Jilly D.

Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

My audition for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 30, 2014 at 10:23 pm

20100521GH_281In the summer months we have excess solar energy. Year round we usually turn on the TV to watch the news for the weather forecasts. I don’t really know why. As Sam says, who else gets paid so much for being so regularly wrong?

As farmers we live more by the dictates of Mother Nature than by the vicissitudes of Wall Street or the White House. The weather forecasts in June involve gambling against God for farmers. In order to bale hay, you need three days of sunshine and drying breezes after you mow it down. You may have the official odds, but when it comes to betting on the weather, the house of the Lord always wins.

After the evening news we sometimes watch “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Sam would tease me during the show about blurting out the wrong answer before the multiple choices were shown on the screen. He basically dared me to go on the show and win the million.

On one of the hottest days of June 2007 I spent half a day on a Short Line bus from Ithaca to the New York City Port Authority to stand in line for my big audition.

At the library I had looked at their website to find when they would be conducting auditions in my area. I applied online and within a week I was making plans to visit the big Apple. Sam hadn’t mowed hay and the peas were just starting to flower. I could sneak away for a day trip.

Standing in line, I noticed I wasn’t the only one invited to audition at 1:15 pm. Many people were from out of state and nervous.  The audition required a short written test and, if you passed, a fifteen minute personal interview. We were all nervous about the test but more than a few were just nervous about being in the city.

Most of these people surely won’t pass that written test. There were just too many people in line.

A few minutes after1 p.m. they ushered 45 people including me across the street into the back banquet room of a trendy restaurant. Seating us at tables with four or more, assistants handed us pencils and bubble sheets.

I sat at a table with two people who had taken the train from Alabama and Kentucky. Another gentleman had flown in from Indiana. We were a very diverse group of four and none of us were stupid.

After I looked around the room I saw a group of young professionals in charge of calling this audition to order. The young handsome blond man welcoming us was none other the director Matt Cohen, a former student whom I had taught a course in media research and methods. Matt recognized me immediately. Even though I had long ago left academia, I could see in his eyes recognition and then surprise at finding me in this crowd. I knew immediately it diminished my chances because he could rule me out. But I didn’t think hard enough about that. The timed test was about to begin.

I took the multiple choice 15 minute test and felt like a genius. I knew I had gotten every question right. Certain of it. They were easy questions.  I sat there smugly as Director Matt Cohen called his assistants to collect the bubble sheets recording our answers for the computer to quickly read.

Matt then read his prepared script about how only a few would be selected from this group. He had his team of assistants toss out t-shirts, pencils and bumper stickers to those who had come a long way for this audition today. Meanwhile the computer scanned the answers.

“Only a few will get a passing score. We can’t tell you what a passing score is, only that a minority of you will be selected for the next phase of auditions, a personal interview,” Matt told the room full of people from every walk of life.

“We can’t tell you what a passing score is….,” he’d said. Hmmm.

He didn’t call my number. There must be a mistake. I was a bit dumbfounded.

“But some of you were very close and we’d like to invite you to try out for a special week-long series we are planning with Netflix on movie trivia. At 2 p.m. you may join the line…..”  Matt began recruiting new suckers, including me.

The bus back to Ithaca wouldn’t leave from the Port Authority until 4 p.m. and I was stuck here in the city. On every street corner there were hustlers and homeless begging for money while talking on their cell phones.

I got back in line. So did half a dozen others. We began to chat. A young red-headed high school girl, a biology teacher, a real estate agent, an unemployed housewife and a retired federal official and I started going over the “test.” Turns out I wasn’t the only one who got every question right. Between us we recalled every question and every multiple choice option.  None of us had gotten a passing grade.

Passing grade?  What is a passing grade?  I started thinking again as a professor of media research methods instead of a popular culture trivia junkie.  The high schooler turned to me and said: “Do you really think they’d let somebody on the show who could win a million buck?” The lightbulb in my head went off.

A passing grade for Who Wants to be a Millionaire is not necessarily a good grade. Duh. I think I taught this stuff at one time. Was this theory in practice?

How many times had I seen contestants unable to answer the simplest and first question? I wondered how they ever got on the show and passed the audition. I hadn’t seen anyone actually win a million dollars on the show. Had me fooled. Suckered me right in. I didn’t pass the movie trivia test either and I intentionally marked a question wrong.

I rode that air conditioned Short Line bus home to Ithaca and spent every minute productively knitting a wool winter sweater. For a June adventure I had just learned to eat humble pie.

Who wants to be a millionaire? Not me. It’s not the money I wanted. It was the sheer satisfaction of getting the answers right. Being a smarty pants isn’t nearly as important as being smart even if nobody knows it.


Jill, Jill, from Garbage Hill

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 29, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Sam down the laneChopping firewood keeps Sam happy in the summer because he knows “If you want to be warm in winter you gotta get hot in the summer.” Hoeing and weeding, swimming and picking, freezing and canning fill all my daylight hours during the longest days in the year.

The peas are just one example of how everything in June seems to come together at once. When it is time to pick peas, it is time. There is no waiting until it is more convenient. The time is prime.

Peas are for us to eat. I freeze them for the long winter. The pea pods go to the goats, deer, elk and buffalo as treats. The pea vines get pulled eventually and also go to the big four-leggeds. There is no wasting the precious bounty of all the land offers for our efforts.

Swimming like it's summer

Swimming like it’s summer

When you throw something away, where is “away”? There is no place called “away.” If there were such a place, I’m living there. We live as far away from the rest of civilization as possible. It’s a bit like a Fourth World: Third World conditions inside the First World. We share many of the daily practices found in the Third World but live marginally amongst an embarrassment of riches.

My father teased me relentlessly as a growing girl and he made up a song, “Jill, Jill, from Garbage Hill; Never washes, Never will.” Let’s just say I have never been afraid of getting dirty.

The hill we live on here between the two Finger Lakes, Seneca and Cayuga, for many years served as a dumping ground. Garbage bags full of cat litter thrown in the ditch. Broken baby seats tossed into the hedgerow. Dilapidated television sets or sofas strewn about the countryside. When I first moved to the hill in 1992 I walked along the unpaved roads with my dog and picked up cans and bottles every day for years.  I turned others’ trash into cash with New York States’ deposit program. Since then the garbage has been cleared by local landowners. Everyone has become more responsible about dumping and littering. The majority of people here pay a fee by the garbage bag of non-recyclables hauled away.

cabin where sam and jill liveWhen I moved to the farm I dealt with garbage as a farmer. There is no away. There is no waste. I fed the meat, poultry and egg scraps to the dogs and cats. What others would compost, I fed directly to the chickens, goats, pigs, deer, elk or bison. The weeds from the garden were yummy treats to them.

Coffee grounds and other inedible but organic matter is easily buried in the garden as fertilizer for the squash plants. Egg shells crushed and sprinkled among the strawberries and baby lettuce greens keep away slugs and provide nutrients to the soil.

Newspapers are used to start fires. This is one of the two best uses for newspapers; the other is to spread them under the cat litter box. I say this seriously as a former journalism professor. Over the years I have learned to make a variety of crafts from recycled paper products; especially the glossy junk mail and weekend paper color inserts.

Magazines and catalogs go the local library, where there is a Community Exchange. I pick up many publications I would never subscribe to and leave my magazines behind. Teachers and parents pick up the old ones for arts and craft projects.

In rural Schuyler County there is no recycling pick-up program. We try to reuse all of our glass that is “waste.”  Many jars have mouths that can be used for canning or making jams and jellies. To prevent rodent or insect infestations I store all my kitchen staples in glass jars: sugar, flour, cornstarch, brown sugar, rice, beans, popcorn, barley, cornmeal, rolled oats. Glass jars and bottles are good pencil holders and can keep screws, nails, pins, hooks, coins and tacks organized.

sams picture with jar of pensPlastics I avoid altogether. If someone gives me leftovers in plastic I return it with something cooked or baked in my kitchen inside it. I do use some plastics because so many things are sold in plastic. Many kinds of plastics are not acceptable for recycling. When burned they create a dioxin cloud. I take whatever I can to the recycling center down at the Town Barns; open on some Saturday mornings, weather permitting.

Even old clothes are recycled in a variety of ways. Sam still has some clothes he wore in high school. I did make a quilt from scraps of our denim jeans too far gone to wear or repair. Old sheets become great summer wraps for drying off after a dip in the pond and they dry much quicker than towels. Textiles from natural fibers are durable and need never be thrown “away.”

If the clothes are still in good condition but simply unused, they are recycled at the consignment store in the Village. More than 30 years ago a group of parents opened the Gemm Shop with proceeds benefitting the school’s music program. Today, the Gemm Shop is my fashion headquarters. I stopped buying retail clothes years ago. Clothes that Sam and I don’t wear are sent to the Gemm Shop on consignment. Once a season I get a small check and the reminder to review and update our wardrobes.

Some old clothes are so tattered they just become rags. We wear our clothes out: buffalo dung, sweat, food stains, dirt, grass stains, oil and gasoline spills, paw prints and dog hair, dust and wood smoke take their toll on fibers. Old sweatshirts and t-shirts are great for cleaning and orphan socks were invented for dusting fine wood furniture. Old blankets and towels make for good bedding for kid goats or fawns brought in the house to be warmed and bottle fed.

Most of the “garbage” we produce on the farm can be incinerated once or twice a week in the burn barrel where we get a hot and quick fire going; all flame and no smoke. We avoid creating waste but I know there is more of it in the past decade than what Sam’s extended family produced in 50 years.

956725-R1-20-21AThere are some things not worth keeping anymore. Where do they go? For more than half a century the Warren family maintained a “dump” way down back on the property. What amazes me is that for 50 years of waste there isn’t really much there.  Old mattresses rotted away were pulled out a few years ago when the springs proved useful in raking the pond bottom to eliminate an invasion of the Potomac pond weed. No chemicals were needed to stop the spread of this invasive weed and the tool was recycled from the dump.

When the price of steel got so high in early 2008, Sam raided the old dump for recyclable materials. He spent a couple weeks cutting up metal and loading up a trailer to take to Teeter’s Scrap. Fifty years’ worth of old car fenders, a washer, hot water tank, rusted truck bed, bike parts, and other junk sold for a handsome price.

Instead of the local school paying someone to haul away the old windows they replaced, Sam agreed to take them. The glass made it possible for Sam to build a sunroom on the southwest side of the house. He also closed in one wall of the summer pavilion with more of these windows.

Sam will pound the nails out of a board. He reuses the board, straightens the nails and reuses them. Sam saves the twine from every bale of hay. He can’t use it again for baling, but it has many other purposes. If a machine breaks there is no discussion of buying a new one; only of how to fix the old one. If Sam can’t fix it, it wasn’t worth owning in the first place. It’ll sit in a hedgerow for a while and salvaged for parts.

Even the ash left after the fire has gone cold is garbage that can be turned into gold. Wood ash is an excellent addition to garden soil but in winter it is essential. Unlike salt which melts snow into ice, wood ash when sprinkled onto cold snow or icy surfaces provides the grip you need to walk safely or get that vehicle some traction.

Just don’t burn boards with screws in them. Nails can be dangerous missiles in a stove when the flames engulf the surrounding wood. More important, the ash from the fire still contains these shards of metal and you should NOT spread them in the driveway unless you can afford new tires.

Manure is black gold for the garden. You can’t buy better fertilizer. Buffalo dung, Elk and European Deer produce nutrient rich manure that is better for soil enrichment than any product commercially available. In early spring, the pens and paddocks are cleaned out and spread on the fields before plowing and harrowing. I now say my Ph.D. stands for ‘piled high and deep.’

Hay baby

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 28, 2014 at 6:08 pm

013_10AIn June I put up my peas, strawberries and spinach for the long winter. Growing your own food means your sense of time stretches out. There is no “instant” food. What is on your plate today took months if not years of planning and hard work. The radishes which are ready in three weeks from putting seed in the ground are about as quick a snack as we can grow.

Don’t plant your potatoes before the new moon in June. By then the eyes on last year’s crop of potatoes are going good. Cleaning out the root cellar of what’s left from last year’s potatoes is always a pretty nasty and smelly job.  Sam digs the rows. Then we drop the seed potatoes into the deep trench about 8 inches apart.  I go back over the row and cover the seed potatoes with a hill of dirt. Then we wait.

The start of summer brings sweat and hard, long days in the sun getting all the seeds planted, hoed and weeded. Transplanting tomatoes and peppers into the warm soil gives them a head start.

20100521GH_270Baling hay is as much art as it is science. I always look forward to hay season. Sam drives the tractor with the mower on back and cuts down our fields of waist high green pastures. Then he rakes it into wind-rows. The hot afternoon sun and breeze dries the freshly mown hay. The next day he drives around again raking windrows into fluffed up piles for another day of drying. The third day he rakes again and sees if it’s really dry.

Wet hay will burn down a barn. If it doesn’t burn, it molds. Wet hay is a costly disaster. Once the hay is dry enough to bale, I get to play at this game.

Sam drives the tractor. Behind the tractor is the baler. Behind the baler is a flat open hay wagon. That’s where I am. It’s a pretty bumpy ride. Barn boots are necessary to remain standing.  The hay bales bounce out of the baler onto the wagon and my job is to stack them. The hay is scratchy and the chaff gets in your hair, coats your sweaty skin, and itches inside your boots. If you aren’t wearing gloves and long pants you are in for some serious hayburn.

I grab a bale by the strings and toss it into place. Four bales wide on the bottom level for two rows and then you start stacking up a level laid in the opposite direction. I can handle the first dozen bales no sweat. As I start having to lift the bales up further and further, I go into one of those Lucille Ball moments, reminiscent of the chocolate candy factory episode. I can’t keep up. Sam can’t hear. I’m yelling for him to stop.

He gets down off the tractor and jumps up on the wagon and helps me reposition the bales so they won’t fall off and I can stack more on as we make our way around the field. When all the hay is baled then it has to get under cover before evening dew sets upon it.

Sam needs my help getting the hay bales into the barn. He sends them up the mow and I grab them and stack them. He expects me to throw a hissy fit because it is so hot up in the mow. So I do.

“Stop. Stop. STOP.”  I can’t keep up with conveyor belt of hay bales. Doing hay is incredibly strenuous aerobic exercise and the hay loft temperatures under the hot tin roof are over a hundred degrees.

When we are done I strip butt naked and jump in the pond to cool off and get all the hay chaff out of every bodily orifice. When you bale hay it is as close to the feeling of having sex as you will ever find. Your entire body hums. You are spent when it is over. It takes years before you get any good at it and really enjoy it. Making hay is a natural aphrodisiac. Like sex, it is a natural sleeping aid.

June Peas

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 8, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Family of Fallow DeerFawns leaping. Buffalo calving. Pastures pop up green. The perch jump from the pond to splash in the dawn’s red light. From the first spring garlic greens to strawberries, spinach, radishes and baby lettuces, the taste of the garden comes back into the kitchen. The fields get planted and the corn seedlings emerge and grow inches in a single day.

June is the month of peas. The cool and damp nights and the sunny days nurture the vines. Some afternoons I swear I can see them stretching and growing. Every morning I spend the last moments of dawn with a hoe in the pea patch. Slicing off any new weeds at the roots and turning the dew on the soil into the roots of the pea plants gives them a head start. Once they flower, the pods begin to form.peas

Since my first summer with Sam I gardened here and mostly learned the hard way how to deal with weeds. Have you ever seen the yard ornaments that are wooden cutouts of old women bent over from the waist in the garden? The muscles along the backs of my legs and my lower back convinced me there had to be a better way. I have since worn the seats out of several pairs of shorts and overalls and jeans in learning weed management. The hoe is the most powerful tool in the farm fight against weeds. None of the toxic chemicals you can apply to soil work nearly as well as a hoe and bending over to get weeds right by the roots.

Growing up my parents believed we should learn to eat our vegetables. We did! I gagged on the puke-green tinny tasting canned peas. I used to spit them into my napkin or hide them under the rim of my plate. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I learned my dad hated canned peas too. He ate them because he wanted us to learn to love them.

I do love fresh peas. I don’t mean pea pods or sugar snaps. I mean old fashioned shell peas. Sometimes they call them English peas which the British eat with a butter knife.

When I tend my pea patch I treat the plants as living beings and gently lift the vines as a groom would a lace veil. When I tend to plants that bear food for me to eat, I try to be as humane to these living beings as I am to the four legged creatures who provide us with meat.

I only pick the pea pods that are fully developed. I don’t let them get too big and starchy. When the peas seem to burst out of the natural wrappers, you may have waited too long. Sugars begin to turn to starch as the pea matures into the seed for the next pea plant.

Mornings are the best time to pick peas. For hours I will gently tug the pods loose from the veil. Taste testing is encouraged. I often wonder if the original Pez dispenser of sweet candies didn’t get their original inspiration from sweet pea pods. I am a kid in the candy store and I snack along the row.

The more I pick, the more the pea plants flower. The more they flower, the more peas they produce. Some seasons I start my first harvest the last week of June and pick until August. If I don’t pull the vines and the fall brings cool and damp weather the plants may generate a smaller second harvest of fall peas.

Industrial farmers broadcast their pea seeds across acres of fields and harvest with enormous machines. The vines are ripped out and the pods shaken loose and the peas are sent on to be sorted, canned or dried. These farmers wait until almost all of the peas have gotten large enough in their pods to harvest. It’s all over within a matter of hours. There is just one picking.

I usually pick the same plants ten times over the course of a season. We don’t use the industrial model for our small scale operation but that doesn’t mean I don’t find machines useful. Uncle Donald Warren built a pea shelling machine from blueprints issued by Cornell Cooperative Extension many decades ago. Today, this contraption runs off the power generated by the solar panels, windmills and waterwheel. Uncle Donald converted it from handcrank to electric in the 1950s.

The pea shelling machine is a wire mesh basket that opens up so you can pour a peck of pea pods inside. The wire mesh is just large enough to allow the peas to fall through, but not the pods. With cotter pins, the basket is fastened shut. Above the basket is a wooden cover that directs any flying peas back down. Below the basket is a drawer. It sits on the machine’s base of legs. The basket spins around breaking open pods. The peas pop out and drop down into the drawer below.

Once the pods have been broken open, the wire mesh basket is cleaned out of the empty pods. These treats are fed to the deer, elk and buffalo. The pods are too chewy and stringy for the human digestive system. To the big critters, it’s candy.

The drawer is removed from the pea shelling machine and the second stage of preparing peas in bulk begins. The “running board” is a piece of rough cut lumber with side boards attached and mounted on a slant with short legs in front and long legs in back. First you get the board wet with water. Then you place a bucket at the bottom of the running board to catch the clean peas. Slowly you pour the contents of the pea drawer from the top of the board. The chaff sticks to the board and the peas roll quickly into the bucket.  Clean as a whistle. Add a little water and steam for a sinfully good treat.

In winter there is nothing like the taste of farm fresh peas. As a vegetable side dish, in soup or rice, there’s nothing so good as peas. I eat my fill of raw ones during the season and savor them steamed in June and July. I set up operations to freeze peas once I have run a bushel through the pea shelling machine.

My summer kitchen for freezing large quantities of vegetables is in winter my cold storage area. We don’t heat this space in winter and in summer we don’t want the heat from baking or cooking in the main room of the cabin.

After Sam built the waterwheel, the lean-to was replaced with a galley kitchen that serves in winter as cold storage and in summer as a kitchen. There is a crank-out window to the north side that opens outdoors to let the steam out in summer.

There is one freezer in the barn and one in the breezeway. We usually run only one freezer by February, having depleted some of our frozen foods. By June we have more than enough electricity because of the long days, so I start filling the second freezer with the fresh crops of fruits and vegetables for the next year.