Having run out of rye bread, the two 5 pound loaves from my RV oven lasting over two weeks while on the road and during my visit to Laramie, it was time to mix up another batch of rye potato bread. There was still some fermented potato and oat flake batter left, and mixing some rye flour, salt, and a hefty glob of rye sourdough starter got another batch going. Now the tricky part began, as Sylvia's studio presented a different environment for both me and my microbes. Would the loaves rise?

Sourdough starter expands when you feed it fresh rye flour, sometimes by as much as twice its volume. The tiny lactic acid producing bacteria generate carbon dioxide gas, which inflates the dough, sort of like how the universe expands by the creation of more space. Those expanding gasses produce a surprising amount of pressure, which can easily pop the lid off a jar or yogurt container, and even shatter a glass vessel if you are unlucky. They also perform the miracle of leavened bread, which has myriad holes that give a loaf of rye bread a light texture, rather than a dense, mushy interior.

If you wait too long, the magic disappears. Many things can happen, from running out of fresh sugars and carbohydrates for the microbes to consume, to falling temperatures which can slow their metabolism. The result in either case is that they produce less gas, which can slow the rise, stop it, or even reverse the process. Perhaps every bread-maker has nightmares of loaves with sunken centers.

Sylvia's studio follows the outdoor temperature, which can reach the high sixties during the day and the low fifties or even high forties at night. My initial strategy was to form the loaves from the freshly-mixed dough and let it rise in the bread pans, since there isn't enough gas production to fuel a second rise that wheat bread bakers enjoy. Left overnight in the unheated oven, maybe they would rise to the point of baking height by morning.

My RV has a gas oven with a continuous pilot light, and that provides just enough heat to keep the bread dough warm through the night, but Sylvia's convection oven was electric and its lowest bake setting was 200 degrees Fahrenheit. That would kill the bacteria. The oven had a warm setting, but that might be too hot as well, since bacterial action peaks at 87 degrees and tapers off to nothing at temperatures over 100.

By morning the loaves were still small, essentially unchanged, so it was time to experiment. Setting the Warm function to five minutes took the chill off without excessive heat, and a few cycles of that through the morning got the loaves to expand. Then ambient temperatures rose during the day and the loaves started to look promising, with cracks forming on their curved tops.

By late afternoon the loaves looked better, but still didn't fill the pans. Would they keep going with more time? My imagination glowed with visions of full, robust loaves rolling out of the baking pans to cool on the racks. Maybe one more night would do it. After all, a little fermentation was good, so more would be better, right?

It was a gamble, with the hope that the dough had enough stiffness to hold its shape, and that the bacteria had enough food to keep producing gas, and that the temperature would be sufficient to support the process. By 3:40 AM, checking on the loaves in the oven, it didn't look good. The centers of the loaves, instead of rising to fill the pans, had fallen somewhat, as if in disappointment that they had to wait another night.

Well, the only option was to start the oven, since we had passed the peak rising stage. Thirty minutes on warm, with a rest period seemed to help, and then at 6:30 AM the 350 degree bake cycle started. The convection fan supposedly would shorten the baking time, so how about 50 minutes? Too many variables, and all of them new to me, reduced the art of baking to a guessing game.

As the baking progressed, my hopes revived, as it looked like the loaves recovered somewhat from their fallen state. They wouldn't fill the pans, but they would have a respectable shape. They also started to brown on top and look more edible, even appealing. Maybe the window of opportunity hadn't entirely closed.

Of course, it will be later today or even tomorrow before the ultimate test: slicing and toasting. Rye bread improves with age, so a little patience pays off. It is an investment in the future, one that requires attention to details, flexibility in responding to changing conditions, and a little bit of faith. After all, the microbes want to digest food and produce carbon dioxide, and the baker wants the bread to rise. All they need is a decent chance, a little luck, and determination backed with persistence.

 

 

Last year my sister Sylvia invited me to spend the winter with her in Ojai, but circumstances made it inconvenient for me. My RV roof was leaking. My car needed its timing belt replaced. My truck needed more work on its steering mechanism. The college hadn't asked me to teach another class, so my income was nil. It seemed easier to just stay in Story and bundle up for the cold weather, ride my bicycle to the library and to Shirley's house, and save money.

Sylvia took my decision with stoic calm, but she was disappointed. She wanted to go painting together and get me out of the snow. My reports of the low 40's interior temperature of my RV horrified her, even though her house could dip to the low 50's at night without the heater. She also wanted to hire me to work on her studio building, a converted garage behind her house, so that she could offer workshops to visiting artists.

As a result of my staying home, Sylvia made an agreement with her neighbor Greg to finish the studio. It seemed convenient, since he was an experienced contractor and seemed to be helpful and generous with odds and ends he had accumulated that might help the project. It was a relief to me that Sylvia was going ahead with her plans.

What perhaps nobody realized was just how all of this would end. On my part, it was pretty predictable: stay in Story, live off of savings, read books, work on plans and models for my own studio and underground house, and wait for spring to arrive. That's pretty much what happened. Oh, and the roof got fixed during a warm spell in March, which was great since every time it warmed up outside before then the ice on the roof would melt, since the roof was flat and the water didn't run off, and start dripping into my living space. At least that didn't happen anymore. My vehicles got fixed, too. Sort of.

It wasn't quite that way for Sylvia, though. Greg made a little progress on the project, installing some plumbing for the bathroom, but then the Thomas Fire happened and everyone had to evacuate Ojai. Afterwards, there was a lot of rebuilding after the fire and Greg had customers with pressing needs. Then he had to visit his mother in Ohio and was gone for a while. Then he and his wife divorced and his life was chaotic.

Finally Sylvia offered to let him stay in the unfinished studio so he could work on the bathroom and finish the project. This seemed like a logical thing to do, since he couldn't pay rent on the house next door and he needed a place to live. Maybe if Sylvia was aware of his daily activities she could prod him along on the project more effectively. That was the plan, anyway. Greg must have had different plans, because he kept dragging his feet, suggesting alternate projects like installing the windows in the back porch, giving Sylvia used appliances from his brother's kitchen remodel, and of course attending to paying customers' needs.

That is, other paying customers. Sylvia had given him $4500 to cover wages and materials for the project, so she was definitely a paying customer. She was also providing him a place to live in Ojai, which was probably worth at least another $1000 per month, even camping out in the unfinished studio and having to find some other place to use the bathroom. He did not have access to the house facilities.

Finally, in the fall Sylvia asked him to leave. It looked like my plans to come to California would finally work this year, and she wanted the space to be available for me. Greg could find another place and finish the bathroom before my arrival. As you can probably guess, the latter didn't happen. Greg did move out, upon Sylvia's insistence, but didn't touch the bathroom project ever again. He stopped answering Sylvia's text messages and phone calls and simply vanished from her life.

Call it a classic case of “take the money and run”, but actually it was “take the money, distract the owner with superfluous projects and presents, and disappear when the whole situation sours.” What only Greg knew was that the project had built-in problems that he didn't want to tackle, and that only became obvious when Sylvia had me take over the project upon my arrival. Suddenly Greg's tactics seemed to make sense, because he never intended to finish the project.

Discovering that the toilet drain cast into the concrete floor was in the wrong place was the first blow. Then we discovered that the vent pipe for the sewer was right in the corner where the studs connected to the wall of the existing structure, preventing the stack from exiting to the roof. Finally, the whole room was in violation of county setback rules. It was an inexplicable combination of blunders that made proceeding impossible. Rather than own up to his mistakes, Greg hid the toilet drain by placing the new fixture on top of it, stuffed insulation around the vent pipe, and carefully avoided any conversation about building codes.

All of this of course devastated Sylvia. Here she was, a year after starting the project, many $1000's poorer, with a basically worthless start that would have to be torn out and redone. We discussed several plans to salvage what Greg had done, but violating the law was the deal-breaker. Neither of us wanted to be part and party to that kind of activity.

A trip to the county planner offered hope, though. California passed a law stating that people could convert a garage into an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, regardless of lot size or setbacks. It required a permit and drawings for the planning and building departments to review. There were restrictions on additions after the ADU was built, which might require an addition to the garage first, and then converting it into an ADU. You could say this was more red tape and administrative hoops to jump through, but that was the law.

Sobered and humbled by these revelations, we were both grateful to be handed the facts, rather than the smokescreen that Greg generated. It would mean starting over, but at least we could be assured that the project would be in compliance with the regulations. Even if it wasn't convenient, we realized that sometimes the law isn't convenient, but necessary to protect civilization from anarchy and chaos. We must do our part.

Oddly, it may have been a blessing in disguise. Rather than a cobbled up mess, we had the chance to rethink the project from the ground up. My advice to Sylvia was to imagine everything in the garage stripped away, with a completely blank slate, so to speak. She responded beautifully, finding some floor plans for “granny flats” that other people had created in their converted garages. We both became engrossed in the possibilities of placing the bedroom, kitchen, and bath in their optimum locations, unencumbered by any existing utility sinks or entrance doors. We even included a second floor studio over the dwelling in the design.

While there is still an immense amount of planning, permitting, construction, and inspecting to do, we feel hopeful that the final product will be worth the expense and effort. The result will fit Sylvia's needs more completely and give her more options for adding to her income later on when she offers artists' retreats in her newly constructed dwelling unit and studio. She will have the assurance that it is done according to building codes and county regulations, and it will add to the value of her property.

We both felt so good that evening that Sylvia decided to fix a nice salmon dinner to celebrate. Who could have guessed that such a disappointing year would turn out with such a bright outlook for the next? If you think about it, though, you will see that it depends upon how you react to circumstances, not luck or some supernatural intervention. We chose to confront the facts and accept the responsibility to act within the law. We used the need to start over to create a better overall design. We took advantage of the situation, in a constructive way.

That should be a lesson for people who try to take advantage of other people. Instead of thinking of just yourself, you must think about others, the future, and society's needs. You can reverse the harmful effects of other peoples' fears and shortsighted viewpoint. You change yourself by adopting a more expansive model of the world. That's what makes humanity so special, and so successful.

 

 

 Some events disrupt the order of my world, however tenuous that order might be. Even though you would have been hard pressed to discern much organization in the pile of stuff in Sylvia's studio, it was still cataloged in my mind. Maybe that explains my upset at having to move it all out again.

It didn't help matters that Sylvia was helping. My usual slow pace at packing and moving wouldn't give Sylvia enough time to get the studio ready for Michaele and her cats, so Sylvia started carting boxes of fermented food, grain, kitchen utensils, sauerkraut, and all my other belongings to the house. My protests that they could all go back in my truck were futile, as my sister was determined to make the transition as convenient as possible.

She had even given up her bedroom to me, saying she could tolerate the traffic noise in the front bedroom better than me, and besides there would be two of her cats in there with her, the ones that had been in the back porch. Her daughter Michaele was arriving that night to leave her six cats with her mother to care for during her ten-day trip to Italy. The cats had to be segregated into compatible groups, and that required two going into the back porch and four going into the studio, which required me to move out of the studio.

If you aren't a cat person, you won't understand. That includes me.

Maybe my personality is OCD or even somewhere on the Autism Spectrum, but Sylvia taking all my stuff and depositing it on the kitchen table in the house just seemed wrong to me. It didn't belong there. It offended my sense of order, first because it junked up her house, and second because it was so sudden. She had transported it all to the house in less than five minutes. It had taken me days to pack my truck with all that stuff.

That must be what made me decide to put it all back in the truck, despite Sylvia's protests. It started with the fermented food, with the reason that it would be cooler out there at night. Then it progressed to the grains and flour, since that wouldn't be necessary until my fermented food or bread ran low and required more cooking. Finally, all that was left in the house was my duffel bag of clothing, my small bag of personal items, and my computer.

While packing the truck, the thought came that it would have been better to have camped in the desert for a few weeks before coming to California. That would have put my arrival after Michaele's trip to Italy and the studio would have been cat-free again. It even flashed into my mind that with everything packed in the truck, it would be simple to just get in, fire it up, and head for Arizona right then, just like a gypsy.

Of course, that would have hurt Sylvia's feelings. In fact, she couldn't understand my reaction to her efforts to help, saying “I don't get it!” My response was that no, I wasn't fooling with her head, but just felt more comfortable with all my stuff in one place, and that the inconvenience of having to go out there to retrieve food wasn't that onerous to me.

Do you sometimes get the feeling that a supernatural being is looking over your shoulder? Well, this one must have read my mind about bolting to Arizona, because that would explain the “no glow” situation that developed with my truck. Since Michaele was going to park her car in the driveway, it would box my truck in for the duration of her trip unless the truck was moved to the street.

That was when the “no glow” turned into “won't go”. Normally the truck's glow plugs heat up to prepare the cylinders for fuel, because when the engine is cold there isn't enough heat generated by compression alone to burn the fuel and start the engine. When you switch the key to the run position the relay clicks and the glow plugs light comes on. This time that didn't happen. Nothing. Nada.

That effectively kills any notion of pulling up camp and heading for the desert, at least until the truck's glow system functions again and Michaele returns from Italy to remove her car. By then it will be Christmas and my daughter will be here. So much for impulsive reaction. So much for “free as a bird”.

This situation sobered me, and Sylvia too. “What if that had happened to you in the desert?” Indeed, that would have been interesting. My fermented food would keep me going for a while, assuming my water jugs were full, but it would eventually mean a long walk to the nearest town. That would surely ground my gypsy caravan. What better place to be grounded than at my sister's home, having to “endure” her taking me on painting trips, her feeding me stuffed peppers, shrimp with Parmesan cheese, and roasted chicken? It could be a lot worse, and not much better.

 

 

If mice had evolved to have long, silky hair and generate purring sounds in their throats, they might be curled up in our laps right now. Of course, a pet mouse is somewhat small, so a rat would be better. Perhaps people do grow to love pet rats. Ron Weasley tried, but that rat turned out to be a servant of the Dark Lord.

Of course evolution didn't go that way. Mice and rats are vermin and prey for cats and owls. Actually, cats are also prey for owls, but who would let an owl perch on your shoulder, let alone curl up in your lap? Hmm. Harry Potter had an owl pet, and Hermione Granger had a cat. Along with Ron, their pets formed an interesting triangle, don't you think?

If people resemble their pets, as hypothesized about dogs and their owners, do they also act in ways similar to their chosen animal? Cats jump on counters, knock over lamps and vases, and race around batting balls on the floor. Mice sneak around and hide in nooks and crannies, coming out when the house is dark and silent to forage for food. Are certain people like that, too?

Let's take a peculiar social arrangement among humans: that of guest and host. Sylvia moves through her house like she owns it, because she does. My movements signal the opposite, because I don't. Her footsteps resound on the floor, but mine are barely audible. She turns on lights when she enters a room and often leaves them on when she leaves, but if my need for the bathroom drives me into the house before she is awake, my hands and dark-adapted eyes guide me through the darkened rooms to my goal as discretely as possible.

It isn't that she would mind my turning on the lights, and even waking her up. In fact, my desire to have the least impact on her life probably irritates her more than a light coming on or a heavy footstep. It's my perceived role as house-guest that makes me creep about. Sylvia welcomed me heartily, no mistake, but the fact that this is her space makes me want to be invisible.

That makes my situation in the studio rather interesting. How would a house-mouse coexist with four of her daughter's cats? You might expect me to hide and only poke my nose out when they are sleeping, but no. We more or less share the space, since all of us are on an equal footing as Sylvia's guests. They sleep next me on the bed, and sometimes want to sit on my lap or have me pet them. They entreat me to feed them in the morning. I guard them and they guard me.

Why would they need guarding? That is another interesting story, of which only the outlines exist. A few days ago a knock sounded on the back gate and a person called out Sylvia's daughter's name. The person was a slight woman standing in the alley with her dog on a leash. She began by expressing her frustration in her friendship with Michaele, and how it had taken her a long time to work up the courage to confront her fears and knock on the gate. Perhaps because of my house-mouse role, my attitude was friendly and open, and we struck up a conversation.

When Sylvia appeared the mood changed. Sylvia was guarded and bristling, like a cat ready for a fight. She countered the woman's accusations with questions about her mental health and seeking therapy. The woman likewise hardened her stance, much like a dog facing a spitting cat, wary but not willing to back down. The confrontation ended in a stand-off, both sides “forgiving” each other, without any of the promised relief that true forgiveness creates.

That encounter made Sylvia nervous about Michaele's cats staying alone in the studio, and led to my moving back in, to protect them from cat-napping, of the kidnapping kind. Since then the cats and house-mouse-house-guest have made friends and seem to be living in harmony. The lion laying down next to the lamb is no more fantastic than a mouse sharing a bed with four cats. It's all a matter of defining your role and everyone agreeing to the conventions for smooth social interaction.

 

 

 

Of course my vantage point was the best, with a view of the pier with loading crane, and the dramatic rocks in the foreground, with the waves breaking on the sweeping curve of wet sand. Funny how everyone else had set up their easels looking other directions, to boring views of the ocean with the Catalina Islands in the distance and the off-shore oil platforms. What were they thinking?

 

Feeling on top of the game, it was easy to dive into a sketch and skip the instructor's demo. Even though it had been five years since my last watercolor painting experience, my paints were still soft, except for two, a green and a red. My last painting of the Mission and fountain in Santa Barbara had been fairly successful, even if the details were vague in my memory.

 

My plan was to make a quick sketch to block out the shapes and values, and maybe choose my focal point and simplify the scene. Then after transferring that sketch to my watercolor paper the actual painting could begin. By skipping the demo, my painting should be under way by the time the other students got their paints out.

 

The sketch turned out to be just as big a challenge as the painting. My first attempt focused on the rocks in the foreground and they wound up way too big, crowding the pier and crane out of the picture frame. The curves in the vegetation and path up the hill to the side of the rocks took on a crescent shape and seemed to grab attention away from even the rocks. What was going on?

 

My mind was magnifying certain elements in its own model of the scene, and my drawing reflected the distortions in that model. The goal was to draw what was out there beyond my eyes and brain, not inside my skull. It reminded me of what Professor Evans had said about my drawing of a plaster bust of a Roman senator back in drawing class in my university days: “an interesting caricature”.

 

Starting over on the backside of the paper, my attention fixed on the horizon line and the boundary between the water and the sand. A few lines indicated where the pier stood, and just some blocks sufficed for the rocks. A few circles and parallel lines suggested the driftwood logs. So far, so good.

 

Then a funny thing happened. The sketch started taking on a life of its own, with lines connecting and shapes flowing into each other. Erasing here and there, adjusting lines, thinking about light direction and shadow, using hatching to render shadow, the time gradually slipped away. Soon the other students drifted in to find their spots and start their paintings, and my sketch wasn't even finished, let alone transferred to my watercolor paper.

 

The sketch wouldn't let go, and after a while it became obvious that my painting would be a quick affair if it happened at all. A glance at my sister Sylvia, further up the hill and painting one of those “boring” scenes of the ocean, confirmed that she was well on the way to completing her painting. Well, that was to be expected, since she had been painting outdoors for at least thirty years.

 

By the time we were ready to leave, my sketch was still just a sketch, and not even a well finished drawing. There were some attempts at rendering volume and shadow, but nothing very definite and certainly not dark enough to define adequate contrast. My rendering of the clouds in the sky was weak and vague, and the actual shapes had long since disappeared. My phone camera had captured a few interesting events in the scene, though. One was a shuttle boat that carried workers to and from the offshore oil platforms docking at the pier, and another was a woman and her two children returning from a walk on the beach to retrieve their bicycles.

 

My plan, as explained to my sister and the instructor as we were making our parting remarks, was to refer to the photos and work on the painting at home in Sylvia's studio. Maybe the sketch could be simplified when transferred to the watercolor paper. That at least was my way of easing my chagrin over not producing a painting on the spot.

 

Later that evening, carefully studying some watercolors in a library book Sylvia had checked out of the Ojai public library, it dawned on me how ambitious my scene was for a beginner. It was way too complicated. Maybe the more experienced artists in the class knew that, and deliberately chose simpler subjects, painting the water or the clouds, and not attempting to pack lots of detail and compositional elements into the picture. My task was to start thinking like a painter, not a photographer.