Waking up in Kansas

Grow Your Own Brooms

As a long-time fan of the art of everyday things, I was thrilled to discover a completely unlikely source of inspiration at our recent Mother Earth News Fair. Hint: If you think brooms are a strictly functional object designed for the back of the pantry, guess again.

Historically, many farmers grew a little broom corn and crafted their own brooms to use around the home place. At the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, I met John Holzwart and his partner Linda Conroy, who are carrying on that honorable tradition with a very modern twist, proving that art is an approach, not a matter of materials.

 John Holzwart broommaker extraordinaire  

“Little John” uses no machinery to craft his rustic brooms, which are made from all-natural broomcorn and handles crafted from a variety of materials, from tree limbs to carved sticks, shed antlers to wrought iron and even guitar necks reclaimed from the landfill. (He will do custom work, if you have an old guitar or other object you’d like turned into a broom handle.) Every piece is individual, bearing its own personality and character – which in my book is one definition of art.

John and Linda grew their own broomcorn for a while, then the business grew to the point that he needed to contract out that portion of the process. As Grit readers might remember, I grew up in Lindsay, Oklahoma, the “Broomcorn Capital of the World,” so running into John and Linda at the Fair was a great reminder of home. His broom-making demonstration drew a steady stream of interested observers. Since we’ll be returning to Seven Springs in September 2012, I plan to spend more time observing how he does the actual work this time, instead of oohing and aahing over these very cool brooms.

Here’s a video interview I did with Linda (owner of Moonwise Herbs and a wise, wonderful woman in her own right) explaining a bit more about the brooms, which you can order from Little John’s website, and which I think would make great gift ideas for weddings, showers or the winter holidays.

If you buy a broom, just don’t stick a fork in it – a comment that will be much less mysterious if you watch the video. :-) 


Update on My Giant Sunflower

Suddenly last week – and I do mean suddenly, as in overnight – my enormous backyard sunflower plant did two things at once. First, it drooped over and lost its stature as the tallest non-tree plant in my neighborhood. And immediately thereafter, it exploded.

OK, it might have taken another day. But within hours, the plant had gone from having a few lonely sunflowers at the very top where no one could see them, to being this sunflower extravaganza:

 Lemon Queen Sunflower Forest 

I think it got tired of being appreciated only for its height and decided to bend over and show me what else it could do. And now I know the identity of this amazing plant. It is indeed the ‘Lemon Queen’ variety handed out by our friends at Your Garden Show, as part of their citizen science project to track bees.

I haven’t seen any bees, but man, do I have some blossoms. And I don’t think you could find a more heat-and-drought tolerant flowering plant anywhere. As you can see, it’s a forest of flowers.

So, that offer of seeds – if the birds don’t get to all of them first – still stands.

And once again, I am filled with awe and wonder for the miracles of daily life. Just when you think things – in the garden, in relationships, in life – are going one way, shazam! A corner is turned and an entirely new game opens up.


Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Last month I was one of more than 600 agricultural editors, writers, designers, photographers, publishers and other communications professionals invited to New Orleans for the Agricultural Media Summit . I hadn’t been to New Orleans for more than 20 years and I was going there to teach a couple of writing workshops, which I enjoy, so I was stoked about the adventure.

And besides, New Orleans is home to one of my favorite sandwiches in the world: The Muffaletta. (Of course, for my money, you could spread olive tapenade on cardboard and I'd consider it good eating. Anything with sufficient quantities of olive tapenade gets my thumbs-up.)

Muffeletta Sandwich  

I got to the Kansas City airport at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time to get through the security check point. I had remembered to put socks in my handbag before I left home so I wouldn’t have to walk barefoot through that icky security area, so at the checkpoint I dutifully put on my socks, stuck my shoes in one tub and my laptop in the other and off I went to my Louisiana adventure. 

At the St. Louis airport, I had a two-hour layover so there was plenty of time for a leisurely lunch. Except ... when I reached into my purse to pay for aforementioned leisurely lunch … there was no wallet. Knowing for a fact that this couldn’t really be happening, I calmly took everything out of my purse, stacked it all on the table, literally turned my (very large) handbag inside out and discovered that, yes-indeedy-roo, it was utterly true: My billfold was gone.  

Suddenly I remembered the two or three moments I had left my purse on the floor while I went to fetch the tubs and put on my socks. Exactly enough time for someone to reach into the open purse and adopt my billfold as his or her own.  

This meant, of course, that my credit cards were gone, along with my debit card, my driver’s license, my checkbook, my insurance cards, random scraps of paper that I once thought were important enough to keep in my wallet, and two adorable photos of my brand new grandson. I was completely without money and without identity. 

Looking back, I can say that this moment of complete flat-out broke anonymity was one of the more interesting moments of my life. For one thing, I had to look that poor waitress in the eye and tell her, “I can’t pay for my lunch. I don’t have a penny to my name.” And, of course, within minutes, I got to have the same conversation with the manager, all the while trying not to look utterly pathetic.  

I must have looked pathetic enough, however, because my hands were trembling and I know my face was telegraphing the panic I was trying hard to tamp down. The manager looked at me for a minute and said, “It’s OK. I’ll just comp you the meal.”

 Thank you, God, that I don’t have the look of a dash-and-diner. 

Then the manager waggled a stern finger and said, “But you better get to your bank and credit card companies fast and cancel everything.” Since I still had my cell phone and had at some point had the presence of mind to put my Mastercard, Visa and bank numbers in the address book, I could do that.  

All I could see in my mind's eye was a long train of unpleasantness on a beeline in my direction, beginning with getting  from the airport to the hotel. I called the hotel to see if there was a free shuttle, forgetting the insistent truth that in New Orleans, nothing is free. Once I got to the hotel, how would I eat? How would I get back to the airport? How would I get on the plane with no photo I.D.? Then, oh rats! My car needed gas. How would I get my car out of airport parking and full of gas?  

At that moment, I did the only rational thing: I went in the ladies room and bawled as silently as I could. Then I heard my mother’s voice clearly in my head saying, “All right, Kathryn. Go splash some cold water on your face and snap out of it!”  

So I obeyed Mom’s command. I realized that I could either be a mess about this or I could come up with a plan. Blanche Dubois’ line from A Streetcar Named Desire popped into my head and I decided that the new context for this trip would not be business-as-usual, it would be about depending on the kindness of strangers. 

 Almost instantly I remembered that I had the cell phone number of the Ag Media Summit coordinator, the competent and kind-hearted Kenna Rathai. As I explained the situation to her, she paused for about five beats, then said, “Well, just get yourself down here, we’ll sort it out.” So I did. I took a cab from the New Orleans airport to the hotel, texted her when I was a few blocks away and there she was, standing in the doorway with cash in her hand to pay the cab driver.     

“No worries,” she said about my concern over how I was going to eat. “There are meal events throughout the summit.” And then, that merciful angel from Heaven gave me two drink coupons. My dad always told me never to take a drink when you feel like you need a drink. In this instance, I ignored my father’s counsel.  

Looking back at the experience, a couple of things strike me. One is that the context of depending on the kindness of strangers somehow had me encounter a lot of kindness, beginning with the staff and volunteers at the Ag Media Summit. I called my neighbor, who kindly went into my office at home and found my passport, then kindly went to his church and faxed it to me. My kind friend Nancy (whom I rousted out of bed at 7 a.m.), wired me sufficient cash to get myself home. The guys at the Western Union place couldn’t really tell from the fax that the photo on the passport copy was actually me, but they eyeballed me a few times and figured no one that Midwestern could be much of a criminal. I got the cash and practically galloped down the street to find that muffaletta sandwich – I had to have some New Orleans flavor. On my way, I did some unintentional sightseeing and actually ended up right in front of Jackson Square. Ta-DAH! A tourist moment! 

 Jackson Square 

 And even the Transportation Safety Administration agents at the airport, while not exactly kind to me, at least did not beat me with sticks and ask me about that letter I wrote to the President 20 years ago. The worst part of their questioning me for 30 minutes was the looks I kept getting from other passengers. All in all, it could have been much, much worse. I have no idea how this might have turned out if I fit one of their profiles.  

The other takeaway from this experience was just how weird it was not to be able to buy what I wanted when I wanted it. Nothing extravagant, mind you – I don’t live that way – but just thinking in the airport, for example, that I’d like a magazine to take on the plane and not having the money to purchase one, or wanting a latte instead of the airline’s coffee and having to say, “Nope.” For me, the condition of wanting and not being able to have was temporary. It’s sobering to have a gut-level experience of that need and to realize that for many, many, many people in this world, that’s a way of life, not a transitory and surmountable inconvenience.  

I had been reading a magazine article about the famine in Africa just before this mess occurred, and just as my emotions were ramping up for a great big hissy fit after I discovered my loss, I saw the image of a mother holding a child she couldn’t feed. And I said to myself, “Seriously? You’re gonna get all bent out of shape because you’ve lost your credit cards?”  

Sometimes all it takes is a little perspective to dramatically shift the way the world occurs.  


A Mutant Grows in Kansas

A giant mutant sunflower is growing right outside my back door, in the whimsically named “garden” around my fence. There’s really not much to say about this giant mutant sunflower except, “Holy Moly, that’s some honkin’ big sunflower plant!!!” I hardly ever allow myself the indulgence of exclamation points, but if ever there were a time for them, the appearance of this sunflower would be it. 

Please note: From the “All Hat, No Cattle” Department: This bad boy is all plant, no sunflower – so far, at least. If it does finally work up an actual flower or two I’ll never know it because it’s now too high for me to see to the top.

Giant Mutant Sunflower 

This plant is, without exaggeration, at least 12 feet tall now. That fence beside it is 6 feet tall, and the plant has grown another foot or so since I took this photo last week.   

I have no idea why this particular sunflower developed a wild hair and started reaching for the sky. Maybe it always dreamed of being a beanstalk. Maybe one of these days fairy tale characters will come tumbling down it into my yard. Maybe a little speck of radioactive dust landed on that one piece of ground just as it was starting to grow. Maybe smokin’ big mutant sunflowers like this are fairly common and I just don’t know about it. If that is the case, I hope Constant Reader will let me know (with photos and we’ll share them).

I have several relatively tall sunflower plants back there (nothing like the giant mutant), a foot or so taller than me, and here’s the really weird thing: None of the sunflowers on that side of the garden has grown a single blossom. A couple of buds are straining to blossom now, but that’s pretty much it for the dozen or so plants on the east side of my yard. On the west side, I’ve cut lots of pretty sunflowers, both ‘Moulin Rouge’ – my new favorite variety – and several ‘Lemon Queen’, which I harvest every few days for flower arrangements for my house. But on the east side? Nada. Zip. Zilch.

 For numerous reasons, my garden sort of didn’t happen this year. After moderate self-recrimination (“Bad gardener, bad, bad gardener…”) I have now chosen to be philosophical about that fact and use what actually did happen as coaching for next year. One lesson is that sunflowers are quite transitory when used as cut flowers and only last a couple of days indoors before they go all droopy and sad-looking and spit pollen all over the table. Next year, the garden going to be all about flowers (no, I really mean it. NO TOMATOES), so any suggestions for cut flowers that stay nice and grow in an extremely neglectful home would be welcome. I’ll still do sunflowers, but enough with the mono-crop already.

Sunflower bouquet with Taxi tomatoes 

 My friend Taylor  tells me that my eastern crop is growing plants without flowers because I have too much nitrogen and need some phosphorus.  Another lesson learned is to test the soil before I plant, and to test several areas of the garden when I do. I could swear I treated all the tilled-up space equally, but apparently the chemistry on the east side was significantly different from that on the west side to begin with. So, next year, I’ll be methodical. No, really.

 But look at it this way: If I had been all methodical and scientific about how I approached my garden this year, we would have missed this great occasion for Wow!!! So at the very least, my haphazard, inconsistent ways did have a silver lining.

And who knows? Maybe Jack will come tumbling down that sunflower stalk any day now. Maybe he'll love dogs, be about my age, have most of his teeth, a reliable source of income ...

 Bad gardener. Bad, bad gardener.    

Animal Connection Key to Compatibility

KC ComptonI’ve just come from visiting friends on Facebook, which always includes plenty of postings of people with dogs, cats, birds or other creatures prominently positioned in their yards, on their laps, draped on their beds or perched on their shoulders. This always makes me happy: I heartily approve of animal lovers who have critters prominently located in their lives.

Not THAT many animals, of course – I don’t admire the hoarders or those whose entire lives become overtaken by the mongrel horde. But a friendly connection with other species seems to me part of what makes domestic life sweet.

KC's current dog-pal CP -- aka Cutie PatootieI know that an intimate, familial relationship with animals isn't everyone's cup of tea. Some people whom I love deeply simply are not animal people. These folks tend to fall into categories. One group is made up of those who didn't grow up with animals and therefore remain strangers, vastly aware of the differences between themselves and animals and barely aware of the connections. I harbor a romantic hope that someday, each of those people, if they only spend some time with an animal, will see that the charms mostly outweigh the minuses. I harbor this hope despite direct and painful evidence to the contrary.

The other group seems to comprise people who have had some traumatic encounter with an animal – through loss or fear – and now keep their distance to protect themselves. I feel sad for these people and hope for them some healing.

A third possibility occurs to me, that there may be people whose brains simply aren't wired to reach out and make contact with other species.

Trying to get inside a mind like this is near impossible for me, though I try to suspend judgment. I have to admit, I can’t imagine having that kind of brain, any more than I can imagine not hearing melodies incessantly, dreaming in black and white, or encountering intense aroma and flavor without an internal swoon.

From experience I can say rocks on the path can appear when someone simpatico with other species forms a heart alliance with someone hardwired to indifference or even hostility toward animals. Imagine yourself trying to convince someone by word and deed to see your favorite color or appreciate your favorite scent. At some point the conversation breaks down, the objective impossible. The color or aroma doesn’t live in that other brain and all the talking you can do won’t make it so. If, at the very least, the other person can appreciate that you appreciate, sometimes that’s good enough.

In things that really matter, like sharing your life with animals and children, the tension between those who do and those who don’t can create insurmountable odds. If accommodations can't be made, one or the other eventually is going to have to go.

CP ready for his closeup 

In my case, a long time ago, it was the guy. I'd like to say that after realizing the depth to which he really didn't care for animals I said, "OK, I'm so sorry this didn't work out. I hope the next person you try to love is wired the same as you." I did not.

I kept trying to find some way of having it work: Dogs can stay in the basement with a doggie gate unless he's in the mood for them (which never happened). I can keep the animals in the back yard while he’s in the house. I’ll compensate my butt off and it will be OK.

It wasn't. It honestly was Hell. I would be comfortably ensconced on the sofa in front of the wood stove with the cat on my lap and both dogs at my feet. This is at least one of my definitions of The Good Life and I would be savoring it like a rich Bordeaux.

He would come in, sit in the rocking chair beside the sofa for a few minutes, fidgety and uncomfortable and I'd say, "Come sit here ..." and offer him the space I had been saving for him, the Man Space in the corner of the sofa, with me and the cascade of pets stacked up like a row of dominoes.

He would wave his hands and say, "No … I needed to read anyway," then he’d sit in the chair, fidget a few more minutes pretending to read, then he’d come up with a reason to leave. It took a few of these episodes before I finally realized that it was the presence of the animals that put him off. When I asked, he said, "There's just always this wall to get through to be with you. There's always ... them." He said it with such a combination of perplexity and disgust that the awareness hit me like a thunderbolt: He will never, ever really want to be around animals. And I will never, ever not have animals in my life. Neither of us could ever be one hundred percent happy or even completely comfortable with each other. For him, there was me and these things, for me there was me and three other beings, ready to welcome a fifth being into our circle.

Because God is merciful, this man conveniently met another woman and broke my heart very soon after that conversation. I was spared.

Sometimes, like this afternoon, I see my friends' postings on the Internet, photos with captions like, "Saturday morning at our house, LOL," and "Think we have company …" The common ingredient is animals all over the place, looking like my definition of home, and I feel intensely grateful for the home wrecker who took that man away from me.

As we grow older, a certain serenity comes when we realize who we're not and what we will never do. The river is created by its banks, who we are is shaped by what we can't do or be or have, as much as what we can.

I know now that a connection to animals is fundamental to who I am and I will never, ever be able to give my true self to anyone for whom animals are not an important part of life.

The animal in me would never be able to relax.

Homemade Mac and Cheese is HOT!

Baked Mac and CheeseAs Constant Reader might remember, GRIT has been way out ahead on the current mac and cheese craze. For those of you who don't know, macaroni and cheese is now the totally hot comfort food du jour, with even such a notable blog site as The Huffington Post 

touting it in recipes from sushi to tortilla wraps and a few unimaginable interpretations in between. 

The Culinate Newsletter has a delicious-sounding recipe for a baked macaroni and cheese with cauliflower that sounded utterly worth trying.

But if you’re looking for a good, basic recipe for “macaroni cheese,” as my kids used to call it, you’ll find it right here on the GRIT website. Our staff started the macaroni wars – actually, just a very tasty mac-and-cheese cook-off (we look for any excuse to cook our favorite things for each other) – a couple of years ago and offered recipes from several of our office winners.You'll find several variations on the theme, all of them staff-certified to be delicious.

 I have a fond spot in my heart for macaroni and cheese because I’m convinced it saved my daughter’s life when she decided at age 12 that she was a vegetarian, but didn’t really get around to liking vegetables much until she was in college. Kraft Mac and Cheese (when I was feeling flush, store brands when I wasn’t) kept her going until she caught up with vegetables. I feel guilty about this, but there you have it. She's a succcessful, veggie-eating, glowing-with-health adult now, so sometimes you just have to ride out these waves and keep nagging until the kid reaches shore.

As the Huffington Post article demonstrates, this simple dish has endless and occasionally awful variations (though if I were carbo-loading for a marathon or a long bike ride, the grilled mac-and-cheese sandwich might actually not kill me instantly).

 The macaroni and cheese layered in meat loaf seems perfectly rational and even appetizing to me. The mac-cheese pizza? Not so much. But then, I’ve never been one to eat bread sticks with my pizza either.


Turmeric for Inflammation Is Now Mainstream

KC ComptonSeveral years ago when I first read about taking turmeric to fight the pain of arthritis, the notion was quite alternative and woo-woo. It didn’t seem so to me, because I know that at least a quarter of the medicines on the market in this country originated with plant medicines, and turmeric (the spice that gives curry its yellow hue) has been used for thousands of years as a healing herb.

However, any time I mentioned to a doctor that I was taking turmeric or any of the other herbs I use for various maladies, I would get The Look, a mixture of patronized bemusement that mentally patted me on the head for my quaint belief system. In a sign of how far we’ve come in just a decade or so, I recently was going through the routine “What medications do you take?” conversation with my doctor, and when I said, “turmeric,” she nodded and said, “For inflammation?”

Yessssss! A minor triumph to be sure, but I’ll take ‘em where I can get ‘em. Now I see that this month’s issue of the AARP magazine (hey, Vince Gill and Amy Grant were on the cover – and they’re not that old) has an article on “Painkillers in Your Pantry” that mentions turmeric. The magazine also has a sidebar on the anti-inflammatory diet, which could go a long way toward reducing a lot of our aches and pains if we were willing to forego bad fats and processed foods and eat lots of fruits and veggies. A simple step, yes?

Turmeric gives curry a distinctive color, and it fights inflammation as well.Even the iconic Reader’s Digest has now come out with “The Complete Illustrated Book of Herbs,” which includes not only cooking and gardening, but information on each herb’s uses for health and beauty. We herbies have arrived!

Without going all Old Hippie on you, I will say that giving herbs, spices and teas a chance, along with a healthy diet, can keep our medicine cabinets a lot less cluttered. I don’t subscribe to the “herbs = good; prescription medications = automatically bad” paradigm. Some prescription meds are important and useful. What I can get on a very creaky soapbox about is trying herbs, diet and exercise before we go to the hard stuff.

I know taking turmeric daily has so far meant that my family history of arthritis has bypassed me. As soon as I forget to take the bright yellow herb for a while, I notice myself aching and feeling old. I start the turmeric again and in a few days I forget that I had been hurting.

NOTE: as with most plant medicines, the effect is not instant. You sometimes have to take it a while – a month or longer – before you notice the effect. But if you could give up anti-inflammatory drugs, with their toll on your internal organs, wouldn’t it be worth the wait? If you want to try taking turmeric, you can take it while you’re taking the hard stuff, then taper off the drugs and see how you feel. The herb doesn’t have side effects. As with all things medical, be sure to involve your health-care professional in this decision.

Turmeric is readily available in capsule form – a fact I didn’t know when I first started taking it. I tried to sift it into capsules myself and ended up with some gnarly looking fingers. Learn from my mistakes, Grasshopper, and you might ease your aches and pains without having to go around looking as though you had randomly tattooed your fingertips.

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