Thursday, December 30, 2010

Almost Perfect

Mars and I spent Christmas vacation with daughter-in-law Monica and son Bram in their home town of Santa Fe, NM.

While there, the four of us soaked in an early evening outdoor, hillside hot tub at Ten Thousand Waves -- "a unique mountain spa resort.....that feels like a Japanese onsen."

It was.....

Almost Perfect

Steam rising from bath,
under starlit winter sky -
ice cold kimonos.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some Things are Forever

It was only late November, and I missed them already.

I didn't realize how much until Mars and I were waiting at a red light in our home town of Wethersfield, Connecticut and she commented casually "Oh, look at the dandelions."

And there they were. Four juicy, yellow, out-of-place flowers clustered in a diamond formation on an adjacent suburban front yard. It took all of my willpower to keep from speeding home, grabbing my fork-tongued weeding tool, returning to the crime scene, and forcibly extricating the offending weeds from their non-seasonal attempt at lawn supremacy.

Damn! That would have felt really good.

If the truth be told it was weeds and the act of removing them that got me into gardening in the first place, and the main thing that keeps still me at it -- year, after year, after year.

At first I thought that I was in it for the flowers and the vegetables. Before I knew anything about growing things I actually thought that it was the hand of man, properly applied - with some minor assistance from a fertilizer or two -- that brought floral beauty and fleshless nutrition into the world.

That I would lovingly place new seeds or seedlings into the warm earth; wrap them in swaddling soil; carefully provide them with proper levels of hydration; coax them into their toddler-hood; hover over their growth like a helicopter horticulturalist; guide them through their adolescence; support them into adulthood; and bask in their beauty and savor their flavor when they matured into perfection -- all the while experiencing an almost mystical connection with the plant akin to that of a doting parent.


It all begins okay. On a cool spring morning, made warm by the sun on my back and the exercise of my shovel, I can feel nature sifting through my hands as I gently place the fledgling flora in the rich planting medium that I have created from dirt, compost, and sphagnum peat moss. For a brief moment in time the once-and-future plant, and I, are one with nature. (Well maybe more like fifty percent. It takes two to tango. And in spite of my fanciful wishes I really don't think my partner is that aware of what's happening at all.)

Then it's all-downhill after that.

For weeks there are absolutely no signs of life from the seeds. Then all at once, multitudes of tiny leaves poke through the surface of the earth. All of them are in the proximity of the planting site, but none of them are exactly lined up with the taut white string with which I have carefully marked my future garden spot. All of them look slightly different from each other, but none of them look anything like the vegetation that I am hoping to grow.

Frozen by my inability to distinguish desired flora from insidious invader I leave them alone. Several weeks later, with no intervention at all on my part, a few of them turn miraculously into reasonable replicas of the illustration on the seed package.

The seedlings on the other hand either start growing immediately -- or die. There is not so much as a hint of me being needed. Then, if they are perennials, they reappear next year some place other than where I remember them being the season before.

But you can always count on weeds. They pop up over night - no long growing cycle. And you know exactly where they will appear -- in all of those places where you do not want them.

And, unlike my forced attempt at a spiritual communion with seeds and seedlings, my interconnection with these unwanted vegetative invaders has centuries of speculative evidence to back it up. It is of course the famous "hunter-prey" relationship.

As exemplified by the Cree Indians, it is "...the idea that animals are friends or lovers of human beings is the "dominant ideology" of hunting. The event of killing an animal is not represented as an accident or a contest but as the result of a deliberate decision of the animal or another being to permit the killing to occur. The dream events that Crees say prefigure successful kills are sometimes talked about as signs that this permission has been given. In waking experience, the decision finds culmination when the animal enters a trap or exhibits its body to the hunter for a killing shot." (

I am certain that this is as true of dandelions, as it is of deer.

Flowers come. And flowers go. But weeds, like diamonds, are forever.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Real Christmas "Flower"

Over time two flowers have emerged in the American consciousness as the vegetative symbols of Christmas -- the Poinsettia and the Christmas cactus. And each one comes with its own apocryphal folk story.

"The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing. One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course they were teased by other children when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and so we see them today." (

"Legend has it the Christmas Cactus dates back many years to the land now known as Bolivia and a Jesuit missionary, Father Jose, who labored endlessly to convert the natives there. He had come across the Andes Mountains from the city of Lim nearly a year before. But he felt the people of this village on the edge of the great jungle were still suspicious. He had cared for the sick and shown the natives how to improve their simple dwellings, which leaked dismally in the rainy season. Most important, he had attempted to teach them the story of the Bible, especially the life of Jesus, though much seemed to be beyond their comprehension. He had told them about the beautifully decorated altars in cities during holidays, yet here it was Christmas Eve and he was on his knees alone in from of his rude altar. Then he heard voices singing a familiar hymn he had taught his flock. He turned to see a procession of the village children carrying armfuls of blooming green branches (which we now know as the Christmas Cactus) that they had gathered in the jungle for the Christ Child. Father Jose joyfully gave thanks for this hopeful budding of Christianity." (

Nice stories, but in reality nothing more than urban myths. For the real scoop on the one and only authentic Christmas plant just keep reading.

Robert and Brassica Oleracea were much in love, very married, and quite moneyless.
They were not dirt poor. They did have grass in their yard -- and flowers -- and vegetables. But Robert did not yet have the wherewithal to provide his bride of two years with even the most modest of engagement baubles. Nor did either of them sport a wedding band -- not out of disbelief or disdain, but rather financial necessity.

Brassica made light of this lack of finger ornamentation. She even gave Robert a tiny piece of bituminous, which she unearthed one day during her yard work telling him that this "diamond in the rough" (which she displayed in a small plastic case on one of their living room shelves) would one day turn itself the precious colorless crystalline stone that he so badly wished that she could have.

And she said that jewelry-less hands were actually a benefit to her, as she preferred nothing more then to spend her every waking hour submerged up to her wrists in soil, working the garden.

Indeed it was her heroic horticultural exertions that were responsible for their lush green lawn (the pride of their neighborhood), their flourishing perennial beds (equal to any professionally maintained botanical garden), and their vegetable crop (healthier and more productive than any farm, organic or pesticidal, in the area.) And he was her partner, devoting every available minute he had, assisting her in the yard -- and learning.

Of the three it was her edible plants of which Brassica was the most proud -- but also caused her the most frustration.

Proud because her tomatoes, carrots, squash, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and turnips were the largest and the tastiest that anyone who ever measured or ate had ever experienced.

Frustrated because, as satisfying as all of her work in the vegetable garden was, Brassica felt that, deep down, all she was doing was reiterating someone else's creations. What she really wanted was a species of her own -- something that she had neither the time nor the money to develop.

Which of course is where Robert got his idea. Unable, as usual, to afford anything of significance to give his wife for Christmas, he decided to crossbreed a prototype plant which Brassica could call her very own.

He began his work with furtive trips to the library followed by secret late-night experiments in the dark recesses of their unused cellar. And ended with an unnamed and virtually indescribable blending of a cabbage and a turnip

It was ugly -- vaguely threatening looking and, at first (and second and third) glance, utterly unappetizing. Your first impulse was to turn it over and over in your hand, looking for some sign as to what should be eaten and what should be discarded. From one angle it looked like one of the Russian Sputnik satellites from the 1950's. From another view it appeared to be an unpainted wooden croquet ball with tentacles.

And it seemed to have three distinct parts: a bulbous orb, tubular stems and undersized leaves - none of which looked as if they belonged with the other two, or (taken by themselves or in combination) could possibly be edible.

But time was up. It was Christmas morning and his strange gift had to be ready - ready or not.

She loved it.

With tears in her eyes she removed the tiny piece of bituminous from the shelf and replaced it with her oddly shaped present.

"This will be our new diamond in the rough," she said. "Our very own coal Robby."

And so began the legend of the Christmas Brassica oleracea.
Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Suburban Advent Calendar

Deflated snowmen,

unlit strings of colored lights -

Santa's home at night.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Redlining Raptors

When I was growing up in central Connecticut there were no raptors. They were hunted by farmers in the first part of the 20th century, and in the 1950's, 60's and 70's widespread use of pesticides such as DDT created eggshell thinning and virtually eliminated species reproduction.
But now they are back. We see them every day on streetlamps on the sides of highways, circling over the neighborhood, or even munching on pigeons and squirrels in our yard.

But there still is one place where they have not yet appeared.

Hawks are not allowed
on the playground at recess -
no preying at school.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I once worked for a guy who liked to speak in metaphors -- especially when he was giving bad news.

One time he was being hectored about the lack of progress we were making on a very low-priority piece of work that happened to be the kvetch's pet project.

"Exactly when can I expect to see this task completed?"

"The leaves will come. And the leaves will go. And the leaves will come again." my manager responded. There was a clearly implied "and so on".

For years I thought that answer was the perfect definition of "never". I also believed the passage of time was linear. That, as Saint Augustine said, "human experience is a one-way journey from Genesis to Judgment, regardless of any recurring patterns or cycles in nature."

However not everyone believes that time marches in even increments along a straight line.

Native Americans, Australian aborigines and others conceive of time as circular -- a repetitive process that nonetheless creates infinite possibilities and unique situations and results. Stories and sentences frequently circle back on themselves, with repetition used to arrive back at the same point in time from which the speaker started. Some languages use the same word to mean both "soon" and "recent".

Leslie Marmon Silko, a Native American author, says:

The Pueblo people and the indigenous people of the Americas see time as round, not as a long linear string. If time is round, if time is an ocean, then something that happened 500 years ago may be quite immediate and real, whereas something inconsequential that happened an hour ago could be far away.

I had heard about this non-sequential view of time. It even seemed kind of cool in a New Agey kind of way. But I never could really understand what it could possibly mean. Then Mars and I became the owners of a house on a piece of property bordered by several deciduous trees.

We moved into our new abode in the spring, after the leaves had come. Seven months later they went from the branches to the front lawn. Then they went (with lots of effort) from the front lawn to the curb. And then they went into the bowels of our town's long-funneled, truck-mounted, leaf collection machinery (aka Mr. Snuffleupagus).

About one week and two swirling windstorms later, they came again.

And again they went -- this time into the mulching blade of my gasoline-powered lawn mower.

And again they came -- and again -- et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Ultimately the supply of leafage dwindled down to a precious few at the same time that my interest in de-leafing also ran out. The Sisyphean ritual was over. Until the next autumn came. And the one after that,....

But this fall season, thirty-plus years later, I actually thought for a moment that the cycle had been broken.

My perception of the situation was probably warped because I got an earlier than usual start on the rake-to-the-curb routine. The weather was warm, time was available, the leaves were down, and my energy was up. As a result the first shipment of foliage was delivered to the roadside a week or so before the earliest possible scheduled pickup date. Because of this, when the leaves came again (as they did two days later), I felt as if I was merely doing minimal mop-ups - even though I actually partook in four, full-blown, full-lawn cleanups before the cycle ceased and Snuffleupagus did its thing.

The lawn was then clear for several days. But within a week there was once again sufficient leaf cover to warrant a walkabout with the mulching mower. Now, almost fourteen days later, it once again is time to fire up either the calorie-burning rake or the carbon-emitting compost-creator for one more spin around my property.

Then, the leaves will come. And the leaves will go. And the leaves will come again. But hopefully not for at least twelve months.

Up to the nineteenth century both Science and Philosophy agreed with me that time is linear.

However, in the twentieth century, Gödel and others discovered solutions to the equations of Einstein's general theory of relativity that allowed closed loops of proper time...[which would] allow you to go forward continuously in time until you arrive back into your past. You will become your younger self in the future. Time Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In other words, the passage of time could be circular.

[But] As far as we can tell today, our universe does not exemplify any of these solutions to Einstein's equations. (ibid)

Except of course for those of us with deciduous trees.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Oxymoron of the Day

Highway sign seen on a bridge crossing the Connecticut River:

Not Allowed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Couldn't Care Less

"Tanka" is a Japanese poetry form, very much like haiku, except it's a little longer with a per-line syllable scheme of 5-7-5-7-7. The following poem probably bends that rule just a little.

But first, here is my inspiration.

"George Bush doesn't care about black people" averred Kanye West on live TV during a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser.

"I faced a lot of criticism as President. I didn't like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all time low," Bush recently told TV interviewer Matt Lauer.

"I would tell George Bush, in my moment of frustration, I didn't have the grounds to call him a racist," he said. "But I believe that, in a situation of high emotion like that, we as human beings don't always choose the right words." West responded.

Bush said he "appreciates" the rapper's apology and forgives him. He does, however, reiterate that West's comments troubled him, especially because "nobody wants to be called a racist if, in your heart, you believe in equality of race."

I don't care about,
what those I don't care about
say they care about
those, that they don't care about.
Really, I just do not care.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Examined Life

It was another backyard massacre.

But you will just have to take my written word for it this time. There are no photographs. In the interest of documentary journalistic integrity Mars and I chose not to take them.

It was around twelve PM on Día de los Muertos. We had just returned home from our morning chores and decided to take a quick tour of our estate to see if any tricks had been perpetrated against our property by the prior evenings costumed mendicants.

There was no damage to the pumpkins in the area leading up to and around our walk-thru candy window so we started to stroll into our backyard (which given the sideways positioning of our home relative to its lot is actually our upper side yard).

The barbeque was in tact. But just beyond the Weber kettle, in the noontime shadow of an eight-foot tall bush, was a shape that did not belong there -- the identity of which I could not immediately decipher.

I stopped and was in the process of telling Mars to do the same when the unknown image
became clear to my brain.

"It's a hawk."

It was a young, smallish raptor -- dark gray and white. And it was focused intently the dismemberment of a similarly colored pigeon, the plucked feathers of which formed a white, downy altar for the sacrifice.

It saw us and hopped a few feet away leaving its kill at the crime scene. We retreated into the house to get Mars' camera.

The hawk returned before we did and was now struggling to lift its heavier-than-expected prey up off the ground in order to fly away to a less crowded dining area. It managed, with great effort, to get about fifteen yards across the grass and into the moderately sheltered thicket of bushes and short trees that surround our compost bins.

Mars was reluctant to pursue the picture but I asked for the camera and stalked carefully up to the small copse d'compost.

I saw neither hide nor hair of the victor or its victim. But I did notice two instances of rustling brush and bending branches moving away from the woodlot and into our autumn yellow-and-green hosta bed.

It was then that Mars expressed her concern for the frustrated falcon's futile efforts to make a getaway, and her belief that my incipient paparazzi-ing was altering the naturalness of the situation.

It was an argument that I understood quickly and with which I was in complete agreement -- particularly since my continued cinematic activities would do absolutely nothing to (a) help the pigeon who was irredeemably deceased or (b) enhance the harried harrier's gustatory experience.

Over the years we have been on several whale watches and each time I have wondered if we offshore interlopers actually were observing the natural behavior of these large marine mammals, or instead their unnatural learned reactions to being spied on.

In Physics this is known as the "Observer Effect" - " changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. A commonplace example is checking the pressure in an automobile tire; this is difficult to do without letting out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. This effect can be observed in many domains of physics."

And I would suspect also in whales and falcons.

Psychologists likewise talk about the "Hawthorne Effect" -- "whereby subjects improve or modify an aspect of their behavior being experimentally measured simply in response to the fact that they are being studied, not in response to any particular experimental manipulation.

"The term was coined in 1950 by Henry A. Landsberger when analysing older experiments from 1924-1932 at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago). Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to see if its workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light. The workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made and slumped when the study was concluded. It was suggested that the productivity gain was due to the motivational effect of the interest being shown in them. Thus the term is used to identify any type of short-lived increase in productivity."

But our backyard observation seemed to be having an "Anti-Hawthorne Effect", i.e. stage fright.
So, concerned about upsetting the balance of nature, we put the camera aside and went inside to have our own less violent and but equally carnivorous lunches.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Plato quotes Socrates as saying at his trial. A true philosopher would rather die than give up philosophy.

"The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all," rejoined Mark Twain hundreds of years later.

It is a much easier, and a lot more fun, to be the watcher rather than the watch-ee.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

An Annual Occurrence

First overnight frost,
gold cascading wall of sound -
Gingko avalanche.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wall of Sound

It wasn't deafening -- but it was loud enough to pretty much push all the other sounds of the world into the background. Initially the sources were invisible, but, after a little thought and a quick chat with Mars, the mystery was quickly solved.

It is migration season for the grackles -- those glossy black birds, with shiny purple heads, penetrating yellow eyes, and annoying crow-wannabe voices.
They are short-distance travelers, so grackles from the far-northern U.S., Canada, and the Great Plains winter in the central and southern U.S. And on their way from Maine to Delaware they spend a few days with us in central Connecticut.

Mars and I hosted them earlier in the week -- wave after wave of inky invaders, hundreds of them, cascading into our yard -- then across the road into our neighbor's -- then up the street a few houses... On the ground they moved swiftly across the lawns like a band of well-choreographed groundskeepers, vacuuming the lawn clean of seeds and acorns -- the foods of choice for these migrating marauders.

"Grackles have a hard keel on the inside of the upper mandible that they use for sawing open acorns. Typically they score the outside of the narrow end, then bite the acorn open." (

And they sing badly, and all at once - but never in unison. Their solo "song" has been commonly described as sounding like the swinging of a rusty gate. Chorally they make a noise more akin to the electronic background music for the massacre scene in a low-budget scary movie.

Their first plundering visit lasted about five minutes. There were two additional stopovers, each approximately the same duration. A couple of days later I went for a walk down the bicycle trail that begins (or ends) just across the street from our house. The crushed-stone path crosses city roads at several places and I was walking on one of them, under decades-old oak trees, when I first heard the commotion overhead

I gazed up and saw nothing except masses of brown-tipped, but still mostly green, lobed leaves. Then I heard a "ping" near my feet and looked down in time to see an acorn moving away from me with decreasingly high bounces. Then another oak fruit passed downward past my eyes. And another.

I glanced up again and saw nothing other than the occasional falling acorn, so I momentarily convinced myself that it was the avalanche of plummeting nuts hitting the dry leaves that I was hearing.

The din accompanied me all the way home where, I called Mars outside to listen.

"It's the grackles," she said as we both spotted a flock of them alighting en masse atop the wildly swaying branches of a neighboring oak tree. But from where we stood we could also hear the percussive beat of the acorns on the Tarmac -- the combined result of end-of-the season fruit dispersal and annual avian disruption.

"We Survived the Grack' Attack of 2010" tee shirts will soon be available at a website near you.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Foolish Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson is the author of many well-known sayings - "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door" being perhaps the most famous of them.

When he was creating this particular aphorism the American writer and thinker had actually hoped to say something pithy about squirrel-proof bird feeders, but even his metaphysical philosophy could not transcend (ro)dental machinations -- so he gave up and went for the easy winner.

Now -- almost 130 years after Emerson's death and 30 years after Mars I and began feeding our local feathered friends (and by definition our native tree-dwelling rodents as well) -- Emerson's epigrammatic enigma has been solved. Twice!

We started back then with one basic "Droll Yankee" bird feeder -- sunflower seeds, plastic tube, metal perches -- handy for the avian guests who queued up on the surrounding bushes waiting for their turn, and a sitting-duck to the ravenous rodents who gnawed though the polyethylene, inhaled the black, oily kernels, and sharpened their teeth for more damage on the stainless steel.

I persisted. ("A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." ibid)

After several identical replacements our son Bram gifted us with a "soda-bottle" feeder, which used the aforementioned container as the seed-holder on to which a metal feeding perched was screwed.

The plastic therein also fell victim to the tree-rats at about the same rate as their more expensive predecessors -- but were instantly replaceable, thanks to an endless supply of empty soft drink containers that we collected from relatives and friends. I was losing each battle, but figured that, based on the law of large numbers, I was winning the war.

Then, last Christmas, our brother-in-law gifted us a "squirrel proof feeder". And it actually was, for almost four months. I retired the soda-bottle feeder. Then, as documented in this space on 4/26/10, the squirrels once again emerged victorious. But now, having temporarily experienced the thrills and excitement of a safely secured feeder, I did not want to return to my routine of thrice-weekly bottle replacement.

I looked online. But I could not find anything that satisfied my singular stringent specification -- no plastic in any place that the squirrels could, in any way, reach. So I drove across the Connecticut River to our neighboring town of Glastonbury to visit the Wild Birds Unlimited emporium.

While I browsed and got over my initial sticker shock, I eavesdropped on a conversation between another customer and the store manager. The topic was a partially eaten "squirrel proof" feeder that the client had brought in to see if it was repairable. It was -- and perhaps was even under warrantee.

I wondered, who was more delusional -- the purchaser who believed they were actually getting something impregnable to tree-rats, or the manufacturer who imagined that they would not have to honor every single guaranteed product?

When my turn came we talked about my one steadfast requirement, and jointly came up the "seed tube within the cage" solution. I selected a plastic feeder with a metal top and bottom, and a metal cage of compatible height that was wider enough so as to make the seed-holder unreachable.
(click on picture to enlarge

I assembled my new s.p.f. and apprehensively hung it up. After about ten minutes of frustration and bafflement the squirrels realized that the outside basket tilted under their weight, whereas the feeder-proper remained vertical -- thereby rendering it close enough to be grabbed. And I realized that I needed to tie the bottom of the food silo to the bottom of the cage. I did. It worked. It still does. ("A good indignation brings out all one's powers." ibid)

Then, two weeks ago, our neighbors across the street gave us a "Critter Feeder" and a bag of "Critter Food". The eating station has a metal top and bottom with a glass cylinder between them. The feeding holes at the bottom are designed to accommodate big chunks of food (unshelled peanuts, large corn kernels, etc.) - all of which are contained in the critter mix.
It is, in short, an indestructible eatery tailor-made for squirrels.
(click on picture to enlarge

On any given day we have between four and six of them cavorting on and around the flowering crab tree from which our feeders hang. So I intentionally placed the new "critters only" restaurant right between the caged feeder (which the tree-rats are still attempting to decipher) and the three hanging metal ball cage eateries (at which they now do their dining) -- right where they could not possibly miss it. As if they needed the help.

It has been over a week now. The food is disappearing at a rate of fifty percent per diem. And not one bushy-tailed rodent has dined at it. Zip, zero, nada, nil!

Birds by the score -- but no squirrels.

Titmouses -- but no tree-rats.
Feathered creatures with beaks smaller than any morsel of food -- but nothing furry with pouches larger than the feeder itself.

Dual squirrel-proof feeders. One could be an aberration. Two is definitely a trend.

"Only an inventor knows how to borrow, and every man is or should be an inventor."

(click on picture to enlarge

Monday, October 11, 2010


Whenever and wherever Mars and I travel we like to eat the local cuisine. It is a major part of an area's culture, and it tastes better than most other aspects of the the lifestyle.

On the Mediterranean island of Malta we dined on thin crust Maltese pizza topped with a fried egg, and indulged in Lampuki (known in other circles as dorado or mahi-mahi) -- the "national" fish. Both dishes were accompanied by "chips" (French fries) -- an culinary homage to the country's historical ties to Great Britain.

In Barcelona Spain we ate ourselves silly on Tapas such as Albóndigas (Meatballs with sauce), Chopitos (battered and fried tiny squid, aka puntillitas), and Aceitunas (olives, sometimes with a filling of anchovies or red bell pepper). We knew about these tiny plates before we arrived.

We did not know about 'Pa amb Tomaquet', also known as 'Pan con Tomate', or 'Pan a la Catalana' - bread with tomato rubbed over it, and seasoned with olive oil and salt.

Mars and I discovered this entrée, as we did the Maltese pizza, at our very first meal in that locale. We explicitly ordered the pizza and knew what to do with it when it arrived. The four separate ingredients for the tomato bread however, were placed in front of us, without comment, when we sat down. And we figured out what to do with them by watching what everyone around us was doing with their own "Construccion Pan con Tomate " kits.

In Budapest there was of course homegrown Hungarian Chicken Paprikash made with homegrown Hungarian paprika -- the signature spice of that country's cooking. The big hit with both of us however were "palacsinta" (fried pancakes) served with ice cream and toppings at an outdoor café which we found ourselves drawn to for a frozen dairy lunch on several occasions.

We visited Florence, Italy with the intention of seeing Michelangelo's David and experiencing cinghiale alla maremmana (wild boar stew). The Eurasian pig endowed the meat and vegetable dish with a sweet, nutty flavor. And the statue was just, well, endowed.

And now, having just returned from a two week hiatus in North Carolina, Mars and I are experiencing SFW -- no, not "Southern Food Withdrawal" but "Saturated-fat Withdrawal".

We have been making the auto trip from the Nutmeg State to the Tarheel State intermittently for the past twenty-five years. And unlike our reasons for taking the aforementioned out-of-the-country jaunts, we return here for the familiar -- the beaches, the sun, the golf, and the food.

Every road trip requires pit stops. And our first such respite on day two of the trip always occurs at Stuckey's on the Lankford Highway (US Highway 13 & State Road 689) in Mappsville, Virginia.
"A little magic, a lot of hard work, and an American tradition is born.
Why does a classic become a classic?

When W.S. Stuckey, Sr. opened his Georgia pecan stand in 1937, his recipe for success consisted of melt-in-your-mouth treats (our world famous Pecan Log Roll speaks for itself), fun gifts and souvenirs, and the simple belief that nothing was more important than making - and keeping - the friendship of American travelers generation after generation."


Its imminence is announced by a series of billboards, the first of which is forty-five miles in advance. Verbal visions of Pecan logs, fireworks and Virginia Style Hams are proffered to the bored motorist -- along with gasoline and clean rest rooms.

The store itself is less impressive. "[A] small building with typical tourist junk and a gas station. 2 stars if you like a tourist place with over priced limited selection of fireworks, and the same junk as the 100 other places on the way down route 13" according to one reviewer on (

But that's not why we stop. Stuckey's is the home of Hunkey Doreys - the entry point into the Saturated-fat Zone.
"Sweet and scrumptious, this mouth-watering Pecan Almond Buttercrunch Popcorn is absolutely wonderful and finger-licking good."

There is a reason that food that's bad for you is so popular. It tastes so good.

We actually had stopped at Stuckey's several times before we were turned on to Hunkey Doreys by a co-worker at our former place of employment. With our first bite we instantly regretted all those years of gustatory ignorance.

On this particular southward junket we limited ourselves to one 9-ounce canister. Spaced properly it eased us into the SFZ without shutting down our arteries too quickly. And still left some to nibble on when we completed the seven-hour drive from Mappsville to Emerald Isle, North Carolina - deep in the heart of saturated-fat country.

We arrived at dinner-time.

Restaurants at this Oceanside area are known for their abundance of fresh fish -- and their hushpuppies.

Hushpuppies are deep-fried cornmeal batter shaped into spheres. Sometimes onions are added. In this part of the south they are served in a basket as a part of the "taking the order" ritual and replenished as needed. Most folks, us included, up the ante by dipping their pups into the little individual plastic butter tubs, which also seem to appear on every Tarheel table. (At home in New England we would probably pour maple syrup all over them.)
"The name 'hushpuppies' is often attributed to hunters, fishermen or other cooks who would fry some basic cornmeal mixture (possibly that they had been bread-coating or battering their own food with) and feed it to their dogs to 'hush the puppies' during cook-outs or fish-fries. Also, runaway slaves would feed them to the guard dogs of their owners in order to 'hush the puppies'." (

Well, shut my mouth! They are good!

The local eating establishments are also known for their almost total lack of fresh vegetables (even the better ones serve them from the can) -- with the exception of "slaw" and fried okra.
For two weeks these two veggies and fried cornmeal were the Holy Trinity of my vacation diet. If only real life were so simple.

On our way home we swung into Stuckey's for some more Hunkey Dorey. We will devour it slowly over a several week period. Don't want to take a chance on getting the bends -- saturated-fat rapid decompression sickness.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Honk if you love Jesus!

I am constantly on the lookout for real-world Haikus – appropriate expressions that unintentionally translate directly (with perhaps a just little editing) into that particular form of Japanese poetry (17 syllables in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 respectively).

This is especially true on vacations, where Mars and I deliberately expose ourselves to new things, and have the time and energy to study them.

Alas, our recent trip south to North Carolina uncovered no such metrical gems. There was however one billboard sign alongside a rural small town road that I thought held promise, until I counted the syllables. When I got home I started Googling to see if there was a way to make something out of this group of words that I had been given.

Surprisingly there are actually other forms of poetry – who knew?

And with a little work I found one - English Hymns - into which my newfound phrase could be fitted. There are three meters within this genre – each one identified by the number of syllables per line, and by the rhyme scheme.

Common meter 8 6 8 6 a b a b
Long meter 8 8 8 8 a b a b
Short meter 6 6 8 6 a b c b

My found utterance fits perfectly into the middle two lines of the short meter.

So here is my first English Hymn entitled “Favorite Outdoor Slogan Sighting of the Moment”.

Carolina billboard -
"Honk if you love Jesus.
Text if you want to meet Him now." -
Pert near perfect thesis.

While searching through the Internet I also came across the lyrics and video of a song entitled “I was just flipped off by a silver-haired old lady with a ‘Honk if you love Jesus' sticker on the bumper of her car” by Antsy McClain and the Trailerpark Troubadors

I was feeling pretty Christian, I was loving all my neighbors,
When I saw that bumper sticker there, I didn’t think twice.
My hand went for my horn, And I pushed it with conviction.
When I saw that lady’s finger, It almost put my heart on ice.

And it makes me want to cry, But I may never have the gumption now
To read those one line sermons In bright yellow, black and white.
I’ve been buoyed up so many times While stuck in rush hour traffic,
And forgive me Lord, for saying, But my faith is weak tonight.

You say, ‘Maybe it’s a rental. She could be the second owner.
She could be a Godless sinner In a loaner from a friend.’
While that helps (I do feel better), I just can’t help but see it
As a sign the world is doomed, And we’re that much closer to The End.

Deadly Nightshift

We had to return home from Emerald Isle, North Carolina before hatching time -- so we missed this year's march of the sea turtles.

The potential incubation site was at the foot of the sand dunes, about twenty feet east of the weathered wooden stairway that leads down to the beach from the condominium complex at which Mars and I spent two warm, sunny weeks.

The area was demarcated by one strand of yellow plastic crime scene tape wrapped around four firmly planted wooden sticks. A nearby sign attached to a yellow plastic pillar by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Sea Turtle Protection Program told the reader "Because sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it is unlawful to harass, harm, capture, or collect sea turtle eggs and live or dead hatchlings, juveniles, and adults. Violators can be prosecuted under civil and criminal laws and assessed heavy penalties."

One of the permanent residents at the complex of buildings told us that the eggs were scheduled to hatch between 50 and 60 days after being laid. The birth rate can be anywhere from one to one hundred. It being the 53rd day when we were being told this, volunteer "nest sitters" would soon begin setting up nightly campouts at this location -probably that very evening.

They didn't. But the next day (Thursday) we checked at 7:00 p.m. and found a group of four barefooted women in shorts and tee shirts sitting in low-slung web beach chairs alongside a manmade foot high trench. They had scraped out the sand pathway in order to direct the newbies towards the ocean.
Frankly I was disappointed. I had hoped for more of a SWAT team look with dark uniforms, ski masks, forehead laser lamps, and night vision goggles.

And I was even more disheartened by the failure of the hatchlings to hatch. Apparently adhering to some schedule of their own, rather than our vacation dates, the little fellows failed to materialize during our stay. We visited the location every thirty minutes that evening - interrupted by a trip to the DQ for Blizzards and the season opener of "Bones -- but nada appeared. At around 9:30 the rescue team called it a night, and so did we.

On Friday we followed roughly the same schedule - minus the sundaes and choice of TV programming - and so did they.

The next day we left for home.

But while the amphibian beach fauna was not nocturnally appearing, the courtyard flora was - although it took me a while to catch on to what was happening.

Every morning at around 7:30 a.m. Mars and I walked over to an adjacent convenience market to get the daily newspaper. The grounds of the condo are landscaped with a mixture of southern perennials and annuals along the pathways between the units, and a combination of prickly pear cactus and white trumpet-shaped flowers on squash-like vines along the sides of the driving area.
A few evenings into our getaway I noticed that the large white flowers were still wide open well after dark. Then, one day around 10:00 a.m. I noticed that they were closed up.

Mars, who had observed all of this strange plant behavior days before, opined that they looked to be a form of Datura -- a shrubby annual plant that we had previously seen in New Mexico (along with the prickly pear cactus). It contains toxic or narcotic alkaloids and is used as an hallucinogen by some American Indian peoples.

Datura (aka Jimson Weed) would have been the actual drug of choice for Carlos Castaneda during his self-documented explorations of the spiritual world with the Yaqui mystic Don Juan in the late 60's and 70's. Castaneda's consistent misidentification of this narcotic plant as Peyote rather than Datura is often cited as evidence of the fictional nature of his entire metaphysical enterprise. Or maybe distorted memories are just another side effect of this all-natural narcotic. (

The Carolina species apparently was the dusk to dawn version of the plant -- sort of a "Deadly Nightshift".

When I got home I typed "white trumpet night flower" into Google.

"The Datura, or bush moon plant has six-inch or larger white trumpet flowers that open at night and remain open well into the following day... Keep in mind that all parts of this plant are poisonous."

Datura are a favorite of the "Night Gardening" movement -- the use of plants that either bloom exclusively at night, or are open during the day but do not release their scent until evening.

Perhaps Mars and I should have spent the time after dusk watching the trumpets unfurling rather than the terrapins not birthing. Or maybe we could have combined the two by smoking some of the former and visioning the latter. Who knew?

We did walk on the beach in the dark one morning at 6:00 a.m. We were under a full "Harvest Moon", but earth's natural satellite was too low in the sky at that hour to provide any meaningful illumination. The sun began appearing about fifteen minutes into our journey, slowly emerged from behind the horizon-level cloud cover and turned into the bright orange orb that we hoped we would see. Forty-five minutes later the shore was bathed in daylight and we returned to the condo. The turtles presumably were still sleeping and the Datura was probably beginning to turn in for the day.

We took our final trek on the beach on that last Friday afternoon around 2:30. The tide was the lowest it had been on any of our previous jaunts. And the sands were busier than prior days with the early influx of weekend vacationers. Several fishermen were tending lines cast out into the surf and we tried to be aware of them as we strolled between the anglers and the water.

We had become pretty adept at spotting the fishing string after two weeks of daily (sometimes twice/day) shoreline hikes. Usually we could see it emanating from the top of the fishing rod and, by squinting our eyes, follow its progress out to its point of intersection with our path. Occasionally we espied its entry point into the ocean and worked back from there. And once or twice we didn't see it at all until it suddenly loomed in front of us - inches away and rapidly approaching.

But this time we both simultaneously saw the seemingly disconnected middle section of one strand of floating filament, glistening in the sun, suspended over the sand. A moment in space and time untethered from its past and its future -- like a good vacation.

(Photos by Mars)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Root of a Plant's Name

I went outside to look for the blood on the umbels of the Queen Anne's Lace that proliferate in certain parts of my yard. But, probably because it is near autumn and the once-white florets have faded in color and shrunk in shape, it was no longer visible.

Legend has it that the tiny faux exsanguinations are the result of Queen Anne of Denmark's carelessness while tatting (and probably chatting) with her court one day during her late 16th/ early 17th reign. (

Legend likewise attributes exactly the same tale to Queen Anne of England (Mrs. King James I), also an expert lace maker. (ibid)

Frankly I was hoping for Anne Boleyn, the beheaded second wife of Henry VIII -- but I suppose that the tiny floral scarlet centerpiece is too subtle a remembrance of the woman for whom the bearded English king tossed aside his first spouse and his allegiance to the Church of Rome.

In any event Queen Anne's Lace has been my favorite uninvited flower ever since I discovered my first one in my first garden at my first house in 1977. Since that time I have made it an article of faith to never take the life of, or decapitate, any Daucus Carota, no matter where I found it.

The root of a plant's name is oftentimes as interesting as the basis of its botany -- at least to someone who enjoys handling words as much as handling dirt.

During my early years in my mens garden club one of the members came to our monthly meeting with a real-life demonstration of the origin of the moniker Impatiens -- a flower with which I, at the time a neophyte plantsman, was totally unfamiliar.

Ernie, a chemist by profession who approached horticulture with the same scientific rigor, brought with him some several samples of the plant -- each one containing what he called "mature seed capsules".

He held one up for all to see and then stroked its underside ever so gently. The tiny containers exploded, sending a spray of seeds several feet out into the room and over the crowd. This mechanism is known as "explosive dehiscence" -- a ballistic form of dispersal that allows the flower to propagate its species without the assistance of animals. He repeated this demo with great joy until all of his specimens were depleted and the room was totally filled with a milky way of floating spores.

I was so excited by my newly acquired knowledge that I could hardly wait to get home and tell Mars about it. While I was not able to totally recreate Ernie's presentation, with a little creativity she quickly got the idea.

We have grown impatiens (also know as "touch me nots") basically every year since then. I am always careful not to brush against them -- and to keep my mouth closed when I am in their immediate vicinity.

Looking around my yard I also see some Phlox -- "1706, from L., where it was the name of a flower (Pliny), from Gk. phlox 'kind of plant with showy flowers' (probably Silene vulgaris), lit. 'flame', related to phlegein 'to burn' (see bleach). Applied to the N.Amer. flowering plant by Ger. botanist Johann Jakob Dillenius (1684-1747)." (

And there are a goodly number of Black-eyed Susans as well (aka Rudbeckia Rud beck) -- "So named after Olaf Rudebeck, a Swedish botanist." ( All the sources I have checked agree on Olaf. However none of the references offer even a hint as to who Susan might be.

In addition there is some Russian Sage (entitled in honor of General V.A. Perovski), a ton of Hosta (named for Nicholaus Tomas Host, physician to the Emperor of Austria), and an occasional bee balm (aka Monarda – derived from Nicolas Monardes, physician and botanist of Seville.)

Interesting stories, but not really exciting. I much prefer my imagined history of Anne Boleyn's Headless Lace or Ernie's Impatiens lesson.

Violence and sex sells.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Weeds Make Haste

Weeds are an important part of life.

In his play Richard III William Shakespeare wrote, "Sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste." -- using a garden metaphor to explain the political problems of the day.

And I am certain that May Sarton, gardener and essayist, had weeds in mind when she penned the following:
"True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root."

Philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson seem to like them --
"What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered."

But poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow do not --
"Take care of your garden
And keep out the weeds,
Fill it with sunshine
Kind words and kind deeds."

And botanists seem ambivalent --
"For me, a weed is a plant out of place." (Donald Culross Peattie)

There is even "weed dating", a garden-based process for those in the mate-hunting game to meet someone new.

But, whether you consider them to be an apt analogy, a guilty pleasure, the ultimate pain, or a road map to romance – without them, there would not be no such thing as weeding – an activity that I, at least, would sorely miss.

There is comfort in

the simple act of weeding –

if you’re not the weed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hands-on Horticulture

It looked like the health club version of the Ancient Greek story of Sisyphus - a slightly built, white-haired, seventy-something man toddling around my gym's indoor track while carrying a bright yellow kettlebell in each hand. He stared straight ahead as if he saw nothing, his shoulders slouched forward as he trudged onward, each lap the same.

"Kettlebells are [heavy metal] cannonballs with a handle and a flat surface at bottom. They're funny looking little things.
"Originally from Russia, the kettlebell was used by Russian athletes (or girevik's, as they're called in Russia) to create resistance and train with. What initially started off as a simple tool to increase a man's (or woman's) strength was found to be something more. Not only was strength increasing, so was endurance, agility and balance too. The effect of the kettlebells weight distribution combined with specialized kettlebell exercises yielded greater results than expected!" (

In the past couple of years kettlebells have caught on at fitness clubs in the U.S.A.

"A recent study found that a ten minute kettlebell workout burned more calories than forty five minutes spent on the treadmill. The large compound movements used in kettlebell exercises both increased muscle development and taxed the cardio-vascular system, leading to greatly increased athletic ability and fat loss." (Ibid)

I however, in spite of my fanaticism about daily exercise and my willingness to attempt almost any form of workout, have not tried them yet. I am, after all, a gardener and already knew that it is easier to carry two full watering cans, than one. And it is a lot more fun too.

Chinese plantsmen have also known this for centuries.

"Southern Chinese peasants have a lot of ways of watering their crops, but the most common way is a pair of watering cans on a carry-pole across the shoulders.
"Each bucket is equipped with a spout 2 1/2 feet in length, 2 1/2 inches across at the base and tapering to two inches in diameter at the end, supported by a wire to the top of the bucket.

"At the end of the spout instead of a rose there is a simple device which enables the water as it leaves the spout to spread out in the form of a flat spray. The end of the spout is closed; about one inch from the end is a V-shaped cut from the top sloping obliquely backwards and continuing nearly across the spout. A small piece of metal is soldered on to the distal end of the V-shaped cut thus sealing off the tip of the spout. This piece of metal is convex. When the liquid passes down the spout it impinges on the small convex surface and is thus forced out vertically and laterally as a flat spray.

"Across the top of each bucket is a wooden handle and one man carries a pair of buckets slung on a pole across his shoulders from which the buckets are suspended by rope. He walks swiftly along the stepping stones and with his hands depresses the two buckets simultaneously, swinging them forwards and backwards, and directs the two sprays of water where required." -- Geoffrey Herklots, "Vegetables in South-east Asia" (1972) (

Each bucket holds about forty catties of water. One catty equals two-thirds of a kilogram, so the liquid in each container weighs about sixty pounds. More modern versions have substituted lighter-weight metal buckets, often fashioned out of used oil drums. The flat spray has been replaced with a more rose-like spout that has been modified to generate the same degree of spray. But even with the less heavy vessels, the mass of water being transported by one individual has to impress even the most casual girevik. Or the most avid watering can fan - like me.

For whatever reason I am a hands-on horticulture freak. I trim my shrubbery with manually operated shears, I mow my lawn with a non-self-propelled push mower, I cut up dead oak tree branches with a Japanese pruning saw, and - when I want a real workout - I hydrate my vegetation with watering cans.

I currently have three of them - a matching pair of green plastic ones from K-Mart, and a galvanized aluminum water carrier from Russia that I bought at a fancy-schmancy "bobo" (bourgeois bohemian) outlet that later tanked then recently reemerged "reinvented, remodeled, reborn". I usually keep the trio filled and ready for action in our backyard next to the rain barrel.

I have two different H2O distribution routines - cardio or strength - depending on what I feel like working on that day.

The cardio workout emphasizes speed, agility, eye-hand coordination, and aerobic capacity. It starts with a warm-up run-through wherein I carry one overflowing water carrier to some far-flung garden plot and empty its contents on some thirsty plant therein.

I bring the empty receptacle back to the rain barrel and begin to refill it.

As the first drop of incoming water strikes the bottom of the pail I quickly grab one of the two remaining full vessels and rush to provide liquid sustenance to another set of parched plants. The goal is to drench that dehydrated piece of greenery and return to the rain barrel at the precise moment that the recently empty watering can becomes full again. I quickly swap empty for full and dart off to service the next parched plant. Then just as rapidly I return to my source of water, instantly swap pails, and run off to my next stop. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

In the end, all the plants are quenched, my aerobic capacity is improved, and I stand proudly and watch the empty pail fill to the top and set it aside for the next time.

My watering can strength regimen is similar, but much slower. Again I begin with three full buckets. Selecting two of them I heft one into each hand, throw back my shoulders, and stride purposefully to the furthest dry garden spot in the yard. I can feel my arms lengthening under the weight of the water. At my destination I attempt to tilt both cans in unison and pour the water in synchrony. Usually my dominant (right) side takes the lead but by the time I have reached the bottom of both receptacles the balance is restored.

Then I return briskly to my water barrel and begin to refill one of the pails. While this is happening I occupy my time by doing some hand weeding in the nearby plots. When it is filled I place the other empty can under the spigot and march away with the two full ones - and so forth.

Like the Chinese water bearer I work until the job is done - rather than for a prescribed number of laps. When I am finished my arms feel harder and more stretched out, and the cuffs of my long sleeve work shirt no longer reach the tops of my hands. I feel the satisfaction of a task completed. And unlike the Sisyphean exerciser at my health club, who seemed to sink further into himself with every step, I can feel myself standing taller and straighter.

In a wrestling match between a girevik and a gardener, I'd bet on the gardener every time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Elements of Plot

The elements of plot are finally all in place. The storyline is now complete.

Exposition: in the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico in October, 2008 Mars notices the dried hollyhocks towering over the entryway to Monica's and Bram's newly acquired driveway (and house).

Foreshadowing: Daughter-in-law Monica explains the proper propagation procedure for this finicky floral colossus.

Inciting Force: Mars scoops some dried seeds from the dormant hollyhock, places them into a used plastic ZipLoc snack bag, sequesters the polymer repository in her purse, and transports it (via Southwest Airlines) to our home in central Connecticut. Within days of their arrival she applies them to the fertile soil in our newly forming perennial garden -- formerly our vegetable plot.

Conflict: Nature balks at this human intrusion into its weed-centric stratagem.

Year 1 - two barely recognizable hollyhocks poke just inches above the surface. Neither rain, nor sun, nor Miracle-Gro can coax them any further. That autumn the inciting force reenacts her southwestern seed snatch and sow.

Year 2 - apparently angered by Mars' persistence -- something that I personally find quite endearing -- Mother Nature pours on the rain ("You want water, I'll give you stinkin' water!"). Those seeds that are not washed to the Gulf of Mexico sprout into rust-infected, haggard hollyhocks. That autumn -- you guessed it -- another iteration of Mars’ swss&s.

Year 3 - moderate rain in early spring then D-R-O-U-G-H-T!

Rising Action: Hollyhocks evidently love this meteorological mistreatment. Two of them shoot up to ten feet in altitude. Other shorter, but still formidable, ones surround and protect the tall-fellows.

Crisis: In attempting to document the above experience I am overcome with an all-consuming need to understand the history of the word "hollyhock". After several days of spurious research and illogical reasoning I conclude that the large reluctant flower is the etymological twin of America’s first cup-candy, the Mallo Cup.

Neither Mars nor I have ever tasted a Mallo Cup, let alone ever heard of them. In spite of Mars' well-earned sense of satisfaction (and my vicarious pride) in her successful cross-country cultivation, we both are plunged to the depths of despair by our potentially permanent non-existent acquaintance with this marshmallow cream filled/ chocolate and coconut coated delight.

Climax: Because of Mars' recent bilateral knee replacements we stop about once an hour during our seven-hour drive to a Golf Elderhostel Camp at Penn State University. At one of our breaks on the interminably long Interstate 80 Mars has a mysterious hankering for a Mounds bar. After walking for ten minutes we sidle into the tourist center and search the vending machines for the coconut-enrobed-in-dark-chocolate confection. There are none.

Then Mars says, "Do you see that?" I do not.

She points, and then I too spot it -- the yellow wrapper with brown and red lettering that reads "Boyer Milk Chocolate Mallo Cup." We barely make it back to our car before the "whipped crème" center is melting in our mouths.

Falling Action: On our way home, at another I-80 rest stop candy dispenser, we purchase two more packages of Mallo Cups. We eat one immediately, and transport the other across state lines to place in our home refrigerator.

Resolution (Denouement): They are even better cold.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Center Your Balance

Mars and I just attended our fifth Golf Elderhostel camp at Penn State University.

Denise St. Pierre, Head Instructor and coach of the school’s women’s golf team,
teaches that all golf swings are simply longer versions of the basic putting motion.

It works for us. Our game has gotten progressively better every time we’ve attended this class.

Each year she and her staff have become more minimalist in describing the details of that swing – but not this minimalist, at least not yet.

Center your balance.
Swing calmly to the target.
The ball will follow.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Bird Feeder Blues in Haiku

Avians suffer
from fat squirrels’ gluttony,
but it’s fun to watch.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Late July, Early Morning, Middle of Town

We live in pretty much the geographic center of a 13 square mile suburb. Although the town is overwhelmingly residential there still are several small, family-run vegetable farms – vestiges of our village's pre-20th century history.

Birds harass the burgeoning fields as they have since man first planted seeds in the ground. Farmers, still in search of the perfect defense, harass the birds with non-lethal noise-making artillery.

Like most of the town, our immediate neighborhood is quiet in the morning. But sound travels effortlessly through soundlessness.

Crop cannons and crows
carp at summer sun’s first light –
life begins at dawn.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Rochester Painting

We had some arboreal death and destruction in our yard last week.

The elm tree that had shaded part of our property for the thirty-plus years we have lived here - and for at least that long before we arrived - contracted Dutch Elm disease. In March and April, when all of its comrades were proudly modeling their springtime green fashions, the elm remained as naked as mid-December. We called the tree-care company that has treated the elm for several years, and they gave us the bad news.

It took three men with a cherry picker, several chainsaws, and a bunch of ropes about eight hours to totally dismantle the stately tree. By law the wood, being diseased, had to be removed and professionally disposed of. Three days later two other men came by with a stump grinder and eliminated the last above-ground vestiges of the elm. Because the trunk was so large, and its root system was so deep, it is doubtful if we can plant another shrub of any significant size to replace it.

In the process the lumberjacks moved some of our lawn ornaments - including a pair of pink flamingos that were located in a small woodland garden next to the site of the deciduous massacre. They laid the displaced avian ornaments on the grass alongside another perennial bed.
"They remind me of the Rochester painting." Mars said to me.

The "Rochester painting" is "Shooting Flamingos" (1857) by the American artist George Catlin. It is housed in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York. Mars and I used to visit that museum frequently during our many visits to that upstate New York town while our son attended college there. It is an unpleasant subject matter, and a troubling painting. Yet this oil on canvas work became, in some strange way, my favorite artwork.

But it wasn't an aesthetic judgment that I felt good about.

The piece is one of ten works that Catlin painted on commission for Hartford Connecticut gun manufacturer Samuel Colt. The shooter portrayed is the artist himself and the location is the Grand Saline on the Rio Salado, south of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is shown blasting his weapon - with almost cartoon-like intensity - into the air towards the long pink line of softly painted birds flying overhead. Flamingos plummet helplessly to the ground and lie strewn, dying and dead, on the landscape. The scene was painted from memory - Catlin was apparently too busy emptying, loading, and firing his weapon to even take a moment to sketch.

The painting was prominently displayed, but even if it were not, we (or at least I) would have sought it out. I was never quite sure why. Was it like the roadside accident that you slow down and crane your neck to gawk at? Or was it more like the attractive force of the baptism scene from "The Godfather" - one of the most emotionally affecting cinematic segments I've ever witnessed.

"In the final extraordinary baptism scene, probably occurring in 1955, Michael acts as godfather at the christening of his sister Connie's (and Carlo's) child, his nephew and namesake... The scene brilliantly crosscuts back and forth from the church to locations throughout the city as gangland murders are orchestrated. With controlled intensity, Michael engineers a cold-blooded mass killing of Barzini, Tattaglia, Greene and all other rival gangleaders of the Five Families to settle the "Family business." While methodically committing the series of vicious and bloody counterattack murders to confirm his position as the new godfather, he is at the church altar listening to holy recitations of the priest during the baptism - in juxtaposed scenes." (

This whole Godfather thing was brought to mind by two other exemplars of this parallel editing technique that Mars and I witnessed in the past month or so.

We pretty much missed the television series West Wing in its original incarnation so we are now backfilling that gap in our education via DVD. In Season 1, Episode 10 Toby (the White House Communications Director) becomes obsessed with providing a proper burial for a homeless Korean War veteran who is found dead on the National Mall. In the end, the somber military funeral that he orchestrates is crosscut with scenes from the feel-good White House Christmas festivities.

We also watched the season finale of Glee, in which Vocal Adrenaline (the rival singing group) is performing the Queen classic rock number "Bohemian Rhapsody" at Sectionals competition, while Quinn (one of the Glee gang) is having her baby, with ensemble, at the hospital.

"The full-length "Bohemian Rhapsody," its bombast cut with the operatics of Quinn's delivery, was one of those examples of the weird, multivalent collision that is Glee working in every way: it was entertaining, over-the-top, risk-taking and simultanously [sic] utterly artificial and very real." (Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik)

That totally explains my fixation with the dead flamingos. I am not just another sadistic bird hater posing as an art house aesthete. I am much, much better than that.

Art does not just happen. Totally without the cooperation of George Catlin - who was just trying to make a few bucks doing an ad poster for a gun company - my imagination must have fashioned its own private "multivalent collision" between the raw violence of flamingo slaughtering, versus its artistic depiction and the cultivated setting in which the artwork was displayed.

Now I wonder, "How quickly will it occur again if I leave our own pile of fallen lawn ornaments lying in the brush?" And "Should I be nervous that Mars keeps playing the Baptismal Fugue from the Godfather soundtrack on our stereo?"

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Holy Mallow Batman!

If it were not for my wife Mars' patience and persistence in successfully nurturing the hollyhock seeds from our daughter-in-law Monica's New Mexico plants into towering, flower-bearing, stalks I would never have learned about Saint Cuthbert and his mysterious connection to classic confections. And what these tall, showy flowered plants really should be named.

It all began when I wondered about the etymology of the strange sounding appellation that had been affixed to this Eurasian member of the mallow family.

mid-13c., holihoc, from holi "holy" + hokke "mallow," from O.E. hocc, of unknown origin. The first element is probably of hagiological origin; another early name for the plant was caulis Sancti Cuthberti "St. Cuthbert's cole." hagiology |_hag__äl_j_; _h_g_-|

Interesting! - but even more interesting if you know what all of the words mean. Who was Saint Cuthbert? And what the heck are hagiological, caulis, and cole?

"In some versions of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel is the combative deity of Wisdom, Dedication, and Zeal. Originally created for the World of Greyhawk campaign setting, he was later made part of the generic "core pantheon" for the game's third edition." (Wikipedia)

I cannot be certain, but that's probably not the one that I am looking for.

"Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne [634 to 687] was an Anglo-Saxon monk and bishop in the Kingdom of Northumbria which at that time included, in modern terms, north east England and south east Scotland as far as the Firth of Forth. Afterwards he became one of the most important medieval saints of England, with widespread recognition in the places he had been in Scotland. Cuthbert is regarded as the patron saint of Northumbria. His feast day is 20 March." (wikipedia)
As a boy Cuthbert was a shepherd until, at the age of 17, he had a vision and became a monk, then a soldier for several years, and then a monk again. In 676 he retreated to a cave on the Farne Islands to pursue a solitary life of prayer and the institution of special laws to protect the birds nesting there with him - among them Eider ducks, which are called cuddy (Cuthbert's) ducks in modern Northumbrian dialects.

There are several stories of God miraculously providing food for Cuthbert. Eleven years after his death his casket was opened and his body was purportedly found to be still perfectly preserved. Numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession after prayers were said near his reliquary and he was probably the most popular saint in England prior to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170."

This is clearly the hagiological ("literature dealing with the lives and legends of saints") part of the etymology of hollyhock - although in my brief readings about the holy man's life I could find nothing floral related other than a slight resemblance between the staff he is frequently shown as carrying, and the thick stalk of the plant.

Some parts of the etymological explanation however raised as many questions as they answered - e.g. the definition of cole -

noun chiefly archaic a brassica, esp. cabbage, kale, or rape.

Which sidetracked me immediately to the meanings of brassica and rape.

"brassica |_brasik_| noun a plant of a genus that includes cabbage, turnip, Brussels sprout, and mustard. • Genus Brassica, family Brassicaceae. ORIGIN early 19th cent.: Latin, literally 'cabbage.'" "rape 2 noun a plant of the cabbage family with bright yellow, heavily scented flowers, esp. a variety ( oilseed rape) grown for its oil-rich seed and as stockfeed. Also called cole , colza . • Genus Brassica, family Brassicaceae, in particular B. napus subsp. oleifera. ORIGIN late Middle English (originally denoting the turnip plant): from Latin rapum, rapa 'turnip.'"
But I digress. So far I have learned that hollyhock is another name for Saint Cuthbert's cabbage - even though there seems to be nothing to tie him and the spherical vegetable together. Maybe stalking the "caulis" in "caulis Sancti Cuthberti" will get me somewhere.

"1. In architecture, one of the main stalks or leaves which spring from between the acanthusleaves of the second row on each side of the typical Corinthian capital, and are carried up to support the volutes at the angles. Compare cauliculus 2. In botany, the stem of a plant. Or perhaps: 1. An herbaceous or woody stem which bears leaves, and may bear flowers."

And finally - ta-dah!:

chou: "fashionable knot in a woman's dress or hat," 1883; earlier "small, round, cream-filled pastry" (1706), from Fr. chou, lit. "cabbage" (12c.), from L. caulis "cabbage," lit. "stalk" (see cole).

Small, round, cream-filled - something like a Mallo Cup perhaps?
Mallo Cups are candy shaped cups filled with marshmallow cream and coated with a rich chocolate and coconut topping. They were created by Boyer Brothers of Altoona, PA in 1936 and are claimed to be the first cup-candy made in the U.S.A. - although Reese's disputes this.

I thought "Holy Mallo!"

The etymology that I started with said "holi "holy" + hokke "mallow".

So, of course, I Googled "Holy Mallow".

And I got back the recipe for homemade mallo cups from, along with a five-star rated comment that said "Holy Mallow Batman! These are just like the real thing!!"

Another perfect example of how, with the aid of Google, the etymology of any word can be made into a perfect circle.

And proof positive that my wife's hollyhocks should properly be called Mallow-Mars - early-21c., from Mallow "mallow" + Mars "Mars".

Friday, July 09, 2010

Who's Next?

Wethersfield Connecticut is the next Santa Fe.

Lots of places have been similarly acclaimed, and Mars and I have been to at least one of them - Marfa Texas. We also are frequent visitors to the flourishing, artistic New Mexican village that they all seek to emulate, and where daughter-in-law and son reside. That is as much experience in this subject matter as you are likely to find in our neck of the woods.

Like many catchphrases, "tnSF" is deliberately ambiguous. At least one of its meanings is that a locality successfully uses culture to drive commerce - something that the capitol of New Mexico does with it's blending of fine art, Native American crafts, and museums.

Another connotation is that a city has sold-out its unique, natural identity to become a faux-artsy, fancy-schmancy tourist destination run by outsiders.
Marfa was just a small sun-blistered, desert-dry, West Texas town in the 1970's when eminent and successful New York minimalist artist Donald Judd moved there - purchasing an entire decommissioned Army base with sixteen dilapidated buildings on which he established his Chinati Art Foundation.

Twenty-plus years later the artists and enterprisers arrived.

"They're championing the community as a rising colony of creativity, not to mention a pleasant weekend getaway-if you have a private jet. Many even say it's the next Santa Fe-not too far-fetched a comparison, since Marfa has the same dry climate, the same sharp light, and the same blend of desert and mountains. But a large percentage of Marfa residents think Santa Fe is horrible and that the kinds of people it attracts would reduce Marfa to a pop imitation of its former self. Which moves the old guard, which remembers it as a ranching town landlocked by cattle kingdoms the size of small states, to wonder what the hell is going on."

Sounds exactly like Wethersfield to me - dwindled away dairy farms, rising colony of creativity, pleasant weekend getaway.

And it is not just because of the revival of Comstock Ferre, located at the epicenter of the Connecticut's oldest and largest historic district.

"The company, known for years as the country's oldest continuously operating seed company, closed in August 2009 after 189 years because annual sales were falling. But it will reopen next week under a new, historically minded owner - Jere Gettle, owner of a 12-year-old Missouri-based company called Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

"Under Gettle's ownership, Comstock Ferre's 1.6 acres will be operated as if it were the 19th century. Gettle says he's been studying the company's rich history to ensure historical accuracy." (Hartford Courant)

Nor is it the conversion of several barns and a carriage house into facilities for
the soon-to-be-open Wethersfield Academy for the Arts - "learning art in the setting of an atelier, a method of fine art instruction that allows students to be trained by a professional in a small group. The method is modeled after Europe's private art studio schools of the 15th to the 19th centuries. The place will keep its historic feel, but the academy will put the barns to good use..." (Hartford Courant)

In fact those elements pale in comparison to the main thing that makes me believe our small settlement is well on its way to Santa Fe-ness - hollyhocks.

"Hollyhocks against an adobe wall may be Santa Fe's signature plant. Bees and butterflies love them and they come in a multitude of colors - pinks, reds, whites, almost black but never in blue. One garden writer describes hollyhocks as 'elegant in a wayward, random fashion.'"
Actually that's an understatement. I would say that you couldn't swing a dead javelina in Santa Fe without hitting one of these drought-tolerant, heat-loving members of the mallow family - a diverse grouping that also includes hibiscus, cotton, and okra.
Several of them grow in our daughter-in-law's front yard where they seem to thrive, largely unattended. For the past two autumns Mars has extracted dormant seeds from these, at the time, straw-like flowers - and transported them cross-country where she then sowed them in the perennial bed along the south side of our one-car garage. (In Wethersfield a gray vinyl sided wall is as close as you get to adobe.)

We had been told that hollyhocks could be finicky starters - that they might be biennials, triennials, or one-season perennials. They also are subject to rust - brown spots on yellow, sick-looking leaves.

The first growing season a couple of them poked their heads a few inches above ground, apparently decided they didn't like what they saw, and just hung out at that height, in that flowerless state, for the duration.

That autumn Mars appropriated some more seeds.

Last spring they reappeared, and seemed to be going great guns (getting tall, showing buds) until an unanticipated monsoon season overwhelmed their vascular systems with too much H2O and drowned them.

Not to be deterred, Mars repeated the southwest to northeast transplant ritual one more time. This spring there was the average 3-4" of rain per month. Then, shortly after my newly acquired rain barrel got to be three quarters full - all precipitation halted.

Now a duo of hollyhocks has shot up to N.B.A. heights, with buds and flowers sprouting out of every pore. Other momentarily shorter ones are beginning their ascent. One could be an aberration; two is a trend; but three or more is definitely a movement.
They self-seed. And, as we have seen on our property with other seed-droppers, with the help of resident squirrels and birds these magnificent mallows will soon be dominating the landscape throughout our tiny hamlet.

There also is word that our town's newest seed merchant will be attempting to revive the Wethersfield Red Onion - at one time the agricultural staple of our the local economy and now, in two dimensional form, our town emblem.

Soon, with globes of burgundy bulbs and towers of pink, white and red flowers decorating every vinyl wall in sight, our hometown will become the new Holy Grail of destination burgs. And Santa Fe will aspire to be the next Wethersfield.

Being devotees of both cities, we can help. Mars will just have to leave a little room in her carry-on for a few onion seeds on our next flight out west.

(Hollyhocks photos by Mars)