Wednesday, November 20, 2013

At Last, Rain

I've been praying for rain, even just a little shower. The Valley air has been so dirty that all of us have been suffering from sinus irritation. Last night, our prayers were answered, and we got that little shower. What a beautiful sound to wake up to: raindrops on puddles.

By afternoon, the rain had stopped, and the black phoebe that usually is our harbinger of rain showed up. We laughed and chided him for being a bit late on his forecast. However, about three hours later, the sky darkened and it began to rain again, indeed, to pour, putting an end to Bernie's tile-cutting outside.

The tools were put away, and then the gutter filled up and overflowed onto the sidewalk, the back patio was under about half an inch of water, and the rain still came down. I went out front with a rake and cleared the storm drain, and John got a shovel and dug a trench on the south side of the house to drain the back patio, bless his heart.

Thank you God for the rain.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Artsy Fartsy

I wanted to do an illustration for Pete McArdle's funny story, "The Scarsdale Doctors Diet" in the Piker Press. I took a bunch of pics of the full moon on Sunday night, and got one that wasn't horrible.

But I could even do that in Photoshop without the photo! It wasn't dramatic enough as a moon shot, and I spent a pointless twenty minutes looking for a tree silhouette in public domain stuff on line ... then realized I have lots of tree silhouettes in my own photos.

In my Flickr account, I found one that seemed to fit the bill: a nice silhouette, a sky that was not too busy, colors that were simple.

Then I bled the black out of the moon shot, (trying to get a blue background instead of a black one) and turned to the other photo. I inverted the colors on the tree shot to make the branches come out white, selected the blue color from the bottom of the inverted pic -- a nicer blue than I came up with on the moon pic -- and spread it upward on the sky of the tree image. Back to the other pic again.  I selected the sky on the moon shot with the "Magic Wand" tool, inverted the selection so that I got only the moon, and pasted it on the tree shot. Yeah.

I did some tinkering with the blue colors and the "Paintbrush" tool (making it about 50% opacity and a fuzzy edge) and scrubbed at the sky a little -- I didn't want it perfectly homogenous, but didn't want a lot of variation, either.

By this point, I'd spent about 40 minutes from inception to a reasonable product. Four years ago, it would have taken me all day and a case of the hives to boot. Practice, practice, practice. Do, do, do. Dang, it pisses me off when good advice really does pan out if you take it. Could not my artistic ability have sprung forth fully-formed from the brow of Zeus and saved me all the sweat and nerves and twitches?

With the final image on the screen, I reduced the size, and got one of the best Photoshop images I ever thought I'd get.

My, that sure feels fine.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Done Before Christmas?

The tiling project has picked up again, after a nice summer off. Doing the kitchen was a major effort, lots of tile cutting and nerves going around the island to meet on the other side with all the lines perfect. Whew!

The next stage was the threshold between the kitchen and the front room. The outcroppings of wall aren't exactly square, so I opted to do a little visual song-and-dance designed to break up the lines. The small tiles in the center also don't line up with big sibling tiles -- I suppose they could have if we were willing to cut slivers off of a bunch of them -- so I thought the staggered double line of reddish tiles (cut to random lengths) would throw those straight-line-eyeballs off the track. I love the way it turned out, just what I wanted.

Next step is a lot easier: I intended for the pattern in the kitchen to appear to go under the threshold and come out the other side as though the pattern hadn't been interrupted. Serendipity and the help of the angels had that pattern emerging right at the edge of the lower red border. No cutting of weird lengths was necessary!

And now it's off to the races! You can't really see it, but there is a line drawn on the floor with a Sharpie that runs from the edge of the hearth in the kitchen to the front door. Forget chalklines, I'm in love with a laser to make the line straight. We'll follow that line to the front door, then fill in to the right, then come back and do the other half in front of the kitchen threshold.

Since we don't have to learn HOW to do it this time, I admit it is a lot easier.

Still one helluva workout, though.

Friday, November 08, 2013

No Debate Here on Health Insurance

This morning we did something surprising: we signed up for health insurance under the Covered California system. It took about half a chatty hour with a charming insurance salesman named Brian, and presto, we're covered as of January 1st, 2014.

After Bernie's job at New United Motors and Manufacturing, Inc (NUMMI) went belly-up, we had an interval of time with a COBRA extension of our health insurance. We applied for continued coverage with the same company so that there would not be any question of concealed health conditions. Well, Health Net really didn't give a shit, and succinctly informed me that they would not cover me at all, even though they had records proving that the herniated disk in my neck was not considered to be worthy of any medical procedure ... Well, they wouldn't unless I was willing to have an MRI done at my own expense and prove that a miracle had happened and the herniation had magically disappeared.  Or unless I was willing to pay more per month for our health insurance than we were taking in from Bernie's retirement.

We opted not to go back on the health insurance grid. Oh well. Since that time, I've incurred $17 a year in flu shots, and needed no other medical treatment, thank God. With the money we didn't spend on health insurance, we could have put a down payment on a modest house. With the money we didn't spend on health insurance, we could pay our mortgage, and eat.

People have really been slamming what they call "Obamacare," virtually pissing all over it and scratching dirt behind them to boot. Yet as of the first of the year, should I get hit by some asshole on her cell-phone while driving her monster SUV, I could actually receive hospital care instead of waving off an ambulance with my broken bones because I have no way of paying big medical bills without re-mortgaging my house, going bankrupt, and putting the whole family into a tiny apartment plus Bern and I going back to work at what would probably be minimum wage part-time jobs. Slam that, haters. I like most of all that the health coverage we're going to get includes screening procedures, like mammograms and colonoscopies. (I've been sitting on an other-shore stash of money for my next colonoscopy -- colon cancer is THE one preventable cancer if you can (so to speak) get your ass to the doctor and have pre-cancerous growths removed -- and with a family history that gives me a one in four chance of developing it, that's an important procedure.) California was one of the few states that opted to use their federally-supplied monies and arrange their own version of health care; as a result, we're not as impacted and messed up as other states who said, "To hell with Obamacare, let the Feds figure it out." Good on you, California.

I'm glad for the time I was without health care, as it has helped me begin to come to terms with my own mortality, and has given me a little clearer sight into the real human condition -- that being covered by health insurance in no way guarantees that you will not die untimely or die pointlessly or die before you think you are ready or deserve to die. Nevertheless, I'm grateful for the coverage that will allow me to receive some sensible care when I need it in the future.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

An Autumn Evening

My studio in the garage is already starting to get chilly in the evenings, already too chilly to want to work out here in the mornings. In another week, I'll be swearing about having not laid out the cash to insulate the ceiling over the summer as I promised myself last January that I would.

There are so many things I keep saying I'll do: finish those novels, put my finished novels up on Amazon Kindle Direct; finish the six oil paintings hanging around the studio, continue with some colored-pencil sketches I was really having fun with months ago; make a comforter from an old polyester blanket and a deliciously-textured cotton duvet cover someone gave me, sew a couple baby outfits, hem the veils that cover my mouth, cheeks, and ears while I'm riding during fly season and hot sunny days.

Everything takes time.

I did manage to get a winter garden planted, with seed onions, spinach, beets for beet greens (I already ate a few of the tiny leaves and they are wonderful), chard, lots of snow peas, and yesterday I finally saw some of my lettuces sprouting -- it's red-leaf lettuce and the tiny dark leaves were nearly invisible against the soil. Planting the garden took a couple days, working the soil, sowing seeds, weaving a twine lattice across the south planters so that cats would stop digging in it (had to replant the beets after that), weeding out the rogue nasturtiums that insist on popping up to strangle all the other plants.

Today I caught up on the last of the laundry to be folded, went out to the ranch and exercised the horse in the arena, then dunged out his paddock. After a shower, I began making braised lamb shanks (time-consuming but well worth the time spent) and gorditas (fat little tortillas) for dinner. John made tzatziki (cucumbers and stuff in Greek yogurt) to accompany the lamb.

Good work, a feast, and a long autumn evening to watch NFL football and ponder the paths life takes and to question the decisions of coaches.

Projects can wait for a day or two, I think.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Orange Is Not Yellow

Pumpkins. We all know what color jack o'lantern pumpkins are. They're orange. Any little kid with a box of crayons knows this. Orange, orange, orange.

If you had gone into your local supermarket in October, and asked the produce manager why he put out all those yellow pumpkins, he'd have squinted at you with please-go-the-bakery-and-bother-someone-else eyes, and tried to appease you by telling you that the pumpkins were not yellow, that summer squash over there is yellow, those onions in that bin are yellow, the lemons are yellow, the Yellow Delicious apples in the apple display are yellow, but the pumpkins are not. They are orange.

And he would be right.

Now it is true, that in olden days, in Gloucester, the cattle in pasture ingested a flower known as "Lady's Bedstraw" (galium verum) and that their milk was a sometimes a dark yellow because of it. But you'd think that pretending that darker-colored cheese was superior to lighter-colored cheese was something we'd have grown past after 500 years.

But no, we haven't. At the bottom is Nob Hill white sharp cheddar cheese. I've loved it and used it for more than 20 years, when I couldn't get SaveMart's New York sharp cheddar cheese. They were comparable, good cheeses which made my homemade macaroni and cheese a family favorite. SaveMart stopped offering the white cheddar a few years ago, so I went to Raley's to get the Nob Hill white cheddar, buying it 4 pounds at a time.

Not just for the mac and cheese, but also for tacos, enchiladas, nachos, football game noshes, and puffy cheese croissant appetizers. Not to mention putting it in refried beans and black bean chili -- so very yummy.

Well, time passes and the powers that be in Raley's marketing department dumped the white cheddar staple, going exclusively to cheddar cheese the color of the pumpkins in the first picture. I bought the last two packages of the white cheddar last week.

It's billed as "yellow" cheddar, but it's not yellow, it's ORANGE. A vegetable dye called annatto is added to it to make it orange.

Does it taste the same? I suppose it does, mostly. I'm reminded of an experiment I did with purple potatoes, making them into mashed potatoes. I put a pat of butter on the lavender mound of mash, and my stomach did a quick turnover. It wasn't nasty, it was just ... not what mashed potatoes should look like. I closed my eyes and I tasted potato, for sure, but I've never tried to serve that to the family again. So the orange cheddar may taste approximately the same, but it isn't THE SAME.

To get annatto into the cheese, do you sprinkle it on top? Do you feed the annatto to the cows who are producing the milk to make the cheese? Of course not, it would ruin the milk, and certainly wouldn't turn out that orange.  And sprinkling it on top would do nothing but color the top. So instead of letting your cheddar sit and cure and sharpen, you MIX -- you PROCESS -- the annatto into the cheese. The result is a rubbery feel, almost like Velveeta.

To their credit, both Raley's and SaveMart offer some top-shelf sharp cheddar cheeses that are white, imported from Ireland and Australia -- but are just a bit pricey for heavy duty use. Fortunately Trader Joe's carries a sharp cheddar called Cabot, from Canada, white, not heavily processed, delicious and crumbly at the edges. That's the cheese at the top of the picture, my new go-to cheese.

I'm waiting to see if the next phase of Annattization produces orange brie, or orange gouda, or what would you think of orange bleu cheese? Orange mozzarella? Orange pecorino romano?

Makes as much sense as orange cheddar.