenance. Add to the mix a skillful, inventive spouse and you have a combination too noteworthy to sweep under the rug.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A culinary equation

Sweet basil is a flavorful herb that loves hot weather

Simply Living

Basil=pesto, and pesto=yum!

I'm no mathematical genius, but the above equation holds a simple truth.  It's also true that there's finally enough basil in the garden to make pesto.

Basil loves hot weather, and the recent blast of tropical heat encouraged our basil seedlings to sport an abundance of new leaves.

Sweet basil is a fragrant culinary herb in the same family as peppermint. Although this familiar, easy-to-grow plant is supposedly an annual, in Florida it often acts like a perennial, reseeding itself in the garden bed.

Last April, my husband sowed basil seeds in several 15-gallon containers filled with a rich mixture of composted manure, peat and woodchips for aeration. Although the seeds sprouted in a timely fashion, that's about all they did.

"What's the matter with the basil?" I kept asking. "It's not growing much. Do you think I should buy some young plants instead?"

I was impatient. I wanted the basil to get big so that I could start snipping off leaves to make pesto. Pesto is a flavorful paste composed of basil leaves, chopped nuts, garlic and olive oil that Ralph and I use liberally in many of our meals. It seemed like the young plants, which had sprouted a couple sets of small leaves, were going to remain that size forever.

"Be patient," my husband insisted. "I planted plenty of basil. You'll have more than you know what to do with pretty soon."

I was doubtful then, but I believe him now.

Toward the end of May, when daytime temperatures climbed into the 90s, our container garden suddenly overflowed with basil-gone-wild. Overnight, scrawny seedlings filled out, turning into plump bundles of pungent goodness. Within weeks, I went from fretting over the lack of aromatic herbs to wondering if I could keep up with the supply.

Basil is native to India, where it remains woven into the fiber of everyday life. Worldwide, there are more than 160 named cultivars of this heat-loving plant. Some have variegated or curly leaves that, when crushed, emit the aroma of cloves, cinnamon, lemon or camphor. The leaves also vary widely in color, from purple to red, blue and various shades of green.

Basil has anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Herbalists have long tapped the plant's value as a tea, tincture, infusion or essential oil. However, its most common use is culinary, with pesto topping popularity charts.

My pesto recipe calls for about two dozen broad basil leaves, rinsed, shaken dry and chopped to a fine paste. After placing the well-chopped leaves in a bowl or jar, I mince about half a cup of walnuts and add them to the mix. Over the top, I pour enough extra-virgin olive oil to cover the combination. Before stirring it all together, I add a couple of freshly pressed garlic cloves and a few shakes of a no-salt kelp seasoning powder.

Traditional pesto recipes call for pine or pignoli nuts. I like pignolis and occasionally use them for pesto making, but pine nuts are pricey. Walnuts work just as well, are less expensive, chop easily and provide a pleasing flavor and texture.

Another traditional ingredient is hard cheese. I prefer pesto with Romano or Parmesan, but my salt-conscious husband does not. We compromise by adding grated cheese at the table, as individually desired.

As much as I enjoy picking and inhaling the fragrant scent of basil, my favorite part of the pesto-making process is chopping the leaves and walnuts. In the past, I used a blender or food processor. Both appliances produce a consistently fine and smooth paste but are noisy and annoying to clean. Since I frequently make small portions of pesto, I need the experience to be fun.

That's why I chop the nuts and basil by hand.

I find the rhythmic sound of a smooth-bladed knife on a wood chopping block soothing in an I'm-forced-to-slow-down-and-enjoy-the-moment sort of way. It always amazes me how quickly the consistency of large basil leaves and whole walnuts changes after a few minutes of persistent blade action.

My basil concoction adds the flavor of summer to a meal of whole grain noodles, a stir-fry, mixed vegetable dish, homemade pizza or even a sandwich spread. For two people, one making usually lasts about a week, but soon I'll be preparing for winter.

The slightest hint of cold causes basil leaves to wilt, so until Ralph and I master the art of indoor herb growing, we'll need to keep the freezer stocked with frozen pesto. You needn't be a math whiz to see the logic in that.