Sunday, January 31, 2010

asparagus fern, part 1

Another South African native -- like the lovely freesia and amaryllis as well as the loathsome oxalis -- Sprenger asparagus fern (hereinafter SAF) came to me as a volunteer plant years ago. That was in the pre-Internet era, but even then I might not have looked a gift horse in the mouth. Only today, AFTER declaring SAF to be a weed ("PLANT OUT OF PLACE") have I found out it was poisonous.

SAF was named Plant of the Week in July 2004 by the site cited in the above link (a project of University of Oklahoma) and in August 2006 by killerplants, a commercial site devoted to botanical arcana.

Meyer asparagus fern, SAF's better-behaved cousin, was growing on the premises when we arrived here in 1975 and (like me, of course!) has not changed much in the interim. Neither Meyer nor Sprenger is really a fern. I assume that both are named after Dutch colonists whose countrymen brought apartheid as well as European botany to the southern hemisphere.

I have often wondered about the indigenous names of the South African plants, but this bit of research can wait for a day when I have not grubbed out what seemed like two tons of SAF's clumpy, nodular roots from about 20 square feet of my front yard. Alas, the project is only half done, but eventually SAF will make way for more calla lilies, flowering ginger, and maybe even some lettuce and arugula.

Goodbye, SAF! On Friday, you will be borne away to the Valhalla of municipal composting ground and I shall stand at the curb chanting ave atque vale!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

potato soup

This afternoon I went out to buy some potatoes for a luxurious potato and cream cheese soup. I chose red potatoes, peeled and diced them as directed, and had one potato left over.

The peels and the extra potato, which I cut so's to have an eye or two in every piece, will be planted tomorrow in an old washing-machine drum I've been saving for this very purpose. The idea is to have a small amount of rich soil in the bottom, add the potato eyes and peels, and then keep topping up with leafy mulch as the potato vines grow. Well, it's worth a try.

When peeling potatoes, I always think of Elizabeth, whose imaginary garden I mentioned in an earlier post. She told me she'd read about someone who just peels her potatoes a little bit thick, throws the peels into the garden, and harvests marvelous new potatoes whenever she wants them. This plenitude of potatoes struck Elizabeth's fancy because when she was a child growing up in Toronto her family was often one potato short -- like, four potatoes for five people and not much else on the table.

Elizabeth's father was brought up in a London orphanage where he was taught the trade of blacksmithing in the early 20th century, and then transported to Canada where work for blacksmiths did not turn out to be forthcoming. By the time I knew her, Elizabeth was well off enough to support her elderly parents, travel extensively, and buy a lot of custom-made furniture. But early deprivation had taken its toll on her psyche. She would always throw her thick potato peels into the imaginary garden where they would grow up to feed multitudes.

My experiment in growing potatoes will not affect our lifestyle one way or another, but it will remind me that one's food supply should never be taken for granted. Having visited the Strokestown Park Famine Museum in Ireland, I know what it means to be dependent on a seemingly humble vegetable.

Friday, January 29, 2010

chinese evergreen elm

Our street trees are Chinese evergreen elms. They form a shady canopy over the two blocks of our neighborhood and are the envy of folks on the next street west, who have no uniform street trees.

Evergreens, I have learned, are also everbrown. They never lose all their leaves, but are always losing some of their leaves as well as patches of bark. Chinese evergreen elms have a growth spurt in the early spring, when they're susceptible to wind and so will dump great quantities of light-green leaves. What this means is that we're always sweeping up tiny leaves and disk-like seeds.

Since we started our current regimen of suburban permaculture gardening, we have viewed the year-round supply of elm leaves as a major asset. They form a clean, attractive layer of mulch and, being small, break down quickly to enrich the soil.

Ramona, our permaculture maven, has instructed us to lay down a thick layer of corrugated cardboard and top it with three or more inches of light mulch, for which the Chinese evergreen elm leaves and seeds are ideal. A layer of compost under the cardboard gives a head start to decomposition, and soaking the cardboard is another optional boost.

Just before Christmas, we topped the mulch with a thickish layer of shredded white paper. Let it SNOW! Now the 'snow' is getting a topping of pulled-up green weeds, which will get another topping of brown elm leaves. Our worms and legless lizards are fat and sassy, and I am attuned to the aesthetics of fallow.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


The vast euphorbia family includes both saints and sinners, plus a few marginal members on whom the jury is still out. They're ALL poisonous, but in some cases this quality is actually venerated. Our pharmacopeia is full of toxic substances, and knowing how much to use makes all the difference, as the physician Euphorbus advised King Juba II so long ago.

For me the marginal class of euphorbiae is exemplified by gopher purge  I gladly tolerate a certain number of volunteers each year and will let one or two grow tall to reseed. Why? I like their looks at all stages of development, and they're easy to pull out. I like knowing that they're used for "mole and vole control" as well as their eponymous function.

I am leery of the candelabra tree. Its nocturnal blossoms are lovely though short-lived, but Russell's grew about 20 feet tall and, swollen with rainwater, crushed his aluminum garden shed when it fell. That must have been in an El Niño year. 1983? 2010 may be a good year for some drastic pruning.

Poinsettia, of course, is one of the saints. I am tending a tiny one that was a Christmas decoration for my parents this year. With any luck, it will grow up to overcome the influences that made it bloom ahead of its natural season.

Petty spurge is an out-and-out scourge. In my book, it has no redeeming qualities. Each tiny annual plant makes hundreds of seeds that can wait many years for the ideal sprouting conditions. Alas, that time is NOW. Our parking strip is crawling with them.

Petty spurge both causes and cures skin diseases. This ambiguity makes it attractive to cancer researchers, but I doubt they will come and take my noxious weeds away. Meanwhile I will spend many hours on the sidewalk and curb making room for violets and allysums.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


A new cat next door!

Toola is a tri-color, obviously serious about her work. She patrols two houses on each side of hers and sits tall at the garage roof''s peak. Her metal tag shines blindingly, like Wonder Woman, in the slant of afternoon sun.

I have planted new catnip for Toola, on the spot where Marigold's stood years ago. It never grew back after we so lavishly lined her grave. I think it will flourish now.

Live long and prosper, Toola!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

flight of fiction

I read a lot of novels -- almost always books that I pick up in thrift shops. I buy them, read them, and immediately donate the copies to another thrift shop unless they qualify for my exclusive shelf of exemplary novels.

Right now, I'm reading The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. The Hours was first published in 1998, and the movie came out in 2002. I haven't seen the movie, and the edition I'm reading is not the one with Streep, Moore, and Kidman on the cover. It's the 2000 edition, touting Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize on the cover.

Why all this detail about the copy I've been holding in my hands? Because between the pages of the book I found the stub of an airline ticket for an afternoon flight from LAX to Houston. The date is February 6 -- year not given but probably between 2000 and 2002.

This is not the first time I've found evidence that one of my used books was first read on a plane. Generally the ticket stub or airport bookstore receipt is somewhere around page 50, where the reader has fallen asleep or lost inerest. What made The Hours different was a slightly dog-eared color photo inserted near the back of the book. It shows three people silhouetted against a very stark, very still sea and sky. To the left of the figures is a tall bare tree, probably four or five times as tall as the tallest person. The foreground is all rocks and mud.

But things keep dropping out from between the pages of The Hours. Here's an unused 33-cent stamp on a page from a USPS stamp book dated 1998.

What does it all mean? Did a person who made a decision about making the movie read part of the book on the plane and give a go-ahead? Or not? And what of the three backlit people on the beach? Is Meryl Streep the one on the right? Shall I rent the DVD and scrutinize it for beach scenes and bare trees?

I read a lot of Nancy Drew mysteries in 5th and 6th grade, and so have an abiding faith that quandaries exist to be explained.

Monday, January 25, 2010

space invaders

Yesterday I pulled the ultimate weed -- a volunteer palm tree almost three feet tall. If you define weed as "a plant out of place," this one definitely qualified, as it was growing in a narrow strip of ground along the edge of the back porch.

Then I was thinking I'd prune the star jasmine that was growing behind the palm tree. Over a period of many years, I'd trained it up a six-by-eight-foot piece of wire fencing attached to the west side of the porch. In its better days, it made a fragrant wall, but keeping vines out of the rain gutters had always been a big chore. When I looked at the heavy, convoluted main branches, plus the tangle of dry twigs underlying feeble new growth, I decided jasmine must follow palm into the green bin headed for a municipal composting site.

Making the link above, BTW, I learned that star jasmine could grow to 40 feet, and that one of its common names is Confederate Jasmine. And so this "rank secessionist"* follows similar mistakes from previous years -- notably the Banks Rose and Blue Plumbago invaders -- into well deserved oblivion as I continue to take chances with creeping fig and white clematis. We live and learn (or not).

Totally exterminating the jasmine will take a few more sessions. I cut it off about six inches above ground, so there's much digging to be done. This dirty but rewarding work will create another lovely space for vertical veggies -- cukes or beans or both -- just a few steps outside the back door.

Cold cucumber soup will be so refreshing in August, with a sprinkling of chopped dill!
- - - -
*This term looms large in family lore. My mother's great aunts warned her to stay away from a certain beau because "His grandfather was a rank secessionist!"

Sunday, January 24, 2010

polite essays

During my fourth and final incarnation as a grad student, I took an excellent seminar on T.S. Eliot (1888-1965).

One of our assignments was to write a certain number of polite essays on whatever aspects of Eliot's work caught our fancy. Sadly, this project had the effect of exacerbating the short but definitive generation gap between me and the other students -- baby-boomers among whom I, as a 30-something married woman with children, stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. It didn't help when the professor said: "Frances seems to be the only student who knows what a polite essay is."

Indeed, students who had been educated predominantly by G.I.-Bill-era instructors seemed unable to step back and view their subject matter with the detachment necessary to form their own opinions, project arguments upon these opinions, and then gracefully discard any statements that turned out to be untenable. These students wanted to be right, and they wanted clear directions for the tasks that would let them demonstrate their rightness.

A few days ago, I realized that I was devoting this blog to polite essays, and I must admit to being proud of keeping a tradition alive.

So what is a polite essay? It's leisurely and non-hortatory in tone, short but seemingly complete, flirting with erudition yet not pedantic. Other than that, it's one of those things about which (like jazz), "If you have to ask, you ain't ever gonna know!"

Saturday, January 23, 2010

weeding with Emily

You can read Emily Dickenson's poem in its original state here, but after pulling hundreds of dandelions today I can't resist a parody:

    After great rain, a day of sunshine comes.
    The weeds sit ceremonious with buds and blooms
    arising on tall stems from muddy ground
    we thought we'd cleared off yesterday

    This is the hour of weeds.
    Remembered if outlived,
    as freezing persons recollect the snow --
    first dandelion, oxalis, letting nasturtiums go.

Oxalis' huge family (Meet the Sorrels, dahling! They are from France, and they make that soup!) includes some members that are tolerated and even encouraged. I must admit to dividing and planting some of the bright pink ones while under the mistaken impression that they were shamrocks. But your tall yellow oxalis is totally without redeeming social value. A native of South Africa, it will stand a foot tall and flaunt flowers of garish neon intensity while developing fistfuls of tiny corms underground.

At some point in the near future, my nasturtiums will have to be defined as weeds, but for now I'm letting them do their thing so that I can save seed from the rarer colors -- palest yellows and darkest reds. Meanwhile I love the way water beads up on their broad leaves. So Marvellian.

Nasturtium butter looks to be an easier indulgence than the labor-intensive pseudo capers made from nasturtium buds or seeds. Let the blossoming begin!

Friday, January 22, 2010

green soup

As an undergraduate reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse over forty years ago, I was fascinated by the "green soup" Mrs. Ramsey served to her houseguests. My quest to replicate it has continued and has produced much good green soup along the way, but still nothing that will hold up to the weight of that much interior monologue.

When I started running across recipes for caldo verde, I thought maybe this was what Woolf was talking about. That hope lives on, but so far none has passed muster.

BTW, split pea soup, one of my specialties, is not in the running. It can be green enough in a yellowish kind of way, but somehow seems too American and too everyday. Nothing that was served in one's elementary school cafeteria can be the stuff of literary allusion, comforting as it may be.

This rainy week, soup has been in demand, and so on Wednesday evening I made a spinach and coconut soup that may just rival Mrs. Ramsey's at last. Based on my favorite recipe for vegetable broth,* it was seasoned with hot curry powder and thickened with a whole can of coconut cream. A large bunch of fresh spinach leaves, from our local Farmer's Market, produced strong green color as well as the predominant flavor. A run in the blender or food pro would've provided the elegance I'd expect at Mrs. Ramsey's table, but her kitchen had to produce purees more laboriously, with a food mill or sieve.

If I ever make the quintessential green soup for a dinner party, I'll puree the hell out of it and let the interior monologue ROLL.

*8 cups water with unpeeled and coarsely chopped:

  • large potato;
  • large sweet potato or yam;
  • large onion;
  • large head garlic;
  • two carrots;
  • two celery ribs 
simmered in the crock pot overnight and strained. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

drops in the bucket, part 2

Southern California is awash. We average about fifteen inches of rain per year, with three to four inches falling in each of our rainiest months, December and January. This week, it's been more like three to four  inches a day. At hillside locations prone to mudslides, rain is reported in inches per hour.

This is an El Niño year, when records are made and broken. In 1983, the biggest El Niño in recent memory, Sharon and I stood in my backyard and watched 30 feet of waterlogged wooden fence fall toward us with a loud whoo-ummp. That was also the year when so many old SoCal piers made way for redevelopment.

This week all of our four rainbarrels have been filling up more than once a day. That's over 200 gallons of water at a pop. Only one barrel actually came with a legitimate overflow port, but today Steve bought a long black garden hose and a sack of fittings. So far, we have overflow ports and pieces of hose on the two front-yard rainbarrels. This means that when the barrels get full they can drain farther out into the yard, soaking the Mandevilla, the gardenias, and the big white azalea while making room for MORE storm water to be harvested and stored in the barrels.

An overflow port must be located near the top of a rainbarrel so that when the barrel is nearly full it starts draining in a controlled manner rather than just overflowing onto adjacent ground. We've found that one of the backyard barrels has a tiny leak, so it's just dripping in place for right now. But the other backyard barrel has a faucet and an old green hose that I keep turning on and off and re-directing away from the house and wooden fence.

Having four rainbarrels in an El Niño year has been sort of like having an infant who needs tending night and day. Tonight will be quieter by more than half, and tomorrow Steve will get all four rainbarrels equipped with proper overflow valves and hoses.

Saturday is supposed to be a sunny day. I'll be out there weeding for sure. More rain is predicted for next week and then we'll probably be back to drought and fears of global warming. Then we'll see just how far 200 gallons of free water can go. Wanna bet? We'll have a POOL!
See drops in the bucket, part 1

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

seed stories part 2

Nine packets of seeds were going for 99 cents at the 99 Cent Store on Monday. My purpose was to buy insoles to use as guides for the soles of some crocheted slippers I want to make, but who can leave the store without seeing what's in each aisle?

Indeed, three cardboard racks of seed packets are blocking the hardware aisle. How could I not buy nine? In retrospect I wonder: could I have bought four or five for eleven cents each? Do I save more money by buying more, as the 99 Cent Store always seems to promise?

After laboriously selecting nine packets and queuing up at the cash register, I notice that I have a packet of bush lima beans. OOPS! All my beans must grow up the fence, so I go back and trade them for a second packet of lettuce.

I had thought I would not try any root vegetables this year, but eleven-cent radishes and carrots are just too tempting, along with two varieties of summer squash -- surely bigger bushes than the lima beans would have been. Maybe I can start a row along the north fence. Meanwhile, a scarlet runner bean has already sprouted from the seed I saved last fall. What will happen to the expensive rattlesnake bean seeds I bought in Solana Beach?

Strawflower (helicrysum) seeds raise the most difficult questions. I've tried them unsuccessfully a couple of times, yet my mother, Charlotte, was proud to have grown multitudes of them one summer when I was in junior high. Maybe this will be the year of the strawflower for me, and maybe they will penetrate Charlotte's dementia as nasturtiums and violets do when I take them to her.

Seed-buying time is fraught with "visions and revisions," questions, maybes, gambles. Mostly, though, it's a time of hope, and nine for 99 cents is a good deal.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

drops in the bucket, part 1

When we qualified to receive our free rainbarrel in a city/state-funded program last fall, we had already been quietly commited to "rainwater harvesting" for a couple of years. It had been a simple matter of placing a heavy-duty plastic barrel under a downspout, uncovering the barrel when rain started, covering it again when rain stopped, and gratefully scooping out the rainwater until all was gone weeks later.

Now we are part of an organized program devoted to saving water and easing the burden on area storm drains. Three families in our immediate neighborhood have signs in the front yard to proclaim: "This home proudly harvests rainwater." Alas, the light-weight cardboard sign is not likely to last through this week's unusually heavy storm.

Where our first rainbarrel harvests water from about 1/10 of our roof space, the government-funded one receives runoff from almost half. It overflows after one night of gentle rain. Elated by this outcome, we placed two more rainbarrels at the corners of the house, and now we are busy directing and redirecting runoff to the herb garden, the calla lilies, the ranunculi, the sweet peas. Anywhere but the curb, where it would be lost.

Participants in the rainwater harvesting program feel righteous and innovative in the context of our urban environment, but saving rainwater is nothing new. My maternal grandparents had a cistern at their hilltop home overlooking the Ohio River. It rained often there, but water for drinking had to be hand-pumped from the well and carried inside until they installed running water -- still from their own well -- sometime during the 1920's. All the house's rain gutters drained into a large underground tank lined with concrete. This held the precious soft water used for laundry, and for rinsing one's hair on special occasions when the well's hard water wasn't good enough. A tap in the basement brought cistern water directly to the washtub and, later, the wringer washer.

In the Ohio Valley, then as now, excess rainwater ran uselessly down the hill and across the road into the river. Ultimately, it went down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Southern California's excess rainwater runs uselessly down city streets, through the overburdened stormdrain system, and into the Pacific Ocean bearing a load of all the filth thrown into storm drains by thoughtless people. Even without the pollution, untold devastation accompanies these waters when runoff is heavy.

Steve's Idaho grandparents and great-grandparents had their epic struggles with water, but at least the rare rainwater soaked into their unpaved world. Another story.
See drops in the bucket, part 2

Monday, January 18, 2010


Linda, a member of my memoir-writing group, has just read a novel that seems to be a fictionalized memoir, and she talks about how open one must be to tell one's story. This is a question I have pondered, but from a different perspective. I am astounded by how private one can remain while revealing a great deal. Ironically, it was Linda who started me down the road to this conclusion..

Back in August, Linda recommended Haven Kimmel's A Girl Named Zippy to us as a model memoir, and I finally read it in December after having found a copy in a thrift shop sometime during the fall. Frankly, I didn't like the book very much (I gave it 3 stars out of a possible 5), but after a few days of writing this blog I realized that I was emulating it in certain ways. Peer pressure evidently cannot be outgrown!

One of the things I didn't like about Zippy was the book's lack of continuity. Kimmel would raise one of a large set of topics -- pets, bicycles, friends, parents, neighbors, religion, etc. -- write a short essay on it, and then drop that topic only to pick it up again 20 or 30 pages later. It seemed that what I learned about Zippy was merely what the book jacket told me: that she grew up "small" in Mooreland, Indiana.

I am a stickler for continuity. I will not skip chapters in a novel. I will scream when Steve clicks the remote during a commercial or what he considers to be a slow scene (DVR helps immensely with this problem). What I am learning, though, is that continuity is an artifice of narrative rather than an attribute of real life.

Fiction has continuity because the author makes it so by sticking to a plot which will reveal chosen themes. I feel myself tottering toward the exercise of comparing how the theme of parent/daughter relationships is explored in Haven Kimmel's Zippy and Rebecca Wells' Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but I set out to talk about revelation of the self through writing memoirs, fiction, or fictionalized memoirs.

From reading Zippy, I learned little or nothing factual about Kimmel's early life. This kind of thing was not what she revealed. What I learned, among many other things, was how it felt to grow up with a strong sense of being loved by parents and siblings within a family that conventional wisdom would call dysfunctional.

So now I find myself raising one of a growing set of general topics -- gardening, writing, re-gifting -- and writing a short essay that may reveal not only a few facts about myself but also, I hope, some broader truths that will resonate with a reader's feelings and experiences.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

holidays officially over

The local Red Hat Society chapter's annual RE-gifting exchange makes a definitive yet festive way to end the holiday season.

Yesterday, about 20 of us gathered for a leisurely lunch, attired as specified in Jenny Joseph's poem Warning: "...purple / with a red hat." Everyone brought a wrapped gift to exchange.

Numbers were drawn from a [ red ] hat, and we proceeded in turn to choose from a table of attractively wrapped gifts. After the first gift was chosen -- and opened and described in full view of all -- each person had the option of choosing a wrapped gift from the table OR taking an unwrapped gift from someone who'd already chosen. There was a three-time limit on such exchanges.

Gifts included tote bags, jewelry, wine, scarves, purses, and the atomic alarm clock I brought to exchange. Steve had won it at another club event and not wanted to keep it, yet had not found a suitable recipient from among our family and friends.

Being new to the re-gifting party process, I had some trouble understanding the strategy. But it worked out very well in the end. Having drawn #1 and opted for the smallest package on the table, I initially opened a lavish dichroic glass jewelry set (pendant and earrings) in a color combo I rarely wear. Luckily, this was taken from me on round #7 or so. I chose the next smallest package -- a bag of RHS logo products (bookmark, calendar, pin) -- which I later managed to exchange for a lovely pair of earrings made by one of the members.

As far as I know, everyone went away happy.

I shall wear my hand-made silver-and-turquoise earrings without purple, but they will bring back happy memories of friends wearing "...purple / with a red hat."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

seed stories part 1

Seeds were half price at Rite Aid on Wednesday, so I bought three packets. The brand name, Ferry-Morse "since 1856," brought back fond memories of reading seed catalogs when we lived in colder climes. Hard-copy seed catalogs have been largely replaced by the Internet. Ecologically sound, but not as comforting when "that February feeling gets you down on the farm" as Lisa wrote in one of her Pennsylvania poems.

Musing today on seed catalogs past, I remember telling Elizabeth that I had just received a new seed catalog in the mail. She said she had lots of them, was studying them thoroughly, and had almost finished planning her garden. Her large orders for seeds -- flower and vegetable -- were almost complete. This puzzled me, for Elizabeth lived in a small upstairs apartment without even a balcony for container gardening. I thought maybe she had space on the roof or had joined a community garden. When I asked where she was going to plant her seeds, she told me her garden was in England, not Evanston, and, of course, was imaginary.

Remembering Elizabeth's fantasy garden sends me farther back in time to places farther east. A colleague asks whether I am "making garden" and wants to know what I am planting. When I mention swiss chard, Laurie bellows: "Swiss chard? Swiss chard? Sounds like some goddamn White Anglo Saxon Protestant vegetable!" Laurie, a New York Jew proud to be bringing enlightenment to western Pennsylvania, must have had a very special garden. But don't we all?

My new seed packets take me down primrose paths leading into the past and future. Will this year's sunflowers fare better than those stolen by squirrels over 30 years ago?

Friday, January 15, 2010

perennial sweet pea

My seedlings of perennial sweet pea are standing four to five inches tall, so I'm thinking about places to set them out along the fence or maybe on the garden arch where mandevilla is struggling.

Meanwhile three small plantings of annual sweet peas are in various stages of development. The ones from the nursery have reached their promised five feet (they're a dwarf variety) so are sticking up above the top of the four-foot chain-link fence. The ones planted from seed are close to two feet tall, and the ones from the farmer's market are about eight inches tall and just beginning to reach out for the fence.

With the promise of all these elegant blooms to come over the next three months or so, why am I starting another variety with smaller, less fragrant blossoms and shorter stems? A variety that, according to informed sources, may become invasive.

I first saw perennial sweet peas on a walk in the neighborhood at least 20 years ago -- a stem of waxy-looking white flowers sticking out of an unkempt profusion of other vines and creepers. Naturally I soon planted some on a wire fence designed to keep basketballs and skateboards out of the compost. They were neglected there, but popped up a couple of years later along the north wall to my great surprise and delight.

Until I googled the perennial sweet pea, I had not known that Edna St. Vincent Millay's Exiled spoke of "the purple wild sweet-pea" that grows along the coast of Maine. A range of pinks and purples, along with white, is promised by the seed-packet picture, so the darkest ones will provide a living literary allusion.

The frilly, fluttery annual sweet pea is a prima donna with a short, spectacular life. I expect her perennial cousin to be a somewhat frumpy but more dependable companion.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I'm generally not one to get alarmed about the misuse of language. Descent from high moral ground can be a very rocky road.

Kay would fulminate about folks' saying "hopefully" in place of "I hope," then turn around and ask me if  I didn't think a speaker we'd heard recently was "the pentultimate scholar."  She believed this word (up until then a favorite of hers) was not in the dictionary because it was simply too rare. When I suggested she take out the first "t" and look it up again, she was contrite and, for a time, cut down on complaining to me about the atrocities of usage among the hoi polloi.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself spontaneously using a chiasmus in a note to Kathy:  "I realize you're alluding to Refuge  (like, the book by T.T. Williams) as memoir as well as talking about memoir (by YOU) as refuge. HEY -- it's a chiasmus, my super-fave rhetorical device!" Granted, the chiasmus is easier to spot without the parenthetical expressions.

Catching myself in a chiasmus was, frankly, a thrill, but it reminded me of how I get perturbed over the hoi polloi's lack of respect for rhetoric -- the word and the tradition.

Consulting Google Books, I'm happy to see that Edward P.J. Corbett's Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student is available in its 4th edition. It must have been the 2nd edition (1971) that I stumbled upon in graduate school.

If demand for CRMS continues (at $60 and change from Amazon), students somewhere must be learning that rhetoric can be something other than packs of lies. This is good news.

I'm going to look around for my copy of Corbett's book. It would be fun to work up some litotes.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

collection completion compulsion

The title of this essay is taken from the first line of a poem I wrote several years ago. The whole line was: "Collection completion compulsion keeps calenders coming." At the time, I was writing a poem on a theme relating to each new year ahead, printing it along with a calendar, and mailing it out as a holiday greeting to friends and clients. When I closed the business, I stopped producing the calendars, but the New Year poems have become a tradition.

After having received a number of my New Year poems, Kaye told me she always puts them up on the fridge where she can peruse them regularly. Sometime in March, she would feel that she understood that year's poem at last. What could be better than the joy of having one's words pondered?

Now, I've been trying for years to write a poem about collecting and collections, but it's not coming together for me very well. Many of my poems have had gestation periods lasting several years, so the lapse of time for this one is not alarming in and of itself.

When I was writing a poem about how Grandma White killed her chickens, I developed a casual interview technique where I would just use the words grandmother, kill, and chickens in the same sentence. Everyone I spoke to seemed eager to talk about how his or her grandmother killed chickens, and many people would make a neck-wringing motion while they talked. Clearly chicken-killing is a deeply significant part of many cultures, but that's a story for another day.

Pinky once asked me why I'd never mentioned her in ANY of my poems. Her sister Sharon had been featured in many, you see, and sibling rivalry is a force to be reckoned with even among folks in their sixties. To placate Pinky AND make progress on my poem, I later asked her about her collections. She rather bluntly told me she didn't collect ANYTHING, though our conversation eventually revealed that she liked to buy a gold charm in every country she visited. Of necessity, this was a small and exclusive and exquisite collection. BTW she said she didn't remember ever asking why she wasn't mentioned in any of my poems.

What have I learned?
  • Collections have something important to do with memory. I remember when Jerri gave me a parrot she'd brought back from Mexico and how I hung it in the rafters of my garage-office.
  • Collections are an excuse to shop. I'm always on the lookout for mermaids for Ruth, frogs for Sharon, nativity sets for Raquel, and owls for Kay (even tho Kay passed away over two years ago).
  • Collecting things, we collect friends (very possibly the first line of my new poem).
I think I'll try going back to a more casual interview technique. Just say the words collectioncompulsion, and Chia Pet (or cookie cutter or parrot)  in the same sentence and see what's evoked.

Steve came home from a rehearsal last night and told me that Dave missed my New Year poems. A long time ago when we were stand-mates in the flute section of a community concert band, Dave told me he always taped my calendar poem to his drawing board. You can be sure that Dave will get this year's New Year poem, complete with a drawing by Steve.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

you, william carlos williams!

I've challenged myself to write a little something each day. Something, that is, in addition to the mountains of e-mail, newsletter articles, press releases, instructions, etc. I churn out in my life as a community volunteer.

This blog is the notebook where I'm writing and keeping my bits of consciously written ephemera. It's great to be able to go back and edit the pieces, but I'm going to try not to be too compulsive about this process -- getting rid of the occasional ambiguity should be enough. Better to move on and make the next day's piece more carefully, clearly, and quickly crafted.

Poet and physician William Carlos Williams (1883-1948) is my model for the 'piece-a-day' regimen. How would he have used a blog? It's fascinating to ponder this question, and tempting to try to answer it. But I don't believe in hypothesizing about how someone's art or craft could have been different or better. It is what it is. Our task is to understand and appreciate.

I am fascinated by the processes of writing and of keeping track of one's writing. (Hey, the template I'm using for this blog is called Scribe!) Having had a computer meltdown last summer, I've realized a bit too late that the Internet may be a more permanent storage and retrieval medium than a poorly-managed hard disk.

John Locke (1632-1704) is well known for many reasons but, IMHO, not well enough known for his Method of Keeping a Commonplace Book, which I stumbled onto in grad school while doing research on 17th-century philosophical roots of computer science. That was more than 30 years ago, and in the interim I have used Locke's method to keep track of many hard-copy texts, and bits of texts.

Today the "labels" function of tools such as and Google Blogger can accomplish Locke's organizational feat instantly, effortlessly, and totally without cost to the user. Brave new world, eh?

Monday, January 11, 2010

african blue basil

Last night Steve made a fabulous pesto with some of our homegrown African Blue Basil.

Before the ordinary Sweet Basil shut down for winter, our pestos would use a combo of the two basils, along with some parsley (Italian or English), but the African basil is a tender perennial and can last for years in our Mediterranean climate. It has a stronger flavor than its annual cousins -- very welcome on a winter evening -- and so holds its own with a liberal infusion of garlic and a firm penne pasta.

How sweet it is to have one's own herb garden with two kinds of tarragon (French and Russian), oregano (Greek and Italian), thyme (English and 'silver'), chives (garlic and plain) and the aforementioned pair of parsleys (plus cilantro). It's a veritable U.N. of plants supporting our multicultural cuisine.

Even weeding the herb garden brings special rewards. Heady rushes of fragrance evoke remembrance of great meals and promise many more to come.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

creeping fig

When it occurred to me that our prominent chimney was a boring backdrop for the front garden, I hustled down to the Marina Garden Center and purchased a one-gallon creeping fig to plant in front of it. For months, I'd been admiring the way these climbers cling closely to brick and masonry walls. Plus the fact that CalTrans plants them along local freeways seemed to promise that they'd thrive anywhere.

Sometime during the two weeks before Christmas, I planted the creeping fig with my usual TLC and meticulous ritual:

  • dig a hole twice the size of the rootball;
  • fill the hole with rainbarrel water three times;
  • add finished compost to the bottom of the hole;
  • place plant in hole;
  • cover roots; 
  • mulch the immediate area deeply; and
  • think pure and photosynthetic thoughts.
Then I went out of town from December 22 through January 3, and returned to find some very crispy brownish leaves standing droopily in front of the chimney. On closer inspection, however, I found bright green growth here and there, so made sincere apologies along with lavish applications of water. Today I pruned off the last of the crispy stuff and did some gentle staking.

The lavish watering will stop soon. Creeping fig is a drought-resistant plant yet will require vigilant pruning to stay within the space I've allotted for it.

Creep onward and upward, little figgy! Be a lush backdrop for next year's calla lilies.
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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