Friday, September 15, 2017

Watching The Orville

Over the past two weeks I've read several reviews of the new Fox Television series The Orville. One writer said it was "just awful."

When I was a kid (there's that phrase again), television was a brand new thing. We had a black and white Zenith, a big black cube with a 17 inch diagonal screen. My dad controlled the TV and we watched what he watched or we read and did kid-type stuff, like build models, in our rooms. The big weekly television event for us kids was when Dad let us watch The Twilight Zone. It was science-fiction-y and futuristic and we loved it. Then one day, Star Trek came on and things changed forever. Unfortunately, Star Trek only lasted three years and we had nothing to replace it--until it came back in syndication.

Over the years since then, I was an avid fan of the Star Trek movies, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. I watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but it was mostly set on a space station--kind of like Star Trek: Shopping Mall. DS Nine had memorable characters, but unlike the other shows, I didn't mind if I missed a week or two, or a season. Star Trek: Enterprise may have been a good series, but it had two things going against it: it was a prequel and it had a really awful pop/rock theme song.

It's been a long time since I've had a TV show that made me want to turn off my phone, pop some popcorn, turn off the lights and tune in five minutes early.

It was a fluke that I changed channels just in time to watch the premiere of The Orville.

I don't watch sitcoms. I hate running gags. I hate strained attempts at humor. And I really hate laugh tracks. They offend me. I'm not too stupid to know when to laugh and I don't need canned laughter to tell me. Plus, laugh tracks laugh at everything, whether it's funny or not.

Which brings me to The Orville. The Orville isn't really a comedy, but it has plenty of humor. It is a drama/comedy, but it's subtle. Seth MacFarlane, the creator and star (as well as the creator of Family Guy and American Dad) called it "something new." It is that. One reviewer mentioned Spaceballs as a better spoof of the Star Trek genre. Spaceballs is silly and over the top and, while I love Mel Brooks movies, I would not watch a Spaceballs series.  The Orville is not a satire or a spoof. If it had been a spoof of Star Trek, I probably would have turned it off in the first ten minutes. It's more of an homage. And it has a lot going for it in its own right, like original characters and good writing.

Fox rebroadcast The Orville a few nights later and I watched it again. And I enjoyed it as much as the first time. Perhaps it's escape or perhaps it's something else, but I'm looking forward to the next episode. I've got the popcorn popper warmed up and ready to go.

Stephen P.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Water, Wind and Fire

Irma is still whipping parts of Florida with wind and rain and making her presence known in Georgia and the Carolinas. Things could have been worse--Irma could have been slower moving, like Harvey. We still don't have much in the way of video and reports from the Keys and Miami. It seems like the news cameras grab five minutes of film and those are the images we see over and over again for days.

Harvey is kind of old news, yet much of the flooding persists and the damage reports are generic at best. Port Aransas is a complete loss, as far as I can tell. I've done some Googling, but photos are scarce. Rockport is in bad shape and the thousands of acres of cotton in the hurricane's path are at least a ninety percent loss.

Agriculturally, we won't begin to know the extent of the damage to Florida for quite some time. I don't know what crops are planted when, so I wouldn't even hazard a guess. Texas lost quite a few cattle and the grass they feed on to the extreme flooding, so beef may be more expensive for some time.

Flooding in various farm states earlier this years have reduced surpluses, but I haven't seen any significant price increases yet. Shortages are still a possibility.

Here's some really bad news: well over ten million people have lost days, even weeks of work, if they even have jobs to go back to. The amount of property destruction coupled with lost productivity could add up to staggering economic losses.

The wildfires, which continue in Montana and in the West and Northwest, have destroyed billions in timber resources--more than likely driving up the cost of materials needed for reconstruction Texas and Florida.

Now for the worst news--the areas hit by the fires, flooding and winds are also very active parts of the tourism industry. Billions of dollars a year are spent by visitors to Florida, California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Montana and the Texas Gulf Coast.

I live in an area that has been hit by wildfires and tornadoes. I see how long scorched forests remain ashen moonscapes, how long twisted, denuded trees take to heal and regrow, and how many years it takes to rebuild hotels, homes, businesses and neighborhoods. The cleanup and reconstruction began almost as soon as the winds passed and the rains let up. The fires are still burning in many areas and five hundred year old trees take centuries to regrow. It's going to be a long process.

 Humans are horrible, dirty, destructive beings, but we are also resilient, caring and industrious. When faced with almost insurmountable odds, we draw together and work for a common purpose in legendary fashion. If we can only get on the same page and work for our common good we can rebuild (I'm liable to break into the Six Million Dollar Man speech any minute). Opportunity brings out the worst in some people and there are already scammers working overtime, but we have reason to hope and maybe we will come out of this all right. Maybe.

Stephen P.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Night Sights

During our time out here in the woods we've gotten used to the variety of night sounds. We hear owls. Not just hoot owls, but screech owls, caterwauling barred owls and something we haven't identified yet. We hear a variety of frogs, toads, crickets, katydids, cicadas and all kinds of insects we haven't identified yet. Oh, and don't forget that annoying mosquito that comes whining up to my ear over and over and over. And the ringing in my ear from swatting at it.

Smaller night birds are not as frequent, but we have a few whip-poor-wills and mockingbirds. Barking dogs are common everywhere, but there are many more dogs in our neighborhood and we all depend on them to notify us of intruders--and imagined intruders. There's a donkey at a nearby farm who brays occasionally at night, and a cow or two who low in the dark (low is country talk for moo).

During most of the year we hear coyotes yipping and howling in the distance. Sometimes not too distant. Several times we've heard them as close as a hundred yards. We've been told they only yip and howl when they've found food (read: killed something). We don't have a lot of stray cats out here, anymore, and small dogs left outdoors at night disappear pretty quickly. Even big dogs tend to hang close to the front porch.

We can always tell when deer or coyotes are on the move, by the progression of barking. First the dogs up on Tecumseh start to bark; then the hunting hounds bay three houses closer; the dogs on Tecumseh stop, but the dogs next door to the north start. We can tell if they turn and head west or continue south by the dogs that begin to bark. Sometimes our dogs and the dogs next door to the south start barking and don't stop for a while.

The other night the neighbor dogs were barking and our dogs were just growling. And then the neighbor's dogs just growled.

I saw a late night ad for one of those tactical flashlights last year and just had to have one. I got one for Christmas. It really is a great flashlight. You can focus the beam down to an intense rectangle and identify things in the dark that would be very indistinct and hard to make out with a standard flashlight.

The dogs continued to growl, so I got my flashlight and swept the beam across the south meadow, across the driveway and into the woods. And stopped.

We're used to all the night sounds and many of the sights: the Milky Way, the moon, the planets, even an occasional bat flying really close.

Eyes staring back in the dark from a hundred feet away are not something we are used to. Glowing eyes in the darkness. They just stared. "Maybe it's just an old bottle or a plastic bag caught in a tree reflecting the light." The eyes kept staring. Then they did something really creepy. They turned, trotted twenty feet north and then stopped, turned and stared at us again. We went in the house and closed the door.

Ah, the peaceful country life !

Stephen P.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Retro Obsession

Recently I've subscribed to about a dozen newsletters. Email newsletters. Newsletters that I find really interesting.

The older people in the audience may remember when email was a brand new thing and almost everybody had AOL dial-up. I started getting people's email addresses and I would email them. And then I would check my email a dozen times a day to see if I'd gotten a response. After a time, email was like a primitive form of Facebook. Then somebody invented spam and email got even more like a primitive form of Facebook. Pretty soon I started getting into arguments and misunderstandings and finally people started to troll me and email became exactly like Facebook only without so many pictures. And I kept on checking it.

But then I didn't. I discovered websites that interested me. I could pursue my hobbies and interests online, learning more, finding sources for materials, or whatever. Some of the websites had discussion boards and that became an obsession, waiting for responses to posts.

MySpace came along, but I resisted it. I knew people who were on MySpace and I may have checked it out a time or two, but I just couldn't imagine exposing myself like that, inviting identity thefts and, of course, trolls.

I got old and old friends started tracking me down to catch up on things. And they would invite me to join them on Facebook, to stay in touch.  I got on Facebook and soon I was checking it a dozen times a day. Then, Facebook started giving me lots of spam and I started getting into arguments and misunderstandings and finally people started to troll me. Facebook took over my life.

One day I just decided Facebook had become too hostile and tedious and I quit checking it. I discovered websites that interested me. I could pursue my hobbies and interests online, learning more, finding sources for materials or whatever.

These websites had email newsletters with links to other articles of interest. Now I'm checking my email a dozen times a day to see if I've gotten any new newsletters.

Good grief!

Stephen P.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Save the Pollinators

It has been a tough year for gardeners, homesteaders and farmers. A lack of pollinators has resulted in smaller crops and even crop failures in some areas. Just this morning I read about the sad state of Maine blueberries. Harvests had been increasing and prices dropping, but this year a combination of mummy berry disease and lack of pollinators has reduced harvest as much as 36%.

Several homesteaders I keep up with online have mentioned smaller harvests of crops dependent on pollinators. In my own garden it seems I have problems with lack of pollination.  I haven't seen any honey bees at all this year, but I have seen a few bumblebees and smaller pollinators that I might not have noticed before.

Crop failures and reduced harvests have been occurring worldwide this year. Corn and wheat don't depend on pollinators, but weather patterns have taken a toll. Fungal diseases such as mummy berry mentioned above can thrive in unusually wet weather and warmer winters.

Future food insecurity is becoming a very real possibility. I'm not advocating that we all become doomsday preppers and hoard food, but it is time we start to recognize a looming crisis and it's important that we know there are things we can do.

Reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides is crucial to restoring pollinator populations. We don't see how much and how many chemicals are going into our environment, but on a recent trip to a home improvement store's garden center I was a little overwhelmed by the smell. Looking around, I realized how many pallets of chemical fertilizers, weed killers and pest control agents there were. Tons. Just in one store. I also noticed hundreds of gallons of liquid chemicals. If you consider the number of garden centers citywide, it is staggering, especially given how few counter measures are being taken. On a side note, think about all of those chemicals ending up in our water supplies.

One suggestion, aside from doing all you can to go organic, is plant wildflowers. I've read that clover doesn't supply the nectar necessary for healthy bees and that native plants are far better.

Even the smallest gesture can make a difference. Containers and hanging baskets of flowering herbs or compact vegetables can supply a small source of food for a household, as well as providing flowers for bees. With more space available, raised beds can produce enough food to provide surplus for preserving, and companion plants like borage and marigolds will attract and feed pollinators.

The term "homesteading" probably conjures images of Little House on the Prairie for many people, but modern homesteading is many things. There are urban homesteaders, making use of community spaces to provide fresh produce in areas where there are few other sources. Some people are making use of their own back yards to produce much of their food and enough surplus to trade or sell to pay for other necessities.

I've read criticisms of those who move out of the cities to small acreages and begin raising crops and livestock. Critics think these people are taking away from commercial farmers and grocers and hurting the food supply. I disagree. The small farmers are increasing food security for all of us by creating alternate sources to draw on when traditional producers have bad years, and they provide a gradual transition to an organic food supply.

It may seem that I've digressed, but these things most certainly relate to bees and other pollinators, because they provide an important symbiotic relationship by providing chemical-free zones for beneficial insects.

While it isn't for everyone, becoming a beekeeper will absolutely help increase bee populations, as well as providing a honey source for the grower.

Probably the simplest way to help bees is to buy locally-produced raw organic honey. It isn't significantly more expensive than refined honey and it's healthier for you and the bees.

Stephen P.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Living On Less

Lately I've seen a couple of articles with titles like "Living on less and loving it!" The first time I ever heard the "and loving it" phrase was in the movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley. The Steve Jobs character made members of his Macintosh development team wear t-shirts that said "90+ hours a week and loving it." The only one loving it was Steve Jobs. His employees hated it. Many were suicidal, considering giving up their careers or ready to be institutionalized.

In the process that led to our move to the country, we gave up 80% of our income. We have no choice but to find ways to live on less, but that's not what we love. We love the peace--it isn't quiet out here among all the little creatures that feel the need to vocalize. It's tough when I see something I want but don't have money for: a new rake, a package of seeds, Chinese food. In fact, that list can include gas for the mower, groceries and toothpaste. Scaling down is hard to do.

I do have a few tips based on my experience these past three plus years.

1. On some items, the dollar section of the grocery store might not be the cheapest option.

2. Sales are a good time to stock up on some items, but can hurt your budget if you don't practice restraint.

3. Stocking up when items are on sale might not be a good deal. Check expiration dates. You may not be able to use all those jars of peanut butter before they start to taste rancid.

4. Learn to cook from scratch. In many cases, you can make it for less. Homemade mayonnaise tastes better, costs far less, and it's so easy to make, you don't have to store large quantities.

5. Don't do impulse driving. All those trips to get a soft drink or ice cream cone add up in the mileage column and is money you could be saving to spend at the farmers' market.

6. Learn to get up and do things. We live in a part of the world where sweet tea is a necessity of life. Over the past twenty years or so, grabbing a jug of tea at the market has become routine. At $2.50 and up for a gallon, we were spending easily ten dollars a week. Now, when I notice the tea pitcher is getting low, I put on water to make more. Using our own tea bags, sugar and filtered water saves us, um, a lot. A 5# bag of sugar we use for more than just tea lasts us over a month. A box of Always Save tea bags lasts about three months (Always Save tea is better than some of the premium brands), and a filter for the water pitcher lasts about two months.

7. Filter your own water. We have our own well, which we test periodically and it is safe for human consumption, but it has minerals. Our coffee maker was getting clogged up every few months and required a gallon of white vinegar to unclog. Eventually the coffee maker would become too clogged to salvage. Since we got our Brita filter pitchers we haven't had a problem. We also save by never buying bottled water.

8. Don't go crazy. Spending money to save money is always risky. When our freezer went out a few years ago, we bought a good new one, not the cheapest, but nothing fancy, either. Every time we had a little extra money, we took advantage of sales on meat, fish and chicken and filled the new freezer. We saved at least a thousand dollars. One day I went to put a bargain ham in the freezer and discovered it had been off for three days. The warranty covered the freezer repair, but not the $2000 worth of food we lost. Now we make a point of checking the freezer every day and we never buy more than a few weeks worth of food to freeze.

9. Grow your own food, but don't go crazy. I've seen it a hundred times. Someone decides they're going to save money by putting in a garden. They go out and spend a fortune on cedar lumber for raised beds, bags of soil, seeds, transplants, fertilizer, tools and time-saving gadgets. Then they decide it's too much work, or they do the work, but they're too tired and sore and don't follow through, or it takes too much time, or they get discouraged by how long plants take to grow or by how quickly weeds grow or how many bugs there are in the world. By the end of the growing season they've harvested three dollars worth of tomatoes and a zucchini the size of a semi trailer. Start small. Some containers with tomatoes and peppers are how most people do it. Learn. Expand slowly. Keep it cheap, or at least reasonable. Work up to the next level.

There are plenty of ways to save money, but the trick is to avoid overwhelming yourself. You know all the cliches like "baby steps," etc.  Do it a little at a time. Read, get rid of cable, spend more time outdoors.


Monday, August 28, 2017

Cooking with Lard

Grit is one of my favorite magazines. When I was a kid Grit was a tabloid format publication that was thicker than a Sunday paper. At the time it was distributed by neighbors who went farm to farm, selling it for a little extra income. We rarely saw the same person selling it twice and availability was spotty, but we always bought it when we could. I'm not sure what all was inside, but it was targeted to farm families. I know there were plenty of recipes, but the thing I cared about was the twenty pages of newspaper comic strips. Our "local" paper was the Tulsa World, which was delivered by the rural mail carrier. Tulsa was about a hundred miles away. Grit had dozens of strips the World didn't.

Today's Grit magazine is an offering from Ogden Publications, the parent company of Mother Earth News. It is a standard magazine format, available in some book stores (if there are any left) and at the checkout of rural Dollar General Stores, and by subscription. I subscribe. They have a little bit of nostalgia content and a lot of farming and homesteading content.

I also subscribe to their email newsletter. I have to take exception to one of their recent emails. It advertises a new cookbook, Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother's Secret Ingredient. My grandmother's secret ingredient was Crisco.

My mother grew up with biscuits and gravy at least two meals a day, made with lard, and she was done with it. We hardly ever had biscuits or gravy and never both at once. Once my grandpa died, my grandmother was alone (she came to live in a trailer house on our farm) and she did all of her baking for us grand kids--and she used shortening. My mother associated lard with poor people.

We lived on a farm near Watts, Oklahoma, a railroad boom town that had shrunk to a population of 300 when diesel engines pushed the steam locomotives out of service. All my friends were farm kids I knew from Watts School. We rode the school bus every morning on winding dirt roads through the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.

Whenever I went to spend the night at friends' houses, I got to eat biscuits and gravy--made with lard!

Everybody cooked with lard, which they bought at Waldroop's store in lard stands. A stand is a six and a half gallon tin can with little folding handles on the side. Search "lard stand" on eBay and you can see what I'm talking about. Lard stands are a big nostalgia item. Truth be told, we had an awful lot of lard stands around our house, so shortening must have been a fairly new innovation in our house. I was fourth of fives kids and I don't know what they ate before I came along, except that squirrel was on the menu a little more often.

Lard served as an all-purpose ingredient. It was cooking oil and shortening and lubricant for squeaky hinges. The empty lard stands were washed out and used for storing things, like clothes that older kids had outgrown and younger kids hadn't grown into yet (you'll never know the joy of first day of school wearing a pair of slightly too big OshKosh overalls that smell like mothballs). Kathy and I still have a lard stand around, but it's out in one of the storage sheds, full of old baby clothes or something.

I'm sure the cookbook is great, just don't talk about my grandma. Lard has been rediscovered by chefs and bakers in recent years. Lard has still been in stores all along, but in smaller plastic buckets. It's essential for making refried beans, as far as I'm concerned. Now you can also find gourmet lard in upscale stores and organic lard in health food stores. If you've never eaten lard, it is similar to bacon grease, but without the bacon flavor.

Around here we do most of our cooking with peanut oil. It has a mild, unobtrusive flavor and it is healthier than "cooking oil," which is likely to contain GMO soy, corn and or canola, or palm oil from some third world country. We use sesame oil as a flavoring and olive oil for occasional sauteing.

I've read a number of articles on cooking with lard and the consensus seems to be that lard has gotten a bad rap as far as health concerns. So here's the breakdown: lard tastes good, it makes a good shortening, it's healthy for you and it has roots and traditions that go back to the beginning of cooking.

Okay, maybe I'll order the cookbook. It's $19.99 and you can Google it or go to Grit.com. I don't get paid for endorsing anything, let alone Grit or this cookbook. Maybe someday.

Stephen P.