On Brown Thumbs

I have met very few household projects that I couldn’t tackle after some amount of self-education.  However, I must confess that I have a grotesquely bad record with house plants.

My mother had a sizable collection in and around the house I grew up in, and managed to keep the vast majority of them not only alive, but relatively happy.  I, on the other hand, nearly managed to kill off the aloe vera she sent off to school with me.

Were it not for the valiant efforts of one of my best friends and suite-mates, the poor thing would surely have shriveled and died on the windowsill over my bed.

That said, when my parents moved out of the aforementioned house, I had to beg and plead with my mother just to get her to take the indoor plants (she has an impressive collection of African violets – mostly gifts from her over-eager children), and so I was left with the daunting task of rescuing as many of the outdoor plants as I could.  I brought with me four small kalanchoes (leaving another half-dozen that were too big to transport), that poor old aloe, a particularly stunning begonia given to us as a gift from a friend I was particularly sad to leave behind, a cactus-like spiny thing that hurt like hell to handle but looked really cool, and the remnants of two Christmas cacti we’d been killing off for a year anyway.

When I got them here in October, all were doing tolerably well.  I pulled them in for the couple of freezes we had during the winter, and they thrived in the nice long, mild spring.  Then summer hit.  The strong-ish wind and blazing heat prompted me to pull the plants in to the slightly shielded end of my porch.  When the plants started looking wilty, I made a point of watering more.  Then they all started dying on me.

The Christmas cactus was, bafflingly, not the first to go.  One of the kalanchoes just shriveled up and died before the cactus lost the last of its pale, pitiful color.  Once I finally admitted that there was nothing more I could do for these dried shells, I decided to take advantage of the now-unused pots.  One of the other kalanchoes was looking pretty pitiful and I realized the pot it was in was no longer draining, so it was transplanted to the pot its dearly departed sibling had last occupied.  The cactus-y thing took the larger pot recently vacated by the actual cactus.

It was during this transplant that I made a particularly startling discovery.  You see, I’d assumed it had long outgrown its pot, but I hadn’t realized just how much:

Turned out the damned thing was filling the whole pot and still growing like crazy.  As I put it into a pot at least double the size of the one it had previously occupied, I realized that I was likely going to wind up with a whole lot more of this unpleasantly poky plant.

It’s been about two weeks since the replanting effort.  The poke-master is looking a little unsure of itself around the bottom, but otherwise seems just as defiantly perky as ever.  The kalanchoe, however, is rapidly deteriorating.  I loosened the soil tonight before watering.

Then I had a brainstorm.

I looked up the care of kalanchoes online.

I’ve been doing everything wrong.

They want lots of sun and very little water.  Basically, they like to be ignored.

Then I wondered what I should be doing with the aloe.  Same deal – more sun, less water.

I’m failing at plants.  Hard.

Maybe I’m doing right by the Sir Pokes-a-Lot.  After about fifteen minutes browsing pictures of first cacti, then aloe relatives (it has a cute little long-stemmed flower like aloe vera), I finally land on Gasteria, of the family Asphodelaceae.  As best I can tell, my little monster is a Gasteria bicolor.

…which also likes lots of light and very little water.

I am a miserable failure at caring for plants.

In a last-ditch effort, I look up my big, beautiful begonia, which has been varying from perky to very wilty, apparently at random.

It is a Superba Cane-Stemmed Begonia!  Begonias like attention!  They like to be fed!  They like to be pruned!  They… still don’t like to be watered much.

I will not be defeated.

I now have a new project:

I will be leaving the plants out in the sun and wind tomorrow, in the hopes that they will dry out quickly.  Then I will very carefully monitor their progress as I don’t water them.

I will stop failing at cultivating plants.

The way I see it, this is not a matter of innate talent. This should be a learned skill.

If I can figure out how to bake gluten-free, care for a tiny monster of a puppy, use a soldering iron without burning a finger off, and do basic accounting, I can learn to grow a few healthy house plants.

…I’ll let you know how it goes.

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On Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

You may be wondering, “What in God’s name were you doing in Atlanta?”

Well, you see, I am generally in great need of a vacation of one sort or another by this time of year.  In 2008, a certain hurricane was nice enough to pay my hometown a visit, try to wipe it off the map, and in the process get me a month off of work.  Barring further hurricanes, I’ve opted for taking a long weekend in the Smoky Mountains at my parents’ house.

In early August, the tiny town of Burnsville, NC, puts on a craft fair, where its adorably traditional town square is transformed into a veritable Mecca for people who appreciate hand-crafted goods.  The streets were lined with hand-blown glass, pottery of every possible shape and size, jewelry, and pretty much anything else that can be made in those hills.  The wood work was especially breathtaking this year.  I met a guy who was a master joiner, recently retired from ship building, who was selling stunningly elegant boxes.

Between the scenery and the craft work, I was in heaven.

My aunt came up for the weekend, just so she could watch me shop.

I take these vacations very seriously.

Unfortunately, the cheapest airfare between here and Asheville required a stop through Atlanta.  Then the airline decided that my hour-and-a-half layover just wasn’t long enough, and bumped that up to four hours.  On the plus side, I had no need to hurry to my gate at the far end of the terminal, and had plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular view of at least two of the airport’s five runways.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Dance of the Giant Flying Machines that plays out at major airports.  When I was little, I wanted to be the guy with the brightly-colored wands that directs the plane into the gate.  Now I just satisfy myself by sipping on a Frappuccino and pondering the technical components of continuously shuffling over-sized tin cans off the ground and safely back down again.

Hartsfield-Jackson, known alternately as the World’s Busiest Airport, or the Traveler’s Scourge, provides ample entertainment.

On Cooking

Mom was the cook in our house for the vast majority of my formative years.  Dad did weekend breakfasts and the occasional fancy meal.  I learned to properly mix pancake batter, operate a microwave, and sneak cookie dough when Mom wasn’t looking.

Then a series of events converged to change my view of food.  First I went off to school, and spent five and a half years living in a dorm and eating all the terrible things one eats when living without a proper kitchen.  Somewhere in that span of time, my father discovered he is gluten intolerant.  Then I graduated, moved home, and discovered the Food Network.  In other words, I had a very serious desire to have real food, Dad’s new diet required that we actually put some serious thought and creativity into household meals, and the television was giving me ideas.

The key to a gluten-free diet is controlling exactly what goes into the food. This is most easily accomplished by cooking from scratch (analyzing ingredient lists on box meals will cause painful eye strain). My parents were largely satisfied reusing the same dozen or so recipes from GF cookbooks, but I was itching to get more *creative.*
My hypothesis was simple: gluten-free dining can be achieved by cooking normal recipes, either with GF substitutes or using recipes that don’t call for wheat products.
It was a great idea.  The logic was sound.  Just one issue:  I really hadn’t ever cooked from scratch before.  Those pancakes?  Bisquick.  Mom made waffles from scratch, but those required separating egg yolks and… well, that seemed complicated at the time.

I tackled my new project just as I had every other creative endeavor – I dove in head first, and learned by trial and error.

First I found recipes that never called for flour.  My sister-in-law pointed me toward the free recipes on the Williams-Sonoma website.  There was this recipe for enchiladas verdes, with chicken in corn tortillas topped with a tomatillo sauce.  I learned to cook chicken until it falls apart, and that there are tortillas actually designed for use in enchiladas.  I also learned that serrano peppers are really quite hot, even when doused in sour cream, and that sufficiently spicy food actually can cause someone to break a sweat.

I became addicted to Ace of Cakes.  Honestly, who wouldn’t?  There are cakes, and pretty things, and super-nerdy New Englanders.  I, too, wanted to learn the Ways of the Cake.  My ultimate goal was to successfully produce gluten-free baked goods that were actually edible, unlike most of the mixes we had already tried.  I quickly discovered that the best way to proceed with GF flour substitutes was with a variety of flours, and that said flours are kind of ridiculously expensive.  So I started baking highly glutenous cupcakes and muffins with cheap normal flour, just to get the hang of this baking-from-scratch thing.  My predilection toward modifying instructions made the learning curve a little steeper than it needed to be, but I soon found my savior in Alton Brown, who translated the small words of the average recipe into a more detailed language I could understand: science.  (Seriously – I started taking notes while watching Good Eats.)  Eventually I was producing baked treats that were both tasty and aesthetically pleasing.  My coworkers and neighbors nobly sacrificed themselves, ensuring the experimental pastries didn’t go to waste.  Once I was confident with a recipe, I made smaller batches with the GF substitutes and proudly presented them to my father.

As I spent more time in the kitchen, I learned a few more things.

I learned that my mother’s favorite meal is anything that she didn’t have to cook.  (Just… try to take it easy on the garlic.)

I learned that spices are fun!  My boyfriend introduced me first to Italian herbs, then white pepper, then red pepper.  My life has not been the same since.

Most importantly though, I learned that cooking is cathartic.  There are so many things to do, so many sensory experiences.  Hot and cold.  Dry spices and cooking wine.  Garlic. The transformation that occurs when you add corn starch to a skillet full of tasty things simmering in their own juices to make an even tastier sauce.  Watching meat cook.  Trying new vegetables.  The happy burbling sound of a rolling boil.  Chopping.  Slicing.  Crying your eyes out over a really fresh onion.  The careful chemistry of baking.  Tasting the sauce as you go along until it’s just right.  Cooking utensils. Trying something new, and discovering that it tastes better than the stuff that comes in a box.  It generates all the satisfaction of beads and charcoal and yarn and clay, but then you get to eat it too.

Now that I’m no longer living with my parents, I don’t have the pleasure of a sit-down meal with an appreciative audience, but I still live in my kitchen.  No matter how stupid things get at work, I can come home to my refrigerator full of raw ingredients and make something.  I can dump all my frustrations into my over-sized pot of tomato sauce along with the red pepper and garlic, knead out my exhaustion with from-scratch pizza dough.

Last night I made a really fantastic deep-dish pizza, with a sauce spiced just the way I like it (a lot), and a heaping pile of cheese. Tonight I’ll be slow-cooking the pork butt that is currently marinating in my refrigerator.  Why spend six hours cooking something I won’t even get to eat until tomorrow?  Because it feels good.

…and because I’ve been craving the stuff for months, so waiting one more night won’t kill me.

On Color

I wear red glasses to prove that I am not afraid of color.  It is all part of the rehabilitation program started by my best and worst roommate (so called because while she was the best friend I roomed with, we very nearly killed each other while sharing the same space for a year).  She informed me during one of our recent retail outings that my taste in clothing was very dull because I was afraid of color.  Granted, my wardrobe heavily favored black and other dark tones during the time that we lived together in college because I was your typical angst-ridden teen, but I had come to develop a philosophy in the subsequent years that more reasonably justified my heavily monochromatic collection of clothing.  I figured that if everything was close to the same color, then everything would match, thereby creating a maximum number of possible variations with a minimum of actual articles of clothing.

Clearly, she disagreed.  I bought a bright red sweater to placate her at the time.  I wear it with any of my five pairs of black dress pants, coupled with one of my four pairs of black dress shoes.  I vary jewelry based on mood and occasion.

I arrived at the optometrist’s office that fateful day wearing a pair of almost-rimless glasses that matched my hair.  My previous two pairs before that were rimless with silver temples, and heavy black plastic (you know the type – everyone was doing it at the time).  I foolishly wandered about the office before the optician arrived, looking for more invisible frames.  Then the woman swooped into the room, and with a courteous smile and a flurry of activity had me seated at her desk while she rifled through her entire collection, flinging frames onto the surface in front of me and informing me that I should like this or that, never once pausing to ask what I had in mind.  The first frame to land in front of me was red.  I mean, red.  Sure, the temples were black, but the metal holding the lenses in place looked like it came straight from a Crayola box.  I was having vivid flashbacks to that red-orange crayon I had scribbled down to a nub in kindergarten.  I tried to push them away but she insisted I give them a little thought as she continued to toss more frames in my lap.  Shiny purple!  Teal!  Well, if you really want to, here are a few black and brown frames like your old ones.

All the while, I kept hearing a little voice telling me to go back to the red ones, and now that I think about it, that voice sounded an awful lot like hers.

…and the optician was really persuasive.

Either way, I left the encounter with a shiny new pair of red glasses, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made based peer pressure.  The cheeky red glasses make me feel smarter, sexier, and all-around superior.  Just like my dear old roomie so desperately wants me to be.

More importantly though, the daily splash of color reminds me not to be so timid with my projects.  Yes, those green beads would go with more if I paired them with simple silver or wood, but look at that vein of purple running through them!  Go big or go home!  Add some more color!  Since procuring my red glasses, I have learned to match clothing to accessories, rather than the other way around.  It forces me to exercise creativity daily and I’m much happier for it.

On… blogging?

New year, new city, new home, new projects… time for a new blog.  That’s not to say that I didn’t intend to start this thing a long time ago, but the newness of everything else has inspired me to really and truly get to work on my next Big Plan.  All of this is at least two years overdue.  My parents would probably say longer than that.  At least they were patient enough not to kick me out before I finagled my transfer out here (thank you, Chase, for setting this in motion – I owe you a beer).

That said, I’m not here to talk about me.  I’m here to talk crafting.  It is not just a hobby, but an addiction.  I eat, I sleep, I breathe, and I craft.  About half the boxes I moved into this apartment a month ago were filled with craft supplies.  More than half if you count the cooking gear – and I do.  More on that later.

So why do I craft?  I’m sure it has to do with a general inability on my part to sit still and focus on any one thing at a time, but there is also a deeply spiritual element to creating.  Some people golf.  Some people collect cats.  Some people collect kids.  I make stuff.  I collect the pieces.  I put them together.  Sometimes I am dissatisfied and take them apart again, but generally speaking, I find that I am happier with what I make than what is available in standard retail at the prices I am willing to pay, which I suppose brings me to my next reasons for crafting: I am cheap, and I am picky.  You know the old addage – “If you want something done right…” yadda ya.

I suppose it would be disingenuous of me to leave out my final drive for crafting.  I am pretty unreasonably tightly wound.  My job is not the most pleasant experience of my life, and I tend to get overly stressed in general.  I could just get very angry and yell and hit things, but I have learned over the years that yelling causes people to dislike you, and hitting things causes you as much pain as what/whoever you hit.  So I get it all out of my system via knitting needles, or crochet hooks, or exceptionally messy drawing implements, or sewing machine, or clay, or…  More often than not, my gifts were hand-crafted not with love, but with anger and strife.  (Sorry to recipients of my work – I promise I wasn’t mad at you at the time.) In other words, I craft so I do not kill people.

So for the next year, I hope to share my crafting adventures with anyone who cares to read them.  If I’m very good, there may soon be more to see here than my ramblings, but I have a very strict policy of keeping future plans to a minimum, and letting things happen naturally.  So stay posted!