All posts by gin kilgore

Snow and Steady

View from the sunroom–today and two years ago.

The book of face may be undermining democracy, but it’s still great for cat pictures and capturing fleeting gestalts*, such as today’s breaking point with the weather. After a few weeks of near silence about the spring that has yet to arrive, my feed exploded with snowy photos and exasperation and then exasperation about snowy photos. Yeah, yeah, we live in Chicago. This happens. In fact, FB also reminded that we were bumming about snow on this date in 2016.

The persistent chill has had some benefits. For heat hungry folks like me, the taste of warm March days sharpens the bitterness of April frosts. Even rugged spring perennials can suffer from the weather roller-coaster. Last year, my hellebores were budding in early March. Although cold hardy (called a Lenten Rose for a reason), they are still vulnerable to hard freezes. Recalling the previous year’s late season damage, I sheltered them during a dive into the teens March 11-12. A week later, they were in full bloom.

This year, our garden is moving slowly and that’s OK. Due to some changes in my personal life, I’m moving slowly, too. These pics, including the tentative hellebore on the left, are from the last few days. They’ll be fine when the snow melts, just like we will. Now, let’s play ball! Oh wait, the Cubs home opener was pushed to tomorrow. Drat.

*Not sure if I am using gestalt correctly, and maybe it’s a little pretentious, but I’ve always liked the way it sounds. It’s one of those words which have a sound? heft? shape? that matches their meaning or mood. I don’t mean in an onomatopoeia way. More of an overall form/content alignment. I am sure there is a word for this.

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Winter Sowing: Finding Containers

My gardening season begins in the alleys, scavenging for milk jugs. They become the mini-greenhouses for winter sowing: aka plant them and mostly forget about them until it’s time to transplant.*

imag0184I had to walk my bike towards the end of this harvest. Dexter is impressed! Also, in contradiction of everything below, I couldn’t pass up the giant cake platter.

You can start seeds in pretty much any food grade item that holds soil and lets in light—even ziplock bags. Last year, I experimented with 2-liter soda bottles, cake boxes, strawberry clam-shells, commercial vats of cooking oil. . .my yard was a riot of shapes and colors.

That’s one of the reasons I am now sticking with lightweight, translucent, plastic, gallon (LTPG**) containers. The consistency is soothing to my eyes. They sit quietly, unassuming, not competing with spring’s first acts. I also find they are the easiest for me to set up and manage.imag0065That large container of kale. . .so tempting for planting kale seeds. Would not even need to relabel. But no! I resisted.

Labeling: This is always a hot topic on the winter sowing facebook page. You need something that will not fade over time. I’ve settled on grease pencils. Since I bought a pack of 10, I am committed for the long haul. However, they work best on slightly textured, slightly colored surfaces. They do not grip clear plastic well, and whatever dim marks manage to stick are hard to read.

imag0179These cheap, bought in bulk, grease pencils are great for labeling, but I have to hack at the paper. Neighbors, let me know if you want a few so I can justify trying another brand.

Cutting: The thin walls yield easily to my crude methods for prepping the jugs. I just bore the bottom corners with scissors, and pinch a corner sidewall to start a cut. Hard slippery plastic repels scissors. But since I tend to be too impatient to dig up a better tool, I stab and hack away. This not only takes too long, it makes me worried that I am going to need to dig up the band aids.

Soil: The smaller containers dry out more quickly and the larger ones use more soil than necessary. When they are the same style, they tend to need water at the same time, not just because the amount of soil tends to be the same, but so does the surface area and light level.

imag0178When the widgets are the same, the assembly line runs more smoothly, or something like that.

When I started looking for jugs last month, I vowed to only have eyes for LTPGs. In fact, I was going to avoid LTPG’s with the sidewall divets common to milk jugs. Even better, why not avoid milk jugs in general, since they reach peek reek so quickly? (I wonder why folks tend to keep caps on the empties.)

Within the first few blocks, I realized I could not build my garden on gallons of distilled baby water and orange drink. The pickings were slim for milk jugs as well. I think it is partly related to gentrification, and partly because the recycling trucks seem to be on the prowl more frequently.imag0112

Divets make it harder to tape the jugs. More on that later. Also–gross! Do you see the dried milk in the handle? This one required some vigorous shaking and rinsing.

So, I am back to grabbing whatever LTPG’s I can find. My bike can easily carry six, and I enjoy straining capacity. Carrying by hand used to be hard, until I picked up this tip from another winter sower: use string or a broom handle. For unplanned alley jaunts, I just look for a pole or a stick. This also helps me root around at the bottom of bins. . .because I can’t afford to pass any containers up!

imag0205Bent the end of this strip of metal I found near the garbage, and went fishing!

It ends up working out since small batches are easier to manage anyway. There’s a limit to how many milk jugs I can rinse out at once, especially when they are bulging with fumes!

* (I already wrote a bit about how to set the containers up. Instructions are also at the milk jug page of wintersown.org.)
**I couldn’t think of a clever acronym. LTPG sounds kind of like Lit Pig. Pigs like garbage. Gardening lights me up. So, LTPG it is!

PS: Some of the Dwarf Siberian kale, planted 2/8,  is already popping.
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Alley Findings

The recycling bins in our alley used to overflow with empty gallons of milk, water, and juice–perfect containers for starting plants. Yesterday’s four block search yielded only four, all from one house. Instead, I found plenty of cans of La Croix and craft beer–indicator species of a gentrifying (ied!) neighborhood.

The original intent of this post was to offer tips on what to look for in a winter sowing container. But sometimes we find more than we expected when lifting a lid. The stats tell us that families are being displaced from Logan Square. Longtime Latino residents are leaving, and white folks are moving in or maybe it’s more accurate to say it the other way around. The alleys show the changes. We’ve gone from distilled water for babies to fancy soda water for people who like to say pamplemousse.

It’s a serious, heart aching, complex issue, and my family is part of the tangled web.

Through his work at Bickerdike, one of Chicago’s strongest community development corporations, Michael has helped preserve and construct scores of affordable housing units within blocks of our home. We can see the solar panels from one of his award-winning projects from our kitchen window.

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Peer into our kitchen window (and recycling bin), however, and you will see another part of the story. We took an affordable unit off the market when we duplexed the 1st and 2nd floors of our 3-flat. We strive to keep the 3rd floor rent stable and below the booming market rates, but our tenants have tended to be single people without children. Even if all have a low income, affordability looks different to three roommates pooling rent than a family with three children.

This is not guilty hand-wringing. Gentrification is neither 100% bad, nor 100% good.There are so many variables and I’m being simplistic and broadbrushing. For example, I am sure white folks aren’t the only ones buying La Croix at Armitage Produce. For more nuanced and action-forward information, check out the Logan Square Neighborhood Association which, like Bickerdike, does terrific housing and education work with the goal of preserving the ethnic and economic diversity of Logan Square.

Back to the alley: During a recent hunt, I saw a grizzled man with a granny cart rifling through our recycling. “Looking for cans. . . ” he said, somewhat sheepishly. I always feel a little awkward too, when I’m caught looking in someone’s garbage. I walked to my neighbor’s bin, turned around, and smiled conspiratorially: “I’m looking for plastic jugs to start seeds.” He grinned back. “I love the plants.”

Garbage to garden. It’s a small, simple act that brings joy to me and the neighbors and  energizes me to take on harder, more complicated work related to the neighborhood. Dirty hands keep the sleeves rolled up!

imag0038Guilty as charged. Lots of cans in our bin for him to take.

The Sort of Right Stuff

Today I did some unplanned rage gardening.

Sometimes our washing machine decides a load is “too heavy” or “unbalanced” and shuts down in mid-cycle, after half the clothes are soaked. Picture young child sitting down at a corner two blocks from home and simply refusing to go any farther.

For some reason, this glitch (the washing machine one) only happens to me, which is good, because I am the only one in the building who knows the convoluted, contorted, coddling steps for fixing it. This afternoon, a 5 minute trip to the basement to shovel in load #5 turned into a 90 minute fit of winter sowing while I babysat the washing machine’s efforts to chew through load #4 in three separate dainty cycles.

dampbasementThe bad news: I had to drain the washing machine a few times today and our basement drain isn’t at the lowest point. The good news: I bought soil last fall, just for a day like today.

The basement is a mess, a dis-ah-ster as #45 might say. But I am mighty grateful to have it. And if I can’t find what I need in the chaos, something else will do.

I had two stockpiled cranberry juice bottles plus the 4 milk jugs from two days ago. I rinsed those out yesterday. They still kind of stank, but at least not  in a knee buckling way (foreshadowing of the pros and cons of milk jugs). While waiting to see if load 3a would work, I started prepping them for planting.

Drainage: I learned to winter sow from Karen. She heats a fork on a stove burner and gently presses it a few times on the bottom of the jugs, sort of like poking a pie crust. It’s kind of gentle and brutal at the same time. Since I work in the basement (sans burner), I use a razor blade to make little slits. I couldn’t find a razor blade today and I wasn’t going upstairs to look (can’t leave the washer untended), so I just stabbed the bottom corners with scissors. Not the safest choice, but very satisfying.

Cutting the jugs in half: I used to be meticulous about cutting the jugs, measuring the height of the cut, tracing a line to follow. Now I just eyeball it. Winter sowing is forgiving. Once the jugs were flopping open, I rinsed them again. The machine clicked off, ready for load 3b. Next up: adding soil.

carefulcutting)wintersowing.jpgFile photo from more fastidious days. Saving thoughts on what works and when for winter sowing for later.

Adding soil: Fortunately, I stockpiled big bags of potting soil last fall.I dragged one over to the sink and ripped it open. It was suspiciously damp, despite having been untouched since October and being in the high land area of the basement. Can soil go bad? Maybe, but the smell was not knee buckling so I carried on.

Filled the bottom half of each jug about 2/3rds high with soil. Found some old dish pans. Put them in the utility sink (so grateful for a double utility sink!) Filled them with about 2 inches of water. Placed jugs in pans to dampen the soil from the bottom up. Also a good test of the hack job I did on drainage.

imag7516Another file photo, showing the “watering from the bottom” method.

10 mins left on the cycle. Do I dare keep going? Next step is seeds. But my seeds are a jumbled mess outdoors. But wait! They are still in their little bags, categorized by type: kales, lettuces, spinaches, tomatoes, herbs, flowers, and crap that will never thrive  (looking at you carrots, supposedly one of the easiest veges to grow).

What’s the easiest, most forgiving, cold hearty thing I can start? Kale! Also, so conforming to stereotype!

Adding seeds: Eureka moment. I decide to label the containers before adding seeds and to label them upside down, bird’s eye view. Grabbed a grease pencil (they were stashed with the seeds. . . maybe I am more organized than I think), and declared my intention on top of the milk jugs. But grease pencils don’t work well on smooth, clear plastic, so I didn’t label the other two (foreshadowing of pro and cons of hard, clear, smooth plastic).

The machine clicked off, ready for load 3c. Do I keep going? I only meant to be down here for 5 minutes. But my hands are already dirty so. . .

Sprinkle the Lacinato kale from Bakers Creek in the aptly labeled container, which I have moved to a lunch tray on the washer (another random basement find). Massage the seeds into the soil a bit. Sprinkle some more soil  on top. Hack a gentle watering can by poking a few holes in a plastic cup with a nail. Sprinkle some water on top. Find a warped roll of pink dollar store “duct tape.” Tape container shut, which is actually the most annoying part of winter sowing, esp when using milk jugs which have strange circular divots on the sides. A story for another day.

imag0079

Repeat with the Lacinato kale from Botanical Interests, the Dwarf Siberian Kale, and Red Winter Kale. Plant calendula in one of the clear bottles, and a zinnia on the other. Label with a black sharpie, knowing it might fade in the sun. (I’ll remember, right?)

Click, load 3b is done. Place the jugs back in the dish pans of standing water for a last soak. Move the laundry along.

They are all now nestled along the fence outside. All laundry frustration is long gone.

Never too Early to Garden (zone 5)

It was not night this morning at 7am. Not only had the sun started rising, we could actually see and feel it. (Been lots of cloud cover lately. Reflecting the current political weather? Naw, we all know human actions don’t influence climate.)

When Michael noted the trend towards earlier daybreak, I snapped back, “Yeah, until Daylight Saving Time plunges us back into dark mornings.”*

I am at peak grumpiness this time of the year. The chill has settled into my bones, and the short days shorten my fuse. I know I am not alone.imag0041Mystery bulb, 02/06/2017. Go, go, go, little one. If you can make it, so can we!

My solution is simple: run, write, and garden. Overcoming inertia is not simple. But after 4 days of wearing my running clothes, I finally hit the road yesterday. And there is enough pop left in my brain today to write. . . and start gardening!

I’ve never had the patience or consistency to start plants indoors. Checking the water every day, changing pots, exposing the pampered seedlings to the elements little by little. . .so many opportunities for total system failure. With the exception of tossing out lettuce seeds in March and hoping for the best, gardening season didn’t really start for me until after Mother’s Day, with my wallet open for hardy transplants.

imag0044I didn’t organize or bring in my seeds last fall. Oops? Or–they are already winterized!

A few years ago, Karen introduced me to Winter Sowing. You plant seeds in jugs, place them outside, ignore, and then rejoice a few months later at the abundance of transplant- ready seedlings. You can keep your hands in the dirt pretty much all winter long. Ok, it’s a little more complicated than that, but not much. I’ve been meaning to document this process for my friends, since I talk it up so much. And because writing and gardening are 2 of my keys to beating the winter blues. . . here we go. I hope some of you will join me. I’ve got lots of seeds to share (though no guarantee they will take, see above).

Step One: Find Containers

Oops, this post was going to be about dumpster diving for containers, but then I started preambling, so that’s next. In the meantime, here is the site that started it all: wintersown.org

*March 12, so turns out we still have a few weeks.

PSA on Pumpkin Pie

imag9688.jpg

Back in the day, before Miguel, before owning a building, before marriage, I had a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated. Those were the days of much entertaining in the guise of (non)planning meetings for Critical Mass in the little coach house on Paulina. Everything I made from that magazine turned out perfect (except when I left the sugar out of the cheesecake, which Gareth charitably reframed as an appetizer), and I loved its lengthy articles disguised as recipes and its focus on science and process.

In the mid-90’s, I made a pie from this boldly named recipe: The Only Pumpkin Pie Recipe You’ll Ever Need.* It Was Awesome. And awesomely a PITA to make. But it remained a staple until my baking attention span shrunk to the scope of instructions on the Libby pumpkin can label, i.e., after home ownership and kiddo.

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Oops, didn’t mean to put allspice in pic. Supposed to be cloves. Immersion blender is on top of pan of filling. Cuisinart and icy booze are for making the crust.

 I recall my trepidation when I bravely decided to try a different recipe. It felt like a betrayal. I already had the Only Pumpkin Pie Recipe I’d Ever Need. But Libby’s short paragraph won out over Cook’s two page, 8 point font treatise.  However, I did remember two key tips from those halcyon baking days:

  • When using canned pumpkin (oh, the horror!), cook it on low heat for a bit. This supposedly releases any lingering notes of whatever funk cans impart.
  • Blend the pie mixture to smooth out any fibrousness.
  • I also upped the spices and added nutmeg, just because.

The pie was awesome, and awesomely easy!

So, here are my modifications to “Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie Recipe”

  • Mix pumpkin goop, evaporated milk, sugar, and spices in a pan and cook over low heat for a while.
  • Use an immersion blender to make it silky smooth. Mix in eggs.
  • Bonus tip: Let pan sit for a bit so the bubbles evaporate and/or lift the pot an inch and drop it on the counter a few times. Basically, whack out those air bubbles. Pour mixture into crust carefully to avoid adding more air pockets. Repeat dropping procedure if that’s the kind of thing you are into. (I find it strangely satisfying.) This also works well if you like
  • Proceed per Libby’s cooking instructions.

*Cook’s doesn’t give this recipe away for free, but I did find it faithfully recorded in this blog post, which is also a rumination on Team Libby and Team Cook’s. http://www.thedeliciouslife.com/pumpkin-pie-recipe-cooks-illustrated/

**Did you know standard immersion blenders also fit into the mouths of mason jars? Great for salad dressings and whipping up a little bit of cream. And you never have to transfer hot soup to a blender again!

 

A Slow, Full Teardrop

Early this morning, I swaddled myself with the large purple blanket and lay down on the upstairs couch. It is Miguel’s cocoon when he watches teevee, and it holds the smell of his hair and the echoes of the videos he loves. (Hello, Dan TDM!)

I took a deep breath and prayed for Miguel, the 10 year old light of my life who has wrangled with his share of shadows.

I do not believe in God, so praying is always a little awkward, but over the years Notgod and I have developed an understanding (I hope!) which helps me focus on the feelings at hand instead of getting caught in a recursive loop of apologizing to Godifyouexist for appropriating the habits of true believers.

speck
Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, Carl Sagan, and Douglas Adams–so formative for this secular humanist.

Please let Miguel’s eye surgery go well.* Please let this be a good decision. Please let him be calm about the general anesthesia. Please, please, please, please let his vision improve or at the least be no worse.  And, selfishly, very selfishly: If there are  complications or disappointments or unpleasant side effects (of course there will be at least some), please let him forgive us and the world. Please, universe*, let him know how much he is loved, let him feel that love to his core. Please let that be a light during dark times.

Horizontal tears move slowly, descending the contours of our faces like switchback down a mountain. A fat one rolled along the ridge of my nose and curved around my nostril.  It paused and quivered before dropping to the corner of my mouth. Still intact, the ball of salty water followed the slope of my lips until it found a place to rest for a while. Eventually it relaxed into a wet spot back under my nose.

Water is amazing. Soft enough to wash a baby, strong enough to split mountains. It can tremble between a liquid and solid state, surface tension holding it together, even if just for a few seconds. In freezing, it preserves warmth, expanding like a down* comforter to protect what lives below.

IMAG2635.jpg
Lady’s Mantle from my garden after an April showers to flowers.

Tears are apparently amazing, too, featuring different chemical profiles depending on their trigger. See See Rose-Lynn Fisher’s Topography of Tears project. I’m not sure what recipe was called up to make this morning’s tear. Not sadness or joy, anger or pain. Not even fear, though that might be the closest emotion.

I think I was just swelled up with love. They say a drop of water holds the universe. Maybe the tear was a conjuring of that complicated vastness, a reassurance that my love is more broad and deep than I ever can fathom.  Maybe I needed to feel it in the universe, held in a drop of water.

Please help me show Miguel that our love is infinite, never contingent, always expanding. 

tearsofhope

*Elective cataract surgery on one eye. Long story. Not a life or death situation.
*I no more believe the “universe” listens and has agency than I believe in a deity. But I don’t feel too disingenuous yawping into the ether. Forces, vibrations, we’re all stardust, that sort of thing. I’m sure Godifyouexist understands.
*Synthetic, please.

A Message re: Game 5 of the 2016 World Series

Instead of spending hours noodling around with a blog post that few might read, I decided to take the quicker route and make a video. Tonight is Game 5 of the 2016 World Series and the last baseball game of the season in Wrigley and perhaps the last game of the year.  In Chicago, we have had an extra month of baseball, and an extra month of great weather to go with it. Just today, I was doing some last minute garden transplanting, hence the dirty finger nails in the video. My message has 5 audiences: social justice friends, White Sox “haters,” bandwagon fans/cultural phenom witnesses, long time fans, and my friends and fam. Feel free to share because I know for sure I am not the only one who feels this way because I have had the radio tuned to 670 the Score pretty much non-stop for the last few days. Go Cubs! Go Baseball! Go Chicago!

Wherever You Are, There You Are*

boston-qualify

“Woo! I am going to qualify for Boston next year!” This thought bubble was inspired by my friend from high school who just qualified. Since I will be in a new age bracket, I only need to shave 75 minutes from my marathon PR. (Yes, 75. Not 7.5)**

Sure, there are some differences between me and Julia. Most notably, she trains really hard and has many fleet races under her belt. She also used to be a competitive athlete; she’s got baked in grit. I hardly train, I ran no races this year, and have barely logged a hundred miles since last year’s Chicago marathon, below. My grit is patchy at best, sort of like the heat rash that sometimes flares on the back of my neck.

marathon_gah

However, I do have tenacity. I don’t mean this in a braggadocious way, but I can bust out top quartile results when I really put my mind to it. Sometimes at the last minute, and with appropriately reduced expectations, but still. I can get shit done–especially when I am not Super Depressed.

Unfortunately, despite the gift of a warm fall and the Cubs still playing in October (!!!!!), I have been struggling lately. No need to go into details, and I am fine enough. Thanks to big pharma, better habits of thought, an amazing family, and a solid foundation in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” my depressive episodes are now more akin to a slow grinding traffic jam than a siren inducing crash.

maslow-pyramid

Still, I’d like to find an exit ASAP. If I don’t start exercising again, things will only get worse for the next few months. Writing helps, too. That’s something else I haven’t done in months. Textbook symptoms and causes of depression.

I put on running clothes this morning. (Bonus! This means I also got out of my PJs.) Maybe I will jog the mile to pick Miguel up from school today. I am definitely going to sign up for the 2017 Chicago marathon via Girls on the Run again.

But first, I need a nap. I really, really, hate being in this traffic jam.

*The phrase is supposed to be “Wherever you go, there you are.” That implies you’ve gone someplace. I’m having a hard enough time leaving the house!
**I am definitely not going to qualify for Boston, but–assuming I keep adding on the years–I will age into the qualifying time eventually.

Must. Not. Fiddle. With. Tinsel.

Sing it with me now: “It’s the most difficult (for productivity) time of the year.”

Ah, working from home in December. When I struggle to resurface from the deepest sleep and the desire to stay in PJ’s is stronger than ever.  When I want to eat peanut butter all day and bake all night. When I itch to finish the house projects on 2015’s docket.

And when all I want to do is decorate! It’s not just for my pleasure, of course. It’s a civic duty.

Frank Lopez keeps the bar (and electricity bills?) high in Logan Square

I’ve been running in the evening this week, in part because of the waking up problem, but mostly to enjoy the neighborhood’s evolving light show. Tis the season of bright vs night. It’s easy to imagine the relief of the ancients each time the sun started climbing again. My mood follows that arc as well, so the winter solstice means more to me than Christmas, which we celebrate more as a matter of tradition than religion.

Before leaving town to spend Thanksgiving with my parents (who are paragons of seasonal decorating), I had carefully unpacked and organized our tools of Holiday Cheer. Checked the lights. Smiled at recent thrift store scores and the memory of finding a tangled heap of red garlands in the alley. Less than 12 hours after our plane landed back in Chicago, Michael and Miguel set off to find a tree while I started untangling the garlands and understanding why they had been pitched.

2015tree

See the black hole towards the bottom left?
See the black hole towards bottom left?

Once the tree had fluffed out, I approached  it with reverence and a plan. Taking a page from Dad’s playbook, I strung lights outside *and* around the trunk. No more shadows for deeply nestled ornaments. After about an hour, I decided a little mystery isn’t so bad and punted the excess of Strand Three over the top. By tinsel time, things had taken a decidedly haphazard turn.

This morning, Michael bounded into the kitchen. “The tree looks great!!!”

But I’ve analyzed the photos. There’s a dark spot in the lower right. And the tinsel! Ow, my eyes. I should really redo it before we add anything else. Maybe uncrowd some of the ornaments Miguel hung last night? Shhhh, don’t say anything.

 

The tinsel--so meandering! And is that a red ornament behind another red one?!
The tinsel–so meandering! And are there two red ornaments right next to each other?

Gah! I must resist. I have work responsibilities. But, but. . .the ornaments on the tacky little gold tree in the back room are not balanced. And I haven’t finished the lights and garlands out front. I need a runner for the dining room radiator. Not all the windows have been cleaned and time is running out before it’s too cold. The bathrooms could use a scrub down. . . .

I think this needs to be a work from a coffee shop kind of day!