Monthly Archives: August 2013

Garden Mysteries

When we planned for this year’s garden, we decided to try heirloom seeds instead of just perusing the rack of seeds at our local garden center.  I ordered a catalog and we spent an afternoon flipping through the pages, marking off the varieties that sounded interesting.  We ordered a few types of peppers, butternut squash, lemon basil, and two types of tomatoes:  Amish Paste and San Marzano Lungo No. 2.  The rest of the garden was filled out with seeds we already had:  zucchini, sweet basil, chives and thyme.

I’ve mentioned before that the garden is Dave’s domain.  He just gets plants; he talks to them and knows what they need (or don’t need).  He’s confident in his abilities – watering, transplanting, starting them from seed.  He understands soil and how to deal with pests.  I like to cook with the results of the garden, but I have no instincts where gardening is concerned.  I would need to sit down with a book and keep consulting it as I went along, checking on the internet and taking way too long to do things that Dave would accomplish in a matter of minutes.

I asked Dave to show me how he starts his seeds, figuring that gardening is a good skill to have.  He patiently showed me all the steps and I tried to remember it all (and not get too bored).  Towards the end he just did what he needed to do and I wasn’t involved; it’s just easier to get in there and do it instead of slowing down and explaining every step to your wife as she tries to stifle a yawn.

Under Dave’s attentive care, the plants thrived.  I always have little faith in the early stages of the garden, when our neighbors have planted their huge store-bought plants and our started-from-seed guys look so minute in comparison.  There’s a bunch of little bitty plants surrounded and divided by a huge expanse of dirt, and it just looks kind of pitiful.  I always think, “Oh, there’s no way these plants will ever catch up.  I better plan on buying tomatoes and zucchini at the store this year.”

Of course, a month later I’m amazed at how much our tiny plants have grown, and by now, late August, I can’t even remember when they were little babies shivering in their huge dirt playground.  Instead I’m thinking, Huh…how long do zucchini plants produce, anyway?  Is there any chance it’s almost over?

Our heirloom pepper plants have done better than any store-bought pepper plants we’ve ever bought; the one bell pepper we got at the store this year started out way bigger than our seedlings and now it looks like a dwarf plant.  I was starting to give up on it but Dave just told me it’s got a couple of small peppers growing (finally).  Usually we don’t have great luck with peppers, but this year we have a nice variety that are producing like crazy:  Anaheim, Albino Bullnose, Friariello Di Napoli (Italian frying peppers)…and the lone bell pepper plant.  We also planted a variety called Grandpa’s Home but none of those survived the transplanting.

We bought just two types of heirloom tomato seeds:  Amish Paste and San Marzano Lungo.  Mainly we wanted lots of tomatoes for making gravy and for canning; my stomach can only handle fresh (uncooked) tomatoes in small doses, and we just never make salads or put tomatoes on sandwiches.  In the confusion of seed-starting, going from little cups to bigger vessels and then out to the garden, we lost track of which tomato plant was which.  Both varieties kind of look the same, like Roma/plum tomatoes, with the Amish Paste being more uniform in shape.  We figured once the plants started producing it would be easy to tell which was which.

Except most of the plants produced tomatoes that look absolutely nothing like Amish Paste or San Marzano.  Some of them are round; some have deep ridges and look almost like pumpkins.  As the green tomatoes started popping up on the plants, we walked the whole garden and found only two that look like Amish Paste and one that looks like San Marzano.  Out of twelve tomato plants!  Dave guesses that we have two unknown varieties out there, in addition to the two we purchased.

The catalog has pages of tomato offerings, many without pictures.  The website does have pictures (or drawings, in some cases) so we scrolled through those, trying to guess what we might be growing.  It’s hard to tell when the fruit is still green, since this company offers seeds for tomatoes in a variety of colors:  pink, red, green, striped, orange, purple, white and yellow.  They are just starting to ripen and so far they’ve all been red…and delicious!  We’re actually really excited to have such an unexpected variety of heirloom tomatoes to sample.  And who doesn’t like a little mystery in their garden, amirite?!

Now the zucchini is another matter.  We’ll walk the garden, harvest four or five zucchini and spy maybe one or two teeny-tiny zukes that aren’t ready to be picked.  The day after next, Dave will go back out and come back with six zucchini, two of which are massive caveman clubs.  Where did they come from?!  I have a theory that our neighbors are sneaking into the garden and placing their own zucchini overflow amongst the huge leaves of our plants.  What other explanation is there?!

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A Small Update

Nearly every day, at some point, Dave will turn to me and say, “I really wish I hadn’t done the Hep C treatment.”  It has nothing to do with what he put up with during the treatment, the side effects and such.  It has nothing to do with the fact that he went through all of that for months, ended up being pulled off the treatment, and still has the Hepatitis C virus.  What he means is that he feels it messed with his immune system in a way that nobody predicted, and the aftereffects are lasting longer than he ever imagined.

Back when they first talked about him doing the Hep C treatment, I was very nervous about it because Interferon directly affects the immune system.  All of his doctors were in communication, though, and felt that he should have no trouble with it even though he’d had a bone marrow transplant in the past.  We did try to search for stories of people who’d had bone marrow transplants and later went through treatment for Hepatitis C, and there just wasn’t anything out there.  (That’s part of the reason I’m writing about it here.)  In fact, after Dave was off treatment for a couple weeks he did a Google search on that very subject, clicked a link that looked like it was a perfect match to what he wanted to know, started reading and then started to laugh.  He’d clicked on one of my blog entries!

Basically, because his bone marrow transplant was so long ago (20 years ago, in fact, on August 13, 1993) the consensus was that he shouldn’t have issues like graft-versus-host disease (GVH or GVHD).  Nowadays, people who get the same kind of leukemia Dave had, chronic myeloid leukemia or CML, aren’t generally treated with a bone marrow transplant; there’s a pill they can take instead.  So treatment has come a long way.  However, so many people just didn’t make it through the treatment back in the early 90s; Dave is a bit of a rarity.  That also means that he doesn’t have a large pool of people to draw information from, other patients who’ve gone through the same treatment he did and have survived as long as he did.  He’s kind of a lone wolf.

When we first met, it wasn’t even five years past his transplant, and he still dealt with GVH fairly often.  As the years have gone by, it pops up less and less.  Basically, his body will get symptoms that mimic some other type of disease or condition, but not quite.  The doctors will test to make sure, and that can tell them whether he actually has the condition he has symptoms of.  That’s when he knows it’s GVH rearing its ugly head.  For instance, at one point he had all the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, but he didn’t have rheumatoid arthritis.  Eventually the symptoms go away or he finds a way to deal with them (cayenne pepper capsules worked, in that case).  In the early days, he would take steroids to deal with the GVH.

As I said, his doctors all dismiss him if he feels he has GVH; they say that the transplant was so long ago, he wouldn’t be dealing with that any more.  But we’ve found studies that show there definitely is chronic, long-term GVH in bone marrow transplant patients, and it affects their quality of life.  And Dave definitely feels that the Hepatitis C treatment, especially the interferon, set off a host (no pun intended) of GVH issues in his body.

His skin is affected – he has itching, random rashes, and a nasty-looking spot on his back that he’s having checked by dermatology in a month.  He has neuropathy in his legs, with random twinges and tingling.  He has mood swings, issues with anger; he can just generally tell that his mood/emotional health isn’t right.  I can’t tell you how many times he’s turned to me and apologized after an especially moody day, with a frustrated, “They really messed me up!”

So that’s where he’s at right now.  He’s trying some homeopathic things for his skin (including a fantastic-smelling basil wash) and mood (Rhodiola seems to help).  He’ll mention the skin issues at his dermatology appointment, and we’ll see if they dismiss him or not.  I think he’s also planning to talk to his GP in October about what he’s been dealing with.  I would say that he probably won’t do another Hep C treatment unless it doesn’t involve Interferon, and they can guarantee it won’t mess with his immune system like this.

In other news, Paige has come back to roost so my nest is no longer empty!  University life really, really didn’t agree with her; she spent the summer at her dad’s, reasoning that it would be easier to find a job out there, and she did get her very first job in July (at McDonald’s).  However, she and her dad have always had a fragile, unsteady relationship and things went south for her out there.  She moved back here the day after her birthday, and is looking (and looking and looking) for a job, since she had to quit McDonald’s – it was located in her dad’s town, over an hour north of here.

Her goal is to save money and eventually get her own place, and then do community college – I think that’s wise and much less expensive in the long run!  If anyone has employment suggestions for a teen with not much job experience, we’d love to hear them.  Ideally we’d like to get her into something like an office job, hopefully full time, which I imagine would be better as far as pay and hours compared to retail or the food industry.

So our house is bustling again, and I like it that way.  Yes, we have our challenges, but life would be boring without them!

Back to the Future

Dave, Paige and I were all just hanging out, reading and job hunting and watching football, when I remembered something.  I rummaged around in one of my hanging files until I found a sealed envelope bearing the inscription, “To future me from 16 year old me.”

“Hey,” I told Paige, “I couldn’t remember what year it was for, but I remembered that you gave me a couple of envelopes a few years ago for when you were older.  I thought one might have been for 18, but it’s for age 21.  And then there’s this.”  I handed her the envelope.  “Do you want to open it now or save it?”

She turned the envelope over in her hands with a puzzled look on her face.  “You don’t remember writing this, do you?” I asked with a grin.  She shook her head with a little chuckle.

We are alike in so many weird little ways.  When I was in elementary school, I wrote myself a note that I planned to open when I was an adult.  It was so hard for me to imagine what the future would be like, what I would be like, and I was sure that my future self would forget what it was like to be the age I was then.  I’ve always lived a little too much in my head, and I imagine I thought I was the only kid to ever think of doing this.

I opened my note to my future self when I was in high school and I was cleaning out my dresser drawers, unearthing the note I’d written years earlier.  Like Paige, I couldn’t remember what I’d written.  I sat down to read, but all I remember from that letter was this:  “Do you still like me?”  I suppose I thought my future self would look back on my childhood self and wish I hadn’t been the kid I was…who knows?  It was so plaintive and, well, kind of desperate-sounding that I was embarrassed for myself; I tore up the letter and threw it away.

This future self wishes she could gently cuff her teenage self on the head and say, “Hey, get over yourself.  Save these things; they aren’t embarrassing!”  (There are a lot of things I destroyed as a teenager, poetry and stories and tapes of myself singing and talking when I was a kid, and I would give anything to still have them now.)

Paige slid her finger under the edge of the envelope and eased it open.  Inside was a folded Post-It note.  She unfolded it and stared at the words on the paper, then started giggling.  “Why?” she laughed.  “Why did I even write this?!”  She passed the paper to me.

“Read your child the book Go the Fuck to Sleep.”

We laughed together as we pondered the reasons her 16 year old self felt this was an important missive for her future self.  Who knows?!  All I know is, my daughter has better sense than I did at her age.  She put the envelope in a box along with all her other mementos, something to laugh and marvel at again in the future, after she’s once again forgotten she wrote it.

Zucchini – All Day, Every Day

Earlier this year, I nervously watched as Dave planted three (yes, THREE) zucchini plants in the garden.  “Are you sure you want to plant three?” I fretted.  “I mean, I could barely keep up with one zucchini plant last year.”

“Oh, this is nothing…it’ll be fine.”  He grinned as he patted the dirt around the last plant, then stood up and confidently clapped his hands clean.

Fast forward to August, NOW, and let’s just say the zucchini plants are very happy.  They are large and productive and gleefully giving up zucchini left and right.

Luckily, I like zucchini.  It’s one of those veggies that’s very easy to add to just about anything; it doesn’t have a strong flavor that overwhelms everything else, and it’s pretty forgiving.  There’s just so MUCH of it, man.

When I finish this post, I’m going to make some banana-zucchini bread (with a streusel topping, because yum).  Yesterday I made a pot of chicken and noodles, and tossed a nice-sized zucchini in with the carrots, celery and onion.  It was awesome.  So far this week we’ve had zucchini brownies, grilled zucchini and corn (tossed with olive oil and spices – delicious), shredded zucchini added to the spaghetti gravy (you’d never even know it’s there), and the pièce de résistance:  an apple pie, made with zucchini and no apples.

I’d seen this recipe before, and everyone who tried it insisted you couldn’t tell it wasn’t apple inside.  Still, though, I didn’t want to waste time making pie crust just to have a sweet zucchini pie, ya know?  But the pile of zucchini on my counter called to me, and I had a pie crust already made and hanging out in the freezer, and I thought, Okay, we’re gonna do this.

The recipe was basically exactly like my regular apple pie recipe – scarily so – except for one change, which was the addition of 1-1/2 teaspoons of cream of tartar.  Dave and I puzzled over the role it played in the zucchini/apple magic, and couldn’t really figure it out.  In the end we decided it must have served to thicken the liquid a bit.  When we added all the ingredients to the peeled and sliced zucchini, it did get very watery.  The recipe instructions mentioned this and said it would be fine, so I decided not to worry.  And it was!  It was fine!  More than fine, really – even the next day, the filling was thick and delicious, and it tastes JUST like apple.  I mean, it’s really weird.  And I know it’s zucchini, so I keep expecting it to taste like zucchini, and it just does not.

Dave claims he can tell it’s not apple because of the texture (to me, the texture is just like apple…but he’s more of an apple connoisseur than I am).  However, he didn’t think it tasted like zucchini, or that he would know it was zucchini if I hadn’t told him; he just would have asked me what kind of apple I used.  (!!)

Here’s the pie (with a crumble topping, since I didn’t feel like making a second crust):

Crappy cellphone pic of apple...er...zucchini pie

Crappy cellphone pic of apple…er…zucchini pie

We’ve actually been keeping up with the zucchini really well; three plants’ worth, for heaven’s sake.  (Not that I want three plants next year.  Are you paying attention, dear husband of mine?!)  I like them smaller, so we try to catch them before they turn into caveman clubs.  (It doesn’t always work, but we try!)

I’m also trying not to freeze any, not just yet.  It’s fine if you use frozen zucchini within a couple months, but any longer and it starts to taste weird.  Since I have so much zucchini coming in, if I freeze it now then I won’t need to use the frozen stuff until November or so.  I’d rather wait for the end of harvest and then put up a few bags of sliced and shredded zucchini for the winter months.  That way they won’t be so ‘old’ by the time I get to them.

We discovered that we really like grilled zucchini (all this time and I never tried that), and I have yet to make a big pot of pasta primavera, which is a terrific way to use zucchini.  I also have a really yummy creamy zucchini soup recipe that I haven’t broken out yet this season, because it’s been too hot.  All in good time.

I have a potato zucchini frittata recipe I want to try, and zucchini bread to make (my regular recipe, loaded with zucchini, carrots and pineapple, which is more like a cake and has a delicious cream cheese frosting).  I haven’t yet made stuffed zucchini, which is great – I stuff it with onions, mushrooms, bacon and cheese (and, of course, the chopped zucchini that’s been scooped out).  Not to mention bruschetta with roasted tomatoes and zucchini (gotta wait for the tomatoes to ripen before I can make that).  Geez, I really need more zucchini if I’m going to make everything I want to.

Who would believe that, in my previous picky-eater life, I never, ever used to eat zucchini?!

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Testing Recipes

I’ve mentioned before that we test recipes for Cook’s Illustrated.  It’s not as glamorous as it sounds – totally voluntary, no payment or glory or anything.  I just thought it sounded like fun; it would give me a chance to maybe learn some new cooking techniques and try some new ingredients, since I’m trying to reform my picky-eating ways.

It was fairly easy to join; I just watched their Twitter feed until they announced they were looking for new recipe testers, and I applied via the link they provided.  Within a couple days they were welcoming me to the team.

Every now and then, they send me an email with a recipe to test.  There’s a link to a survey that you fill out after you test the recipe, as well as a link to the recipe itself.  They ask that you not share the recipe when it’s in the testing phase, although once it’s been published you can share as long as you give them credit.  They ask you not to test the recipe if it’s something you normally wouldn’t like (and I avoid anything with fish, since Dave is allergic to it).  They give you a deadline, usually 2 or 3 weeks away, and ask that you test the recipe and fill out the survey before that date.

So that’s how it works.  Pretty simple!  So far I’ve probably tested 2/3 of the recipes they send me.  I learned the hard way to take a pass on recipes that are loaded with unusual ingredients.  At first I was drawn to them, since one of my goals is to broaden my culinary horizons.  After a couple recipes that cost me around $20 in ingredients that are now languishing in my pantry, I’m now more discerning in the recipes I test.

Sometimes the ingredients are new-to-me but not expensive and/or hard to find, like the bean dip that used pink beans.  I’d never heard of them, but there they were, cheap and easy to find, right there with the canned pinto and navy beans.  (The recipe also called for frozen lima beans, which I HATE; they were great in the dip (mashed up, thankfully) but the rest of the bag hung out in the freezer until The Great Derecho/Almost-Four-Day Power Outage/Heatwave of 2012, when we lost everything in our fridge and freezer.  I was not sad to see them go.)

Usually what happens is the recipe will call for a miniscule amount of a really expensive ingredient that you can only get in a big size.  Or a miniscule amount of an ingredient that I can’t figure out what to use in anything else.  Perfect example:  I have a bag of cracked wheat, sitting in my pantry for over a year, from a really horrible vegetarian chili that we tested.  The chili was so bad that I’m scared to even look up ways to use cracked wheat in other recipes.

Sometimes I just can’t find the ingredient they’re calling for.  Off the top of my head, I can remember this happening with a specific type of vinegar and also French green lentils.  We shop at an international produce/grocery store that has just about everything, but I could not find either of those things.  I’m not willing to drive 40 minutes to Whole Foods, so I crossed those recipes off my list.

Normally I would just substitute that ingredient for something similar that I could get my hands on.  When I’m testing a recipe, though, I follow it religiously:  no ingredient substitutions; I time all the steps to see if they match what the recipe says; and I make sure the pans and skillets and such are all the same size and type called for in the recipe.  (Case in point:  I just got a cheese soufflé recipe to test that I had to pass on because we don’t have a soufflé pan.  Plus, the cheeses were Parmesan and Gruyere, and I absolutely detest both of them.)

Usually we like the recipes we test, and we’ve kept quite a few.  I tested an amazing filled peanut butter cookie and delicious Italian Florentine cookie, the aforementioned bean dip, pan roasted potatoes, berry trifle, steak and, oh, the cauliflower soup with little vinegar-soaked roasted cauliflower pieces as a garnish.  I really went out on a limb with that one, because although I’m fine with vinegar as an ingredient, I don’t eat it ‘raw’ (as in a salad dressing, for example).  The smell just gags me, and I can’t get past it.  But I really wanted to do the whole recipe, including the garnish, so I started out with just two little florets floating on top of my soup.  The vinegar smell was overpowering and I was afraid it would make me hate the soup, so I ate the florets first to get them out of the way.  And I loved them!  (And went back for more).  I couldn’t believe it.  Why does vinegar have to smell so bad?!  I would probably eat it more if it smelled better.

We tested a few recipes that were good but just such a hassle that we would never make them again.  One of those was for turkey burgers, which required us to buy a turkey leg and cut it into pieces and then put them in the food processor with butter to make the ‘ground turkey.’  The butter completely coated the food processor, it took Dave 30-45 minutes to cut up the damn turkey leg, and the other ingredients I had to mix in just didn’t want to mix – the butter repelled them.  We finally got the burgers made and they were delicious, but I had to report that I’d never make it again (and why).

By the way, when that recipe finally got published, it was nothing like the recipe I tested.  I noticed right away that the butter was gone (I can’t remember what they ended up using in the final recipe, maybe gelatin).  I don’t always see the final, published version of the recipes I test, but all of the ones I’ve seen have been changed in some way from the version that I had.  Even the ones that I gave rave reviews – which makes me wonder if other people complained about things that I thought were perfectly yummy.

Now, some of these recipes are duds.  It happens rarely, but for some reason, the vegetarian recipes I’ve tested have not been good.  It seems like they really want to make it seem NOT vegetarian (the cracked wheat was supposed to simulate the mouthfeel of ground beef, for instance) and it ends up being too convoluted.  After we worked all afternoon on the vegetarian chili recipe (and had a huge vat of it to show for our efforts), Dave took one taste, made a face and spit in the garbage.  I tasted it and thought it was pretty icky but not necessarily inedible.  Dave, however, was grievously offended…and he’s not even the picky eater in the family!  He’s like Mikey…he’ll eat anything.  We decided to toss it; there was no way it was all going to be eaten.

And then a couple nights ago, I tested a vegetarian bean enchilada recipe.  We have a couple of bean burrito recipes that we really like, so I thought it sounded promising.  I showed the recipe to Dave, and he immediately agreed that we should test it; he especially liked the ‘mole-type sauce’ that we were going to make to go with it, since he’s never had mole sauce.  (Neither have I.)

I should have known, just by reading the ingredients and the recipe steps, that I wasn’t going to like it.  There were some unusual ingredients that we don’t normally keep on hand (pumpkin seeds, guajillo chiles, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce) but that didn’t deter me because I can think of lots of other things I would use those (leftover) ingredients in.  Mainly the enchilada consisted of the sauce (pureed smooth in a blender) and a can of pinto beans.  There was nothing else inside – no fresh veggies, no cheese (other than what was blended into the sauce).  As we cooked the beans and sauce together, most of the beans smushed and it was just a brown puree-type filling with no other texture.  Because of the bittersweet chocolate in the sauce, it was an unappealing dark brown color and it truly looked like we were smearing the contents of a baby diaper on the corn tortillas.  But we kept on, following the recipe exactly, baking the enchiladas in a bath of the nasty brown sauce.  We pulled them out and topped them with a chopped scallion from our garden (finally, a fresh vegetable, and some COLOR!) and some crumbled queso fresco, which was a new cheese for both of us.  (We loved it, thankfully – this was one good outcome from the recipe, since we now have a new cheese to enjoy.)

We sat down to eat, and I wasn’t optimistic but I tried to hide it.  I jokingly said, “Hopefully they’ll taste better than they look!”  I took a bite, chewed, and contemplated the flavor:  muddy and murky were the two words that came to mind.  There was no texture (beyond a slight crunch from the ends of the corn tortilla, although most of it was soggy from the sauce on top and bottom).  The flavor was bitter and just flat-out horrible.  I looked at Dave and said, “You try it.  If you like them, I’ll finish mine.  But otherwise I’m going to recommend that we order a pizza for dinner.”

Dave took a bite and started chewing.  And chewing.  And chewing.  After he finally swallowed that bite with a big gulp, he said, “Um, yeah…let’s order a pizza.  These are terrible.”

It was a wasted hour in the kitchen, meticulously testing each step of this recipe, but that’s what we signed up for so we were just bemused.  I gave this recipe the worst review I’ve ever bestowed, and recommended that they ditch the sauce altogether and just use fresh vegetables with the beans.  (Of course, that makes it a burrito and not an enchilada, but whew, the sauce was bad!)  I’m kind of hoping I get to see the final recipe when it’s published; I’d love to see if there are big changes.  I have to wonder if I’m the only one who had such a bad result.

Now I’m eyeing the zucchini lining my counter, thanks to our bountiful garden.  Hopefully they’ll be sending some tester zucchini recipes my way soon…

Feel the Noise

Dave walked from window to window, peering out in a futile attempt to find the source of the noise.  “Where is it coming from?” he puzzled, craning his neck out the deck door.  I could hear it too – voices, loud talking, laughter, and frequent, ear-piercing high-pitched shrieks and screams.  Mostly shrieks and screams, to be honest.  It was driving us crazy.

Earlier in the evening, we drowned out the cacophony with a super-loud episode of Orange is the New Black.  (So different from the book, but still awesome.)  But we were done with TV for the night, downshifting into Just Before Bed mode in front of our computers.  And our computers are situated in our dining room, next to an open window right by all the screaming.

Dave hissed, “I can’t see anything.  They aren’t in the backyard, or up on their deck; I even went downstairs and looked through that window to check.”  I listened for a moment, then said, “That’s definitely the little kids next door.  I would recognize their screams anywhere.”

All summer long, we’ve been listening to these kids (probably about 5 and 8 years old, give or take a year) scream and shriek.  They don’t seem to be capable of being outside without screaming all the time, right by our windows.  (If not in the backyard next to our dining room window, then on the sidewalk in front of our house, so we can hear them screaming while we watch TV.)  We never say anything, of course.  Kids will be kids, and these aren’t bad kids…just the noisiest kids we’ve ever heard.

During the day it’s aggravating but not a big deal; I’ve kind of gotten used to the constant shrieking, kind of like hearing a dog bark all day long.  But last night was an anomaly; it was fairly late for little kids, almost 10:30 at this point.  It really sounded like the whole family was having a big, rollicking party in the back yard.  Hence Dave’s amazement that nobody seemed to be out there, at least that he could see.  There weren’t even a bunch of cars in the driveway to indicate extra people at the house.  All he saw was the lights shining brightly from the interior.

We finished up our computering (Candy Crush Saga Level 160, whoo!!) and headed off to our bedroom, on the other end of the house.  By this point, one of my CI batteries had died so I was down to one ear, and I could still hear the shrieks and piercing screams perfectly in our bedroom.  It sounded like they were on OUR deck, or just under our bedroom window.  I checked the rest of the neighboring yards, in case someone else seemed to be having a party, and all the yards were dark.  (Apparently we aren’t the only non-partiers in our neighborhood, heading to bed by 10:45 on a Saturday night.)

I felt bad for Dave, who still has some hearing when he takes off his hearing aid.  Isn’t that a weird thing to say?  Usually I’m bemoaning all that I don’t hear without my CIs (um, that would be everything) and here I am, feeling sorry for Dave because he still has some natural hearing.  All I had to do, though, was slip that other CI off my ear and BOOM…total silence.  It was like someone slapped duct tape over every mouth next door.  (What?  No, I haven’t fantasized about doing that…who, me?!)

After Dave took off his hearing aid, I asked if he could still hear them.  I knew how loud it still was, even on the other end of the house and hearing out of just one ear, so I figured he could.  He claimed it was fine and not bad once he had his hearing aid out.  And I gave thanks that I have this unique ability to go from silence to sound at my choosing.  It’s one of the few benefits of being deaf and having cochlear implants.

This morning, Dave looked bleary-eyed and said he didn’t want to take our usual early AM walk.  “I think I twisted my back somehow, when I was sleeping.  Who knew sleeping could be so dangerous?!  And man, I gotta tell you, those kids were screaming for hours last night.”  He yawned and continued, “But I swear, they weren’t outside.  I think they were actually in their house, in the lower level with the patio door open.  I looked and looked, and never saw anybody outside.”

So it was a mystery, our late-night shriekfest.  Dave is hopeful that, since school is starting later this month, the evening parties (or whatever it was) will die down.  I figure that if they keep it up, one of the other neighbors will call the cops on them.  (It won’t be us, especially since I can turn off the noise if it gets too bad, but the neighbor on the other side of us isn’t so generous.)

Summer is filled with loud noises, especially since we have our windows open.  If it isn’t screaming kids, then it’s lawn equipment, motorcycles, train whistles – you name it.  I’m glad that I’m not forced to listen to this noise pollution if I don’t want to.

After we finished breakfast today, I heard someone start up a loud, whining piece of equipment outside.  It sounded like a leaf/grass blower; I especially hate those.  I smiled at Dave and said, “Looks like this is a good time to take my shower.”  And I slipped off my CIs and went happily into the silence.

Our Common Thread

As we walked through the neighborhood this morning, I saw a large birdcage on the front porch of a house.  I stopped and stared, trying to figure out if it was empty.  After a few seconds, the colorful parakeets hopping around inside registered with me, and I tugged on Dave’s sleeve.  “Look!  There are birds in there.  They’re the same color as my mom’s pants!”

Bright blue and cheerful yellow, the parakeets cheeped as we continued down the sidewalk.  They really were a close match to the pants (and one shirt) my mom had dropped off for me to hem yesterday, and thinking about it made me smile.

I spent some time this morning going through my thread stash to find colors to match the bright, tropical shades.  I had some golden yellow thread that matched one pair of pants perfectly, but I needed bright orange for the shirt sleeves I was shortening, and bright blue for the second pair of pants to be hemmed.  I pulled out the old Tupperware box I inherited from my maternal grandmother when she passed away.  I was the only one in the family that sewed, so I got her thread, buttons and, best of all, her fabric scraps and unfinished quilts she was working on.

My grandma had lots of colorful thread, and I had no trouble finding spools of blue and orange that were a perfect match.  I sat down to sew and realized that we had come full circle, my mom and I.  When I was a kid, she had to hem almost everything I wore.  If it didn’t need to be hemmed, then the waist needed to be taken in.  And now here I was, hemming her pants.  (Not because she can’t do it herself, but because I’m the one with a sewing machine, so it takes half the time.)

I sat there in front of my Pfaff, which was the first big thing I purchased on eBay back in 1999, sewing and thinking.  Oddly enough, the one thing every member of my immediate family does is sew.  I started in the mid 90s.  Before that, the only sewing I did was by hand, in junior high Home Ec class.  I was nursing Paige and despairing at the price of nice nursing tops.  I got the crazy idea in my head that I could just make my own, if I knew how to use a sewing machine.  Knowing myself, I decided to rent a sewing machine for a week to see if I really liked it and would keep doing it, before investing in one.

It wasn’t hard to get the hang of using it, and I had a blast during that week.  My parents ended up buying me a sewing machine that year.  (For my birthday?  For Christmas?  I can’t remember.)  I bought patterns and fabric, made a few nursing tops that got me through the two years that Paige nursed, and then branched out into baby/toddler clothes for her.  After a while, I decided I really didn’t like sewing from a pattern.  I decided to try quilting instead, taking classes with a friend of mine and following the directions in books and magazines.

Quilting hooked me big-time; I loved picking fabrics that worked well together, and seeing the pattern come to life as I pieced.  The quilting itself wasn’t my favorite part (and I have quite a few unfinished projects to show for it).  After suffering through a few bed-sized quilt projects, I switched to lap quilts which were quicker to piece and easier to quilt with my machine.

I had a blast with my grandma’s partially-finished quilt squares.  It was like holding history in my hands; all of the fabric was either from clothing my mom or aunt wore as children, old flour sacks, and other old, retro patterns.  I could see her careful stitches, and I imagined her sitting and sewing.  (Was she alone or with a group of other quilters?)  I made quilts for my mom and my aunt from the unfinished pieces, and still have a boxful waiting for me.  Someday I’ll finish those pieces into a quilt for me and Dave.

Dave jumped on board and started sewing too.  He had his own machine, and we worked on lots of quilts together.  We started a millennium quilt for the year 2000, which we never did finish (and I ended up dividing into two lap quilts for the kids for Christmas last year).  We did a project with Paige’s kindergarten class, helping them make animal-themed quilt squares with crayons and freezer paper; after the quilt top was sewn, we showed the kids how to tie the squares (rather than actually quilting the top) so they ended up with a hand-tied class quilt that was displayed in the school for years afterward:

Paige's kindergarten class quilt, 1999-2000

Paige’s kindergarten class quilt, 1999-2000

Like my mom before me, I sewed Halloween costumes every year for the kids.  We had the best time coming up with costume ideas, including Sailor Moon for Paige and Lightning Bolt Man for Eric (his own custom superhero).

Paige caught the sewing bug at a young age, and we bought her a couple different toy sewing machines.  They always frustrated her and she would reject them for hand-sewing.  Even when she got older and we showed her how to use a regular sewing machine, she still preferred to sew by hand.  She made pillows, quilts for her dolls, wall hangings for friends; even a carrying case to bring her hedgehog home the day she got him.

Eric dipped his toe into the sewing pool in high school.  It started with Acen (Anime Central), an anime convention held yearly in our area.  He planned elaborate, detailed cosplay costumes each year, sewing late into the night the week before the convention.  He branched out into customizing his own clothes; soon he was sewing enough that we picked up a used sewing machine for him at a thrift store.  We’d hit Goodwill and Salvation Army, and he’d snap up every suit jacket in sight.  He customized pants, shirts and jackets nearly every week.

Eventually, he got to a point where he couldn’t find a used jacket that would work for the Squall costume he was making.  (Squall is a character from the Final Fantasy video game.  And Eric dressed as Squall for just about every high school class photo, except his senior picture.)  I took him to JoAnn’s and he looked through the patterns until he found one he liked.  I tried to discourage him, telling him that sewing from a pattern could be really frustrating.  I gave him a book I had that covered general sewing tips and set him loose.  In just two days, he had a perfectly-sewn jacket from that pattern, customized for his Squall costume.

We all still sew, although I rarely quilt these days.  My sewing consists mainly of hemming, fixing tears and rips in clothes and old quilts, and little projects like the fleece cage liners I made for Spike the hedgehog.  Paige still sews by hand; over Christmas break from college, she spent a week repairing her childhood quilt by hand-sewing new squares over the ones that were getting worn out.  Dave will sit down at the sewing machine too, although not as much lately since he gave his sewing machine to Eric a few months ago.  Eric is still customizing his own clothes, doing things like making drop-crotch pants from a sweater:

Eric's drop-crotch pants; he made them from a Calvin Klein sweater!

Eric’s drop-crotch pants; he made them from a Calvin Klein sweater!

Oddly enough, at this point, my 23 year old son is the most prolific at sewing in our family these days.  I still think he should pursue a career in fashion design (something he’s considered doing in the past).  I’m mostly happy to hoard fabric and think about the quilt tops I’ll piece and then never finish.

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