Thursday, April 26, 2012

Responsible Vegetable Gardening - Brussels Sprouts

"You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself. That is something you have charge of."

Vegetable gardeners who cultivate year-round vegetable gardens - as we can here in Zone 9 - must learn to embrace the mysteries; and by that I don’t mean mysteries like why someone would want to grow Brussels sprouts in the first place. I don’t judge. For the purpose of classifying the vegetables we cultivate at any given moment, I refer to the mysteries of seasonal transitions: when can I stop growing cool season veggies like cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts); and when can I put the tender tomato starts in? Especially, when do I get to give up on the languishing Brussels sprouts and sew the watermelon seed?

Mother Nature doesn’t simply flip a switch at the spring equinox and declare that those languishing cabbages won’t ever get around to making heads, or that the world is now safe to grow eggplants. Around here, she tends to tease the gardener with a week or two of lovely warm weather and then circle back around and ambush us with a whack of winter weather. (And, what the hell do those anorexic, inappropriately dressed weather “gals” mean when they say well, we’re in for some unseasonable weather? Before weather can become unseasonable, you have to have discernable seasonal transitions, or at least discernable seasons, i.e. seasonable seasons. We don’t.)

Which gets me to my real subject here: those deadbeat losers of the vegetable kingdom - Brussels sprouts. We have only left the malingering Brussels sprouts in our vegetable garden for the upcoming Spring Garden Festival. It’s not just that we don’t want a patch of bare ground, or that we’re reluctant to expose tender vegetable to “unseasonable” weather. It’s certainly not that we expect to actually see a respectable ROI on our Brussels sprouts venture.

Speaking only for myself and not my fellow veggie gardeners, my reason for permitting the Brussels sprouts to remain in the garden is that they are a harsh lesson in responsible vegetable cultivation. If not damning evidence of their worthlessness, their unproductively is surely the harbinger of doom for our Brussels sprouts. These pretentious celebrities of the vegetable kingdom that spell their first name with a capital letter are as worthless as any Hollywood celebrity. 

When we were kids, we used to call them Mighty Mouse Cabbage, but that didn’t mean we liked eating them. I have met exactly one adult in my entire life that claims to like eating Brussels sprouts. Cooking the fruit of the Brussels sprouts makes your house smell like the unventilated hallway of a cheap boarding house at dinnertime, even down to the finishing notes of unwashed sweat socks lingering in the kitchen the next morning.

I conclude my case against Brussels sprouts by somewhat redundantly concluding that any annual vegetable that takes more than 90 days to ripen (or not to even bother to ripen) isn’t going to work in the microclimate of our garden. I should admit here that I have seen a vegetable garden about 5 miles away grow these plants taller than I, and so thickly productive that their stalks look like cylindrical cobblestone roads. In fairness to me, a professional master gardener who lavishly feeds them her homemade compost tends that garden. That said, I maintain that it is not a responsible use our sparse water and precious compost, not to mention my meager unpaid amateur gardening talents, for some stupid vegetable that ends up being an open invitation to several generations of short-lived white flies to enjoy themselves at leisure.

But wait until next week, after the Festival. Then, look out.

Imagine mama whitefly, who today gathers her fledgling babies around their whitefly hearth and tells them about the rich feeding grounds in plot #10. There, my darlings, you will find yummy, leggy Brussels sprouts, with lush leaves and anemic fruit that have nurtured generations of our ancestor flies, making us the mightiest whitefly kingdom on the block. Now imagine how, come next week, the kids will find a figurative scorched bare ground. Hah! It will be like global warming for our whitefly population; or 100-year drought, right? This leads me to admit that another reason to leave the sprouts in is to lull the whiteflies into complacency and indulge my vengeful fantasy. Surely, one of the perks of being a vegetable gardener is the totally godlike power to change the environment of pests. Apocalypse next Tuesday! Citizens of entire whitefly nations will rise up and turn upon their failed leaders as their world descends into the chaos, and as whitefly civilization breaks down, and as entire whitefly cultures are lost in nightmares of starvation and deprivation. (Disclaimer: I could be less than accurate about whitefly biology and ethnography here, but I’m probably not. I’m not a botanist or a fortuneteller. Based on this post, one might even say that I’m not much of a gardener either.) 

It is a challenge to garden responsibly, particularly as our seasonal circumstances are so mercurial. One of the changes we can control is what we plant and don’t plant. As god is my witness, I’ll never plant Brussels sprouts again.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Not Such a Long Way After All, Baby

 “The courage of a man lies in commanding, a woman’s lies in obeying.”
-       Aristotle

“Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy and certain forms of artistic production. ... Women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality, but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions.” 
-       Hegel

Women are being threatened. Again. At first I was surprised that we seemed to be moving backwards in this seemingly endless American election season. Then I was outraged. Now I’ve come to accept that men have always felt this way about women.  This journey from denial to acceptance is neither more remarkable than the taste of bitter ashes; nor more puzzling than the long history of man’s inhumanity to women. But there’s still the question of why women continue to passively accept or even actively collude in their domination by men.

I think I’ve found a big answer to part of this question - by recently learning about the plight of a typical Afghan woman who passively accepts her lot in life. This girl was married off at age 11 to a husband who expects his wife to wait on him hand and foot until she dies young, probably in childbirth. Why doesn’t she strangle the man in bed or poison his dinner?

Despite the risk of having my head explode from the cognitive dissonance of attempting to equate the horrific fate of an 11-year old Afghan bride to that of a “working mom” like Ann Romney (after all, neither of them have every been “gainfully" employed) I have developed a theory about why. Women everywhere accept our various fates because we have no expectation of any alternative choice.

The young Afghan woman who flees from an abusive husband is guilty of committing a “moral crime” for which she can be indefinitely imprisonedHer “choice” is to return to her father’s house where she will be murdered for bringing dishonor; to live as a beggar and never see her children again; or to return to the abusive husband. For very similar reasons, American women will watch as American men move us in pretty much the same direction as the customs prevailing in Afghanistan. Apart from the feeble power of our vote in an electoral system increasingly corrupted by corporations and politicians, what choice do we have?

I was not only a working mom, I was a single mom with a full time job who attended law school at night. I was fortunate. I had the choice to leave a bad marriage, to find an underpaying job, to attend school to improve my income potential. But I didn’t have a choice about making 77% of a man’s salary; of paying for birth control if I chose to engage in intercourse; of leaving my young child in the care of someone else while I worked and attended school; of paying 20% of my salary for such day care; or of being exhausted every day and every night for years.

Generally speaking, the sexes are different. Men are generally larger and have stronger muscles. Women are generally smaller and possess less physical strength (although my own experience is that women have more endurance).  When survival depended on physical prowess, men had a clear advantage and could even be considered superior – again, generally speaking.  Thus evolved a rule that made perfect sense: because women generally aren’t able to kick the shit out of men, men got to kick the shit out of women. A perfectly reasonable rule. To. A. Caveman. To cavemen like Aristotle and Hegel, or many American politicians. The kicking can be literal, as it is to the young mother in Afghanistan; or metaphorical as it was in the workplace and marketplace to me.

But that was then. I might have belonged to the first generation of feminists who had access to reliable birth control, but I was also part of a generation of women who still wanted to become mothers, even though many of us couldn’t be stay-at-home moms. But today, many daughters of my generation of moms are choosing to postpone motherhood for a professional career; and even to forgo motherhood entirely.

So, my theory about why women often permit men to kick the shit out of them is that they allow it for the sake of their children. I suspect some men realize this dirty little secret and hence the “war on woman’s health” which is actually more of a war on a woman’s choice about whether or not to bear children.  While many mothers of my generation probably consider the greatest accomplishment in their lives to be their children, I now understand why more and more of our daughters do not see motherhood as their greatest potential achievement.  In this regard, our daughters are smarter than we were. They exercised a very fundamental choice. They have found a way to break the cycle of passive acceptance of generations of unfair and cruel treatment at the hands of their male relatives.

These days, survival no longer depends on relative brute strength, at least in America. Women have brains every bit as capable of men; many would argue more capable. Once no longer hampered by the imposed long term "weaknesses" of childbearing, women may no longer passively permit men to kick the shit out of them. I hope I live to see the day men figure this out. Maybe I already have.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flowers Resembling Wisteria

"Among all plants, vines are the most vivid examples of nature's playful spontaneity. When they decide to grow, they grow without knowing where to grow to. They never miss an opportunity to engage themselves in a playful act with whomever they meet.The movement of the vine dutifully records the memory of its adventures."

Although my wisteria is stunningly lovely this year, I have posted enough about wisteria. So, instead, I thought I’d use this post not so much as an excuse to show off my white wisteria, but to write about flowers that look like wisteria. Clever how I did that, eh?

Have you ever thought you saw a large white wisteria tree? I have. We were both wrong. What we saw was a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). The flowers bear a remarkable resemblance to white wisteria, especially from a distance. Upon closer inspection, they are clearly not wisteria.

The picture on left below is wisteria. The picture on the right is a black locust. Close resemblance, but clearly not the same.

An intriguing fact is that all three plants - the black locust, the mescal and the wisteria - are not only drought tolerant, they all have similar foliage: pinnately compounded leaves. My personal theory about these similarities is that this is simply further evidence of  a conspiracy by Mother Nature to keep me from ever learning any serious botany.

A more intriging flower, for me, is found on a tidy bush, intriguingly called Mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora, or Calia secundiflora), also known as the Texas Mountain Laurel. All three pictures on the left are of the mescal flower, bush and seed pods. The seeds inside are bright orange-red.

It surprised me to learn here that mescal beans “are also not related to the highly intoxicating beverage called ‘mescal’ or ‘mezcal’, made from the fermented and distilled juices of several North American species of Agave, including A. americana and A. atrovirens. Incidentally, the fermented juice is called pulque, and the highly-alcoholic distilled products include Mezcal and Tequila.” Good to know.

It also surprised me to read that that the mescal bean is not related to the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), although  “The poisonous seeds contain the alkaloid cytisine, and were once used in the intoxicating, vision-seeking ‘red bean dance’ prior to the widespread use of the "less-life-threatening" peyote cactus.” So, peyote is less deadly than mescal. Also good to know.

The politically incorrect plant sign on the mescal bean in the LA Arboratum where I took these photos this month explains, “The wood yields a yellow dye. The bright orange-red seeds were sacred to Indians and placed in burials. Now they are made into jewelry.” A depressingly succinct summary of how native culture has been misunderstood and corrupted by descendants of European settlers.

We may no longer do the red bean dance, but at least we can now buy our intoxicants in clearly labeled bottles at the Booze Barn; and we don’t have to keep all the details straight about what might kill us. More importantly, we can simply enjoy these beautiful flowers for their appearance and not their chemical make up.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ask a Terrible Gardener

"We've left our future largely in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic is that they are bewildered by the present." Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It

If I find a buried treasure in the backyard when I’m digging a hole to plant a tree, do I have to share it with my deadbeat grown children?

Only if you don’t kill them immediately after you tell them about the treasure.

Is time travel possible?
I answered that question tomorrow

Why must I be a teenager in love?
You should really be asking a lawyer about this; preferably, one who specializes in estate planning.

Is the war in Afghanistan futile?
Some say so: “I say futile as (we) have 100,000 men in theater to engage in a fantastically unrealistic nation-building effort amidst a Pashtun population who largely detest our presence, simply to ferret out perhaps 50-100 residual al-Qaeda operatives, and with their leader already felled long ago in Abbottabad.” Gregory Djerejian

Can the Supreme Court force me to grow broccoli?
That remains to be seen. But if they do, you can always smother it with melted cheese.

Was Hunter S. Thompson an admirer of Spiro Agnew?
Probably not: “Hunter S. Thompson once characterized Agnew as a ‘flat-out, knee-crawling thug with the morals of a weasel on speed.' But he was Nixon’s vice president for five years, and he only resigned when he was caught red-handed taking cash bribes across his desk in the White House.’  This was absolutely untrue.  As any undergraduate zoology major knows, weasels on speed behave very differently." Brainstorm 

Does anybody here speak jive?
Beaver’s mom, but she’s dead.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Experience vs. Dreams

“Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head.” Geoff Dyer, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.

“People always think something's all true.”
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The other day, I arranged more than one terrarium on the table outside by my mural. The small terraria are real; the view from the painted window is not real. But the overall effect is pleasing.

The other day, a person I know described a vivid experience involving a train passing outside her bedroom window. In passing, the noisy train had woken her from a nice nap. She recounted that there was a neighboring lady who was going to buy the train, which was clearly frivolous and impractical.

The person recounting this experience is a dementia patient confined to a wheelchair and living in the midst of suburban houses where the nearest passing train is more than ten miles away. Her days are so routine as to be mind-numbingly boring, and I figure her dream-life is compensating by giving her something interesting to experience.

I am not the first person to speculate that if something does happen but only inside one’s own head such events are as real as experience as far as our brains are concerned. But what about the flip side of the question: can my brain insist that something I saw while awake was merely a dream, to be kicked to the curb of memory lane? There are more things these days that I’d rather forget than remember. At least, things that I can recall at the moment. For example, I’d rather remember the lovely blooming white iris, and forget the small crocodile lurking in the background.

It is sobering for me to consider that the foundation of my cognitive functions in the future rests on the shaky structure being constructed of my present experiences. Perhaps it’s time for me to research the whole lucid dreaming thing, so I can attempt to establish a less bewildering muddle of experiences to remember.

Then again, perhaps not. I do like trains.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Seize the Vicodin

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun
Shine on you crazy diamond
Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky
Shine on you crazy diamond
- - Gilmour, Water, Wright, Shine on You Crazy Diamond

It’s poppy season in Afghanistan: beautiful but deadly, and not just for those who grow and consume the harvest.

Meanwhile, back in America, it’s April Fool’s Day. The news stories about New York school officials censoring words from performance tests to avoid upsetting children are, regrettably, not a joke. After all, it’s not just New York where, for example, censoring words that might make kids feel bad like “poverty” and “divorce” are not the only example of such attempts to cocoon children from the really, really bad old world. It’s also no joke that California apparently bans the word “weed” from tests. Of course, as a gardener, I too, am upset by weeds…

In honor of poppy season/April Fools Day, I am hereby instituting a dress code for my blog. Please don’t read or post here if you’re not tastefully and modestly clothed. A bit of cleavage or a glimpse of a bulging codpiece is upsetting enough to your friends and family. Please spare the rest of us.

On a related note, there’s another line from the Pink Floyd song quoted above that has always mystified me: “… you wore out your welcome with random precision…” Does anybody know what that means?

Once again, I have achieved a world record in labels that will never be seen together again.