What’s for supper? Vol. 370: Meatball style

Happy Friday! I’m sitting outside the library typing in my car, because it has been and continues to be That Kind Of Week. Despite the week’s worst intentions, we did manage to have a few tasty meals, though. Read on!

SATURDAY
Hot dogs and chips

Into every life, a little hot dog must fall. I happen to love hot dogs and would serve them once a week if I could get away with it. Alas. 

But piping hot, natural casing hot dogs are just so good. The only thing that could make this better is a little sauerkraut and the square kind of bun with the ends all torn up and inhabiting a space just barely this side of food, rather than some kind of cotton batting. And the bun should be steamed like at a baseball game. And I guess maybe a plate, but that is negotiable.

SUNDAY
Spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, salad

On Sunday, I faced my fate and made dinner for the youth group. Actually I made the meatballs Saturday night, because everything always takes longer than it should, and I wanted to have that part squared away. 

As you can see, I put them on baking racks and cooked them in the oven, which is the fastest and tidiest way to make a large amount of meatballs. 

On Sunday, I chopped up a bunch of carrots and cucumbers and made a bunch of garlic bread and a quadruple batch of brownies, and then I dragooned Clara into helping me lug it over to the church basement, where I started a giant pot of water heating up, and prepped everything. 

It was completely delightful to be back in an industrial kitchen. The dank smell of propane and the sharp smell of stainless steel, the faint milky stank of the giant refrigerator, the no-nonsense aprons, the vast rolls of plastic wrap, the capacious ladles, the quantity of tongs. I don’t even know how many kitchens I’ve worked in, but it’s a lot! My natural habitat. 

HOWEVER, it’s been a while, and I did forget just how long it takes for one of those massive pots of water to boil. It was a nail-biter (not literally. We are very sanitary here, and we keep our paws out of our mouths), but I did get the pasta cooked just in the nick of time.

The church hall, where the kitchen is, has some bathroom issues they’re working on, so the group was eating in a separate building on the second floor, rather than next to the kitchen. So we lugged over a big pot of sauce and meatballs, a big bowl of spaghetti, the pans of garlic bread, the salad, several jugs of juice, salad dressing and grated cheese, and a big platter of frosted brownies. They offered to have us eat with them, but we decided instead to skulk back to the kitchen and clean it in peace, and then we went home to eat. I did sign up to make another meal in a few months, but I think I’m gonna serve something cold next time. I can cook or I can lug, but I don’t want to do both. 

I had also made spaghetti and meatballs for the people at home, and the best way to describe the situation we found ourselves in at the end of that day is: That sure was a lot of meatballs.  

MONDAY
Meatball subs, raw vegetables

Truly, a lot of meatballs. I had been planning to make spiedies this week, but I put the pork back in the freezer and used the rolls for meatballs subs. 

And I made a giant platter of raw vegetables, because I’m half rabbit these days. 

TUESDAY
Pizza

Tuesday I had a longish trip in the morning and came back feeling pretty floppy, so Damien made these pizzas: One pepperoni, one cheese, and one, you’ll never guess, or maybe you will guess: meatball. 

This may or may not have been the last of the meatballs. Either the last of them went on the pizza, or the last of them pissed someone off and they threw them away. Doesn’t matter which one. I feel like justice was served, meatball style. 

Also on Tuesday, I started boiling my maple sap. I made some dumb mistakes storing it, and I don’t want to talk about it, but I found myself at a crossroads, so it was boil or nothing, and for various other reasons that I also don’t want to talk about, it was also boil inside or nowhere. I started out with about four gallons

and let them simmer for several hours, until it was time to go to bed, and I had this:

and then the next morning, I started boiling it again until it reached 220 degrees, and I got this:

Nice color, intense flavor, plenty thick, not much of it! I’m still collecting sap and hope to have a second boil this weekend, and I’m thinking of making what I’ve got into maple walnut ice cream. 

WEDNESDAY
Italian wedding soup, pumpkin muffins

And now for something completely different! A  . . . different kind of meatball!!!!

Ground turkey was $3/lb., so I made a one-and-a-half recipe of this Sip and Feast version of Italian wedding soup. The changes I made were: Skipped the celery because I accidentally ate it all (see: rabbit), I used kale instead of escarole because I remembered the recipe wrong when I was shopping, and I used orzo because I did buy acini de pepe specifically for the soup, but it disappeared when it came home and nobody knows how. 

It’s oh such a pleasant, nourishing soup, though. First I made the meatballs, which I baked on parchment paper. Then you chop and sauté your veggies. (I threw the onion and carrots in the food processor, which doesn’t make the most elegant results, but it does the job.)

Then add chicken stock. You’re supposed to add the pasta now and then the meatballs and then serve, but I was making soup in the morning and didn’t want the pasta to get mushy, so I put the meatballs in and let it simmer all day, and then added the orzo shortly before dinner. Turned out perfect. Lovely, lovely soup. 

It would have been great with hot, crusty bread or some garlic knots, but what I had on hand was muffin ingredients, so I made a batch of these pumpkin muffins 

Jump to Recipe

This recipe makes two loaves or 18 muffins, and I have made dozens of times, and it only turned out bad one time that I can recall. 

They are just tender and pleasant, nothing earthshaking, but reliable and a great way to round out a meal. 

Sometimes you want something that is the same all the way through. No tricks! Just muffin. 

I had a little more parmesan cheese to top the soup (the meatballs also have grated parmesan in them) and it was a very fine meal. 

Also MILLIE came home on Wednesday! so I brought her a few muffins and she gave me a sewing machine. So nature has been restored. 

THURSDAY 
Japanese chicken thighs, rice, cucumbers; strawberry rhubarb pie and peach pineapple pie

Thursday some of the kids had dentist appointments, and the driving situation was such that I decided it made more sense to just keep those kids home for the rest of the day. Which they thought was a great idea until the middle schooler realized she was missing the Pi recitation contest at school, because March 14 is Pi Day, and she hadn’t exactly been working hard to memorize pi, but she had definitely been stressing out about it, and now she was missing it. So I was more or less forced to make a couple of pies. 

The truth is, I’m almost always on the verge of making pies, and it takes very little to push me over the edge. 

First I made a sauce for the chicken, though. It’s nice and easy – you just throw everything into a pan and get your resident nine-year-old to stir it for you until it thickens up. This particular child approaches cooking just like I do: Recipes are all very well, and of course it would be nice to end up with something that tastes good, but the main part is staring at the pan and thinking about why bubbles are like that. 

This is the recipe I used, which is intended for chicken yakitori, which is pieces of chicken on skewers. Someday I will actually make that, but in the mean time, the sauce is top notch. I actually double the amount of fresh garlic and ginger, and I stand by that. When it was close to dinner time, I lined a pan with parchment paper, tossed the chicken thighs in the sauce so they were all coated, and just cooked them in a 350 oven for maybe thirty minutes. 

Juicy and delicious. If I had been cooking the chicken by itself, I probably would have turned the heat up, and maybe broiled it at least at the end, but I was also baking some pies, so we all had to make some compromises. The chicken was great, I just would have liked the skin a little more crisp. 

The flavor was tremendous, though. As you can see, I made some rice and cut up a bunch of plain cucumbers. I had made a triple batch of the sauce and saved out a third of it, and served it on the side for dipping and for the rice.

Make the sauce! It’s so good.

So now the pies. I made a double recipe of this pie crust

Jump to Recipe

and made the mistake of thinking to myself, “My pie crust always turns out so good. I should make a video to show people how I do it.” So of course you know what happened. The frickin’ stuff would not hold together, and it was just a crumbly mess. No idea why. (I do know why:  Not enough water. The mystery is, why didn’t I add more water? I don’t know.)

I managed to roll out two bottom crusts and get them in pie plates, and then I had to figure out the filling. I did NOT want to go to the store, so I found a can of sliced peaches and a can of crushed pineapple in the cabinet, drained them, and added a cup of sugar, half a cup of flour, some cinnamon, a little lemon juice, a little vanilla, and some butter on top

You can see the raggy-ass crust I was dealing with here. I did manage to piece together a lattice top, which looks difficult but is super forgiving once it’s baked, especially if you brush it with egg and sprinkle it with sugar. 

Then I dragged out the rhubarb I threw in the freezer last summer and chopped that up.

I toyed with the idea of a rhubarb pear pie, and I still think that sounds good, but also like a good way to go to a lot of trouble making a pie that only you eat, which doesn’t serve anybody’s purposes, except possibly — no, really nobody’s. 

So I settled on strawberry rhubarb, and asked Damien to bring home some strawberries. This does not count as going to the store, because we also needed milk, and half-and-half, and various things, and a little Spongebob figurine for the sea monkey tank, and so on. I more or less followed the Sally’s Baking Addiction recipe for the filling. I have such mixed feelings about old Sally. She gives you SO much detail, and she’s so bossy about every little thing, but on the other hand, she indisputably knows what she’s talking about. I bet she never gets stuck with meatballs for four days.

I only had a little crust left because, well, I had eaten a lot of the dough. So I rolled it out and, remembering how pretty the elite pita turned out last week, I used the swirly embossed rolling pin, thinking it might turn out decorative and ornate, maybe? 

Probably if the dough had been more supple, I would have had something, but as it was, the crust just came out looking less decorative, and more like I don’t know how to make pie crust, which allegations I cannot beat. 

Blorp.

It was delicious, though. Sweet and tart and tender, and honestly the crust was great. Not beautiful, but very flaky and tender. 

The peach pineapple one came out looking a little more respectable, except I overbaked it by a few minutes

And it tasted . . . exactly like what it was. If I were trying to sell this recipe, I’d say it was a nostalgic throwback to those cans of fruit cocktail that mom used to serve for lunch. Not bad! Just not terribly sophisticated. No regrets, because we had pie. 

My other big excitement on Thursday was that I got a big load of pressure treated wood from Facebook Marketplace. I’m really gonna make that walkway across the marsh!

Here’s the spot I want to span:

and here’s the two piles of wood I have to work with:

Some of the short pieces are pretty thick, so I might be able to use them as supports to go underneath; or I might scout around and see if I can find a fallen tree, and cut that into sections; OR, I might get some barrels and use those. It’s about sixty feet of space and I really think I can do this, and then the stream will be so much more accessible. Right now it’s an adventure with thorns and muck, and it’s worth it, but sometimes you just can’t make yourself do it. 

But imagine if I had a lovely wooden walkway, and maybe a string of lights and a birdhouse or two? Maybe.

FRIDAY
Tuna burgers, tater tots

There is some kind of terrible dance recital this evening. I would really just as soon stay home with the kids and make precious memories of watching TV, but that’s not how you get a free T-shirt, so I guess we’re going. 

If I have time, I will make tuna burgers, which is one drained can of tuna, one egg, and half a cup of breadcrumbs, plus whatever seasonings you want, and then you form them into four patties (or possibly two, per can? I haven’t made this in a long time), and fry them gently in oil until they are brown on both sides and hot all the way through. I think exactly two people in the family like tuna burgers. I did buy tater tots, so that should get me something. 

This will only be possible if we can get the car started, though. I’m currently outside the library sitting in a dead car, waiting for Damien to come rescue me again. Such. Is. Life. At least we had plenty of meatballs.

Pumpkin quick bread or muffins

Makes 2 loaves or 18+ muffins

Ingredients

  • 30 oz canned pumpkin puree
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup veg or canola oil
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 3.5 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • oats, wheat germ, turbinado sugar, chopped dates, almonds, raisins, etc. optional

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350. Butter two loaf pans or butter or line 18 muffin tins.

  2. In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients.

  3. In a separate bowl, mix together wet ingredients. Stir wet mixture into dry mixture and mix just to blend. 

  4. Optional: add toppings or stir-ins of your choice. 

  5. Spoon batter into pans or tins. Bake about 25 minutes for muffins, about 40 minutes for loaves. 

Basic pie crust

Ingredients

  • 2-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1-1/2 sticks butter, FROZEN
  • 1/4 cup water, with an ice cube

Instructions

  1. Freeze the butter for at least 20 minutes, then shred it on a box grater. Set aside.

  2. Put the water in a cup and throw an ice cube in it. Set aside.

  3. In a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Then add the shredded butter and combine with a butter knife or your fingers until there are no piles of loose, dry flour. Try not to work it too hard. It's fine if there are still visible nuggets of butter.

  4. Sprinkle the dough ball with a little iced water at a time until the dough starts to become pliable but not sticky. Use the water to incorporate any remaining dry flour.

  5. If you're ready to roll out the dough, flour a surface, place the dough in the middle, flour a rolling pin, and roll it out from the center.

  6. If you're going to use it later, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. You can keep it in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for several months, if you wrap it with enough layers. Let it return to room temperature before attempting to roll it out!

  7. If the crust is too crumbly, you can add extra water, but make sure it's at room temp. Sometimes perfect dough is crumbly just because it's too cold, so give it time to warm up.

  8. You can easily patch cracked dough by rolling out a patch and attaching it to the cracked part with a little water. Pinch it together.

How I made a brick patio in just three terrible months!

We just had our annual Independence Day family party, and it was lovely, despite the almost continuous rain. It’s a cookout party, and our house isn’t really big enough to host a crowd indoors, so we assembled our chairs and folding tables under two canopies and a tarp, and my sister brought a giant tarp which my two brothers-in-law turned into a serviceable tent.

AND, we had a patio! A brick patio that I’ve been working on since the beginning of April, hoping to get it done in time for the party. I finished the day before.

Here is what the yard looked like when I first started out.

I used to have some raised garden beds there, but moved them across the yard, and dumped the old tomato plants out of their buckets, and placed them to give me a general idea of where the patio would be.  

I took lots of pictures at every step because I didn’t want to be unpleasantly surprised with how it looked when it was finally done. Every time I made a decision about the design, I took pictures from every angle and stood in different spots in the yard and stared menacingly at it. I really wanted it to fit in the space in was in, and to look complete from every perspective.

That’s the part I did right.

The part I did wrong was . . . every other part. Now I’ll tell you about that! (Guys, this is LONG. Only keep reading if you like DIY stories with lots of pictures.) 

Building a brick patio in your yard is pretty straightforward. You have to dig down several inches all across the area you want to pave, and line the perimeter with some kind of durable edging to keep everything in place. Make the exposed earth level, compact it, lay down a weed barrier, lay down a layer of gravel and then a layer of sand, and then you can put down your bricks, keeping them level. Then you add more sand on top, sweep it in firmly (or maybe compact it again with a machine), and there it is. There are many websites and videos online that give you step-by-step details, but that’s the basic idea.

So back in April, I started collecting bricks. Bricks at Home Depot are about 74 cents each, and they’re made of concrete, which just doesn’t have a lot of character. 

They’re just big, red, friable biscuits in brick shape. The reason people like to reclaim used bricks is because the old ones are made of clay, and they look like they have seen some stuff.

And they feel good. Sometimes they’re almost silky smooth, and they hold warmth or coolness beautifully. They turn an incredible variety of colors — not only red, but pink and purple, orange, tan, white, green, yellow, blue, and black. Some of them are like little islands where you can imagine whole secret histories have taken place. Nothing like real brick. 

So Benny and I drove out to Templeton and bought a load from a guy who was remodeling his house for his in-laws to move in. I paid about 50 cents apiece for them, plus a lot of broken ones, which I thought I would need for design reasons. Loaded them up

brought them home, and trucked them into the backyard with a dolly.

But what would the patio look like? Pinterest, of course, has lots of ideas about patio shapes and brick patterns. I knew I didn’t want just a plain rectangle, because boooo, boring; but the space I wanted to cover was too irregular for a half-circle. So I tried this and that, and came up with some complex and incoherent designs.

I remember my father tiling the bathroom floor and coming up with a design which was very cool, but didn’t quite land in such a small space. It didn’t have enough room for you to see how the pattern actually worked. So I really wanted to get the proportions right. 

Eventually it dawned on me that the St. Joseph garden I was thinking of as a focal point could be re-oriented, and that could become a side garden, and I could put St. Joseph under the peach tree, and the patio could radiate out from that. Then it all fell into place, and I settled on a basic shape and orientation.

At this point, I took a little side trip and started collecting flat rocks from the stream which we are lucky enough to have in our back yard.

I wasn’t really sure if they would be all or part of the design, or if I was gonna have funky rock flowers in there, or if the whole perimeter would be rock, or what. But we sure do have a lot of rocks.

I collected a bunch and then paid a kid to bring them all into the yard for me, because I was starting to get pretty wheezy.

Then, surrounded by boxes of bricks, I finally started to dig. 

The ground slopes somewhat, and I thought I wouldn’t mind if the patio sloped a bit, too, as long as it did so at a constant rate. But you know, as I continued digging, and dumping the clods of earth into the broken wheelbarrow, and trucking them across the yard, and crumbling the soil away from the grassroots because I needed the dirt for my new garden and I freaking hate paying for dirt, I started to lose focus, somewhat, in this notion of how deeply I was supposed to dig, and where. I just kind of kept digging whenever I had time, and life kept chugging along, and it took a really long time and I changed my mind a few times about the shape of the thing, but I just kept digging. But was it level? Newp. 

I realized a little island of green would look nice around the peach tree, and would be very pretty inside a curve of brick, so I fenced off that area with dollar store fencing, and this helped me visualize the whole project. 

The next load of bricks I found was free. These were from a guy on Swiggey Brook Road who couldn’t stand NH winters anymore, and even though his backyard had one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous New England views I’ve ever seen, he said the only thing he would miss was the stately pink magnolia tree that sprawled all over his yard.

I had no idea how many bricks there would be, and there were SO MANY. These ones turned out to have holes in them, and are thicker than standard bricks. But SO MANY. I was by myself this time, and loaded and loaded and loaded bricks until either I or the Suburban was going to collapse like a bunch of broccoli

so I had to leave a hundred or so behind. Drove home, fishtailing like crazy, and Damien and I got those bricks unloaded into the driveway, praying I hadn’t wrecked the car’s suspension.

I can see by my camera roll that, at this stage, I was still taking screenshots from Pinterest and trying to figure out exactly what shape the patio would be. It finally clicked: A sort of . . . irregular half-octagon, with a long end and a curved chunk taken out of the middle side, and also another curve. You know, one of those! 

It had all the elements I wanted: Straight sides, so it would look orderly and wouldn’t be a nightmare to block out; but also not symmetrical, so it would work in the irregular space that it needed to fit in, and would have an organic feel; and with an interior design (rays coming out of a central spot) that was easy to grasp visually, and that would work no matter what size the patio actually turned out to be. (I am thinking of adding a path from the house to the patio in some future year, so I want to make sure it’s expandable.) I got some sticks and some string and mapped out the perimeter.

 I also wanted lights around the patio. I have always loved string lights, and had seen several pretty patios with wooden or metal uprights anchored in flower planters. Those half whiskey barrels are unreasonably expensive, and I didn’t want some cheap plastic thing that would fall apart, so I thought maybe I would knock together some simple wooden planters and build a wooden upright directly into the planter. (I always think I can just quickly knock something together, even though I truly cannot.) Or failing that, I could just buy some plastic buckets with lids, fill them with rocks, cut a hole in the lids, and jam some t-posts in there.

But then I realized a late spring storm had felled several young aspen trees

which would make very pretty uprights, and they were FREE. So I finished detaching them from their stumps and clipped off all but a few branches (Sonny helped with this part, to his immense delight), and set them aside to figure out later. 

And back to digging! I kept it up, a little here and a little there until finally I got the whole thing dug out. 

I used some of the sod to cover the spot where we had a bonfire a few years ago, and nothing has grown since; and it took root very well, and now that’s all green again.

I dug up a bunch of marbles, some kind of strange metal thing,

plus a toy car, an old chain with a fancy hook on the end, and a little white ceramic pig, which has since disappeared again. 

At this point, I had filled the buckets with soil and used duck bedding and planted them with seeds and some lily bulbs that were on clearance. Some of the seeds were marigold seeds I had saved from last year’s garden! First time I’ve ever managed to do that. 

I also decided that I definitely wanted a “ray” or “pie slice” kind of pattern radiating out from the statue, so I tied some strings to the peach tree and segmented the dirt up into wedges.

Then I started calling around for sand and gravel prices, and let me tell you, if you want a woman to buy your sand and gravel, the main thing to do is to not act like she is an idiot who is making you angry by calling you. I’m not kidding, the first guy who didn’t treat me like an absolute pustular moron was a winner. We discussed exactly what project I was doing, and what other people had ordered, and I ordered five tons of 3/8 inch crushed gravel and about the same amount of sand, both of which arrived right away.

Or, what arrived was . . . a bunch of dirt with rocks in it, which was apparently the gravel, and a bunch of dirty sand with smaller rocks in it, which was apparently the sand.

But it was already May 31, and there were now two large heaps in my driveway (and we have a LOT of cars needing spots), and I was still riding on the high of not being yelled at by a stranger on the phone, so I decided it was fine. It was cheap, I have to admit! 

So by this point, I had been dealing with some kind of mystery medical problem for several weeks, and had spent a considerable time at various doctor’s offices, or worrying about my next appointment, and the project had really stalled out, mostly because I was not sure if I was going to drop dead unexpectedly. My hope was to do this project more or less entirely on my own, but after the piles sat there for a while, I just went to the kids and totally played the Wheezing Mother Guilt Card, and got them to bring the gravel down to the back yard for me. 

Then it was really time to settle on material for a perimeter. I didn’t have enough stream stones to go around the edge, and the kids were already mad at me, so I decided pressurized wood was the way to go. We have a lot of scraps of it left over from various I-don’t-even-know-what, old swing sets and horseshoe pits and who knows what. So I pieced together enough to go all the way around the perimeter, everywhere where there wasn’t already rock.

I made an attempt to hold it in place with plastic anchoring stakes, with mixed success. 

So, this is where the integrity of the project really started to slip.

I can’t quite remember the sequence of events, but I think I rented a plate compactor from Home Depot (they didn’t have a Jumping Jack tool, and the other local rental place didn’t even pick up the phone) and compacted the soil, and then I had the kids spill the gravel (or “gravel”) onto the soil, and I made a long screed out of scrap wood 

This struck me as highly amusing, because the number of times I’ve seen “FISCHER PRODUCES ANOTHER LOATHSOME SCREED” is higher than you might think! So there I was, with another screed. Ho ho ho. 

Anyway, I spread the gravel out as evenly as I could, and then I compacted it again. It’s very hazy in my mind now. That machine was super fun to use, though. 

I’m not being sarcastic; it was very satisfying! 

BUT HEAVY. Good lord. Getting it back into the car to return it to Home Depot may be one of the least enjoyable things I have done this decade. 

Then I had all my nonsense in the emergency room and lost a bunch of time, and the dog ran over my lovely compacted soil repeatedly, and  sometimes it just be that way.

But eventually! Eventually I was able to get moving again, and this time I decided I would leave everyone alone and bring the sand down to the backyard myself. The wheelbarrow was now busted beyond repair, and I had to use plastic tubs and a dolly. This completely sucked and I totally understand why I made the kids do it last time. 

But you know I would rather die than admit something is too hard for me twice, so I got that effing sand. 

I came up with many idiotic and inefficient systems for getting the sand dumped evenly over the patio without rolling the dolly wheels over the compacted gravel and ruining the surface. All were in vain. All I can tell you is it sucked, and the ducks heard all about it. 

I kept thinking about how all the articles said you could make a patio in a weekend. I think you really could. If you have a normal person’s yard, and if you don’t have to do anything else at all, and if you can just buy exactly what you need, and if people will deliver your materials right to your work area, and nobody gets sick, and nobody’s mad at you, and people aren’t constantly graduating and having birthday parties and going to the hospital and climbing mountains and having concerts and planting gardens and raising ducklings and so on. But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the romance? Where’s the ha-cha-cha?

So I got the sand on the patio, and again employed my loathsome screed, and there we were. Ready to think about bricks again.

Actually, first I sorted my stones and made a little ring around the statue. 

Here you can see the segmenting strings in this photo. Guess how many times I tripped over them. Guess!

No, more than that! I hurt myself so many times in such comical ways these past few months. I stepped on a rake like an absolute cartoon character. I hit my same thumb with two different kinds of hammer. I accidentally dumped dirt on my own head numerous times. My toenails are purple and my fingertips look like a crime scene. I got sunburned and road rashed, bitten by ants and frightened by toads. BUT, I did not drop dead unexpectedly! Or even expectedly. 

And then it was time to make some design decisions. I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough bricks to do the whole thing yet, but I didn’t think I would be getting any more bricks with holes in them, so I figured I could get that part of it settled. I discovered I had enough hole bricks to make lines between the ray segments, and also all the way around the perimeter. 

Here is where I started to run into my first real design difficulty. I had measured it carefully and staked the strings out so they came out evenly spaced and the wedges were the same size. But when I put the bricks down, it didn’t look right. I don’t know why — probably because the yard is not all flat and right angles and so on — but when it was measured right, it looked wrong. So I moved the bricks around until it looked balanced from all angles, and just had to tell myself to forget that it was in the “wrong” spot. But we’ll return to this later. Oh, we will return. 

Then I started to fill in the bricks. My technique here, as I am just starting out, is what we in the field call “chimpy,” and I hadn’t really figured out how important it is to try to knock the bricks closely together.

I also found, to my intense dismay, that the hole bricks are CONSIDERABLY thicker than the standard bricks. So if I wanted to lay them together and end up with anything like a level surface, I was going to have to either dig a channel for the hole bricks, or else build up an extra layer of sand under the standard bricks. 

Patio how-to sites will tell you to stretch a string tautly along the top of your work area so you can line up the top of the bricks against it and ensure that they are all on a level; but light had already dawned on blockhead, and I realized that I would be lucky if I didn’t somehow hit myself in the face with a hammer or get a brick lodged in my ear or something. So I didn’t stretch any more strings, but just sort of grimly surrendered to the fate of scrabbling out trenches for the holey bricks to sit in.

It was worse than I thought it was going to be. It took SO long and it hurt me knees SO much and there was so much crouching and dragging and lurching and lugging, and I kept putting tools down just out of my own reach so I had to get up and get them over and over again, and it was really hot and I smelled bad. I cannot overstate how hard I made this on myself, for no reason at all.

Luckily, I enjoy this kind of thing. 

I really do. Despite all my complaining and the deep frustration that I fell into again and again, this was a joyful project. I have been waiting for 25 years for the time when I can devote hours and hours, week after week, to a project that’s all mine, just because I want to. I love being outside, I love working with my hands and using my muscles, and I love designing things. It had been a truly punishing winter, and the hours that I spent sitting in the fresh air with the song of the birds and the smell of the wild mint and the rush of the stream, putting a foundation together piece by piece by piece — this was a pure gift. Pure gift. It did not escape me that I spent many hours on my knees, and I prayed many strange prayers. Silent St. Joseph heard all about it. He is a good listener, and there is a reason I put him at the center.

And I just kept filling in bricks and filling in bricks, and I got pretty okay at it. You lay the bricks pretty closely, and then tap them closer together, and closer to the previous row, with a rubber mallet, and then tap them more snugly into the ground. I never did figure out if I should be doing it in the reverse order, so I alternated. Follow me for more useless nonsense.

So then I ran into some more design problems, and realized too late that I was going to have to figure out how to make up the difference between the curved rows of bricks and the straight rows of bricks. Most people would have figured this part out already, but again

My great talent is the ability to sit in the dirt and hit things with a hammer even though I’m really hot. I can do it all day! And that is what I did. 

But then I ran out of bricks, and I thought maybe I could fill in the gap with stones from the stream. I gave it a shot, and it looked okay, but I wasn’t sure.

I was sure that I needed more bricks, though. I bought the next batch from a nice young couple who were renovating their house in Brookline. It had a paved walkway that ran alongside the house. Alongside, but not quite parallel, and it was driving them crazy, so I got a good price on the bricks. These ones were not clay bricks, but they had been in the ground for a while, so they had a decent aged look.

The dude was also very helpful in helping me pack the bricks in a more sensible way, with straps and pallets and stuff, so the ride home was much less exciting this time. 

Unloaded those mofos right into the backyard this time, because last time I unloaded bricks into the driveway, they stayed there for a month. 

I also tried putting a discarded playground slide over the gravel and sliding the bricks over it to myself,

allegedly to save time and energy, and this of course did not work, and was stupid. The only way to get a job like this done is (a) do a tremendous amount of tedious lugging or (b) make someone else do a tremendous amount of tedious lugging. 

Now, several people have asked me, “Didn’t anyone help you with this patio?” And the answer is, of course. Any time I asked someone to help me, they did. Sometimes they were nice about it; sometimes they were jerks about it. Sometimes I paid them and they were still jerks about it. And sometimes I asked Benny and Corrie, and they helped for a little bit, but THEN THERE WAS A FROG

The other problem I was encountering was that the bricks with holes in them were not actually bricks; they were ant condos. About half the holes were completely stuffed with soil that was studded with ant eggs and, more to the point, with their furious ant caretakers. So I had to spend a certain amount of time jabbing the holes with a stick to get the ant dirt out and reminding myself repeatedly that the bricks were free and the patio was my idea and ant bites don’t hurt that much.

But look, progress!

The thing that was taking the most time was removing sand, and sometimes gravel (not to mention convincing myself that there was a meaningful difference between the two, since I had paid a different price for the two materials). In some spots, I had to dig up a LOT of the sand and some of the gravel I had applied so carefully, to make room for not only the big holed bricks, but for the standard sized ones.

Why? I have no idea. I had made some kind of digging or filling mistake, and there was much too much sand on about half the area, so after all that lugging and spreading and compacting and so on, I just had to dig it up and schlep it away again.

I kept my spirits up by thinking about how, when I was done, without proper underlayment, the bricks would very likely just sink into the muck and disappear forever the first time it rained hard, and maybe I would do the same. 

One thing I could think of to cheer myself up was to get more bricks. This batch was free, the remnants of someone’s dismantled chimney in Keene, and they were beautiful, very dark and hardened, clouded with smoke stains. I guess I didn’t take a picture, though.

We picked them up on the way home from PorcFest, the annual Libertarian festival, where we had gone to cover RFK Jr.’s speech, because you never know how life is going to turn out, do you. 

At this point, I had to come to terms with the fact that I had made a grievous mistake with the design somewhere along the line, and when you’re doing a pattern made of lots of little bits, a little mistake turns into a bigger and bigger mistake as you go along. So I fixed it by adding another element to the design; but of course it wouldn’t look right unless I added that same element to the opposite side, also, because the design isn’t symmetrical, but it’s not completely chaotic, either.

Anyway, I kept slapping bricks down and digging gravel and sand out and smoothing it with my board and whacking it with my mallet, and when there was a weird gap, I had plenty of broken bricks to fit in there and whack into place. 

This in itself made the whole project worthwhile. There’s a gap, but not big enough for a whole brick, so you tap-tap-tap one side and get them all a little snugger, and tap-tap-tap on the other and get them in a little closer, and nope, it’s still not big enough, so you find a brick that doesn’t fit but one side almost does, and you wedge in the side that will stay still, and then you SLAM the other side with the mallet, and look at that! That little fucker fits after all.

Hit it a couple more times. Hit it till it’s level. And now it’s not going anywhere. 

But guess what happened? I ran out of bricks.

I found one more lady, also in Keene, who had some bricks. She was cleaning out the damp, weedy space on the side of her garage and felt that I was doing her a favor by taking them away. These bricks were lovely, too — cool, soft, and mossy and many-colored. There were some large white pavers mixed in, and a few half-crumbled bricks with “PRAY” stamped on them, which. 

Some of them were curved!

And now I was really down to the wire. I had toyed with the idea of taking the stream rocks out and planting some creeping thyme or other walkable ground cover in that tricky wedge-shaped spot, but I was just about out of time, and also would have needed to add more pressurized wood or something to hold the bricks in place.

So I just decided to keep smashing bricks in and filling up gaps, trying to keep some kind of coherent pattern but not wigging out about it, and trying to take a lesson from the old bricks I had collected: Enough time goes by, and they look how they’re gonna look, now matter how they started out. Right? 

So then, I, ran out of bricks again, and the time had come to go crawling to Home Depot. Hoooooome Depot. Home Deeeeeeeepot. Dammit.

I lugged over one of those terrible platform carts and loaded it up with 150 bricks, ignored how rude the embryo Home Depot lads were being about my need for bricks, loaded them into the car, unloaded them, lugged them down to the yard, and then, wow, did I really start bricking again that same day? I think I did. Anybody want to arm wrestle? I will win. 

It was pouring rain, so I got a kid to set up the canopy for me and I just kept slapping bricks down and getting them in there. The new bricks looked pretty dumb next to the old weathered ones. If I had had all my materials at the beginning, like some kind of DIY video person, I would have shuffled them all together before putting anything on the ground, and it would have been a normal-looking patchwork effect. Instead, it’s a little bit skin-graft-ish.

But that wasn’t the worst of my problems! The worst was that I FREAKING RAN OUT OF BRICKS AGAIN. Actually, the even worse thing was that I knew this was going to happen. I knew 150 bricks wasn’t enough. But I just wanted to get the hell out of there, so I stopped at 150.

I just did not, did not want to go back to Home Depot, not so soon. So I changed the design again. I inveigled some of my more public-spirited kids into moving a gigantic rock across the yard. It took all three of us almost having a simultaneous three-way heart attack, but we got it onto the dolly, and then I dashed back and forth putting one sheet of particle board and then the other in front of the dolly wheels, so they would have a smoother path across the yard. EXACTLY LIKE GROMMT.

via GIPHY

 It landed in a reasonable spot, looking reasonably butt-friendly, and I decided it was the perfect place for a little permanent seating. 

And then I went around the yard finding all the biggest rocks I could lug by myself, and I fitted them in where I could, to take up as much brick-replacement space as I could without it looking too unnatural. Then I slammed in the rest of the bricks to fill up the spaces, and I walked around whacking it here and there and scowling at it, and realizing that there wasn’t even a single unused whole brick anywhere left on the entire property.

And then . . . . it was done. 

I mean kind of.

The brick part was done, but then you still have to get sand in and on and over it, which helps stabilize the whole thing, and bind it together, and keeps the bricks from grinding up against each other and damaging each other, or floating away, or any number of undesirable things.

You can get polymeric sand, which you brush on and then sprinkle with water, and it becomes a kind of glue, and really seals the bricks together. You can do this if you are a MILLIONAIRE. Polymeric sand is like 2 cents a GRAIN. If you are me, you will slink back to Home Depot and buy 12 bags of paver sand, and dump it over the bricks. I knew 12 bags wasn’t enough, but it was all I could stand to buy at the time. 

But first, you will take a little break and have fun doing some AESTHETICALLY PLEASING parts. Just to keep the old enthusiasm up.

First I gathered up all the potted plants I could find, and potted some more plants (I kept rescuing almost-dead, one-dollar petunias from Home Depot, for instance), and arranged them around the patio along with some more rocks, bird feeders, and so on, and also some dumb little picket fence sections I got on a whim. 

And then it was time to follow through with my plans for the lights! The young trees I had set aside were about 3″ in diameter, so I bought a length of PVC pipe that is 4″ in diameter and used a reciprocating saw to hack off four sections, cut flat on one end and diagonal on the other.

Then I put it point-down into the ground, laid a wooden board across the top, and whacked it with a mallet until it was sunk halfway into the ground. I reached into the pipe and gouged out as much of the earth as I could, and then fit the tree into it, and jammed some rocks inside to make it more secure.

And they looked ABSOLUTELY CRAZY. 

But in a way that I thought was fixable. I kept telling myself, This all just used to be grass, and you had a vision! You still have a vision! So I kept going, even though the whole thing looked like someone was having a nervous breakdown in brick form. 

Then, back to sand town. I ripped open the bags and Benny and Corrie helped me work it in between the cracks

We carefully avoided getting sand in the bricks with holes, partially to ration the sand, and partially because I thought it would help with drainage. I knew the whole thing was off kilter, and I didn’t want water to pool anywhere, so I figured it would just run out through the holes.

This part took a long time, because I couldn’t find the handle for the push broom. 

But a friend clued me in that sand is your friend, and if I didn’t fill the holes with sand, they’d fill themselves with water, and then freeze, and then go sproinging off in all directions, and in the spring, I wouldn’t have a patio at all, but only heartbreak. (That’s a paraphrase, but she was right.)

So . . . the next day, the day before the party, I sent Damien to Home Depot, and HE got more sand. And I put the sand in the hole bricks. And also in the cracks between the regular bricks, that I had already filled, but which were now empty cracks again because the sand had filtered down overnight. He also found a push broom handle for me, so I could sweep like a human being instead of a monkey version of Cinderella. 

At this point, you can get the plate compactor again and get it vibrating really good to shake that sand deep down into the cracks. But I had uhhh run out of money kind of a while ago, so I just kept sweeping. My plan is to buy more sand later in the summer and apply more as it gets shaken down. I was just focused on getting the patio functional for the party, which was the very next day. 

I clipped the tops off the trees so they weren’t insanely tall, and put the light strings on. (I had purposely left little crotched branches near the top so I could hook the lights on.)

Corrie filled the St. Joseph statue with sand so it wouldn’t keep tipping over.

I clipped and weeded the surrounding vegetation, and found more flowers 

and plant hangers

and put bird seed and nectar in the feeders

I bought eight little solar stake lights and put five around St. Joseph

and three at the base of the tree lights. I used the cheap sand to fortify the perimeter, and the little collar of rocks in the center.

And finally, I got Elijah to set up a purchase I splurged on months ago: A little propane fire pit.

I love a campfire, but I am 48 years old and sometimes I just don’t want to go tromping around collecting firewood. Sometimes I want to turn a dial and poof, there is fire. 

And here it is! Here’s the finished project:

I completely forgot to put weed cloth down. So, oops. 

Overall, the pattern is a bit of a mess. It’s also incredibly uneven and will just get more uneven as time goes on. And the mismatched bricks are very visible right now

but should start to blend better with time. 

I do think it’s pretty secure within its bounds, so whatever shifting the bricks do, I don’t think they’re going to straight up leave. Right now, when you walk across it, it just feels like walking on a floor: It doesn’t shift or wobble, and you don’t hear that horrible scraping loose tooth sound. So the sand I’ve got there now is doing its job.

And I’m very happy with the overall shape of it. It fits well into its environment, there are lots of spots for me to plant more perennials (and none of the seven buckets of flowers have even bloomed yet, but they will in a few weeks!), and it’s big enough for more than one group of people to sit around and chat on, which feels pretty luxurious. 

Everyone had a good seat for the fireworks at the party.

I love the tree lights! The pipe keeps them anchored and also may protect the wood from rotting; we will see. It has a pleasant, rustic look, and will be very easy to take down in the fall.

I may add some more rocks on the outside so the white PVC doesn’t show as much, but it doesn’t bother me a lot as is. I will probably add some more bird houses to the extra limbs, or maybe a quiet wind chime or something.

Overall?

Success. Yeah. I did it. I did it!

Thanks, St. Joseph. 

In which I convert a used swing set to a not-quite-deck for our pool

Anybody want to hear a rambling story about a pool improvement project of dubious value? I got you covered. 

Early last spring, we saw the pandemic writing on the wall and splurged on an above-ground pool to get us through the summer. It was a great! No regrets! (Well, the kids have regrets, because I forced them to dig rocks in the hot hot son for many weeks, but they did eventually get a pool out of it, plus plenty of invaluable “my parents are so cruel”stories.)

The only drawback was that the only way to get in and out of the pool was via a wobbly A-frame ladder, so you could either be completely in the water, or completely out of the water, but there wasn’t really any in between, i.e. lounging by the water while you keep your kids from drowning.

And I couldn’t do this:

Sitting in the sun and dangling your feet in the water is the main reason for owning a pool!  And no, I can’t sit on the top of the ladder and do it, because my hips don’t fit, okay? You go have ten kids and then squeeze yourself into the top of a ladder. 

So this year, I decided to build a deck. Yay, easy, fun! Then I got a look at lumber prices, and decided, well! Wow! My goodness! Maybe a used deck, then. I obsessively refreshed Facebook Marketplace pool deck listings all day long and had my heart broken over and over again. Lots of other people apparently had the same idea this summer, and so I finally gave up.

I cycled through progressively stupider ideas for some kind, any kind of platform to go next to the pool (maybe builder’s scaffolding! Maybe rotten and splintery wooden pallets that I collect a few at a time over the course of several years and ignore the fact that they’re soaked with industrial chemicals! Maybe those metal cage things they use to secure maple sap collection tubs! MAYBE AN OLD TRAIN CAR!!) Even I could tell these were dumb ideas.

However, I noticed that there were plenty of used play structures made of pressurized wood for sale, and they were quite cheap, even if you factor in rental of a pickup truck. I got a great deal on one in good condition. My first plan was to replace our old play structure with this slightly less old one, and convert the old one into a pool thing, but that was a bridge too far, dumbness-wise. So I lugged the platform part of the new-old play structure into the yard and set aside the slide and swings and appendages, and here is what I did to the platform:

First I reinforced the uprights. The platform part of a play structure is not designed to stand on its own; it’s supposed to have a slide and a whole other section with swings attached to it, so it was wobbly. I used some scrap pressurized wood, cut the ends into angles, and screwed a piece diagonally across each of the four sides. This made it much more stable. 

Now I needed a way to get up there. After many false tries with various kinds of ladders and steps, I ended up re-attaching the original climbing wall to one side. This is not ideal for adults, but it’s strong and it works well enough.

To one side, I attached ten large bicycle hooks for towels, swimsuits, etc. 

Actually I did this part first, because I wanted instant gratification. This part alone was worth the effort of the whole project, as the kids had been just dropping their wet towels in the dirt, and then not picking them up because ew, they’re wet and dirty. And then the dog was eating them.

I used duct tape to attach an umbrella to one upright, and Flex Tape to attach two solar-powered spotlights to the two uprights that face the pool, for night swimming. NIGHT SWIMMING.  Actually there is something wrong with them, even though I didn’t buy the cheapest kind, but eventually, NIGHT SWIMMING.

Then I used zip ties to attach a basket to a spot that already had holes drilled in it. This is a place for sun block and bug spray or books, and it’s a secure place for a phone and/or speaker for music. 

To the other side, I attached two shelves, for books, drinks, etc. I used the kind of shelf bracket with a hook at the end, designed to hold a closet rod, so we can keep the pool skimmer and brush there. 

You can reach the shelves when you’re inside on the platform. Corrie is quite taken with the idea of poolside a bowl of fruit.

Notice there is a stray sock. There is always a stray sock. 

And that’s it! Here’s the whole thing:

It’s kind of stupid, and far from luxurious, but it works, and I didn’t spend a lot of money on it, and I didn’t cry at all when I was working on it. Now I can sit down and have a clear view of the whole pool, get some shade if I want, and have a place to put drinks or sunglasses or whatever. It’s sort of a deluxe lifeguard chair, I guess. And I can do this:

I told the kids I would never turn down a foot massage, but Corrie was being really creepy about it, so I guess I have my limits after all. 

Haven’t decided what to put in the space underneath the platform yet (there’s a reason we didn’t put the pump and filter underneath, but I forget what it was). Maybe a tub or deck box to keep toys in, or possibly a trash can.  I’m trying to convince Damien we can attach a pool slide to the pool side, but he believes that would end in a collapsed pool and a rush of 9,000 gallons of water that carries your children away, and he’s usually right about these things. 

How about you? Got any dumb projects this summer? Got any pressurized wood? Got any pallets? Got any dirty towels? Got any duck food?