Monday, July 16, 2012

Soft Summer

The ghastly heat of a week ago has subsided into moderation. It’s being the kind of summer I always hope we will have, here in the parched foothills. The nights are cool; the morning dawns with an eastern breeze tinged in chill; and the days are long, drowsy and filled with sun, without scorching. In the gardens, squash are plumping, a deluge of tomatoes is just on the verge of turning red and inundating us, and we have more lemon cucumbers than we know what to do with. In the courtyard, cosmos are nodding on the morning air; bees mob the basin of the fountain; and cone flowers are raising their magenta standards amidst the greenery.

Everything is in that slow, sensuous state of gestation that heralds harvest. Yesterday, I made a tomatillo sauce that’s so good it’s drinkable. I harvested the fruit from my own plants, in the courtyard. I stood at the kitchen counter, meditatively shucking the paper lantern husks, enjoying the surprise of either green or purple fruit, depending on which plant they came from.

I went down through the dry, fragrant grass to David’s pepper plot and harvested two ancho chilies, then roasted them in the flames of the stove burner and sluiced off the burned skin under cold running water.  I sliced and diced tomatillos and roasted chilies, sautéed diced onion, added fresh cilantro and cooked the whole thing down to a thick and sensuously green sauce.

I have Frida Kahlo’s recipe for potatoes in green sauce and was eager to try it. So David went down to the potato patch and dug me a bowlful of fresh new potatoes. They’re sitting on the kitchen counter now, awaiting a good scrubbing before they’re parboiled and then cooked in the sauce, along with chicken thighs I’ll dredge in herbed flour and cook very slowly over newly-harvested garlic cloves.

David and I revel over the miracle of eating this way, from foods fresh from our garden and cooked with love and imagination. We linger over our meals, out on the deck under the oak tree. We plan and we plot what our next annexation of the mountain will include. Last night our plan was to reclaim the next of three abandoned and brush-covered terraces in the orchard and to build a gated entrance across the front of the property, to shield us from the road. David used the grocery list to sketch the footings for this project and I rummaged old journals for sketches I made in Taos while in my 20s, of simple but elegant double gates studded with hand-wrought rivets. We discussed the possibility of making these from boards cut from downed sugar pine logs that are stacked at the south end of the property.

There’s always a creative ferment, here. Whether it’s writing or painting or sculpting or gardening or cooking or building or clearing new land, we’re happily involved in the act of living in the present, with an optimistic eye toward the future.

And that brings me to my point for today: I need a vacation. I’ve been writing and writing and writing for several years straight now, without a break. Commune of Women consumed three solid years. Fiesta of Smoke was completed slowly over the last 30 years but almost half of it was written within the last 12 months. Basically, my brain feels like cooked oatmeal. I’m going to give it a rest.

 So, I’m taking a break from the blog until the first of August. I want to indulge myself shamelessly in not much of anything. To give that chaise longue David gave me for my birthday back in March a good breaking-in. To read the writing of someone besides myself. To putter in the kitchen and master a few new cooking techniques. 

For instance, both the Mexicans and the French do versions of fried zucchini flowers. Now, I don’t know about you but on a normal day of endless pressures and demands flower fritters don’t come readily to my mind. I want to spend the kind of day where they do. I want to take a basket and go down into the garden and pick those big, spreading stars of golden light. I want to slowly and delicately separate the fresh eggs from my neighbor’s hens and whip up a thick and gooey batter. I want to enjoy the smell of grapeseed oil heating in the pan. And I want to have the pleasure of serving these little morsels to my husband on an old Mexican terra cotta platter and of watching the smile of relishing spread across his face as he bites into the crispy tenderness.

I want, in other words, a slow summer. A summer of blue shadows, rocking hammock, the drowsy hum of bees. And mostly, I want the spring in my mind to fill back up. I want it to brim with the waters of the unconscious, cool, laden with deep minerals, whispering of an aquifer of limitless inspiration. And when those waters spill over, you my friends will be the recipients of the first drops.

Until we meet again in a few weeks, I hope your summer is slow and fecund and filled with the small joys of the season.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Surendorf at Billy Whiskers

Tomorrow is another Billy Whiskers morning and David and I will be off to enjoy ourselves in that eccentric environment where we both feel so at home. Tomorrow morning, there’s an extra dollop of interest and fun: my dear old friend, Cindy Surendorf, will be there with a collection of her father’s block prints on view.

Her father, Charles Surendorf, was a brilliant artist and one of my most beloved friends. He started coming to Tuolumne County in the 1930s, drawn by the natural beauty of the Mother Lode and the rustic brick buildings left behind by the Gold Rush. I had known Charles on sight all my life, as he painted and sold art in downtown Columbia, the “ghost town” we both inhabited.

 First, he had a sporty metallic silver Chevrolet station wagon out of the back of which he purveyed watercolors and prints to the tourists who wandered through, in those pre-State Park days. Then he had a studio in the old Pay Ore Saloon, a sloping brick building with a shaggy porch roof of split sugar pine shakes. Always dapper and urbane, in his sandals and Bermuda shorts in summer or wool trousers and sweaters in winter, he stood in sharp contrast to the scruffy and sartorially-challenged local populace. And his wife, Cindy’s mother, was simply the most beautiful woman in this or any other county, with her wide-set dark eyes, pyramid of black hair and dazzling and bewitching smile.

I perfectly remember the day I really made his acquaintance. It was high summer and I was in my early 20s, driving through an area called Springfield, where limestone boulders, exposed by hydraulic mining, rose solemnly, interlaced with China trees, against the bluest sky. Suddenly, I felt that I was driving through a Surendorf watercolor! In an instant, I “got” the spirit of Charles’s Columbia oeuvre.

I was a shy young woman but I knew it had to be done: I had to go straightaway to Charles’s house and thank him. Thank him for his clear seeing, his technical virtuosity, his depth of soul. All my life I had loved these rocks, these sun-drenched waste acres, these ramshackle brick buildings of 1850s vintage. It came as a shock to understand that someone--Charles Surendorf--had understood long before me and actually had the expertise and passion to honor that vision.

Up Maiden lane I went, its borders of blackberry bushes reaching, laden with ripe fruit, into the open car windows and drowsy white heads of Queen Anne’s Lace bobbing in the meadow. There was the house, of Gold Rush vintage, surrounded by deep, shady porches and huge old cypress and poplar trees. The air smelled of dry grass, ripening fruit and water.

I parked under the big cypress, went timidly to the front door and tapped, already doubting myself and my mission. Before I could turn and flee, however, Charles came to the door and graciously invited me into the house. His presence was startling in its vivid aliveness, its energy, its perception. I felt I was standing in a beam of scrutiny that flashed over me, accepted me, approved me. I stepped from the porch into his living room and was instantly struck by the power and beauty of the art, his art, hanging on the walls. From that first instant, I was captivated.

I refused to take a seat; refused the offer of a drink of water. Standing nervously by the door, my eyes downcast, I delivered my message: how I had suddenly seen myself within his paintings, had understood the depth of his vision, had had to come and thank him for his artistry. Then, again refusing to sit, I opened the door and fled into the hot afternoon. “Come again,” he said to my departing back. “Soon.”

I did. Charles and his art had an irresistible magnetism for me. I spent many a pleasant afternoon at his house, in the living room drinking tea or in the back yard in the shade of the cane plants that lent a tropical air to a space surrounded by out buildings holding his gallery and studio. We talked art. He told me about his life, his training, the people he had known. He tried and failed, for years, to get me to pose nude for him. Instead, he did three oil portraits, that, on his death, his children, Broozer, Steph and Cindy, generously gave to me.

My own interest in painting and sculpting was budding. One day I asked him if he would teach me to paint. In response he said, “Go to the back yard and pick a bouquet.” I made up a fancy arrangement of Virginia Creeper leaves, dried grasses and flower seed heads, all that was available on that fall day. He came into the studio, surveyed my arrangement, plucked the entirety of the vegetable matter from it, set up a canvas and paints for me and said, “Paint that.” Then he departed to the front of the house, leaving me in his bedroom studio, standing before a heavily-glazed crockery vase, nestled in a New Zealand sheep skin, all that remained of my careful composition.

I had spent hours simply watching Charles paint. I knew how he handled a brush, how he took up his paints, how he mixed them on the palette, how he danced before the canvas, advancing and retreating, his focus complete. It was as if that watching had turned into kinetic knowing. I began to paint, feeling confident and excited.

An hour later, Charles came in to see what was going on. He stood back and eyed my canvas without a word, as I hovered anxiously, brush in hand. Finally, after long and intense scrutiny, without ever looking at me, his eyes still fixed on the image on the easel, he said, “What do you know! The girl can paint!” Then he turned and left again, leaving me glowing from the finest compliment that, to this day, my painting ever has received.

Charles died in 1979, leaving me bereft. His presence in my life is absolutely irreplaceable.  So it was with real relief and enthusiasm that I greeted his daughter Cindy’s decision to create the NPO, The Surendorf Foundation, to promote awareness of his art and to teach his block print making techniques in the schools. Charles’s reputation went far beyond the boundaries of Tuolumne County: a complete set of his Columbia block prints was collected by the Smithsonian Institution; he was acknowledged to be among the 100 greatest block print artists of America; his paintings and prints are in collections both public and private, worldwide.

Tomorrow and Sunday, from 8 AM to noon, we all have a rare opportunity to see Cindy’s own private collection of Surendorf prints. I hope those who can will come for the occasion. And for those who are out of the area, consider checking out the website of The Surendorf Foundation: If you have questions, Cindy can be reached by email at cindy@surendorf2artfoundation. I have seen the results of her work in the schools, last year. The block printed images created by the students were moving, powerful and a fitting tribute to Charles and his passionate advocacy of art. You might even consider contributing to the foundation. Arts in the schools are struggling or nonexistent. You can keep Charles’s memory, techniques and passion moving forward, to be invested in the next generation, through your generous donations. I thank you for considering it. Cindy thanks you. Charles thanks you.

Remember: art saves lives! See you at Billy Whiskers!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Dragonfly Whisperer

I am truly blessed to have as a dear friend The Dragonfly Whisperer, who is a reverend, Reiki master and spiritual adviser, as well as the creator of the website A Gossamer Heart:

Dedicated to the healing of the wounded soul, this site is a treasure trove of information and inspiration, offering prayer, support and healing practices, as well as  links to many organizations focused on specific diseases and conditions. I hope you will take the time to check it out. Be sure to follow the link to her blog, as well, where you will discover that The Dragonfly Whisperer is a talented and inspiring poet, in addition to her other amazing abilities.

Also, she is a maker of marvelous inspirational videos. Her more than 60 Youtube videos have been viewed by over 100,000 people, worldwide. You can view them at:

With the world passing through an unusually rough patch in its history, when greed, corruption, and violence and unkindnesses of all sorts beset it, it’s so refreshing to know that there a people out there selflessly giving of their energies for the healing of the planet. Thank you, Dragonfly Whisperer, for the overflowing generosity of your spirit.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fiesta of Smoke: Foreword

In view of yesterday's post regarding the protests currently happening in Mexico City, today I'll share with you the foreword I am considering for Fiesta of Smoke. My intention in writing it is to dispel any notion that my story rides on the back of actual individuals, particularly Subcomandante Marcos. In fact, the bulk of  the plot and the parallel character of Javier, were written many years in advance of the advent of Marcos and the Chiapas uprising.

About those who harbor radically revolutionary energies, depth psychologist Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig has written, "while they may be destructive, [they] destroy in order to clear the way for something new. They are eminently social creatures, despite the fact that the society they propose is not the existing one, but the one which will supplant the present one. True revolutionaries offer alternatives." It was these alternatives to the miseries I have witnessed that motivated the long and considered writing of Fiesta of Smoke.  

Particularly, I wanted to emphasize that it is not political dogma and fervor that should motivate social change, but love. Revolutionary Che Guevara said it best: "Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality." Fiesta of Smoke is a paean to love, on many levels, and I hope it will move your hearts as it has moved mine, these many years.
                                                              . . . .

 Thirty years ago, when I first began writing Fiesta of Smoke, Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatistas and the Chiapas Rebellion were still a dozen years in the future. From traveling in Mexico I had seen the seeds of revolution ripening: huddled groups of Mayan refugees sitting in fields; grinding poverty; nonexistent health care, education or sanitation. More importantly, I felt the coming changes. In a country lush with vegetation and overflowing with fruits and flowers, tension zinged through the air. Something acidic and old polluted the beauty and the abundance.

I became a self-educated student of Mexican history, particularly of the Mexican War of Independence of 1810 and the Revolution of 1910, and of three of the men who led them, Father Hildago, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Inspired by Hildago’s Grito, the cry for independence, I began to wonder how I, in some small way, might serve the ongoing cause of freedom in Mexico. And thus, Fiesta of Smoke was born.

In the thirty years it has taken to bring this book to completion, uprisings have taken place all over Mexico, chiefly in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero. And in most uncanny fashion, Subcomandante Marcos has arisen much as the protagonist Javier Carteña has, from student to leader of rebellion. Let me make this clear at the outset: Marcos is a real person and has put his body on the line for the freedom of a people; Javier is a fictional character in no way drawn from the existence of Marcos, and in fact, precedes him by a decade. I can only think that in creating Javier, I tapped into a zeitgeist that was forming Marcos, at the same time.

 Fiesta of Smoke is a fiction in which I have been scrupulous both in following recent developments in Mexico and in avoiding using real incidents as fodder for this narrative. Real people are suffering and dying due to social and political conditions in Mexico and I would never use their grief casually. Instead, I attempt to elucidate this complicated and murky situation through fiction. The social and political problems I describe are real, as is the existence of paramilitary death squads, Army intervention and official corruption. Any similarity to persons living or dead, however, is purely coincidental. 

The ancient evil of the Conquest is resurrected now in Mexico and, as our own civilization is built upon that long season of bloodletting and genocide, we are all implicated to a degree. The ongoing battle for independence and human dignity in Mexico is one of the great dramas of our times. Above all, I wish this account to bring attention to the real struggles of real people who are fighting a desperate battle for their homeland, their cultural heritage and their dignity as human beings. Fiesta of Smoke is my small contribution to the Grito of the 21st century.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sometimes Life Supports Fiction

 It is always deeply moving to witness citizens taking to the streets to reclaim their communal voice and individual liberties. I was thrilled, yesterday, when I saw, on my friend Michael’s Facebook post, an image of Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma as an absolute river of humanity! Thousands upon thousands of people have gathered to protest the recent presidential election in Mexico, that put the corrupt PRI back in power once again. Charges of election fraud are rampant.

 The people are marching to the Zócalo, the largest plaza in any Latin American city. This is the kind of massive protest that I describe in my soon-to be-published book, Fiesta of Smoke, an excerpt from which is below. I include only a fragment, because I don’t want to give away the plot but you’ll get the basic idea. We are living in a time when people all around the globe are rising up to protest injustice and to take back their liberties.

For those who may have missed them, a synopsis of Fiesta of Smoke can be found on the January 5, 2012 post; the Prologue, on January 8; an introduction to the protagonists Calypso, on February 3, Javier, on February 20 and Hill on March 2; Calypso and Hill Dine was posted on March 14; More of Calypso and Hill, on March 30; More of Calypso and Hill–2, on April 10; Calypso’s Apartment, Place des Vosges, on April 19; Hill’s Teenage Sex Life, on May 15; and  Calypso in Paris  on June 25.

. . . .

The footage of the women of Chiapas holding back the advance of the Mexican Army made the nightly news in every major city on the planet. The women touched something primal arising from the deepest layers of the human psyche. As images flashed around the globe of barefooted women in skirts facing off with an army of body-armored, helmeted men carrying automatic weapons, people rose up in response. The following day, a huge protest erupted in Mexico City, marched down Paseo de la Reforma and took over the Zócalo, the largest plaza in Latin America, filling it to overflowing. Soon protests appeared in other major cities of Mexico.

Protesters came to camp in front of Mexican embassies and other contingents picketed at the White House and the United Nations. In Mexico, a general strike paralyzed the country for three full days. At each of these events, reporters and cameramen from international news agencies were present, their interviews and footage on the nightly news adding fuel to the fire. . . .

. . . Hill and Calypso gasped. The sidewalks were lined with crowds carrying signs. Little bands of drums, clarinets and trumpets shrilled tinnily. The demonstration went on for blocks. Many of those gathered were wearing indigenous clothing. Some of them had no shoes.
         “Who are these people?” Calypso could not contain her astonishment.
         “They are the citizens of Mexico. No matter what the official story is on TV or in the newspapers, no one is fooled. Everyone knows who stands with them and who is against them.”
 . . . .

Monday, July 9, 2012

Once Every Couple of Decades, Whether It Needs It or Not

Last Friday, I finished my third pass through the Fiesta of Smoke manuscript. Each pass takes a couple of weeks of seven to ten hour days. Every space between words, every fact, the nuance of every word is subject to scrutiny. Obviously, this work takes a very intense focus. When I finished this time, the book was going to the copy editor, so it was getting more and more imperative to get it right.

So imagine my dismay, when I reached the end, at page 768 (to which the 1000-plus pages have been reduced through the magic of 12-point font), and looked around and discovered that my surroundings hadn’t had a really deep cleaning for almost two decades. Dear me! How could this have happened?

I used to be a really fine housekeeper but then I decided to have a life, instead. I mean, do you write a novel or do you clean the carpet? I’m not Superwoman nor am I bionic. It definitely had to be one or the other.

The consequences of setting out on the path toward a larger life were not immediately obvious. I mean, you can get away with not sweeping down the cobwebs for a year or two, before the house starts looking like a set for “Saw XII.” The thing is, while I was carefully training myself not to see the encroaching grunge, it was breeding. Multiplying geometrically. And doing it in an entirely furtive manner--lurking in dark corners, taking over the undersides of things, creeping to the back of cupboards.

Meanwhile, I set myself a nice little programme: 2 years for the masters degree; 5 years for the doctorate, during which time both parents fell ill and eventually died; then teaching, which as anyone who’s ever done it knows, consumes your life maximally, 24/7; then 3 years for Commune of Women; then the truly mad decision to complete Fiesta of Smoke within the following year; and then . . . well, here we are in the present, two decades later.

 The cobwebs in the light well above the shower can be measured in either yards or pounds, take you pick. I have this very day evicted no less than 3 black widow spiders from my kitchen, with a fourth awaiting David’s bolder, more huntsman-like approach. You’ve already been apprised of the metal confetti to which a rat has reduced my tubes of oil paints in the studio cupboard.

If you’ve ever lived in the country, you know that it’s a lifestyle best described as Entropy in Action. Even under the most fastidious management, things tend toward dissolution, falling apart, getting dirty or invasion by alien forces. One could easily expend an entire incarnation in pursuit of mere cleanliness.

For example, I vacuum the rug;. Sophia the cat, AKA The Vector, simply walks through and the carpet is seeded with foxtails and burrs, in a single pass. I dust my desk and a single car passing on the road sends dust boiling in to coat it, again, before I can even sit down to write. I put a clean plate or bowl in the pie cupboard while tidying up the kitchen at night. In the morning I reach for the same  plate or bowl and find it cabled in spider web.

This is not even to mention the depredations of weather: a 60-mph wind blasts a pane from the studio window and explodes it, all over everything. Snow sits down hard on a carefully tended bush in the garden and splits its branches off from the trunk. Rain blown horizontally across the ridge seeps under doors and windows, leaving stains.

This tendency of nature to invade and erode, coupled with benign neglect on my part, is the unholy marriage to which I am now awakening, like someone shaking off a decades-long spell. Where to start setting aright the devastation? I have plans to go about with a quart jar, removing daddy longlegs spiders from the rafters and transporting them to the shed. I am busily wiping down webs, washing windows, delving into hidey-holes and niduses of entrenched dirt. This will go on for weeks, possibly months.

However, running counter to that is another stream, which longs to spend time at  my easel, or at my sculpture stand out under the oaks, or gardening, or starting the next book . . . The river of benign neglect for housewifery is already gaining force. One day, it will simply sweep me away and in another 20 years, should I live so long, I’ll awaken one morning, take up my broom, and begin again the endless battle against the forces of entropy.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Homeland Security, Big Hill Style

The nefarious Mr. Sniffles has been raiding our home, again. This pure black, long-haired cat was a ratty, scrawny mess when he first strayed in to my neighbor, John’s, house. John named him Mr. Sniffles because of his chronic watery eyes, sneezing and general poor health. Now, several months later, Mr. Sniffles slinks through our open doors looking glossy and well-fed. As why shouldn’t he, since he’s eating all my fur children’s food?

Last night, he came through the dog door, pulled a box of dog treats from the counter and commenced gnawing on the box to get to the goodies. It wasn’t until he achieved his goal and began crunching on a dog biscuit that I awoke. I leapt for the light switch, to catch him in the act, but he was too fast. The light came on just as the dog door flap closed with a silky hiss.

We have tried all forms of discouragement short of gunfire. Even the fur children are involved. Maclovio runs at him, barking, but since Mr. Sniffles and he are peers in the size category, it’s generally a stand-off. Sometimes Panda and Mac team up, which is more effective in the short run but does nothing to discourage return visits. Sophia is more blunt: she tangles with Mr. Sniffles in unabashed hostility and the yowling is horrific. Nevertheless, sooner or later Mr. Sniffles will lurk furtively through the door, once again.

Yesterday morning I was taking a break from writing, lying down in the loft to rest my eyes. Suddenly I was awakened from a light doze by that distinctive crunching sound. I crept off the bed and looked over the railing. There, directly below me, was the silky black nemesis, scarfing Maclovio’s kibble.

An evil gleam passed through me, as a plot instantly formed. Ever so quietly I bent to retrieve my shoes. I held them out over the railing, taking aim. I released them and let gravity have its way with them. They rocketed downward and smacked straight into Mr. Sniffles. He did a maneuver impossible under any but the most straitened circumstances: he came about three feet off the parquet, with all four legs heading in a different direction. Then he ran away so fast that I really didn’t see him do it. It was as if he had simply vanished. I chortled in my glee as I descended to sweep up the kibble he had splattered in his flight.

Now, fast forward an hour and David and I are sitting on the porch over lunch. I spot a gray squirrel making the very same furtive moves, out in the vegetable garden. I watch him as he slinks along, then stops to sit on his haunches and survey the surroundings for danger, then advances some more.

I whisper to David, “Watch this!” We observe as the squirrel jumps into one of the raised beds and immediately begins munching on tender young beet greens. David, who has worked very hard to nurture these babies along, is incensed. He sets down the spoon with which he is eating half a cantaloupe. He takes careful aim. David was a star baseball player in his day and his aim is more accurate than most. He heaves the melon rind and it falls exactly where the squirrel no longer is. 

Quicker than light, it has dematerialized and is now on the back side of a pine tree, galloping upward. It works its way around until it is about 30 feet directly above the beets. It goes out on a limb and lies, its four legs hanging in space, on its belly along the branch and gazes into the veggie bed, obviously contemplating its next move.

 David goes into the house for more ammunition. “The .22’s right there, by my chair,” I offer companionably. “No,” he responds, coming out of the house with a handful of cherries, “I’d probably miss and hit Martha.” Martha being our closest neighbor to the east.

The squirrel, obviously highly motivated, makes its move. Down the tree it comes, this time to raid the bird feeder for seeds. David lobs cherries to no avail. I go for my camera and get the shot of the squirrel eating a cherry.

Then it goes for the lettuce in the cold frame. Now I’m the one incensed. This is my turf and the source of my daily salads. I focus the camera on this scoundrel as if it were a gun sight. The squirrel sits on his haunches, stuffing his little cheeks with Mesclun and arugula as fast as his little jaws can move. In one final, heroic effort to defend our boundaries, David hurls the other half of his cantaloupe, which explodes right at the feet of our foe, who levitates and dematerializes.

Minutes late, our roof is under bombardment. Green pinecones are being flung from high in the branches of the pine that overhangs the house. They resonate through the house, disturbing the wah and alarming the fur children. The squirrel has an evil gleam of its own, apparently.

For the moment, our demesne is secure. We have a watch dog and two watch cats and an arsenal of lob-able produce and footwear. We are united in fiercely protective vigilance against critters red in tooth and claw. Things look safe for the foreseeable future. Like, maybe the next hour. But we can never relax our guard. There are barbarians at the gates. It’s a jungle out there.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Morning Garden

 It may have been Independence Day but David and I worked like Trojan slaves in the gardens, yesterday. His focus is practical: he mounded potatoes, made teepees for the beans and watered his extensive vegetable crops. My focus is aesthetic: I planted a new bed of flowers and pots of geraniums and nasturtiums, washed the pillows and coverings for the outdoor furniture and generally fussed about.

This morning dawned cool and breezy and my first impulse was to go back to the garden, to survey our handiwork. The dawning light was so beautiful that I ran for my camera. The resulting photos are my gift to you, so that you can dip in and sip a bit of this tranquility, the way the bees are just rousing to do.

The geraniums I transplanted haven’t wilted down a bit. That freshly plumped chair was so inviting that I sat there to have my breakfast.

The iron bunny looks well pleased with his surroundings, this morning.

I couldn’t bear to cart the seed heads of the angelica and kale off to the compost heap. So I stuck them in the ash bucket that works so hard during the winter months, giving it a more glorified function for the summer.

The Lilies of the Nile are just on the verge of blooming.

 The nicotiana is bursting like belated 4th of July fireworks.

The new babies look perfectly content.

The honeysuckle is luring several kinds of bees, including big black carpenter bees as big as the end of my thumb. They look exotic, in their shiny black armor, against the foofy petals.

The scabiosa and Echinacea are happily commingling.

And the fur children are sweetly at peace, as witness Sophia’s first cat nap of the day.

 It was harder to get a picture of Mac, since he was sitting on my lap in a little doggy meditation.

Blessings of the day to all! I hope it’s a bloomin’ beautiful one!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

I Wish I Had a V-8

So put me on a highway and show me a sign, and take it to the limit, one more time.
--The Eagles

 It’s Independence Day! Bring forth the hotdogs, corn on the cob and sparklers! Except that the dogs are filled with pink slime. The corn is genetically modified and is causing rare cancers. And sparklers and all other fireworks are banned in this and five surrounding counties due to fire danger. The only thing going spectacularly up in smoke appears to be the American dream.

There are some things, however, that America has just done well, and that’s all there is to it! I know it’s popular these days to put American industry down, often with good reason. But on this 4th of July, I want to remember the good times and the good things. And one of the first things that comes to mind is the V-8 engine.

I love to drive fast. Put me behind the wheel of a good automobile and I will turn any country road into the Indy 500. When I was a junior in high school, my folks owned a 1960 powder blue ragtop Thunderbird. I can still remember the day I focused on the speedometer and realized it topped out at 120 mph. Nothing could stop me: I went straight down to Keystone, where Highway 108 has one of its few long, straight stretches, and put that car to the test. That big old V-8 didn’t even strain, as I pegged it. Give it wings and it could fly!

My senior year, I talked my folks into buying the new 1965 Ford Mustang, and into upgrading to the biggest engine it was possible to drop into it, with a four on the floor. It was metal fleck khaki green with a black vinyl top and it was hot! My favorite pastime was to take in down to the Red Hills, where the road, instead of having bridges over a stream, made U-shaped dips into the streambed. I would floor the Mustang and jump it across these drainages, which were four in number. Then turn around, and do it again. No fear of flying, in that buggy! (I can tell this, now that my folks, God bless them, have gone to their well-deserved and car maintenance-free rest.)

Alas, the V-8 engine seems to be going the way of the dodo bird. Gas prices and green-thinking have doomed it. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get behind the wheel of a truly powerful car, again.

Other good products that have served me well are the typewriter and typewriter ribbon. I’ve demolished four complete typewriters in my writing life, before switching to the computer. I kind of miss the clickity-clack rhythm of typing, punctuated by the return throw of the carriage. I don’t, however, miss trying to do footnotes on the typewriter. Remember the cheat sheets that we had to roll in behind the top sheet, with a line drawn near the bottom to remind us to insert footnotes? Remember carbon paper? How about changing typewriter ribbons and the carbon that got on your fingers and everything you touched? Dem wuz da days!

David and I are going to make a hot soaking tub out of an old cast iron and enamel claw-foot tub with a propane heater underneath. We’ll have it out in the garden, where we can relax in full, scandalous view of the birds and flowers. But this plan may go awry for one reason: we were wondering, last night over dinner, if they still manufacture rubber drain plugs to fit our tub?  Or have they gone the way of the typewriter ribbon and the two-party telephone line?

Tomorrow we’ll drive down to some big box store to find out, lamenting the loss of Mundorf’s Hardware, where you could find every single hardware need supplied. We’ll be in my Toyota Camry, which, in spite of its 4-cylinder engine, is still a pretty snappy little car. I’ll lead-foot it down and back up the mountain, hoping that someone tries to tailgate me, so I’ll have a good reason to mount a road race. It will be fun but . . . gee, I wish I had a V-8!

Happy 4th of July! May freedom and independence be yours, your whole life long, and may the red, white and blue (hopefully made in the USA, not China) wave over a land of excellence in all things, forever.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Paris: Ready or Not, Here I come!


Writing about my friend Joan’s trip to France (France, Drop by Drop, 06.27.12) has me thinking about my own travels there and, in particular, my attraction to Paris. I have lost count of how many times I’ve visited the City of Light. Each visit is a voyage of discovery, from my first, when I spent six weeks there, walking, walking, walking to take in its delights, to one of the more recent ones, that I’ll tell you about, today.

The Iraq war started on March 19, 2003 with the bombing of Baghdad, dubbed Shock and Awe. It also happened to be my birthday. My friend Reggie threw me a birthday party in which we sat forlornly in front of her TV eating cake, watching bomb flashes over the rooftops of Baghdad and, with party noise-makers, giving the Bronx cheer to every member of the presidential administration who appeared on the screen.

I had a special reason to be interested in the opening salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom: my old friend, Greg, was in the advance forces, attached to an intelligence unit. Before too many days had passed, he was able to make email contact, although many messages were scrambled, due to sand in his computer’s keyboard.

Things went along well enough for a couple of months. His communiqués were fascinating, as he was part of the team that, among other things, was investigating Saddam Hussein’s several palaces, the architectural marvels of which he described in detail. But then, one day, I received an email saying he was being medivaced out of Iraq, heading to Ramstein AFB, in Germany. Would I come?

A day and a half later, I was on a milk run train, chugging up the mountains to Landstuhl, in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz and three miles from the west gate of Ramstein AFB. Greg had already been there, in the care of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, for a couple of days. He was released looking much altered: he had lost 50 pounds and the skin around his eyes was blackened like the rubber of a burned tire. Nevertheless, he was in great spirits (as who wouldn’t be, making the switch between Iraq and Germany!), hungry and thirsty. We went to a restaurant, where we sat outside because his clothing reeked of war, and he proceeded to drink no less than two dozen bottles of water, much to the dismay of the host.

A couple of days later, he was again medivaced, this time to Walter Reed Hospital in the US, leaving me loose on my own recognizance, within striking distance of France and with a day to burn before I had to return to Frankfurt for my return flight. I consulted a map in my room at the Greune Laterne and decided I just had enough time to take the train across the border to Nancy, a city I had never before visited but the marvelous 18th-century buildings of which had long captured my fancy. In the north-eastern French department of Meurthe-et-Moselle, it was formerly the capital of Lorraine and had a fascinating history.

I grabbed my purse and hustled down to the train station, bought my ticket and was soon crossing the border into France, where we made stops at a number of charming rural villages. I was in bliss, just gazing out the window. So it came as quite a surprise to me when, after a stop at a sizeable station, the train suddenly gained speed and began to fairly fly across the French countryside.

I checked my ticket with a frown, where there was no mention of a transfer. Yet it seemed to me that, after two hours, I should have been approaching Nancy, while this train was clearly heading more west than south. The mystery was soon cleared up by the conductor who took one look at my ticket and launched into a diatribe worthy of a scene from “The Pink Panther.” He rolled his eyes under his brimmed conductor’s cap. He gesticulated wildly in his conductor’s uniform. His voice rose to a wail that encompassed his entire frustration with Americans, women and the post-War world. Somehow, my ticket notwithstanding, I was supposed to have made a transfer at the last stop and was now on an express train, headed for Paris!

I bought a ticket from the aggrieved conductor and settled back to enjoy the spectacular country passing me at warp speed. But in my stomach there was a huge knot. Now, precious hours were being expended, with my flight time looming in faraway Frankfurt. And rather than deal with the Demon Conductor, again, I would have to leave the train, once it arrived in Paris, dive into the station, buy a return ticket, and reboard the train, all in less than an hour’s time.

Despite these worries, I was mesmerized by the countryside we were rolling through. Green fields of grain were punctuated by blood red poppies. Wide and lazy green rivers flowed beneath drooping willows. A magnificent chateau suddenly flashed into view among hilltop trees. Villages with square church towers topped by rooster weather vanes drowsed under the late spring sun. I was enchanted.

After about three hours, the outskirts of Paris began to manifest: grimed brick buildings, narrow streets empty of foot traffic, giant tanks on towers, industrial areas devoid of trees. At last the train slowed and entered the station. I leapt out and hurried down the quay and into the station, only to find it bulging with weary vacationers. Young people with backpacks sat about its vast floor, reading. Long lines queued before grilled ticket windows. The smell of sweat predominated and, by this time, my own contributed to it.

I had 30 minutes to buy my ticket and return to the train. I found what I thought was the right window and plugged myself into the end of a long and very slow-moving line. I watched the clock as we shuffled forward and have never witnessed more relentless movement of the hands of time. Finally, I was next in line! I had my money in hand. The customer at the window turned and departed, as I eagerly stepped forward and . . . and the ticket agent reached up and pulled down his shade!

I let out a shriek of anguish. I approached the window, where I could still make out the rippled visage of the agent, through the opaque glass. God alone knows where it came from, but to my amazement I heard myself shout, “I have to have a ticket! My husband is dying at Ramstein!” The agent sat unmoved, a smile on his lips of satisfaction such as only sadistic public servants who hate their jobs and their public can muster.

Suddenly, however, a hand grabbed my arm from behind, and I was virtually flung into the head of the line to my left. Stunned, I bent my face to the grill and ordered a ticket to Landstuhl. No one in the line protested. Ticket in hand, with two minutes until departure, I turned and fled, vaguely aware of my benefactor reaming out the first agent through the glass. I never even saw his face. And I’m sure he had angel’s wings, as well, which escaped my notice as I ran, leaping over piled baggage and dodging the plodding, galloping from the station and down the quay. Just as the train doors were closing, I wedged myself through. The train jerked under my feet and I staggered down the aisle to a seat as the grimy bricks of the Parisian outskirts began once again to pass.

I had five hours to contemplate my own strange lie. To this day it amazes me. It erupted out of some part of me that still remains even more opaque than the ticket agent’s barrier. And who was my mysterious benefactor? He, too, may be amazed by his actions that day. All I can say is that I was meant to be on that train and events conspired to get me there.

It was Sunday late afternoon. As we sped northeastward, I gazed into backyards where families were gathered at long tables for Sunday supper. Or were picnicking on narrow beaches, under big umbrellas, beside the river. Or dining outdoors in front of cafés in little stone villages. All of France seemed to be at table, making me realize that I hadn’t eaten in many hours. I was exhausted, hungry, still with alarm and haste sizzling along my nerve tracts like express trains to Hell.

I calculated the hours. I would make it back to Landstuhl by 10 PM. I had to be on the train to Frankfurt by 5 AM the following morning. I still had to pack. I would arrive too late to find an open restaurant and leave the hotel too early for any breakfast. None of that mattered. I would make my flight. I was seeing a part of France I’d never seen before and it was ravishing. And, through its eternal magnetism on my psyche, I had once again, albeit briefly, been to Paris.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Another Billy Whiskers Morning

Like Mark Twain, rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Although I have not posted a blog in the last four days, I am, indeed, very much alive. The weather here has truly deserved the description heavenly, and nothing short of encapsulation in a full body cast could keep me from the garden. There, the bees are busy drinking from the fountain or washing their tiny feet in its water; hummingbirds hang with wings outstretched on champagne-like air; and David and I have been laboring like beasts. But happy beasts.

This felicitous time reached its apogee Sunday morning, at the Billy Whiskers Café, where we arrived almost as the doors opened, already having worked up an appetite in the morning garden. Soon tables were filling up with the regulars and Attitude was flying, or hanging unspoken and suspended, on hummingbird wings.

Our first clue that it was going to be a feisty morning came when Rick sent the first order out of the kitchen along with the bill, on which he had scrawled, Prices vary according to attitude. “Whose attitude?” the customer asked. “His,” Karen responded. “Or mine. As need be.”

A tuneless, perfectly unmelodic whistle arose from the kitchen. Karen, coffee pot in hand, rolled her eyes. “I taught him to whistle, so he wouldn’t sing.” A customer ordered his toast “cremated,” and it came out appropriately scorched, as did my bacon and several other dishes. “We do cremation well,” Karen confided. “Besides, today we’re just playing like we own a restaurant.” The little pitcher that accompanied someone’s oatmeal was empty of milk. The same customer had to remind Karen to pour him some coffee, interrupting our discussion of Charles Surendorf’s paintings that decorate the café’s walls. To say that things were a little uneven is not overstating.

One regular couple is well advanced in age (by which I mean older than us, which means really old!) and the gentleman particularly enjoys the banter. He was once a very tall man, now bent nearly double at the waist but he hasn’t let that slow him down. His wife went off the restroom and another couple entered and asked where she was. “Fifty-five years of marriage and she’s finally left me,” he responded. “I suppose it was inevitable. It was bound to happen, sooner or later.” They were on their way to the hospital in Modesto, where he is to be treated for an infection. Less humorous thoughts of separation must have crossed both their minds and their levity is really a kind of courage.

We were on our way out when Rick emerged from the kitchen announcing, “I’m taking a customer survey . . .”. We were eager to get back to our gardens, so we’ll never know just what was being queried, but I think I heard something like, “Which is worse, this morning, the service or the food?” as the door closed behind me.

Nevertheless, all this transpired with great good cheer. As one customer remarked happily, “I come here for the abuse.”