Monday, July 28, 2008

I Remember

"Many a man has met death from the rushing flood of his own eloquence; others from the strength and wondrous muscles in which they have trusted."
Juvenal, Satire X

This blog is not so much about my garden, as about things I learn there. Like: the world is round, and I am pear-shaped. Like: how the French expression equivalent to calling a spade a spade is “appeler un chat un chat”. Calling a cat a cat.

My pear shape prevents my thoughts from fitting into tidy squared-off compartments of thought. There are times when I can squeeze through the convoluted corridors of memory and access certain areas inside my own head, the richer veins of contemplation, the quiet peaceful aisles where memories are stored in sweet soft pillows rather than tidy file cabinets. I try to fit in as much as I can as long as I can, then I have to squeeze beneath the overturned cup like the octopus in the laboratory; to wriggle beneath the curvy ropes of my coiled brain, and slip out into the sea, expanding and rocking beneath the moon above and deep currents below.

That’s not say that I have a disorderly mind; that my ideas, inspirations and recollections sprawl inside my head with their limbs entangled; or that they’re like lint clogging the corners of god’s laundry room. Tangled among the tight convolutions of my brain, thoughts that rub up against each other chaotically, randomly, like tossing a deck of cards on the bed and then bouncing on it.

I remember rolling down a short grassy hill, smelling like summer clover and honeysuckle. I remember that my body then was small and quick, unencumbered by pain. I remember it so clearly.

Relying on your own eloquence to escape death, Juvenal says to me, can be just as futile as relying on your strength. So I’ll shut up. I’m off to sit on the porch with un chat, and remember.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Tell Me Your Answer True

“I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, spoken by Daisy in The Great Gatsby

Did you ever want a Doctor’s Kit set for Xmas and receive a nurse kit instead? In the war between your brains and your looks did you ever lose a battle? The whole war? Did you ever feel suddenly isolated, like the kid in the bubble? Are you losing your ability to hear and be heard through the thick glass walls of your bubble? Has your ability to hear become as compromised your ability to rebound when life hits back, really hard?

Then, this post has come a long way for you, baby.

I love to garden, to get dirt beneath my fingernails, to wipe sweat from my forehead as I rest in the shade, and look up, and see sudden beauty that I made with my own hands. Ok, me and mother nature, but still. Those are times when I can see the here and now, when I really stop racing into the future. A moment of the most wonderful exhalation of tension, frustration, pain. In my garden, I feel like who I am, not who I’m masquerading as the rest of my days.

Here, I live and breathe. And most importantly, that real deep part of me is intact, safe and not threatened. I don’t have to run to try to keep ahead of the anger that breathes down neck and makes me hunch my shoulders in pain. I don’t shoulder the weight of the world out back, just my own lightweight little foolish self.

It’s only here, in the backyard summer afternoon heat, creating beauty that I enjoy and relish in, that I meet my self coming and going. I’ve become Daisy’s happy fool. My garden is, finally, the best place a girl can be in this world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Grand Unified Theory of Gardens

"I was flipping through the cable channels the other night, trying to get an abstract sense of the way emergent processes of change and transformation generated by contemporary high-tech society are challenging cultural assumptions regarding diverse aesthetic forms to create a novel state of history… when, all of a sudden, I realized that everything I was looking at was the biggest load of unimaginably horrific crap ever."
Attributed to Richard Rorty, in article entitled, “Post-Modern Condition Upgraded To Pre-Apocalyptic”

The other night, after returning from the Liar’s Club where we enjoyed possibly excessive quantities of excellent local craft beer, we were trying to come up with a catchy name to call these times we live in. It was easier in “the 80s” or “the 90s” to just refer to the numerical decade. But “the 0s” doesn’t sound quite right, even stuck here in America in the waning days of the Bush II presidency. There was modern, but that was 100 years ago. Then, there was Postmodern, or as we took to calling it “PoMo”. But that was 50 years ago. And to call these days Retro is just a sad observation of how we cling to nostalgia when the going gets tough – reminiscing about the good old days when gas was cheap and Americans were respected.

Then, although the signs are everywhere present that serpents lurk in the grass, it came to me in a flash of inspiration so vivid that I could hear choirs of angels humming a wordless three-part harmony in the background, and believe me this is big, because I’m practically deaf.

Gardening is, at its most basic level, playing in the dirt. But that’s not my epiphany. Everybody knows that.

But deep in the dirt is where the roots of all growing things begin, and therefore gardening brings the gardener to the roots of life. But that’s not the epiphany either – every gardener knows that.

But “dirt” has also been defined as real or metaphorical matter in a place it doesn’t belong – hence “dirty feet” or “dirty minds”. So gardeners are not only likely to unearth the roots of wisdom when they garden, they must also deal with potential serpents, and other unimaginably horrific crap – much of which ends up sticking to the soles of their feet and burrowing deep under their fingernails. To illustrate my point, study the picture of the door of this church. Exactly how much redundancy do we need to tell the flock of this storefront church that the noon prayer begins at, say, noon? And if it’s "daily" why only M to F? And what kind of church isn’t open on Sundays?

So, my inspiration, my grand theory hit me like a load of unfinished compost flung from a pitchfork: if you want to become wise, you must get dirty first. How else will you learn to distinguish the horrific crap from the roots of wisdom? Whether or not that leads you to grok the meaning of the universe, or to deconstruct the semiotics of our contemporary state and awaken to realize we’re up to our knees in horrific crap, depends as much on what you had for lunch as it does on whether you believe Richard Rorty’s alleged insight quoted above. Dirt is dirt. Whether or not it’s good for your soul in what I’ll call these “Pre-Apocalyptic” days, depends on whether or not you are a true gardener.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Vanilla Cream Corn

"Tomatoes, corn and peas should be consumed as soon as possible after picking because their sugar content quickly decreases."
Naill Edworthy, The Curious Gardener's Almanac

There’s nothing like having your white corn harvested by intruders to make you long for fresh sweet corn. So I got some at the Farmer’s Market and made this recipe, adapted from one of my favorite vegetable cookbooks, "Homegrown Pure and Simple, great healthy food from garden to table” by Michel Nischan and Mary Goodbody, 2005, Chronicle Books, San Francisco. Because the people I cook for can’t manage corn on the cob, this is a perfect way to enjoy fresh corn.

10-12 ears of corn
¼ cup whole milk (I use Half and Half)
1 fresh vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or ½ t pure vanilla extract
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Using a sharp knife, cut the corn kernels from the corn kernels from the cob. You should have 9 – 10 cups kernels. Discard the cobs.

Juice half the corn kernels in a heavy-duty juicer. Remove the pulp from the juicer and put it in a fine-mesh sieve. Press on the pulp to extract as much juice from it as you can. Combine this juice with the rest of the corn juice for a total of about 2 cups.

In a large saucepan, combine the corn juice, the remaining corn kernels, the milk, and the vanilla bean (if using extract, add later) and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer gently, stirring constantly, for 2 – 3 minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken. Simmer for about 3 minutes longer or until the corn is cooked through. If using extract, stir it in after the corn is cooked.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately. The dish is so sweet, you could almost use it as a desert. I tend to overcook the corn to suit my family, but if you leave it slightly al dente it has a nice crunch that I prefer. I use 6 ears and slightly less cream, but I use the whole vanilla bean. It makes three generous servings.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Corn “Harvest”

"How rarely Reason guides the stubborn Choice,
Rules the bold Hand, or prompts the suppliant Voice,
How Nations sink, by darling Schemes oppres'd,
When Vengeance listens to the Fool's Request."
Samuel Johnson, The Vanity of Human Wishes:

What the hell? The corn in the Veggie Garden was almost ripe on Tuesday, July 8. Working nearby on Saturday, July 12, I stopped by the Veggie Garden and found the corn had all been “harvested” by some pest. Yesterday, on July 15, I took these pictures, and salvaged exactly three ears that had remained untouched. We’re working on a design for a decent fence to keep rabbits and possibly gophers out. But this may have been done by birds. Just how far must we go to enjoy the fruits of our labors and prevent other creatures from stealing it from us?

This is shaping up to be a tough year. The rains never came – a fool’s request. Everything outside is burning up like brimstone in hellfire. It’s taken a few years, but I have learned from the Water Conservation Garden about what constitutes a sustainable garden in my climate, as it continues to revert to the ancient deserts and dry sea-beds that were here before us. From my volunteer work, I learned about how living green is more than trendy, it’s survival. I learned that I can live here in harmony with nature if I just keep simplifying, slowing down, and discarding the vanity that I can’t seem to outgrow no matter how old I get. But my corn, dammit! They took my corn!

Because of the contiguous border towns of Tijuana, Baja California on the Mexican side; and San Diego, California on the US side, each year my city is visited by more people from other countries than any other city in the world. I’m outside the City Limits, but within the County of San Diego. There is enough water available within our region to support a population of 10,000, and about 1.5 million people live here. The ecosystem is changing too. As our failed corn harvest illustrates, the other creatures who live among us are trying to figure out how to live sustainably and adapt to the changing times just like I am.

While we spray our kitchen gardens with poison and wait patiently for the fires to ignite in celebration of autumn, we fill our swimming pools and ponds, we use more water on our yards each year than the amount of annual rainfall in Portland, Oregon. We nod in wise concurrence when told to conserve water, with no hint from the Bold hand of our public officials that water will be rationed within the year. Let no darling conservation schemes oppress us! Let no reason cloud our unsustainably stubborn choices! And let Vengeance leave my corn alone!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Vexation of Spirit, or Go Ask Alice, I think She’ll Know

“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold all is vanity and vexation of spirit…
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly; I perceived that this also is vexation of sprit.
For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
- Holy, Efin, Bible, Ecclesiastes

One of the major buzz kills of knowing everything is that your students frequently are sorry to have to learn from you. By definition, a know-it-all knows everything. Your wisdom causes our grief. The world is composed mostly of fools and madmen who know nothing. And here I am, as Jerry Rafferty said, stuck in the middle with Vexation of Spirit.

I’m in a big close family, with dozens and dozens of immediate and extended families. I’ve known a few “outlaws” in my time, and come to love them. But I’ve never actually been one. Just now, I’m out-gunned by my spouse’s kin here, three to one. Now, I’m the outlaw, an angry bird is staring down at me, claiming the ripening stalk between us. If I cook dinner, Vexation of Spirit has to make an alternative dinner in case she throws up mine.

Just to be safe like G’dma W when we were kids, not trying to make any fuss, and of course managing to make more of a fuss thereby. Wait, what? THAT’s where I’ve felt like this before. Then, I was 10, sharing a bedroom w/sister M1 and G’dma W. One of the first words my mother taught me was “hypochondriac” because I could see one in action so perfectly at the dinner table. As we nestled in our snug beds on Christmas Eve, G’dma would say good night, then, “I hope I live until morning. Please Jesus, just this one more Xmas… I know I won’t be here by next Xmas, and blah, blah…” I learned young the lesson of passive aggression, masquerading as compassion, living so far up the butt of denial that we couldn’t duck the radiation of it’s blast at ground zero. I’d forgotten. “Poor G’dma!” we’d lament in chorus every night when we three went to bed at 8 pm in the pre-adolescent December dark. I hold my neck in muscular sympathetic pain now, for the pain I knew we’d all feel in those moments before we all went off to our own sweet dreams.

I am now about the age G’dma was back on Dallas Avenue. And I’m caught in a time warp of memories from my very happy childhood. So what triggered this post-traumatic stress train wreck of remembrances? Yesterday, my worst dreams were realized. I was the recipient of deep dark family secrets of abuse, betrayal, the ways we hurt the ones we love. It was a strange juxtaposition: loss of trust relayed in untrustworthy ways. I found myself doing the family’s actual dirty laundry as Vexation of Sprit aired the family’s metaphorical dirty laundry. A good example of how increasing knowledge increases sorrow.

No wonder I’m looking outside for a place to hide, even if it’s over 90 and more humid than we expect in July. Muggy days, muggy memories, here at family dysfunction junction. For all my whining, neither MIL nor Tech Support Guy subject me to this crap. Time to cool down by watering the plants now in afternoon shade. The perfect kind of mild sedative I need this week. Blue Cat will guard the gate while I work undisturbed.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ozymandias’ Garden

"I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- Shelley

I’ve been trying for some time, to come up with a suitable name for my backyard slash garden. At first, I thought it might be too pretentious to name my garden, but I blog about it, and that has to be more pretentious, horticulturally speaking, than a tattoo of a Chinese or Japanese symbol on my lower back. I’m cooler than you mere backyard dabblers, MY garden has a name. But that’s just not me. I’m too cool to have to stand on my tiptoes and summon an audience when I’m clever.

I’ve been reluctant to decide on a name without due deliberation, because I don’t want to be stuck with something hip and/or retro po mo, only to wake up one morning and realize that ship of naming convention has sailed. Nor do I want fairy names, Green Man allusions, or other obscure literary references that come to mind like Eden or Smirkwood. Something so uncreative as Cassandra’s Garden just won’t due, unless of course, my name is actually Helen of Troy.

I toyed with oriental, Ottoman or Ten Thousand and One Nights (sic) names. Calling my lopsided trellis a stately pleasure dome tends to oversell the effect. Calling my backyard Scheherazade’s Garden of Earthly Delights doesn’t quite catch the character, as I’ve admitted my garden looks more like a painted whore, than a face to launch 1,001 narrative ships.

For another reason, I didn’t want to face the possibility of having to re-name my garden periodically if it fails to live up to whatever vision du jour possessed me to name it in the first place. For example, today, I kinda like Swamp of The Valley of Death, but I have a feeling that name won’t age well. Global warming is taking my desert farther from anything wet than I like to admit. Swamp is as inappropriate as Esmerelda’s Garden and Tikki Lounge.

But I think I might be on to something, naming my garden after the great King Ozymandias. First of all, like Ozyman, there’s generally a frown on my visage, a wrinkled lip, and sneer - if not of cold command, then of concentration. Furthermore, I'm like him in that we both have hands that mocked us and hearts that fed. Finally, if my garden guests think of King Ozyman, they may assume that regardless of how forlorn or threadbare my yard looks when they visit, there was a time - back in the day - when it was enough to make a mighty garden designer despair. And today's that day.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Natural Goodness

A spoonful of high fructose corn syrup makes it easier for the medicine to go down. It might actually help you swallow the recent FDA pronouncement that HFCS is as “natural” as the day is long. Just like refined white sugar, and that pink candy corn they sell on the boardwalk.

Check this post:Crimes against “natural”: FDA helps healthwash HFCS

There’s some good links in above post. I especially like the link to a Corn Refiners Association illustrated guide Here that shows just how many steps are necessary to derive HGCS from corn. I’m sure Homer Simpson would be the first to enjoy the show, and the natural goodness of this product that’s given a generation of Americans diabetes. MMmmmm, high fructose….

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

To Die For

“I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted to the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

“He questioned softly why I failed?
‘For beauty,’ I replied.
‘And I for truth, - the two are one:
We brethren are,’ he said.

“And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.”

- Emily Dickinson, #448

Although it’s the beginning of this poem that echoes Keats (“I died for beauty”) the more famous last stanza of Dickinson’s poem evokes a tombstone slowly being engulfed in moss. The eons rush by, passing in a dizzying fast forward, as we watch the moss swallow the stone, creeping up to the surprised lips of the talking friends. At this faster rate, the growth of the moss is freakish, but sublime – a peaceful scene so beautiful it is “to die for”. But at last, the moss will place a gentle finger on the lips, softly murmuring “shhhh”. In the end all is silent – peace reigns.

You win again, nature. Placidly residing in even the most humble garden, I sometimes stumble over Peace, nodding her head on the shoulder of a kindly tree root. Rushing through like I did today, just to take the compost out, turn and water it, I was taken by some new blooms, unrecognized flowers of seed sown months ago and name forgotten. The compost is cooking and liking it, which is more than I can say for the flowers who are also cooking, but not so enthusiastically.

I don’t flatter myself that the garden I build will stand the test of the ages. I know that in the end, my garden will be redesigned by nature and no trace will be left of me. Nature always has the last word, even if it’s “shhhh.” The interesting thing is that my garden is here today. Someday soon, we may look back at this summer as the time we reached the tipping point. We may have already surrendered our once-undisputed claim to running this place. Whether we recognize it yet, we may be past the point of no return. Man is beginning to lose the battle. Nature has started to fight back.

And I’m ok with that because nature has much more experience in running things than man, and it’s almost time for mankind to stop sowing, and start reaping. It might take nature longer to clean up than it took man to make dirty, but the tide will turn. Man might not be at the top of the food chain after the next spin of Natural Selection wheel. It’s ok with me that the next time there’s a garden where I now live, it will be a more sustainable one, in a more generous climate, and with a more generous caretaker. By then, even the moss and stone will be gone, although I’m betting truth and beauty survive. I think it’s not a bad cause to die for.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ethnography of the Laundromat

"The more I buy the more I’m bought, the more I’m bought, the less I cost."
Joe Pug, Hymn 101:

My washer broke on laundry day: Sunday. It would swish around and wash, but it wouldn’t spin at the rinse cycle so I was left with sopping wet, soapy laundry. We filled five trash bags with the heavy wet stuff because I don’t own a laundry basket, and went to the Laundromat to put them through a rinse cycle and spin, then to dry them. After 2 hours, we left, taking home five trash bags of damp laundry which I was able to dry in 3 loads and put away. It took a big chunk out of my Sunday afternoon and evening, and it put me in contact with people who are, frankly, poor. At least compared to me.

I learned it’s not easy to be poor. A single large load costs $4.55, and it dryer time is now $0.30 for ten minutes. And you no longer put money in each machine. You feed a cash machine which gives you a plastic debit card you then swipe at the washer or dryer to buy wash cycles and dryer time. The debit card increments don’t conform to the Laundromat prices, so you always have to buy a little bit more than you need. It’s confusing to figure this out if you’re new, and that was the first lesson. People help.

Standing in front of the debit card monster, looking obviously confused, I was approached by a man with serious periodontal disease (and accompanying nasty bad breath. I learned to identify advanced gum disease when I worked as a dental assistant in one of my previous incarnations). He was bilingual, since the user can select Spanish or English. He explained the set-up, walked me through it, and told me I could put more clothes in the load using the larger capacity washers that are just inside the door. What would have been three loads at home was two loads in these machines.

Later, a woman whose dental problems had progressed to the point where she had few remaining teeth in her gracious smile, told me not to use the dryer I’d picked because it didn’t get as hot as the next one over. She showed me the trick of swiping the card just long enough to add ten minutes, but not so long the machine loses patience and ignores you.

Now, these are people who I would have little trouble making fun of at a comedy club, but the truth is they were nice, friendly, and helpful. In addition to not having their own washers at home, they obviously don’t have as good a dental plan as I do, so I don’t see how it’s their fault they have goofy smiles and terrible breath. Yet, they stick together and help each other – and strangers - with unselfish camaraderie. It gives me a peculiar feeling of community I’m not accustomed to in my neighborhood where I wouldn’t recognize my neighbors unless they are standing at their mailbox and we wave to each other.

As we waited for the wash, we sat at small plastic tables near a 14” Tv screen. Four pre-adolescent kids watched iCarly on Disney cable. This is a soft-porn show of teenagers who have gorgeous clothes, bright smiles, tinted hair, and lots of disposable income. While watching, they pestered their mom for money to buy junk food from the vending machine. Mom relented, but only on two conditions: you can only pick from the bottom row (mildly healthier) and you have to sit still and watch Linda Ellerbee’s news after the Disney thing.

So, not only does Mom have to go to the Laundromat, and on a Sunday night, but she has to take her kids – leading me to assume there’s nobody at home to watch them. She spent at least $25, counting soap, bleach, washers, dryers, and moderately unhealthy junk food. That is $100 a month, enough to pay for a washer and dryer on credit, if you had any credit. She struggles to let them live a little, and teaches them to pay attention to their world. They relate to the kids on TV about the same way my back yard relates to Huntington Gardens.

It’s expensive to be poor. And I’m so smug in my little world that I was feeling sorry for myself having to return to the Laundromat for one evening in the past 30 years.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Reap What You Sow

"O how abundant is the harvest heaped
In those rich storage-bins of souls who were,
While down on earth, the sowers of good seed!"
- Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXIII, Verse 130

This is the season of the vivid, the lurid, the clashes between colors, and I don’t just mean the seemingly endless presidential campaign as covered by American media.

I mean in my garden, where things are out of control. Clashing colors careen madly together, plants have outgrown their pots and become promiscuously entwined with each other, and planting beds are overrun armies of volunteers. The garden exceeds the gardener’s most inspired visions this month. The garden has taken upon the autonomous power to redesign and propagate itself.

Prosaic gardens may be pretty. My garden is not your uninspired cottage garden, dainty in it’s gently nodding cheerleader pastels. My garden is neither prosaic nor pretty. My garden a dirty girl, grown plump and looking older than her years in the glare of the harsh summer sun. The plants have outgrown their beds, in places looking like a fat girl in a prom dress two sizes too small – sweaty folds of skin spilling voluptuously out of desperately stretched fabric.

Despite being slightly slutty, my garden is sublime in it’s profligate boisterous life, enchanting in it’s effect. The sunflowers are few but noisy. The lab-lab (purple hyacinth bean) clashing next to the garish orange and brown wildflowers (who knows their name, they’ve returned in different places in the yard for years).

My pending harvest will be small – tomatoes are shriveling in the dry heat and eggplants never even bothered to hold onto their flowers, let alone fruit. But so, what if I won’t reap an abundant harvest to fill rich storage bins? The best part about being a gardener in this season (before the heat parks just outside the window and stares me down inside) is having no regrets. Whatever didn’t grow, despite desperate coaxing or profane cursing is barely missed. What is growing is no longer my problem. I’m just sitting back, enjoying it all more than ever this year.

My garden of delights proves there are other, more hopeful, meanings to the caution that we reap what we sow.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Horror Vacui

“‘A hole?’ the rock chewer grunted. ‘No, not a hole,’ said the will-o'-the-wisp despairingly. ‘A hole, after all, is something. This is nothing at all’."
Ende, 1974

Nature abhors a vacuum, says the rocket scientist. Nature abhors a vacuum, says the gardener. A garden is an absence of holes in the ground. Life is planted and thrives as holes are filled. There are no empty holes in the water my koi used to occupy in the pond. Without the distraction of the fish net, you can see the entire universe reflected in the still mirror of its surface.

Silent sentinel,
Pond empty, fish gone, night falls.
Sky reflects still pond.