Thursday, December 30, 2010

cessations, part 2

The last verse of Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly begins:

     Fast away the old year passes,
       fa la la la la, la la la lah!
     Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
       fa la la la la, la la la lah!

Actually the old year passes one day at a time, but during the last week in December we have an illusion of accelerating toward an ending -- which, of course, is also a beginning. But the unknown lyricist does not sustain the themes of cessation or of starting something new. She doubles back into the holiday season:

     Follow me in merry measure,
       fa la la, fa la la, fa la lah!
     While I tell of yuletide treasure,
       fa la la la la, la la la lah!

Yes, it's always easier to linger in well-decked halls than to look ahead!

It was on February 28, 2010, that I posted cessations, part 1, where I had some fun talking about hiatuses (hiati?) and on April 16 I first attempted cessations, part 2, which, I then thought, would deal with the completion of projects. Many other thoughts of different kinds of cessations have disappeared into the fa la la la lah of fantasy and good intentions during 2010.

While we have some control over a hiatus or the completion of a project, year's end comes whether we're ready or not, and for many it's a time to take stock, evaluate progress, and look toward the new. I started this blog on January 10, 2010, while still in the afterglow of a Christmas celebration. In spite of an occasional hiatus, I feel that I'm still making progress. In fact, I may have completed a project -- a year of postings, which could find their way into a hard-copy book -- postoccupations 2010 -- in early 2011.

If this book comes to fruition, it will only be finished in the very arbitrary sense of having reached a year's-end milestone. Most of the topics will be threads to pick up and continue in 2011 if not beyond. Maybe I'll even essay to talk about real cessations beyond the artifices of hiatus and year's end.

Meanwhile, Google Blogger is the benevolent storage-and-retrieval device that makes all this possible. My loose threads are cataloged as 'labels' and my false starts are stored as 'drafts.' Fa la la la la, la la la lah indeed!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

fring weeds

In second spring I wrote about the spring-like season that follows the onset of fall rains in Southern California. Having decided that the terms first spring and second spring are too judgmental, I'm going to call it fring -- a lovely season in its own right, and not an imitation of the flowering that begins in March.*

In spring I like to spend a lot of time pulling rain-nourished weeds out of the parking strip. With fring's infusions of laundry water and rainwater, the  common chickweed, dandelions, petty spurge, and oxalis, along with an occasional wild carrot have returned in force. But that's not all, as they say in the TV ads! There are innumerable dichondra and allysum seedlings, as well as some healthy runners -- and occasional blossoms -- on the violets.

I firmly believe my diligence in pulling spring weeds has made room for more of the wanted plants that are now getting an early start on spring 2011. Haven't I read over and over that the best way to fight weeds over the long haul is to deny them room? Another bit of conventional wisdom is that weed seeds are always lurking underground, just waiting to sprout when a vacant lot or new garden bed is forcibly dug up. Thus I try to pull weeds with minimal disturbance to the surrounding soil.

Neighbors and passersby see me pulling weeds by hand in the parking strip and sometimes remark on my patience and diligence. I generally tell them it's occupational therapy for me, but in truth it's pure recreation -- a time for quiet reflection punctuated by amusing visits. When other activities call, I add handfuls of mineral-rich weeds to the thick mulch in our raised beds.

Recently a woman asked me why I'm always working in the yard. "Isn't this supposed to be low maintenance?" she asked critically, indicating the sign that identifies us as proud harvesters of rainwater. I tried to explain that one's source of water and one's choice of plants are two different concepts, but she rushed on with her silent husband and their two slathering German shepherds. My bleat of "I do it for FUN!" dissipated in their wake.

With laundry water at my disposal, I hope to keep the parking strip 'greened up' year round. Where the greenness of spring 2010 was mostly weeds, the greenness of 2011 should include a thick mat of dichondra punctuated by white, purple, and pink blossoms. These last will be the primroses planted from seed last year.

How will I explain the lushness to folks who don't know that water isn't really redeemed until it's used?

- - - - - -
*Kurt Vonnegut defined six two-month seasons for areas of cold climate. He added locking between fall and winter and unlocking between winter and spring.
- - - - - -
On February 18, 2013, I found the source of Vonnegut's definition. I had thought it was an essay or speech, but it was in fact the novel Cat's Cradle (Chapter 119):
I had heard it suggested one time that the seasons in the temperate zone should be six rather than four in number: summer, autumn, locking, winter, unlocking, and spring. And I remembered that as I straightened up beside our manhole, and stared and listened and sniffed. There were no smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The earth was locked up tight.
It was winter, now and forever. (Reference, Wikiquote).

Friday, December 17, 2010

drops in the bucket, part 4

With rain predicted for the next four days, I'm taking a break from harvesting laundry water, a major preoccupation since early October, when I wrote drops in the bucket, part 3.

During these spring-like weeks, I've been seriously questioning my values with regard to the uses of time and water, and finding that these two valuable commodities have much in common. Both water and time exist in finite quantities, yet humans tend to treat them as if they were infinite.

My first response to a new water source was that I could add a whole new range of plants to the garden, and, coincidentally, early October was the time when our 99¢ Only store received a huge shipment of what they labelled as 'mini fern' -- nephrolepis exaltata. As soon as I looked up the Latin name, I knew that 'mini' referred mainly to size of pot (2"), though I suspect that the plants I bought were a 'mini ruffle' cultivar of the Boston fern or Victorian parlor fern grown extensively as a houseplant in the east and midwest.*

Now I have a dozen ruffly Boston ferns thriving in the front garden, thanks to generous applications of laundry water. These are planted in groups of three, with each group centered on an empty 3-4" plastic pot and surrounded by a deep mulch. I water the ferns by filling and refilling the empty pots and thus avoid wetting the mulch while encouraging the ferns to make deep roots.

I used to claim that I had six varieties of fern in the bed where these new ferns are prospering: three asparagus ferns (sprenger, meyer, and the vining emerald) and three varieties Kay had given to me (leather, sword, and rabbit foot). Of these, only the meyer and leather ferns remain, and I am quick to admit that the meyer is not a fern. My saga of removing unwanted asparagus ferns is related in asparagus ferns, parts 1, 2, & 3. Kay's ferns wasted away from neglect, but the leather fern has come back and makes a fitting memorial to her, along with a row of her California native irises.

Besides indulging in new plants, I've dedicated laundry water to maintaining and restoring plants that have suffered from my low-water regimen -- most notably violets, dichondra, sweet alyssum, and jade plants in the parking strip, as well as the convolvulus mauritanicus I've been treating as a bulb cover. Of course the food crops (strawberries, boysenberries, veggies) have always received high priority, while the herbs, cacti, and succulents mostly get by on little or no water.

Paradoxically, I am both saving and spending more water today than I was last spring. It's taking more control that makes this possible -- catching water as it goes by (whether from rainclouds or city pipes) and diverting it from the sewer/storm-drain system that would dump it into the ocean.

There's more to come about the process and the results.

- - - - -
*One of my favorite professors in graduate school had a huge Boston fern hanging in his office, and I remember watching it shed on his desk while we discussed the history of the English novel -- from Richardson and Fielding through Henry James -- and thinking that in California these plants could grow in the ground.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

larrupin' pie

Holiday meals always make me think of Steve's mother, Alice, with whom we shared many Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters (her personal favorite, I thnk).

Alice was not fond of cooking, though she did like to make sure people were well fed. Preparing the ritual feasts was a chore for her. She would put a turkey in the oven by 5:30 in the morning, and do a lot of tenting, basting, and fussing until the meal was finally served around 2:00 p.m. One year she added oysters to the stuffing, under the impression that this was a tradition my mother and I had followed.

Garrison Keillor has spoken of daughters-in-law not being trusted to cook Thanksgiving dinner -- especially the iconic turkey -- until they reach their late forties, and it's very true that a mother-in-law is reluctant to pass this particular torch. So it was with Alice. But when I finally proved myself as a holiday hostess, she was full of praise and would often describe a dinner or one of its components as "larrupin'."

Like swan (the verb), another of Alice's words, larrupin' is a multi-regional American colloquialism, but has gone upscale as the name of a pricey ($$$) cafe in Trinidad (Humboldt County), California, and its line of signature sauces.

Steve and I have kept swan alive in our dialog, but danged if larrupin' isn't in danger of slipping away. How I wish I'd told our daughter-in-law her Thanksgiving pies were larrupin'. There will be another time.

Monday, November 29, 2010

thanksgiving 2010

Six days in Northern California afforded an idyllic visit with all our progeny -- two sons, three grandchildren -- as well as a taste of seasonal weather and the fall foliage we miss from years in the northwest and mid west.

An extended family of 13 sat down for the ritual feast with a delightful mix of traditional and innovative trimmings prepared by many hands: veggies (fennel and Brussels sprouts), starches (sweet-potato gnocchi with a sauce of brown butter, maple syrup and sage; cornbread; sausage-laced stuffing; scalloped potatoes), condiments (jellied cranberry sauce; cranberry-garlic chutney; turkey gravy), crudités (carrot, celery, jicama), green salad; and dessert (pumpkin pudding or apple pie -- choice of lattice crust or crumb top -- topped with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream).

Our younger son, the host, prepared an 18-pound free-range turkey (fresh, not frozen) -- brined overnight and slathered with mayonnaise to produce tender, juicy meat. Steve (having previously sharpened all the knives) carved and arranged turkey slices on separate platters of white and dark meat. Leftovers made wonderful sandwiches the next day, plus a Friday-night dinner of turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, and a crock-pot of rich broth for soups to come.

We proudly watched a video of one granddaughter acting two Pilgrims' parts in her kindergarten Thanksgiving pageant -- very traditional except that the entire text was presented in Spanish. BTW, the other Pilgrim had been disabled by stage fright, but our brave girl made the show go on.

Spirited sessions of Euchre went on into Thursday and Friday nights. Steve and I tried to be graceful losers in this fast-paced, counterintuitive card game handed down from my paternal grandfather to become a staple of family gatherings.

Every holiday evokes remembrance of its past observances in good times and not-so-good times: a Mt. Wilson picnic and other outdoor meals in southern California, a retreat from Pennsylvania to Ohio, an Illinois gathering of relatives from three states, family transitions in Idaho. Years marked by loneliness or bereavement balance the lavish celebrations. Everyone switches roles from host to guest and back again. Meals are well planned or unplanned, eaten in amity or enmity

Who knows what November 2011 will bring? I'm looking forward to it already.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

second spring?

I wrote drops in the bucket, part 3, on October 2, and our first measurable rainfall of the year started the very next day. A gentle Pacific storm brought three days of drizzles, then peaked with a full inch on October 6. Once again, Weather Underground provides the stats. We eked out a total of 2.2" for the month, enough to launch what many call Southern California's "Second Spring."

It seems ironic that the October rainfall coincided with my new project of harvesting laundry water and my plans for a new narcissus bed. I alluded to the naturalized narcissi in late May when I was digging out invasive Star of Bethlehem bulbs. Winter 2009-2010 had brought only about six or eight stems of the fragrant paperwhites, and so I dug and divided them after the leaves had thoroughly dried. I selected an area separated from our cacti and succulents by a row of three small gardenia bushes, added a lot of compost, planted about 45  of the naturalized bulbs, and mulched deeply. One watering was all I gave at the time. The rain barrels were empty, and I expected the fall rains to be sufficient, as they have been for every year's winter/spring-flowering bulbs.

As summer wore on, though, I worried about the paperwhites in their new bed, and pledged to start watering them in early October. Thus they received hand waterings from the first laundry-water harvests, and were already starting to sprout when the October rains came along. November has brought an array of lovely blossoms including a couple of stragglers on the other side of the garden, where I thought I'd removed all the narcissi.

I've decided to call the period after our first fall rains the first (NOT second) spring of my gardening year. With no frosts to speak of, we can expect continued blossoming.

The paperwhites are our most obvious evidence of first spring, but others abound:
  • volunteer sweet pea seedlings, which I have spaced evenly along the chain link fence, interspersed with some planted from seed (the first volunteer, a dark purple, is already blooming);
  • marigolds and California poppies sprouting from seed scattered among the narcissi;
  • at least three new 'pups' for the boysenberry bushes;
  • strawberries blooming and ripening;
  • hyacinth beans blooming on one of last year's two vines;
  • new growth (and fruit) on last season's unproductive tomato plants;
  • sprouting of spring- and summer-blooming bulbs;
  • buds on the calla lilies;
  • snails; and
  • WEEDS.
More about the above-bulleted topics in future blogs, I hope.

A final evidence of first spring is the purchase of seeds. Our Thanksgiving visit to Northern California included a trip to the hardware store, where I found pumpkin on a stick. I'd just seen these little cuties for the first time in our daughter-in-law's holiday centerpiece. Internet research on the tiny "pumpkin's"  edible identity -- scarlet Chinese eggplant -- tempted me to an on-line order for four kinds of heirloom pole beans that will be planted before Christmas.

So many cycles, and cycles within cycles, make a maze of days. Amazing!

Monday, October 4, 2010

toola, מִשׁיִי, and the ineffable viscous vivian

Toola has indeed prospered since I wrote about her in January, and the catnip I planted for her then is alive but not exactly thriving. The struggling plant still needs the protection provided by heavy wires* crossed over it. As our Marigold did years ago, Toola lies on the sun-warmed concrete walk, with her head as close to the catnip as it can be, and rolls until thoroughly stoned.

now call Toola our 'surrogate' cat, and she performs this role enthusiastically. When we sit at our bistro table outside, she jumps onto Steve's lap -- kneading and purring with glee. Being allergic to cats, I try not to touch her, but we've had lots of good talks, at the table or when I'm gardening.

Toola is not the only cat who uses our catnip regularly. Her siste
מִשׁיִי (pronounced Meshy but probably not transliterated that way). Jacob told me that  מִשׁיִי is the Hebrew word for Silky, which describes her coat -- much the same colors as Toola's but evidently much softer.

I know how to spell Toola's name (based on the Hebrew word for Cat, but without an initial Cha syllable) because I am able to read her tag. Meshy does not permit this level of intimacy, but I have seen her enjoying the catnip. 

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted another cat on the garden path, and obviously it was neither Toola nor Meshy. This cat was pure black and had only three legs. Spotting a tag I called out to Steve, thinking we could corner the animal and read the tag. Alas! It sprinted clumsily across the street and up a tree in the alley.

Then one day last week I walked out the back door early in the morning and heard loud meows. The three-legged black cat, obviously needing attention and/or food, approached me and rolled submissively at my feet. I couldn't resist petting the silky black fur and was happy to see (and feel) that the coat was in wonderful condition. Viscous was the word on its tag, along with some numbers I wasn't able to read.

Questions abound. Had someone misspelled Vicious (certainly not an apt name for my new friend)? How was the leg lost (it's a very well healed surgical removal)? Was the new submissive attitude caused by hunger, a catnip' high,' or something else? Was this cat new to the neighborhood and now more 'at home' than when it climbed a tree to get away from me? Will I see it again?

A posting on Craigslist and an entry in a lost and found pet database have not produced any results so far.

Without going into a big T.S. Eliot explanation, I think Vivian would be a good name for this ineffably silky cat.
- - - - -
* Each of the two wires is about 18" long and each of the four ends sticks about 4" into the ground, so this drawing is not to scale. Like most of my drawings, it needs an explanation.of 1000 words or more but is only worth 25 or less. The green stuff is the catnip; the horizontal lines represent ground level; the wires are placed at right angles to each other. Hope it gives you the general idea. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

drops in the bucket, part 3

Parts 1 and 2 of this title were written in January, when El Niño was filling and re-filling our rain barrels regularly. Now, ending a week that brought record high temperatures to the L.A. area, we seem to be starting a dry and dusty La Niña season. Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog, which may tell you more than you want to know about such things, states that "historically, about 35 - 40% of El Niño events are followed by a La Niña within the same year."

I loved El Niño and so am hoping 2010 is one of the 60 - 65% of years when La Niña does NOT follow in her brother's footsteps. Even a year of NORMAL rainfall would be welcome.

Our five rain barrels have been empty for months (the last measurable rain having fallen in March), but within the last couple of weeks I've found a new source of water to 'harvest' -- the washing machine! Having switched from detergent to a magic green plastic laundry ball filled with ceramic beads, I have a dependable source of chemical-free water, laced with very dilute solutions of dirt, food, and human effluvia -- nothing a plant wouldn't love.

Harvesting wash water is more labor intensive than harvesting rain water, but I'm getting it down to a fairly simple routine -- learned the HARD WAY, of course, with much spillage.

First, siphoning into the nearest rain barrel with a regular garden hose was impractical. Starting and stopping the siphon were tricky operations, to say the least, and a large load of laundry produced more than the barrel's 50 gallon capacity. Running the hose out the back door brought in insects and heat, and would not be practical year-round.

A siphon pump improved the process greatly, but its tubing slipped out easily and the end in the washing machine got blocked by clothes. Steve perforated a small plastic hand-sanitizer bottle and attached it to the sucking end, but all the parts slipped apart too easily so he secured them with Gorilla Glue. Unfortunately the Gorilla Glue rendered the pump totally inoperable. Evidently it expanded to block all the joints where it had been applied.

Steve bought another siphon pump and perforated another hand-sanitizer bottle, and we were in business at last! I started siphoning water into various vessels including our old galvanized watering can (Haws' "Peter Rabbit" model, no longer available in the one-gallon size, but priced at $129.95 for the two-gallon size). Steve  bought ours for $1.00 at the Salvation Army Thrift Store years ago, and I suppose we need to treat is as an heirloom.

I started feeling like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, running back and forth between washing machine and garden with a motley assortment of containers. Fun, in a way, but frustrating to come back from emptying two half-gallon containers to find that the one-gallon watering can is overflowing. A pair of two-gallon plastic watering cans from Home Depot seemed to solve the problem, but they're pretty heavy when full.

Emptying the two-gallon watering cans into a rain barrel permits some relief, but I still need to take the water out of the rain barrel and USE it before the washing machine has to be emptied again.

It is shocking to realize that I regularly use A LOT MORE water to do laundry than I use to water the garden. See drops in the bucket, part 4, (assuming that I ever have time to write it!) for more on this issue.

Monday, September 27, 2010

a fellow non-marthette

Having gone to great lengths to dissociate myself from the marthettes*, I was happy to learn about bon appétempt, a blog that documents one woman's struggle with preparing dishes so that they look as good as their photographs on magazine covers and the pages of illustrated cookbooks.

The blogger's name is Amelia Morris. I heard Lynne Rossetto Kasper interview her on Saturday -- my favorite day for listening to public radio station KPCC-89.3 while running errands. Naturally I added bonappétempt to my Google Reader subscriptions as soon as I got home.

Amelia is 28 years old and has been blogging for two years, so she's squarely in the marthettes generation. Her blog's original motto was: "tackling semi-ridiculous to outright ridiculous gourmet and/or seemingly intense recipes, despite my novice skill set and average-at-best collection of kitchen appliances and cooking tools," but then she had what she calls "a big culinary change of heart" and started respecting the recipes and their creators. Declaring "I don't want things not to be hilarious," Amelia now focuses on her learning curve and freely admits her mistakes, which are sometimes hilarious and sometimes not.

Which brings me to another characteristic of the marthettes: their lack of a sense of humor.

postoccupations and bon appétempt have a lot in common, I think, but there are a couple things that set us apart. Amelia allows comments on her blog, and she posts a lot of wonderful photos.
- - - - -
* Wondering why marthette is always dinged by my spell-check but marthettes sometimes isn't, I googled marthette and learned that it's the name of nine persons in the U.S. (outnumbered by 320,693 Franceses and 47,797 Amelias). How little we knew in the pre-Internet days, even if we were highly educated! This may turn out to be the subject of another post.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

marthette? moi?

Almost every day, Google Reader brings me a couple of postings from Schott's Vocab: A Miscellany of Modern Words and Phrases, from the New York Times' vast selection of blogs. Sometimes it's a definition of, and commentary on, an arcane or highly technical word, sometimes it's a quick but challenging puzzle or game, and sometimes it's a neologism that Ben Schott has created or picked up in the blogosphere.

A few weeks ago, the new word was marthettes, coined and defined by Sadie Stein as "Intimidatingly 'perfect' female bloggers who are to this generation as Martha Stewart was to the last." BTW Sadie blogs on Jezebel (Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women), which, to me at least, seems rife with intimidating material.

My immediate response to the idea of marthettes was a sort of paranoia. Was somebody going to accuse ME of being a marthette? I'm obviously a 'female blogger,' and I confess that I can be intimidating (sometimes intentionally), but what about the other attributes?

While I have to admit that I see some aspects of my blogger identity in the marthettes' subjects, themes, and even attitudes, I am NOT part of the generation that was intimidated by Martha Stewart. If this means that I'm from the "generation before last," so be it.

I have certainly never claimed to be 'perfect' or do any particular thing 'perfectly.' My foibles have been laid bare in many blog posts -- most notably about struggles with weeds and pests. Martha and the marthettes (sounds like a Doo-Wop group, doesn't it?) may go through these struggles, but I don't think they ever tell you about them. It's like the perfect omelette or photo just rolled onto the set without the aid of a food stylist or graphic editor.

When I first became aware of Martha Stewart, she was a guest on CNN's Larry King Live, which Steve and I watched regularly during our first few years as empty nesters. Up to then, we had been unaware of Martha and her large media following, who were now -- through Larry's fawning interview technique -- being treated to instructions on how to dip dried magnolia leaves into liquid gold so's to feature them properly in a fall centerpiece. Shortly after this, we saw Martha on PBS doing something that involved a turkey and a two-quart Pyrex measuring cup of melted butter. I was shocked, not intimidated, by the sheer ridiculousness of these flagrant displays of conspicuous consumption.

Later my friend Janet received a copy of Martha Stewart Weddings from the mother of her son's fiancée. Janet was not intimidated -- just mildly irked at the implications of the gift. Following an extremely silly incident, Kay and I became known to each other as Martha [Stewart] and Betty [Crocker], and had a lot of fun dissociating ourselves from our famous alter egos.

Of course Martha Stewart herself is now a blogger. Check out The Martha Blog where, among many other things, Martha displays the handmade birthday cards she received from her summer interns, along with the special box they made for her to keep them in.

Yesterday Kathy and I talked about blogging to a new friend named Martha. Our Martha 'got it' immediately that marthettes are Martha Stewart knock-offs. So the neologism is apt and will probably stick -- but not, let's hope, on me.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

sow's ear

Last week I crocheted a market bag using recycled t-shirts for yarn. As an unabashed fan of I had been destined to take on this project for months, but it didn't come together for me until late May, when Elana listed a bag of about 20 old t-shirts on* -- free to anyone who would come and pick them up -- and I realized it was time to start trying Cindy's techniques for making and using t-shirt yarn.

RecycleCindy instructs her followers to cut t-shirts into 1/4" strips to make what she calls
t-yarn or tarn, and that is exactly what I started doing as soon as I got home with Elana's old t-shirts. BTW, Elana was moving out of her apartment about six blocks away from our house. She felt that the shirts weren't in good enough shape to give to charity, but, though she'd never heard of t-yarn, hoped they'd be of use to someone. I loved that she was so conscientious about not dumping her discards, and we had a pleasant though short visit among her boxes and bags.

Cutting t-shirts into 1/4" strips is a pretty tedious operation, and I soon found that I had more compelling things to do with my time. Days later, I returned to it while watching TV, but somehow the 1/4" strips became 1/2" to 5/8" strips. As my ball of
t-yarn grew, I started trying various crochet hooks with it, and ended up with my beloved wooden 'Q'-sized monster, which quickly created a very heavy fabric with a nice floppy feel to it. Not bothering to check Cindy's patterns, I lost sight of the fact that my t-yarn was twice as heavy as hers.

Suddenly a couple of weeks ago, when I finished a crochet project for our five-year-old granddaughter, it was time to get serious about the t-yarn. I checked some patterns and settled on a market bag style because I liked the idea of a single handle strap integrated firmly into the design rather than being stuck on like an afterthought.

I decided to use only 100% cotton t-shirts -- all white or with white backgrounds. Of course some of the shirts were whiter than others, so as the work developed, it took on a subtly striped appearance when I changed from one shirt to the next, while the flecks of printed color produced a slight tweediness. The handle prescribed by my chosen pattern didn't seem right at all, so I reoriented it to the ends rather than the sides of the bag.

Last Wednesday night I was going to an art lecture**, so I decided this would be a good time to field-test the bag. Alas! The handle stretched to an unacceptable length while tiny white dandruff-like particles of cotton appeared all over my black pants. Reluctantly I cut Elana's last white cotton t-shirt and started a row of reinforcement around the handle and top opening, but it was too white for the quasi-natural look of the bag. So I pulled the new stitches out (crocheters call this
frogging because we "Rip It"!) and completed the process with an old t-shirt of Steve's. A careful laundering reduced the dandruff effect considerably, and I have faith that it will all go away soon.

Is my bag finished? Probably not, but I will field-test it again at this evening's Historical Society picnic. It's a bag with a history so should be very appropriate. I'm thinking in terms of lining it with a piece of another old t-shirt so that my crochet hooks and knitting needles won't work their way out.

When my bag IS finished, I'll post a picture of it, along with a draft of a pattern. Maybe someone else will want to make one.
- - - - -
* I wouldn't have found the t-shirt posting if I hadn't listed some plants in craigslist's 'free stuff' section. Elana's listing was adjacent to mine, so I spotted it serendipitously when I went to check that the info on my proffered dudleyas was correct.

** The artist, Salomon Huerta, repeatedly uses a power sander to obliterate the portraits he paints, until he gets them JUST RIGHT and sees that they are truly finished. One of Huerta's guiding principles -- simpler than his esoteric preoccupation with the look of the face -- is that his laboriously constructed canvas-covered boards should not be thrown away. 
My more mundane ripping out and re-crocheting was a delightful coincidence. Recycling is where you find it. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

courage under fire

Writing about Gram's garden tools last week has kept that venerable lady in my recent thoughts. As our children's generation procreates later in life than we did, fewer and fewer will grow up knowing their grandparents, great grandparents, and grandparents-in-law. This sad fact calls for more memoirs, and I will try to fill the gap.

Today's title and the tone of my opening paragraph notwithstanding, I want to relate a humorous anecdote about Gram. Steve and I have laughed about this story many times over the years, but kept respectfully straight faces when it happened.

The scene was a four-generation holiday dinner at Steve's parents' home. Gram was in her late eighties but in good health, mentally and physically, largely due to the strong discipline she imposed open herself in her daily life. Alice set a dish on the table and one of the men (Steve or his dad, Homer) started to pick it up, but drew back immediately when he felt how hot it was.

Gram observed: "Women can stand to hold hot things better than men can." Instantly sensing that the men at the table might have been offended, she added: "Of course, men are brave in time of war." I must have been in my late thirties or early forties, but was sorely tempted to giggle. Fortunately the kids, grade-school age, were too young to see any humor in the situation.

Gram's hasty equivocation was the rhetorical equivalent of "shoot first, ask questions later," and it was not the only time I heard her use this technique. Once she was praising a pianist she'd seen on the Lawrence Welk Show and added, "But Steve sits up straighter than any of them."

I sense that as a young woman Gram (Bess) must have tried hard to curb her impulsive tongue. As a girl, she had ridden horseback with her father and three sisters from Denver, Colorado, to Bend, Oregon, yet she was always looking for refinement and self-improvement -- reciting poetry to herself and repeatedly saying the alphabet backwards to keep her voice from growing weak in her years as a widow living alone.

Last night at dinner Steve picked up a hot ear of sweet corn and dropped it unceremoniously onto his plate. I made sure to hold mine for several seconds before setting it down gently, while quoting for the zillioneth time: "Men are brave in time of war."

Saturday, July 3, 2010


The same year Steve and I were married, his paternal grandmother, Bess (always known as 'Gram' to her three grandsons), moved from her home in Lynwood into a small apartment in a Sun City retirement community. This was a miracle of timing, as we were able to furnish our tiny house in married student housing from things she had left over in her move: a sofabed, a kitchen table with four chairs, an ornately carved upright piano with a set of piano-tuning tools which had belonged to Steve's grandfather, a classic footstool cum storage cube, several blankets, and an array of garden tools.

Gram's piano, which she had personally stripped of enamel and refinished with a thick varnish, only moved with us once. It was traded in on a new Yamaha 3/4 upright. Having the old piano picked up at Point A and the new one delivered to Point B was a clever ploy to expedite our moving. BTW, Steve still has his grandfather's set of piano tuning tools and uses them to this day, along with the Yamaha piano, which has graced six homes in four states.

Gram's garden tools were of little or no use to us in student housing where the grounds (basically an old avocado grove interspersed with struggling lawn) was maintained by the management. We moved twice before we were able to use the tools, but most of them have been in use ever since. Along the way we've collected a few more: a smaller shovel and pitchfork at Pennsylvania farm auctions; an aluminum trowel left in our Evanston, Illinois, basement along with a lot of other stuff abandoned by the previous owner; a brand-new spading fork, pruning shears, loppers, etc.

Last year I replaced Gram's ancient folding saw with a new one from Home Depot. What an improvement! The pushbutton lock keeps it from collapsing on me as Gram's always did, and the stainless steel blade goes through branches in no time.

We've had little use for Gram's half-moon lawn edger (whose name I have just learned after over 45 years of ownership) but this spring it struck me that it could be used to cut through the decaying cardboard that underlies our mulch. Thus my three sisters tableaux were planted with the aid of an heirloom tool with no moving parts. Somehow this makes it seem even more traditional.

Moebles? Here's a simple definition.

I treasure old things that are worth carrying along for continued use, be they words or more tangible tools, from pitchforks to tuning forks.

Monday, June 28, 2010

bustin' out in june: from corn dogs to corn maiden tamales

Sunday's outing to the Main Street Summer Soulstice Festival in Santa Monica invites comparison with three pre-solstice festivals in Idaho: Eagle Fun Days, Emmett Cherry Festival, and Meridian Dairy Days. I can't believe I attended all four!

A plethora of Idaho festivals was our older son's ploy to keep his 5-year-old occupied, and to enjoy watching her innocent enjoyment of things totally new to her. The 15-mile drive to Emmett was enhanced by mountain scenery and glimpses of the rushing Payette River. The 4-mile drive from Culver City to Main Street was climaxed by a half-hour search for parking.

Each event had its unique features -- Eagle's Wet and Wild Parade and Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed, Emmett's vast array of bizarre activities and amateur entertainment (everything from cowboy poets and Patsy Cline imitators to cherry-pit spitting and a dunking booth), Meridian's Mascot Dance-off, and Santa Monica's 24 live bands including Heartless, fronted by our friend Diana Drake. Steve wore his Heartless t-shirt, turned to a reverse tie-dye by my laundry boo-boo.

Foods ranged from traditional to nouvelle carnival food. .The Idaho fests were heavy on deep-fried stuff: green beans (not quite tempura, but possibly trying for it), corndogs (regular and Basque style), and bloomin onions. I guess the rocky mountain oysters are grilled, though. Santa Monica's Main Street offered Corn Maiden Tamales, crepes of various descriptions, wheat grass juice, and panini.

Besides food, I purchased emu oil salve in Eagle, earrings and a tiny crocheted bag* in Meridian. A visit with our Idaho wifi purveyor in Emmett led to a service enhancement after quality time spent on the phone with their CS department in Buffalo, NY. Did virtually NO shopping on Main Street.

What of the attendees? Families with children, singles with dogs, elderlies with oxygen. Santa Monica had a greater percentage of 'old hippie' types, while the Idaho events had more young teens holding hands (in Santa Monica these must've been at the beach). Mr. Tree graced Diana's performance for a short time.

A moratorium on festivals may be appropriate for July, but bring on Culver City's Fiesta La Ballona in August!
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*Yes! I shall deconstruct and reconstruct this new-to-me 1913 design.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

legal tender

Having recently returned from two June weeks in Idaho, I'm remembering my February visit and finally writing a post that dropped through the cracks at that time.

When we come back from separate trips, Steve and I generally bring small gifts for each other. My February gift to Steve was a bottle of Idaho wine. I told him about it in the car on our way home from LAX. He grinned cryptically and said he had something for me, too. A gift for the returnee has never been standard operating procedure, so I was really curious.

While I was in Idaho, Steve had taken his stash of coins* to a Coinstar machine when he learned that they don't deduct a percentage if you use your coins to buy a gift card or make a donation. He had converted his coins into an gift card which he proudly presented to me.

In a community-property state such as California or Idaho, gifts of money between spouses seem a little redundant if not downright strange, but the gift card made it seem festive. I immediately bought the immersion blender I'd been wanting, and was delighted that it was on sale and took only half the money.

A couple of weeks later, I was complaining about my ancient Sunset Western Garden Book. Steve suggested buying one at They didn't carry it, but I was able to buy the Sunset Western Garden Book of Edibles: The Complete A-Z Guide to Growing Your Own Vegetables, Herbs, and Fruits, with small change left over in the virtual coffee can of my Overstock account.

So now I can make better cream-style soups and prune our boysenberries correctly, thanks to purchases I might not have made in my normal mode of thriftiness. You might say Steve's thriftiness and mine had merged and morphed into a wonderful illusion of  largesse, adumbrated in Steve's giving of the Idaho wine as a birthday gift to a good friend.

As Steve often says, "It's the good life," in a frugal enough form for us pre-boomers to identify and accept

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*Steve is a saver and a coin collector. He goes through his change regularly to pull out anything of numismatic interest. The 'rejects' go into various categories, including a parking-meter fund of quarters.. He used to roll all the pennies and spend them at the 99 Cent Store, but they're not as gratefully accepted as they used to be, so he started throwing all his coins in a big coffee can.

Friday, June 18, 2010

stew review

An e-mail earlier this week advises that my oxtail stew recipe on has received a rating of three stars from a member with the user name Zurie. Harrumph! My 43 public recipes have an average of 4.3 stars over 27 reviews, so this comes as a bit of an insult, especially since some of the criticisms are mitigated if not obviated by my February blog post oxtail stew.

I am taken to task for not specifying a longer cooking time: "First of all the cooking time generally is longer, and 4 hours + would be nearer the mark."  My posted recipe says "simmer gently until meat is tender when pierced (about 3 hours),"  with a note re using a crockpot (certainly implying a longer cooking time), and in my blog I call for "overnight in the crockpot!" I want to shout: "Hey! Simmer is a subjective term, depending as it does on the condition of one's stove and the limits of one's patience."

Zurie also objects to my discarding the chopped onions and herbs that have been simmered for hours with the meat. To me, these bits seem disgustingly bland and greasy -- not to mention their wet-cardboard texture. They belong in what Anne Burrell calls the "thank-you-for-coming bowl," having "fulfilled their destiny" by lending flavor to the broth. But Zurie lives in South Africa and hence may not share my California prejudice against overcooked veggies.

Perhaps I am most miffed by Zurie's citing me for "rather careless ingredient measures, and ... unnecessarily intricate directions." The only wiggle-room I give in ingredients is the main one: "3-4 lbs oxtails." Well, OK, this is a factor of 25%, but who knows how much one will find in a supermarket meat tray. Maybe Zurie has the advantage of a face-to-face butcher. I relent slightly on this point but cannot forgive the charge of "unnecessarily intricate directions." Indeed, my account of making this dish is carried to a much higher level of detail in my blog version of the recipe, which starts out: "First, you have to FIND oxtails in your market and be willing to pay close to $5 per pound.*"

Of course I must admit that Zurie thanked me for the recipe and specifically praised the marinade. She even took a picture and posted it. Oddly, she apologizes for the quality of the picture, which shows steam rising from her old iron pot. But then Zurie's Recipezaar profile indicates that she has worked as a food editor and currently host's the website's African Cooking Forum.

Zurie has posted 284 public recipes on Recipezaar and has an average rating of 4.7 stars. Guess I'll try some of her stuff. Maybe even write a review.
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*Here I'm reminded of my mother talking about her Aunt Jessie's recipes, which tended to start with "Take a crock."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

talking to strangers

If you've read my previous bus stories, cougar? moi? and a better bus ride, you might think I have a policy of not talking to strangers on the bus. Think again.

Usually, talking among bus passengers is a rather perfunctory means to an end -- a way to indicate needs ("Excuse me, I need to get off at the next stop."), get information ("Have we passed Crenshaw?") or defuse tension among a diverse group of people with nothing much in common except their direction of travel.

Several weeks ago, I almost fell into a man's lap when the bus lurched as I was walking to a sideways seat in the senior section. He looked a little worried, so after I managed to sit down I said, "You almost had me on your lap then!" even though I wasn't so sure he spoke English. He smiled and said (with no accent of any kind), "Almost doesn't count!" So I laughed and said, "Close, but no cigar," and settled in for a comfortable ride downtown. When he got off the bus, I felt that his "Have a nice day" was sincere.

Sometimes, of course, real conversations are taking place on the bus -- usually among friends or family groups who have boarded together, but occasionally as the result of a chance remark to a stranger. Thus the encounter described in a better bus ride and many other pleasant visits that have followed chance remarks or requests for information. I rarely initiate these conversations myself, but I treasure the feeling of serendipitous camaraderie they bring.

This past Thursday, the passengers heading west on Venice Boulevard when I boarded the bus included a dead ringer for Buffalo Bill. He wore a large grey leather hat trimmed with darker gray lacings and a luxuriant feather, a knee-length brown leather coat (worn but not shabby), and black Wellington-style leather boots which reached almost to the knee over dark brown cotton trousers. His thick grey hair reached just past his shoulders, and he wore a full beard that covered his collar. Very dark rimless sunglasses and a black satchel with a shoulder strap completed the ensemble.

It was the satchel that finally precipitated our conversation. At first it appeared to be leather, but when I noticed that it was canvas with leather trim and stamped 'Calvin Klein' I couldn't resist saying, "It seems like your bag should say 'Pony Express' on it!" He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I'm a model and an actor and a musician." So of course we got into a discussion about music. I told him I sing in a large chorale, and he shook my hand very politely when he realized we were fellow travelers in more ways than one.

My new friend then told me he'd walked into a Wells Fargo bank and asked them if they were hiring, whereupon they called their security staff to escort him from the premises. We 'tsk-tsk'ed' companionably about their lack of imagination, and he reiterated his qualifications and experience in advertising and show biz. When he got off the bus, we shook hands once again, and I regretted that I hadn't spoken up sooner. Why pass up several minutes of unforgettable, entertaining conversation?

Later I wondered whether he was coming directly from the Wells Fargo experience. If so, I was really glad to have cheered him up a bit.

I also wondered what most corporate institutions and government agencies would do when confronted by a person walking in casually from the 19th century to look for a job.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

look at them beans

Several years of vegetable gardening doldrums ended for me last summer when Steve and I installed a chain link fence along the south side of our lot. The 30" strip of soil along this fence provides the perfect place to grow pole beans and herbs, with rosemary, sage, gopher purge, and Greek oregano already flourishing in spite of benign neglect and numerous others added in the post-fence era.

As soon as the fence was finished I bought four scarlet runner bean seedlings at our local farmers market and planted one at the base of each "line post." It was too late in the season to raise a real crop, but of course the long-stemmed blossoms were a treat. We ate a few green beans and let several pods mature to save the seed. Now four "1st generation native" runners are flourishing: two in the tiny "cukes and beans" bed, and two in the front yard's "three sisters" planting .

One of the major tenets of permaculture gardening, as I understand it, is that the soil should not be disturbed, and so I've been snipping spent plants near ground level rather than pulling them out.* The scarlet runner beans loved this kind of treatment, and two of the original four have come back with a vengeance. It turns out that they're tender perennials, sometimes known as "7-year beans."

Now that most of this year's sweet peas have been snipped down, the older generation of scarlet runner beans have filled a real void, already out-climbing and out-blooming their first year's performance. Thus the title of this post, from a Johnny Cash** album recorded in 1975.

Hyacinth beans, I hope, will replace the two runners that didn't come back. The one and only seedling from my first planting is starting to reach for the fence. Three seeds out of four germinated in my second planting; one of them is doing well in a "three sisters" planting, and I gave two to Sandy. See mixed messages for the early part of the HB saga.

Meanwhile, the heirloom rattlesnake beans are producing lavender blossoms and tiny pods in their traditional settings, while seedling pumpkins promise to shade their three sisters' tender feet.

"Man, look at them beans!"
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*This does not apply to the major weeds, of course. They go out roots and all unless they seem susceptible to smothering under thick layers of cardboard and other mulch.

**A typically maudlin Carter-Cash narrative (Poppa doesn't live to see his first good crop) is relieved by an exuberant refrain. See the video at

Saturday, May 29, 2010

star wars

In hyacinth: bean, bloom, britcom I described our front-yard sequence of naturalized spring bulbs, from freesia through hyacinth to Star of Bethlehem. That description was incomplete. as I neglected to mention the paper-white narcissi that start around Christmas and the elephant garlic whose flowers are just now opening on stems of up to six feet.

Next year I hope to see more narcissi and less garlic, b
ut it's the Star of Bethlehem (SB) I really want to talk about today. When I removed the dense mat of ivy that used to cover our front yard and parking strip, SB was one of the few plants that had survived being immured for years underneath. I was delighted when it bloomed -- even more so because it was a flower I'd never seen before. My neighbor's grandmother identified SB for me, and warned that it could become invasive.  Nevertheless I've encouraged SB over the years and enjoyed its mildly licorice-like fragrance. What could be more invasive than ivy, after all?

This spring I think we had about 25-30 SBs blooming on long stems, along with innumerable clumps of floppy leaves bearing no blossoms. I attributed the barren clumps to lack of sufficient sun, a phenomenon which could also cause the stems to be as tall as 30".

Some of this year's SBs grew in places where I don't really want them to appear next year. So now I'm digging them out and learning more about the meaning of invasive species
Each blooming SB rises over a clump of up to ten bulbs and bulblets.  As with garlic, the bulblets form at the base of the main bulb. They start off with a concave side from being pressed up against the main bulb, but become round when they drop off and mature.

Maybe I'll advertise the SB bulbs on Craig's List and give them away to good homes. Others may enjoy them too, and 15-20 pounds seems like a lot to throw away. F
ortunately, California is not one of the states where SB presents a serious threat.

BTW, the first SB I ever saw outside my own yard was a florist-grown plant that looked so different from my 'garden variety' ones that I had to look twice to recognize it. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

mixed messages

In hyacinth: bean, bloom, britcom I reported that only one of my five hyacinth bean (HB) seeds had germinated. That was on March 19 and nothing has changed. Yet.

Last Friday, I located another packet of HB seeds. Unlike the packet of ten I'd bought in Idaho in February for $1.79 or less (most of the seeds there were on sale), this $2.99 full-price-plus-tax beauty included eleven seeds. Cost per unit was not the only difference.
  • Packet 1 (from a company in Norton, MA) was illustrated with a photograph showing dense clusters of lovely fabaceous blossoms very much like perennial sweet peas. The terse printed matter promised vines of 10-15 feet in height from seeds that would germinate in 7-10 days, advised "needs support," and promised "Purple pods produce edible seeds for fresh eating or drying." Naturally I was enthralled, especially after reading Wikipedia's description of HB's culinary and medicinal uses (cited in seed stories, part 3).
  • Packet 2 (from a company in Broomfield, CO), bore an artistic rendering of leaves, flowers, and pods in various stages of development. A broader range of heights (6-20 feet), and a potentially longer wait for germination (7-20 days), were accompanied by a choice of three ways to plant: "Twining stems quickly climb a fence or trellis, or allow them to trail across the ground for an attractive ground cover. Can also be grown in containers." The most striking difference, however, was this caveat: "Contains toxins -- not recommended for eating."

Both packets advise planting the seeds outdoors, directly in the garden, but I'm always afraid that seedlings will fall prey to snails, slugs, sow bugs, and earwigs. So I've chosen four HB seeds, soaked them for 24 hours, and planted them in a recycled '4 pack' with the bottom slits enlarged so that the roots can emerge easily. A covering of bubble wrap keeps in moisture and heat. Now begins the vigil of up to 20 days.

Meanwhile, the single HB seedling from March, which I'd been tending in a 6' unglazed terracotta pot, has been planted pot-and-all by the chainlink fence with a liberal dusting of Sluggo Plus to protect it from predators. Of course we'll try eating HBs, lightly steamed or prepared in one of the African, Egyptian, Indian, or Southeast Asian styles found in an on-line recipe source.

BTW, Packet 2 also provided "much more information" inside, so I pulled back the flaps as directed, moved the seeds to Packet 1, and read on to learn that HB is a "tender perennial grown as annual" and was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. The cover artist's brief bio revealed that she had been a glass blower.

I wonder whether Thomas Jefferson's HB stock came from Africa with slaves, who would have known that: "In Kenya, [HB] is known as 'Njahi' and is popular among the Kikuyu group. It is thought to encourage lactation and has historically been the main dish for breastfeeding mothers. Beans are boiled and mashed with ripe and/or semi-ripe bananas giving the dish has a sweetish taste" (Wikipedia, op.cit.).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

as others see us

I once made the mistake of telling Kay I wasn't interested in physics. Or maybe it was space (as in OUTER space). She was shocked. She felt that as an intelligent person I MUST be fascinated by these subjects and want to attend every Friday night lecture at CalTech with her and Jean.

Truth to tell, I HAD attended many Friday night lectures at CalTech when I was in high school. In fact I heard Linus Pauling there. I had also taken the first undergraduate class in quantum mechanics ever given at my college. None of this was good enough for Kay. She wanted me to maintain an up-to-date interest in all the sciences, and she never gave up.

Carolyn, on the other hand, once berated me for being too scientific. She wanted me to work with her on a line of dollhouse furnishings, but I offended her artistic sensibilities by talking in terms of square inches.

Dino wanted me to co-write a novel with him, so decided I must be a fiction writer. When I said I don't write fiction, he said: "Oh, but you SPEAK it so well!"

A teaching colleague who knew I was interested in music made the assumption that I wanted to hear him blather on with detailed comparisons between every recording ever made of Wagner's operas.

And so it goes. We know each other to the extent that we see reflections of ourselves on the surfaces that others choose to expose. What of the less shiny surfaces?

Monday, May 10, 2010

snails and slugs, part 3

Our war against land mollusks started many years before the copper wire/mesh offensive described in snails and slugs, part 2 and the Weetabix offensive described in snails and slugs, part 1. Since we don't believe in using poisonous substances, hand-to-hand (actually foot-to-foot) combat has been our main strategy, with a brief incursion into snail husbandry.*

With neither copper nor Weetabix having proved to be a practical solution, I turned once more to Google and got into some real science. The Statewide Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program at UC Davis, (where else?), has posted an up-to-date and comprehensive article titled simply Snails and Slugs (revised in November 2009). I must quote one paragraph: "Iron phosphate baits—available under many trade names including Sluggo and Escar-Go—have the advantage of being safe for use around children, domestic animals, birds, fish, and other wildlife, making them a good choice for an integrated pest management program in your garden. Ingesting even small amounts of the bait will cause snails and slugs to stop feeding, although it can take several days for the snails to die. You can scatter the bait on lawns or on the soil around any vegetable, ornamental, or fruit tree that needs protection. Iron phosphate baits can be more effective against snails than slugs overall and more effective than metaldehyde during periods of higher humidity. Snails and slugs tend to hide before they die, so you won’t see scattered empty shells or dead snails and slugs as you would if treating them with metaldehyde."

Naturally I made a bee-line to the nearest hardware store in search of Sluggo. A rather officious clerk tried to sell me a common metaldehyde bait which, he said, they had sold for many years with no complaints. After my expression of horror over the product's toxicity, however, he admitted having received several requests for Sluggo in the past few days.

When I found Sluggo at a store with a larger garden department, I also found and purchased Sluggo Plus, . (The 'Plus' is for spinosad, which must be kept out of the reach of children but does not persist in the environment and may be used around edible plants up to three days before harvest). Sluggo Plus kills sowbugs and earwigs, and this indeed is a BIG plus since they are the primary predators of our strawberries. How sad it is to pick a ripe strawberry and find an earwig eating its way through the underside!

A two-cup plastic shaker (originally a garlic powder container) makes it easy to apply Sluggo Plus at the recommended rate of one teaspoon per square yard. Garlic scent pervades the iron phosphate/spinosad granules, and it's nice to think of the pests' last meal being lightly seasoned in this appetizing way.

Interestingly, Sluggo Plus costs about the same per ounce as Weetabix. I think we'll probably eat the rest of the Weetabix -- possibly with strawberries, for breakfast, but more likely as part of a topping for apple crisp or some such fruit-based dessert.

At the end of every radio program, Sergeant Preston used to say (to his trusty dog): "Well, King, this case is closed."

It will be good to move on.
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*Yes! Inspired by the City of Industry Snail Festivals in 1990 and 1991, we raised and ate snails for a short time.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

legless lizards sighted in the 'cukes & beans' bed

All has not been well in my tiny Cukes and Beans bed. This morning, the once-promising six-by-one foot space sported nothing but two flourishing nasturtiums (transplanted from the herb garden) and two scarlet runner bean plants (seed saved from last summer's late crop)., plus two severely slug-damaged seedlings of heirloom pole beans ('rattlesnake' variety) and one struggling seedling of Armenian cucumber.

Imagine laboriously removing a seedling palm tree and a thick stand of Confederate Jasmine, plus laying down all that wet cardboard and mulch for this pathetic result!

I decided to dig up the entire space (minus the aforementioned seven plants) and start over again with slug control based on copper scouring pads (see snails and slugs, part 2). Upon peeping under a thick layer of the original cardboard, I saw a family of two or three legless lizards and knew that I was getting some reptilian support. That was on April 17, when I started and abandoned this sad narrative. (Thanks be to Google Blogger for keeping track of my fits and starts!)

Two days after spotting the legless lizards and making a meticulous copper mesh installation to protect the cukes and beans, I started the Weetabix offensive described in snails and slugs, part 1. A number of slugs were destroyed before victory was declared in that phase of the land mollusk war, as I will reveal in the forthcoming snails and slugs, part 3.

Today is May 6, and the cukes and beans bed is totally cuke-less though one of the rattlesnake bean seedlings has made an excellent recovery. One of the scarlet runner beans and both nasturtiums are starting to climb the wire mesh. Two varieties of cucumbers and two herbs (summer savory, dill) have been planted from seed directly in the ground but have failed to emerge.

Yesterday, I planted seeds of Armenian cucumber, summer savory, and dill in jiffy pots destined for transplanting into the cukes and beans bed. Hope springs eternal. Seeds of basil (two varieties), marigolds (two varieties), yellow crookneck squash, pumpkin, and Swiss chard also went into jiffy pots with other destinations.

There will be green beans galore this summer, with at least ten vines of three or four varieties, and cucumbers may very well flourish on the south or north fence.

Two Williams merge for me in the magic of growth and rainwater. So much depends upon the darling buds of May.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

snails and slugs, part 2

This essay really should've been snails and slugs, part 1, but I got so excited over the Weetabix idea that I over-reacted and went totally out of sequence.

I consider myself to be a very logical thinker and a pretty good troubleshooter, but the land mollusks seem to present an extraordinary challenge. Imagine feeling so threatened by these tiny creatures that I lose the power of critical thinking. Somehow the urge to protect my seedlings overwhelms all other considerations. Another factor, of course, must have been my love of language. I'm a pushover for a catchy title, and Why snails love city gardens best was irresistible, especially in a British publication.

Let me try to reconstruct the history of this season's snail and slug offensive.

Just a few days before initiating the Weetabix strategy, we'd been experimenting with copper as a snail and slug deterrent. Steve had discovered this approach on line and was eager to try it. He has a pretty good stock of copper wire, and each of us purchased some old-fashioned copper mesh pot scratchers. I fashioned rings (roughly 3" in diameter) out of the copper mesh (incurring a nasty cut in the process) and placed them around many of my seedlings.

Experiments with live snails were discouraging. In separate and possibly equal trials (separate because neither of us would believe the other), Steve and I both discovered that snails could quickly and repeatedly cross a copper mesh barrier. We were able to rationalize this outrageous mollusk behavior in imaginative ways (it's tired after a night of debauchery, so not able to feel the electric shock or the abrasion). The bottom line, though, was that these laboratory animals were severely punished. In fact, they swiftly received the death penalty.

Meanwhile, the shiny little circlets of copper look really festive in my 'three sisters' garden. When I go out in the morning to smash the snails and slugs on the Weetabix  trays, the copper rings have made it easy to identify the places where seedlings WERE standing the day before.

Musing over the loss of all the leaves on a promising scarlet runner bean seedling, I noticed that all the corn seedlings were still standing (OK not standing TALL, but standing), while the beans and squash had sustained various levels of damage. This led me to recall the British article about snails, where I had learned that snails, like urban gardeners, are drawn to broad-leaf plants. Light dawned at last! Corn is not a broad-leaf plant. Like grass, it is a monocot, with growth occurring at the top of slender stalks. The beans are dicots, producing new growth at the tips of lateral stalks. If you were sick the week they covered basic botany in junior high science, see Monocots versus Dicots.

Now picture a snail or slug hanging perilously on a slender leaf of grass (or a corn seedling that LOOKS like grass): eating, getting heavier, and finally falling to the ground. Now picture that same snail or slug supporting itself on a lateral branch to reach a cluster of tender new bean leaves, and then climbing to safety down the stronger main stem.

I rest my case. If you are in doubt, ask yourself whether you've ever heard about snails destroying grass lawns.

But I've gotten out of sequence again. The flash of insight about monocots and dicots didn't occur until after phase 3 of the snail and slug offensive had started. This will have to be revealed in snails and slugs, part 3,

Monday, April 19, 2010

snails and slugs, part 1

It's strange that I've written so many words about weeds but not mentioned any of the mollusk invaders other than in passing under the head of (or maybe in the mouth of) legless lizards, who are working so hard to protect our  plants.

This morning, Google led me to a wonderful British article, Why snails love city gardens best. and I just had to try their solution -- Weetabix as bait. I rushed to our local Indian grocery store, which carries a large number of British products, and invested in a box of 24 biscuits. A bit crumblier than the Ruskets I remember from childhood but similarly flavored. Cardboard with overtones of sawdust. BTW Ruskets Flakes are still being manufactured and sold by Loma Linda, but the original biscuit is history.

I'll paraphrase the article but hope you'll read it in its tabloid-on-line source,
The Independent. There one is  
instructed to go out at dusk and crumble a Weetabix onto one's garden path about six inches from the herbaceous border so dearly beloved by snails, slugs, and city gardeners. Next, one should visit the crumb sites around midnight with a torch (or 'flashlight' as we Yanks call it), a brush, a dustpan, and a container with a lid. You're supposed to sweep up the snails, store them under cover (presumably with some of the swept-up Weetabix crumbs to tide them over) amd "when convenient release on wasteland at least 40 metres* from your garden." I don't think this would endear you to gardeners who live less than 40 metres from the wasteland.** Forty metres is the range of a mature snail, so I guess the idea is that they won't come back.

All this I followed to the letter (up to a point, as you'll see), and when I went out during the wee hours with my torch there was a congregation of small slugs munching on the Weetabix. Here I diverged from the recommended procedure and smashed the creatures to smithereens. And since I was up most of the night working on a project, I made two trips, the second time with a fork for easier smashing. On the first trip, I had used a chopstick. Not as efficient or as satisfying as the metal tines.

The trap-and-release method I eschewed was reminiscent of Kay's way to dispose pf snails and slugs. She would gently deposit them in a milk carton along with a lifetime supply of tasty green stuff, and place them in with her household trash.

OK I'm not as nonviolent as Kay was, but I'm not inhumane. Why should a land mollusk live out its last hours in a dark, stuffy milk carton or wandering on barren land? Mine, well fed to the last, die quickly and with dignity in their own homes.

There's more to be said about snails and slugs, but I'll save it for later in this "cruel month," along with more about T.S. Eliot.
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*Why six inches and 40 metres in the same article? Where are our standards? Are we supposed to learn the metric system or not?

**I never encountered the concept of wasteland, except in T.S. Eliot's poem of that name, until we started getting tax bills for our Idaho property, which includes a couple of acres of wasteland lying along the bank of the irrigation ditch. Here in the L.A. area, the nearest wasteland is probably the dry, weedy bank of a concrete creek that leads storm-drain water and effluvia into the ocean. Allowing anything (even rainwater) to go into the storm-drain system here is ecologically irresponsible and politically incorrect. I must admit, though, that when I smash snails in the gutter their dried remains are ultimately scattered at sea.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

a better bus ride

In cougar? moi? I described a very unpleasant bus ride, but today I'm happy to report a thoroughly enjoyable one.

When a shabbily dressed man sat down at the other end of the 'seniors and disabled' bench and hung a plastic bag of clothes on the rail above his head, I feared the worst.

I was knitting, so kept my eyes on the needles in an effort to avoid any kind of contact. Nevertheless he started asking me about what kind of fabric I was making. He said he was an artist and was interested in all kinds of crafts. I responded tersely that it was nylon, and he asked whether he could feel it. Uh-oh! The "Never talk to strangers!" alarms were ringing loud and clear.

Imagine my relief when his opening gambit led to a veritable symposium on fiber arts rather than an attempt at unwanted touching and feeling. He had thought it was mohair, you see, but then noticed the sheen. He asked what it was going to be and laughed when I said "probably a shrug," as he thought I was making a joke about a combination between a shawl and a rug. I explained that it was a loose, bolero-length sweater that a person "shrugged" her shoulders into, and our conversation was off and running.

 Lonely, but not a Lothario. After we finished talking about the price, availability, and applications of different kinds of yarn, he told me he lived in Montebello and sold his artwork at a stall on the Venice Boardwalk He's been accepted at the Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and hopes to move to Monterey Park to cut down on travel time. His car broke down in North Carolina and he left it there. Until he makes it big as a chef or an artist, he'll continue to support himself as a security guard, and his plastic bag of clothes was, in fact, his uniform.

Vaya con dios!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

swan the verb, part 2

In swan the verb, part 1, I cited as the source for three senses of swan the verb and promised to talk about the etymology of the second sense -- "[to] move about aimlessly or without any destination, often in search of food or employment" -in a future blog.

With all due respect to AudioEnglish, I believe swan in this sense is a prepositional verb. Swanning off is the usage that has stuck with me from a Monty Python episode, but the only documentation I can find is for swanning about.

In a board meeting within the last six months or so, I found myself talking about swanning off to do something or other. Later I realized I had no clear idea of what I was talking about, except that I was quoting Monty Python. Naturally I turned to Google, where gave the meaning I'd intuited from context: "If you describe someone as swanning around or swanning off, you mean that they go and have fun, rather than working or taking care of their responsibilities." gives an etymology based on the hunting of swans in medieval England. According to the Sea Dog, only royalty were allowed to hunt swans, but commoners were permitted to do so on specially designated days. Imagine a "gone swanning" sign on the door of a shop.This story makes me feel confident about my use of swanning off in meetings or casual conversation, but it leaves me with questions.

BTW, the "Old Sea Dog's" name is Steve, and he features Idaho Dawn on his website. So swanning about on the web has led me to the Union Pacific Station in Boise -- a fitting destination but not, anymore, for trains.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

a new world in our front yard

In seed stories, part 3, I wrote about planting "CBS tableaux" in the front yard, and during Easter weekend this plan came to fruition at last.

In this context, 'CBS' refers not to a broadcast network but to the basic new-world native plants: Corn, Beans, and Squash. I learned the term from Gloria years ago in Pennsylvania, and today I brought it up just for the fun of remembering a drive she and I took to a plant nursery out in the country when I was on a quest for rhubarb and our younger sons were together in nursery school.

Today's googling, however, has led to a revelation! The CBS trinity of plants represents three sisters -- goddesses venerated in various forms by numerous Native American cultures: and documented here via a tribe, a seed company, a curriculum guide, and a museum.

Now, of course, I wish I'd asked Gloria more about CBS gardens. She had spent time in New Mexico and probably had first-hand knowledge of the three sisters. But we had other matters on our minds: children, chamber music, departmental politics, the gardens we were planting in 1971.

My CBS garden is centered on four inverted tomato cages. Each one includes seedlings of three types of plants: one sunflower, two or three ornamental corn, and one or two beans (rattlesnake and/or scarlet runner varieties). Zucchini squash seeds are planted in the narrow spaces between the cages, and a 'hill' of pumpkins will occupy a central area between the cages as soon as I prepare the soil properly. So it's actually SCBS, counting the sunflower, which is also a new-world native.

"Archetypes don't lie dormant long," I wrote in my poem Transubstantiation several years ago. I like to think that three (or four) metaphysical, metaphorical sisters will watch over our front yard as its focal point shifts from old-world and third-world ornamentals to new-world edibles.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

cougar? moi?

I've been meaning for some time to blog about my many positive experiences as a rider of public transportation in the greater Los Angeles area. Alas, it took a negative experience to get me to add the bus label to my list of topics.

At age 68, I rarely get unwelcome (or welcome!) attention from strange men, but last Monday evening was an exception. A man sat down next to me on the bus and proceeded to pop open the can of beer he was carrying in a paper bag. Judging by his aroma, this was not his first beer of the evening. I kept my eyes on my Kindle and hoped he wouldn't strike up a conversation.

Of course he turned out to be quite a talker. I think the first topic was food. He was hungry. Wanted a hamburger. I made the mistake of suggesting some places to get one, and this led him to the subject of how hamburgers had gotten so much smaller in recent years. He wanted to know why this shrinkage had happened.  I mumbled something about the economy, but what I wanted to know was why he didn't get off the bus and get a hamburger. After a while he said he thought a Subway sandwich would be better, but he stayed put.

Looking at my Kindle, he asked where the earphones were. I said I didn't like to use earphones. Told him I like to read silently. Some might have taken this as a hint to pipe down, but he went on to tell me how much he liked to listen to books on his mp3 player. Now he wanted to know whether my mother ever read to me when I was a child. I said both my parents read to me when I was a child. He started talking about how great it would be to have his mother get into bed with him, hand him a glass of wine, and start reading a book. I had no comment on this.

In retrospect, I can see how the mention of being read to in bed led him to his next topic. He said he was riding the bus all the way to the beach and was going to camp there in a three-man tent. There would be plenty of room for us and our stuff, and a third person if we wanted one. Nice, huh? Given his state, I didn't take this as a proposition. I thought we were talking about camping. Silly me! My response was that I hadn't been camping since 1971 and didn't intend to go camping ever again.

"You're a cougar!" he exclaimed. Having no idea what he meant, I said something like "maybe" or "could be." At this point he mumbled more about my being a cougar and said he was 40 years old, which seemed like a total non sequitur. At the next stop, he got off the bus through the back door, got right back on again through the front door, and sat down in the seat behind me. A gentle burp was the last thing I heard from him, and my own stop came up soon.

Home at last, I googled cougar and found out he thought I was a sexual predator. It was such a tedious way to learn a new word.

I can't help thinking of my favorite lines from Tennyson's
Ulysses" ... experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move."

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

tomato madness

With rain predicted for today and tomorrow, I am happy to have finished setting out all six of the tomato plants I bought at last week's farmers market. They have joined two volunteer* plants I've been nurturing for weeks. This is madness, especially when you consider seven biodegradable pots planted with cherry tomato seeds -- the irresistible rainbow mix of colors

When I planted a plethora of tomato plants in Pennsylvania, Lori asked: "What are you going to do, make catsup?"** (She pronounced it CATS-up, as most of the natives did, and so I have spelled it that way in defiance of the spell checker.)

I have never seriously considered making catsup OR ketchup, but I do like to make tomato sauce and tomato soup, and so I have two Roma plants.

My two salad-size varieties are Bush Goliath and San Diego. In spite of a previous failure with San Diego tomatoes, I believe these will be reliable for everyday eating. Liz's uncle Jack was a fan of Pearson Improved, and I would plant it in his memory, but my farmers market plant purveyor does not carry this variety. BTW, Uncle Jack taught me to feed epsom salt to my tomato plants, and wikipedia suggests that the potatoes could use some too.

Hoping for a few whopping slicers, I have one each of Costoluto-Genovese and Brandywine. These are both new to me. Having often wondered what Italian cuisine could've been like before the importation of tomatoes from the New World, I'm looking forward to trying a variety developed in Italy. Brandywine is an American heirloom of Amish extraction.

It looks like my south-side chain-link fence will be pretty well smothered in tomatoes, so where will the rainbow of cherry varieties go? Probably in a narrow strip along the north-side driveway if we can contrive some sort of trellis or invest in some tomato cages. The driveway strip has always been devoted to ornamentals and has never required a fence, but this seems like a good year to make it more productive.

Because of our cool coastal nights, Californians will never be able to grow the prolific tomato plants we remember from the east and mid-west, but we never get tired of trying.
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*One of my Pennsylvania colleagues was proud of having pulled out ALL of his volunteer tomato plants before setting out seedlings in the spring. He couldn't bear to have a tomato on his table that he couldn't name.

**My maternal grandmother made wonderful catsup -- replete with "natural mellowing ingredients" long before Garrison Keillor developed the Ketchup Advisory Board -- and tomato juice too, in the cellar kitchen she used for big messy projects.
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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