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.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Look Who's Talking

"We were all an embryo at one point." Karl Rove

"Today I have become the first space martyr. There is nowhere the infidels can hide, not even space. All praise to Allah",
Kalash Al Mudofa, a Syrian astronaut who destroyed the International Space Station in a suicide explosion. Source:

“Still working on the omelet. There have been stumbling blocks. I keep creating omelets one after another, like soldiers marching into the sea, but each one seems empty, hollow, like stone. I want to create an omelet that expresses the meaninglessness of existence, and instead they taste like cheese. I look at them on the plate, but they do not look back. Tried eating them with the lights off. It did not help. Malraux suggested paprika.”
J. P. Sartre, on his attempts to write "a cookbook that will put to rest all notions of flavor forever," and trying to begin by formulating a recipe for a Denver Omlette
Source: d

Saturday, September 16, 2006

La Vache

Mmmm rack of lamb, filet au poivre, scallops and something red and juicy that Ken had. A lovely time was had by all: K, K, A and Mother. And, we all had desert: crepes with ice cream, lava cake, opera cake and lavendar ice cream. We miss Frances, but enjoyed a toast to her all the same. Now we're home and Kevin turned the spa on, after some difficulty that doesn't bear mentioning. What's coherent conversation among friends? Good thing tomorrow's trash day and Kevin is here to take out the trash. Take out the trash. I told you a good time was had. By all. And two bottles of bubbly. Have I told you all how much I love you?

Yellow Taxi Tomatoes

The bees are slowing down. It’s cool in the mornings. Autumn is a comin’ in. The long range forecast says this will be a rainy winter – el Nino is coming back. If that happens, it will be a good thing, as we’ve had some pretty dry winters the past year or two. The bees may be fooled, but I’m not. We haven’t seen the last of the warm weather.

Yesterday, I got three more quart-sized pots of a winter tomato called Yellow Taxi. A week ago, I put in two tiny starts in the back yard where the beans never grew. They are looking robust but only about 8” tall. The new ones are 24” tall. The nursery was practically giving them away at $2.99. That’s because most gardeners think summer is over and it’s too late: tomatoes planted now will not have enough time to put down roots to withstand the colder weather. And they sure won’t have enough time to flower and develop fruit. But the word on the street is that Yellow Taxi is a winter tomato.

What, you ask, is a winter tomato? I think they are referring to the growth habit. As any fool knows, the two main types of tomatoes are bush and vine. Fancy horticultural talk uses the terms “determinate” and “indeterminate.”
• Determinate tomato plants flower and fruit on the ends of their branches and grow like a bush to a certain size (3-5 feet), set fruit, and then decline. Most of the early ripening tomato varieties are of the determinate type.

• Indeterminate plants flower and fruit along their stems and grow like vines until frost or disease kills them. Many of the standard-sized all summer tomatoes for home gardens are indeterminate type, and will need staking, trellis or cages to support them and keep the fruit away from the soil.

So, I’m thinking Yellow Taxi is an indeterminate plant that might weather the cool season provided it gets a month or so of warm weather to establish itself, and provided I give it stakes to sprawl over. We’ll see.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Tide is Turning

"The tide is turning... the enemy is suffering terrible losses"
-Gen. Geo. A. Custer

In the back yard, it’s time for my miniature dish gardens to harvest their final crops. Took a bunch of flowers from a nearby potato vine and dropped them into the wheelbarrow in my cotoneaster bonsai.

In other news, I took the Bad Kitty to the vet yesterday to get her allergy drugs. Came home with a box of syringes, a nifty red carton for disposing of sharps, 2 vials (#1 and #2, mysteriously) and a schedule for shooting her up in various amounts and various days that would challenge the computer that figures out Major League Baseball schedules. Not to mention another $200. Is it worth it? Well, as my old buddy Kaye used to say, it presents Another Freaking Opportunity for Growth. Injecting my precious BK with increasingly potent serum custom-made to “desensitize” her from the grasses and such that make her itch and twitch should be more fun than, say, poking myself in the eye with a sharp stick. Her allergy report says she’s allergic to psychedelic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), stale fruitcake, Maybelline Freaky Fuchsia nail polish, and that white cheesy stuff.

Also in the backyard, my morning glory vine is too happy and overgrowing it’s small plot surrounded by sidewalk. Be careful what you wish for.

And what do we reassure ourselves when we collect? As any college freshman who has taken Psychology 101 knows, Maslow's hierarchy of needs includes esteem, love, safety, food, and collectibles. That’s what Wikipedia says. The theory, as I understand it, is that the more stuff we have, the happier we will be. Also, if we get enough stuff, we may live forever. Not sure how he figured that, but it’s been a while since I’ve been to college. I seem to recall however, that Psychology is pretty much just a public argument over whose belief system makes the most sense when held up next to reality. I forget what reality is.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Collecting and Dusting

Yesterday the old cars were on display on Main Street. One afternoon a week, during summer, they close off a few blocks and blare ‘50s music and only let old classic cars park there. Then all the moderately wealthy mid-fifties white-haired men park, set up lawn chairs, and watch everybody watching everybody else. I couldn’t figure out why I had this echo of déjà vu as I watched a particular man take a dusting wand from his trunk and lovingly caress the dust off the left quarter panel of his 1962 Mercury Cougar.

Then I realized it was the dust wand, a slinky maroon colored fuzzy thing. It was like the one Sis used to use to dust her Hummel collection. Back in the late ‘60s, when I lived in Massachusetts, a distant in-law, who everybody used to call Sis, lived next door. She had grown sons and a husband who recently retired and sold his gas station. He had a name: it was Earl, no kidding. But her name was lost to me because everybody called her Sis. She had a maroon feather duster and shelves and shelves of Hummels, and that was before the word “collectible” had been invented, I think. I thought they were ugly, because back then I don’t think the word “fugly” had been invented either.

People collect stuff. If they have sufficient disposable income, they can collect collectibles that have acquired a value greater than their intrinsic worth, and that appreciate in value just sitting there being dusted. It’s a nice thing to do, and I think we do it not so much to increase or display our level of disposable income, but to reassure ourselves about something. I collect Dopey figurines.

One of them sits outside in my back garden, gathering cobwebs because I don’t have a maroon colored feather duster to dust him. I do know that I can’t take my Dopeys with me, and whoever inherits them will put them in a thrift store collection bin, or on e-Bay, or in a cardboard box at the curb on trash day. I wonder what happened to Sis’ Hummel figurines, and who is dusting them now.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Last spring, we made two scarecrows for our local veggie garden, using clothing and accessories contributed by volunteers. On the left is Ima Nold Crone, who is holding her best selling self-help book entitled “Finding your Inner Scarecrow”. Sorry, the book is out of print now.

Ima's gown was designed by WalMart (no, really!) and was a steal at $5.99. It was XXL, this being WalMart. Ima is wearing hat and pearls designed for her in my basement mad scientist laboratory. Lovely!

Ima was accompanied by Gladys Notyourjob, shilling her own book about beating workplace stress. The title of Gladys’ book is “The Scariest Workplace” which subtitlingly promises that if you followed her advice, you too could be outstanding in your field. It does put your job into perspective, right? Not many people realize that there's a high rate of mental illness in the scarecrow profession. Plus the hours suck.

This morning I learned they are having a scarecrow contest this fall in the garden. While I’m slightly flattered that they’ve stolen my idea of creative scarecrows, I’m pretty sure contestants won’t have to work too hard to beat Ima and Gladys. Dammit! Why do I always give away my most creative ideas? I probably would be better off letting them fester inside me until they burst forth in an explosion of ingenious invention that leaves my admirers splattered with the juices of my inspiration. Or, as Sir Elton wisely said, “Then again, no”.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Dream Within a Dream

Poe asked: “Is all that we see or seem/ but a dream within a dream”? If so, the best bet is to make it a pleasant dream.

The weather is lovely, the yard is cool but sunny. The thing about working in the yard is that your mind can drift along without being crowded by everyday worries – if you’ll let it. And what’s better than working in the yard, is to sit in one place and just sit. It’s difficult for me to do nothing. It’s even more difficult to do nothing AND try to disconnect from the restless thoughts and worries. But the best chance I have of resting my mind along with my body is to sit in the yard and, rather than looking all around, trying to focus on one spot and just see.

Today it was the waterfall. Looking less than well-groomed and clean, it’s got what we’ll call a rustic appearance. So, after I banished the thoughts about how I should be cleaning it up, I just imagined my tiny self standing atop the pagoda watching the raging rapids below. Should I jump? Instead, I just stood there leaning on the tiny railing and tried to figure out the best way to navigate the rapids and other hazards to make it to the shopping mall across the river. Somebody should really clean up this river.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Why I like The Dog Whisperer

First, before you conclude I’m working in a perfect vacuum of critical intelligence, here are a few reasons that are not why I like it. I don’t watch the show to get in touch with my inner pack leader, or because I think TDW and his dogs are cute.

I like it because it’s another of the infinite examples of the old chestnut that the best way to teach humans is through positive reinforcement.

I also like it because the guy has an almost magical ability to read human body language and to always leave ‘em with a big dose of self esteem. Which brings me, albeit rather circuitously, to my cat.

In our first picture, we initially notice nothing amiss. A Japanese lady, out for a stroll to admire the chrysanthemums from the bridge. But look again. There behind her. She is about to be attacked by Catzilla. What happens next could have been avoided if only she had taken to heart the warnings posted on TDW’s show about not trying this without a professional.

I should say something about 9/11. Here’s a quote from Slate’s article about forbidden thoughts and 9/11 reactions: “Within 12 hours of the tragedy, it occurred to me that they'll never, ever show that great episode of the "The Simpsons" where the family goes to New York and Homer has to take a whiz in the World Trade Center”. (Daniel Price, 31-year-old writer, born in Manhattan, corrupted in Los Angeles). So sad. So true.

Which brings me, albeit rather non-sequiturly, the another picture of my cat.

After the separation of death one can eventually swallow back one's grief, but
the separation of the living is an endless, unappeasable anxiety.
Tu Fu, Dreaming of Li Po

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Deconstructing Sock Washing Practices Among the Savages

The people I live with have this paralyzing fear of losing socks in the wash. One of them carefully ties the socks together into a knot before placing them in the hamper. My objection to this is that it seems to me that would trap toe dirt in the toe-side of the knot, preventing the dirt from falling out of the top of the sock as it tumbles around in the washing machine. Another person, apparently having detected this flaw in the knotted sock scenario, prefers to use a safety pin to connect the toes of each sock firmly together. Presumably the pinning is also done after wearing and before discarding socks in the hamper. (Otherwise, walking would be impaired, eh?)

Then, at the other end of the crazy sock scale, there are some people I know that make it a practice never to wear a sock with it’s natural mate. They revel in the anarchy of mismatched socks. They flaunt their disdain of convention in public every time they cross their legs sitting in those café chairs on the sidewalk outside Starbucks, sipping their latte. Smug hippies, trying to prove your free spirit and distinguish yourselves from the rest of your sock-wearing society.

For all my own fears and insecurities, here’s one practice in which I think my own approach is more “normal.” Why not simply let the socks run free of their mates in the hamper-washer-dryer part of their life cycle? They can joyfully reunite when the pile of clean laundry is sorted and folded on the bed and waiting to be put away. Sitting in the cozy sock drawer waiting to be worn, they reminisce about their time apart and tell stories about how the underpants misbehave in the washer.

You might say that this way, there’s the risk that one of the pair will be sucked through that hole in the space-time continuum of the dark swirl of the dryer. Each time they say their farewells as they’re tossed into the hamper might be the last. But isn’t that half the fun? Life is risk. Live a little, I say. I think my socks are healthier and happier for it. I know I am.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

To be aquit from my continual smart

Let me start off with a basket of chicken. The above quote’s from Edmund Spenser, the good old Sonnet XLII. Is this why Douglas Adams said the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42? Do you make guacamole?

My backyard garden continues to surprise me with it’s bounty in unexpected places. Most recently a lovely white rose. The Victorians invented a bunch of repressed symbolic meanings, such as white rose as an allegory of innocence, which unfortunately, conceals that nasty thorn that pricks the finger of the unwary Victorian, who proceeds to get bright red blood on the pure white rose, which, unfortunately leads to impure thoughts about, um, well….

Before the white rose was defiled by the smut-minded Victorians, it was considered one of the symbols of the goddess Venus. She backed the Trojans in one of those endless wars in that neighborhood. In those days, the Trojans were the natives, surrounded by wily and deceitful invaders who eventually beat them by cheating and sold into slavery the ones she didn’t kill.

One of the myths of her creation is that Venus was born from “sea foam” (that’s what they were calling it then) or some nectar of the gods “accidentally spilled” into the sea (that’s what they called that then). It washed ashore where it watered a thorny bush that subsequently blossomed into white roses. That’s a much nicer story than the Victorians, don’t you think?

Who cares what the Victorians, the Greeks, or Douglas Adams thinks? I think the white rose makes a pretty cut flower. Here’s Spenser’s Sonnet XLII:

The loue which me so cruelly tormenteth,
So pleasing is in my extreamest paine:
that all the more my sorrow it augmenteth,
the more I loue and doe embrace my bane.
Ne doe I wish (for wishing were but vaine)
to be acquit fro my continuall smart:
but ioy her thrall for euer to remayne,
and yield for pledge my poore captyued hart
The which that it from her may neuer start,
let her, yf please her, bynd with adamant chayne:
and from all wandring loues which mote peruart,
his safe assurance strongly it restrayne.
Onely let her abstaine from cruelty,
and doe me not before my time to dy.

Friday, September 08, 2006

My Impression of Amman

On December 30, 2005, I found myself in Amman, Jordan, on the next-to-last night of a 10-day visit to Jordan. Our group consisted of a young husband and wife team of graduate students who had been to Jordan once before, a colleague of theirs, and the wife’s middle-aged aunt and mother. I am the oldest member of our traveling party.

In the winter twilight, we five travelers squeezed into a cab for a ride across town for dinner at a restaurant in Abdoun Circle, a more westernized neighborhood than our hotel which is a few blocks from Jordan University. After a cozy ride with the four women squeezed together in the back seat, we piled out of the cab and walked a block, crossed the traffic circle and went into a restaurant.

Shortly after we placed our order, a man entered the restaurant with a police officer. They spoke to the restaurant manager, who gestured to our group across the room. The manager then gestured to Kevin (the only male in our party) to step over to them, leaving the four women across the restaurant worrying about what was going on. After a brief discussion, Kevin returned to our table alone.

He explained that the man with the policeman was our cab driver. Unbeknownst to me, my wallet had fallen out of my coat in his taxi. It contained a few US dollars, plus all my credit and debit cards, and my ID. The taxi driver, with the help of the traffic cop who had been directing traffic around the Circle, had tracked down a bunch of clueless tourists to return vital documents. The driver did not stay around for a reward, or even a thank-you. He returned my wallet to Kevin and left with the policeman.

There’s no better event to illustrate the spirit of this city. The city of Amman is a strange brew of modern high-rise luxury hotels, rich peoples’ walled compounds, and empty trash-strewn lots. To the eyes of this first-time - and not very well-traveled - American tourist, the place is intimidating in its foreignness. I’m intelligent enough to know that to use the term “third-world” to describe portions of Amman would be to ignore the spirit of this ancient place. It would also be a grave insult to the cab driver who represented Amman’s modern inhabitants to me.

Even in my ignorance and travel fatigue, I recognized that I had just had an experience that would be unthinkable in America, but that was perfectly reasonable in Amman. Our driver spoke barely enough of my language to return my carelessly lost wallet. Of course, I speak no Arabic with which to acknowledge his effort. The irony is not lost on me. It’s a shame that such a stupid action on the part of this smug American was the catalyst for such a gracious and generous action on his.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Fare well.

The valley noon:
One can hear no bell,
But wild bamboos
Cut across bright clouds,
Flying cascades
Hang from jasper peaks;

No one here knows
Which way you have gone.

On visiting a Taoist Master in the
Tai-Tien Mountains
and Not Finding Him

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Good Intentions in the Vegetable Garden

Today it was 90 degrees in the sun by 8:00 a.m. By 9:00, the Vegetable Garden simmered under a harsh bright blue sky. Little ants had established a rush hour byway right across the garden gate. The smell of the parched and ripe summer vegetables - in their last burst of raw energy before the fall chill - was heavy and musky. The basil was so pungent amid the cherry tomato vines that a whole corner of the plot smelled like pizza. The heat-loving rosemary exuded a burst of steamy fragrance the moment the hose touched its dry spikes.

Standing in the diminishing shade to water the garden felt like standing next to a dry and menopausal crone with hot flashes crowding the top end of the temperature arrow, from Blush to Immolate. Little do the few tomatoes, squash, eggplant and melons know their impending fate. Next week, we clear the ground to reinstall the sadly dysfunctional drip irrigation system.

The melons won’t ripen before next week, nor will the final beefsteak tomatoes. But I did fill my basket with the last good shiny purple Japanese eggplants, sweet red and green peppers, almost red tomatoes, and a tiny yellow scalloped squash.

Gardens are so forgiving. Like life itself, a garden is a compromise. As the season progresses, victory begins to be described in terms of percentages. My life has been like the hopeful and positive description on a package of seeds, that struggles through the unexpectedly harsh seasons, arriving as a shadow of it’s seed pack picture. Like my vegetable garden, I may not have always done well, but I always meant well. And I always lived up to some of my fondest hopes.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Of Gourds and Birdhouses

My old man just told me how to make my three gourds into bird houses. After trying to cook the first one when it was still green, I finally learned to distinguish gourds from winter squash. Good to know.

But first, let the gourds dry. These were picked in late July and I'll leave them alone until next spring. I'll move them from out of the sun into the cool dry carport.

Then, cut a large hole in what will be the back. Make the hole large enough to fit your hand inside. Cut the plug to enable it to be replaced, and save it. You'll eventually replace it. Then cut a half of a 3" circle in the front that will be the door. Cut a few drainage holes into the bottom to keep it from rotting. Cut two small holes in the top to string cord from which to hang.

Clean out the guts. Paint and decorate using your imagination, but don't go tacky on us here. Let paint dry. Insert a twig below front door if you like - for a perch. Replace the back hole.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Nature Smiled

Nature is generally pretty easy to ignore. Anthropomorphosizing about Nature’s displays of power is the best way I know to interpret what I saw and to describe what I learned.

Sometimes Nature has a tantrum and creates a noisy, nasty display of climatological power that’s hard to ignore - say, a hurricane, monsoon, or a spate of tornados. Sometimes the Earth conspires with Nature to remind us that we’re just passengers on this ride - say, an earthquake, perhaps with a tsunami chaser.
Lately in my neighborhood of Earth, we’re suffering through a stubborn and silent prolonged heat wave and drought, from which I conclude that Nature is still mad at us, but feeling tired and not very hopeful about teaching us respect.

Then, the other night, Nature smiled. During my favorite magic hour at the end of a perfect summer day, the sun set in such a blaze of glory that the whole sky beamed with pleasure.

What a sunset. What a lesson in observing to the beauty around us. To continue my shameless and arrogant interpretation of Nature’s mood swings, it seemed to me that the message was this. Pay attention to Nature and you will discover beauty everywhere. Not just in splashy backlit clouds at sunset, but in shadows beneath parched shrubs where the ubiquitous tiny ants rule the world. Not just in Technicolor clouds showing off with the whole big sky as their background, but in a fleeting beam of sunlight catching a few modest blue lobelia in front of a green glazed pot.