The Zen of Chandelier Cleaning

How odd to notice
My hands channeling my mom:
Sweet inheritance.
—————————————-
I have many memories, only some of them fond, of helping my mom clean the gi-normous chandelier that hung in the hallway of the home I grew up in. Once a year or two, she would devote an entire day to cleaning the beast, usually a few weeks preceding Thanksgiving. Here is a picture of a chandelier like it.

A83-52/2MT/24+1  Maria Theresa CHANDELIER Chandeliers, Crystal Chandelier, Crystal Chandeliers, Lighting

Mom would do half at a time, so that she could use the other half as a template. There were at least 10 different prism designs (I would guess 250+ prisms?) and figuring out what went where was a nightmare. The process was long: Remove them to a bucket in stages.  Then, soak the crystals in ammonia and water to clean them before laying them out to dry, with some manual drying assistance. Then back to hang them up before starting the second half. To this day, I can’t smell ammonia without being instantly transported back to Rogers Avenue and a mind-numbingly long day up and down a 10 foot ladder (did I mention the ceilings were 12 feet tall?), nervous the whole time I would drop something.

I have a crystal chandelier in my house, a marriage of two small ones that once hung in that same house. Two and a half years ago when we moved in to our current home, I washed it with loving care… the kind of love present when you first clean things in your new home.  I enjoyed bringing it back to life, as it had been in a box for many years. Today I washed it again, but I discovered something that I hadn’t known before – not the first time I washed this one, nor in any of the times I helped my mom. There is something peaceful and zen-like when you wash a chandelier, and I enjoyed it very much.

I think the main cause of this is the fact that your attention must be 100% focused on what you are doing at that moment in time. Each prism has metal bits (sometimes several), that will snag your cloth easily and go flying away.  Getting each dry with no fingerprints requires dexterity (often carpal-tunnel-inducing). Wiping down the naked fixture, ensuring no dust or cleaner is left behind is a rigorous, meticulous affair. All done on a ladder, your arms raised.

And I loved it. I now feel at peace and satisfied at a job well done. I am sure my blood pressure is lower than when I started.  Granted, my chandelier is small, so I’m not sure this now Mom felt… Here is a picture of mine naked and dirty.

2012-12-26 14.54.41

It only has 72 crystals and 4 swags across its 8 arms and center pillar. Took me about 2-3 hours across the afternoon to complete the work.  Here it is clean and dressed:2012-12-26 16.57.08 

Beautiful! I had been avoiding cleaning it for a while, but next year I will remember how I feel now, and gladly set the time aside. It’s easy to forget the power of being present.

No. More.Tomatoes. Please.

Nothing is as sweet
As a ripe tomato, plucked,
Eaten, garden side.
——————————————–

Clearly, I am incapable of basic math. There are 4 of us in my family. I planted 15 tomato plants. Each of those plants has thrived (I have the water bill to prove it).  We have harvested what seems like hundreds of flipping tomatoes. I sit here at the computer, with a view to the back yard and my garden and can see even more red dots all over the plants, fruit waiting to be picked. How did I imagine we would eat all that these produce?

I am so sick of tomatoes I don’t know what to do. Today, Frank asked me if I wanted a BLT, my favorite vehicle for tomato consumption this time of year. Is there anything better than a red-fresh tomato and bacon (second only to mac and cheese as a favorite food of mine), with crisp lettuce, a smear of mayo on good old-fashioned white bread? I say there is not. Except when you are freaking sick of tomatoes. So when asked tonight, I said the nearly unthinkable: “No, I don’t. I’m tired of bacon. I’m tired of tomatoes.” Somewhere, a little part of me died.

My friends now scurry away when they see me carrying a brown sack. They know I’m about to foist upon them some tomatoes, and possibly some carrots, for that too was a bumper crop this year. They have tried politely declining, but since that stopped working 3 weeks ago, they just feign deafness and profess a desire for a scenic route through the school parking lot, and manage to dodge me thanks to the slow-moving school bus. (Who knew Jen could do a crouching roll under the school bus before jumping on the Johnston’s SUV to hitch a ride to her own car down the way?)

Why don’t I can them, you ask? Because that to me is worse. I would just repeat tomato consumption over and over across the winter, reminding myself repeatedly that I’m an idiot. If this were 1776 and we were, say, living in Boston during the siege by the British, surrounded by rebels in the countryside, too poor to move or take sides, then yes, I wouldn’t mind eating jar after jar of tomatoes. But this isn’t Boston, this isn’t 1776.

So I’m declaring that I’m officially done being a farmer this season. Any further fruiting will just become compost for the betterment of the dirt.  I’m hopeful that just like I forget what a pain Halloween is about April each year, just in time to start answering my kids when they ask how soon it comes again, next spring I’ll be raring to be a farmer, eager to put stuff in the ground to see what will grow. Just god, please help me do the math.

Top 10 Tips for your Next Power Outage

I’m a willing slave
To amps, volts, joules, things with plugs;
So lost when they go…
—————————————————–
Around 5pm Friday, a mere 30 minutes before I made my way home through fallen branches and strewn-about leaves, the power left my street. Gone. Caput. Not a downed tree in sight, but that didn’t matter. We were on our own.

As with most calamities, one of which I describe in this posting on a car breakdown, there are several stages one goes through as the event continues on. This post is really an after-event learning summary… tips I’ve gleaned from 21 hours of a power outage.

1. Give your house some credit. By the end, the temp was only up 5 degrees downstairs and 7 degrees upstairs. Mind you such temperature shifts have caused ice ages in our evolutionary history, but in an old house, with no insulation, these thick plaster walls did us a favor. Thanks house.

2. In spring and summer, when strong storms are common, I recommend checking the weather channel before going on a big grocery shop. It will minimize your losses considerably.

3. Don’t assume the dog won’t jump out the front, screen-less window just because she won’t jump out of the parked car.

4. Never lose hope that electricity will mysteriously return to just a single room. Keep flicking the switch each and every time your enter it. Statistically speaking, you are bound to be right at some point.

5.  Go ahead and open the damn fridge. By hour 15, when you are emptying the thing into coolers, your trepidation at opening it a half day before will seem silly.  At hour 1, open it. The thing will either come on soon enough that it won’t matter, or so far from now that you will have solved the problem by then. Either way, the outcome is the same.

6. Don’t drink all the beer too early in the process, or make sure you have enough to take the edge off for a while. You need to buzz to take you all the way to bedtime, not just help you navigate request after request to play “paper airplane versus king kong” with your 5 year old, his imaginative, no-plug-required game just for just the two of you.

7. Never, ever, inspect your skin in a magnifying mirror in the dark with an LED flashlight. You will find more facial hair than a Russian weight-lifter, decide it is all pitch black and that anyone who says you looks great for your age is a lying bastard. Don’t do it. No good will come from it.

8. I cannot recommend walking past an open bedroom window naked, silhouetted by a flashlight. You thought you looked like crap in the bathroom…

9. When, during your mad scramble to save food into coolers at hour 15, you purge year-old salsa, mustards, 3 bottles of half full Italian dressing, and some strange Asian sauce, try not to dump 2 jars of pickles down the disposal before you remember there is a power outage.

10. Once the power is back on, and you decide to clean the fridge for the first time in *mumble* months, resist the urge to inspect the crumbly bits in the back or the sticky stuff in the bottom of the meat drawer. You really don’t want to go there.
There you go. Upon reflection, apparently the only thing I really cared about during the last day was keeping food cold and proper flashlight positioning. And beer.  That isn’t too far off a normal day after all…

Do your new reading glasses make my ass look fat? The evolution of a marriage…

Small, square, the ad read:
“…A cuddly renaissance dude…”
With that, I was hooked.
———————————————-

Today I celebrate 19 years of wonderful marriage to Frank. Wow. Nine-teen. That’s a lot. We’ve known each other 20 years – yikes!  that’s like two decades! It has both felt like a very short period of time and like forever, because it seems I can’t recall much before we met.

I’m not sure I’m going to add anything new to the “anatomy of a marriage” genre, but I thought a trip down memory lane would be fun to write. So I present to you my marriage, in 6 stages:

Dating, 14 months: We spent a lot of time at my apartment. I lived alone and it was snuggly.  During this time Frank killed a rat in my apartment (the rat had the strength of 10 men and the daring of a playboy centerfold; I was terrified). He took me sledding for the first time in my life (winter snow is a little thin on the ground in middle Georgia).  It was a lovely place and a lovely time. I enjoyed our courtship a great deal. (I know, I know, who the hell calls it a courtship…)

Marriage years zero to 4: Our first apartment together. I moved in first, a few weeks before the wedding. I knew when the washer and dryer arrived the day after I moved in — my first major appliance purchase ever, let alone with another person — that this was serious. Why the 100 wedding invitations and the white dress hanging in the closet didn’t also convey this, I don’t know. But the washer and dryer… that was it. It was a great apartment. All new building, third floor on the back. We could watch the fireworks at Kings Island every night from the deck (ok, so you had to stand at one end and lean over the railing a little). We lit fires in the fireplace (also a novelty to this childhood victim of gas heat).  We sat on the floor and ate on the glass-topped coffee table in front of the TV so often I made a little table-cloth. (It currently lays folded on a shelf 4 feet from me now; we’ve never been able to part with it.) When we started rehabbing my husband’s childhood home, spending all but sleeping hours elsewhere, the place felt less lived in. Imagine my surprise then when we moved out in 1997: I sobbed uncontrollably at the loss of our first marital home. Even Frank shed a tear.

Homeowners, Part 1: We were virtually immobile for the first 2 years of our life in this home. The previous 18 months of near constant rehabbing had stripped us of our youthful vigor (being newly married and mostly broke, we did almost all the work ourselves. We started by removing the entire roof, trusses and all, and setting new trusses with a crane, if that gives you an indication of how much work we did…). The walls remained boring beige. The last few bits of rehab went untouched for years. But we enjoyed being homeowners. Frank bought me a go-kart disguised as a lawn mower which I joyfully drove like a maniac every summer weekend. I planted a few vegetables. I took a landscape class and redid the front yard. Frank put in a concrete driveway that could withstand the landing pressure of the space shuttle.  Five years after moving in, and nearly 10 years into our marriage, we decided to start a family and quickly (and thankfully) after that, our daughter was born. (I loved painting her nursery (thanks Teneal!) and would silently weep when years later it was undone by another family.) We had cats and house plants and relatives next door and across the street. It was a good party house and the vaulted ceiling hosted a 12 foot tall Christmas tree each year. When we sold the house in 2005 to the first people who looked at it, we were pleased someone who appreciated our hard work, craftmanship and obvious love of the place had purchased it.

The Expat Years: In 2005 we moved to England for my job; Frank became a stay at home dad. We learned to drive on the other side of the road and call it rubbish and motorway and car park and mum. I loved it… and it was hard. Redefining your roles in a marriage and as parents isn’t easy, and often I struggled balancing work (and my perceived higher expectations being an expat) with being a second-in-command parent with being a mom with being a wife with wanting some alone time. But we learned to go with the flow.  Two years into it our son was born and I watched with amazement as my husband grew into an expanded role as caregiver and home-keeper and I chilled out about being the primary breadwinner and an expat. Although we were happy to come back to the US in 2008, I will always love England. I never did fully say goodbye to our rental home there… not sure why.

Growth & Maturation: Remember 2008? Gas prices were sky high? House prices were rock bottom? We returned then, rented a home and stood ready to finally build a house on the 5 acres we had purchased in 2000 in a dream location in the country. But we had to wait. Had to get one kid in school and one in daycare. I had to get used to a new job with what seemed like a 24 hour clock. Frank had to restart his engineering business. And we had to decide on how to proceed with building the house.  Have Frank be the general contractor or use a builder? Will the bank loan us the money in this economy? The house we designed will cost HOW MUCH to build? Meet with the architect and redesign the house smaller with fewer bells and whistles. Revisit the budget, crunch some numbers. Argue with the homeowners association that we weren’t quite yet ready to build… These were the longest 18 months of our marriage I think. My son wasn’t getting along in day care; we were falling deeper in love with our daughters school 45 minutes in the opposite direction from our 5 acres. Did we really want the custom home? Was country living really the right thing for our little family? Was day care really the best option for AB at this time? Did we want a nice house but no money for vacation for the next 20 years, or some other path? When the universe presented to me, one January afternoon in 2010, a 4 bedroom house less than one mile from school on over an acre… an English Tudor no less… with one of those rock bottom prices nearly half of the dream home’s… well, the rest as they say is history. It was one of the most mature things we ever did – picking the collective future of our family over an old dream that didn’t really fit anymore. It was like finally parting with that really cool pair of designer pants that you bought on deep sale at Saks on a whim… they fit, but you never really had the right place to wear them, but you couldn’t bear throwing them out.  Selling the 5 acres felt like taking those pants to Goodwill. You know it’s the right thing, but you still wonder if you made the right decision – will you have just the right event to wear them to come up in a few days…

Homeowners, Part 2, No regrets: 2010 – to present.   I love my marriage. I love my kids and husband and the family we make. I love my house. I (mostly) love my job. We have a good dog and a short commute.  We sold 5 acres of specialty property in a down economy. We can take a vacation each year. The cars are healthy. I have to honestly say I am more content now than I have ever been. Don’t get me wrong — the first 19 years have been wonderful and I’m happy for the journey (and often dumbfounded at my good luck that started with reading that personal ad one NyQuil-drunk March evening…). And yet right now, everything seems to have come together at the same time. I have always mocked those 40-ish actresses who report that their 40s are sooo much better than their 20’s and 30’s. That they know themselves better, feel more comfortable with themselves, etc etc. I don’t feel like I have that level of self awareness – I have no clue if I “know myself better” or not. However, when viewed through the lens of the last 20 years… of the evolution of my married life, well then I must agree. It is, right now, the best. Amongst all the really amazing and wonderful great times, now is the best.

All my love, Frank. So very glad you picked me.

My Aga – Not just an oven…

My Aga greets me.
Its warmth melts the weariness
Of a long journey.
………………………………………..
My friends closest to me probably do not want to read this post. They know all about my Aga and likely aren’t interested in hearing more. But for those of you who don’t know what an Aga is, or why I’m so nuts about it, this post is for you.

So, what exactly is an Aga? First, it is pronounced like gaga (as in lady gaga), with the first G missing and the emphasis on the first ‘a’.  Here is a picture of my Aga.

My Aga... (notice the beautiful tile work, all done by Frank-the-wonderful)

A beauty, isn’t she? We first encountered one when we lived in England and our rental home had one. We didn’t know that some people find them intimidating – we just thought it was really cool and it’s why we picked that particular home to live in. And boy am I glad we did. My cooking will never be the same. They are very popular in England and other parts of Europe, and can also be found in the northern parts of the US (that is more my guess based on where we go for parts…).

An Aga is defined as a large iron cooker [it’s make of cast iron] which keeps its heat (from the Cambridge Dictionaries online). It has 4 ovens, each at a different temperature range: Roasting (~400 plus), Baking (~325-375), Simmering (~250) and Warming (~125).  On top there are two covered “plates” – the boiling plate and the simmering plate. There is also the “top plate” on the top left – not a cooking surface, just a warm area.

       

Open wide - the 4 ovens, clockwise from bottom left: warming, simmering, roasting, baking; center bottom door opens to the controls

boiling plate on left, simmering plate on right. Not sure why the right lid is always a mess - grilled cheese dross I think.

An Aga stores heat (although it is always warm, it only “runs” to make up for any lost heat). The goal in cooking on an Aga is to retain its heat and cook as much as you can in the ovens. That means often you start a dish on one of the plates, but you finish it in an oven. For example, you could boil the potatoes on the stove until your windows are running with condensation. Or, in the Aga, you bring the potatoes to boil on the boiling plate, pour off the water, cover it, put it into the Simmering Oven and then 30 minutes later your potatoes are steam-cooked and ready for mashing.  The house isn’t a humid mess and the potatoes are perfect.  The ovens too are designed for you to get a dish started in one place (the roasting oven for instance) and finished in another (the simmering oven). You need to fiddle with the time, but it is fairly straight forward.

You can use all areas inside of each oven – near the top it is warmer, or you can put it directly on the floor of an oven. You can put your whole pan in there, handle an all (assuming no plastic handles…).

I know this sounds really complicated, and you might wonder why bother. I’ll tell you why: it makes the world’s best bacon. This is not an exaggeration. You will not find better bacon anywhere. And the best part? The bacon fries in a pan on the floor of the roasting oven so you don’t have to clean up spattered grease. (Take note on the door of the top right oven (the roasting oven) in the picture above – see all that? That is from all the cooking and would be on my counters and in my hair if not in the oven. Don’t get disgusted, the door gets cleaned regularly and inside the oven is so hot that it carbonizes any spills.) When we finally got the Aga installed (my wonderful handy amazing husband Frank did all the work), Christmas Day 2010, guess what the first thing I cooked in the Aga was… yes, bacon.

Other wonderful things about my Aga:

  • Boiling plate boils a kettle faster than an electric kettle. In seconds it will start to make that happy boiling “tinkle” sound.
  • It is always warm, so when you are cold, you just need to stand near it or lay over the top and you’ll warm right up.
  • Great place to lay coats on cold winter mornings before going out. (Note – some parts are too hot to handle clothing, so you do need to be careful.)
  • You can warm plates on the top while the cooking finishes. You can see white plates on the top left side in the first picture, waiting for something to come out of an oven, get filled and then taken to the table. Makes me seem like a much more accomplished cook than I am.
  • All parts are handy… melt butter in a small pan on the top somewhere; soften cream cheese next to it or on top of it… toss all your leftovers in the simmering oven about an hour before dinner and they’ll all be warm at the same time – no more microwave shuffling of multiple dishes. You cook pancakes directly on the simmering plate – no pan needed, so less mess to clean up.
  • We compost fruit and veg scrap… and we keep the container right on top of the Aga (see the canister in the first picture again). The heat dries out the scraps and extends the time before we have to put them in the compost bin.
  • I find it easier to cook healthy dishes. Cut up some veg, toss in some herbs and olive oil, throw in the top of the roasting oven – 30 minutes later, perfectly roasted veggies. Almost as easy as opening a can of veggies and putting them in the microwave.
  • It has elimimated nearly all my other appliances. No toaster, no crock pot, no bread maker, no microwave bacon cooker, no electric skillet, no rice cooker. Truth be told, I still sometimes use the  rice cooker (my Aga rice is meh), but not very often. I also limit my microwave usage.
  • You can cook a ton of food at once because each oven can handle a lot of pans.  When living in England, I hosted Thanksgiving for nearly 20 people. I did all the food: turkey, side dishes and desserts. Everything was warm when it was served because the Aga is so versatile — cook in one oven, keep warm in another or on top. The turkey itself was finished at around 5pm, but I just put it on top of the oven (on the left side), covered it with a ski jacket, and 2 hours later when it was carved it was piping hot and delicious.

Issues or questions you might wonder about…

  • Is it safe for kids? Yes. My kids have never once burned themselves. They know where it is warm and where it is too hot to touch, and therefore to respect it, but that should be true of all appliances, right?
  • You put food in there and forget it is there, for several days. This is true. The smells vent outside so if you have left something, you often don’t realize it. This has had good results before (when we left soup in there for a day and a half… just had to add some water to the uber-concentrated veggie sludge and it was the best soup ever!) and bad (the broccoli looked like dried out flowers, ick).  Just makes it a little more fun and exciting each time you open an oven door.
  • I’ve failed miserably making caramels. Had to use the top plates to make it, which drains the heat over the 45 minutes required for cooking caramels. I kept moving the pan to the hotter plate because it was taking too long, but eventually scorched the candy. Dagnabbit. I haven’t tried again, but I will, and this time I’ll have more patience and perhaps not double the recipe…
  • They are expensive to buy and run. We purchased ours while still in the UK over eBay… got a great deal. I wouldn’t buy a new one – couldn’t afford it – but used worked for us. They do show up on eBay in the US at times.  Monthly, we think it costs us maybe $30-40 to run it (gas), so that’s clearly a choice. But the other benefits (warm kitchen, warm coats, great bacon) more than make up for it. For the “greenies” out there, you could heat a significant portion of your house with this. We didn’t go that far, but when we rehabbed our current house and kitchen, we designed the new HVAC systems (up and down) so that we could balance out the extra Aga heat as efficiently as possible. Not perfect, but better.
  • Isn’t the house always hot/warm? Can you run it in the summer? It does make the kitchen warmer than the rest of the house. But the heat isn’t too bad in the summer. Interestingly, we had it off for a week last summer to clean and service it and I will tell you, the kitchen just felt weird. It wasn’t right that it was cool/normal. This oven is the heart of our home and when it was “cold”, the house felt sad and the family was a little “off”. So, the little extra heat is worth it. (I’m not saying I’d run it in summers in my hometown in middle Georgia, but Cincinnati isn’t too bad…)

That’s it, my Aga. I love it – it makes me very happy. I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for not just an oven, but something that enriches your life. And I’d be happy to make you bacon anytime.

Coon-Zilla

A 10 pound raccoon
Versus a middle-aged man.
Well this should be fun.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Raccoons used to be cute creatures to me. Fuzzy, with that little lone ranger mask that makes them seem even more like a cuddly toy.  I remember my friend Stephanie had a favorite stuffed toy – Randy Raccoon.  They shared a bed. He was cute too.

There are no longer cute raccoons in my life. There is only the asshole raccoon that has been living inside our porch roof rafters. We’ve been hearing him off and on for a while. Thought perhaps he was a rat. We’d get geared up to do something about it and then he’d go all quiet on us… so we talked ourselves into believing it was our imagination or noisy pipes.

Then he came back. And started making a lot more noise. He was building a loft, moving in furniture, making himself a right cozy little nest. Something had to be done.

You might ask how we was getting in. Well, apparently he can either levitate or, like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, he has unimaginable talent for hanging upside down by his fingertips and then pulling himself into a small opening in our soffit (the underside of the roof overhang). In any event, there was a clear place he was getting in, we just didn’t really think that was how he was doing it. Oh well, score one for the raccoon.

So, yesterday, my beloved closed up that hole. He hoped like hell that the raccoon was not inside when he did this. Does hope actually work for anyone? Because it sure did not work for us.  My sweet was wrong (normally I would relish seeing that in writing; not so much today). He trapped the critter in.

And so, last night, we heard him scampering all over. The way our house is made, he had a lovely walking path from the porch, directly over my desk in our home office toward another porch. And by the sounds of his walk, he was pissed. Frank went to bed, but I was up working late and I swore, based on the noises he was making, the coon had somehow acquired power tools and a hammer.  When I came to bed, Frank assured me that the varmint wasn’t going anywhere, that it wouldn’t chew through our concrete and lath ceiling and come visit us durng the night. And most importantly, he promised he would get him out of there the next day.

Today is the next day. And Coon-zilla struck overnight. That little nuisance did indeed get out. He chewed his way out. But not down, into the house as I feared, but up, through the freaking roof. Yes, I said he chewed through the roof.  He chewed through plywood and shingles to free himself. We now have a coon sized hole in the roof over the porch.

Apparently I was right about the power tools.

The only good news in all this? The porch had a leak we couldn’t isolate, but the new skylight in the roof clearly points out the soft spot. So we can now add this roof repair to the top of the “many things we have to spend money on because this is an 86 year old home” list. Oh joy.

As I head to bed tonight, I rest happily knowing the hole has a temporary patch on it (only Arnold SchwarzenCoon could get back in), the ceiling has been quiet, and the “have-a-heart” trap by the pond is armed with giant marshmallows. Score one for the humans.

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