Sunday, December 31, 2006

Garden Whimsy vs. Kitsch

The lanterns are hanging from a bamboo pole, mounted in front of a wooden screen leaning against a south-facing wall. When scattered about my back yard, these cheap, faux Asian lanterns failed to convey the Zen-like quality I was going for. Instead, isolated from each other, individual lanterns imparted a forlorn failed ambience and showcased instead my yard’s intrinsic lack of design coherence.

But, taken together they transcend trash. By grouping the lanterns together, I have raised the individual elements above their humble stations to the level of garden whimsy.

And garden whimsy is something people are writing expensive coffee-table books about. Apparently, you can spend a lot of money at garage sales and flea markets to find old garden implements, buckets, birdhouses. You can plant flowers in your old wheelbarrow. You can paint old chairs in bright colors and plant trailing ivy on their seats. If you don’t have the creative talent to recognize the whimsical potential of such hidden treasures at junk stores, you can go to shops in gentrified parts of old urban downtowns and spend even more money for the same used resale items, displayed with a quirky eye, a bit of old lace and some silk flowers. Why didn’t you think of that?

I have to wonder however, if these attempts to achieve the wa of garden whimsy today, risk sinking to the level of clutter and trash tomorrow. Will today’s attempts to create cottage garden informality and country charm, despite being costly, clever and oh-so-current, end up becoming trite? The lesson to consider here is the way our grandparents would take old tires, cut them in half, paint them white, and stand them end-to-end like upside-down Us to border their driveways. Or stack them and plant strawberries in their centers.

Once upon a time, painting old tires white was the height of garden whimsy, although we hadn’t even invented the concept in those days. Today, it is pre-packaged for the modern whimsical gardener-on-the-go, who is looking for instant harmony, peace and balance befitting their busy contemporary lifestyle. Besides, I too have a wheelbarrow planted with flowers, and I like it just fine.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

In Winter Enjoy

The rains have come, and the gardener has not. Yesterday, strong winds coaxed piles of pine needles and dead leaves to venture from their dark corners and onto open paths and benches - lending an untidy beauty to familiar sights. Today, there is sun, but winter has finally arrived. The disheveled back yard is best enjoyed through the window from the cozy warmth of the house. And this got me to thinking of a picture I took last summer of a small serpentine line in my garden.

William Hogarth was an 18th century painter and printmaker, partial to landscapes and pictures chock-full of allegories. He also considered himself an arbiter of good taste. His 1753 treatise on aesthetics “The Analysis of Beauty” was his definitive contribution on finding beauty not only in classical art and English landscapes, but in everyday objects. Although he did not invent the English landscape garden style which incorporated the free-flowing “line of grace” also known as the serpentine line, he is generally credited with giving it a name. Here’s what he had to say about the curving lines reminiscent of a serpent:

“…The serpentine line, by its waving and winding at the same time different ways, leads the eye in a pleasing manner along the continuity of its variety, if I may be allowed the expression; and which by its twisting so many different ways, may be said to inclose (tho' but a single line) varied contents…”

My garden’s serpentine line is not a grand winding path, guiding visitors toward visionary realms of sublimely cultivated gardens. Instead, as shown in this picture, it is part of a small, heart-shaped stone with a shallow bowl for water in the center.

During wintertime, there is still much to enjoy in the serpentine lines of my garden. And although he was no fan of the “sneaking serpent” and all the symbolism serpents evoke, William Blake had some advice for gardeners to ponder during winter: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Past

In 2005, Christmas Eve was on a Saturday. Because today is the Saturday before Christmas, I am thinking of where I was last year at this time. This is from my journal:

Madaba, Jordan
Saturday, 24 Dec 2005

“We’re all back in our hotel. I bought a small rug and before we finished the complementary cup of tea, I was persuaded to buy another. As I’m writing this, I hear out the window of our room in the Black Iris Hotel, the unmistakable sounds of what we’ll call the Madaba Bagpipe Santa Band and Percussion Group. This has to be the same group of men dressed in variations of Santa Clause that was marching down the street outside the Maaia brothers’ rug shop when we were there earlier.

“No sooner had the Santa Band piled back into their Santa Tour Bus, our gracious Innkeeper, Asna, called to inquire about A, who is starting to come down with a cold. Earlier we had walked down to the lobby to ask for a cup of tea. Of course, I was given a tray with 3 china cups and saucers and a small bowl of sugar.

“When I mentioned we planned to get some take-out soup to bring A, when we went out to get our own dinner, our Innkeeper insisted over my objections that she would make soup, “When you are here, you are my family." J and K insist I was right, after profusely refusing twice, to finally concede and say A would be grateful to have some hot soup.”

This is from M's Journal:

"We stopped in a shop where young head-scarved women were making mosaics. Some are unmounted so that tourists can roll them up and take them home. We might have bought one, but we could not ask the price - they spoke no English. Most people do, to my surprise.

"The rug dealers fed us mint tea in lovely glasses, by the ubiquitous propane heater. It was about 50 degrees (F) and sunny today, a lovely spring day to me, and our hotel hostess assured us we would freeze."

Later that evening, on Christmas Eve, leaving A resting comfortably after her hot soup, J, K, M and I went out to dinner at the restaurant across the street from the Christian church with the ancient Roman mosaic map of the middle east. We had too much delicious food, three or four bottles of absolutely terrible local wine, and a hubbly bubbly filled with good cheer. I will never forget the music looping endlessly in the background during dinner: Jose Feliciano’s incongruous Felice Navidad.

A truly memorable Christmas eve.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Someday My Prince Will Come

Once upon a time, I bought a solar light shaped like a very large frog. He lived among the rocks in full sunlight, collecting and storing energy by day. By night, he emitted a pale green, un-froglike glow.

For over a year, he has watched silently over a family of feral cats and some skunks who live there - under and among the boulders and the dry brush I pile around them.

As he aged, and the plastic clouded over, and his green color was bleached out by the sun, his light grew softer, paler, yet somehow even stranger. By the end of summer, he had taken on a sinister patina and his evening light seemed to hint at some mysterious secret. As autumn faded, he looked like an exiled Russian dying in a British hospital, silently and malevolently radioactive.

Then, one recent night, the cats, or the skunks, knocked the frog off his rock perch and smashed the plastic base housing his solar collector. Separated from the source of his power, I thought he would never glow again. He seemed, finally, to be at peace.

But then, I noticed him recently, and he’d been transformed. As the western sun slanted low over the rocks late one winter afternoon, the enchanted frog was backlit in a glorious reincarnation of his former self. That’s him between the rocks, as seen from the twilight down below in the back yard. There he sits patiently, and with every sunset he regains his former glory for a few moments, waiting only for or a maiden’s kiss to transform into a handsome prince. And then, they will live happily ever after.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Before the world was made

Second cup of morning coffee, spiced with cardamom seeds and coriander. Unseasonably warm, mild and sunny out the window in the back yard. Cat purring on the desk by my side. Called doctor to request home health care services, and called Medicare to request a replacement Medicare card. The Medicare card has gone missing, along with her grocery store discount membership card - the later causing more anguish since she’s long since disengaged from insurance and health care matters.

When we age, it is not only our minds that get smoother and more simple. Our entire field of metaphysical vision narrows into a lovely tunnel vision. Then, like babies, our ego expands to fill the limited field of vision. Like my cat who craves nothing more than attention, the world narrows to revolve around old people. In the mirror, they see the face they had before the world was made.

Called my health insurance group plan, and then carrier to confirm who gets what forms for spouse. Because everyone is “experience high demand,” I put the phone on speaker and rinsed the dishes waiting for an operator. Awake enough to shake off the dreary grey mood that I sometimes find sitting on my chest when I awake. That itchy sense that everybody’s life is nothing more than a small splash made by a single drop of rain in a muddy puddle: drop plop and gone. The entire parade of man’s history is nothing more than a spring shower into a puddle.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I'd have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.
William Butler Yeats, Before The World Was Made

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Meditation at Kew

Alas! for all the pretty women who marry dull men,
Go into the suburbs and never come out again,
Who lose their pretty faces, and dim their pretty eyes,
Because no one has skill or courage to organize.

What do these pretty women suffer when they marry?
They bear a boy who is like Uncle Harry,
A girl who is like Aunt Eliza, and not new,
These old, dull races must breed true.

I would enclose a common in the sun,
And let the young wives out to laugh and run;
I would steal their dull clothes and go away,
And leave the pretty naked things to play.

Then I would make a contract with hard Fate
That they see all the men in the world and choose a mate,
And I would summon all the pipers in the town
That they dance with Love at a feast, and dance him down.

From the gay unions of choice
We'd have a race of splendid beauty and of thrilling voice.
The World whips frank, gay love with rods,
But frankly, gaily shall we get the gods.

Anna Wickham, 1921

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Nasturtiums in November

As proof that it's been a long dry summer and a very warm autumn, many of my spring bulbs are getting ready to bloom. Last night, the weatherman predicted freezing temperatures, and I left my coleus to fend for themselves. Today, I have yet to venture outside to inspect the damage.

It's nice that autumn weather is finally upon us, and we don't have to rely on television commercials for cold medications and Christmas presents to feel like it's almots December. If only the flowers knew what the date was.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Long Lost Friend

Got Wheal in the Eye? What’s a wheal, you (might well) ask? If thou knowest not, seeketh thou to give succor to the unfortunate lady who has fallen into a “mother fit”? Then stop right here ladies and gentlemen! Such a deal JOHN GEORGE HOHMAN has for you. Actually, what he appears to have, is the secret to life, the universe, and everything.

This isn’t just the dubious word of a dead white guy. Turns out John George was modest to a fault. He generously admits that some of the “advice” was “partly derived from a work published by a Gypsy”, who, though wise in the lore of healing, apparently was also hip enough to self-publish.

Here’s an art and/or remedy that is familiar to those many unfortunate souls, tossing and turning through sleepless dark nights thereof. A remedy for somebody who is sick and the doctors cannot help. “Let the sick person, without having conversed with anyone, put water in a bottle before sunrise, close it up tight, and put it immediately in some box or chest. lock it and stop up the keyhole; the key must be carried in one of the pockets for three days, as nobody dare have it except the person who puts the bottle with water in the chest or box.” I can just see you slapping a palm to your forehead and saying “D’oh!” I know! Me too!

But wait. There's more. Here’s a twofer: A VERY GOOD REMEDY FOR MORTIFICATION AND INFLAMMATION. Which turns out to be a good idea, because just the other day a friend of mine was mortified to realize his fly was open, AND that what lay within was inflamed. First, find a good rabies lab; then get yourself some of the hair of the dog what bit ye. Ok, I made that last part up. Or did I???

Meanwhile, back in the Fifties...

...I’d like to shout out to my Formica Pattern F6941. Poetry drips from its tongue: “This innovative range has wide visual interest: subtle particulates; ethereal swirls; bold geometric contrasts; delicate veining; natural formations...” Which means there are multi-colored little interlocking and overlapping boomerangs on an orange background.

But if you’re in the mood for visiting a different long lost friend, here’s the citation to J-G’s tome referenced above, so you can go there yourself and waste a glorious morning. “JOHN GEORGE HOHMAN'S POW-WOWS; OR, LONG LOST FRIEND A COLLECTION OF MYSTERIOUS AND INVALUABLE ARTS AND REMEDIES, FOR MAN AS WELL AS ANIMALS. WITH MANY PROOFS Of their virtue and efficacy in healing diseases, etc., the greatest part which was never published until they appeared in print for the first time in the U.S. in the year 1820.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Garden in San Diego

Old Euclid drew a circle
On a sand-beach long ago.
He bound it and enclosed it
With angles thus and so.,
His set of solemn graybeards
Nodded and argued much
Of arc and of circumference,
diameter and such.
A silent child ;stood by them’
From morning until noon
Because they drew such charming
Round pictures of the moon.

(Vachel Lindsay, "Euclid")

I have lived in this house for almost twenty years now. But only upon retirement, three years ago, did it become my mission to grow here. In 2003, I retired to stay home, to retreat to my back yard and cultivate my garden. That autumn, my transformation to retirement marked the beginning of my back yard’s transformation into My Garden

My love of gardening recalls my childhood, where my over-busy mother somehow found time to secretly transfer to me her mysterious love of living things. She saw beauty in nature, and she transformed it with love, and she handed that super power down to me. She taught me that the world would be a better place if each of us took more care with what we alone did, and worry less about what mischief the rest of the world is making.

But, being a very busy wife, mother, and daughter-in-law, she gave me the theory but little application. I knew what I loved. I did not know how to grow it. Before undertaking to become a full time gardener at the age of 56, I had been bitten intermittingly with the gardening bug while I worked for a living. Perhaps the love is encoded into the maternal mitochondrial DNA. Perhaps it is a vestigial trait evolved to insure agrarian survival in times when hunting surrendered to gathering. Perhaps, the trait is expressed only after ageing past human reproductive period. Perhaps it is the catholic ethic of work first, then play. Perhaps I attempted to revert to childhood inspirations and re-create my mother’s garden.

Regardless of the cause: many lilacs and lilies of the valley were sacrificed so I could learn the apparently obvious: that I live in a dry desert, that I can still learn the seasons, and that I can have a beautiful, bountiful garden of my own.

I learned that I could never transplant my imagination garden into my life now. Over the years, I not only failed to transplant the familiar plants my mother taught me to love. I failed to learn to decipher the subtle climatic warnings of summer and winter. I learned this is not the land of endless summer. The subtle seasons of Southern California plant hardiness zone 9a, would require the rest of my lifetime to master, and I have so much to unlearn about plant hardiness zone 7a.

I have learned that some things can survive transplanting from dreams into reality. There is peace where all shades of wisteria threatening to engulf several areas. My love for chrysanthemums is now matched by some skill in cultivating them as perennials here. My mother would love them and recall her own small mum garden outside the basement recroom window, carefully tucked in beneath a winter blanket of raked leaves. I have more variety, and have cultivated some that she only showed me in Chinese paintings. Cultivating your garden will heal your soul.

Monday, November 13, 2006


As St. Thomas Aquinas almost said, the people we love tell us what we are.

People live on in the memories of the loved ones they leave behind. There are still enough of us alive to remember today: twelve, and eleven years later. Some day, their memories will be diluted further in their descendants. But even at many parts per million, those departed loved ones are remembered.

Thus, our parents remain alive in the world, and what they taught us, others will learn.

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Drinking Alone

Outside the window, wind and snow blow straight,
I clutch the stove and open a flask of wine.
Just like a fishing boat in the rain,
Sail down, asleep on the autumn river.

Du Mu

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Banishing the Tinge of Gloom

The weather is cooling down, at last. Temperatures have been in record-setting ranges, reaching in the low 90’sF this past week. But no tinge of gloom shows here. The lettuce, which generally prefers cool damp weather, is thriving – thanks to the newly installed drip irrigation, and its carefully chosen location where the grape arbor shades it from the harsh morning sun. The seeds and starts planted three weeks ago on October 18, are happy.

Writing about balancing the sublime and the beautiful in landscape gardening, Thomas Whately once suggested that "a little inclination towards melancholy is generally acceptable, at least to the exclusion of all gaiety, and beyond that point, so far as to throw just a tinge of gloom upon the scene.” (Observations on Modern Gardening, 1770). I was feeling pretty melancholy on November 8, after the depressing exercise in futility that is our mid-term election. So I stopped by the garden to say hello, and to dispel the tinge of gloom.

Later in the season, when our glorious autumn fades into the brief gray days of winter, the veggie garden may indeed have its melancholy aspect. But now, with sunshine, mulch and water, the young plants are thriving in the warm sunshine. There is an international section including khol rabi, Chinese cabbage and Brussels sprouts. There is red and green cabbage and cauliflower, planted amid the dark red argula and the lime green butterhead lettuce. Three weeks after seeding, the root vegetables – carrots, turnips and beets – are optimistically sprouting and ready to be thinned. Soon, it will be time to research new recipes in anticipation of the harvest.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Flu Shots

Now available for the old, the sick, the halt, the lame. And the grouchy. We went to our HMO last week on the first day flu shots were available. No appointment necessary, but a bit of a line. At 59 I was the youngest person in line by about 100 years. Hump-backed women pushing men in wheelchairs. Limping ladies pushing their oxygen bottles. People jockeying their walkers from the sign-in line to the waiting-for-nurse line like a contest for pole position in a NASCAR qualifier.

The best part was the unintentional humor. Two scrawny ladies who would have fit right in at a lesbian golf tournament doing a poor re-creation of a long lost comedy routine: You first. No, you first. No, I insist. Thank you, but please. An elderly man arguing with his ossified wife that he didn’t want to get another shot and what was she doing, trying to kill him. Her reply was to grimly grip the handles of his wheelchair and silently, stoically, roll him from one line into the next. Perhaps she was trying to kill him. Something clearly was.

The male nurse asked the arguing ladies if they were a couple. His intent clearly, was to take them both together. They suspected foul play and each glared at the other in a silent, and clearly often repeated conversation about how people can be so darn judgmental. They went in as a couple.

When our turn came, and we got the same nurse, K repeated his 20-year-old joke that we were together, but he hoped his wife wouldn’t find out. I referred to K as my boy toy. Once in the exam room for the actual flu shot, the nurse confessed he didn’t have any suckers to distribute if we didn’t cry when he injected the shot. Following our predictable grumbling at this news, he said he’d draw a smiley face on our bandaid instead. I asked for a grumpy face, and I think mine is better. The man was an artist.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

White Halloween Cats

They say black cats are a symbol of Halloween, but I believe my white cats are even scarier.

I heard on the radio this morning, that schools are afraid to sponsor Halloween events because it’s one of those things that get idle lawyers rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of a Constitutional challenge. Halloween violates separation of church and state because when a public school sponsors a Halloween party, they’re sponsoring the “religion” of witchcraft. Or, is it that they’re slandering witchcraft? One of the scariest costumes I ever saw was in law school when a female professor “of a certain age” carried a battery-powered fan from Sharper Image and wore a small sign that said: “Lawyer + Menopause = Scary Lady”.

My cats aren’t quite as scary as that, but still. The big one is a toilet brush holder, with the back open and hollow. An uglier bit of home décor would be hard to find. (It was a gift, ok?) To make matters worse, I broke the head off in a cleaning frenzy years ago, and the head is now being glued back together - masking tape is holding the pieces in place until the glue dries. The middle-sized cat is a bottle of German wine found in a package store in Michigan. I knew the moment I saw the wine bottle, I had to have it. It’s like toilet-brush-holder cat was the mother of wine-bottle-cat. Reunited at last! I bought the small cat years ago, but he just seemed to make the picture complete.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Before I Sleep

Iman Mersal In Perfect Happiness

Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa

Before I sleep
I will take the phone to bed
and talk to them about many things
to make sure they are really there,
that they have dates for the weekend,
and enough security
that makes them fear old age
and makes them sometimes lie.

I will make sure they are really there
in perfect happiness,
and that I am alone
and that the morning is possible
as long as there are new resentments.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Cat Lady at Home

I make dish gardens - small plantings in shallow pots that include miniature accessories. I avoid "fairy garden" stuff - including those frighteningly cute fairies - like the plague. I don't do cute: I do miniature. In fact, I generally prefer not to include "people" of any kind, preferring to leave the small landscape open to the imagination of the viewer.

But I had to use my Crazy Cat Lady (TM) action figure in one of my dish gardens. I love that she's wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. It's this attention to realistic detail that made it irresistable to include her in a small garden.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Autumn – in the Northern Hemisphere – is a season that often leads to rather melancholy contemplation of time's passage. While we celebrate the bounty of the harvest, we are mindful of the empty fields, settling down for a long winter’s nap beneath a blanket of snow.

It must have been October when Godzilla destroyed Tokyo. At any rate, it was October when a vengeful sandal-clad goddess destroyed old Ann Arbor. So here’s my illustration to evoke a not-so-graceful seasonal allegory of the cycle of life and death.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dressed to Kill

Finished the fun stuff in the Veggie Garden. Four of us worked about 3 hours together yesterday to do all the planting of our cool season veggies. Friends contributed lettuce for raised beds. The rest are from about 5 pony-pack starts and from about 3 flats of seedling I grew.

Today, I did the fun part: the other decorations. The table on the patio has been kidnapped for other duties during the festival. The hay stack from last year is tired. I has a few new and recycled decorations, plus home-grown gourds and pumpkins. G provided the large pumpkin and the pot of live mums.

I finally carved the hollow Styrofoam pumpkin for the scare crow’s head. From his sly wink and his cocked hat, he's showing that our Veggie Garden is dressed to kill this Halloween.

Working for Free

Cool season vegetables were planted yesterday in anticipation of the upcoming fall festival. We finished the irrigation, put in my seedlings of various broccoli, cabbages, khol rabi. M planted seeds for turnips, beets and carrots. The final decorating will be done today after other festival planning chores.

It was hard work for a bunch of old ladies. We work for free, but we don't work for nothing. The seed packets promise harvests in about 60 days.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Vegetable Bulbs

This is the time of year to plant onions and garlic in my climate zone.

This year, we're trying two new crops in the Veggie Garden. We selected Elephant Garlic, an organic bulb from Territorial Seed. Although this can be used for culinary purposes, the flavor is mild and unexciting. However, the big globe flower is said to be gorgeous. So we're growing this bulb as much for it's visual appeal as for its use in food. The first week of October, we planted five cloves, each slightly bigger than the entire bulb of a regular garlic.

Next, we selected a different onion, called an Egyptian Walking Onion. Also an organic bulb from Territorial Seed, this red onion sets fruit on the top, rather than the root. While we can harvest the stalks as green onions for cooking, we selected this for its visual interest. Once the bulbs set on the top, as in this picture, the stalks tend to bend over and touch the ground, where the bulbs root and begin the growing process all over agin. Hence the name "walking" onion.

Although we've seen no sign of the garlic, the red walking onion is already sprouting.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Winter is Coming In

Autumn marigolds in a Michigan backyard. A week ago, amid crisp sunny days, the flowers glowed smugly in the sunshine. That week, we harvested the last red, yellow and green peppers. We had a word with the remaining green tomatoes, reminding them that winter was on the way.

Exactly one week later, the first wet snow began falling. With predicted temperatures in the forties, it wouldn’t last, but it humbled the marigolds. That’s the marigold bed in the right rear. The flowers are still there, but they are huddling together, an altogether whiter shade of pale. The green tomatoes are unaccounted for – probably victims of a fickle Mother Nature.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ann Arbor, Michigan

On a recent trip to Ann Arbor, I encountered this “fairy door” inside a coffee shop. Apparently several years ago, a local artist started using doll house supplies to attach these small works of art on the outside of buildings (some on inside).

Some are quite elaborate, and although they don’t lead anywhere, people started pulling off the tiny door knobs in an effort to open the doors and see what was inside (nothing.) The fun comes in trying to find some of the dozens of these doors throughout the lovely town surrounding the University.

Walking around the city we also encountered this restaurant with the sign reading “Jamaican Jerk Pit,” and despite assurances from our "native guides" (University of Michigan grad students) that the term refers to the food rather than the customers, our group decided not to eat there.

The weather for the visit was perfect. During the day we had cool autumn sun: women shopping, mums blooming, leaves falling. The chilly evenings were spent sitting cozily indoors: women laughing, dog sleeping, bird pacing (that’s a strange bird.)

We enjoyed one morning at a day spa, being pampered by the well-trained staff. We tried to emulate the well-maintained other regulars who talked about how to invest their hard-working husbands' inheritences, but I doubt we fooled anybody - we were having too much fun.

As glad as I am to be back home in familiar surroundings, there’s something therapeutic about visiting with people you love. I find that I’ve brought back a wonderful peace of mind along with my souvenirs.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Crazy Wisdom

There is a bookstore/tea room in Ann Arbor called Crazy Wisdom. Therein are non-mainstream books and magazines. The other day, I got a copy of the most recent issue of the magazine "Z". This is one of the periodicals recommended by Nim Chimpsky as an antidote to the mainstream press controlled by The Man.

Later, I took the magazine to read during the local school board meeting. Or, that’s what I meant to do. The meeting however, provided me with a rare glimpse into the ordinary life of a small community.

This being leadership month (or week, or award-category du jour) there were lots of proud mommies and daddies and digital cameras to record the reading of the glowing recommendations and award-presenting, and hand-shaking. Some of the nominations actually cited leadership among the qualities possessed by the nominated students. The community newspaper reporter on scene gathered the winners for a group photo. It was gratifying to see the back story to those bumper stickers proclaiming children as good citizens. The process not only provides an opportunity for everybody to feel good, it also seems to build a sense of community that seems missing these days from a lot of places.

There were also several teenage camera operators placed strategically around the school cafeteria where the weekly public meetings are held. The entire public proceedings are broadcast on local closed circuit educational television. Other public meeting business concluded, the board convened for an executive session. The parents and children left for home

The handful of teenagers operating the recording devices began to pack up the surprising elaborate equipment. It’s a new school year, and these kids are taking some broadcasting technical courses. Their teacher informally guided them in how to pack, load and transport their equipment back to the studio. “Let’s get this stuff back and tomorrow we can start the editing process. We’ll show them what we can do”.

I was trying to be inconspicuous, burying my face in the magazine. reading my anarchist magazine. But I was listening intently to the casual conversations of these high school students. As they packed up, stacked up, and carried the TV equipment back to the lab, they were talking to each other. The kids were not all getting along, but they were in the process of learning how. I overheard part of a conversation between two boys.

“Your definition of racism is broader than mine. Every time I say something you disagree with, you call me a racist”.

“It’s not that I object to what you’re saying. It’s that you can’t seem to voice an opinion without being rude or confrontational. Everything we don’t agree on doesn’t have to turn into a nasty argument”.

I went to the meeting expecting to be entertained. In contrast to my low expectations of local politics, I came away thinking maybe we’re not doomed after all. Crazy wisdom for these worrisome times.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Crazy Like a Fox

This is my crazy cat lady action figure (TM). As most sane people know, cats do not have souls. They do, however, have superpowers, and only use those powers for good.

My sisters do not have superpowers, and they might not use them for good if they did. So, it's probably for the best.

Good day shopping, eating, gossiping and generally enjoying the company of kindred souls. Honorary crazy cat ladies all. Visiting with family refreshes the soul.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Out of Office

Ok, not really out of the office....

I'll be out of town next week. Then returning for a feverish week of preparations for the fall festival. Hope to have some nice pictures then.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

brief, dreamy, kind delight

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that's lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

William Butler Yates,
Never Give All the Heart

Monday, October 02, 2006

No, thank YOU!

Not only in Jordan are there amusing signs.Sometimes, Americans too have a sense of humor.

This sign is in the women's restroom in a large professional office complex in Mission Valley. The building houses accounting firms, tax preperation services and our financial advisor. The sign has, I presume, been carefully modified. It's been there for some time, so there seems to be an understanding that it will not be further modified.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Troubles of Human Life

The emblem here is from Alciato's Book of Emblems, Emblem 152 at:
The Latin name of the emblem is “In vitam humanam” or “On human life”.
The interpretation of the text is: “Weep for the troubles of human life now more than usual, Heraclitus: it overflows with many calamities. You, on the other hand, Democritus, laugh even more, if ever you laughed: life has become more ridiculous. Meanwhile, seeing these things, I wonder: how far in the end, Heraclitus, I may weep with you, or how, Democritus, I may joke merrily with you.”

Last night I watched the film clip “Manufactured Consent” a 1996 documentary of Noam Chomsky talking about how the media tends to tell us what it wants us to know and to distract us from what government doesn’t want us to know

This morning, I read a news item in Haaretz about four people arrested in Oslo, Norway and accused in “an alleged plot to decapitate the Israeli ambassador to Oslo and blow up the Israeli and American embassies in the city”.

“The evidence against the suspects was revealed in the course of extending the suspects' remand….”

What a creative use of passive voice, delicately sidestepping such nasty details about who did what to whom. Apparently, after the people were arrested, they were invited to spend the night (extending their remand) and at some point, possibly over tea and cookies, the information about the alleged bomb plot “was revealed”. Maybe they were playing Scrabble and “beheading” made a triple word score, and they got to chatting, and the next thing you know, one of the players blurted something about a bombing and beheading plot. Ooops!

Seeing these things, I wonder how much longer we can laugh to keep from crying. Our news is relayed through words tortured of cruel meaning, so we can all look away. The clown Democritus might laugh, but it’s enough to make Heraclitus cry. Life’s calamities are made to look like a sleep-over.

If you want, you can read it and weep yourself:

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Electric Institute Kitchen Circa 1950

In 1964, Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” launching the women’s liberation movement. She was protesting against the post -WWII moment when Rosie the Riveter and her kind were chased out of the workplace to make room for returning veterans. The women holed up in their homes – specifically their kitchens – where they made their last stand. They were henceforth to define themselves in terms of their roles as wife and mother. Their new job title was “Homemaker.”

It is difficult today to imagine what prompted the rebellion against this delightfully sounding role. But this photograph offers a clue.

The “American Memory” section of the Prints and Photo Division at the the Library of Congress has a huge archive of photos taken by Horydczak, Theodor, ca. 1890-1971, called “Washington as it Was.” The photos were taken ca. 1920-ca. 1950 and include not only many exterior file photos of a bygone urban and rural life. They also chronicle the beginnings of the suburban environment believed to be the natural habitat of the homemaker. I believe the photographer embedded moral tales in some of his pictures, and this particularly poignant one seems to capture the trapped homemaker described soon thereafter by Betty Friedan.

The picture is enigmatically and futuristically entitled “Electric Institute of Washington, Potomac Electric Power Co. Building. Electric Institute kitchen II.” It’s a photo of a relentlessly white cutting edge kitchen of the day. But if you look closely, you can see in the background, above the kitchen sink, an image of the presumed lady of the house. She is embedded in the gleaming kitchen like a mounted trophy, trapped in the idealized homemaker’s paradise that Betty Friedan would later describe as suburban hell. The photo is at:

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Lifestyle of Backyard Gardens

People, like gardens have lifestyles: some profound, some superficial.

At one end of the continuum, is the mature Zen garden, patiently steeped in a mysterious silence, its solid rocks surrounded by ripples of raked sand, evoking a vast, timeless and enduring landscape. At the other end is the cookie-cutter suburban front yard, where a self-consciously random, gently undulating wave of trendy plants is crowded uncomfortably between the private residence and the public street. Add a “water feature” to provide that faux zen feel, and Bao Yu's your uncle.
A more candid glimpse of a garden's lifestyle is the humble backyard garden. Back yards are generally planted and cultivated for the pleasure of the grower, rather than for the mass market curb appeal that lowest common denominator appeal of front yard landscaping, or the hurried, three-day-weekend attempt to recreate the contemplative peace of a hundred-year old bonsai. Sometimes back yard gardens will include herbs and vegetables; sometimes flowers; often spontaneous combinations of both.

The down side of back yard garden lifestyles is that such efforts are often notable for their resounding disconnect between vision and execution. There will be a random patch of dead and yellowing plants and barren spots, punctuated by diseased or crippled plants. Often growers try to rescue these failures by adding mass market appeal “garden art” from their local handyman/fertilizer/tool rental store: plastic trellises, unauthentic oriental cast resin lanterns and bridges, or fantastical bird houses. Unsurprisingly, such decorations usually don't successfully blend into the landscape, but can be found cowering in a corner of the patio - like invading paratroopers snagged on French country church steeples.

But the good thing about backyard gardens - even imperfectly executed ones - is their mute testimony of the grower's boundless hope, persistent vision, and stubborn love. A living back yard garden is characterized by a dynamic work-in-progress feel. Growing gardens always include evidence of failure. Like haunting pictures of concentration camp survivors as seen by liberating GIs, what remains at the end of the season in these gardens are the plants that survived despite poor planning, harsh weather, neglect, and cruel experiments in living conditions for which they were not designed. As much as I'd love to grow the lilacs, violets and lilies of the valley from my childhood memories, my climate zone will not support them. The plants my mother loved in Zone 3, die slow and painful deaths here in Zone 9, sacrificed on the alter of my ignorance and hubris.
While the surviving plants might be unrecognizable compared to their picture in the seed catalog, their struggle has given them character. And therein lies the lesson. Gardens, even in their messy failures, show us that life is a veil of frickin' tears, baby. And love and pesticide alone aren't enough to get you through. Embrace the failure of your dreams and visions, and plan for next spring. Celebrate the noble attempt of the doomed lilac, bursting forth with delicate leaves each spring, only to be toasted and battered by the harsh light of a summer day. It's the great cycle of life, and I'm delighted to be part of it.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

How to Write for College

My recent cleaning frenzy unearthed a bunch of old books, most not worth keeping. But I’ve saved one called “Words and Ideas: a Handbook for College Writing” published in 1959 and authored by Hans P. Guth, San Jose State College. The passage quoted below is from Chapter One: Writing from observation and Experience, Section 3 “Opinion”.

“1. Developing Opinions of Your Own
When asked for their opinions on college life or on democracy or on freedom of the press, students sometimes have a dim feeling that they are for it. Otherwise their minds are somewhat of a blank. When writing a paper on one of these subjects, they will put down a number of sentences to the effect that college life or democracy or freedom of the press is a very important subject. They will point out that it is a very important part of the democratic way of life, and that everybody should be aware of this fact. After that, there doesn’t seem to be much else that could be said. In order to stay in college, many students develop the ability to keep talking after they have run out of things to say. They learn to pad their papers with ‘platitudes.’ They tell the reader things that he has known since he entered the fifth grade, that he has heard repeated many times since, and that he has no need or desire to hear repeated once more. A writer relies on platitudes when he solemnly informs his readers that baseball is a popular sport, that the automobile is here to stay, or that ours is a complex and fast-moving age. Needless to say, the habit of relying on such space-fillers produces vague, pointless, and spineless prose.”

I too, prefer prose that is specific, pointy and spine-filled. To be even more specific, I too, find it insulting when people continue to talk after they have run out of things to say. What especially galls me is talking in which nothing is said, and which continues for a while. And I mean nothing, in the sense that the talking is virtually content-free. And continuing in the sense that it goes on and on. That, to me is the worst kind of talking, or writing, for that matter. Written communication can, of course, also be content-free. Well, not to be vague or anything, but such platitude-filled talking will use actual words, but they (the words) will be employed to repeat, over and over, the same things, repeated again and again. And the things are redundant too. Not to mention, repeating the kinds of things that most of us have known since, let’s say, fifth grade. Or eighth grade, if you went to public school. Things like the Internet is here to stay, along with baseball and the automobile. Now, those are just platitudes, ok?

And I especially think that freedom and democracy go hand in hand and together they combine to make our way of life a very good lifestyle. Without freedom of the press, we would lose a very important factor of our democracy. Or of our freedom. It’s been so long since I was in fifth grade, I’m not sure exactly, and I’m not allowed to use Wikipedia. But I do know it’s important not to repeat myself again and again. I’m sure it’s no platitude to reinforce how redundant repetition can be if it’s said over and over. That’s my own personal opinion anyway.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Mmmm, male spiders…

He who embraces all this universe, who never speaks and is never surprised – he is my soul in my inmost heart. Chandogya Upanishad

An apt description of the Silver Argiope spider who was discovered by a volunteer in the Garden this morning. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders explains that there is silvery short hair on upper surface of female’s cephalothorax (hence the name). In the picture, she's upside down, just like the book predicts. Frankly, I would have thought a more descriptive name would be honkin’ big yellow-speckled spider with front feeler thingies that are twice as long as her front legs. But that’s just me.

It seems that “few females survive to maturity, but many males survive”. But then it’s payback time. As Audubon delicately explains: “Male twitches the web of female to learn when it is safe to approach. Males is often eaten by female”.

In other words, If this web's twitchin, join me in the kitchen.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ou sont les Etiquettes d’antan?

Yesterday, in a cleaning frenzy inspired by Kevin, I uncovered a number of old books. Among them was “Manners and Sensibilities - Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette” written by Amy Vanderbilt, and last updated in 1956. There is just so much that kids these days don’t know. Among the many things my mother never taught me was that you never share your crack pipe with a hobo. It’s just not done in polite society.

While Amy doesn’t tackle that particular question, she’s a wealth of information on some of the other deep questions disturbing the rest of our lost generation. Under, “Your Manners Away from Home: Restaurants” she uses “common sense” to enlighten us about another troubling problem.

What do you do with the wrapper on a lump of sugar when you are dining out in a restaurant? Do you put it on the tablecloth, in the saucer of your cup, or in the ash tray? E. f. Toledo, Ohio

This is one of those things for which there is no real rule. You just use common sense. I would say put it on the tablecloth, for if you put it in the ash tray it may start a fire, and if you put it in your saucer it may cause the cup to tip over when you put it back in the saucer after taking a drink. If it is on the tablecloth the waiter will clear it off along with crumbs.

Under Teen-Agers: Restaurant Etiquette:
When I am at a restaurant with my boy friend, how do I order dinner? A. M., Houston, Texas
You do not pick up the menu yourself, but you wait until it is presented to you by your escort or by the waiter. You give your order to the escort rather than to the waiter, although if the waiter asks you specific questions about your order you may answer him direct. Let your escort make a few suggestions on what might be nice to eat – he may be thinking painfully of his pocketbook though, rightly, he shouldn’t take you to a restaurant where this matters to him. But you, of course, as a considerate person, will not order the most expensive dish unless you know that money is no object. In an unpretentious restaurant or say at a country hotel where food is all table d’hote, you would be expected to give your order to the waiter when he asks for it. It is only when a card is presented that you give your order to your escort, for it is his masculine duty to scan the card and suggest things that might appeal to your palate. It is also he who suggests the wine, if any. A girl may know all about food herself, but, as a guest of a man in a restaurant, she defers politely to his suggestions, although, of course, she is not required to eat anything that she doesn’t like.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Garden Therapy and Poison Mushrooms

Datline: yesterday afternoon. The back yard was the scene of some autumn redecorating, as I cleaned out the vegetable garden and sowed my winter vegetable seed in peat pots. It would be difficult to overestimate the value of the mental therapy this provides. There is something about mixing potting soil in a big plastic tub, and smelling the dirt that clears my mind. As is my practice, I end my garden sessions by walking around with a camera and taking pictures in the perfect late afternoon sunlight.

A few weeks ago, I found some lovely botanical illustrations at the Missouri Botanical Garden Library website. I was particularly interested in mushrooms and fungi.

I found this drawing of Fly Amanita (Amanita muscaria), and it reminded me of the kinds of mushrooms fairies used to hide under in children’s book illustrations. The illustration at left is from:

Although I cannot knit a tea cozy with psychedelic mushrooms, my imagination wouldn’t leave me alone until I found a suitable faux mushroom for my big blue pot of Imperial Taro (colocasia esculenta) and Persian Shield (strobelontes). When buying some winter veggie seed at a local nursery last week, I found a ceramic mushroom that I have decided is the Fly Aminita. Although serious botanists might differ, it was the closest match in the nursery's ceramic mushroom department.
It’s now sitting in the big blue pot. I find the entire concept of creating a "fairy garden" goofy - I may go for kitsch, but I don't do cute - I find ceramic poison mushrooms don’t offend my sensibilities at all.

In fact, if some cute little fairy decides to colonize the big blue pot, I’m kinda hoping the mushroom gives her nightmares.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Te audire no possum: musa sapientum fixa est in aure

Today, I sought peace in my garden, and looked for meaning in the drops of dew on the pumpkins. I even rinsed with a clarifying shampoo, but no such luck. I’m as sad and angry as ever.

The U.S is unhappy with Iran, accusing them of meddling in Iraq. This is particularly vexing since Iran’s alleged meddling appears to be greatly hampering our meddlesome efforts there. Il Papa says Islam is violent. His remarks provoke violent Islamic protests that he could say such a slanderous thing. The leader of the free world thinks the best way to protect Freedom is for us all to sacrifice it to him. In London, some of the now ubiquitous lamp-post cameras can speak and listen to passersby.

God said blessed are the peacemakers, for - get this - they shall see God. No kidding? But don’t let these tests of faith shake you to your core. Recently, a man of God, performing a baptism was electrocuted during the procedure. His last prayer was “Surprise me, God”.

Behind these veils of randomness and cruelty, lurks a snickering God. It really doesn’t matter to me who wins the epic battle between disrespectful cartoons and free speech. It doesn’t matter to me whether creeping totalitarianism will swallow us all before the peacemakers blow us to smithereens. I can’t hear you, I have a banana in my ear.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Vox un-populi

I wasn’t going to talk about politics. So, I’d like to start with a basket of nostalgia.

Remember high school? The outsiders, the kids without regulation gym uniforms, the geeky girl who asked me to smell her hands and tell her if I liked her new hand cream. The history of social isolation is a sordid tale of loves lost to bad hair days, and busses missed while trying to fold Dad’s large umbrella. In high schoo, being alone is to free will, as being lonely is to predestination. Some of us were born to be the unpopular kids. And the laws of popularity are like a treaty that all adolescents must obey, even if they don’t agree with all the provisions.

I had a vision of our Fearful Leader in a rasta knit cap wearing a t-shirt showing a man hanging upside down with a caption “Legalize It”. Living in a nation that not only performs torture, but seeks to justify it publicly in the rule of law is like going to bed as one of the popular kids, and waking up to find yourself in the middle of a Kafka story.

Americans used to be the popular kids. Everybody else envied us. Even if their envy was tinged with resentment and hate, everybody else wanted to be like us. We had this cool constitution, and human rights, not to mention, more swimming pools per capita than anybody else.

Our metamorphosis began when the Bully in Chief started running the schoolyard. We may still have the most swimming pools, but we are no longer popular, envied or cool. And asking the metaphor of the popular kid who falls from grace, to carry the weight of the horror we have become is harder than trying to imagine how it feels to go to bed as a man and wake up as a bug.

So, I’m quitting the popular gang. I don’t think torture is a good idea. Nor secret courts, nor refusing to disclose evidence to the accused, nor admissibility of coerced confessions. This is so far beyond being funny, or shameful. My government has turned into a big bug. I hate bugs.

In other news, the "Ali Baba guys" came through last evening. While enjoying our "hamas" as K insists on calling it, and golden lentil soup, one of the young men translated F's Jordan address into Arabic. He was interested in our connection, and said we needn't worry about mail in Jordan. He cautioned that if we sent mail to Saudi Arabia, UAE et. al. the story was different: there we'd need addresses in Arabic. And as for Syria, he sadly observed, forget it. You could have the address in 18 languages and it wouldn't get there. Said when he travels there he takes three pieces of luggage because he knows he'll recover one or two. The rest are apparently considered as presents for the locals. There was a time that would have made me feel a certain superiority that I live in a place free of such petty corruption. I miss being in the popular gang.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dreams and False Alarms Du Jour

God is just this bin of wish-fulfillment into which people toss all the things they want but don't have.

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.
Herman Melville

A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal

Showered off the yard dust and tried to fathom several of life’s deeper mysteries. Would atheism appeal to more people if there were some elaborate rituals, possibly leading to ecstatic transportation into a realm of perfect harmony? What, exactly, do I have to do to describe myself as a bon vivant?

What adjectives best describe the smell of wet dew in the backyard moments before the sun hits it? When will I every understand the trash pickup schedule, specifically how it sometimes correlates with the recycle pickup schedule, and at other times, not. Why do questions of faith haunt my waking hours, and why are my recent dreams about backing up in a big yellow tractor that goes beep, beep beep?

What good is short term memory loss when it doesn’t reach back far enough? And finally: if someone is too clever by half, can they achieve normality by becoming 50% dumber?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Companion Planting in the Veggie Garden

Harvested some paltry Japanese eggplant, peppers, the last of the tomatoes, and – the prize – a lovely orange squash that I’ll use to make vegetable lasagna later this week. I also took some limes even though they’re still pretty small, because they smell so lovely.

Pomegranates are ready too. We didn’t get any last year – they were small and diseased. The tree was severely pruned last winter, to clear out the dead branches and give the others some air and sunlight. The soil was amended and fertilizer was also sown. We’re ready to reap the benefits. Birds have, as expected, found ways to open and harvest some of the fruits. When the birds and bugs are done, the hollowed out fruits are often beautiful sculptures, painted on the outside with a natural patina of fading red, and creamy beige inside.

But the best part is that S.E. stopped by and, in return for a few pomegranates, told us the secret to getting out the juicy seeds. She said, fill a clean water bucket or deep bowl with water. Put the fruits under water and cut open and gently spread the fruit in half. Let the fruit sit in the water and the white pulp floats to the top, leaving the berries in the bottom. Once gravity has done the job, you can scoop out the pulp, put the rest through a strainer to wash off the last of the pulp, and the berries are ready to put in salads or, better yet, juice them to make a fresh Tequila sunrise.

Vegetable gardening is not just rewarding because you eat what you grow. There are other rewards. Sharing the garden chores in a public garden provides countless opportunities to learn from other volunteers and visitors. We can commiserate over our failures and share experiences and strategies to overcome them next season.

Companion planting is a term often used to refer to the way certain plants establish a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, the basil amid the tomato plants offered sensory rewards, and may have benefited both vegetables.

But companion planting can also refer to sharing the work of managing a garden with working companions. In addition to learning how to cultivate an edible garden, I’ve learned that working companions can transform the task. As with my basil and tomatoes, it’s as if the physical therapy of gardening works better when combined with mental therapy of talking with gardening companions.