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Monthly Archives: December 2008

Crappy Gray Chicken and me

     This week, I caught crappy gray chicken. Sometimes you need an accomplishment like that to feel you have a grip on your world.
     Crappy Gray Chicken, as I warmly call her, is a young, energetic spring chicken with a crazy fluff on the top of her head. She went wild the first time I let the birds go free so she doesn’t trust me or the chicken pen. Every time I come near she squawks angrily and sprints away on her spindly legs looking like the Road Runner on speed.
     As winter crept in, I noticed I was losing chickens at an alarming rate. When food sources are low, every wild creature in a three mile radius decides my flock is fast food heaven. (It’s only taken me 3 years to figure this out, duh.) So, I’ve decided to close my birds in the big pen for the winter. Not like there’s much to eat in the meadow anyway. The problem is, they’ve been given so much freedom that I never have my birds all inside at one time. A handful of them even prefer to roost in a big fir tree by the chicken house at night rather than go inside where they have protection from the elements and marauding creatures.
     One afternoon, I was bringing a bag brimming with kitchen scraps to the chickens and I noticed the entire flock had followed me into the pen. I closed the door. Voila. The chickens were in for the winter. But when I turned around, I saw Crappy gray chicken peeking at me from around the corner of the chicken house.  I asked Neva to guard the door so the other chickens did not venture out and spent an hour chasing Crappy Gray Chicken, thinking I could scare her into the pen. No luck. Eventually, I gave up and decided I’d just have to catch her another day.
    For a week, I tried luring her into this or the other pens, but she wouldn’t come near. Meanwhile, as I went about my chores or drove by on my way to run errands, I could see her hovering around the door to the pen or pressed up against the back side of the wire fence. Obviously she was feeling ostracized from the flock and deep down, she wanted to join them. She just couldn’t overcome her fear of me. I felt sorry for her, but I was perturbed too. Why did Crappy Gray Chicken have to be so crappy? She should trust the girl with the feed, ya know.
     After two weeks of trying but failing to capture the wayward bird, I decided to let all the chickens go again in hopes that they would all return (crappy gray chicken too) to the henhouse that night because certainly by now a new habit had been formed and everyone had discovered the joy of sleeping inside rather than roosting in a tree. That night as I went to close the pen door, I spied seven chickens sleeping outside in my fir tree. So much for chicken training theory.
    A week later, as I was spreading around a windfall of kitchen scraps from my Christmas feast, the bulk of the flock followed me into the pen again. I closed the door happy for the opportunity to contain the birds yet again before I lost the bulk of them. As I was leaving, one leghorn latecomer stood anxiously at the door. I open it and she ran right by me to be with the group. Now, that’s my idea of a good chicken. I looked at all the hens pecking in the piles of vegetables and leftover stuffing. No Crappy Gray Chicken. She was outside again, peering at me from around the chicken house.
   “I can hear your stomach growling, and I don’t feel sorry for you,” I said to the bird. “A hundred hungry beasts are going to be prowling around here tonight and you are the only one left on the menu, so if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get in this pen.
    She squawked and ran away.
    “You are a Crappy chicken.” I called after her.
     I told myself I didn’t care, but it drove me crazy to see her day after day wandering the perimeter of the pen clearly wanting to be with the others.
    I offered a cash reward to my kids if they could come up with a way to catch Crappy Gray Chicken, but distracted by new Christmas presents they weren’t much motivated. I was on my own.
      I formulated a plan. If I close off the door to the chicken house at night while the birds were all asleep and keep the pen door open with a bunch of chicken scratch and kitchen scraps scattered about, Crappy Gray Chicken will certainly wander in to fill up on the goodies. Then, I’ll just have to sneak down in the morning and close the door without her seeing me. That night, after dark, I went down and propped wire against the chicken coup exit, spread food about and left the big pen door open .
   It was a great plan, except for the fact that in the morning it was raining, which meant Crappy Gray chicken would be tucked in a tree or up in the hayloft. I couldn’t keep the birds trapped in the small chicken house for long, because my roosters would fight if confined and as day crested the flock would be frantic for food and water, rain or no. Chickens are insatiable that way. Feeling guilty and a little bit cruel, I forced the birds to wait until the rain stopped and at about 11:00 went down to the barnyard. Crappy Gray Chicken was in the pen! Quickly, I closed the door (I was inside.) Crappy Gray Chicken freaked and ran as far down the chicken run as she could as if I was one of those disturbed neighbors that made all the babysitters disappear in those teen slasher movies.
   “You are a big scardy-cat, baby,” I called after her.
     I removed the barrier so all the chickens could come streaming out, and they began pecking at their breakfast and squawking at me because they didn’t appreciate their confinement a bit.
    “It was a sacrifice you had to make. One for all and all for one,” I nagged back.
     So now, Crappy Gray Chicken is with her flock, safe from becoming a winter blue plate special and I have boasting rights as a chicken round up specialist. My final conquest for 2008.

    Yesterday was a sunny, 55 degree day. The ground was soft from all the rain we’ve been having, so I decided to plant some bulbs I ordered ages ago that have been left in a box in the garage ever since we decided to put the house up for sale. We recently built a nice stone entrance to the land with a directional marker to the “lodge” so potential buyers will be impressed (la-ti-da, whatever). I decided to plant the bulbs around the upturned earth around this new structure so that our house, if it hasn’t sold by spring (or even if it has) will have a prettier drive in. I also want to get rid of the clutter in the garage. 

    I opened the box and my jaw dropped. I had 300 big red Empress Tulip bulbs inside. Must have been sipping my own wine the day I placed that sale order on the internet. I rolled up my sleeves and spent the afternoon planting all those bulbs and a few others that people have given me for gifts or that I picked up in clearance. I do that, see flowers on sale and buy them, then leave them in a corner of the barn or garage because I’m too lazy to actually plant them. My intentions are good, but the follow through is often on on a delayed timer.

   It felt good to be outside on what felt like a spring day even though it was December, and good to get all these collected bulbs in the ground – kind of promising – as if I was buying insurance.  Now, we will certainly sell the house – the heavens will want me around for years to come to witness these bulbs bloom. It’s only fair since I’ve done the work.

     I next decided to sheer my angoras. I hate to remove their hair in the midst of winter, because it still gets cold at night and I expect another cold front to roll in any day now. But I’ve been lax and the poor bunnies are matting with huge clumps of felted angora fur hanging off their bodies and catching on the bars of the cage. This is what happens if you don’t dehair them every 12 weeks or so. I spent two hours clipping clumps of fur and trying to make my poor rabbits comfortable again, my guilt raging.  This did put a small damper on my Crappy Chicken conquest, but in the end, it was nice to have another task off my to-do list. Today, I’ll work on the other two angora rabbits – can’t start a new year with unfinished chores nagging at the back of your mind.

    As I was working on the rabbits, bees kept swarming around my head.  I noticed a dozen of them in the rabbit cages crawling over their food. I noticed even more bees in the chicken house crawling on the corn feed. Weird. I guess the warm weather has them out of the hive, but this late in the year nothing is blooming so they’re trying to find sugar in these offerings. Today, I’ll mix up a big batch of sugar water as a late Christmas present and remind them to be patient. In the spring, they’ll have 300 new tulips to visit. They can turn those sweet flowers into honey – an extra bonus for my efforts. Cool.

      I’m going back to work full time by September. I’ll discuss my plans another time (since I haven’t decided  exactly what I’m going to do yet), but knowing this casts a sense of poignant appreciation for the sweet creatures I spend time caring for now. Will I have time for you all next December? I wonder. Will spending an afternoon planting bulbs be a thing of the past? Will I lose this wonderful feeling of peace and tranquility that fills me everyday when I’m outside doing simple chores, convening with nature and my thoughts? Will this sense of connection with the earth stay with me, or get buried under worldly responsibilities and silly ambition when I rejoin the workforce? What will happen to the books that lie inside me, some dormant, others fighting to be set free?

I guess that is up to me. Remind me of that if I need reminding later.

Nuts to Chestnuts!

I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never roasted chestnuts. I’ve sung about it plenty, but never actually roasted chestnuts on an open fire. Never even ate a chestnut. Go figure. 

I often pull recipes out of cooking magazines and keep them in neat plastic page savers to create my own cookbooks. A few years ago, I collected a recipe for roasted chestnuts and mushrooms. Every Christmas I think about making it, but I don’t because I can’t find chestnuts in the supermarket and I never think to order them in advance. Yesterday, I’m in the supermarket in the produce department and I see a basket of chestnuts on sale for only 99 cents. Clearance special. Ye-haw. I pick up two baskets thinking I’ll try that holiday recipe at long last. Cool.

When I get home, I flip open my recipe book and see that I’m supposed to use canned, roasted chestnuts. Mine are raw, still in the shell. No problem. I’ll just figure out how to roast them. They’ve been doing it for a hundred years (the song is proof) so how hard can it be? I go on-line to get the know how and learn that I should cut a slit in the shells (no easy task, I assure you) put them on a cookie sheet, and roast them at 450 for 20 minutes. Then, I’m to press the moisture out of the nut, remove the outer shells and I’ll have freshly roasted chestnuts for the recipe. I go about this laborious chore feeling very Christmassy. I’m humming the song, of course.

When the timer goes off I turn off the oven and open the door. A waft of smoke almost affiliates me. I cough and gag and pull out the cookie sheet to see little black, shriveled chestnuts rolling about. I put a few in a kitchen towel to “squeeze out the moisture” but they’re as dry as a bone. Hummm….. I crack one open and even though it is hot enough to burn my tongue, I take a bite. Almost break a tooth. The nutmeat inside is as hard the shell and the taste is like a combination of cardboard and bitter chalk, not unlike taking a bite out of a raw cinnamon stick hoping it just might taste like donuts.

I spit out the nut, rub my tongue on the towel then take a huge gulp of coffee (I always cook with coffee or wine, depending on the hour and the dish being created).

Mark comes home and asks what I’m making. I tell him there’s a cheesecake in the oven (his mother’s request) and a sweet potato casserole (his favorite) and sage and sausage stuffing (Kent’s favorite). I just put a peach aspic in the fridge and I was getting ready to start a dessert using my homemade mint cordial (which came out glorious, by the way). I still need to make something chocolate because we’ve invited a few friends and I know they count on getting a chocolate extravaganza when I’m cooking. I’ll finish off or add to these pre-made dishes tomorrow while making the rest of the meal, but I like to get a good start and some things need to be refrigerated overnight. I tell him he’s getting spaghetti for dinner, but he has to wait. I’m in the throws of Christmas feast creation, don’t ya know.

I then point out my crispy chestnuts and give him an overview of my folly. He grimaces and says, “Good. I hate chestnuts.”

“When have you ever had chestnuts?”
“A few years ago they sold roasted chestnuts at the holiday in lights display at Callaway Gardens, so I tried them, remember? They were awful.”

“Well, that had to be because they were a mass produced, holiday gimmick. Chestnuts have to be better when made the old fashion way. It’s a pretty famous Christmas thing, roasted chestnuts.”

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if the dang things did taste good, you’d find them everywhere this time of year, the same way cocoa drinks become the monthly special at the coffeehouse or peppermint finds it’s way into desserts or ice cream flavors.  Apparently, chestnuts suck and everyone knows it but me.

This morning, I’m going to the supermarket to pick up a pre-ordered prime tenderloin beef roast, my traditional Christmas Eve main course. I wrap it in puffed pastry trucking a layer of sautéed mushrooms under the crispy coating. While there, I might just look for those canned chestnuts. It’s the principal of the thing, you see. I don’t think it’s fair to give up an entire food product without giving it a fair shot, and if I find the one and only recipe that makes chestnuts palatable, it will give me something to brag about every December.  If nothing else, my roasted chestnuts and mushroom-onion sauté will be a horrible side dish that everyone can make fun of – but at least my kids won’t grow up to be fifty never having tasted roasted chestnuts.  I realize I might ruin the song for everyone, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take in the interest of food exploration.

So that’s my plan for today. I’ll be feeding everyone to kick off Christmas indulgence. I’ll start with the big bones I bought for the dogs, move on to the bananas and carrots I have for the angora rabbits and dig out some apples and carrots for the llama and horses. I’m going to clean the fridge so the chickens will have a bag full of wilted produce and fruit to pick at too. Then, I’ll move on to family and friends. I’ll seduce them with my melt in the mouth beef tenderloin and a host of gourmet side dishes, homemade wine, and cordials. There will be an inviting display of desserts awaiting them on the sideboard offering the promise of a sweet finale. This will help them relax, confident that everything I serve is great – then, when they are eating with relish and not paying attention, I’ll spoon those damn chestnuts onto their plate and see what happens.

There is a little Grinch in all of us.

Santa Lives in Blue Ridge

Forget the North Pole. Santa lives in Blue Ridge. I see him all the time.

When I lived in New York, I was convinced I was in the Santa capitol of the world. This time of year, a Santa stood ringing a bell in front of a metal Salvation Army collection pot on every street corner. I’d throw in a few quarters as I passed by thinking, “Are you the one?” Sometimes these Santa’s had dark skin, bushy eyebrows, the wrong colored eyes, or they were too short or too tall. They might be women, young yuppie types, elderly, or so lacking “jolly-ness” that I wasn’t fooled a bit. 

In Blue Ridge, Santa doesn’t wear a red suit and he certainly doesn’t ring a bell to bring attention to himself. He goes about his days like everyone else with a twinkle in his eye and his bushy white beard ungroomed. Often, he wears overalls and work boots. Just the other day, I saw Santa at the hardware store. He was loading his truck with two by fours. As I passed, he nodded and winked. I gasped!

I saw two Santas at the Waffle House last week. Perhaps it was Santa and his brother. Their round stomachs filled the booth leaving little room for the plate of biscuits and gravy they were downing. White hair and beards covered the collars of their flannel plaid shirts and one wore a John Deer baseball cap. They were talking about how the endless rain is making a mess at their barns. Must be tough on the reindeer, I thought.

If you go to Copperhill, there’s a store called Christmas is Here and Santa is inside working the register. On a slow day, he works on his hand-carved wooden bowls in the corner of the shop. You can often see him whittling away at a chunk of wood, proving the elves need help once in a while. He doesn’t wear a Santa suit on an average day any more than an army recruit would go around in full dress uniform, but he’s always in a red shirt. Santa is a subtle guy on an average day.

We have our traditional Santa wanna-bes too. Good Samaritans decked out in red velvet pass out gifts at the bank or make an appearance at fundraisers. A traditional Santa rides the train to the Light up Blue Ridge ceremony and sits in the decorated gazebo in the park to take pictures with the kids. Mrs. Claus hands out peppermint sticks by his side. It’s a lovely holiday tradition, but this year I noticed the real Santa in the crowd, a bit of chew in his cheek and mud on the hem of his work-worn jeans. He was lifting a grandchild over his head to give her a better view of the impostor. Santa has no ego when it comes to having fun. He didn’t ho, ho, ho, but he had a hearty laugh and the way he hugged that child and gave her a tickle to make her squeal gleefully was the epitome of Christmas love to me.

Forget the corny, commercialism that is such a part of Christmas in areas of the country where commerce drives the soul and everyone is too frazzled to pause for a cup of homemade eggnog. If you want to live in a place where Christmas lives in the heart and even Santa understands you don’t have to put on airs, come to Blue Ridge. Christmas is as wholesome and natural here as the holly growing in the woods outside your cabin door, as the deer that dart from the fur trees as you surprise them on a walk, and as real as rubbing elbows with Santa at the coffee shop.

A bit of this and that

The winter issue of New Southerner, a literary magazine of alternate living, is now available on line at You don’t want to miss this year’s award winners, primarily the essay Threads of Meaning, by yours truly. Check it out. I read the bios of the fiction and poetry winners, and I must say, I’m in good company. Since this essay is a chapter in my memoir, I couldn’t be more pleased. The timing is great considering several agents have shown an interest in the book. Makes me seem like a promising up and comer, or so I like to think. Anyway, I just wanted to share.

Winter is here. Ho Hum. This is when I wonder what the heck I am doing with all these animals. My fingers are perpetually frozen as I crack the surface of water buckets each day. I have to exchange rabbit water bottles for ones from home because they freeze solid each night. Even my hose and water pump is frozen solid, so I’m back to carting gallon jugs to the barn so my nursing llama has a plentiful supply of fluids.  I watch my diminishing hay supply with concern . . . I’m probably going to run out by March –crap. Something picked off over a dozen chickens, (my favorites, of course) in one week, so now I’m keeping my flock in the pen. This makes for cranky chickens and a peacock with a rotten attitude, but I’m determined to keep them alive till spring. When the food supply grows short, chickens are sitting ducks, so to speak. My ducks, on the other hand, are thriving. I bought more ducks than I wanted or needed this fall, because I figured a few would inevitably get picked off. Apparently, as a group, they are survivors. I have this huge quacking click of always hungry birds parking themselves on my dock now. Just goes to show, you can’t control nature and shouldn’t even try to second guess it. I have two mallards which started out as solid black ducklings. Their heads turned green last week and their body colors are changing. I am always fascinated with watching different breeds of animals change as they mature, so these birds are my entertainment de jour this season. My raw “nature education” never grows dormant here.

We put up our Christmas tree last week. It’s a monstrosity of a thing – twelve feet high with a billion branches that require shaping and fitting into individual brackets. After hours of working to put it together, we got to the last few rows and the plastic branch brackets started crumbling. Apparently, our fake tree didn’t take well to the heat and/or cold of the attic. Oops. Suddenly, the tree started wilting and  branches started falling off. It looked like Charlie Brown’s tree, only the blown up version. There was a time when we would have shrugged and gone out and bought another tree. That’s not us anymore. We were determined to make it work for a variety of reasons.
• We have at long last adopted the “Use it up and wear it out” country mentality and we’re no longer comfortable or interested in a disposable lifestyle, so we don’t want to replace the tree for financial or ecological reasons.
• We don’t’ believe we will be living here next Christmas, and since this spectacular tree is designed for this spectacular house, we certainly don’t want to replace it for a single season. The next house will require a different size (and less laborious) tree – maybe we will even go  back to something real.       
• We’d already put two hours into erecting the dang tree, and the idea of taking it apart and having to start over with something else another day was unacceptable. Besides which, we were planning to decorate and take pictures to send to a magazine for next year, and the plan hinges on using what have and know works. 

So, Denver, Kent and I decided to get creative. We started with super glue. That didn’t work. We tried rolls and rolls of duck tape. No good. I suggested we try tying the branches up to the base with a complex series of pulleys and supports hidden in the branches. In the end, a combination of all three things allowed us to rig the tree for one more season. For three hours, we coaxed, manipulated and cursed at the tree, begging it to hang in for one more season. We bullied it into submission. Lights, ribbon, and ornaments hid our cheating machinations, and voila, the tree is as pretty as ever, just so long as you don’t peer inside to witness the mishmash engineering involved. Between you and me, I like knowing we are getting one more year out of this baby… it’s the principal of the matter, but I imagine taking it down won’t be much fun. Perhaps I should ask for a hatchet for Christmas.

After getting the tree up, I turned my attentions to gifts for business associates, neighbors and friends. Mark has a long list of people he wants to acknowledge this season since he is working again. Last year, we brought wine to everyone and it was a big hit, but I hate being easy to second guess, so this year I decided to put a twist on our family offerings. I made dozens and dozens of jars of wine jelly and made up baskets with a variety of other canned goods (since wine jelly is an acquired taste, I thought each basket deserved something more traditional too.) I especially like my raspberry, cranberry conserve made with apples. Nice discovery – almost hate giving it away. I’ve been in the kitchen with the holiday music cranking, watching the clock because I musn’t forget to feed the animals early, before the dark sets in and makes the task more miserable than need be.   

More news. . .my son has a girlfriend now. We adore her. She has snow white hair, and a lithe, lengthy body. My first thought was, “Wow, I would have adored having that body in dance class.” My second thought was, “What the heck is that girl doing holding my son’s hand?” Humm… Later we were told about the budding romance. It’s been flourishing for a few weeks, but my son took his time sharing the news, either because he wanted to be sure the relationship was going somewhere, or because he though it was going somewhere and he didn’t want his queer-bo family to embarrass him sooner than necessary. Anyone’s guess.

He really likes this girl. I know because he brought her over and showed her his dance pictures. That’s a first. Why do I like her? For starters, her family raises and trains horses and this girl has been showing for years. She is an avid reader and when she came over, I was finishing up A Thousand Splendid Suns, and she smiled and said, “I read that book months ago. I liked it better than the Kite Runner, how about you?” She reads a book a day and loves animals. Bingo, we have things to talk about. Besides this, she makes my son blush – that alone means she had me at hello. She plays in the band, is a model student, and has a sense of humor. She still has to pass the ultimate test, of course, which is whether or not she can decorate a Christmas cookie well enough to pass muster, but till that’s been established, she’s OK in my book.

Neva is playing the trombone now. It is quite a sight watching her practice, her short arms barley able to stretch far enough to maneuver the horn’s sliding parts. But she has a knack for band, good wind, and other than the fact that she has to carry the instrument to school each day and it’s bigger than her, the trombone suits her. On Sunday, we went to the first and only concert that both my kids will play in together (because this is the only time the sixth grade performs with the high school). It was spectacular. Mark and I still can’t believe that in the tiny town of Blue ridge such a progressive and impressive music program exists. We are delighted Neva is giving band a shot – it was touch and go for a while there because she didn’t think it was “cool” enough. Eesh.

Kent has turned out to be quite the drummer, and so he was selected for the honorary position of drummer in the school’s specialty jazz band. They will perform on Thursday, and honestly, they are as good as any jazz quartet I ever listened to in clubs in New York. Yes, the music area of our lives has been rewarding since moving to Georgia.  

Neva caught the Twilight bug last week, and finished all four of those big books in four days. Her Christmas list is now filled with paranormal teen romances. I’m like, “Are you kidding me? If you want to read romance, why not try a historical?” She rolls her eyes as if to say, “Vampires are sexier than men in cutaway jackets and top hats.” Foolish girl. I’m hoping it is a phase that she will pass through – I’m not a big paranormal buff personally. I did steal away last weekend to take her to the first movie of said book and she spent the time leaning over and whispering what was wrong with the story because the book did it this way or that. I nodded and pretended to be interested as a good mother should. Ah well, I’m just thrilled she loves to read and her delight over discovering the appeal of romance amuses me to no end. She’s a passionate kid. Love that about her.

I should probably talk about Denver too while I’m on the subject of kids. She is doing well and has two jobs and a new boyfriend we very much approve of. But there is a small drama unfolding at her place of employment because she chose to handle a moral delimma in a professional manner. Until it is resolved, I think I’ll leave the subject of Denver for another day. I will say she is maturing and becoming a very, very socially conscientious young woman. She applied to be a volunteer for the Peace Corps last week. Don’t know if anything will come of that, but I am proud of her activist bent and passionate nature too. She still aspires to go to California to study jewelry design and is working towards that goal.

Now, I have to get to work. I’m working on my thesis novel again. Ugh. This is a book about dance, and because dance is a subject I feel still feel strongly about, it is hard not to be preachy or melodramatic or . . . well, this is a hard book for me to write. But I also think this particular book is one only I can write, and my professors say those are the books we are born to wrestle with, so, I keep returning to the manuscript. Cranky but compelled. When I get too exasperated, I’ll go back to the historical novels – my vacation from life. I think the dance book will be years in the making.

The point is, I keep working, working, working, even if I feel like I am on a writing treadmill going nowhere. At least I have my little essay to feel good about this month, and since that circles me back to the beginning of this blog, it makes for a good ending subject. So –  Bye.