27 September 2006

Good deeds

Today I helped rescue a Green-winged Teal.

When I was taking out the garbage, this being garbage day, I noticed Ochosi, Sam, and Jules strategically surrounding something out by the garden. What could my pride of pussies be stalking? I walked out toward them, realized it was a duck, and quickly scattered the cats away. (I confess, if it were a gopher, I would have applauded their hunting skills. Selective slaughter…)

My tenant/neighbor kept the cats back while I retrieved a cat carrier in which to carry the duck to safety. The bird had limited mobility (I saw an open wound beneath one wing, and it was scuttling with difficulty), and so wasn’t hard to catch. I maneuvered it into the carrier, then put it on a deep pull-out shelf in my bathroom, where I could close the door on it and keep it safe. Then I called Humboldt Wildlife Care Center.

HWCC is great; I wish every community had an organization like this! They are a group of volunteers who are trained to care for injured wildlife. Any time I find an injured animal, I call them and a volunteer comes out to get the critter, take it home, and nurse it back to health (if possible).

To the best of my knowledge, HWCC is funded by grants and donations. When I die, the proceeds from my estate will go into a fund at Humboldt Area Foundation with the instruction to distribute it to three different causes: the preservation and restoration of rivers and creeks; animal shelters and rescue organizations that do not euthanize; and the county library. However, god willing, it’ll be many years before my estate is ready to issue proceeds, so I make it a policy to give a donation to HWCC every time they come fetch another animal from me.

Cindy at HWCC said that today’s been a rough day for wildlife; they already had 11 calls this morning. She also told me it’s rare for a cat to catch a wild duck, so I feel somewhat relieved. I think that, in the case of this Green-winged Teal, my cats saw a (literally) lame duck and prepared to pounce; I stopped them before they made their move.

Pray that the little guy makes it!

25 September 2006

Coming Out of the Non-Consumer Closet/Kugel

1981. I’m sitting in the local coffee shop in Cotati one evening when Lisa, a woman I’ve known since 8th grade, pops in and expresses delight to find me. "Just the person I was looking for!" she says. "I’m writing a paper on Existentialism for my class, and I knew you could help me with it."

Ah, come on, Lisa. Just because I spent my teen years wandering around barefoot and exclaiming that "life is absurd." (I think I was often found muttering "chauvinist pig," too, but it was the mid-70’s and I was being raised by a left-wing feminist.)

I no longer believe life is absurd (although I’ve no doubt that god has a bizarre sense of humor and we’re best off learning to laugh with her), but I often feel as though I am living in a surreal time and place, something out of a sci-fi novel – you know, those novels where The Corporation rules every part of our existence? Of course, the writers are probably only slightly elaborating on what already exists; nonetheless, I frequently experience flashes of "this is so scary-weird."

A minor case in point. I was recently reading the letters in Costco Connection (I’m a compulsive reader; what can I say?) and came across one from a Costco fan entitled "Ubiquitous Brand." The woman writes about how, as she "went about my… daily chores I kept noticing the Kirkland Signature brand throughout my house. It was on everything from clothing and laundry supplies to items in the pantry." I realize she’s expressing pleasure with the quality of Costco’s brand, but all I could think was: "Does anyone else think this is scary?" Ubiquitous, indeed. Try, insidious. Sends shivers through my spine.

It’s a mixed blessing, this being out of step with mass consumer culture. I’m very happy with my life. But I am timid about "coming out" as different. Another example: There’s a discussion currently ensuing on the chat group for one of the professional organizations to which I belong. The participants have been discussing what they carry with them as part of their "bag of tricks." The lists are impressively long, and – to me – bafflingly complex. I take my calendar, business cards, and a pen – all of which live in my purse – and that’s it. I’ve been chicken about going public on the group with this information. However, A. spoke up, which gave me the courage to post my perspective. The nice part is, I received an e-mail thanking A. and me. The gal said that, as she’d "been furiously taking notes on things that I might want to add to my case, I stopped myself and considered how well I've been doing with the few items that I do take with me. Much of it stays in my car and, as you, I enter my client's door with a pad, pen, (maybe a tape measure) and a smile."

And there’s the key: Choice, driven by mindfulness and a willingness to not do what everyone else is doing (or buy what everyone else is buying).


You know what? Here it is, September 25, 2006, and I’m still running around barefoot, albeit only around the house. (And I’m more likely to exclaim that "life is good.") Here it is, Monday, an unusually warm day (Indian Summer arrived on the first day of Autumn), and I’m puttering around in a full-length gauzy sleeveless dress (not suitable for public) and a pair of shorts. I’ve washed and hung the laundry to dry, baked a loaf of bread for Anthony, and picked some tomatoes, strawberries, apples, and kohlrabi from the garden (all of which I’ll take over to Ant’s house tonight so that he has some food when he gets home from 3 weeks in Maine). The Corporation may steal other people’s souls, but it ain’t got mine. I like Mondays!


Recipe time. Rosh Hashana arrived along with Autumn this year. Traditionally, one eats apples dipped in honey in hopes for a sweet year. My version of this tradition is to make a Lokshen Kugel, which I’ll be doing later this week. Here’s the recipe. (None of the ingredients came from Costco.)

Boil 8 ounces of wide egg noodles until just tender. Drain, butter, and set aside.

2 eggs
1 cup cottage cheese
4 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup honey
1 Tablespoon lemon juice (fresh)
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg

Add in
1/2 cup raisins
2 to 3 peeled, cored, and chopped apples

Mix noodles in with the cheese/fruit.

Add the whole kit and caboodle to a well-buttered 9 x 13 pyrex.

Crumble about 1 cup’s worth of (organic!) Corn Flakes over the top.

Bake at 375 for 35 to 45 minutes.

15 September 2006

Bisque and Bruschetta

I’m excited. In my last entry, I mentioned that blogging has my writing juices flowing, and that I’ve just finished writing a book I’ve meant to write for 8 years now. I’m excited to have the draft done and in the hands of my readers. I’m also excited about the material; there’s some amazingly lovely writing there-in.

The book, for which I am still trying to find a title, is a compilation of my journal entries and e-mailed travelogues from a life-changing road trip that I took in 1998. One reader says it is a book "for everyone who’s had the courage to step into uncertainty, looking for where they fit best in this world." She thinks my journey can serve as inspiration to others who are searching, letting them know that stepping off the cliff (like the Fool from the Tarot – smile on his face, hobo bag over his shoulder, trusting) can result in safe landing.

Besides exciting me, the book reminded me of a soup I used to make, but haven’t for a long while. It’s my variation on a soup from Fields of Greens cookbook (the one cookbook I took with me on my trip). Fixed it for myself this week, and decided it was definitely yummy enough to be worth sharing with you. For fun, and because it’s what I ate with the soup for dinner that night, I’ve included a recipe for my interpretation of bruschetta.


Corn, Pepper, and Basil Bisque

In a 2-quart pot:
Sautee one sliced leek in olive oil until translucent.

Add in and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes over medium heat:
Kernels shaved from 5 ears of corn
One red bell pepper, diced.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour in 1/4 cup cooking sherry and enough water to just cover the vegetables.

Bring to a boil, cover, then turn down to low. Simmer for 20 minutes or so.

Remove from heat, and set aside about 1/2 cup of the cooked vegetables (but no broth).

Puree the remaining vegetables and broth in a blender. Pour back into pot and add:
1/2 cup of cream
the vegetables you had set aside
1/4 cup (or so) of freshly chopped basil.

Taste, adjust flavors as desired, then serve.

Claire’s Bruschetta

Prepare the topping by chopping the daylights out of the following ingredients and then combining them in a bowl with salt, pepper, and olive oil. (Start with 1/4 cup of oil, then add more if you so desire.)

Topping Ingredients:
One small onion, preferably sweet – Walla Wallas are good
LOTS of garlic – 6 to 8 decent-sized cloves
One tomato (diced, don’t chop this one as finely as the other ingredients)
Basil – somewhere between 1/2 cup and 1 cup’s worth of leaves

Slice a sourdough baguette (seeded is tasty, if it’s available) in half, lengthwise. Place the slices, crust-side down, on a cookie sheet. Generously spoon the topping onto the two halves of baguette. On top of this, place grated cheese – my favorites are fontina or parrano (spelling?) – as thickly or thinly as you like.

Put the whole shebang in a pre-heated 350-degree oven and bake until the cheese is melted and golden brown.

Devour (but not too quickly – food doesn’t taste as good when you’ve burnt your tongue!)

14 September 2006

Simple Living, Conscious Consumption, and Chocolate

I retract my disappointment in Judith Levine’s "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping."

It took a (long) while for me to warm up to the book. I found myself more often irritated with Levine than inspired by her – her ultra-New York lifestyle, worrying about fashion and culture, alienated me. Also, I felt as though she just didn’t"get it" – that she was so focused on deprivation, she was missing the deeper value of excusing oneself from Consumer Culture: living a life of meaning and connection by stepping out of the Buy-Buy-Buy world.

Maybe it just took Levine seven months to get into the swing of things. By early August (the book is laid out in monthly chapters), her entries start showing more depth, and I began to change my mind about the book. I’ve read reviews on Amazon that rail against Levine for bringing in her left-liberal politics,but it is exactly the addition of politics – of discussing the larger picture – that I find interesting. I appreciate the way she links development (in this case, the building of a cell tower in rural Hardwick, VT) with destruction, an example of how growth (the foundation of our consumer economy) is not necessarily a good thing.

Talking about one local woman who is pro cell-tower, Levine writes:
"Sandy has announced that as part of the effort to Take Back Hardwick, she will run… for the Select Board… Her campaign will be ‘pro-business’ and anti-zoning, changes that she believes will entice people to spend money in Hardwick. This in turn will raise property values and improve the quality of life in town. Her ideal commercial residents … would be Wal-Mart and a prison." Levine then points out how increased property values make it difficult for people to continue living in the community, because the locals can no longer afford to buy homes in their own town. (I’ve personally watched this happen in my county and know it to be true.) She concludes with: "Sandy … wants economic development and a better quality of life for Hardwick. She believes the only way to get these is to rescue the town from marauding Luddites and erect an aluminum monument to modern consumption on Bridgman Hill. But the irony is, if she manages to Take Back Hardwick, she may lose the Hardwick she wants to save." Amen! I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Edward Abbey: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."

Finally, in December, while contemplating a return to buying, Levine hits the button on the nose. Actually, someone else identifies her intended approach to spending once the year is over: with Mindfulness.

This is what I think not buying is really about. Levine and her partner spend a year wrangling over what is "necessary." Truth be told, very little is "necessary," even less than Levine chose to define as such. But Necessary is no way to live life. Conscious, is. The question is not: Do I need this? The question is: Is this in keeping with my goals and values – am I consciously (mindfully) choosing to bring this into my life? Beauty and joy, as far as I’m concerned, are necessary. But do I need to own each beautiful painting I see? No, of course not. Nor do I WANT to own each painting – I have nowhere to put them, and no desire to take care of them.

Which leads into another discussion I was having with some colleagues – actually, about having started this blog. A couple of fellow bloggers exclaimed that blogging will not make my life simpler; indeed, it will complicate it. I responded with a challenge to re-define "simple" as it applies to simple living.

If we define simple as being less complicated, as meaning less work, then true: blogging will not simplify my life. But then, very little of the things I love make my life simpler. Cats require feeding, cleaning up after, and medical attention (as well as lots of petting). Cut flower arrangements need to be kept fresh. Cooking from scratch takes much more time and energy than throwing a frozen dinner into the microwave (which I don’t have, by the way). Giving my organic garden even a fraction of the attention it deserves – weeding, mulching, feeding – would be a full-time job. Friendships require maintenance – reaching out by phone or e-mail, spending time together, being there for each other. And then there’s the energy involved in maintaining relationship with one’s significant other.

None of the things most important to me make my life simpler in that none of them reduce the amount of energy I expend. Does this mean I should eliminate those things I love most in the name of simplicity? No. Instead, I choose to redefine a simple life as a life that consciously supports my values. By this definition, an argument could be made where blogging does simplify my life, or at least where blogging is suitable to a life of simplicity. Here's my reasoning: I am a writer as well as an organizer. Blogging gives me an outlet to write about those ideas that churn through my brain, allows me to have the (albeit one-sided) conversations I long to have, to share my ideas with others. As a result, it also keeps my writing juices flowing, which helps me move forward on my actual projects.(For example, last weekend I finally sat down and wrote the book I've been wanting to write for eight years!) And corresponding with people who write back keeps me connected to community. These are all high values for me.

Here’s a final tasty note on Simplicity – a simple recipe for one of my favorite foods: chocolate. In typical Claire fashion, the measurements are imprecise. I usually just throw the ingredients together and adjust as needed. Have fun playing with this!

Mmmmm… Chocolate…

Over medium heat, melt a chunk of organic cocoa butter. (I get mine from www.chocolatealchemy.com) I think a chunk winds up being about 1/4 to 1/3 cup when it’s melted.

When the cocoa butter’s almost all-the-way melted, add in a plop (a heaping Tablespoon?) of organic coconut oil. (This melts much more quickly than the cocoa butter, hence it’s added later.) The coconut oil isn’t necessary, but it adds a wonderful silky mouth-feel to the chocolate.

Remove from heat when the oils have melted. Mix in about 3 glops (glug, glug, glug – what is that, about 1/4 cup?) EACH of organic agave nectar and maple syrup. (You can use honey, too, but I prefer the mellower sweet of agave and maple. Play with sweeteners. Everyone’s palate has its own preference.)

Stir the sweetener into the melted oils (still off the heat). Now mix in unsweetened cocoa powder. Organic is preferable. You can also get decaf! When I don’t have either organic or decaf in the house, I use Ghiradelli. How much cocoa powder to mix in? Ummm… somewhere between half a cup and a cup. Start with half a cup, mix it in, then taste. Is it too sweet? Not chocolate-y enough? Then add more powder. This is a seat-of-the-pants process; just keep adjusting until it’s to your liking.

At this point, you can call it good, or you can gussy it up. I like to add dried fruit and nuts. A couple of good combinations are:

Chopped dried apricots and chopped pecans

Dried cranberries, raisins, and chopped almonds

Other additions might include chocolate nibs, vanilla, orange flavoring (or zest)… Really,the possibilities are limited only by your imagination (and making sure not to add too much more liquid).

Again, play with it.

If you’ve added fruit and/or nuts, the next thing to do is make what are fondly called Cow Pies. Put a sheet of wax paper or parchment on a plate/cookiesheet/cuttingboard – any flat surface. Next, plop spoonfuls of the chocolate onto the paper – however large or small you want your Cow Pies to be. (I usually make them about one-inch round). Then put them into the fridge and allow them to solidify. Store them in the fridge.

If you decide not to gussy them up, you can pour them into molds (I haven’t tried this yet) or onto a parchment-lined plate and stick them in the fridge to harden.

Or, you can dip strawberries into them, put those on the parchment and into the fridge.

Or, you can use the chocolate as frosting and pour it over a cake. (If you decide to decorate the cake with flowers, wait until the chocolate has cooled. I’ve wilted the flowers by not waiting, and they just don’t have the same pizzazz. Kindof puts a crimp in the presentation.)

08 September 2006

Cooking Caveat/Stuffed Zucchini

Back in 1983 (or was it 1984?), when I was working in Oakland as the editor for a sports publishing company (and no, I’m not a sports fan), a guy named Greg had a little flower stand outside our office building. I used to hand him ten bucks, a smile, and my vase, and ask him to put together a flower arrangement for me to take home. One day he suggested I arrange the flowers myself. "But I don’t know anything about flower arranging!" I protested. "You can do it," he replied. "Just play with them until they look right."

What do you know, Greg was right. I could arrange flowers to my pleasing, relying on my intuitive sense of aesthetics. (Years later I took a class or two on floral arranging, and learned the rules that defined what I already knew.)

It may seem odd that a Virgo professional organizer relies so consistently on intuition, but that’s the way I am: an eternal balance of apparent opposites. (I joke that I am the perfect blend of both my parents: my father the math professor, my mother the English teacher. Leo and Virgo, Pitta and Kapha, extrovert and introvert, linear and intuitive, I’m always both.)

Anyway, my reason for telling you all this is to give you a head’s up about my recipes. I’m afraid I’m something of an intuitive cook, too. Except with baking (and even that’s not precise), I just throw things together until they seem right. And so I apologize to those of you who want clear direction and exact measurements. I’ll do my best to give rough estimates of quantities, but ultimately I encourage you to "play with it until is seems right." I know you can do it!

Claire’s Stuffed Zucchini
Quarter two large (NOT gargantuan monsters, just decent sized) zukes. Place them face down in a 9 x 13 Pyrex with a bit of water covering the bottom. Cover the top with foil and bake until the zucchini "meat" is tender. Remove and allow to cool enough to be handled without scalding your fingers.

While the zukes are baking, sautee
1 diced onion (medium, yellow or white)

When the onions are translucent, add
8 to 10 sliced mushrooms
3 to 4 chopped garlic cloves (good sized; if the cloves are puny, use 8 to 10 of them)

Once the mushrooms have cooked, remove from heat and stir in
1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon of yellow curry powder (to taste)
1 to 2 teaspoons of dry thyme
2 to 3 Tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce

Use a spoon to remove the zucchini "meat" from it’s shell, and add the "meat" into the onions/mushrooms/garlic. (Leave the shells, face up like little empty row boats, in the Pyrex and remove the extra water.) Use the spoon to mash the zucchini so that it doesn’t have any lumps and is blended in with the onions, etc.

You will have extra liquid in the mixture at this point, thanks to the zukes. (Note: this is not the liquid you removed from the Pyrex. That was to be discarded, or reserved for a veggie broth, or something.) Add enough bread crumbs to sop up the liquid, making the veggies a solid – but not dry – consistency.

Mix in about 1 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese.

Spoon the mixture back into the zucchini shells (they’ll be heaping once filled).

Bake, uncovered, at 350 until nicely browned, about 20 to 30 minutes.

07 September 2006

Simple Abundance (with apologies to Sarah Ban Breathnach)

By middle-class American standards, I’m poor. Compared to real poverty, of course, I’m amazingly wealthy. It’s all relative. Truth is, I don’t have a whole lot,but what I have is in my life by choice.

My house is smaller than some of the "bonus" rooms I’ve seen at clients’ houses (who the hell needs a "bonus"room?), but it’s big enough for me and my five cats.(My sweetheart of seven years, Anthony, lives with his four cats in his house,about 15 miles away.) My house is 24 x 28 feet – a bedroom, office, bathroom,and open kitchen/dining/living room. (Okay, if you count the laundry/utility room, add another 60 square feet or so.) The only door in the house is to the bathroom (the bedroom and office have arches), so the house feels open and airy.

My income is smaller than most of my clients’, too. For unknown reasons, business has slowed down considerably this summer. This has been an interesting exercise in faith for me: trusting that I will be okay, that this is just one of those (stomach-lurching) dips on the rollercoaster of self-employment. Some days are emotionally easier than others, but I find myself too vulnerable to sudden shifts; while generally cheerful(especially if I’m involved in a creative project), I plummet into depression when a client cancels. My cash flow is so tight that every cancellation requires re-juggling of resources to barely squeak by.

Which brings me to the Simple Abundance part of this post – a day of richness and blessings, without needing to spend a penny.

Morning began with cat cuddles. Jules snuggled against my left side, Sam on my stomach,Paquito on my right side. (Zachary’s still learning to be affectionate, and so was by my left foot at the end of the bed.) Ochosi, my calico princess,jumped up for loving at one point, too. What a lovely way to start the day– waking up on my own, no alarm clock, and lounging with the cats, purring and petting for a good half hour or more.

Fed the cats, made the bed,swept the floors, checked email – my usual morning routine. Heated up left-over Southwest Corn Tart (from Fields of Greens) and baked a batch of zucchini muffins (recipe at the end of this post), enjoying both for breakfast. Then I watered the deck plants, dead-headed the oregano and dahlias, and put together bouquets for the house – a vase of sterling silver roses, another of sunflowers and huge yellow dahlias, a third of larkspur, snapdragons, scabiosa, geum, calendula, dahlias, and lavender. All from the garden. For years I’ve wanted to have enough flowers growing that I wouldn’t feel guilty picking them; finally,I have my wish! (The oregano I’m drying for my spice rack.)

I read for most of the afternoon. Am reading both Judith Levine’s Not Buying It:My Year Without Shopping (a disappointment, I’m sorry to say) and Affluenza. Both are borrowed from the library. (I’ve also been reading the daily posts from The Compact’s yahoo group. I’m encouraged to see people living consciously and simply. Especially as a professional organizer, I’m delighted to see folks scaling down, de-cluttering, not buying so much useless crap, healing from their addiction to retail therapy.)

At one point, I walked over to Marianne’s house to return her serving dish (she’d left it here after my birthday party) and to bring her a jar of sunflowers. Then I made dinner. Picked the last of the peas from the garden and steamed them up with a delicious carrot(from the carrot lady at Farmers’ Market) and some rice, and baked a fresh salmon steak (with a ground almond and horseradish crust) that my neighbor gave me. (I have the best neighbors! At least twice a year, Dave and Teresa give me crab or salmon that Dave’s caught that day.)

Also whipped up a batch of pesto (basil, lots of garlic, olive oil, toasted pinon nuts, and grated parmesan, with some lemon zest thrown in for fun) before the basil wimped out on me. (The pesto’s now in the freezer, as are most of the zucchini muffins.)

And I harvested a cup of strawberries for tomorrow’s breakfast (with plain, nonfat yogurt, a bit of maple syrup and vanilla stirred in).

Dessert was a peach and blackberry crisp (blackberries picked from my back yard): I sliced 3 peaches into a square Pyrex, added a quart of blackberries, and covered them with a crumble made of steel-cut oats, butter, and brown sugar. Baked at 350 until it smelled ready and was nicely browned.

(The left-over salmon will be turned into salmon patties: mix cooked salmon, an egg, grated onion, horseradish, lemon, dill,and chopped parsely, add enough bread crumbs or panko to hold it all together, form into patties, then sautee until golden brown.)

So that’s my day– filled with fresh-cut flowers, delicious organic food, books, a beautiful home, and kitty love. All for free. I didn’t spend a cent, nor did I have to drive anywhere.

Oh, and I started this blog (which I’ve been thinking about doing for months).

And,perhaps in answer to my prayers, over the past 24 hours I’ve been asked to speak at two separate upcoming gigs. The talks aren’t paying much, but they’re an opportunity to help others, to make new contacts, and maybe even to sell some books. Who knows, maybe they’ll even generate new clients.



Zucchini Muffins (courtesy of my friend Pam)
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp cloves
2/3 cups coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans

In mixing bowl beat:
2 eggs
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup oil
Beat 3 minutes or until very smooth.

Add :
2 cups grated zucchini (about two medium)
Optional: 1/2 cup raisins

Mix in the dry ingredients.

Fill muffin cups and bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes.