28 September 2009

The Last Tomatoes

I was going to dig up the tomato vines yesterday afternoon. I took a nap instead - it seemed like a better idea. There are still tomatoes out there.

They need to come in, sure - it's getting down in the 50s in the evenings now, and they're not going to get any riper out there than they already are. In the house, in the basket, they'll turn red and be reasonably tasty, although not so much as the earlier ones that ripened on the vine. Still better than your average supermarket tomato.

Tonight, I used up the last of what's already in the house. It's just me on Mondays - Ed is off playing Dartball, Mitch is either at work or with Ed, Bri is either at work or across the river at her "home away from home." It's quiet here - me and the dogs and no one else, and I can talk to them or not. They don't care much either way, as long as I'm not yelling. Monday is my evening to do as I please.

That's not to say I don't get to do as I please the other six days a week. When we dine out, it's this inevitable skirmish: "Where do you want to go?" "I don't know, where do you want to go?" "I picked last time. You pick." "I always pick. You pick." And usually, I end up picking (although I really don't know, at least half the time).

And we have way too many TVs in this house. The upshot of it is that Ed usually ends up watching a ball game in the bedroom, Mitch watches Comedy Central or the Cartoon Network downstairs, and I sit in the kitchen and either watch one of the handful of shows I watch or don't turn the TV on at all. "Big Bang Theory," "Criminal Minds," "NCIS," "Cold Case." Rachel Maddow, if I'm in the mood. "House Hunters International" when I think of it. Otherwise, the computer is set to streaming on WFPK or playing one of my playlists on Playlist.com.

So, yes, I do as I please a lot of nights. But Monday nights, I just do. I don't have to think about it, don't have to consider what the others will eat - or when. I don't get lured away for a run to the Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen... (Yeah, I know. It's a hard life - what can I tell you?)

So tonight, I had the luxury of spending nearly an hour peeling, seeding, and chopping the last really fresh tomatoes. I had time to separate them by variety and seed them into three different bowls, each labeled for next season. We have Joe Thienamans, Hungarian paste, and what I've decided to call Volunteers of Amerika - the hardy, small but meaty little guys that came up in between two of the varieties we planted on purpose.

Then I chopped them and threw them in a skillet with their juice, a little olive oil, and a whole onion, peeled and quartered. Let them simmer for about half an hour, and I'm eating them over 5-cheese ravioli with a chunk of French bread left from last night's beef stew. The first bowl had smoked gouda layered between the pasta and the sauce. This bowl is just pasta, tomatoes, and onions. Oh, and about a teaspoon of minced garlic and a splash of Malbec from the bottom of my wine glass before I poured a fresh glass.

Later, I'll prop up my feet, sitting crossways in the armchair that's in the corner by the big window, and I'll crochet while watching "Big Bang." Right now, though, my taste buds and I are going to enjoy one more nearly-autumn wallow in the glory of September tomatoes.

19 September 2009


I've said many times in my life that if my doctor ever tells me I have to give up eggs, I will tell her to just shoot me now.

I can't think of a way I don't like eggs. Scrambled is good; an omelet is even better. Sunny side up is lovely. Runny yolks are fabulous if you have toast or biscuits to clean the plate up; firm yolks have a savory substantiality* that's filling beyond words. Poached: a childhood favorite that still can make me feel illogically, happily serene. Hard boiled (or even better, medium-boiled, so the yolks are firm but still golden and not crumbly), piping hot and mushed in a bowl with butter and pepper: comfort food.

Egg salad.** (Tuna salad.) French toast. Boiled custard. Somewhere around here there's a recipe for a disgustingly yummy baked egg casserole with sliced boiled eggs, a creamy sauce, and a crushed potato chip topping. Deviled eggs... I used to embarrass my mother at church suppers, sampling a deviled egg or two from each of the six or eight or ten plates from various kitchens. The deviled eggs were a whole course, as far as I was concerned. I could eat a dozen at a sitting. And I'm not saying a dozen stuffed halves. I'm talking about a dozen eggs, each split and stuffed.

A woman I know has grandchildren who love eggs. She left two dozen in the condo refrigerator when her son and his family stayed there this summer - and the kids ate all of them in less than two days. But when she bought a special treat - fresh eggs from an actual chicken-owner - they complained that the eggs tasted "too eggy."

Eggs that are too eggy. Sad. Pass 'em over here, kid. I can take care of that.

We get our eggs from the Egg Guy. I can never remember his name, although eventually, I'll learn it. He has a booth at two different farmer's markets here in town - one on Wednesday afternoons and one on Saturday mornings. He also sells local, pasture-grazed meat and poultry, fresh garlic, and garlicky stuff like a wonderful garlic-scape pesto - but the eggs are the main thing. He has several different breeds of chickens, and he packs out his eggs in clear cartons so you can see the colors of the shells - everything from a dark-brown-sugar color to a pale minty green, and always an even mix of four to six colors. The carton labels are printed on a home computer color printer; they have bright-pastel chickens grazing in grass, and rainbow-colored type.

A few weeks ago, we started hearing a rooster in the morning. We already knew you can have livestock here in the city limits - my daughter has a friend who keeps chickens, and we've spotted two different addresses with goats in the back yard - but a rooster was a little bit of a surprise. For one thing, the rule is that you have to have at least an acre to keep a rooster.

Then one morning as I left for work, I noticed a chicken pen in the far back corner of the next-door neighbors' back yard. I still didn't connect it with the rooster - all I saw was two hens, one brown and one reddish. Pretty cool, I thought.

The rooster was never a bother. We'd hear him when we were already up, getting ready for work, and he'd generally crow once or twice, and that would be it. I was curious about the chickens, but not enough to go out of my way to find out.

A couple of Saturdays ago, Tammy - the mom next door - waved down my daughter and me as we got out of our car. She wanted to know if the rooster was bothering us.

"Oh!" we laughed. "Is this where the rooster lives?" We assured her that we hadn't been bothered at all - that he apparently slept in relatively late for a rooster, and we were usually up before he was.

Turns out, her youngest son, a high-school senior, had come home from the state fair with three chickens. They were keeping the rooster in the garage, but Tammy was having a tad bit of distress over the potential for ticking off the neighbors.

Now I will grant you, my dear husband is a little mystified at the notion of livestock next door, but it doesn't really bother him as long as (a) it doesn't smell and (b) he doesn't have to look after it. For me, it's just one step closer to where I'd love to be sometime before I die. I have my garden, I have my dogs and my big yard and my roses, and I have my kitchen with plenty of counters and a farmhouse-style sink. All that's left is a view of something more than other brick houses and neighbors' landscaping, and a driveway long enough that it makes more sense to get out the bike than to walk all the way to the mailbox.

I don't know that I want chickens. In fact, I've never liked them, up close and personal. My great-uncle took me out to feed them once when I was about three or four, and the rooster - who was almost as tall as I was - thought I might make a nice lunch. I was traumatized, and ever since, I've said the only way I like chickens is dead on a plate. Having them next door, though, isn't bad at all, and I may offer to feed them if the neighbors go out of town for a weekend.

Now, goats - that's different. Goats and dogs get along famously. Goats are personable, and although my experience is that you'd probably do best to keep them well away from the clothesline and the rose bushes, there's only a hair of truth behind the idiom, "smelly as a goat." The bucks do smell pretty randy after they've reached puberty, but the only reason to have a buck is for breeding purposes. And the best way to do that is to pay someone a fee to keep your doe for a few days and let her get acquainted with their buck.

Some people don't care for goat milk - I'll grant you, it's pretty rich - but most of the negative reviews I've heard are along similar lines as saying local eggs taste "too eggy." My youngest child lived on goat milk from the time I stopped nursing him (right after the second tooth came in) until he was about three. Cow's milk and milk-based formulas shredded his digestive system, but we had friends who had friends who had goats, and we traded garden produce for milk once a week. I don't remember what we traded in the winter, but there was always something that worked.

Goat cheese is soft and creamy, savory but not tart or sharp. Goat's milk yogurt is less sour than cow's milk yogurt. And they both mix nicely if you want to put them in your scrambled eggs.

There's not much can compare with an eggy-milky omelet.


*Substantiality [sub-stan-chi-al-i-ty]: My blog, my vocab, and if necessary, my word coinage. Remember? :-)

**Super Easy Eggy Salad
6 eggs, hard boiled, cooled and peeled (fresh from the egg guy are best)
1-1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
2-3 tablespoons sweet pickle relish (I'm currently using Sweet Dillies from CC's Kitchen in Crestwood, KY - contact info available on request - but if you love it, it's perfect!)

Dump in bowl. Mash everything together with a fork or egg-chopper until it's a soft, moderately lumpy mess. Heap on slabs of whole-grain bread and stuff into your face. The sweet pickles, zingy mustard, and savory eggs balance each other to make the most comforting, flavorful sandwich imaginable.

14 September 2009


Hit Cherokee Park this evening for the first time since back in the early summer. I'd made a round of Seneca Park (they're adjacent) a few weeks ago, but coming home from work tonight, I decided to go for broke.

Cherokee Park has some hills that are - at least to a relative novice like me - somewhat challenging. In fact, the last time I attempted them, they were seriously challenging. In fact... when I rode part of the loop from Seneca the other week, they were still pretty serious. And being under three weeks out from the big 3-day ride, I need serious hills.

So yes, they were still serious tonight. But you know what? I have now done that Maryhurst hill twice. The second time, I didn't even have to shift all the way down. I made the top in 1:4. I rode home that night the long way, up the long hill on Dorsey Lane, through Owl Creek, up Wade to Evergreen, and up that long hill back to LaGrange Road, and I only stopped twice. And had a drink of water and then rode from where I was to the top of the hill.

This evening, I had my route mapped out, but I hadn't visually memorized it. I made it up Baxter to Cherokee, but I missed Alexander somewhere and ended up wandering happily around Cherokee Triangle for some time. Cherokee Triangle is a lovely old neighborhood full of "Aunt Tot" houses - I know, if you're not related on my dad's side, you won't get that, but if you are, you know exactly what I mean! Well-maintained homes, at least 3,000 square feet each, original Mission style or maybe "pseudo-Tudor" from the same general period, with well-tended, gracious lawns and lots of space between houses. After a while, though, I began to notice that it wasn't getting earlier, and that I wasn't entirely sure where I needed to go from where I was. Sadly, I'd ridden those same streets, many of them, a few weeks ago when I branched out from Seneca Park, but in spite of those fairly frequent flashes of "oh, yeah!" I wasn't quite sure how they fit together anymore.

But then I rounded another curve and - oh, yeah! - there was Scenic Loop, which meant that I was officially In The Park. And I rode.

It's roughly five miles from the office to where I realized I was where I wanted to be, except that I'd probably put in an extra three or four exploring the neighborhood. What I'd mapped was a whole lot of Cherokee Parkway and Pee Wee Reese Road, not so much Scenic Loop. I took a wrong turn a couple of times and had to double back, and there were moments when - even when I knew I was in the park - I wasn't sure where in the park. But the really bitchin' hills, I remembered. They were the ones that almost did me in back in June.

Today, I made it to the fountain without ever once getting off to push. I stopped twice halfway or more up a hill and had a long drink of water, then knocked my gears back to where they felt right and took off again. I stopped when my front fender, which had come unhitched on the left, started dragging badly on the right against the tire. Another thing about commuting regularly and paying attention to how your gears feel is that you also learn how your tires should feel - and my front tire was feeling really sluggish. So I stopped at the fountain, checked my 20 with a lovely woman out for a walk, and called my daughter.

To shorten the long story:
  • Nellie Belle is off to the shop again tomorrow, to fix the fender and check the tire and assess her actual, realistic road-worthiness for a three-day ride.
  • If it turns out Nellie Belle is not up to the three-day ride, Plan B is to retrofit Bri's bike - Betty - with the appropriate gears, handlebars, and road wheels and start learning how Betty should feel going uphill.
  • I guess I'm driving tomorrow after all.
  • I now have yet another route home from work.
And I'm hanging in there. My navigation skills are still a bit suspect, but I'm getting a lot better at hills. Beginning with my "driving in Louisville" philosophy - there's always another way to get there - I'm learning my way around some places I'd never see in a car.

I've lived a lot of places. I've loved several of them. I don't think I've known one this well since San Jose - because this is the first time since then that I've navigated on the ground, through the neighborhoods, up and down the streets, learning my city at eye level. Navigating in a car, you watch for traffic, for lights, for street signs. Navigating on a bike, you watch for traffic, for street signs, and for friendly-looking people. For landmarks. For "oh, yeah!" moments.

I'm working on Daddy's trick of knowing what direction he was going depending on the angle of the sun. (The season is slowing me down a bit - the angle seems to have shifted somewhat abruptly a couple of days ago.) In the meantime, I'm learning the hills, and I'm learning Louisville better than anywhere I've lived in over 30 years.

08 September 2009


Spent the weekend down at Mom's, not talking about healthcare. Probably just as well.

Actually, she wanted to discuss. Mentioned to my spouse on the phone that she wanted to know what was going to happen to her healthcare. Short answer: not a thing, Mom. But she's concerned, and I understand that. And I apologize, in case anyone mentions this blog to her, for failing to open the discussion. Next week, maybe? Will that work, Ma? Call me!

What I don't understand is the hysteria - the downright psychotic ravings - of the Right. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure a good bit of Mom's concern is fed by those ravings, from friends and (God help us all) relations all too ready to jump on any right-wing conspiracy theory that waves at them.

On the other hand, I'm also frustrated and annoyed at the political rhetoric and blame-laying that targets only the insurance companies. There's plenty of blame to go around, guys. And we've got to stop pointing fingers and figure out how to work together, or we're not going to solve this - not really.

Here's what I know:
  • We need medical professionals and institutions. But we also need them to be in it for something other than the money. Yes, I know, a lot of doctors chose medicine so they could do good in the world - the paycheck was gravy. But these days, we have a shortage of family practitioners and other primary care professionals, because medical students are choosing to go into specialties instead. And I'm sure some of them are becoming specialists so they can save the world, one joint or kidney or cervix at a time. My educated guess, though, is that the paycheck is a bit more than gravy. How about a little humanitarianism, kids? And how about hospitals not padding the bills they send insurance companies to make up for the bills they know they're not going to be able to collect, even if they do put liens on people's mobile homes? (Anyone remember that story? It was reported in that radical left-wing publication, the Wall Street Journal, a few years ago - a VERY few years. I want to say 2006.)
  • We need pharmaceutical companies. We need research and development, and we need medications that fight cancer, flu, and vertigo. We need vaccines so we don't get smallpox or polio or chickenpox. What we don't need is new prescription drugs rolled out regularly, marketed like they're God's Gift, with doctors being pressured to prescribe them and people being persuaded to beg for them - with R&D quietly being carried on in the meantime because, in a few years, the patent is going to run out and the cash cow is going to stop producing. Have you ever noticed that every time the previous God's Gift from the Chem Lab goes generic (or worse, OTC), it's either closely followed or else actually preceded by a "new and improved" version? One that is marketed even more intensively, priced even higher, and - it turns out - may or may not actually work better...
  • We need insurance companies. Face it: the majority of Americans who have insurance actually like the coverage they have and don't plan to change any time soon. Most insurance companies, honest or not, have some decent plans out there. There's even at least one U.S. medical insurance company with a CEO who's been preaching healthcare reform for years. And he's not just talking about "cost-shifting." He's talking about freedom of choice, 21st-century electronic record-keeping, cost transparency from all players, evidence-based medicine, and even (brace yourself) personal accountability. And his company is trying to shift its focus from being the fallback position when people get sick, to rewarding people for finding ways to stay well - and then being there to help when they get sick after all. But I digress... What we don't need is actuaries rejecting people out of hand or charging them exponentially more for coverage because they have chronic health conditions they need help managing, or because they once had a condition that left them in a wheelchair. And for the record, we need a public option. Yes, we need to level the playing field, but let's really level it. Let's all accept our share of the responsibility, instead of just pointing fingers at an easy mark.
  • Finally, we need personal responsibility. We need to wake up and smell the coffee: The fact is, the vast majority of healthcare dollars go to pay for treating preventable conditions. Most of the things that kill us come from doing things we chose to do, knowing they were bad for us. Heart conditions, type 2 diabetes, obesity... We need to get off our fat butts, turn off the TVs, and start walking to the bus stop instead of driving two blocks to the grocery store. We need to find a buddy and quit smoking. We need to demand that the nutrition information on foods be printed in a font big enough to read - and we need to read it, and use it. We need to knock off the sodas and drink more water. We need more cookbook authors like Holly Clegg (shameless plug there), who publishes the complete nutrition info per serving for every recipe in every book she publishes.
The other thing we need to do - we left-leaning believers in healthcare reform who know darn well there's more than enough blame to go around - is get over our anxiety about being yelled at and start talking back. We have to stop just rolling our eyes at the paranoid conspiracy theorists and talking about them behind their backs, and tell them to shut up. Ask them for documentation of their claims. Don't accept hysterical ravings and meandering rants that mean nothing. Just push them to clearly, logically, factually back up their arguments.

I betcha money they can't do it.

03 September 2009


I've mentioned my dad several times in the last few blogs, and it occurs to me that I miss him. He's been gone a year and four months, but there are still moments when I forget that.

Tonight I figure the world could use a laugh, so I'm going to tell you the story about my last wedding.

First, yes, I've had more than one. In fact, I've had more than two, and they all come with stories attached. For one thing, this most recent was the first one I was on time for, but that's another blog or two. And as a point of fact, I usually refer to it as "the last one" rather than "the most recent one" because I'll be damned if I'm going to go around this particular mulberry bush again. When my dad realized Ed and I were "getting serious," as they used to say back in the Dark Ages, he asked me how many times I was planning on doing this marriage thing. My answer: "Daddy, I'm gonna run this play 'til I get it right."

So this is the last one, 'cause I nailed it, as far as I can tell. And if I find out later I didn't, I'm surely not going to set myself up again!

Be that as it may... We got welded (as my old friend the Rev. Geoffrey St. John Hoare used to say) on Saturday, November 3, 2001. It was small, but madness nevertheless: planning a wedding in the month after 9/11 was stressful, to say the least. Migraines abounded.

My family started wandering into Louisville on Friday evening. My sisters arrived first, but missed their exit, ended up across the river, and called from Indiana at about midnight. Bri and I were still putting buttons - about 50 of them, I think - on my dress, and we had a really punchy conversation with sister Paula about Barbie's physiology. They gave up trying to find us and got a motel room over there, and we did actually get a little sleep.

Mom and Dad came in the next morning, and my elder son, a U.S. Marine, arrived on a red-eye flight from California or somewhere in mid-morning, and we all went to lunch and then caravaned to the church, because even though it was a straight shot from where we were, I was afraid to try to give anyone directions at that point. When we arrived, a couple hours before the wedding, my sisters were there and we girls set up camp in the parlor, while the boys and my parents went upstairs with my friend Georgianna to set up the reception.

Started getting dressed and we realized we'd left the jacket to my dress in the closet back at the apartment, along with my daughter's suit. My daughter, Bri, and younger son, Mitch (who lived in the apartment with me but is monumentally directionally challenged), headed back to fetch them.

Meanwhile, my younger sister, Cheri, who was supposed to do my hair, had left her hot curlers, round brushes, hairpins, and other do-dads and necessities in North Carolina. She didn't have time to go back for them, so I plundered in my tote bag and found a couple of barrettes and a comb, and we decided to wing it.

After a while, my friend Janet came downstairs from the reception area with a lack-of-progress report: "Your mother says you don't have enough sandwich fillings. And she wants to know why you didn't make the sandwiches ahead of time."

"Because I didn't get to Meier until 11 o'clock last night, is why. And I still had to help Bri put buttons on my dress. Tell her there will be enough." Janet dutifully went back upstairs with my reply.

It's a 10-minute drive on a Saturday morning from the church to the apartment; the kids had been gone close to an hour by now. I was a little anxious, particularly since my daughter was supposed to be my one attendant.

After a while, Janet - who is, incidentally, the pastor's secretary - came back. The cake had arrived, and my mother and the Cake Lady wanted to know where to put it. "On a table," I suggested. "Geez, Janet - you work here! You figure it out!"

Back upstairs went Janet.

A little bit later, Janet again: "Your mother wants to know where the makings are for the punch." Well, duh... The makings for the freakin' punch were sitting in their freakin' cans, thawing in the freakin' sink in the freakin' kitchen in my freakin' apartment. Where did she think the makings for the punch were?

At this point, the kids had been gone an hour and ten minutes, and I was getting really antsy. I called the apartment, hoping they were still there - hoping they weren't wandering lost in the wilderness of the East End, hoping they could snag the juice and ginger ale and other ingredients for the fabulous "Baptist Champagne" I'd planned, hoping they were going to make it back for the wedding - but there was no reply.

"Don't worry," said Janet. "We'll think of something." Okay, kiddo - not worrying. Also not thinking about a white horse. (Old joke from my grade school days - if you're not older than dirt, you won't get it.) Also not thinking about a train wreck...

Five minutes later, Bri and Mitch returned with my jacket, her suit, and no punch makings. "Don't worry," Bri told me, skinnying into her silk pants. "Where's the kitchen?" Five minutes after that, she and her brother passed by with their arms full of random partially full juice jugs and packages of frozen fruit and a few cans of soda - we had punch coming up. The girl is the world's greatest Crisis Chef - throw her into an ingredientless surprise dinner party, and you will dine in style.

45 minutes to kick-off. The groom had arrived, thanks be to God. (I'd even panicked about that.) Everyone was dressed. Paula had found me a "something borrowed" and a "something blue" to go with my new dress and shoes and my old pearls: she tied her small daughter's Barbie comb around my ankle with a length of the blue crochet thread she was using to make Barbie a dress. (The comb is long gone, but the thread is still tied around the handle of my best hairbrush.) And... here came Janet.

"Your mother is upset." Okay. And your point is...? "She says there are no nuts."

I looked at her for a second, opened my mouth, and let out the first thing that fell from my brain: "Janet. Look around you. We're surrounded by nuts."

She shook her head and left. Five minutes later, she was back. "It's okay," she said. "Your father has gone to get nuts."

At this point, "geez Louise" went out the door. I started with my high-school-favorite string of expletives and rolled downhill from there. My dad always got people lost with his directions - he'd invariably give you two or three alternate ways to get there, and somewhere in the middle, he'd start crossing them up. And he couldn't follow them, either. He'd forget the name of the street where he was supposed to turn, he'd confuse right and left, he'd eventually find his way back because he made a point of keeping the sun in the right position in relation to himself (honest to God), but he'd be late and he wouldn't have - or even remember - what he went for.

We were going to be cleaning up after the reception at six in the evening, and my dad was going to get back - without the nuts.

30 minutes to kick-off. Janet (who had beat a hasty retreat after the previous encounter) returned with more news. "Your mother is going to kill your father."

"Okay," I said. "At this point, she's probably looking for someone to kill. Might as well be Daddy. But I'm curious as to why."

As it turns out, my dad had been given directions to the Kroger on Brownsboro Road. It's easy, really: go west on Frankfort to Ewing, right on Ewing, left on Brownsboro, and there you are. However, he'd gotten as far as the intersection of Frankfort and Ewing, spotted a Walgreen's drug store, and decided they'd have nuts.

Which they did.

My dad had returned with about 50 single-serving packages of Planter's peanuts. They were on special.

The bottom line: My mom did not kill my dad. (Parkinson's did that several years later, but that's another blog, and I feel like laughing tonight, so we'll leave it.) The wedding happened, and the groom stayed for the whole thing - and he's still here. In spite of it being November 3, the weather was like April - or May, even: 75 degrees and not a cloud to be found. Georgianna finally got to sit down and rest her feet, Janet was impressed with the punch, and everyone thought the cake was gorgeous.

And eight years later, we're still telling the story about the nuts.

02 September 2009


It took me a while to get the hang of the gears.

My first bike was a Catalina cruiser, teal green with rainbows on the fenders. I was ten years old when I got it, and I'd wanted one for years - my brother was six, and he got his first bike the same Christmas. That did not please me, but the rainbow fenders made up for it, mostly. Not that the sibling rivalry disappeared, then or ever. And not that that's a problem...

In the 70s, I had a 10-speed, which I never did figure out. I finally set it in the gear that felt most like the cruiser and left it there. Rode it for quite some time - took it to California with me, and rode it to my doctor's appointments in San Jose when I was pregnant, up through the 7th month. Stopped when someone stole it out of the bushes one night while we were in the movie theater.

Rode for a little bit 10-15 years ago, in eastern North Carolina. Had a couple of close calls with good old boys - in combination with trucks and beer, I believe - and one nearly-nasty incident with a couple of really bad dogs, the kind that don't bark. You know, the ones you realize are about to attack when you feel their breath on your ankles. After that, my range started shrinking, and I quickly gave up riding the Carolina back roads.

Thanks to a friend who's been commuting on his bike for several years, I started riding again two years ago, and fell back in love with the speed, the motion - the freedom. This year, I kicked off the season with the American Diabetes Association's Tour de Cure in May, and I haven't looked back. I did 14 miles on the Tour before I had a flat that wouldn't hold air any more. I'm now up close to 30 miles at a stretch, and I'll be at 60 by October, when my brother (remember him?) and I do a three-day ride from Carrollton, KY to the general vicinity of Bowling Green, near the Tennessee border. I was thinking about it, until he said, "If you'll do it, I will." That's where old sibling rivalry becomes a good thing: when your kid brother offers to drive from the D.C. suburbs to Louisville, Kentucky, if it will get you off your ass and get you moving.

Pedaling I could do. But shifting was a bit beyond me until about mid-summer. My friend Kirk, the bike commuter, noted during the Tour de Cure that I wasn't using my gears "efficiently." He kept telling me I should be using the higher gears to build up to hills, and I'm thinking, "Yeah, sure, and then what?" He told me that day to work with them, learn the feel of each gear, and after a while, I wouldn't have to think about it.

By July, I knew, at least in theory, that it was kind of like that Volkswagen Beetle I learned to drive in 1970: You start out in first gear, or you don't get going. You shift to the middle gears for cruising. And the high gears are for going downhill without burning out your brakes.

July 7, I got a heavy-duty lesson in first gear: I tried to start off going uphill on an unfamiliar rural road in New Jersey (yes, they have rural roads in New Jersey, and they're beautiful!) in too high a gear - around 6 on the second derailleur - and my foot slipped off the pedal. Three days later, we figured out it was the metal brace - actually a heavy-gauge wire - holding the fender to the axle that caught my shin and ripped it from about midway above the ankle almost to my knee, and nearly to the bone. What I learned there, in the order of learning:
  • The inside of the human leg is not attractive in the least.
  • It is possible to get a very nasty injury on a bike and never hit the ground, or anything else, as far as one can tell.
  • New Jersey emergency service personnel are absolutely the bestest!
  • I get talkative and even witty when I'm in shock. (There's now a whole dark comedy routine surrounding the incident. I drag it out at parties and meetings when I'm wearing a short dress and my scar shows.)
  • Those metal braces that hold the fenders to the axles are supposed to have rubber caps, and you should always check them when you do your ABC Quick Check.*
  • And when starting off going uphill, the best gear is first derailleur, somewhere in the neighborhood of no higher than 2 or 3. Your foot may spin, but it won't slip, you won't wobble, and the worst that will happen is that you'll have to stop, shift up a notch, and go again.
It took me a week to get back on the bike after that. We came home to Kentucky and the doctor who checked my stitches - 21, in case anyone wants to know - said I could ride again any time I felt like it, but I was scared. I didn't realize how scared for a few more days, when the shock finally wore off and I lost it completely. Then I nearly panicked. Here I'd finally found I was good at something physical - me, the girl who was not only picked last for teams, but over whom there were arguments about who had to take her - and I loved it, but I was afraid to do it again.

I told Ed - told him how scared I was, how scared I'd been, how I'd stood on the side of that road, holding the edges of my laid-open leg together, and I'd thought, "I could die out here. I could bleed to death on this day, in this park beside this road in New Jersey." And God bless him, as nervous as I know it makes him for me to be out there riding around in traffic (even with a helmet), he said, "Well, then, you have to get back on."

After that, I started getting it very quickly. I had a couple of "instructional moments" with Kirk and - second-hand - with a guy who works with Ed, who I've never met but who does a lot of distance riding, and I started taking off in lower gears and paying attention to how they felt, and it didn't take long at all.

When you're pedaling, you hit a point where it feels easy. Not just good, but almost too easy. The pedals are going fast, and you're flying along - but you're not moving any faster. You learn where that point is, and then you learn to shift up just before you get there. That's the magic: It isn't supposed to be hard most of the time, but it's not supposed to be coasting all the way.

You learn the sensation - the tension in your calves, the mild pressure in your thighs and hamstrings, nothing difficult, but definitely there. If it's missing, you're giving up power. When you get that push going, it's easier to throw yourself behind a hill - and when you hit a bitch of a hill, it's not impossible anymore. Then you shift down, and you can keep going.

This evening, after four days down with mild flu-like symptoms, I came home from my second day back at work - rode in with Ed this morning - and got the bike out of the shed. It's Wednesday, which is the day I take my crochet bag over to Maryhurst and spend an hour with the teenage girls who live there. Maryhurst is at the top of a hill that's at the top of another hill, and I'd never tackled either of those hills before. And they're both bitches.

I remember thinking back in the spring that I might never be able to ride all the way up the Maryhurst hill. This evening, I had to slow down as I made the corner into the drive, so I lost some push there, but I was nearly halfway up before I had to shift from the second derailleur to the first, and I made it to the top. I was in 1:1 mode, but by God, I did it. Okay, we did it - I was praying Anne Lamott's favorite prayer, "Help me, help me, thank you, thank you," from right after I shifted the first time, all the way up - but a few feet from the crest, I took a quick break from prayer to say, "Woo-hoo! HAH!"

There's a three-day ride waiting for me in October. Little Brother has already said he's in it for the ride, not the competition, which is okay by me. The second day is about 90 miles, and I can see it taking me 10 hours easily. And I may have to push Nellie Belle up some of those mid-Kentucky hills.

But not until I've hit 1:1 and she won't go any more. Because I can pedal, and I get it. I feel the gears now, and I know how to work them. And it can only get better from here.

Pedal on!

*ABC Quick Check:
  • A - air: Check your tires - preferably with a gauge
  • B - brakes: When you hold your brake handle and push the bike against it, does the other wheel come off the ground? It should.
  • C - chain and crank: Are your pedals stable? Do they wobble on the crank? (Not good.) Is your chain lubricated and looking good? AND - as of July 7, 2009 - CAPS: Are those little rubber cap thingies on your axle braces where they're supposed to be? And if not, is SOMETHING covering the ends of those heavy-gauge wires? A serious layer of electrical tape will do - just make sure they're covered!
  • Quick - quick release levers: They hold the wheels and often the seat, handlebars, and various other parts onto modern bikes. Make sure they're (a) down tight and (b) facing in a direction where they won't catch your clothing or anything else and throw you.
  • Check: Take a spin in a circle around the parking lot or cul-de-sac and see if you feel something you might've missed in your visual check.

01 September 2009


It's the annual onslaught.

Dad tried to warn me. He told everyone else to tell me, too - don't plant more than five tomato plants! I compromised (again this year) with five varieties: two Kentucky heirlooms, a Hungarian paste tomato, and I forget what others, but they're good 'uns. One plum, one smallish round - mixed with the Hungarian plums, dark red with black-green markings, they'll make wonderful pasta sauce for this winter. And of course, I don't even count the cherry tomato bush in the herb bed, between the driveway and the back door. We pick those in passing and eat them as we walk, still warm from the afternoon sun.

The Kentucky tomatoes are special, though. Joe Thienaman - named for a native son - has round fruit, fiery red and weighing in close to - even over - a pound apiece. If I try to carry more than four cradled in my arms, I start dropping them. Grandfather Ashlock is one of those meaty, deep pink tomatoes, not quite as monstrous as the JTs, but big. Double-globed, with the stem end set low in the center, so the only way to slice them is to cut the stem out in a V and split them at the crease, then slice the halves. The seeds are compactly placed, so the fruit is mostly just fruit, sweet and dribble-down-your-chin juicy.

The garlic got away from me. I didn't know until into the summer, talking to a local farmer at the farmer's market, that I should've clipped the sprouts - scapes, they're called - trimmed them back when they got 10-12 inches high, to force more energy into the bulbs. I also didn't know you can chop those scapes and use them like you would chives, but I reckon I'll weed the bed, mulch it down, and see if they come back next year. Bulbs will be bulbs.

We had beautiful zucchini early on - two varieties, one with dark green and yellow striped skins that got big without getting tough or mealy. It was a short season, but it was nice while it lasted. Zucchini boats stuffed with a mix of cornbread, almonds, mozzarella, and peppers made a lovely supper in July. The Japanese eggplant is just now starting to bloom - guess we'll see how that goes.

Missed out on the okra season, so I'm saving those seeds for next year, too. I figured it needed to be hot as Hades for okra, so I waited until August, and then - derned Kentucky! - August turned cool. Never would've happened if I'd had something in that needed cool...

On the other hand, I jumped the gun on the broccoli and cauliflower. Couldn't figure out why they got big and bushy and did absolutely nothing else, until a friend from up in Michigan pointed out they're winter crops - they aren't going to do anything until it gets down in the 40s at night! So I pulled those out, and we're going to replant them in October. See what happens then.

Potatoes - too wet this year to bother. Parsnips and carrots - later. They'll do for fall and winter crops. We have beans and a few peas, enough to freeze but not enough to can. But tomatoes...

My favorite summer lunch is a tomato sandwich - just sliced tomato, bread, and a tiny bit of mayonnaise and some pepper - and a tall glass of ice water. Last night, we had the perfect summer supper: baked chicken (Holly Clegg's Dijon Rosemary Chicken, with paprika added for fun - 10 minutes of prep, 50 minutes in the oven, and SO good), a little cornbread stuffing, and sliced tomatoes. I cut up four big fruit, and there were three small slices left when the four of us left the table.

Of course, the best part of the perfect summer supper is having everyone at the table, sitting down, eating slowly, talking and laughing and passing the plates again. No TV, no phone ringing. Just family. But even the talk comes back to the tomatoes this time of year. At one point, my daughter remarked that since we've been growing our own, eating them fresh from the garden and chemical-free, she has to ask the folks in restaurants to hold the tomatoes - they're no good any more. Once you've had a season of tomatoes fresh from the garden, ripened on the vine rather than in a crate on a truck coming in from California - and in season, not forced in a hothouse in mid-winter - commercial tomatoes just don't seem quite right. It's not that the commercial tomatoes have changed, just that once your mouth knows how a tomato is supposed to taste and feel, it gets right picky.

Maybe girls from Minnesota and Wisconsin get misty-eyed over broccoli or parsnips. I don't know, but I guess it could happen. I'm from North Carolina, and my dad was from Mississippi, and my mom is from Alabama, and for me, it's all about tomatoes.