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Mary, Mary quite contrary…

My grandmother’s name was Mary Jean.  Her life, like her name, defied the expectations of her generation.  She had earned a Masters in Chemistry, and worked in a lab in 1950.  She was a terrible cook.  She was always right, even when she wasn’t.  She was a tiny Irish Catholic firebrand, and I loved her.

She wasn’t the classic Grandmother.  She wanted us to call her Grandmama, like the Russians did, she said.  She liked it better.  She never made cookies, she didn’t sing.  Apparently, she *did* know how to sew, but as a child I didn’t know that; I never saw her do it.  Only later, when she moved into assisted living, did I ever see her sewing machine.  My Mom remembers Grandma sewing, but only when Mom was quite young.

Grandma took us shopping and always put our towels in the dryer just before we got out of the pool so they were warm.  We always used the same towels; I still have mine, and use it when I go swimming.  She had weird metallic silver wallpaper and a sheer brown curtain in the Guest Bathroom.  And fantastically horrible green carpet.  IN THE BATHROOM.  She used to make us rootbeer floats and let us eat them with her fancy iced tea spoons which were made of plastic and shaped like brilliant colored gems strung together as the handle.  There were plastic gems in a lot of things in Grandma’s life; she even had strings of them hanging in her bathroom window as curtains until I was 12 or so.  I hate almost all of her jewelry, we apparently have very different taste.

We used to spend a week every summer at my grandparents’ place.  They lived in Orange County and had a pool, and Grandma used to take us on a tour of the kitchen and pantry to show us all the goodies she’d bought for us when we arrived.  She’d forbid Grandpa from eating any of it, but we never minded if he did, and he pretty much always did.

Grandma smoked like a chimney, but only ever outside, at least when my sister and I were around.  When we were going through her things, Mom found a bone and silver cigarette holder, and gave it to me because she knew I’d find it amusing.  I don’t smoke, but I almost wish I did; the cigarette holder is so glamorous and it reminds me so strongly of my grandmother, even though I never saw her use it.  I don’t know the name of the cigarettes she smoked, but I occasionally smell them while I’m walking around, and I’m instantly a kid standing in her front entry and marveling at the perfectly groomed lawn and the enormous antique mirror in the stairwell.

Even as she aged, my grandmother remained difficult; she refused help, and always insisted she was fine, even when she wasn’t.  She’d take the shuttle from her apartment and get groceries, even though she didn’t have a kitchen.  Some of it was the onset of dementia.  Some of it was stubborn refusal to change, and some of it was probably her way of protesting.

When I got married,  I considered wearing her wedding dress.  My mom had it in storage by that time, and we pulled it out.  The only time I’d ever seen the dress was in my grandparents’ wedding photos, which were in black and white.  The dress was cream lace and SCREAMING PINK lining.  I was shocked.  The sleeves were actually separate gauntlets; apparently, her sister had worn gloves to get married, and refused to take her gloves off to have her husband put the ring on her finger.  Apparently, it was a challenge.  Grandma, being her pragmatic and kind of harsh self, insisted on wearing fingerless gauntlets instead of gloves, to avoid the fate her sister had encountered.  I liked the gauntlets, but I didn’t end up wearing the dress.  As it turns out, my grandmother’s waist was smaller than my thigh.  There was no way I could wear the dress, even if I’d decided I could rock the screaming pink.  Mom and I took the dress apart and used the lace as the overlay for my non-traditionally colored wedding dress.  I wore blue under that cream lace, and I couldn’t help thinking of Sleeping Beauty’s warring fairies when I thought about the colors my grandmother and I had chosen.

By the time Grandma and Grandpa moved into assisted living, things had gotten pretty bad.  They were doing ok largely because Grandpa was spending huge amounts of time and energy hiding how frequently my grandmother was slipping into her own world.  I started to mourn for her then, because she wasn’t quite that person who’d been my amazing Grandma.  By the time Grandpa passed away last year, Grandma was so far gone that she didn’t even notice.  Still, when prompted on Valentine’s day to share who else she’d loved in her life, Grandma insisted that there had never been anyone other than Grandpa.  She finally passed away today, after being in and out of Hospice care for several years.  I’m sure I’ll mourn her more in the coming weeks and months, but right now, I’m simply relieved.  Finally.  Finally we’re done.  She can rest, and be with Grandpa.  Mom can relax.  I can stop flying into a panic when my family calls.  I can finally wear that black dress, and then get it out of my closet, where it’s been sitting as a reminder for several years.

I hope that she and Grandpa are together again, and I hope that they’re happy.  I miss you both.Wedding


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Pie and bicycles.

I made a pie last night.  I’m “giving up” sugar, by which I mean I’m doing my best to not eat quite so many pastries, candies, and sweets.  This is a little about my weight, and mostly about avoiding dire health consequences that my folks are currently scrambling to mitigate.  But sometimes “doing my best” means that I make pie because it’s less bad for me than the ice cream sandwich the size of my hand.  If you haven’t had them yet (and you like such things) CoolHaus ice cream sandwiches are fantastic.  But so is pie.

Last night, I made the best pie crust I’ve ever made.  And it’s all because we got lost on  bike tour.

My family has pie at Thanksgiving, and maybe Christmas, and that’s about it.  Mom isn’t a fan of making pie crust if she can avoid it; she actually threatened to buy it last year, but I offered to make the crust instead.  Occasionally, we’d have apple pie, and there’s that infamous Peach Pie Incident… Suffice to say that I was never really into pie as a kid, and I was especially not into pie crust.  I mean, ew.  It’s bland and boring and kind of tough.  What’s to like?  So I just never bothered with pie.

Three?-ish? years ago, I went on my first ever bike tour.  A couple of my friends and I packed up camping gear and food and lots of water and sunscreen and rode our bikes up over the California coastal hills into the Central Valley.  It was a long climb, followed by 18 miles of downhill; smooth sailing!  Then we road through the Central Valley; it’s flat as a pancake, but it’s pretty, and we camped at Caswell Memorial State Park, which sits on the banks of the Stanislaus River.  It was stunningly pretty, though it was pretty evident from the look the Ranger gave us that they didn’t get many cyclists camping there.  We got the same look from a different Ranger in the morning when we left.

And then we got chased by Chihuahuas.  Before breakfast.  They run surprisingly fast, and they actually were gaining on us by the time we noticed them; it took us a good half mile of sprinting to ditch them.  Finally safe from the resident mini-wolves, we cruised into town to grab a solid breakfast before we headed back over the hills to home.  We eventually found the restaurant we’d planned on, but it took us a while because street names can be kind of stupid, especially when you’ve never been to the town before.

After breakfast, during which I introduced my friend who grew up in Israel to Pigs in a Blanket (he was mildly horrified), we headed out of town… and found out that since our map had been printed, there’d been a huge construction boom.  We got thoroughly lost and had to backtrack several times.  It was frustrating, and especially demoralizing because we ended up on busy streets and highways when we had been planning to avoid them.  Finally we ended upon back on track.  10 miles along our route, we saw a sign that said “Road Closed”.  Next to it was a produce stand advertising ludicrously cheap avocados and other delights, including Apricot Pie.  Pie sounded better than backtracking another 10 miles, and I love apricots, and had never had them in pie, and one of my friends is very much into pie, so we were seriously considering stopping.  Sure there were only three of us to eat a whole pie, but honestly?  That would be ok.  But then, in a shocking twist of fate, the Israeli friend checked his phone and actually had reception!  So he checked Google Maps for an alternate route; none of us wanted to backtrack.  I was busy staring at that Apricot Pie sign and dreaming.  Sure, I’m not that into pie, but it still sounded pretty amazing.

Technology came through for us, not with an alternate route, exactly, but with the suggestion that our route might not actually be closed… A thin grey line marked as a bike route ran where our road was supposed to have.  We decided to skip the pie and go find out if the grey line actually was a bike route, or if we were going to be backtracking after all.  It was decided that if we did end up having to backtrack, we’d stop and have pie, because, well… pie.  And more food while cycling basically always sounds like a great idea.  And then we could also tell ourselves that backtracking didn’t suck so much; at least we were getting pie out of it…

But we didn’t end up getting pie.  Instead, we passed the “Road Closed” sign, and rode our bikes on an actual road for another quarter mile before we found a badly paved not-even-one-lane-road that looked like it might actually take us where we wanted to go.  So onward we went.  That weird little path, as it turned out, was kept paved and maintained by a local bicycle group.  We wrote them a thank-you note, because, seriously, backtracking sucks.  I was so happy to be back on route that I hardly even mourned the lack of pie.  The rest of the ride went without incident, and we returned triumphant, and exhausted, and desperately in need of a shower.

But the apricot pie that I didn’t get to try kept coming back to me.  I could not get it out of my head, and I do like a challenge, and pie crust is supposedly quite the challenge.  So I started looking at pie recipes.  I made dozens of pies; apple, peach, strawberry (not my favorite), chocolate, and finally apricot.  I’m a pie convert now.  I adore pie.  And I love the crust, when it’s done right.  Pie recipes, though, are kind of weird.

Fruit pie filling is pretty much a method rather than an actual recipe, a lot of the time.  Chop up enough fruit of your choice to fill your crust, and then a bit more because it cooks down.  Toss it with sweetener and thickener of your choice, toss it in your crust and bake.  I tried cornstarch, I tried tapioca (turns out, I find it incredibly bitter), I tried doing without, I tried flour, rice flour… you name it.  But I like corn-starch the best; the tapioca was pretty, it turns clear when you bake it, but the corn tasted better.  Rice flour works about the same as corn-starch, and I was unimpressed with regular flour.  I found that mixing my sugar and starch together and then sprinkling it over the fruit gave me the most even coating, so that’s usually how I do it these days.

Pie crust isn’t really a recipe, either.  Pie crust is flour (of some kind), solid fat of some kind, and liquid of some kind, combined with technique.  The flour is usually white all-purpose flour; I personally like using about 2/3 AP flour and 1/3 Whole Wheat Pastry Flour.  Your liquid is usually water with occasional additives; apple cider vinegar and vodka are popular, the cider vinegar gives the crust a pleasant, subtle flavor.  Often, recipes add a bit of sugar or salt to the crust for flavor, but be wary of recipes that call for much more than a Tablespoon of sugar; it will make your crust tough.

The fat in pie crust is something people get really really vehement about.  Some people swear by lard, some by butter.  Nobody recommends margarine.  I prefer the flavor of butter, but texture-wise, I get good results with butter or shortening, and with Earth Balance.  Earth Balance is a vegan butter substitute that I started using because several of my friends are vegan.  I keep using it because hot damn does it make the crust easy to work with!  For whatever reason, Earth Balance makes the un-cooked crust so much easier to handle; it doesn’t stick as much, it doesn’t tear when you transfer it to your pie pan.  It makes a more tender and less flaky crust than butter, but technique can help with that, and honestly, it’s a reasonable trade off in my book.  I think it smells funny, but it tastes fine to me, and I often use it in my crusts even when I’m not planning to feed vegans.  Make no mistake, though.  Margarine, Imperial Butter Substitute, and the like are not to be trusted.  They’ll give you icky, chewy results that just taste off.  Liquid fats will also not work; the fat needs to be solid in order to make the crust flaky.

You can get away with screwing around with your ingredients if your technique is good, but if your technique is bad, no amount of perfectionism in the ingredients stage will save you.  I tried many many different pie crust recipes, and I think they failed to adequately emphasize the importance of technique.  Of course, nobody wants to tell you that the first six times you make their recipe, it’s probably not going to be that good.  I really like this recipe from Smitten Kitchen: All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Crust.  She offers some really solid advice for technique, and the ingredients work well for me.  I also incorporate some technique from an Indian cookbook I have, written by a gentleman named Raghavan Iyer.  He suggests that, when making Samosa dough (which is basically pie dough) you knead the dough with your hands two or three times to smooth it out.  I now often leave my water/flour mixture a little dryer than the recipe calls for, and turn it over itself a few times with my hand.  I also incorporated my experience making laminated dough (this is a pain in the ass, but fun), and I leave large chunks of butter in my crust, about the size of the end of my finger so that when I fold the dough over, the butter flattens out and folds over itself to make even more glorious flakes.  I also tend to bake my pies a little extra; I like it when the crust is on the darker side of golden brown because it tends to be more crisp and flavorful.  Crust that still tastes like uncooked flour makes me sad.  To that end, I’ve started experimenting with different baking techniques.  The pie I made last night went into a metal pan, and that gave me the best result yet.

There’s a lot to love about pie.  You can stuff with basically anything; fruit fresh or raw, custards, mousse, stew, veggies… roasted beets and feta is an excellent combination.  Once you’ve got some practice, pie comes together very very quickly so you can look like a rockstar when you get unexpected guests.  Whole uncooked pies freeze well, so you can save some of the summer bounty for the middle of winter to remind you that the sun still exists.  Pie dough keeps well in the fridge for days, so you can make it ahead of time and serve fancy quiche for breakfast with basically no effort, and you’ll still have some dough left to make tarlets for a weekend dessert.  It’s super easy to make vegan, so you can look courteous and thoughtful at your next office potluck.

I’m really into pie, these days.  It has become one of my go-to desserts.  It’s especially nice now, in Summer and in conjunction with my sugar ban because fresh fruits hardly need any sweetener to be a delicious dessert.  It’s an excellent harm-reduction option for me, because it’s something I love even when I’m not trying to give up sugar.   It’s been a delightful challenge, and I expect I’ll keep practicing the art; one can always be better and it’s not like anyone minds helping me eat the experiments.

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Spinning and meditation

Russian style supported spindle
Russian style supported spindle


I started learning to spin yarn because I thought it might be meditative, and pleasant, and I’d had no success learning to meditate in the other ways I’d tried.  I picked up a drop spindle and some beautiful red wool from a lovely woman at the NorCal Ren Faire, and she was kind enough to gift me with some of her time and a bit of instruction.  She told me what a “leader” was and how to get started spinning.  She warned me to not drop the spindle if I could avoid it (I couldn’t, as it turns out) because it could knock it off balance or loosen the whorl.  She told me about plying.  I spent a lovely hour or so with her, talking and learning, and if I was a terrible student, she didn’t seem to mind.  Eventually, I needed to head off, and I said my goodbyes.

You know how, when you’re learning something new and you’re working with your teacher, everything can seem clear and understandable and simple, and then you get home and you can’t imagine how on earth you ever thought you understood any of it?  That was sort of how I felt about the drop spindle.  The spindle is a ridiculously simple tool.  You literally just spin the damn thing and let wool out between your fingers and it makes yarn.   It should not be difficult, damn it!  But ooooh my it was.

Upon arriving home, I had a couple of really major problems that I hadn’t had while sitting at Faire with my kind instructor.  One was named Ed, and one was named Mo; my adorable kittens thought the drop spindle was a fantastic toy, and were completely delighted that I’d brought it home for them.  I also could not for the life of me get my loose wool to attach to my leader, and my yarn kept breaking because I couldn’t keep the fiber even and thick enough, and it was slow, and frustrating and horrible.  I tried for HOURS, and was so frustrated with it that I put it aside and didn’t pick it up again for months.

Sometimes when I’m learning something new, I need time to let the knowledge sink in, like lotion on skin.  I learn the thing, I try the thing, it goes horribly.  I stop doing the thing for a few weeks, and then try again, and it inexplicably makes much more sense and is totally doable.  When I picked up my drop spindle, I had some hope that it would be like that.  That my abject failure a few months earlier would have given way to at least a little bit of the needed muscle memory and that I could maybe possibly spin a piece of yarn long enough to actually need to wind it back onto my spindle.  Or at least be less horrible at the whole thing.  I did shut my cats out of the room, and that at least made things less distracting.  That was about the only thing that had improved, though.  I tried for a couple more weeks with the drop spindle, and then I decided it wasn’t for me after all, and gave it away to a friend of mine.

I didn’t think anymore about it until several years later when one of my partners mentioned to me that he’d seen someone making yarn while sitting on a bench in San Francisco.  We chatted a bit about how one would do that, and he mentioned that the person had been using a knothole in the wood of the parklet to keep the point of the spindle from moving around.  Wait, what?  I had never heard of such a thing.  I pestered my partner until he gave me all the details he had; I hadn’t misunderstood, the person spinning had been keeping the spindle stationary, resting on the ground and spinning from it.  How weird!  I immediately went looking for what could have been going on there.

It turns out, there’s two major kinds of hand spindles: Drop Spindles, which was what I’d used before, and Supported Spindles, which are spun like a top resting on the ground or in a bowl and one moves one’s hand instead of the spindle to draw out one’s yarn.  It makes sense, of course, that if you call a thing specifically Drop Spindle, then there’s probably other kinds of Spindle out there, but it had never occurred to me.  It turns out that supported spindles are used with shorter length fibers because the weight of the spindle doesn’t need to be supported on the yarn… and I could get into the technicalities of it, but ultimately, I found several different styles of support spindle, and the Russian style were completely beautiful, and also inexpensive, so I bought one.

I turned to YouTube to learn how to use the thing, and it turns out there’s some excellent videos out there explaining how to use a supported spindle.  A woman with the user-name Fleegle offers some beautiful videos that I found particularly useful.  In very short order, I started spinning real usable yarn.  I learned the appropriate flick to make my spindle spin for ages, and it was beautifully weighted and beautifully straight, and a joy to use.

I spin regularly now.  It’s getting to the point that I need to figure out what the hell to do with all the yarn; I don’t knit or crochet, and I can only foist so much yarn off onto my sister.  I’m considering picking up a loom, because clearly I need more hobbies.  I’ve started dabbling in the dying of yarn.  I seriously considered dying some of my yarn with the blue hair-dye I was using for a while; the thought of a scarf matching my hair delights me.

It turns out that now, finally, spinning is quite meditative.  I was right, after all.  I can let my mind wander or go blank while I spin in ways that I never could when I tried more deliberate meditation techniques.  I also started practicing mindfulness meditation, and the spinning is interesting there, too.  I can lose myself in the feel of the fiber twisting and extending under my finger-tips, and the way my arms move to draw the fibers out, and the gentle tug of the spindle as it wraps the yarn around itself on its spin.

I have lost myself in spinning for so long that my hand has cramped from flicking the spindle and the muscles of my thumb were sore for days.  Spinning has become a refuge for me.  I can do it while I talk, while I watch TV, on the bus, in the car.  I can take it with me almost everywhere.  It helps me to think, or to stop thinking.  It helps me find clarity.

Spinning yarn from loose fiber is a kind of magic.  It is very nearly making something from nothing; straw into gold.  I feel as if I can spin off my troubles into my fiber and bind them into my yarn to let me get a good look at them.  Or, in cases where I can’t do anything about them, I can just spin my worries into yarn and let them become something useful, even beautiful.  I will be eternally grateful to that lovely woman who taught me to use the drop spindle.  I still can’t spin on one, but without her, I never would have looked into supported spindles, and I never would have found this peace.