Friday, March 13, 2015

Daytime and nightime with the ponies

My entryway smells strongly of horse. And has smelled strongly of horse anytime these past five months. No, I am not keeping Angus on the back porch – although that’s not an inherently bad idea. The horse smell is emanating from my barn clothes, which I put on three times a day to go do barn chores.

If I have Angus boarded somewhere, why am I doing barn chores three times a day, when it’s not four? An excellent question. It all began October 17 (not that I’m counting) when my dear friend Abby was knocked over by a horse and broke her right femur just above the knee. It wasn’t even a riding fall, just an accident that could have happened any number of other ways. The horse was merely incidental.

Horses are like small children: it doesn’t matter what shit goes down, they have to be fed and watered and handled and taken care of. And if the caregiver is broken, somebody else has to become the caregiver. As far as I am aware, there is no foster care network for horses. So, while Abby was laid up, I became the primary caregiver for what started out as seven horses (we’re down to five now, but that’s another story). To say nothing of Abby’s two young dogs. Large young dogs. I get paid to do this, mind you, but really it’s for love.

6:30 a.m. Feed grain to horses. Walk the dogs and feed them. Fill water tubs in fields and distribute hay, turn horses out into their paddocks. (Turn out is a little misleading, since it implies you open their stall doors and they walk out. In fact, you put their halters on and walk them down the driveway to their paddocks. This becomes relevant later.) Sweep the aisle. Set up supper buckets. Walk the dogs after their breakfasts.

4 p.m. Return to the barn, set up stalls for supper. Grain, hay, water. Collect horses in the paddocks, return them to their stalls. Set up breakfast buckets. Sweep the aisle. Walk the dogs and feed them.

9:30 p.m. Feed the horses a couple of flakes of hay, refill water buckets, pick out the stalls, walk the dogs.

Not terribly onerous. Except it’s every day. Every. Blessed. Day. Three times a day. And what lies between October, when this started, and March, where we are now? Yes, that’s right: Winter. This is New Hampshire and winter is very wintery here. This winter has been extremely wintery, starting with a big dump of snow on Thanksgiving Eve and continuing with cold, cold, cold and ice and snow. We still have more than a foot of snow on the ground around here and it was minus 14 last Monday morning, March 2.

So, that list up above? Is much more complicated in the winter. The water hoses freeze and then burst and soak the waterer. The good news is that at 14 below zero the water doesn’t wet you, it just freezes to your barn clothes. Yay. So you set up a rotation between the outside hose and the inside hose, because no matter how careful you are about walking the hose to siphon all the water out, they are frequently frozen when you need to fill buckets. In the barn, I just give up and fill buckets by hand, dispensing with the hose altogether.

The driveway freezes, too. So slick that the horses can’t be walked to their paddocks. And their paddocks freeze so slick that even if they could get to their paddocks it wouldn’t be safe to put them there. They have to stay inside and become bored and fractious.

The 50 gallon water tubs outside are supposed to be emptied at the end of the day every day so that they don’t become giant ice cubes with no room for water. On a single digit day the other barn helper fills the tubs to the brim and they freeze solid. I drag other tubs down, and the same thing happens. Now we are using muck tubs, which are smaller and can be dragged into the basement to thaw if they freeze. They freeze.

All this. Day after day after day. Abby thought she would be better by January 17. I had never really believed that. January came and there was no bone regrowth. February came and there was a little. Now it is March, and we can only hope.

Of, course, anyone who has horses or any livestock knows this story. I am full of admiration of Abby, who is 15 years older than I am, and who has been doing this every day for years and years and years. You can’t go to the movies. You can’t go out to dinner. It doesn’t matter what time of day or night it is, in five minutes it’ll be time to go do something for the ponies.

But this is not all complaint. There are things I have loved about this endless winter. I have seen every sunrise and every sunset between October 17 and now (except for the one I missed when I went away for a wedding. I saw the ones when I was away for a funeral.) I saw the comet we had this winter. I have observed the winter’s coming and now I see its departure and spring’s tentative arrival. I have become acclimated to the outdoor temperatures, so that now 20 degrees seems warm and 40 is bikini weather. I have seen the moon wax and wane and wax and wane – going from a pumpkin to a lemon slice to a curved upholstery needle and back again. I have seen the night sky and watched Orion shift slowly around the sky. I have seen the Milky Way (god bless the dark skies of New Hampshire) and many shooting stars.

Once Abby is well, I don’t think I am going to go looking for another barn job. But, on balance, I wouldn’t have missed this one.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Better living through communal cooking

I agreed, just the other day, to cook a big dinner for about 75 people or so at my church. It had originally been planned as a potluck (or what I was brought up to call a 'covered dish supper'). I am not a fan of covered dish suppers or potlucks or any other such meal which lacks central planning. I had told my husband that I did not plan to attend, because it was a potluck, but somehow, in the course of a conversation with the new rector of our parish, I ended up agreeing to cook for the supper.

It was very well played of her, I must say. She did it by agreeing with me about the importance of just giving people a gift, of not expecting them to do anything, of the need to feed the people as a love offering, and how potlucks contravene all those principles. She did it by asking me about other meals I have cooked for large groups, and how, really, it’s not that complicated or time-consuming or difficult. I think she may have done it by appealing to my pride.

In any case, after a wide-ranging conversation about the work I do in the parish and what I consider to be important, she asked me whether I would be willing to cook for a meal which had been planned for a Friday night for some indeterminate number of guests. I said yes, of course, and immediately began thinking about what I would cook. I first thought of lasagna, one vegetarian and one not, but too many people are gluten-free. Then I thought about a dish involving ground lamb and thinly sliced potatoes, but lamb is rather expensive and slicing all those potatoes, even with a mandolin, is troublesome.

Eventually I settled on Indian, as I often do when cooking for a crowd. It’s easy to scale up, it’s delicious, and it accommodates the gluten-free, the vegetarian, the vegan, and the dairy-free.

Meantime, since I was a little worried about who and how many might show up (I had a vision of me, the MIL, the husband, and maybe six vestry members rattling around in the parish hall with food for 75), and because part of the point of the meal was simply to gather for our own amusement, nothing to do with  church business, I started invited any random person whom I thought might enjoy the event. I invited some nice people whom I don’t know at all well, but who are regulars at the community supper I cook for once a week. I invited some non-churchy friends. I tried to inveigle a daughter into coming home. And I took a big risk and invited a woman I’ll call Isobel.

I had met Isobel almost a year ago, when she came to a planning board hearing to promote a change to the town’s zoning ordinance to allow farms to hold events and run B&Bs and have little restaurants. These were things the board favored but we thought the proposed ordinance was problematic in the extreme and very badly written. We said we would promise to address the issues in the next planning cycle but we really could not recommend that the town approve the proposed ordinance. Well, the town meeting did approve it. And now we were stuck with it.

In my role as planning board chairman I scheduled a workshop last June to address some of the issues with the now-approved ordinance. I set up tables, and gathered materials, and planned my strategy. We had about 35 people at the meeting and one of them was Isobel. She arrived just as we were about to begin, declined to join the table I gestured her to, and radiated as much hostility and impatience and dislike of me personally as I have seen in quite a while.

After the public workshop we set up a subcommittee to try to rewrite this foul ordinance which had been wished on us. There were four of us on the subcommittee, and one of them was Isobel. We started meeting regularly. Hostility continued to pour off her. In spite of this, I liked her. She was smart, she was committed, she cared deeply about the town and about the farmers. She’s a woman about my age, clearly well-educated and well-traveled. From my perspective, we had a lot in common, and I thought she was a woman I would like to know better.

The subcommittee continued to meet, and Isobel’s hostility eventually began to lessen. She actually laughed at my planning jokes. Well, she laughed once. I continued to think she was a woman I would like to know. We discussed the fact that I keep bees and chickens on my in-town lot, something of which she approved. She was less chilly but I wouldn’t say she was warm toward me.

The subcommittee and the planning board eventually created an amendment to the ordinance that we could all live with. The final meeting before we went public was about ten days before this Friday night dinner I had agreed to cook. I was sitting next to Isobel, and on an impulse, I leaned over and said,

“I’m cooking a big dinner next Friday at All Saints’ and I wonder if—“

She interrupted me and said,

“Do you want me to come and help you cook?”

Now that I was not expecting, but I took a leap and said,

“Yes. Yes, I do. That would be lovely, thank you so much!”

She asked me what I was going to cook and I told her Indian.

“Oh, I love Indian food! I’ve been traveling to India since I was in my early 20s, and now my daughter is married to an Indian. I would love to help you cook an Indian dinner.”

I have never been to India. I have never studied Indian cooking with an actual Indian cook. I gulped. This could be really great, or just terrible. I decided to focus on really great.

On the Friday in question I went to the big grocery and bought all the ingredients for 75 persons’ worth of red lentils and basmati rice and yogurt and cucumbers and onions and garlic and chicken thighs and cabbages and frozen peas and sweet onions and regular onions and limeade and tortillas to take the role of chapatis. I got started cooking about noon, and Isobel arrived about 2 p.m. She tied on an apron and said “What do you want me to do first?”  Chop things for a chopped salad, I said.

She chopped like a champ. She worked hard and did whatever I asked. She did not tell me I was doing things wrong, in fact she told me I was doing things absolutely the way an Indian housewife would do it.

We had a blast. We cooked, we washed dishes, we set up the dining room. We talked about our children and how we came to be in Grover’s Corners.

Sometime along about 5 p.m. Isobel said, I have lived here seven years and I do not have a single friend.

Well, I said, you have a friend now.  Yes, she said, I do.

As for the dinner? It was magnificent. And truly authentic, according to my new friend Isobel. I’ll tell you about the dinner another day, maybe.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The tribulations of country life

I had to get a new phone a week or so ago. My phone stopped working quite suddenly, and in a rather peculiar way. It worked fine as a smart phone (I could check my email, look things up on google, etc., etc.) and I could call people and they could hear me, but I could not hear them.

This happened after I put my phone in my pocket early in the morning while I was out doing barn chores. (I'll tell you all about that another day.) I put the phone in my right hand barn coat pocket; it didn't want to slide in, so I gave it a shove, and it went in. Ten minutes later, I wanted to look at the weather to see whether I could safely take the horses' turnouts off them (I couldn't. Who are we kidding? It hasn't been above 15 degrees in months) and when I pulled my phone out it was covered in egg. Half-frozen egg.

Apparently I had picked up a frozen egg from the hen house the night before when I went to shut the hens up after evening barn chores, hung the coat in the entryway and forgotten all about the egg. I wiped the egg off the phone, and pressed the home button.

"The audio jack you are attempting to use is incompatible with this device. Please remove it and try another jack."

Yeah. Egg white, even half-frozen, makes a lousy audio jack. So when I got home from the the barn I tried clearing out the audio jack what-ever-you-call-it (port, that's it) with various implements and eventually I stopped getting the incompatible dialog box. So I assumed it was healed. But when someone tried to call me, I could hear them, but they could not hear me. I could make calls, but the ring was inaudible and when the callee picked up they could hear me, but I could not hear them. I tried plugging in a pair of headphones. No improvement. In an inspired moment I tried putting the phone into speaker mode: Success! But then I was permanantly in speakerphone mode. Not really how I want to make my phone calls.

I went down to Verizon and said, "My phone is not working. I think maybe there is something wrong with the audio port." They look in with their iPhone flashlight and see nothing. (Egg white is pretty inobtrusive, after all.) I explain about how it works on speakerphone but no other way. They run some diagnostics and agree: your phone is borked. We don't know why. You should replace it.

As it happened, I was only three weeks short of an official upgrade, so I called corporate headquarters and pleaded my case and was given permission to purchase a new iPhone. (Which, by the way, I love. Way better than my old one. Even Siri is less like a bad secretary and more like an actual useful cyborg being.) So, I have a new phone.

I didn't bother to wash my barn coat -- I just dumped the squashed egg and egg shell out of it and carried on. I'll wash it in May. Or maybe I'll just burn it.