Wednesday, February 3, 2016

a holiday visit

It was in early December of the year 2001 that my mother, Charlotte, suffered her first hip fracture and had surgery to rebuild the affected joint. She was 86 years old at the time, having been born in March of 1915. Charlotte eventually endured another hip fracture and another surgery in 2008, and would live on until October 2013, but that's another story (or two, or three).

On that early December day in 2001, I was reached at our older son and daughter-in-law's home in northern California, where I enjoyed their company while making myself available for some League of Women Voters' meetings. I was told that my parents would be needing my help. This was an understatement.

My father, Erven, had been entrusting all the cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and other household duties to Charlotte since July of 1937, when they were married in Southern Ohio, and so he was seriously challenged by her inability to sustain him during this difficult time. Neighbors would tide him over until I got there, he said when we talked on the phone. He had arranged for Charlotte to stay in a rehab facility until he was ready to bring her home. When he did bring her home, he said, she would find a newly-installed dishwasher as a Christmas present. Meanwhile, he suggested that I should bring my flute and be ready to play some Christmas music with her.

And so I went home to Southern California and soon took off for Phoenix, where Erven picked me up at the airport and took me to Charlotte's rehab facility near Wickenberg, Arizona. Charlotte was not in good spirits. She had been asked and asked to play the piano there, but she repeatedly declined because "something had been done to it." I opened the top of the upright piano and saw that it had been stuffed with tightly folded blankets by someone who wanted to muffle the sound. When the blankets were removed, it worked like a normal piano, and so Charlotte was willing to play at last.

I pulled out my flute, and the Christmas music I had brought along. Sotto voce, I said: "Good King Wenceslas, key of G." Charlotte gave me a two-bar intro ("GATH-ring win-ter fue-OOO-el"), and we were OFF!. The other patients loved it, and so did I. We gave a full program of Christmas carols, with Charlotte playing everything by ear. This was the kind of thing I had grown up doing since the age of eight, always expecting and receiving an accurate but flexible accompaniment on piano or organ, and never knowing the meaning of stage fright until my classmates began to suffer from it.

Afterwards, Erven drove me back to their small but comfortable home. There was about half a leftover turkey in the fridge, so I showed him how to make turkey hash. He was good at chopping meat and onions and potatoes, but nevertheless waited for Charlotte to take the initiative for future meals. At least she got a head start from the quantity of turkey soup I left in their freezer. I don't think she cared much for the hash.

Next day, the dishwasher was installed, and a neighbor brought in some chunks of two-by-four to help Erven raise their bed to the level prescribed for convalescence from hip surgery.

It's always good to have some easy music on hand. In recent years I've also learned to keep some favorite recipes on line in case of emergency.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

silk purse

Facebook friend Josh has challenged us: "If you please, let's hear your personal definition of Creativity." So far, twenty people have responded with answers from one word (sanity; happiness) to a short paragraph. I would respond but cannot limit myself to a single paragraph.* Josh has over a thousand Facebook friends, so this challenge may take a long time to run its course.

Josh's friend April comes very close to my definition with: "Putting pieces together in a previously unexplored manner, whether art, literature, music, et al." Profound, but I must say more.

For me, creativity is a compulsion to raise things (words included) and/or concepts to a higher level and, in so doing, change and enhance their meaning: looking for the sow's ears that can be worked into silk purses. My late friend Kay was trained as a clinical psychologist, so she knew a compulsion when she saw it. She also had the empathy to say to me one time that she understood how creativity complicated my life. 

On the other hand, Letty once said of herself (rather proudly I think): "I'm NOT creative!" This, on the way home from a Cub Scout event where we'd been doing crafts with the boys.

A while back I found myself pondering a cliché: "with all deliberate speed." It occurred to me that this legalistic phrase, made notorious as a sow's ear in the history of school desegregation, was a sort of paradox. By and by, my silk purse emerged as a short poem:

turns matter to energy
somewhere far away.
turns matter from noun to verb
producing energy I use today.
If you follow Joshua Frank Talbott's work, my speed and deliberation are sort of like his blue jay and dinosaur.

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*Facebook grabs your words away as soon as you hit enter, and this seriously cramps my style.

Friday, October 16, 2015

how sweet it is!

At the end of February, I planted stevia* in our little boysenberry patch. Somehow I had learned that boysenberries like to grow near tall herbs that will bloom and attract insects to pollinate the berries. Thus our berries' companion plants currently include not only stevia but also Italian oregano, mint, purple-flowered sweet marjoram, and garlic (chives and bulbs). In spite of this carefully controlled environment, 2015 has been a terrible year for boysenberries. In fact, I think I have harvested about three (3) berries and simply popped them into my mouth in situ.

I expected stevia and boysenberries to be great companions on our table as well as in the garden. I envisioned big bowls of berries sweetened with chopped fresh stevia leaves. We often eat strawberries that way, and I've been looking forward to drying and grinding some stevia leaves for sweetening hot drinks. Just imagine a sugar bowl full of dark grey powder!

Sadly, it's been harder and harder to find the stevia plant in our berry bed, because tomatoes** have pretty well taken over the space. Several times, Steve has gone out to pick stevia and come back empty handed, but I knew that the herb had grown tall and was hiding its green leaves between the stems of an overgrown tomato plant. So I showed Steve that, though the stevia's main stem was dry and brown, there were some healthy green stems and leaves farther up. In fact, I was delighted to find that the plant was topped with tiny white blossoms, and, as a great fan of edible flowers, I was eager to sprinkle them onto the strawberries. Naturally, I assumed that the stevia blossoms were attracting insects that would pollinate any berry blossoms they might happen to find.

I've harvested and dried a lot of herbs over the years, but have never seen anything quite like the way the stevia's thick main stem had turned brown. Maybe it was time to read up on how to grow stevia. Sure enough, the Bonnie Plants stevia page had this advice: "Stevia bears small white flowers in the fall. At this point, the plant stretches out and offers fewer good leaves for harvest. Trim off the blooms to keep the plant producing leaves as long as possible." An accompanying photo made it quite clear what to do.

Working sadly, I cut the brown stevia stem about eight inches above the ground and then made a fistful of cuttings from the green leaves. I carefully placed the cuttings in water and commenced to wait for roots to appear.

Later, I went back to the berry patch intending to cut back the tomatoes. Here's what caught my eye:

Surprise! It's a baby stevia growing up from the root of the original plant. How sweet it is! And how glad am I that I've learned the permaculture technique of leaving the roots of dead and dying plants in the soil instead of pulling them up.

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* As high fructose corn syrup and a plethora of artificial sweeteners are losing popularity among health-conscious consumers, stevia's continuing trendiness is ensured by such phenomena as the 7th World Convention on Stevia, held in Berlin in June by the World Stevia Organization. Visit for "a tale of incredible sweetness and intrigue."

** I'll save the explanation of this sad occurrence for another day, as I'm aiming for a happy ending right now.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

kinsey and me (too), part 2

Not much is said of the (too) in kinsey and me (too), part 1, unless you surmised that I too would stay awake to "read Nancy Drew mysteries on hot summer nights," as Sue, Kit, and Kinsey did. This post will go back and pick up on the 'me too' thread.

I have always felt a kinship with Kinsey Millhone, although I could never follow her regimen of running three miles a day (five days a week), and I have no training in martial arts or marksmanship. I appreciate to the fullest Kinsey's irreverence for most social mores and I endorse her minimalist lifestyle: small cars, a casual wardrobe (with one good black dress/tunic for emergencies), and readiness to travel at the drop of a hat. I love peanut-butter and pickle sandwiches, but am not addicted to the fast food Kinsey shamelessly devours in her car. Since high school, 3x5 index cards have been my preferred medium for important notes and lists, and Kinsey always carries a big bundle of cards in her shoulder bag.

Having spent memorable times in Santa Barbara, I enjoy the settings of Sue Grafton's novels. Her fictional Santa Teresa and neighboring cities including Colgate, Montebello, Perdido, and Cottonwood are thinly veiled versions of towns in the greater Santa Barbara/Ventura area. When Kinsey travels outside this area, 'real' place names are used: Reno, San Francisco, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Culver City.

Getting to know landmarks and characters through a series of novels makes a reader feel at home. This is true in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire and Caroline Keene's* River Heights, as well as in Sue Grafton's Santa Teresa. Kinsey's friends are my friends: lovable landlord Henry Pitts, restaurateur Rosie, confidante Vera, the enigmatic Dietz, and a cohort of officers from the Santa Teresa Police Department.

My kinship with Sue Grafton is simpler in a sense, but more complex in others. She was born in 1940, I in 1941; we came along at the tail end of the 'silent generation (1925-1942),'** born before Pearl Harbor yet shaped by our parents' experiences of the Great Depression and World War II.

I have watched Grafton age gracefully through book-jacket photos taken from 1983 to the present, and in each one she looks like someone I would meet at a community event or remember from my high school class of 1958. Just look at those dimples!

With this image in mind it was fun to spot Grafton's dimples on the face of evil Edna Shallenbarger, an embezzler who skips bail to appear in X. Kinsey tells us: "She smiled with her lips together, creating a dimple in each cheek. The effect was curious. Malice surfaced and then disappeared" (pp. 154-55). I sensed that Sue Grafton has used her dimples to great advantage throughout her life, and I now I will continue to look for dimples on the faces of characters in her fiction.

It's tempting, but I do not intend to count the ways that reading Kinsey and Me has informed -- and will continue to inform -- my reading and re-reading of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries, but I do want to comment on the 'me too' effect in Grafton's X. Don't worry. No 'spoiler alert' is needed.

X is set during a serious drought that lasted from 1986 to 1991, and all the households in Santa Teresa are being asked to cut back voluntarily on their water use. Henry Pitts is trying hard to comply by taking out his thirsty lawn, putting in a drip irrigation system, and learning about gray water. At times I felt like I was reading my own blog:

Weather pundits warn that California's drought is not over . . . . Water-saving measures abound: days and hours (minutes!) of watering time are severely limited, cities pay $2.00 per square foot and more for residential lawn removal, and courses in xeriscaping appear in college extension catalogs. People joke about the 'water police.'
But where Henry's compliance is still voluntary, we in Culver City have moved to the mandatory level. A fine of $250 will be levied any time we are caught running potable water outdoors, at times other than before 8:00 a.m. or after 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays. One neighbor in particular likes to phone the water company whenever she spots a violation.

From time to time I have written about my preoccupation with organizing our household effects. Sandra Felton, one of my current gurus in this area, recommends a regimen of three C's to use when decluttering: consolidate, containerize, condense. Following this procedure, I am currently consolidating and containerizing a vast number of things -- mostly yarn and other craft supplies -- into an indexed series of Bankers Boxes (about 30 so far, with no end in sight).

When Kinsey talks about assembling Bankers Boxes I once again feel that I am astride that fine line between fiction and fact. Kinsey uses her knowledge of Bankers Box construction (and deconstruction) to find an important clue about X's worst villain, and I can see just exactly how she did it. Luckily, I don't think I'll need to follow her example. But who knows? Someday I might want to conceal the details of a secret yarnbombing project. Where better than between layers of cardboard in Box Y?

- - - - - -
* collective pen name of a large group of underpaid ghostwriters working through the Stratemeyer Syndicate to create the Nancy Drew mystery series. 

** "too young to see action in World War II and too old to participate in the fun of the Summer of Love." See NPR's How Generations Get Nicknames.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

kinsey and me (too), part 1

Years ago, on the advice of a friend, I read G is for Gumshoe, Book 7 in Sue Grafton's alphabetical series of Kinsey Millhone mysteries. Soon thereafter I doubled back to A is for Alibi and kept with it through W is for Wasted -- the last few titles via my Kindle e-reader. Naturally I pre-ordered Book 24 ([is for whatever]), but what was I to read while I waited?

I noticed that Amazon's Sue Grafton page offered a book of short stories, Kinsey and Me, and so I ordered it even though I prefer longer fiction. The first half of Kinsey and Me features Kinsey Millhone, solving cases lickety-split within the rigid confines of the short-story format. The second features a fictionalized Sue Grafton, coming of age in Kentucky as 'Kit Blue' (née Conway) and coming to terms with the transitions in her alcoholic parents' self-destructive lives. The 'Kit Blue' stories were written during the decade following her mother's death. 'Vanessa' "died of an overdose of sleeping pills after extensive surgery so that the cause of death was probably listed as Despair" (pp. 273-74).

Besides the two groups of stories, Grafton presents three excellent essays which, for me, establish her credentials as a writer of elegant nonfiction. There's a preface in two parts: first describing the important differences between the mystery novel and the mystery short story, and then laying down a rationale for the writing of the more personal second part of the book. Between the two parts, "An Eye for an I" traces Grafton's own development as a reader and writer of crime fiction, alongside a detailed analysis of the genre. Finally the introduction to the second group of stories delves into the relationship between Sue, Kit, and Kinsey, starting with their largely unsupervised childhoods, free to read Nancy Drew mysteries on hot summer nights.

No doubt I could go on forever comparing and contrasting the parts of Kinsey and Me, but I'll stop with a couple of observations about style. The second half is written at what your English teacher would have called 'a higher level of diction' than anything you'll ever see in a Kinsey Millhone novel or story. It's a treat to witness Grafton take flight onto this more abstract level, but it's also a treat to see her come back down to the straightforward level on which Kinsey moves. I think the difference in style and tone is based on the fact that Kinsey is always moving into the future whereas Kit is always moving into the past.

I loved all the stories and essays in Kinsey and Me, but they would not keep me occupied until Book 24 finally downloaded itself onto my Kindle. Again, what was I to read?

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) rarely disappoints, and the Trollope group on Facebook was discussing his one-volume novel Miss Mackenzie in July and August. I read it quickly while waiting for the group to begin its discussion, and signed up to write summaries for the last three chapters (28, 29, and 30). BTW this was the first time I have been able to stay in sync with the group schedule, and I greatly enjoyed the leisurely second reading, enhanced by comments and background material from other readers. I shared some info on aspects of Victorian life -- mourning attire and dinner-party service à la russe, for example -- and am looking forward to the group's next project.

Just as I stepped away from the rarefied atmosphere of Miss Mackenzie, Sue Grafton's X appeared on the menu of my Kindle Paperwhite. There was no 'is for' clause in the title. Grafton takes up this issue in a USA Today interview:
I first thought of using 'X is for Xenophobe' or Xenophobia, which suggests a fear of foreigners, but alas, not one single foreigner materialized in the course of the writing," Grafton says. "There's a box of files with an X on the lid, a Father Xavier, a married couple whose last name is Xanakis, and a missing painting of a xebec which is a three-masted sailing vessel, but none of these seemed to encompass the whole. Finally, it occurred to me that since I was the one who invented this 'rule' about '…is for…' I was surely entitled to break it.
Let's wait for another day to talk about reading X with the new insights afforded by Kinsey and Me.


Monday, August 31, 2015

dragon fruit? it's really cereus!

On Friday, I posted cereus fruits, and on Saturday morning I walked out our front door to find our next-door neighbor talking with another gentleman on the sidewalk beside our cereus. The other gentleman kept saying something about dragon fruit.

I was in a hurry to get to our local fiesta, where I would be volunteering at the garden club's booth, so I didn't hang around to participate in the discussion. But dragon fruit kept nudging my brain and at last brought up the memory of a TV cooking show I'd seen where professional chefs were challenged to prepare an appetizer using dragon fruit. Yes! The picture in my memory matched a picture in my previous day's blog post: the fruit just splitting open and showing a wedge of something black and white.

Throughout the fiesta, I was thinking of dragon fruit. I couldn't wait to get home and do some googling. Info, of course, abounded. If you are already a dragon fruit aficionado, you may want to stop reading right now. But what I'm writing about is not so much dragon fruit per se as my delight at being set straight on something new that applies to my gardening efforts. I find it endlessly fascinating to explore the gaps between what I think I'm growing and what may eventually grace our table.

Here's the overview. Dragon fruit (aka pitaya) come in about four types, based on the variety of cereus that bears them. Our tree-like cactus produces bright red fruit shaped like hand grenades; inside they have black seeds distributed evenly through white pulp. Others, grown from plants with trailing stems, have pointed green scales (making them look more dragon-like) and may have either red or white pulp; the ones with red pulp are juicier and not as sweet as the ones with white pulp. Finally, most of the dragon fruit grown in Southeast Asia have yellow skin with green scales; again, pulp may be white or red. All are low in calories and high in antioxidants.

I found not only an account of the cooking show I'd seen last year, but also numerous videos on how to eat a dragon fruit. These ranged from a raucous piece by Chef Buck (must I warn you about the 'adult' language?) to a comprehensive farm-to-table presentation by a clean-cut young representative of  Tropical Fruit Growers of South Florida. The latter offers to have dragon fruit delivered right to your door. 

The idea of delivery raises the question: "How much does dragon fruit cost?" Again, there's a range. Chef Buck got his for $5.99 a pound, and this seems to be the low end. Amazon will send you a box of 3 -- the kind with green scales and white flesh -- for $28.95. Since most dragon fruit sold commercially weigh about a pound each, this is actually about the same price as the $10.00 per pound you're likely to pay in the upscale supermarkets (Whole Foods, Sprouts, Bristol Farms). Local farmers' markets offer them for as low as $7.00 per pound.

Today Steve and I counted four small dragon fruits on our tall cereus. With these and the possibility of an additional four or five from more recent blooms, I don't think we'll make a killing in the dragon fruit market. These are for home consumption, and while we wait for them to mature (probably not until November) we can start collecting recipes. On second thought, maybe just a small wedge will suffice for starters.

Friday, August 28, 2015

cereus fruits

Last Saturday, Steve's former colleagues Louise and Marsha came by to pick him up for an event. They were fascinated by our huge cereus,* which happened to be bearing a number of fat buds as well as some spent blossoms in various stages of dilapidation. We speculated about whether any would turn into fruit. Since Louise is a faithful reader of this blog, I started talking about a post I'd written last year about the fruit that had formed then. Louise said she hadn't seen it, so I thought I'd look it up and send her a link.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, my search was fruitless. I could visualize the photos I'd taken of the cereus fruit, but evidently I'd never even started a draft of the post or uploaded the photos into the draft. Some of the words I'd intended to use were still floating around in my head, but none had been written.

It was easy to find the photos, which I'd stored on the Internet on August 22, 2014. Let's look at them:

On the left is an unripe cereus fruit, and on the right a ripening fruit. The black things on the ground are dead blossoms, and the holes in the blossom ends of the fruits are where the pistil hung for several days after the other parts of the flower had dropped off. I know it's hard to believe that the darker fruit is the unripe one, but bear with me here.

The stem end of the ripe fruit shown above has fattened up to strengthen its bond with the plant, and the fruit shown below has started to open up. I think it looks like some weird hors d'oeuvre (tomato stuffed with cream cheese and poppy seeds?), or maybe 'Pac-Man' rudely talking with his mouth full:

At last, the final shot, where our Pac-Man appears to be frothing at the mouth:

Steve bravely tasted the gooey substance and said it was quite sweet. I'm grateful that he lived to tell the tale and that Louise told me she hadn't read it.

Am I chagrined that I had not brought this story of plant procreation to light last year? Not especially. I think anyone who is serious about writing has a mental stash of texts, and sometimes there's a fine line between those that have actually been written and those that exist only as phantasms. 

For years I struggled to write a poem about the phenomenon of gardenias blooming in our garden in November and, after a lot of over-intellectualizing along with references to Platonism and Victorian literary theory, I came up with this haiku:

                  Spring bloom in fall month 
                  draws wonder and suspicion
                  yet smells sweet as June's.

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 * This venerable plant has appeared in two previous posts on this blog -- it's cereus (August 2012), and cereus business (November 2013)  -- but, as in so many of my botanical and horticultural ramblings, it merely provided a vehicle for other subjects: procrastination, the importance of theme in writing, the poetry of Thomas Gray, etc.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License