Category Archives: Little Lessons

An Orange New Year

The Batch 2 labels.

Weeks have passed. The holidays are long gone. But the cheer of oranges dangling from the trees continues, and yet another large bag of plucked beauties awaits processing.

Oranges on tree

One of the first lessons learned from the Great Marmalade Experiment of 2012, which has segued into the Continuing Marmalade Experiment of 2013, is that you only need 5-8 oranges to brew up a dozen small jars. I haven’t counted the fruit on our two trees, but it looks like enough to start a business. Even after my friend Jean came and took some.

OnLadderAfter a very cold week to start the year, the weather has been warmish most of this month. Ripe oranges are beginning to fall from the tree and roll across the driveway or into garden beds. I could just harvest them, chop them up and call it compost, now that we’ve installed an Envirocycle bin out by the back fence, and it’s hungry. But then I wouldn’t have all this good raised-Catholic guilt hanging over me.

My friend Suzanne brought another friend over to help  me scrape and julienne the first batch using a recipe I found online.  Work intervened before the job was finished, so I hauled pots, jars and liquidy stuff to the Houston apartment — even smaller than this one! – to finish.

A zen personality helps when it comes to the julienning.

I cut up a tin foil tray to make a “rack” so the jars wouldn’t burst. I sterilized the jars in the dishwasher. I used a soup ladle to transfer the soupy liquid to the jars and wasn’t very exacting about filling to 1/4 inch of the rims. I was sure, when that stage finally arrived, that I had produced not marmalade, but some very pretty orange syrup.

But miracle of miracles, those gratifying little “pops” followed, a sign the lids had sealed. And the next morning the liquid had set beautifully into a clear marmalade.

My first batch. No one has died.

My first batch.

I took a jar to work with warm scones, and my friend Greg, the food editor, rewarded me with Elizabeth Field’s pretty book. It has, among many other types of marmalades, at least four recipes for using Seville oranges. Eye-opening. Mouth watering.

Elizabeth Field's new book is full of inspiration.

Elizabeth Field’s new book is full of inspiration.

Given our small kitchen, I am supposed to be on gadget lockdown. But the full trees outside (or did someone say “fool” trees?) justified the purchase of some marmalade-making tools. Into the already-full cabinets came Oxo’s Good Grips 5-lb. digital scale (partly because it’s flat and easy to store), a Progressive “essentials” set including a one-handed jar lifter (who knew there was such a thing?), a canning funnel (designed to fit over jar lids, with measurement lines) and a lid lifter (a plastic stick with a magnet on the end). I stopped short of buying a rack – the cut-up tinfoil worked just fine.

The newest book from the Baker Creek Seed Company folks has a great primer on canning.

The newest book from the Baker Creek Seed Company folks has a great primer on canning.

Jere and Emilee Gettle’s new The Baker Creek Vegan Cookbook also arrived serendipitously. No marmalade recipes but an excellent primer on canning. It made me manic about checking to make sure jars aren’t chipped.

Batch 2, Field’s Whole-Fruit Seville Orange Marmalade, was easier to make – it eliminates the peel scraping – but resulted in a cloudier marmalade.

Oranges, a lemon and a ton of sugar are all you need to make an excellent marmalade, but I couldn’t resist getting a little fancier with Batch 3, Field’s Aromatic Orange-Apple-Ginger Marmalade. The most labor-intensive of all but Mr. Glentzer’s favorite to date.

Little Green Ornaments

Sweetgum balls

Prettier than pecans, with a dangerous attitude, sweetgum balls have also been shaken out of their trees this week onto the streets. Don’t they look like something a Medieval torture specialist would have slung over his shoulder?

These might end up sprayed gold, dangling from a Christmas tree. Assuming we actually break down and buy one. The pressure is on, with family coming.

We haven’t had a “live” tree since the first year we were married, when in the bliss of newlywed-dom the Mr. tested his allergies for love. Unfortunately, that tree was amazingly fragrant. We took all the ornaments off and flocked it, thinking that might somehow block whatever made the Mr.’s eyes bulge red. Didn’t work.

That year, and for quite a few more, we retrieved a 1970’s vintage “bottle brush” tree from my parents’ attic. Ugliest tree ever. Then we broke down and bought a nice one, which we finally retired this summer when we moved.

It’s happy news when the marriage outlasts a few faux evergreens. Although the ritual of hauling it out and decorating it can be a source of friction. The Mr., frankly, is pretty indifferent about the whole business.

Tree shopping begins.

Now, the conundrum is limited square footage, and I was surprised to see the plethora of small-space options out there. A category called “slim” trees seems to be coming on strong, some of them about 40 inches wide at the base. And beyond “slim,” there’s the “pencil” shape – which looks positively anorexic.

Many look quite lifelike, and their designs have moved way beyond bottlebrush into forms and needles that mimic nature. Blue spruce, anyone, or Aspen fir? It makes me laugh that at Balsam Hill, which appears to be a good online source, the choices are broken down by “Most Realistic,” “Realistic” and “Traditional.” Traditional apparently meaning that you accept the tree is fake, so who cares if it looks like it was just plucked from the Blue Ridge Mountains?

And lights! You’d have to be crazy anymore to buy one that isn’t pre-lit, at least until you think about it for a minute, since you know those PVC branches are going to outlast the bulbs. And then what?

A Reflective Season

Lights from inside give the deck a warm glow at night.

Sitting on the deck tonight with a glass of wine, it was hard not to get a little philosophical. Maybe it’s the frequent sight of home care nurses checking in on the older neighbors, walking out with their clipboards and driving off. Maybe it’s the recent death of a friend’s father. Maybe it’s just the season – the inevitable winding down of another year that hums underneath all the holiday noise.

Thomas Kinkaid would have loved this place at night.

We’ve been more industrious than the squirrels since we moved here in June. What is this place we’ve made, or we’re making still — and why do we keep working so hard to make it more?

Tonight’s moon.

Go ahead, bay at the full moon, crazy woman.

The “Action” House

The Mr. made a joke not too long after we moved in about how he could now vacuum the entire house without having to move the plug. Well, it was kind of funny but it wasn’t actually a joke.

There are times I feel cramped at my desk, in a chair that backs into a file cabinet and incessantly pulls up the corner of the rug over which it rolls.

But after happening upon this video of Christian Schallert, a cheerfully ingenious guy living in Barcelona,  I can no longer complain. The point “where it gets annoying” for him, he admits, is when his bed is rolled out, taking up much of his 258-square foot apartment, which is accessed by walking up 100 stairs.

He calls it an “action” house because all the elements (except the teensy shower and toilet) have moving parts that must be activated to be converted for multiple purposes or concealed. He stays in shape just by going to bed, watching TV or setting a table for lunch.

Needless to say, he doesn’t have to think hard about what to wear each morning.

“You’re forced not to be chaotic,” he says. And how. Now, this is inspiring.

Life without a dishwasher

I’ve written stories about architects who build (and live in) homes that are about 700 square feet.I keep thinking of them as we settle into our 1,100-square foot cottage.

We are not exactly roughing it, but we have lived for five months now without a dishwasher. Installing one would mean giving up storage space in our small kitchen.

Half of the kitchen at move-in.

When there are just two of you, the dishwasher becomes mostly a receptacle for storing dishes; a way to procrastinate. You still rinse them, right? So why not just go ahead and wash?

So far, so good. It only took about two months to choose a drain pan. We eventually went with the simplest Rubbermaid thing out there, passing on fancy models that cost a lot and take up more space.

The slight downside: Seems like there are always dishes in the sink, since we almost never dry them right after washing them. So we really haven’t cured that procrastination thing, have we?

Could we really just be using the same two bowls, two salad plates and two dinner plates OVER and OVER again? Which means unless we have company, that’s all we really need.

Early summer: Our first dinner outside on the deck.


Do you have any idea how hard it is to resist a sale of knick-knacks that your neighbor has spent a year collecting, even though you have SWORN OFF accumulating any more stuff since a bunch of yours that you’ve almost forgotten after five months is still in storage?

Well, here’s the deal. Betty and Don down the street have been setting up for a week, putting tents over their driveway, layout out tables, piling on the stuff and blocking the driveway with their pick-up trucks for security. This morning, they finally opened up shop.


Betty said she does this every year about the time the Round Top dealers roll through town. (Actually, the shows are twice a year.) The fall shows start tomorrow at Warrenton, and Blue Hills has been open since last weekend. (I went to Blue Hills and discovered the gardens, which I love love love, but I didn’t buy a thing. Not even the pillows from some High Point, N.C. ladies with pretty prints of bees, which I could have used. Progress!)

Traffic has been noticeably heavier in Brenham this week as everyone in the antiques and junking world descends for the twice-yearly stuff-fest.


Betty puts up a wooden sign at the end of the block that says, simply, “Sale.” Not “Garage Sale” or “Estate Sale.” And no address. It’s like an exclusive club, kind of: If you have to know more, you probably don’t belong there.


With their granddaughter-in-law Adie and a few other friends helping, Betty and Don held court and collected money as ladies in-the-know prowled through the goods, most of it glassware.

You must have a big storage room, I said to Betty.

She pointed a little sheepishly, grinning, toward the windows of a back room in her house, which might be a dining room or a glassed-in porch or both – I couldn’t tell for sure and didn’t want to seem too nosy. I’m still new around here. (Anybody whose family hasn’t been in this town for five generations is new, so we’re more like aliens although everybody’s been really nice.)

Clearly visible in the shafts of morning sun were three or four shelves on the back wall absolutely crammed with small glass goodies. “Sometimes it’s hard to let them go,” Betty said.


I got out of there with just one painted metal basket, which I actually need to hold fruits and veggies. Yeah, need, that’s right. It was $5, and a teensy gold and black “Made in China” sticker is still on the bottom, but I love the clean, cheerful shape. It was satisfying enough that I didn’t need to purchase anything else.

We’ll see how the discipline holds up when I head out to Warrenton in a day or two.

It faces east

The little house in Brenham, early summer 2012.

The first time we stepped into the little house in Brenham with a real estate agent, our reaction was quick: cute but way too small. Tiny kitchen. No dishwasher, and nowhere to add one. One long narrow room in the front that would have to suffice for living and dining. Two bedrooms, both about 10 x 12 feet. Two baths, not unusably tiny but not up to our citified standards in the tile, fixtures and finishes dept. It was under contract, anyway.

The next time we visited, that contract had fallen through, and our agent, whose name was Boo (no kidding) persisted. “Let’s just take a quick look,” he coaxed. We liked the big yard — about 8,000 square feet –almost twice as big as our Houston lot. It gave us a nearly blank slate for a new garden, with a big ol’ pecan tree out back, some gargantuan shrubs that turned out to be winter jasmine and two trees we thought were big limes along the driveway, and some ill-placed boxwoods, hawthorns and nandinas in the front yard, where the 2011 drought had pretty much decimated the grass. The big deck and the view out the kitchen window also appealed. So did the shed out back, which could be converted into a studio for Don.

View out the kitchen window shortly after move-in.

The kitchen was kind of darling, with a few craftsman details in the woodwork and glass front cabinets, plush niches up top where I could display our heirloom teacups and pots.  Did we really need a dishwasher?

The floor plan wasn’t bad, actually – the two bedrooms and baths were at opposite ends of the house. There was a nice breakfast room. The place had a gazillion windows, so it could be bathed in natural light. The laundry ‘room’ conveniently occupied a long, narrow hall closet. The front bedroom, which we began to envision as my office and a guest room, had a big walk-in closet.

The biggest plus: We could pay cash for it, which meant freedom from a house payment and property taxes that had become a big burden. Flash forward a year and a few weeks… We bought the little place last September – right around Labor Day – sold the Houston home we’d lovingly tended for 15 years and moved to the country on Memorial Day.

We are adjusting to a new life in a small town midway between Houston and Austin, living in half the house with twice the yard we once had. There are days when I think we’re in heaven and days I want to bust out walls with my elbows. Come back often and share your thoughts with me as we explore the pains, the pleasures and the process of learning to exist with less.

Less stuff, less stress. Did I mention the other great thing? Our front door faces east, an optimistic direction.