The Very Best Milky Way

November 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

E.O. Schaub

Halloween is a tough one. It’s the only holiday I can think of that is so utterly centered on the joyful celebration of cheap candy. I mean, total junk. Every year my kids come home with an incredible assortment of not just the classics- Tootsie Rolls and Hershey bars, but some truly weird stuff: eyeball gumballs encircled by bulging veins, gummy cheeseburgers, packages of barbeque chips and unlabeled “mystery taffy.” The Halloween candy bag is the graveyard where crappy candy goes to die.

Even after a hefty parental culling and sorting process, it takes us months to get through so much as a small portion of their gargantuan haul, mostly because we adhere to a strict one-piece-per-night-and-maybe-not-even-then policy. It doesn’t help that I fully resent the role I am pulled into of being a spokesperson for the candy companies: I explain what each one is, impatient for them to choose so we can move on to our bedtime routine. “Snickers? well that has caramel and nuts inside. Three Musketeers? Well, it has this mush inside… I don’t know how to describe it. You just have to try it. Skittles? Well they’re like fruity M&Ms. Yes, they’re good! They’re all good! It’s candy for crying out loud!” How did I get roped into this, anyway?

Three days before Halloween this year I realized we still had half-full bags of last year’s candy in the back of our top pantry shelf and I, heaving a huge sigh of relief, finally pitched them into the trash without remorse. I have several friends who would likewise pitch the entire trick-or-treat business with similar enthusiasm. One family we know avoids the whole business altogether and just stays home, while others go out grudgingly, knowing full-well most of the evening’s proceeds will have a date with the garbage can before Thanksgiving rears its equally gluttonous head.

Me- I’m pretty conflicted about the whole thing. On the one hand, I have memories of trick-or-treating being one of the high-points of my childhood years, to the point that when my friends started deciding we were “too old” to go I was genuinely mystified and definitely disappointed. Why couldn’t we still go? Who doesn’t like to dress up in costumes? And get free candy? Instead we got cheap cans of shaving cream and— being too timid to assault any actual property— started spraying each other in the street. The cops showed up in about four seconds. Welcome to the suburbs. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Perils of Sheep Fever

October 25, 2010 § 4 Comments

E.O. Schaub

It all seemed so harmless, a few years ago, when my cousin Gretchen was given a few sheep for free. She then proceeded to cultivate what she describes as a most decidedly un-free hobby, and began writing a blog about her experiences. We would visit, the kids would pet the sheep, the sheep would look at us with dewy eyes- and then we would leave. No big deal.

Then, last year, my dear friends Katrina, Sue and Dan collectively purchased a small flock of Icelandic sheep with fleeces so gorgeous they verged on the obscene. (Note: being an obsessive knitter and fledgling spinner myself, I am helplessly drawn to fiber like a moth to flame.) Katrina began emailing me pictures of adorable furry sheep faces and talking about her favorite ewes in the rapturous tones usually reserved for newborn babies and kittens.

Then, this past September, I made a fateful trip to the Shetland Islands. Owning sheep in the Shetlands is kind of like having oatmeal in your cupboard- it’s really, you know, not such a big deal. And because Shetland sheep are ridiculously hearty and have no natural predators on the islands, not to mention the fact that farmers are given a subsidy from the government for every sheep they own, the darn things are everywhere, dotting the verdant landscape like so many grains of rice on an endless perfect putting green.

So increasingly I feel like I’ve been on a crash course in the ovine arts. My love for animals and knitting, coupled with the fact that we just happen to have a couple dozen unused pasture acres surrounding our house… (Did I mention that our property used to be a sheep farm many moons ago? No?) Well, let’s just say I’ve been having… thoughts. « Read the rest of this entry »

Why Buy, When You Can Knit?

October 5, 2010 § 4 Comments

E.O. Schaub

There are few things more abjectly humbling for a knitter, I think, than one’s first gaze upon a Shetlander knitting Fair Isle. And if that knitter is me, then figure in being just-off-the-plane jet lagged and staggering around with an “I got forty-five minutes of sleep last night” look on my face. I was, in short, agape.

It was the beginning of September and I was lucky enough to be attending a knitting conference (!) in the Shetland Islands (!!). Carol, a good friend, fellow writer and obsessed knitter whose ancestors are from the Shetland islands, (and who, it turns out, is related to a good third of the population of the town of Lerwick,) was going and she invited me to tag along.

Shetland Fair Isle Sweaters

Before I left, everyone I spoke with was extremely curious: what could a “knitting conference” possibly entail? And where the heck are the Shetland Islands? I, personally, had no idea. Being a big fan of both knitting and going new places, however, I was absolutely convinced I was going to like the answers. It was on that basis alone that I rearranged my life, forked over a truckload of moolah to the good people at Continental Airlines, and agreed to miss my children’s first week of school. (Gasp! Crappy mother alert!)

But back to me being agape. “Fair Isle” is a much-abused term which describes patterned knitting using multiple colors. You see the term bandied about with carefree abandon, used to describe everything from J. Crew pullovers to dog booties, but seeing the real thing in action is another matter altogether. Fingers fly. Incredibly intricate patterns emerge as if by magic. Often, there are no patterns in sight, because the knitter has all the relevant information… in her head. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Interesting Patient

September 21, 2010 § 3 Comments

E.O. Schaub

You know, there’s nothing like an unscheduled trip to the emergency room to upend one’s perspective on everyday life. Take today, for example. I’m having one of those mornings. The kind where you stub your toe right after you just miss the phone ringing because you tripped over the pile of laundry you forgot to fold last night. The kind of day where you haven’t even had your whole cup of coffee yet and you feel like it’s time to go back to bed and start over tomorrow. When I’m having a day like this I have a tendency to look up and ask the universe: hey, what’s up? Are you trying to tell me something?

Not today though. Compared to the stress of being the mystery case in the ER, a crazy morning at home is a fairy princess picnic. So it all goes to prove that all chaos is relative… I think Einstein said that. (Or was it, “All relatives are chaos…”? But I digress.)

It all started on a Friday night when the area just beneath my ribs began to ache. By the next day, the ache had blossomed, developing to the point where I couldn’t do much more than sit in a crouching position and grimace. Laughing hurt. Breathing hurt. Standing up straight was not happening. When dinner rolled around and I was unable to so much as sit at the table, it occurred to me that something was, perhaps, amiss.

I got the call back from my doctor who gave me the advice they always give crazy people who have the temerity to be sick after office hours: go to the emergency room. On a Saturday night. On a holiday weekend. My head filled with delightful images of incontinent drunks, bloody bar-fighters and hours and hours and HOURS of waiting room time. Well, heck, I said, are you kidding me? Where do I sign up?

It’s highly likely I would have put this ER visit off had it not been for the fact that I had my appendix out when I was 18. I learned then that weird, out-of-nowhere pain can be your body’s way of saying to you, in the nicest possible way: “GET TO THE FREAKIN DOCTOR OR YOUR BODY WILL FILL WITH POISON AND YOU’LL DIE!!!” I gained a newfound respect for the wisdom of my body after that.

Not so much for the doctors though. Unfortunately, at that time they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me and they sent me home. I wandered around like a ticking time bomb for two weeks before the pain returned. I made an encore visit to the hospital emergency room, petrified they’d pat me on the head and send me home with a note suggesting some very nice local shrinks, when suddenly the doctor very calmly- TOO calmly- informed me and my parents that he would like to have me in surgery in, oh, say, twenty minutes.

Hey, nothing happens in twenty minutes in the emergency room. You need to pee? Okay, somebody will be back in an hour to talk to you about that. When I heard “twenty minutes” I knew something was seriously wrong. And I was utterly delighted, not to be crazy. « Read the rest of this entry »

Me and Chicken # 52

July 24, 2010 § 1 Comment

E.O. Schaub

It was fortuitous, I thought, that Annie mentioned that they were going to be “processing” (the appropriate euphemism) their 52 meat birds the following weekend. So I asked what, for me, was the next logical question: “Can I come?”

Annie left the decision up to Randy. Randy is Annie’s husband, and the one who does the majority of the processing on the appointed day. We’ve been lucky enough to become great friends with both Randy and Annie ever since we met them last summer at the pre-K picnic and discovered that our then-four-now-five year-old daughters shared the same birthday.

A few days later I caught up with Randy, but at first he seemed a little tentative.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “Why do you want to do this?” Funny- my husband asked me much the same question, and with a very odd look on his face too, come to think of it. Was it that bizarre a request? I wondered. It wasn’t as if I had proposed we take a school field trip to the local funeral parlor or anything (my husband actually did that as a child. Fun! Is this where they keep the embalming fluid, Mister?) I mean, honestly, how bad could it really be? Was there something I was missing, here?

Would slimy chicken parts be flying everywhere? Blood spurting cartoon-fashion in every direction? Would I beat a hasty retreat back to vegetarianism, ruined forever-after for any appreciation of fine poultry? Would I sob uncontrollably/ be scarred for life/ suffer terrible, flailing-chicken nightmares? Would I (and this was important) lose my lunch?

It is definitely interesting to see the spectrum of reactions one gets in this day and age- even in Vermont- to the idea of voluntarily killing a defenseless animal. Hunting, of course, is a similar such topic and the few hunters we know are noticeably shy on the topic, feeling out whether the person they are speaking to will respond to a hunting story with sincere enthusiasm or wide-eyed horror.

Perhaps then, raising birds for meat and dispatching them methodically holds even more potential revulsion. I mean, at least the deer had a fighting chance, right? After generations of being bred to be docile, sedentary and fat, the meat bird is… how shall I say this politely? None too bright. There ain’t no “fight or flight” going on here, people. Mostly it’s just “sit and stare.”

As for myself, after a long journey that included two full decades of vegetarianism of virtually every conceivable shade and hue, I’ve now come around to the point where this ancient arrangement between animal and farmer no longer strikes me as anything but sensible. Beyond sensible, it is the kindest of all the available options, and kindness and respect for animals is what always motivated my meat-free days in the first place.

But back to the farm. After Randy agreed to call me when he was down to the last batch of chickens late Sunday afternoon, I cleaned the kitchen and waited for the phone to ring. It was a weird feeling, this aimless waiting, as if a baby was about to be born, when in fact, it was really quite the opposite situation. Then again, I thought, something is being born today: food. Healthy, organic, sustainable food. Real food- not that ersatz stuff they try to pass off as food at the gas station or even the supermarket, but the real McCoy, the way our ancestors knew it for generations. Food that is the result of your own work, by your own hands, that doesn’t attempt to deny or obscure the essence of what it is: a dead animal. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Eco-Minded Sissy

July 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

By E.O. Schaub

It’s been hot lately around here. And by hot, I mean you could fry an egg on my filing cabinet. Please don’t, though, my office is messy enough.

The chickens are hot. The dog is hot. The kids are the only ones with any energy left, and they’re pretty happy since all we seem to do anymore is go swimming and eat ice cream.

Not terribly much is getting done, what with all the talking about how hot it is, not to mention the performing of multiple applications of sunscreen, bug-spray, and round-the-clock, head-to-toe tick checks. Consequently there’s nothing to eat in the house, no clean clothes to wear and the sink is overflowing with dishes. That’s okay: nobody is hungry anyway, there’s a clean swimsuit around here somewhere, and maybe, if we wait long enough, the dishes will do themselves.

One of the most inevitable topics of conversation at this time of year is the availability of air conditioning- or lack thereof- in any given setting. My mother, for example, falls into the camp of people who feel that if heaven isn’t air conditioned, they’re not interested. In Vermont, there seem to be two kinds of people: those who feel that you only might really want it a handful of days out of the year anyway, so why bother?, and, those who look upon those poor, lost souls as obviously out of their deep-fried minds.

“Just wait,” my mother warns me when I cheerfully liken her house to an Alaskan meat locker, “When you get to be my age you’ll understand.”

Okay, so I’ve never had a hot flash, she’s got me there. But I have always had a love-hate relationship with A/C. When I was about eight my parents got me a window-unit for my room and I realized that, sure, I could sleep in frosty splendor- no more lying on the sheets and sweating, wondering if I’d ever fall asleep again- but it also turned my bedroom into a weird little hermetically-sealed icebox… no longer could I hear what was happening outside or in other parts of the house. Plus- that scrapy, dry-throat feeling never agreed with me in the morning. It was a little like being put in deep storage for the night.

And that was before I even knew there were other, more far-reaching consequences to worry about.

Lately I’ve been reading Up Tunket Road by local author Philip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at Green Mountain College who has homesteaded in Pawlet for about a decade. For him, homesteading translates into some pretty serious divergences from the mainstream, in the interest of a healthier planet, as well as a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling life- a tall order, to be sure.

There’s really nothing like reading about pooping in an outdoor bucket in the middle of a Vermont winter to make you realize what sissys the rest of us really are. I mean, Philip and his wife Erin have put three children through babyhood in cloth diapers with nary a washing machine in sight! (Personally, I’m not sure I would have survived the pre-potty period without my Diaper Genie at the ready, making nice, fresh-smelling, giant, non-degradible pearl necklaces out of our disposable unmentionables…)

Reading about Philip and Erin’s homestead and then looking around our own home, I began to feel that despite all our well-intended composting and recycling and local-voring, we are still hopelessly locked into a system that demands we consume and consume and consume, and dispose and dispose and dispose. Short of selling it all and starting over by building a cabin in the woods the way the Ackerman-Leist’s, or the Nearings or Thoreau did, short of that, what’s an eco-minded sissy like me to do? (Have I mentioned how much I suck at cabin building?)

Rather than throw in the organic-cotton towel in despair, I came to another idea. There had to be some middle path, some things we could do more of around here, in our lovely, big, old, utterly inefficient farmhouse, to reduce our electricity expenditure and impact on the earth. We may never, ever be a zero-impact household, but we can keep trying, anyway, to do a little bit better. And better.

A little research was helpful in this regard. One website’s chart made me acutely aware of the irony of running around unplugging the toaster and the blender, while still continuing to use some of our larger appliances which are the true energy vampires. The dryer seemed to be the logical first thing to go, (after all, who wants to turn on any appliance generating heat in this weather?) And so our outdoor clothesline has become my new favorite “appliance.” Sure, running out to hang everything outside can be a pain, the towels aren’t so baby-soft anymore, and having to occasionally rewash the sheets to remove raspberry bird poop isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, but there is just something I really like about hanging up the wash. It feels very… old-fashioned, in a good way.

It’s the same thing I like about making our bread, or picking cherries to freeze for pies and jam, or having chickens that produce our own eggs, or knitting to make myself a sweater… Could I do all of these things faster, cheaper, easier? Sure. Heck- I could probably buy bread, cherries, eggs and a sweater at Wal-Mart and be back before lunch. But making/picking/raising/doing them myself creates a different relationship with those things, a connection to those elements which sustain us and feed us and clothe us, not to mention a sense of quality and choice which Wal-Mart and like vendors by definition lack. It adds, as Philip describes so aptly in his book, a sense of meaningfulness that in modern life can be lacking. It’s a sense of quiet, of choosing a life that is slower, more deliberate and more thoughtful. The fact that- no matter what they ultimately choose to do themselves- my kids will grow up knowing how bread is made, where cherries and eggs come from, and how a sweater can be made, is yet another bonus.

Which brings me back to the fact that it’s hot. Did I mention that my freaking toothbrush is melting? Yes, it’s hot. And we’re sissys and we’re grumpy and right about now is when that big, honking A/C unit starts to look pretty good. Until I remember that nasty icebox-sore-throat feeling it gives me all summer, making me cold when I am supposed to be- after all- hot.

And then I remind myself, too, that air-conditioning units account for an average of 900 watts per hour of electricity and about 16% of the average household’s energy consumption. By comparison, the floor fans we’ve been using use about 100 watts per hour. So, am I crazy, or did we just eliminate roughly a quarter of our electricity expenditure, (14% dryer + 16% A/C unit) simply by boycotting the dryer and the A/C? It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely better.

Besides, according to conventional Vermont wisdom, we only need that electric-guzzling A/C a handful of days per summer anyway. If that’s true, after this many days of heat we ought to be practically done already, and the rest of the summer ought to be clear and cool sailing. Right? Um, right?

Oh, and just one other thing: if heaven doesn’t have a dishwasher? I’m not going.

On Heaven and Scrapple

July 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

E.O. Schaub

I’ve got this idea that if heaven and hell exist, it would only make sense that they would be customized. You know- each eternity designed to suit the individual. For example, when I die, I’ll know I’ve been bad if I end up in Best Buy.

On the other hand, if I eat all my broccoli and balance my checkbook to at least the nearest ten- okay, twenty- dollars, and I stay at my children’s band concerts to the very end even when they are done participating before the intermission? I’m pretty sure I’ll end up on Sissy’s front porch, having an egg sandwich with scrapple and coffee.

The reason I say this is that right now, I’m doing just that. Sissy, for those unlucky souls who may not be acquainted with her yet, is the gifted chef who ran the Dorset Inn restaurant for umpteen years before selling the whole kit and kaboodle and starting over with a tiny little take-out kitchen in Middletown Springs, Vermont. “Sissy’s Kitchen” isn’t centrally located, isn’t particularly fast, and definitely isn’t cheap. You can’t even eat there- well not inside anyway- because state regulation prohibits sit-down service at her location.

Doesn’t matter. There’s just something wonderful that speaks to me about Sissy’s. Maybe it’s the fact that she hangs old, well-loved wooden kitchen implements from baling twine on the walls. Maybe it’s that wonderful warm, not-quite-mustard yellow she has painted the interior or the small, tasteful array of locally-crafted woodware and ceramics that are casually offered for sale in the shop’s nooks and crannies. Maybe it’s the large, central table filled with an army of home-baked treats under glass, or the large, creaky-comfortable chairs outside where you can sit and open up your take-out (of your own volition, of course) taking maximum advantage of the spotty sunlight and the company of the long-eared, low-bellied dogs who lounge about like they own the place- which they clearly do.

This particular morning the longest-eared dog had curled himself (herself?) into a furry, croissant-shaped ball on the cushioned chair next to me, having settled deeply in for a late-morning nap long before my appearance on the scene. He breathes heavily through his nostrils and every once in a while heaves a heavy sigh of contentment.

Meanwhile the smell of something new and delicious baking in the kitchen slowly begins to waft in our direction- muffins? Raspberry, maybe? This morning the porch is in shade, but the back of my neck is hit directly by a patch of sun, poking through the tree branches. I, too, heavy a heavy sigh of contentment.

My belly is full of dark coffee and freshly home-baked cibatta and warm, orange-yolked eggs, not to mention the ridiculously delicious pork and cornmeal concoction Sissy informs me is called “scrapple.” I watch the dogs with amazement at their morning’s work and think: this, for them, is all there is. This moment, this cushion, this spot of sun. Ambition? Stress? Criticism? If they had shoulders I imagine the dogs might shrug. The experience of Sissy’s, I think to myself, is about more than Slow Food- it is for me also about the pleasures of slowing down life.

As I gaze at them, sipping from the bottom of my white paper cup, the Zen masters let out a soft, light snore.

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