Wednesday, December 29, 2010


In 1998, we moved to Chicago -- a gorgeous, vital, friendly city which now warms our fond memories and wistful thoughts. However, we moved there from the Palouse hills in Idaho. There were less than 2 million people in Idaho. There are over 8 million in Chicagoland, packed tightly. We had some culture shock when we arrived there, towing our logging-road-enduring, planned-obsolescence-defying Geo Metro behind our U-Haul truck down the ruined tollways and urban residential streets, amidst copious homeless persons and obvious gang presence. We reclusive, bird-watching geeks were clearly not in our element. By the time we started unpacking our truck, we discovered the lovely side of the city: people watching the truck for us and scolding us when we left it unlocked because we "shouldn't trust people," the neighbors' bodybuilding Russian guest helping unload the truck and bringing us cold iced tea and civilized conversation, the friendliness of neighbors who wanted answers when they asked how we were.

Nonetheless, urban life brings its own challenges -- like neighborhoods completely lacking box stores or other retail outlets, and having to commute to get to grocery stores. So we picked a suburb pretty much at random, because it had lots of water near it in which there might be waterfowl, and drove there to go shopping and fool around. And there were geese and ducks and good places to eat and green plants in broader swaths than the parks that dotted South Chicago, so we kept coming back. Eventually we dubbed it "the Stomping Grounds" and did a lot of our shopping for things like electronics and Christmas gifts there.

In spring of 2002, we noticed a Canada goose snuggled down in a planter right in front of one of the box stores (neither of us can remember the store -- it was a discount chain right next to We-R-Toys and Bloodbath & Beyond). She was nesting there, supervised by a visibly anxious gander who strolled disconsolately up and down the parking lot, grumbling at passersby. She honked and hissed at all pedestrians, offering to bite those who stopped to admire her. It was probably the worst nesting site in the history of nesting sites. We dubbed her Crazy Goose and drove out there every other day throughout the whole nesting season to make sure the water pan a goose-bitten Samaritan had left her had been refilled. When we fed her corn muffins, she hissed us the whole time she gobbled them, and got a lump of them stuck in her throat that caused her to drool her water back out. We waited for the lump to clear before we would drive home to our apartment, abused the whole time by her cursing and grumbling, and nervously watching her gander try to decide whether he wanted to kick our butts or not.

We'd been watching her for almost two weeks -- walking right up to her to feed her and give her water -- by the time we noticed Quiet Duck.

Quiet Duck had clearly taken the advice of her crazy goose friend on nesting sites and just as clearly regretted it. She hunched silently in the bushes in the planter, head nestled in her burnished breast, eyes closed so not to raise a shine, Zen not-thinking to be invisible. She could have been a ninja. She was so silent and still that even after one had seen her, one could lose her position -- in broad daylight, exposed in a planter in front of a busy retail hub.

It seemed plain that Crazy Goose did not like sharing her water and food with Quiet Duck, even after she had talked her into nesting in a madhouse with her. We tried to feed Quiet Duck, who seemed unhappy to have been noticed and merely sank down more silently and sullenly and not-thunk all the harder, and Crazy Goose hissed and darted in to steal the crumbs from under Quiet Duck's still, hiding, sad little beak. There was nothing to be done for her, other than respect her desire to hide.

One day when we returned to visit the nesting waterfowl and refill the water pan, Quiet Duck seemed particularly bedraggled. We nudged a small, separate water bowl with a few shreds of lettuce floating in it to the duck. She shrank back in alarm, adjusting her wings, and finally standing up.

A full dozen little faces, yellow like dandelion flowers and enlivened by shiny, guileless bright eyes with a smudgy mascara stripe across them like a mask, popped up from around her. They wobbled prodigiously in the spring sunlight on skinny necks like fuzzy yellow-brown stems. Each and every one of the twelve ducklings began peeping softly and continued to do so, softly muffled, after their mother settled her glossy feathers over them again with a matronly plump and shimmy.

The next day, when we (irresistably) returned, she and her ducklings had wandered to safer territory... probably the cattail marsh across the street.

I have never forgotten these ducklings -- they were probably the most precious sight I've seen until recently. And now, my son, a golden and fuzzy creature with bright shiny eyes in a face like a flower, wobbles exactly the same way when he raises his head on his slender neck to peep at the world.

...and a postscript, just to tell you how great Chicago is. In 2003, Crazy Goose returned to her absolutely terrible nesting site, probably very close indeed to where she was herself born -- as female waterfowl will, generation after generation, regardless of anthropogenic changes to the landscape. Her dutiful mate hovered anxiously nearby. But rather late in the nesting season, construction crews started tearing down the building in front of which her planter was situated.

We were despondent. We were afraid she would defend the nest and be hurt herself, and were grief-stricken that her eggs -- already probably peeping with the life ready to burst forth from them -- would not get the chance to hatch. We worried about her gallant gander. I stayed awake late at night crying, and made Pat drive me back out there to see if there was anything we could do for her. (Yes, I'm as crazy as Crazy Goose.)

Impossibly, the gander was still meandering unhappily around the parking lot, looking defensive and slightly embarrassed. We approached the planter, which appeared to be filled with construction debris, with trepidation.

The construction workers had built her a little house, erecting bricks to either side of the nest and a sturdy roof atop it to keep out any falling brickbats from the rest of the deconstruction going on behind her. She hissed us merrily and bit my thumb when I checked the level of her water pan.

And there she stayed, in her little nest house, until she had hatched out the chicks and led them off to whatever zone she chose to raise them in. And I felt better about the world and positively in love with the construction workers (which is easy to do -- they're lovely to look at, aren't they?)

And that's a real-world happy ending.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Two things to do with Brussels sprouts

I got fancy with dinner last night, and made chicken in a mushroom thyme cream sauce, and leek and fennel risotto seasoned with fennel seeds and thyme and splashed with absinthe to make the fennel flavor pop -- and a Brussels sprout salad that knocked our socks off.

Brussels sprouts are Pat's favorite vegetable, and there are lots of ways to fix them that are utterly delicious. I'm going to give you my two favorites, but you can be madly creative with the little flavor buttons if you simply adhere to two rules:

1) They must be fresh, not frozen; the fresher, the better. You are looking for smallish sprouts without yellow wilted leaves or ooky black spots -- and this time of year you should be able to find a stalk of them, fancy for the holidays. They are really fresh when you cut them right off that stalk, provided they aren't all wilty.

2) You must absolutely not overcook them. Note that they are overcooked as soon as most people consider them fully cooked: you want them to retain a little tender-crispness, not to melt into cabbagey softness. Their texture is neat when they are soft, but they lose something in the flavor department.

So, last night's salad:


12 Brussels sprouts, shaved paper thin with a mandoline or a very sharp knife and patience (if you do this by hand, cut them in half so that they don't roll on the cutting board and then slice them fine)
1/2 bulb of fennel, pale part only, cored and shaved paper thin
1/3 cup or so of flavorful nuts (hazelnuts or almonds are wonderful)
2 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
salt and black pepper to taste
a few tablespoons of freshly shaven shards of Parmesan cheese

Mix all ingredients, withholding nuts and cheese if desired to sprinkle atop. I didn't; I mixed it all in with my hands and it was wonderful that way.

And my favorite sprouts recipe...


15 or 20 Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half or in quarters
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter (optional - use more olive oil if preferred)
2 or 3 cloves of garlic, minced or cut into fine matchstick shapes
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons pine nuts (totally optional and I most often forget them, but mmm)

Heat oil and butter over medium-high heat, and throw in Brussels sprouts and garlic. Stir fry until sprouts are very bright green and tender-crisp (you can hurry this up by adding a tablespoon or three of water and letting it cook off -- it will help steam the sprouts and keep the garlic from burning if you have other things going on). Add spices, stir and fry a few more moments, and serve. These are AWESOME with Italian food: alongside pasta with a red sauce, lasagne, or sausage and peppers on polenta.

If these two recipes don't blow your skirt up, I don't know why.

Brussels sprouts also love to be paired with: a spoonful of grainy mustard in a butter sauce, a squeeze of key lime juice and salt and pepper, flavorsome olive oil and a lavish last-minute splash of Vincotto, or fingerling potatoes and bacon.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Thank you, state-sponsored insurance

The grand totals so far for Fletcher's birth: $144,475.94 was either discounted ("patient savings") or paid by insurance. That's 100% of the bill, for those keeping track -- and that doesn't count the lavish prenatal care that they already covered.

And suddenly I do not mind paying my state taxes, nor my insurance premiums.