Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Dedicated Shopper...

I didn't grow up with a normal attitude about shopping. My mother had grown up with a very glamorous mother herself, for whom shopping for a coat entailed the following: First, looking through all the magazines to see what "they" were wearing. Then, white gloves and hats would be donned for a trip into the city (San Francisco), and at each and every department store of note, several coats my grandmother chose would be tried on by my mother in turn, modeled, mulled over, examined in minute detail, and from one to three might be put on hold with an elegant saleslady. Then, it would be time for lunch, or tea, while figure faults were sighed over, and the pros and cons of each coat were weighed. After lunch, or tea, the coats on hold at each store were revisited and considered. The end of the day might, or might not, produce a coat, but according to my mother what it did produce was headaches, nausea, dizziness, spots before the eyes, dry mouth, palpitations, sweating, as well as monumental feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy.

All this would be related to me by my mother as we set out once a year to buy me whatever clothes that Mom had been finally made to concede were going to have to be bought for me. Since Mom would probably have preferred to spend a day getting her eyelids tattooed by naked Aborigines she'd have put the shopping trip off for some time, so chances are my very appearance was a reproach to her mothering skills. I brushed my hair, much as my mother herself did, as an afterthought, and sometimes not at all, so that it was usually a giant tangle in the back that took half an hour and a lot of tears and cream rinse for me to unsnarl at bathtime. I had shapely little legs but somehow my itchy woolly tights always bagged out at the ankles, making me look like one of those little old ladies with piano legs, and my clothes were wrinkled, shabby, and usually either hopelessly too large or too small. So Mom, looking my way with a critical eye through her cigarette smoke as she drank the morning's first cup of black coffee, was doubly challenged by the demands of the day; not only did the clothes have to be purchased, but since the point of shopping was that, ideally, I would be a bit less of a visual reproach to her mothering skills when I was decently dressed, then the clothes purchased might perhaps actually require some thought. In theory. But it was early yet.

Mother would be wearing her hair in it's perpetual French Twist, a bouclé suit, square-toed pumps, a little ineffectual handbag over one shoulder. In the handbag were a coral lipstick, a rather battered red leather wallet containing several charge plates to Fifth Avenue stores she loathed and rarely frequented. More importantly, inside the bag under her handkerchief, were her old fashioned filterless Philip Morris Commanders, and her little gold lighter, for moral support. Whatever I was wearing, when I appeared downstairs, would be wrong. A quick up-and-down appraisal confirmed the reproach of everything about me. Then a shrug , another cup of coffee for Mom while I squirmed out of my skin with anticipation, and then off we went.

The problem was, that by the time we got to Best & Co., or Martins', or Saks, or whichever store Mom had decided would be the least fraught with tension, Mom had been running through endless scenarios in her head and had already had several ugly scenes with imaginary saleshelp and rude shoppers, so that the slightest interaction with anyone brought out her worst demons. An angry letter in a file years later alluded to some reason she'd never liked Macy's, but she'd always told me that the reason was that the store---well it was just tacky.

Mom would storm into the store, shoulders forward, heads down, arms swinging, black-browed and determined, me practically running to keep up and herding my baby sister along, she oblivious of Mom's mood and prattling gaily, running towards whatever pretty thing catches her eye until I manage to steer her giggling back towards our rapidly vanishing mother, I catch a glimpse of the salt-and-pepper suit through the crowd and catch up with her just as she steps into the elevator, she gives my sister a dirty look as the baby prattle of observations fill the elevator and people turn and smile us all indulgently.

We step off into Heaven. While living in my hand-me-downs from Helen and Anita up the street, I have been dreaming of some sparkly fairy godmother tapping me with her wand, dressing me in bellbottoms, miniskirts, the kinds of fashionable things my friends in school wear. Now, my eyes are dazzled by fringe, suede, chains, peace signs, paisley, purple, Peter Max, Pop Art, far-out movie posters, go-go boots, yes!!! This is it, the motherlode of fashion at Best & Co., I've never seen so many things at once, outside of a candy store, that made my mouth water. But the look on my mother's face is reminding me of real life, that we aren't going to come home with armloads of exciting clothes that make me look like Twiggy.We're going to come home with some baggy tights and a jumper, most likely, if I'm lucky mom will get tired and give on on something really crazy. Things are looking good for the latter plan, because Mom has that migraine-attack face-freeze thing happening and I can see her eyes glazing over already.

The fact that I ended up with the grooviest clothes I have ever owned doesn't make my memories of that trip to Best & Co. any less loaded with guilt for having needed clothes and thereby sacrificed my poor mother on the altar of motherhood and caused her to have a migraine. I was also, alas, unable to reign in my sister's exuberance, which was needling Mom's fragile equilibrium. Finally, my sister had a meltdown. A rolling-on-the-floor, screaming-at-the-top-of-her-lungs meltdown. I'm sure my child's pragmatic and mercenary nature was very calculatedly attuned to the situation, because I can enumerate for you the fruits of that journey:

1. a pair of white faux-leather pants with hippie fringe up the sides. I later pitch a fit myself for being sent home with the mumps from a class ice=skating excursion, I was wearing these for the first time and had visions of the impression of Bohemian chic I would create.
2. a faux-fur jumper with a gold-tone link chain belt around its dropped waist, two contrast-stitched front kangaroo pockets, very Mary Quant.
3. a suede fringed vest, the fringe being around 3' long.
4 purple tights with peace signs going up the outer side of my legs, I loved those tights to distraction.
5. A leather belt whose clasp consisted of two brass hands, suggestively gripped just below my belly button on a pair of jeans.

These items were the apex of my style chart in Elementary school, I had nothing more until some years later when I was given clothing allowance. Still, that allowance wasn't large enough to underwrite shopping excursions for glamorous items and I always remembered my trip to Best and Co. with wistful happiness.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Don't forget to remember....

It's one of those summer days that you wish you could somehow preserve a little of for future use. Poured into a Tupperware and stashed in the freezer, or carefully pressed between the pages of a heavy old Riverside Shakespeare or Dickens, on a gray and grim January day in the future, you could then carefully slide your fragile summer day out from between the pages of Little Dorrit's patient fortitude or of Malvolio's downfall, and by blowing upon it, endow it with the warm breezes and long-lighted afternoons fragrant with honeysuckle, citronella, and the smoke of charcoal fires.

I've preserved summer in the form of a couple of dozen jam jars in the basement: the flavor of real strawberries in June tastes like summer to me, and that's the only way I've found to bottle a summer's day. So until I can slide this lazy afternoon out from yellowing pages and blow it full of honey-colored light and the smell of fresh-mown grass, I will have to make do with a batch of biscuits, and a jar of jam, and maybe a few pressed petals, to beat next winter's January blues.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Our little house in Park Slope is roomier than most New York City apartments, especially since it's just the two of us, but nevertheless when it comes to overnight guests, we are spatially challenged. Slightly on purpose. Anyone in New York who has a guest bed has had someone overstay their welcome, either by a few days or by a few years. the rents here being what they are. I put my old daybed, the bed of my childhood, down in our musty basement, underneath that is a roll-out trundle bed. The extra bedroom upstairs is a little library/sewing/drawing/dabbling room, it's lined with its' crammed-to-bursting bookshelves, and a tattered Hepplewhite fainting couch alongside the window makes for a cozy spot to read or draw.

All of which is very nice, for us, but then when guests are imminent, there's always a level of panic because we aren't used to putting people up. A sleeper sofa upstairs would solve the problem, but since we don't really want to solve the problem and thus have a constant stream of guests, we're inclined to keep the recamier and its toss pillows and relegate our overnights to the basement bed. And then, a few weeks ago, my mother-in-law announced that she would be coming to stay a few days, along with Jane, Dale's sister. (During, I might add, the hottest part of the summer, and we have never installed central air, the house being so tiny it doesn't seem to warrant it.)Two guests are a little tricky, so I figured I'd just order a new mattress to replace the ancient piece of petrified foam that lay on the trundle bed, and in the meantime went on a cleaning frenzy, trying to sort through the piles of clutter and make the house somewhat presentable. Well, to make a long story short, I had to make do with a cushion from the fainting couch sheeted up to resemble a real mattress and tucked into the trundle bed downstairs. I guess the bright side is, they won't be back anytime soon, not after those sleeping arrangements. In all fairness, we did offer then our bed, but they would have had to share it, at which they demurred.

So, they came, they stayed, I cleaned within an inch of my life, and I am half-conscious now that they have finally gone. I ran around setting tables, cleaning, baking biscuits and pie, folding linens and fluffing pillows, like some crazed Stepford wife who is all amped-up on crystal meth. The whole visit was focused on what we were going to eat next, and when we were going to eat it, like some fat-people's Carnival Cruise. A breakfast of champions the first morning: bacon, as much as I could possibly fry up, piles of white toast, fresh brown eggs from the farmer's market scrambled up in glossy, fluffy curds, and fresh-squeezed (store-bought) orange juice, but I realized too late from the still-hungry looks around the table, that I should have tossed up some home fries, and maybe attempted Yankee-girl grits or some kippers. Sigh.

So, realizing that tonight's dinner is probably inadequate for these appetites, we pile into the car. The plan is for me to get dropped off at the farmer's market and Trader Joe's to hunt and gather and take the bus home laden like a pack mule, while Dale chauffeurs the girls in a peculiar scenic tour of the backside of Brooklyn. I fetch sausages, fresh chopped meat, corn on the cob, heirloom tomatoes, breads, fresh string beans, spring onions, and some snack food. I lumber onto the bus, swinging bags from both shoulders like a Sherpa climbing Everest, glad that the plan is to cook out, since last night for their arrival dinner, the homemade biscuits at 475º heated up the kitchen a bit oppressively.

My back and legs are throbbing, and a kidney stone is making its presence felt though not in the mindbending stage of pain yet. Still, when I get home I ache to lie down, but before I do I need to shuck corn and slice tomatoes, to have all the side dishes ready at dinner. In my mind's eye, Dale has pulled over during their tour and fed the ladies on empanadas or knishes, pupusas or somosas, dolmades or cuchifritos, babaganoush, hummus, any of the thousands of delicacies I iamagine they are bypassing on their scenic tour.

Except that the door clangs open and they troupe in, ravenous, because Dale has driven them around Lowe's, the piers, Ocean Parkway, Avenue S, a kind of odd's eye view of Brooklyn only without any lunch. He is suddenly nowhere to be found, no doubt desperately in need of a moment alone, but I know full well that it simply hadn't occurred to him since he wasn't hungry himself, so I pull down a platter and start tearing apart the cabinets for anything that will pass for a surprise late lunch, spreading crostini with artichoke pesto, slicing a summer sausage and some cheddar cheese, putting out little bowls of olives and nuts, crackers and then a few little cakes and ginger snaps, pouring tall glasses of iced tea for my exhausted in-laws who by now are ready to pass out from hunger. I leave it out on a tray for them, excusing myself, because at this point I really have to go upstairs and put ice on my back and take some mega-Advil.

And so it goes, Dale manfully attempting to fend off the worst of the cooking for me by doing the grilling outside, we pray a blessing over every meal, also not a habit Dale and I are used to. Not that I altogether mind that, sometimes I feel like doing it when it's just we two, but after the hostess going to so much effort to serve the food piping hot, I think blessings should be kept short, sweet, and to the point. So, I grumble, but only because of the disturbance to the usual household routine: the truth is that it's helpful to have an excuse to get the place a bit cleaner, and to have an in-law visit without having to drive for ten hours to Ohio. And my in-laws, I know, are the best of their kind, because they have always been welcoming, warm, and eager to know me.

And yet---we wave goodbye and I am thrilled at our newly quiet house; no doubt they have found some glaring example of my inept care of Dale to chatter about during the drive, but overall I seem to have passed inspection, the food was eaten, the beds were slept in, small talk was made, pictures were shown and admired, stories told and applauded. The house is cleaner than it has been since the last in-law visit, and I can turn to Dale and bask in the grateful gleam in his eyes.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Disorderly Conduct

My mother used to tell me that when I was a toddler, I was obsessively neat and would always put my toys away just so, and fussing about anything out of place. Her heart must have soared, back then, because the reason she used to tell me this was that from there on in, I have never, ever, been able to manage to be neat. I'd like to be neat, in the sense of liking order, liking things to be beautifully placed in vignettes on every surface, of exquisite objects balancing each other in the room creating a sense of harmony by color, texture, and art objects that endow the room with mood. And I love to create order from chaos, to distill the objects in a room until they make sense, by editing them and regrouping, and that's something I do very well. So you'd think that with my mother-in-law about to visit, I'd be smugly getting my nails done, not cleaning and decluttering this house from top to bottom, right? Wrong-er-oonie.

I find it physically impossible to be neat. Just can't do it. I can't edit down the clutter, can't stem the tide of mess, like pigpen in the old Charlie Brown comics the dirt and dust just find me. Spotless? I can eat a grape in your spotless room and make a mess with it. I can use a q tip in your sparkling bathroom and somehow when I leave there will be toothpaste caked around the sink and a hairball sticking out of the bathtub drain. I can sit in a spotless living room and cross my legs, look down, behold--I have just ground something into the carpet. Oh, and that stain isn't coming out, either, damn. Where did that even come from? White blouse? Grape juice. Smoke a cigarette, the ash will dribble down the front of my blouse, and in a semi=circle around the ashtray sitting in front of me for the purpose. Dust motes fly from every surface when I enter the room, what can I say, I create a disturbance.

Mind you, you should know the context of my growing-up. My mother, the one whom you will remember tearfully reminiscing about my days of neatness, was completely obsessed with order, and there was never a spoon out of place in her spacious townhouse, every closet was neatly stacked, mothballed, swept, a friend of hers, helping after a hospital stay once, gasped in horror at the sight of my mother's underwear drawer, neatly folded stacks of sensible things in rigid rows.

"A place for everything, everything in its' place", I still have a little sign, in French, that presided over the cellar where odds and ends were kept. Neatly. Never a glass in the sink, a dirty dish, a pair of shoes in the hallway. Never a hair on the soap, or a sock on the floor, nor any object of any kind on the kitchen counter. Imagine, with three children, the iron grip with which one must run the ship in order to maintain that kind of order, there was one rule above all other rules, which was that if we made any mess whatsoever it was a dagger to our mother's heart, a deliberate affront, a statement that she was our "doormat", a domestic servant slaving away, righting our careless disturbance of order. Tirelessly, our mother railed at us for each and every slight, a dress un-hung was a statement of contempt, a dish in the sink was fraught with meaning, in that it signified that we expected her to hang dresses and wash dishes, that we thought her to be our maid, a laughable concept when you consider that she didn't clean or put away a thing, that was definitely the job of all of us children who had tied her to this prison of a house and by our very presence exuded expectations of her, which she resented. And she did have, by the way, more paid domestic help than most women of her generation. Not a day went by when we were not her greatest disappointment.

So for me, you see, that bra gaily hanging from the back of that antique chair upstairs is a flag of freedom, and that little curl of hair in the upstairs tub? A runic spell to the goddess, declaiming the liberty of sloth. That pile of papers and unsifted mail is a monument to the liberty of not having to deal with those things until I am damn good and ready, which might not be never but is definitely not going to be right this minute. And all of that is joyful, and liberating, and makes my house my own, except for one thing. My mother-in-law is coming over and I have been cleaning for a solid week. Shit. Why can't I be neat like my mother was?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Kindle-Free Zone.

I've had a lifelong romance with books; as a child I was kind of a dreamer, and loved nothing more than to curl up with a story and while away an afternoon reading. When I think of those afternoons, I remember the stories but I also remember the books themselves; summer afternoons at my grandmother's North Carolina house I would prowl the upstairs bedrooms and attics, where bookshelves abounded, and help myself to whatever was there. I read "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House", "Cheaper By The Dozen", "Little Black Sambo," "The Little Colonel", the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris.. so vivid in my mind: "Tarbaby, he don't say nothin....' There were :Kidnaped:, "Treasure Island", "Gulliver's Travels", I didn't discern between the books and nobody ever looked to see what it was that I was reading, so I just plowed through, devouring everything there was. There was a loveseat in the window on the stair landing, just large enough to curl up in completely, and I would disappear into the pages of a book for hours at a time, where I went down the rabbit hole with Alice, and to the English moors in Wuthering Heights, slipped into the sidewalk chalk drawings in Mary Poppins and through the wardrobe to Narnia. Toad Hall, Piglet, and Wilbur the exceptional pig were all my childhood friends.

I loved those books, but a love some of the strange ones because I loved that time, still nights with cicadas humming, bobwhites calling, old metal fans in the windows trying to move the still, humid air; reading on the porch by lantern light while June bugs clung to the screens. The house was rambling, a Gothic fantasy with rooms that roamed forever, and those books smelled of that wonderful house. Between those pages you might find a faint whiff of mold and mothballs, old paper, and leather, names scrawled on the flyleaf going back generations, stiff, faded illustrations protected by tissue-paper overlays, the simple yellow bookplates of my great-great grandfather pasted on the inside cover of many of the oldest ones. When I read those, (I have a set of Dickens of his of which I am now reading David Copperfield), I marvel at the faint smudges that appear to have been caused by long ago fingers, the occasional scrap of ephemera tucked in as a bookmark, wondering if it was he who'd been reading it and what he'd thought about it, back in 1880 when the books were new.

I imagine the creak of a harness and the measured clop of working horses as the mailman approaches the old home place, ringing the bell at the iron gate at the front of the drive until a figure comes to meet the mailman, a box is procured--a crate, slightly heavy, the postmark from overseas making the event even more exotic. Opening the lid impatiently, the governor picks up the first book and holds it reverently to him, the way you might hold a child, or an icon. The green cloth bindings are unpretentious, these books are for reading, not for show.

When I think of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I think of the woodcut illustrations that brought those books to life for me. (They belonged to my mother, and have her bookplate pasted onto the flyleaf.) Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well; Alice's attenuated neck as Tenniel depicted it, I think of the wonderful covers of those books, the feel of the cloth, paper, or leather bindings, their typefaces, the way the books are constructed. Some slim and compact enough to tuck into a pocket or a palm, like the Oxford Anthony Trollopes I have a few dozen of, some bulky and requiring a table for perusal, like the wonderful ancient botanical reference books with their hand-colored drawings that my Aunt Joan still has, that I remember leafing through in fascination, and the old family Bibles, with their frightening illustrations and pages of calmly recorded marriages, births, and deaths. The smell of leather bindings, fine old paper, and dust mix with the smell of furniture polish, lemon, and mothballs. And more dust.

I'm not anti-Kindle, though you might assume so. I can see right away that it has advantages, particularly in my own version which is on the iPad-- I can use Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, or a handful of other book apps that have libraries, and I've read Moby Dick, for example, for the first time, on my e-reader and loved the ease of it: the built-in dictionary, the brightly lit screen for darkened rooms. Lightweight, in the case of reading Moby Dick, easier to handle. I love tossing the lightweight iPad into my handbag and having all that printed matter at my fingertips.

But I think ultimately it is this, that when you buy a physical book, in analog. you own it. It belongs to you. You put your bookplate on the flyleaf, perhaps, or maybe just you scrawl your name on the inside cover, or even just scrawl your opinions in the margins, that book has been slightly altered by your reading it and in that process has developed further, even if that book has been around 200 years. My bedtime, as a child, was supervised by both "Goodnight Moon" and "Chicken Soup With Rice", tiny and weatherbeaten books with damp crumbly pages that barely hold together. But I don't own the Kindle version of "Atonement" I've just read, as much as I loved, loved, loved the story. A physical book will end up a bit dog-eared, perhaps, or with a couple of scraps, snapshots, or receipts tucked into its pages. A kindle story is untouched by human hands, pristine, belonging to some other world and unspoiled by contact with air and prodding clumsy human fingers.

So while the Kindles and e-readers have their place (particularly nighttime reading with that handy lit-up screen) I will always love my old, analog, decrepit books that, each time I read them, I make my own.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pie for Dummies

When I say "dummies", I refer to the clueless, the culinarily challenged, the how-do-you-boil-water variety of chef. Which would have described me until fairly recently-- but the last few years have seen my cooking skills improve through practice, mostly because we now have a kitchen with some counter space. Remember the expression "easy as pie"? Here's how to make one, and don't be intimidated-it's supposed to be fun. AND easy. Plus, how bad can it possibly come out, it's fruit and sugar for goodness' sake.

1. See "pie crust for dummies", below.

2.Preheat your oven to 450 degrees, then butter a nine-inch pie plate.

3. Divide the dough into two roughly equal pieces, the slightly larger piece for the bottom. Squish down the ball a bit until it's flattened, then roll out your crust. Now, if you want to "cheat," here's a handy tip: I find handling the crust to be somewhat unwieldy, especially on a humid day, so the way around that is to roll it in between two sheets of waxed paper, then peel one back and use the remaining sheet to pick the crust up and deliver it to the pie plate.

4. Wash and pick over your fruit; for most berry pies you will need around six cups for a deep dish pie, four cups for a regular. Add in your sugar, usually around a cup depending on your sweet tooth, and then add your thickener: I recommend quick-cooking tapioca, this will keep the pie from being soupy when cooked. The tapioca container will give proportions for various fillings, usually somewhere around 1/4 cup is about right. For blueberry pie use a little lemon juice and a dash of cinnamon, for cherry-rhubarb use a little amaretto or almond extract, for peach pie use some vanilla. Play with the fillings, experiment, and have some fun, you may make a wonderful discovery (I discovered cherry-rhubarb and peach-raspberry, for example, and can't begin to tell you how amazing those combinations are!) Let the filling sit with the sugar and tapioca mixture for fifteen minutes before spooning it into your pie dish, this allows the tapioca to thicken properly. Dot the fruit with butter for a rich finish.

5. Roll out the remaining dough and cut it into long strips around 3/4" wide, placing them in a crisscross pattern on the top of the pie. Don't worry about getting it geometrically perfect, you can hide any mistakes with cookie-cuttered dough shapes as decorations. I often use star or flower shapes, or sometimes free-formed leaves and branches. When you have the top ready, use a chopstick or fork to flute the edges, then brush the surface with a little cream and sprinkle it with sugar. Put the pie plate on a cookie sheet to prevent the oven from getting all gunky if the filling spills over.

6. Place the pie in the middle rack for 10 minutes, after which you will turn down the oven to 350.

7. Tear several strips of tinfoil around three inches wide and pleat them together to form a circle; this you will place around the edges of the pie crust to keep the edges from scorching. Add this at around your ten-minute mark and the edges will still have a nice brown to them but won't burn.

8. Let the pie continue to cook at 350 degrees for around 45 more minutes, checking it occasionally, until it is lightly browned on the surface and smells irresistible. Remove the pie from the oven and let it cool.

9. Eat the pie.
10. Repeat.

Pie Crust for Dummies.

Don't bother with those frozen pie crusts---they aren't terrible, but this pie crust is really almost as easy as a pre-made one. I used them for years but then found this recipe was nearly foolproof.

Sift: 2 and 1/2 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour with 1/2 teaspoon salt and around 2 teaspoons of sugar (more to taste). Now, as far as shortening goes, it's a matter of taste. Butter will give you the best flavor, but some people insist that vegetable shortening gives a flakier crust, and others claim that half butter and half shortening is ideal. Sigh. Do whatever you want. But anyway, take a half-cup (that would be two sticks of butter) and cut it into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter or a fork. Work it in until the texture resembles little peas, and then add in a bunch of ice cold heavy cream, starting with around 1/4 cup. working it into the dough with your hands. Slowly add more cream if necessary, until the dough holds together nicely---don't make it too gooey, a dryer dough is easier to handle. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in a tea towel, and chill for at least 20 minutes.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Looking Forward

There are different kinds of gardening. One kind I will call "Ta-Dah" gardening, because it involves buying fully-grown plants and flowering annuals, troweling them out of their flats and cell-packs and into the flowerbeds, standing back to admire one's handiwork and crowing, "Ta-Dah!" This is what I did for years, and I can assure you that it is immensely satisfying. Not only for your own instant gratification, but because then you can stroll with your admiring friends through the lovely petals, sagely taking credit for the nurseryman's toil. As long as you remember that they have to be watered, you look like a gardening genius.

More recently, however, I have discovered another kind of gardening. There's not much Ta-Dah-ing, or crowing, involved-- more like a variety of oaths from mild to scathing, occasional gnashing of teeth, and some tearing of hair--one could probably safely call it Tilting at Windmills Gardening. Why? Because it involves the quixotic, often fruitless, masochistic, deluded idea of starting the plants from seeds. Why, again, you ask--and it's a damned good question, considering that in March and April you can hardly get inside my front door for all the seedlings packed into the sunny south-facing foyer. And I'll tell you how it got started. Sweet Peas.

Even the best nurseries and farmer's markets have a relatively narrow selection of plants, while the larger nurseries have the advantage of space they nevertheless have to limit themselves to what they can expect to sell. But I started to run across seed companies that had hard-to-find heirloom varieties of things i was lusting after and couldn't find in nurseries, and eventually a few years ago I started with hollyhocks and sweet peas. Sweet peas became a yearly tradition, every south-facing sill in the house crowded with little peat pots holding tiny bamboo tripods. One year I found a treasure trove of sweet pea seeds: heirlooms, antiques,bouquet sweet peas, container sweet peas, and prizewinning new hybrids and even perennial varieties. I began to fill trays of peat pots by the front door. Then a few heirloom columbines, wild strawberries, heliotrope, herbs, cucumbers, baby lettuce and curly endive, and of course wonderful, luscious heirloom tomatoes. I harvest seeds from my best plants: jars of the tiny lobelia seeds, tiny waxed-paper envelopes of tomato seeds (cherokee purple, striped german), jam jars full of nasturtium seeds, marigolds, sweet peas, cosmos, nigella, hollyhock, hyacinth bean vine, moonflower. Curled up by the fire, I leaf through seed catalogs and place orders for new things to try.

In the dead of winter, often while there are still drifts of tinsel on the living room carpet and thank-you notes unwritten, I start soaking seeds and making little greenhouses from takeout food containers. (The kind with the clear plastic tops are perfect little terraria, the clear dome is ideal for humidity retention and the size is perfect for fitting three peat pellets across and four over and then tucking nicely into the windowsill. ) When there are still arctic winds and snowdrifts, and the cold ground seems so sterile and forbidding, I watch the little seedlings sprout and lift their tiny heads to the sun and it reminds me that, outdoors , there are stirrings below the ground and that spring is not so very far away.

When the snows finally melt and the days begin to feel more temperate, outside the daffodils leap out and remind me that I can start hardening off the seedlings outside, which is a tricky process because the nights are still frosty enough to kill off any young plants I may carelessly forget to bring indoors at sunset. There are many other hazards at this stage, too: damping off, which is usually a result of overwatering and will cause the young sprout to wilt and die, and of course the opposite--the peat pellets dry out; a mere half-day of dryness and a seedling will give up the ghost entirely, suddenly shriveling up altogether. Sometimes the seeds don't sprout at all, for various reasons. Or unknown reasons. Or no reason. There are seeds so tiny they are nearly invisible, and will just dissipate unless they are mixed with sand. I put my terraria on the radiator covers for a couple of days to start the germination process, then relegate them to their place in the sun so I can watch and marvel as they sprout their tiny green hopeful shoots.

There are always two little baby leaves on a sprout, ovoid and featureless, leaves that like a child's baby teeth eventually fall off when the adult leaves are out in full force. When the seedling has four of its adult leaves, it can, in theory, go outdoors. That theory doesn't always hold, because there are other danger factors like soil temperature, air temperature, neighborhood teenagers, peeing dogs, curious squirrels/raccoons, drought, flood, vandalism, well-intentioned weeding assistants, big feet, and absent-mindedness when it comes to watering.

A lot of things can go wrong, what can I say. And, when you've nurtured the seedling from its infancy, you really take it personally when the birds eat it or the squirrel digs it up or the neighbor's dog pees on it. My language has gotten pretty scandalous, I am thinking of starting up a cursing jar, dropping in a dollar every time I turn the air blue, and donating the contents to a charity. I save the foulest epithets for my own stupidity when I accidentally step on one of my own babies, or under/overwater it, or hack off a root when I am transplanting.

But eventually they do get transplanted, and they are out there now in the beds and containers, but my seed-started plants are way behind. The rows of green are healthy and happy, but haven't bloomed yet: lobelia in rows, its dark curly foliage happily trailing over the sides of the beds, is still entirely green. The zinnias are happily shooting up, but only a couple of tiny buds have appeared yet, and though a few of the cosmos have started showing some flowers, the nigella is a haze of green fern-like foliage, lovely but still without a single flower. Sweet peas, trailing up their trellises, just starting to form a few little clusters of buds at last, and the cypress vine with its delicate spirals is a quiet deeper green.

Then I look at the strawberry plants, not the big patch of everbearing strawberries but the tiny delicate ones that in France are called "Fraises du Bois', or woodland berries. There are similar wild strawberries in New England, but these berries are sweeter, tiny but plump, and the flavor is insanely, disorientingly, divine-- almost narcotic in its hypnotic intensity, a pagan ode to summer, a dionysian revel, a trip down the rabbit hole. I started some from seeds two years ago, beginning one January afternoon with microscopic seeds and soggy peat, and watching as tiny leaves the size of pinheads eventually emerged, dismayed and thinking I would never live to see these bear fruit, they were so tiny and the odds seemed so long. I nursed the tiny fragile plants and tucked them into the pockets of a couple of strawberry pots, then planted the rest of the seedlings in shady corners under the grape arbor in the back.

I started some more this spring, too, partly because I have friends who clamor for some of the plants. This morning I was looking at their tiny leaves in in a strawberry pot and thinking about the advantages of Ta-Dah gardening, grousing about how tardy all my seedlings are. Later in the afternoon I was weeding in the very back, though, and lo and behold on last year's plants were a huge crop of fat little berries, and as I greedily ate them and inhaled their intoxicating aroma, I felt as though I'd done a particularly successful magic trick, turning microscopic little seeds into pretty little plants that flower and fruit. And therein lies the lure of tilting at windmills, because success against all odds feels so damned good, and that success has been earned.

I guess some things are worth a wait.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Can You Dig It?

I have a chaise lounge in the garden, one I bought years ago--in fact, since before we bought this house with its' higher-maintenance garden. The chaise was to be the scene of much lounging and reading, sipping of tall icy glasses of lemonade, in my ferny but flower-laden bower and sighing happily in the sweet summer honeysuckle-scented breeze. Not happening.

I was used to a garden that had been two-thirds flagstone and more or less minimal maintenance, but when we saw this house with its peach tree, its berry patch, rosebushes, and grape arbor, we didn't think twice. Sometimes I'm not sure we thought once. But I get ready to sit out there, putting on a pair of shorts, getting my book and a glass of lemonade, a sunhat and an ashtray, and by the time I have the mise-en-scene prepared I have noticed some crisis or another that needs doing immediately: there are carpenter ants in the peach tree, or a thousand morning glories have sprouted in the tomato bed where Dale, not quite believing in the miracle of germination, plowed under all the seed pods and dried vines left from last year. Well, I tell myself, I won't be a moment--I just want to get those morning glories up but what on earth is that? Beginnings of black spot on the roses? And the roses need to be staked, there's a lot of precarious new growth, and oh dear the peonies, too, I haven't done the peony rings yet, so before you know it I am dusting the roses with organic fungicide, transplanting foxgloves, potting up some lily of the valley for a neighbor, and weeding, weeding, weeding.

And yet, back aching, when I finally do sit on that chaise to the now-warm glass of lemonade, I still don't look around and see the progress I have made--I am always looking askance at how much I should really be doing, or how much will look bad because I didn't spray or dust in time, and assessing what went wrong with this or that. But still, there I am year in and year out, on my knees before the miracles I witness every year in the garden: the transformation from season to season when the first green shoots peep out in spring, the families of finches giving flying lessons from the high branches of the old spruce where they have their nests, the dainty maiden lily of the valley and the brazen hussy peony, the countless splendors that make the aching and the swearing worthwhile.

Meanwhile, we probably end up paying forty dollars a tomato.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Press 2 if you've had it up to here.

I found myself yelling into the phone today, screaming like a lunatic, frothing at the mouth, and using the most shocking language, never mind that I was talking to a recording. Usually when I do this I am talking to a tech support person in Bangalore, but this time it fell on the nonexistent ears of one of those automated-response machines that fail to understand complicated words like "yes" and "no."

What difficult task was I performing? What life-and-death situation was at hand, you ask? I was canceling, or attempting to cancel, a subscription to a magazine that has been arriving weekly and that I read rarely, to wit, that paragon of mammon-and-real-estate-worship, the inimitably poorly-written piece of semi-tabloid journalism, "New York" magazine. I am old enough, mind you, to remember the magazine in its intellectual heyday, when Pulitzer-winning reporters wrote thought-provoking articles and there was even a rather cerebral word-game competition in the back rather than a less than lukewarm crossword puzzle that only TV Guide's equals for inanity. (though they do still, I believe, print one from the "Guardian" in London to tack on to theirs for a tinge of pretension to respectability.) Other than the "approval matrix", the occasionally interesting article amid the spam and money-fawning didn't seem to justify the yearly deduction from my credit card that had been going on automatically for something like the last decade, and I finally decided it was time to sever ties. (Besides, they insist on capitalizing the R in the word "realtor"! If the first letter isn't capitalized in the words "lawyer", "tinker", "tailor", or "candlestick maker", I don't see why "Realtor" must be written that way: it's a pet peeve, what can I say. ) Anyway, time to cancel.

Should be easy, you say? Well, the first step was going to the magazine's website. After a bit of clicking around, I found a customer service tab which then gave me all kinds of options: renew my subscription, get a new subscription, find out when my present subscription expires, and so forth, but no option whatsoever for "cancel subscription". Finally after much clicking and swearing, I found a "contact us" tab that allowed me to ask a question, and I sent an email explaining the complicated task I sought to complete. Twenty-four hours passed before a reply was posted in my inbox explaining that my subscription was through an outside service, and that I would need to contact that service in order to cancel. Fair enough. Weird, but fair enough. I contacted them, via that ancient instrument, the telephone. And this leads you to the scene I have described.

The recording asked me whether I would prefer to punch in numbers or use voice commands, and I perhaps wrongly assumed that the number-punching would be more frustrating, so I chose the latter option. "What would you like to do?" the recorded voice asked brightly, " would you like to renew your subscription?" "CANCEL!" I bellowed into the receiver. "Okay," we can renew your subscription." This kind of thing went on for several minutes until I finally got the machine to understand what I wanted to do, and with a sigh of relief the recording gave me a confirmation number.

I should have hung up immediately then, but I wanted to make sure I had dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's, so I kept going. "We're sorry you didn't like your magazine", said the recording, "so we are going to send you fifty issues of "American Whitetail" at a price of 2.94 an issue, and a subscription to "Ranch" magazine, all at a below-newsstand price. If at any time you decide to cancel your subscription, simply..." at this point I have been bellowing "NO" into the phone for ten entire minutes while the recording prates on and on obliviously. "I'm sorry", the recording cooed into my ear, " I didn't understand what you said." "Nooooooooooo!" I howled. "Nooooooo!" "Noooooooo!" I had decided to indulge myself in a new subscription if I succeeded in cancelling, perhaps getting "The New Yorker", and/or "Harper's", but "American Whitetail?" Thank God I hadn't chosen the button-pushing options, or I'd be accidentally subscribing to "Linoleum and You" and "American Roadkill".

It took me several minutes to get to a point where I was fairly confident that the recording understood I was not interested, but I won't rest easy until my mailbox has gone a full month without any strange magazines appearing. And I am going to stay off the phone for the rest of the day, all my swearing has got my little bird giving me dirty looks, and anyway I don't want her repeating my fowl language.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fairy Tales

When I was a little girl, I loved reading fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Melisande by E. Nesbit, and the Blue Fairy Book, Green Fairy Book, Japanese Fairy Book, my collection was impressive by any standards as that was what I spent every nickel on, and what I asked for at every birthday and Christmas. My father once said something to me about eventually outgrowing those books, and I was mildly shocked at the thought that they might not always be there for me. "Dad", I scolded him, "I am NEVER going to be too old for fairy tales."

Many of those old fairy tales, pre-Disney, were pretty scary--plenty of blood and guts, and there were often rather harsh punishments, fearsome repercussions, and thorny moral issues. Not the kind of thing we think of today when we think of fairy tales.

There was a fairy tale about a little mermaid, one that bears little if any resemblance to the Disney spectacle. In it the mermaid falls in love with a boy and eventually persuades Poseidon or whoever to allow her to exchange her tail for a pair of human legs and meet with her lover on land, just for one night. Upon coming back to the sea she is surer than ever that life without her lover is pointless and begs the King of the Sea to allow her to make the exchange permanent, which he finally does on one condition: every step she takes on those human legs will feel to her as though she is walking barefoot on jagged shards of broken glass; once human she will never for a moment not be suffering an agony of pain. The mermaid does not hesitate for a moment, and gladly makes the trade  in order to be with the boy she loves. 

There are days when my pain level is pretty spectacular, and on those days, when every step feels as though hot rivets are being shoved into my joints jackhammers are assaulting my spine, my head is caving in  and my muscles are in various stages of charley horse,   someone will invariably ask, "So, how are you feeling?" Sometimes this is a rhetorical question however and a mere simper suffices as an answer, but sometimes when an answer is required I say, "I am having a 'Little Mermaid' day".

I did get the handsome prince, so I guess I have to walk on glass. Could be worse.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


The stack of vinyl records in my basement closet serves no particular purpose. I've ceased believing that one fine day I will hook up a turntable somewhere, but I do like having the albums to look at. There was a time that I had around 600 albums, that collection was culled and re-culled during successive moves and leaky basement events, until the stack consisted of around 2 dozen dusty cardboard album sleeves. 

In the stack: Sticky Fingers, with the working zipper on the fly of the jeans, designed by Warhol, something that won't translate into a zipped file or a CD jewel case. Chicago, the Blues Today, which was my introduction to Junior Wells, on the Blue Note label. Fats Waller. Jimmy Page with Sonny Boy Williamson. A lot of these were bought for 99 cents in the bargain box at Jimmy's Music World on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn, during a time when most people were buying the Bee Gees and these records were unwanted orphans. I discovered Bessie Smith that way, and Muddy Waters, the London Sessions. I would stand there for hours and flip through endless awful albums, waiting to discover treasure. And discover I did. Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Lightnin Hopkins, Sister Wynona Carr. And I still have Jefferson Airplane's "Bless Its Pointed Little Head," as well as some KC and the Sunshine Band, Parliament Funkadelic,  and James Brown. I also have Beethoven's collected symphonies, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and some Erik Satie. There's no rhyme or reason to what's still there, something just stayed my hand during the purges. In retrospect I wish I could have kept them all.

I can't tell you what practical purpose those albums serve.  A dedicated minimalist would have unsentimentally tossed such useless trash on the scrap heap of sentimentality long ago, but I cannot. I have too many fond feelings for them, they are my old friends who aren't on Facebook, they watched me grow up, made me think, laugh, dance, and cry. I can't part with old friends, they are a part of me, and every now and then I dust off a few and hold them in my hands, remembering the pop and hiss of ancient vinyl as it spun, remembering the days when music was something you could hold.