Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Chalkboard Walk and Parisian Geography

My brain stores strange things.  I know that the Beauvais Cathedral in France was never finished because, at 158 feet tall, its architecture extended beyond the strengthening physics of the flying buttress.  It collapsed three times.  I know that in the 60’s Jim Hall built a racecar, the Chaparral, which used suction to give it a winning edge.  I know that no high school in the country has a tardy policy that works. 

Not only do I pack away useless facts, I suspect that my brain even sports a special lobe for the memory of the many odd people who would otherwise rattle around loose in my head.  Why these people would occupy real estate in such an over-populated and dilapidated neighborhood, is unclear, yet, there they are: my aunt and uncle who, in one year, spent $5000 staying in a motel in Omaha; a student who had a cat named Laundry; my mother-in-law who “ironed” her eggplant before she cooked it.  My head is as full of eccentric people as a Dickens novel, and perhaps the strangest of them all is Miss Dunlap.
I seldom watch a Rosetta Stone ad without the specter of Miss Dunlap stalking across the screen.  The folks at Rosetta Stone claim the ability to teach me a foreign language without memorization, which flips my cynic switch -- I remember Miss Dunlap’s French class and those horrid little verb quizzes, the impossible conjugations, and the nonsense of gendered nouns.  What, pray tell, is essentially feminine about a window?  I spent quite a bit of time in her class staring through the second-story nine-paned windows (les fenêtres) of Dunlap’s classroom – out across the ten-foot lilac hedges to the American elms that, in the earl 60’s, lined 64th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Perhaps that’s why I recall that French noun;  boredom was a factor in that class, maybe that’s why I memorized her.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fear and Crumbling

We no longer hunker in caves, terrified that our precious bit of fire will go out or that the monster howling in the dark will brave that fire and come after us.  We no longer build walls around our cities, women rarely die in childbirth, and children rarely die in childhood.  Most of us here have more than enough to eat.  Yet we are crumbling around the edges, quaking deep in our nervous souls.
What is it we fear? Since we have what we need to eat, we fear the contents of that food.  Will it raise my triglycerides?  Will its nitrates urge my cells to turn rogue? Will the pesticides kill more than the bugs they were aimed at?  Sugar has morphed into a major monster, yet I clearly remember when it was a guileless treat.  Meat is bad; fish is full of mercury, peanut butter is laced with allergens and fat.  Wheat is questionable, milk is full of monstrous lactose, and honey just brings us back to sugar.  I cower through the supermarket as each food snarls at me from the shelves.  I’m left with the choice of going home hungry and empty-handed (thereby hangs anorexia) or prostrating myself in front of the chocolates and shouting, “Take me! I’m yours. “

Of course, we’re all afraid of terrorists  (Osama’s demise notwithstanding), which actually may be reasonable since fear is what they do. We seem, however, to be more afraid that they won’t like us than we are that they’ll blow us to grizzly bits and make us wear burqas. 

We’re worried now about this house of cards we call our economy, which is dangerously tipsy.  There’s 9.0 earthquake gearing up just off the coast here,  and at any time some batch of lunatics may set off an EMP.

We’re scared to fly, but driving is worse.  We worry about the driver with the cell phone,  the drunk driver, the car-jacker, the red-light runner, the lady who does her mascara in the rear-view mirror, not to mention worrying about the gas.
Because of the gas we are riddled with planetary guilt, which is generating enough fear to make us shiver in the cold and obsessively sort garbage, scared to death of our own carbon footprints. What is amiss when we strike terror into our own hearts over the very stuff of which we are made?  We are carbon. 
We must, however, if we are to be trendy members of society, be afraid that the climate is warming.  After all, consensus is consensus.  I wonder if it’s OK to be afraid of science done not by evidence, but by peer pressure?  After all, even if the climate warms, will we not adapt? Move north? Crank up the AC? Will we not survive the demise of the polar bear?
Yes, I know – Rachel Carson, but we know now that species go extinct all the time and this big wide wonderful world just keeps rolling along, but that implies purpose, and a great many of our fellow-travelers are most afraid that this whole shebang might actually be meaningful, and therefore may be expecting meaningful thought and behavior from us.  Heaven forbid -- which seems to be their problem.
But fear is fear, and if we breathe too much of it, we develop hypertension, duodenal ulcers, arthritis, insomnia, indigestion, depression, and a killer drinking problem. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Speaking of which, I wonder if the cry of a hungry wolf reverberating through a dark cave was worse.  It was bad enough to drive us to the way we live today – odd though, that we haven’t yet rid ourselves of the fear, and that fear itself is causing us to crumble.       

Monday, May 9, 2011

Soap Sense

I make soap.  I realize it’s a ridiculous thing to do in the beginning of the 21st century, since you can walk into any supermarket and buy bars of soap at reasonable prices -- soap designed to “wash all of your 2000 parts,” soap that claims to be 1/4 cleansing cream or 99% pure.  Perhaps I make soap because I’m worried about what chemical lurks in that other 1%.

Though, I’ll admit a great deal of my soap motivation is a decadent yen for luxury, for elegantly scented soaps blended from lavish and exotic oils.  Now it is  true that you can amble into any trendy tourist shop and buy amazing soaps;  soaps sold by the slice, translucent, jewel-toned, and aromatic, smelling of apricots and rosemary, mint and chocolate, cassia and sandalwood; soaps filled with floating herbs and spices, flower petals and grains; soaps wrapped in swatches of expensive fabric or sheets of handmade paper; soaps in embossed boxes tied with gold cords.  You can even walk into the health food section at Fred Meyer and find reasonable facsimiles.  So why go to the trouble of making soap?

And it is trouble. Granted, you no longer need to leach lye from wood ash saved from the cook stove.  Instead, I pick up a can of sodium hydroxide in the cleaning supply section at Freddy’s.  While the pioneers had to butcher a cow and render the fat,  I can merely buy olive oil -- already pressed -- and coconut oil for the lather, apricot kernel, hemp seed, and sweet almond oils for their skin-softening properties. I also buy essential oils and spices to scent my soaps.  These can be costly, so I can’t plead frugality as my motivation; I don’t save money making it myself. 

My soap habit also has a lot to do with a Little House on the Prairie  mentality. Though I have it much easier than the Wilder family, and I can’t imagine going to the extremes of butchering a cow or leaching lye, I do think that part of my soap-making propensities come from a romantic notion of self-sufficiency, of pioneer toughness and independence.  Never mind that without Fred Meyer and several California mail-order houses,


I wouldn’t know where to start.  But the ritual makes me feel the way I felt when I sewed my first dress, the way I feel when I’m kneading bread from grain I ground myself,  or knitting a sweater that would be cheaper and easier to buy.  My self-esteem ratchets up a notch knowing I can make something useful, something beautiful. 

And somewhere in my psyche is buried a high regard for things handmade, things made with a singular intensity and love of process, which carry with them into the world an aura of passion and romance all their own.  Someone gave part of her life to create this thing, so part of her is mystically melded into her hand-spun yarn, her hand-thrown pot, her silky-smooth aromatic soap. Maybe that’s it. 

Maybe.  But there is little romance in the actual procedure.  I use plastic containers (Sodium hydroxide will eat holes in any metal other than stainless steel.).   I heat the oils in my microwave, which is not the way they did it On the Banks of Plum Creek.  I use my aging Kitchenaid mixer to do the stirring  -- I use it for little else since the sodium hydroxide has peeled the enamel finish off.  In fact, the soap making corner of my kitchen is closer to a chemistry lab than to a log cabin.

For one thing, the quantities need to be measured with a chemist’s precision: so many grams of lye, so many of distilled water,  so many grams of each of the oils.  This is not  a creative matter.  The last time I got creative I ended up with a mass of nameless army green goop that failed to harden into bars, but congealed a few stages past liquid soap.  It didn’t seem wise to pour it down the drain; I could see the trout gasping and rolling over sideways as soon as the slime hit the river.  I scooped it into Ziploc bags and hoped for a chemical revelation, or miracle, whichever came first.  By the next day the goop had escaped and was oozing across the kitchen floor.  The mopping  was messy, but the floor ended up hospital clean, so I surmised that the slop was still soap.  Which it might not have been.  It looked nearly nuclear.  With chemistry you never really know.  Once I asked my four-year-old grandson, who had recently requested sulfuric acid so he could “make pollution,” if he wanted to do an experiment and help me make soap.  He put his geeky little hands on his hips and said, “Nana, if you know what you are going to get, it isn’t an experiment.”  But then, he’s never made soap.
And I wouldn’t have let him help with the whole process; the lye is very dangerous.  When sodium hydroxide meets water, the water heats almost to the boiling point and noxious fumes fill the steam.   You don’t want to breathe deeply or spill any of this mixture onto your skin.  It burns. 
While the lye-water cools, I heat the oils so they match the temperature of the lye. Then carefully I pour the sodium hydroxide mixture into the oils while the mixer sloshes.  The mixing causes saponification (the chemical reaction that produces soap).  Every molecule of lye must come into contact with every molecule of oil in order for the chemical transformation to take place.  If the soap maker doesn’t completely stir the soap, some of the lye will remain suspended in the oil, and when an unsuspecting hand-washer hits one of those pockets, he loses more off his hands than dirt.  Lye will burn holes in skin even faster than it burns through metal. To avoid this I leave my trusty Kitchenaide running at a fairly high speed for at least 45 minutes.  I drape an old dishtowel over the mixer so the caustic would-be soap won’t fly all over the kitchen. I check it from time to time to see if the soupy stuff is starting to “trace.” When it thickens enough to prove the chemistry is doing its thing, it starts to look like melting ice cream, and if I drizzle some over the surface, traces of the solution will float there for a while.  Then I can get creative.
Do I want the soap to smell like English lavender or winter spice? Lemon grass or bergamot? Do I add chamomile for skin care? Paprika for color? Oatmeal for exfoliation?  I have made gardeners’ soap with cornmeal to scrub the dirt, vanilla bean soap with actual bits of the bean floating in it, and  masculine dark brown soap scented and colored with cinnamon and clove.  I’ve made soap marbled, layered, transparent, and liquid. I’ve made soap with green tea, with rosewater from my own roses, with rosemary from my herb garden. I have made round soap, square soap, milled soap,  sliced soap, molded soap.  The molding part is fun, but risky -- you have to remember two things when choosing a mold; the saponification won’t be complete for another month, so no metal molds, and  the soap will eventually have to come out of anything you pour it into, and it won’t do that easily.
Once I have the soap solidifying in its molds, my family goes on alert.  Early on in my soap making career, my husband was attracted to a glass baking dish on the counter.  It was filled with a creamy-looking, mint-smelling, pale green “dessert.”  But it was soap. Tom doesn’t do much random sampling in my kitchen any more. Neither does my son-in-law who once mistook grated castile for parmesan.  Even handmade soap tastes like soap.
Once poured, the soap will need to sit, its fragrances filling the house, for at least two weeks, so I have to plan ahead for gift-giving.  Once I knock it out of the molds it will need to have the rough edges and oxidized surfaces cleaned off and it should air dry for a spell to make it last longer.  Then I can have the fun of wrapping and packaging the gift bars. Or better yet, the luxury of a long hot bath with skin-smoothing, delicately scented handmade soap.                          
Of course I could have gone to Terra Firma and bought some; I didn’t have  to make it.  But then I wouldn’t have the fun of knowing I can, the attention I get because I do, and I wouldn’t have the wonderful romantic feeling of being tied to my prairie ancestors,  of having satisfied the lust for the illusion that I too could survive --or at least stay clean -- more or less on my own.