A Little Off-Track But Determined

Kage Baker believed that you should never tell a dream before you ate breakfast: if it’s a good dream, it won’t come true, but if it’s a bad one – it promptly will. I’ve seen her leap out of bed, run into the kitchen and immediately bolt a piece of bread or a mouthful of leftovers, because she had a story idea in her sleep and wanted to tell it right away.

She believed that vows must be kept, especially to the gods; therefore, while she bargained with divinity all the time, she never made promises unless she did it very loudly and in sacred places. She chose places like under the dew line of ancient trees, or waist deep in the ocean at midnight, or standing in a thunderstorm with her hair standing on end from the static electricity. She said the gods would know she was serious then.

She believed that resolutions should be simple and direct, so you could remember them. Also, so you couldn’t talk yourself out of them while tripping on picky little details. Kage never made life-altering changes, not in wide sweeping movements. She made lots of tiny changes, a day or so at a time. And it almost always worked.

I’ve always been a fan of the wide, dramatic changes, myself. With an audience, as often as possible. Sometimes it’s even worked – I can be very determined, myself … but more often, I got the changes made by keeping quiet about it and just going along step by ordinary step. At one point in my youth, I was trying hard to become a drunk – not an uncommon attempt in the newly-legal drinker. I came close to making it; but when I sobered up and realized what an asinine thing it was to do, I – just – stopped. Didn’t taper off, didn’t tell anyone. I just stopped. Today, I rarely drink at all, and have no more desire to drown my brain even in really good whiskey. Everything tastes better, too.

I smoked for 30 years. Then I started having heart attacks, so I stopped. No patches, no props, no vaping – which wasn’t a thing yet, thank goodness, because who really wants a  mini-rocket blowing up in their mouth? – and I didn’t smoke again for 2 years. When Kage died, I realized I no longer cared especially, but it was no use: the taste for chain-smoking a pipe had left me. I now have an evening pipe maybe 3 times a week, but my once-prodigious habit is gone. Along with my adolescent fondness for stiletto heels and going braless …

So Kage was right, in that changing something without fanfare and with determination is the way to succeed.  And she was also wrong, because sometimes a huge, final decision is the only way. I think what really matters is not how you do it, but whether or not you are stubborn enough not to stop the new course of action. Pick a new way and don’t quit it. That works.

The last 2 years, I have become more and more a recluse. The last 6 months, I have done less and less with each day. I’ve been really dreadfully ill most of that time, and now … well, I’ve has a bit of trouble working up enthusiasm about being in the world at all. But that’s just an abscess of despair, and it will be lanced this Friday. After that, I’ll have to live with whatever is going to happen, because whatever it is will happen, whether I’m ready or not.

Still, I think a dose of Kage’s way is  pretty good idea. I ought to do something every day, and not just spend my waking hours reading news on the Interwebs until I bleed at the eyes. So, I’ve resumed writing. And knitting. And reading books. And running errands. Write a little, read a little, knit a little, go outside in the daylight a little – you know, real life.

Just because I’ve reached the time of life where I can get away with being a slightly crankier version of Dame Julian of Norwich, doesn’t mean I should do it. Sure, almost no one will care if I become a sessile life form and take up a career as a post-menopausal barnacle (than which, I cannot imagine a more useless form of life, by the way) – but it’s a bad idea.  I get bored. Boredom sucks.

So I’ve decided not to be bored. It’s not a heroic goal, but I think I can manage that much, Dear Readers. I knitted a pink pussy hat for the Women’s’ March on Saturday, and I delivered it to a dear and athletic friend who is walking: because I can’t walk that much, yet. I’m making another, for me; and one for Kimberly. Mine will have earrings, and Kim’s will have Maine Coon Cat tassles. We will wear them everywhere, and at other marches.

I’m writing more. I went out on an errand today. I’ve gotten a “Resistor” shirt, and I’m wearing it around my part of town: it’s terribly cool. I joined the ACLU and put the sticker on my car. I’ve called an odious lot of Congress critters and annoyed their staff. I’ve eaten fruit every day since the beginning of the year – every day!

Small, achievable goals. And, yeah, I’m talking about it a little, but, hey – talking is one of the things I do, Dear Readers. Fish gotta bubble, birds gotta sing; I gotta talk. If I ever stop – well, it will be time to dig a hole and bury me.

But not just yet.


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Episodes of Beauty

Kage Baker was big on the idea of the Circle of Life.

Partly this was because she was a rabid, if episodic, Disney fan. She was raised on Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Fantasia  was probably her favourite movie of all time. She loved all the amazing and hysterical Silly Symphony cartoons. Like most everyone of our age, she watched the Disney shows avidly; but she loved the animation best. She complained about the beloved wildlife shows most other little girls adored – I was horrified when she pooh-poohed my personal favourite, Perri the Squirrel. Man, that was a True Life Adventure!

For a while, Kage swore off the animated features, though; because after Walt died, she felt the art got sloppy and bad. The Aristocats, Jungle Book, The Rescuers – she detested them all. In fact, she stopped watching Disney altogether after Robin Hood – I remember she raved all the way home from the theatre after that mess. And then new management came in, fired what was left of the Animation Department, and finally Kage joined the grass roots movement to take the Disney back from the corporate hacks. (Their failure to publicize Treasure Planet, which Kage loved, properly did not help.) Anyway, it worked; and then came the Renaissance ….

From Little Mermaid on, she was in love again. And The Lion King gave her the metaphor she needed for the resuscitation of Disney Studios: the Circle of Life. Winter came, Winter went, Spring returned. Fantasia 2000 left her in tears, especially the last segment. Pixar showed up and was absorbed, rather the way mitochondria were absorbed into Archea bacteria and so powered the eucharyotic cell: and behold! A New Age had begun.

Eucharyotic cells are vitally important to all of us, Dear Readers – they are the basis of all multi-cellular life. ALL of it. Most everything that is not a single-celled bacteria or a virus (and viruses are still on probation as genuine  life-forms, anyway) is a eucharyotic cell. Even some of the eucharyotes  (the Protista) are single-celled, but they are all a lot more complicated than the Archae, containing all the little factories and curtains and nooks and crannies that are the basis of Life As We Know It.

This is such an enormously complicated alteration from the original model, that as far as anyone can tell – it only happened once. Once, in 4 1/2 billion years. We owe our multi-celled magnificence to a single dubious mating of an archeon and whatever the hell the bacterium that became a mitochondrium was before it was eaten, and took took the place instead of being digested. There are still a lot of Aerchea and bacteria all over the place – their sheer biomass makes up most of what is alive on Earth – but we have no idea who the original Romeo and Juliet were who did the trick.

But maybe now we do:


Read the article, Dear Readers. It concerns a whole new group of species of Archea, called the Asgards: and named, in biological whimsy, after various Norse Gods: Thor, Heimdall, Odin, Loki.  All we have so far is their DNA, but it tells us a lot of things. They are probably half the equation that produced eucharyotes, they all show signs of being just on the brink of multi-cellular life, and they are still out there somewhere, alive. What I especially like (due to a personal devotion to the lovely Tom Hiddleston) is that the first samples were named after Loki.

That might explain a few things about the proclivities of humans, too.

Also – lightning-fast segue! – while it is definitely still Winter around here, squirrels and raccoons are beginning the Beguine in the nights. The squirrels are frisking, and the raccoons are clog-dancing on the roof … and a hummingbird has once again built her tiny nest on a branch outside the kitchen window. There she sits, snug in her faerie-cup of silver moss and down, patiently awaiting new life to come to her. She’s so little that we won’t know if she’s succeeded until the little beaks stick up above the rim of the nest – but she’s ready. The Circle of Life, Dear Readers. Everything wears it like a crown.

Anyway, I thought immediately of Kage and her in-and-out love of Disney animation, for some reason. I think it’s the realization that beauty comes and goes – but, most importantly, it comes again. We can ignore it, we can crush it, we can outlaw it, we can deny its existence – but life, and its beauty, will happen regardless. It doesn’t even need us to happen; though we most certainly need it.

Life happened only one – but it happened. Disney produced gems of glory, and then a lot of crap; but the good stuff came back. The critters that we humans have tried to ignore and eradicate from our cities are now pretty much living right here beside us, companionable and safe.

This chain of realizations might be a bit obscure, but it works. Cut me a little slack, here; hope is coming hard. And while I don’t know about you, Dear Readers, I feel a little bit better.*


* Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘Look! The king has got a crown again!’

The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.

‘They cannot conquer for ever!’ said Frodo.

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Shouting Above The Static

Kage Baker fought, as all of us do, the vagaries and personality quirks of her electronic media. She was pretty firmly convinced that her home network in specific, and the aether in general, possessed growing intelligences, and she wasn’t sanguine about their benign intentions.

After all, even long-term domestics like toasters, tooth brushes and blenders can turn on the unwary. Kage was always suspicious of that – she held a deep, semi-conscious belief in a kind of animism. Humanity, she felt, rather rubbed off on things. Give them the ability to think  a little, and who knows what could happen? Especially if we welcomed them into our homes and expected them to cooperate with us.

People don’t think much, either, she would argue, and look at the trouble they cause. And I like my stereo better than most people. I just think it hates my Gilbert and Sullivan records.

It’s a way to come to terms with technological progress, I guess. Treat modern tools as you did your plough-horses, your cranky bees and finicky corn crops and the millennia of iron tools that always seemed to be a little too thirsty for a sip of the user’s blood ….  how many of you feel at least a little worry that the new software eats a file or two as a sacrifice? Are you paying Dane geld to the fresh CD packing via the paper cut you got off the plastic wrap? Do you wait for every new appliance to make that one, first, stomach-lurching error, to make sure the household gods have been paid off?

I bet you do, Dear Readers.

Anyway, Kage was always a bit expectant that her tools and toys were going to just take a little, proprietary bite out of her. Especially the electronic ones. She used to look for patches on new computer games before she even played them, on the certainty that something was waiting to get her. I’d have laughed, except there was almost always a patch waiting …

Last night, I finally finished the download and installation of the latest upgrades for Windows 10 – a 2-night affair, as our Internet keeps fading in and out. High winds and torrential rain may be affecting it; or maybe it’s earthworms convulsing as they drown in the sudden quick-mud of the flooded LA Basin. Today, the aether has been even less cooperative than usual;  which I cannot help but think is a result of that download.

If I were a conspiracy theory enthusiast, I’d think it was because I’ve joined the ACLU, or signed a few petitions, or have been sending emails to my Congress-critters … but I am broadcasting at much too low a volume for the Gummint to be noticing yet. No, I suspect it’s just the general crankiness of all electronics, exacerbated by the tendency of the Universe to speed its way to entropy. All the atoms in the lines are getting farther and farther apart at the Universe expands on its way to the Big Squeeze, you know.

So – another missive thrown into the great darkness, wrapped hopefully around a rock with the rubber band from the fresh celery! We use whatever we can to communicate, Dear Readers; dealing with our tools as best we can, shouting above the waves and the wind, burning a little incense and spilling a little wine for our particular lares and penates.

And I fold my hands humbly, and do sincerely trust that someone out there hears me.


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Why Write?

Kage Baker wrote  for so many different reasons. But she often wondered why.

It drove her crazy, and ate all her time and energy. Sometimes she would spin round and round in her desk chair, exclaiming that she should have taken up some less demanding art because writing was so frustrating! But it was her favourite obsession, as well as her surest comfort and safety zone. There were always limitless reasons to sit down and write.

First and foremost, she wanted to know what happened next: to everything, just in general. If general things could not be nicely persuaded to reveal the inner plots of themselves, she made it up. She used to say that this kind of thing had to be carefully controlled – because making up what happens, for just anything that gets your attention, is a famous road to insanity. “You start making up conspiracy theories and alternate histories. It’s Men In Black and Missing Dauphins,” she observed one evening as we were watching lightning strike over the Pacific. “And that way lies madness.”

At that moment, there was an enormous flash of blue-white light out over the Dunes to the North of Pismo Beach. All the power went out immediately – as was likely to happen when the lines blew up or fell down or were otherwise stressed by a heavy dew or a fat seagull.  And Kage said, “Now, that’s probably an old transformer blowing up out in the pea fields. But I think it’s a flying saucer.” And she shook her fist out the window and yelled, “Learn to steer, you damned aliens!”

Mind you, Kage didn’t actually think there were idiotic aliens driving badly out over the sand hills. (I am not at all so sure she didn’t think there were Sasquatches guiding them in, though …) But there were (and are) lots of folks in Pismo who have always thought that the aliens frequented Pismo Beach. The kind of amiable nutcase Kage describes in “Lemuria Will Rise” was neither a figment of her imagination, nor extinct in our lifetimes. Lots of old fishos hung out on the Pier, or round the arcades and the Esquire News, or outside the red leather bat-wing doors of Harry’s Bar; most of them would tell you tales of weird little men and mysterious footprints.

And it was true that the power lines were always going out in the streets by the Dunes. Repair crews found the glass transformers melted into cracked and cloudy funnel cakes, shocked blue and lavender by strange electric forces … you could find them in the windows of the Charity Thrift Shop, for a few bucks a pop. Collectors will spend lots of cash for undamaged ones, deliberately cast in various colours – but thewarped ones off the snapped power poles were more interesting.

Kage had one of the melted transformers. She kept it stuck into the shattered top of a wooden pillar from a faux Grecian temple that had stood her mother’s garden, and burned big candles in it when the saucers took the power out …

One of the other reasons she wrote, of course, was to find an outlet for the ideas that peopled the Dunes with selkies and White Ladies and poorly-driven spaceships. We passed the darkened shopfronts of the little town of Summerland one night on a train, and she wondered dreamily what sort of train would ever stop there; the answer turned into “Her Father’s Eyes”. Many ill-timed conversations about Bigfoot while we drove dark roads and I gibbered with fright  (I have an allergy to Bigfoot stories; we all have our mythic weak spots, Dear Readers) turned into “Old Flathead”. Listening to the commercials for government pamphlets while we listened to Art Bell Coast To Coast produced “Boulder, CO Has The Answers”.

It was all because Kage could not stop wondering what came next. What might be making that noise, or leaving those marks, or be the real story behind the lady in front of us in the grocery line who had a cart filled with dozens of St. Jude and Sacred Heart candles, and sand and seaweed trailing from her shoes …

She loved telling stories, too. She was a marvellous raconteuse, but she had a diffident manner and a soft, low voice: she hated having to hold on to her audience, but she hated even more having them not hear her. Writing the stories down, she could never be interrupted or out-shouted: it was the ultimate revenges of every quiet person who’s ever been talked over by a boor.

And, of course, there was paying the bills. Kage was supremely practical about the necessity of keeping a roof and a pantry; and a lifetime of outdoor theatre instilled in her a maniacal devotion to flush toilets. So, yeah, she wrote for the money. “Gotta keep score somehow,” was her judgement on the question of selling her art. “I like keeping score with pretty markers – feather pillows, and wing-back chairs, and a roast on Sundays.”

He who claims otherwise is self-deluded. Also, probably short of pillows and chairs and Sunday roasts. Kage had all that – and the writing, too.


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Holding Fast In The Storm

Kage Baker loved all her techno-tools. Machines fascinated her, especially ones she didn’t really understand. She enjoyed that combination of high-tech and mysticism.

Not that she trusted them, mind you. Kage didn’t trust much of anyone, really, and her computer – for all she considered it a limb of her muse – was no more trusted than anyone else. But she worked out coping mechanism for its inevitable betrayals, and wasn’t really surprised when the hard drive lost its mind and a week’s work.

She also loved the inexorable tidal sweep of unmitigated weather. We lived most of our lives literally on the edge of not-very-civilized areas, and Kage liked that. Doing Faires, we had to really care what the weather did, for weeks at a time – outdoor performances, even in sunny California, are subject to the whims of rain, wind,  snow, scorching heat, sudden fog, peat fires and plagues of malign insects; and none of those, Dear Readers, is a euphemism.

And when we weren’t living in leaky cottages in dirt-road villages, we were living in unpaved oak groves, or the weirder parts of the Hollywood Hills, or on the very last sandy edge of the North American continent … places where the walls are ancient wood and salvaged canvas; places where the incoming tide crests half a block away in a really wet storm, and ducks and deer and foxes come to shelter on your front porch.

So she didn’t trust the weather, either; but again, it seldom surprised her. When an owl fried itself on the town power lines and left Pismo with no electricity for 3 days in the arms of a Pacific gale – well, Kage took that as a demonstration of the nature of owls and storms. When a pelican ran into the telephone lines and hanged itself, and the rescue truck hit the pole and knocked it – plus the next 5 or 6  connected poles – into the local 7-11: that was just business as usual. Kage quoted Coleridge while she watched the crews disentangle the unfortunate bird, and laughed her ass off.

When the Front Market of the Northern Faire flooded one morning before Opening, Kage kilted up her skirts and joined the rest of us in a bucket brigade to drain it. When the peat parking lots caught fire during an Old California performance, she kept customers’ kids quiet all afternoon with ghost stories; when our fire fighters came in to rest with their boots still smoking from the burning ground, she was on the team pouring water on their feet to put them out.

It was all business as usual in our peculiar life. Kage liked it that way. As long as you expect the weather to produce prodigies, or your electronics to develop antagonistic AI personalities, it all provides an additional cachet to life in general.

Tonight, it is raining like hell in Los Angeles. It wasn’t supposed to – the latest Stormageddon that has had the meteorologists’ knickers in a twist was forecast to do its worst North of Point Conception.  And apparently, it has done quite a job, from Santa Barbara to the Oregon border. One of the redwoods that had a road cut through it fell over. Part of Highway 1 fell off the mountain at Ragged Point; more of it is slipping in Pacifica, and Santa Cruz. There are local floods from the Marin Highlands to Santa Rosa. The Russian River is probably migrating by now.

Here in L.A., the Los Angeles River is being evacuated – people live and play in it when the droughts are in season; then it rains and the River fills up, and the islands dissolve, and the Fire Department has to rescue lots of hapless homeless folks and idiot surfers. There are mudslides everywhere where a fire has previously burned – which is 75% of  everywhere – as well as in every hillside street – which is 50% of the rest of the city. Everyone forgets how to drive, and hits utility poles. And all the lines comes down under the weight of rain, and wet squirrels, and depressed raccoons.

Which should happen pretty soon. The roof is sounding like a drum, and it seems to be raining sideways on the windows.

So all the while I’ve been writing this – my computer has been having intermittent TIAs. When it’s clinging to consciousness, it is moving at (last time I checked) 50 kilobytes the second. And I assure, Dear Readers, I am not using a nostalgic broadband connection …

But it wouldn’t surprise Kage; not at all. She’d back up her work every few minutes, and she’d be using a thumb drive for security. The candles and oil lamps would be set out ready for the power to fail. She’d swear and pound on her desk when the screens froze (as they have been doing) and then forge on. So I have, too.

Though I’ve made sure my Kindle is powered up for when I’m done here. And I have a pen and a notebook ready, too, in case writing must be indulged. And quite honestly, I have no idea when and if this latest offering will reach any of you, Dear readers. Word Press keeps kicking me off and neither Facebook nor my email will let me in at all.

But I am here!  I raise my small lantern in the night to all of you, and fondly believe I can see the faint, warm sparks of yours out there in the drenching dark.

Stay safe.


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Inquiring Minds II

Kage Baker liked questions. She loved puzzles, and questions were the doorway to her favourite puzzles: what’s it all for? Why is it here? What is Here? What happened? And what happens next?

She loved simply asking questions. A good question to pursue through various resources was like a huge, unwrapped sweet to her. If it led to more questions, and more searches, and succeeding layers of wrapping removed from succeeding layers of sweeties – so much the better. If she’d been able to unwrap the separate layers of a jaw breaker, they would have been her favourite candy. And even though you can’t, she still took jaw breakers out every few minutes to see what colour had been most recently revealed …

Luckily – ’cause jaw breakers in progress get pretty sticky – she usually reserved the technique for research projects. It was why she finally became so devoted to the Internet. One single parsimonious query could multiply through infinite time lines and dimensions, blossoming into a parallel Universe of facts that were just then connected in Kage’s mind. A lot of plotting went through its initial stages while she chased some outre image through the aether.

Did you ever see any episodes of a PBS show called Connections, Dear Readers? (Check it out on Amazon and imdb.) It was written by and starred author/historian/producer James Burke, one of those amazing polymath Englishmen that only that sceptered isle seems to throw at regular intervals. Connections I and II, and its companion series The Day the Universe Changed, were what taught Kage how she wanted to do research. Her style of gathering information, her preferred method of then disseminating it; especially – if you were ever fortunate enough to hear her teach, or speak at a Convention – her style of lecturing were all fathered by those shows.

The basic idea is that everything is connected to everything else: identifying the connections is the game, as well our responsibility as sentient organisms. Every path of connectivity (and there is seldom only one road between Fact A and Fact B) yields access to yet another world. Follow those paths further and you enter into an entire Universe, which is not the Fields We Know … that was where Kage always wanted to be. And for her, it always started with that one question.

She was therefore in the habit of asking every question that entered her mind. Not indiscriminately, mind you – you get some funny looks in restaurants doing that, and we got enough of them while discussing the behaviour of cows in low gravity, or what could create an Event Shadow. Does it have to be a Huge Thing, like Kennedy’s assassination, or could it be a Merely Large Thing, like the Beatles’ debut on Ed Sullivan? But in private – at home; on a quiet hay bale at Faire; in the car somewhere between the Giant Gopher Hills* and Coral Hollow** and the last gas station before the 580*** …

But Kage’s very favourite time to ask the truly deep and peculiar questions, the ones that often led to plot points or stories or even entire novels, was at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning.

Mind you, Kage was not by nature an early riser. Given her druthers, she stayed in bed until it was just barely still Ante Meridian. But that didn’t mean she was asleep. Oh no! She woke up, as she had from infancy, in the fizzing pearly light just before the sun broached the horizon. She loved to see the dawn, the first flaming edge of the light taking over the sky and spreading over the earth like honey. She had a dozen names for different kinds of dawns: the chalk-blue dawn. The tinsel dawn. The green bottle dawn. And she’d wake up and glory in the sunrise, and then she’d go back to sleep … unless her thoughts got up and took off.

She called it dawn-running. When she was little, she literally got up and ran when the sun rose; she was still doing it from time to time in her teens, and I saw a lot more dawns over the Hollywood Hills than I wanted to, staggering along behind Kage to prevent the mountain lions from eating her. In our eventual maturity and middle age (because somehow the mountains lions never did eat us), Kage would instead think up weird questions and then wake me up to ask me.

“Can you really transplant a head? Why not? What about those Russian guys who did it?”

“How do allergies work?”

“How many gallons of blood are there in a person?”

“Where can we get some squids around here?”

“How many planets are there? What are their names?”

None of these may seem especially weird on their own. But when it happens weekend after weekend – when someone comes padding into your room, or shakes you awake in your sleeping bag, or sings “Reveille” to you until you open your eyes (the Royal Navy version of course: Wakey Wakey, Lash up and Stow!) – and then asks you to describe how to cut into a living chest: well, you begin to suspect your sister has developed an even weirder habit than usual.

She hadn’t, though. She’d just added something to new to an old habit. Wake up early, admire the dawn, then start a conversation to get your mind running fast and strong. Pour coffee into your sister before she wakes up enough to kill you …

I find, Dear Readers, to my considerable surprise, that I  miss that. I really, really do.



*      A field full of dump-truck loads of dirt and several huge plywood gophers along I-5

**    It’s actually Corral Hollow, but one year the sign was screwy … Kage never forgot.

***    It had restrooms, but no toilets. Just holes and hand rails.

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Menus, Pantries, Grocery Lists

Kage Baker, for all her peripatetic weekend urges, was a great fan of cocooning. Spending a weekend, especially a Sunday, cozily cloistered indoors against the seasonal gales was something she actively enjoyed.

It was a sunny, warm day in Los Angeles; but that is not lasting. The temperature is dropping rapidly, and by midnight we expect to be drowning. An aerial river is aiming at Southern California, having already commenced flooding Northern and Central Californias, and we are hunkering down. It’s made me think of all the years: years in the Hollywood Hills and the Northern oak groves and the Pismo streets above the Pacific Ocean, where Kage and I sheltered through so many winters like a pair of demented sparrows … Kage had whole provisioning rituals worked out.

Usually, the ritual began on Saturday, with a tour of Costco and Trader Joe’s – Kage’s idea of squirrel Heaven, wherein she could gather all manner of symbolic acorns. She was one of those people who makes her menus first and then bases her grocery list on them – maybe it had something to do with her penchant for playing cooks and housekeepers. She’d stock up on all her planned feasts for the week, plus any conspicuous holes in the pantry – she couldn’t abide it if there were not backup pounds of flour, salt, butter and diverse dry goods on the shelf.

I lived with that woman for almost half a century, and we never ran out of salt or sugar or flour. There were always a few cans of soup in the pantry; a tin of Spam, a bag of rice, a Tupper of oatmeal – can’t leave cereals in the boxes, the weevils and grain moths get in. Corn meal was with us always, as was Bisquick. As we got older and more experimental, the flours got more exotic: English brands of self-rising, all the King Arthur Flours, Red Mill and other health food milled products. But Alber’s Corn Meal and Gold Medal Flour stayed on the shelves, too, for fast meals when inspiration failed and muscle memory took over her cooking.

Kage could make good, edible pizza out of Bisquick, tomato puree, Kraft Parmesan and Spice Island Italian Seasoning. We were poor a lot, but she never felt that being poor meant being lazy with your cooking. What she could do, in more solvent times, using White Lily flour, hand-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and the herbs and tomatoes from our garden (when we had one) was an occasion of mortal sin. Olive oil only, please; the good stuff, so pure you could burn it in an oil lamp if the power went out …

And by this time of the year, we’d pretty much gone through the Christmas and New Year’s leftovers. If there was a ham bone left, it might end up in pea soup; but all the ham chunks had already met happy fates in creamed ham, and ham fritters, and hot sarnies. The prime rib was only a vanished dream of carnivory; but if there was any gravy stock in the freezer,  sometimes Kage would whip up  Yorkshire pudding and we would feast on force-meat and drippings.

Funny thing. Kage favoured loaves and lumps of Yorkshire pudding, made in bread pans or in the end of the roast pan when the the beef roast came out. Me, I prefer little round, flat, individual puddings, like gilded flying saucers, and so I make mine in special pans. You can get Yorkshire pudding pans (Williams-Sonoma has the kind I like), or in a pinch you can use muffin top pans instead. It all tastes the magnificent same. Though it’s easier to fill my chubby little UFOs with gravy than Kage’s flat golden slabs of pudding …

Whatever, this is the time of year for hot gloppy foods in a warm room, while the storm ravens at the windows and can’t get in. That’s the big trick, of course. Whether you’re licking beef drippings or melted cheese off your fingers, the main thing is that dinner is hot and you are dry and the winter is outside. The pantry is stocked with staples. There’s a fire in the grate and a comforter on each bed.

Time to take stock of some basic comforts, Dear Readers. And to stay safe.


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