Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dateline: My Week, or Plums “Я” Us

Yesterday morning I bought tomatoes at the Farmer’s Market. They were the first locally grown tomatoes I have eaten this summer, so juicy and delicious. The ones in my garden are coming along, but still green. The farmer who sold me the tomatoes asked me cheerily, “So how was your week?” I replied that it was, like everyone else’s, pretty incredible with the historic events happening across the country. He responded, “What historic events?” I forget that some people do not follow the news. Some people are too busy growing vegetables to turn on a computer or read a newspaper. If I was that dedicated to growing vegetables, I’d probably have ripe tomatoes in my yard by now too. As I walked away from his vegetable stand, his question echoed in my head. How was my week?

Dateline Sunday. Father’s Day. Ron and I were in SoCal with my children at a family BBQ at the home of my son Akili’s wife’s family. I enjoyed getting to know my daughter’s boyfriend better. This involved trying to understand his enduring love for his home state of Texas. The best thing Texas ever produced, in my opinion, was Molly Ivins; and he didn’t know who she was, which made me suspect he’s only pretending to be from Texas. Although why anyone would pose as a Texan is incomprehensible, so he must be the real deal. A good guy, all allegiance to Texas aside. By late afternoon, those of us left around the table were Ron and myself, Akili and his wife, her parents, and my son Sudi. We found ourselves telling stories from the years of team sports our children played growing up. Sudi reminded me of the time he fractured a bone in his lower leg playing soccer, and I took the recycling to the recycling center before driving him to the emergency room. That recycling had been sitting in a hot car for nearly an hour by the time he broke his leg. If I had left it in the car until we got out of the ER, the odor would have broken his other leg and both of mine to boot when we opened the door to drive home. Ah yes, good times raising children. Why do they remember this kind of stuff?

Dateline Monday. We drove and drove and drove up the state; through the parched central valley, where we saw acres of dead trees in abandoned orchards. Global warming is for real, folks. I saw a bumper sticker that said, “When you throw it away, where is away?” I love that. I’m constantly amazed at how many people still don’t recycle. When we came upon road work on Highway 5, Ron cleverly figured out a detour on his smartphone that saved us an hour or more of sitting in bumper-to-bumper. Sudi was dutifully impressed. Technology is amazing. When exactly did I get beamed into the Space Age? As we crossed over into Mendocino County, I breathed a sigh of relief, as I always do when I return to the geography I love.

Dateline Tuesday and Wednesday. I was buried in the proverbial avalanche of work that follows a vacation. I had a monster grant parked on my desk. This grant needed a new transmission, a brake system overhaul, and a paint job by July 3 when it was due. While this grant was revving its engine in my office, the plum tree in our yard was attempting to break the world’s record for plum production. In the evening, when it cooled down, I picked buckets of plums. Ron took them around town, left bags of them randomly on people’s porches, rang the bell, and ran away. He took a boatload to the local soup kitchen. Meanwhile, at home, I took a break from my grant project to message my friend Jessica, who was on vacation in Iceland. She reported that she had discovered the Penis Museum down the street from her Airbnb. I made the mistake of telling this to Ron, who started whining about wanting to find a tit museum. I told him to shut up and eat plums.

Dateline Thursday. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the subsidies associated with the Affordable Care Act. Not only was the ACA finally secure with this ruling, but as subsequent discussion ensued, it seemed that the American public had come to the realization (screaming and kicking, sheesh) that the ACA works. More folks than not are glad that the ACA is safe. I was moved by the photo of Obama reacting to the news. Job well done. I had no time to celebrate, I was too busy working on my grant project and eating plum sandwiches.

Dateline Friday. I woke up to a house reeking of plums. When I moved the plums aside and turned on my computer, I discovered that the Supreme Court had ruled that all states must allow same-sex marriage. Did someone slip LSD into the Supreme Court’s Kool-Aid or what? I couldn’t believe the week we were having. The first gay marriage in Dallas County, Texas took place – I saw a photo online of the two men who  were married kissing. They have been together for 54 years. Rainbows ran riot in my Facebook world, where my gay and lesbian friends and relatives were jubilant, weepy, eloquent. Speaking of eloquence, Obama delivered a historic eulogy in Charleston, talking on a personal level about race. Perhaps the conversation about institutionalized racism in this country will go mainstream at last and bring about significant change. I kept working on my monster grant, but in the afternoon I learned that a complex political situation had evolved that made it impossible for the woman working on this grant with me for her agency to move forward with it. The project went belly-up. (I will still be paid my fee.) I was in shock. I suddenly had no pressing work. I went on the internet and watched Obama sing “Amazing Grace” at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral and was deeply moved. Afterward, I checked my email and discovered that a clinic I approached about partnering with me for a big nutrition project I invented was interested in talking with me further about it. This was exciting news. I have been working on this for months. To calm down, I went out to the yard to pick plums. I brought several bushels into the dining room. Ron informed me he had eaten two plums. “Yes, great, that will really make a dent in this harvest,” I said. I put a notice on Facebook begging people to come to my house to pick plums on Sunday. How could one tree make that much fruit?

Dateline Saturday. I went to the Farmer’s Market and the tomato farmer asked me about my week. I am still answering his question in my head. It started out as a week of reunion in my family. It evolved into a historic week in my country. It became a week of over-abundance in my garden. It unfolded as a week of surprising twists in my professional life. As a week of community connection, it has plummeted (PLUM – eted, get it?) forward into Sunday when friends and neighbors will accept my invitation to come pick plums from this ridiculously fecund tree. And yes, we are making plum jam. And yes, we are making plum custard. And yes, we are making plum salsa. And yes, pass the Kaopectate, because we are making plum sherbet, plum chili, plum omelets, plum sausages, plum salad, plum gravy, plum cake, plum juice, plum whiskey, plum toothpaste, plum paint, and plum carpet cleaner. Because Plums”Я”Us. How was your week? Just peachy, I hope.

Photo by Ron Reed, taken a couple of weeks ago before they were ripe.
Does not do it justice, this is only one small portion of this enormous tree.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

No Time But the Present

Imagine with me, if you will, what life was like before the invention of clocks and watches. Days did not divide neatly into hours. Days were measured by where the sun stood in the sky and how dark or light it was. Days were measured by morning chores and family meals and when the goats were milked and when tomatoes picked. Imagine life before calendars when the seasons marked the passage of time and people counted how many new moons had passed since a baby was born to determine age and expected milestones in development. Back before artificial manmade constructs were invented to tame time, we lived in a world that unfolded organically. The pow-wow started when the drummers arrived, not at three o’clock on Sunday.

Sometimes I wish I lived in that world with fluid and organic measures of time. But even if I did, it would not prevent time from happening, from moving on its continuum governed by the laws of physics. As I grow older, and people pass on each year, I find myself spending more time in memory. All of us frequently engage in time travel. Living in the past (remembering) and living in the future (fantasizing and anticipating future events). Sometimes we go to the future in our minds to rehearse so we are better prepared for loss. Rehearsing the death of our parents. Rehearsing for the day when the children are grown and have left home. Rehearsing so we are prepared for these life-altering events. I try not to spend too much time rehearsing, but I think some rehearsing is healthy, a preparatory coping mechanism. But usually when I time travel to the future, I spend the time anticipating something good yet to come rather than preparing for inevitable passages that will make me melancholy.

Much as I enjoy reminiscing about good times and looking forward to more; and much as I spend considerable effort setting up opportunities to make more wonderful memories (planning family vacations, dinner parties, ocean visits); I, we, all of us, are ever always only living now. We may set ourselves up for enjoyable future “presents” (always good to plan these so there’s more to look forward to); but we are ever only in the present.

Once, when my daughter was about twelve years old, she kept accusing me of shrinking her jeans in the laundry. I assured her I was washing them in cold water. She insisted on drying them on the clothesline for a while, even though they came out so stiff we practically had to grease her up to get her into them. I tried to explain to her that she was just outgrowing the pants quickly. She couldn’t believe it. She was such a clothes hound that when she found a pair of jeans she liked, she couldn’t face the reality that she would outgrow them in a few months. I certainly wasn’t shrinking her shoes in the laundry, and they kept “getting smaller” as well. Eventually she understood that time was passing and she was growing, practically daily. That one always had trouble dealing with transitions. As a small child, she would tend to get grizzly when leaving a party or on the last day of summer camp or when loading the car to go home at the end of a vacation. Her life was full of enjoyable events, but she had difficulty leaving one to go to the next. Maybe we are all a little like my daughter’s child-self, having a dip in mood when good things come to an end (even if we are moving on to more good things).

So, where was I? I was here. I am still here. I am enjoying this moment writing, which is something that gives me great pleasure. It’s my passion, my vocation. Truth be told, I am writing these words in a bouncing jouncing moving car, not on Sunday, but a few days earlier in the week. Ron, Sudi, and I are right this minute, while I write these words for the first time (because I will later revise), approaching the Grapevine in SoCal, driving down for a family get-together. A long weekend with all my children by the ocean. Every summer we try to spend a few days together by the ocean. Something to time travel to in the past and in the future. A moment in time to enjoy when it’s here. Because the real live moment is only the present. The actual times I spend with all my children together are few these days, so I consciously try to be as fully present as possible in the moment of driving to SoCal, in the moment of being on the beach, in the moment of sharing a family dinner, and in the moment of packing up to head home.

Without knowing what transition we will face in a heartbeat, we must take full advantage of the living present, accept the gift of what it offers. One can only hope that those we love will be with us again and for times to come. But in the end there is no time but the present. Blink and we miss it. Hide the clocks and watches and turn the calendars to the wall. So much depends on now. We are together on the beach in the morning. We are together walking around the pond in the afternoon. We are together for dinner in the evening. We are together. And then we are dispersed, planning another time for the future, so we will have a new excellent present; all of it only for the time being, before we dissolve into memory, like all those who went before.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Beware the Demon Woodpecker

My next-door-neighbor has woodpecker-phobia. The official definition of this condition is “fear of a small bird that pecks wood.” I have known about his condition since shortly after I moved into my house seven years ago. Apparently a renegade gang of demon woodpeckers did significant and costly damage to a portion of the neighbors’ house once upon a time before I moved to the neighborhood. The neighbors have never recovered from this traumatic event and they remain forever on the hyper-alert for signs of woodpecker activity in the area. I suspect that they hired a woodpecker security alarm company to monitor avian movement and a red light flashes in their kitchen if a woodpecker is detected within a one-mile radius of their yard. It’s more the guy than his wife who is obsessed by this (she, however, appears to share his concern and wholeheartedly throws her support behind his anti-woodpecker efforts).

We discovered the severity of his condition when, shortly after we moved into our house, we discovered that he had shot a downy woodpecker perched in our ancient and magnificent oak tree with his BB gun. I can’t remember exactly how we found out that he had shot the bird; but I seem to recall that he announced the fact to us with pride, boasting that he had saved us from a horrific fate by eliminating this hapless bird. Shooting a woodpecker is illegal in California because it’s a protected species. We didn’t report him, but my husband told him not to do it again.

Last winter a large oak tree on our property fell. The inside of the tree had rotted out as a result of many years of drought combined with improper placement of soil around the base of the tree when the house was built. Even though there was no evidence of woodpecker activity on the tree, the neighbors were quick to commiserate with my husband by attributing the felling of the tree to “those woodpeckers.” Woodpeckers really can be quite destructive, but in a suburban neighborhood such as ours they are usually deterred by placing shiny objects, such as mylar strips or discarded compact discs, in the yard. Not all birds fear shiny objects, in fact ravens are attracted to them. But bling scares woodpeckers. Especially if the discarded discs are Michael Bolton recordings. Woodpeckers also do not like wind chimes and they can be frightened off with those fake owls (strategically placed). There are many ways to deter woodpeckers, but shooting one occasionally with a BB gun is not one of those ways. I suspect that after their traumatic experience with woodpeckers, the neighbors have arrived at a mindset where they blame everything on the woodpeckers. Leaf mold, locusts, aphids, toilet backed up, car accident, hurricane? Woodpeckers. Poison oak in the yard? Planted by woodpeckers. Brush fire on the ridgetop? Started by pyromaniac woodpeckers. Woodpeckers are everywhere and they are out to get us humans.

No one is more capable of going into battle with demon woodpeckers than my neighbor. He maintains a pristine yard and has dedicated his life to combatting nature’s chaos in every form in which it might encroach on his space. His yard is largely made up of lawn and rocks. He also has extraordinarily wonderful roses and a few fruit trees that he keeps in tip-top shape, although I have rarely seen any fruit on them (maybe he picks it off because it’s too messy). His hired yard maintenance crew arrives weekly to beat his (less than half an acre) domain into submission with an impressive collection of noisy power tools. The neighbor has a passion for noisy tools. For instance, he cut his discarded Christmas tree up into itty-bitty pieces with a large chainsaw last year. I think he cut individual pine needles in half with a saber saw. Whatever it took to subdue the dead yuletide tree, he spent a good half-an-hour at it. (Meanwhile, my husband chopped our tree in half with an axe and put it in the yard waste bin in under three minutes.)

Last week, the neighbor, ever vigilant and keenly alert, called to inform us that he had discovered carpenter ants walking on several branches of our ancient magnificent oak tree. These particular branches had encroached on his yard, so he took control of the situation by promptly cutting all these branches back to the property line. But he wanted us to know that we have carpenter ants. Fair enough. I’m not sure how much he knows about carpenter ants. It occurred to me that he might think they will dismantle his garage. (I was tempted to explain to him that they are just called “carpenter” ants and that they don’t actually have power tools, but I don’t want to make assumptions.) After his call, I went to look for carpenter ants, like a good and patient neighbor. I didn’t see any. The fact is that carpenter ants will not destroy a tree. They eat rotten and dead wood, not live wood. They are of concern when seen in or around a house because that means there is probably rotten wood in the structure of the house, which would need attention. But in the yard, they don’t do any damage to living wood. I relayed this information to my neighbor, who took it in stride, and explained that his concern is not so much about the carpenter ants per se but about the woodpeckers, because woodpeckers like to eat carpenter ants, as well as termites, worms, wood siding, shingles, porch railings, lamp posts, rocks, cars, and cities.

The neighbor suggested that we treat our trees with toxic chemicals to get rid of the carpenter ants before the woodpeckers spot them and ask for a menu. The neighbor is correct in his belief that one of the biggest problems that can arise from having carpenter ants in the yard is that woodpeckers turn up to feast and while they feel frisky from a good munch they can peck holes in houses and living trees (to get the sap flowing, to attract more edible beasties). It’s not likely that woodpeckers would bring down an ancient oak, but it’s possible if, over the course of many years, they peck a boatload of holes in the tree. They can do considerable more damage in much less time to a house. Rather than chase the little winged furies around with a rifle, I will opt to hang mylar strips, shiny mobiles, and wind chimes in my yard. I think my neighbor could deter the woodpeckers by strategically placing some of his shiny power tools in his yard, but I have not suggested this. I just hope he doesn’t start shooting carpenter ants in my ancient oak tree with his BB gun. They say good fences make good neighbors, so I hope the demon woodpeckers don’t eat the fence. I wouldn’t want any of my neighbors’ rocks migrating to my vegetable garden.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Perfect House Guest

To some extent I became the perfect house guest out of necessity. During my childrearing years, I and my family could rarely afford the luxury of staying in a hotel. Consequently, my children considered staying in a hotel one of the most thrilling events that could occur on a vacation. For many years they believed that only rich people stayed in hotels. Money was not the only factor contributing to the rarity of our use of hotels. I have always preferred to stay with friends or family because it’s more fun and contributes to a more satisfying visit with people.

Returning to the infrequent hotel scenario for a moment, if we stayed in a hotel, we all slept in one room with two double beds. (Like the time our van broke down in Willows, which consists of six raccoons, a drinking fountain, and, lucky for us, a hotel.) As the children got bigger, we had to be creative to cram everyone into one hotel room. Sudi, being the youngest, often slept on the floor in a corner. Using all my ingenuity, I could make him a comfy nest out of seat cushions, jackets, the ice bucket, shoes, and a lampshade. I am proud to say that no one ever spent the night in the bathtub. Just being in a hotel room turned the 10-point excite-o-meter on my boys to level 11. If jumping on hotel room beds was an Olympic sport, my boys would have a dozen gold medals. Meanwhile, my daughter would systematically go through every channel on the TV to sample what was showing as if our TV at home only got two channels, which it did for many years before the advent of our satellite dish. (We lived in a forest, but at least my children didn’t think a toilet was a novelty.) The children would read the menus from nearby restaurants (provided in a binder) as eagerly as dogs in a butcher shop (and with nearly as much drool) and then beg to order in. Sudi would get so wired from being in a hotel room that he wouldn’t go to sleep. The rest of us would be lying there in the dark for hours listening to him singing to himself and throwing shoes into the ice bucket. The way my children behaved, you would think a hotel room was the best ride at Disneyland.

But, as I said, we rarely stayed in hotels. We usually stayed with friends or family. I had a bit of the wanderlust in my youth. Ron did too. And then people we knew spread out to places all over the country (and in foreign lands) to settle down. By the time our children came along, I had a friend in every port. So I planned family vacations around geographic locations where we could stay with someone we knew. Truthfully, I enjoy visiting with people more than anything else when traveling. Museums are lovely. Natural wonders are awesome and inspirational. Destination sites are fun. Activities are entertaining. Panoramic views are spectacular. I will take a day at the beach whenever possible. But nothing beats spending time with great people I don’t get to see very often, particularly if they have children around. (And if I can spend time with these wonderful people at the beach, of course, then my life is complete.)

Staying in people’s homes while on vacation all these years, I have perfected the art of being the flawless house guest. While I need to economize by avoiding staying in hotels, and while I personally prefer to stay with someone I know, I realize that it can be stressful for people to have a house guest. So I strive to make my stay as easy on my host as possible. Therefore I make a point of cleaning the kitchen after meals, making the bed after myself, emptying trash cans, cooking meals, and generally taking over management of the house during my stay. By the time I leave, my host cannot find a single thing in her kitchen anymore, the bedroom I used has been repainted, the children refuse to go to sleep without a bedtime story from me, all the incandescent bulbs have been switched out for fluorescents, and there is a brand new compost pile bacterializing (wow, is that a word? if not it should be) behind the garage. When I traveled with my children, I hope that my guestly help made up for the fact that during my stay my children devoured all the cereal in the house, broke the handle off the bathroom door, lost the Frisbee in a patch of poison oak, fed the dog corn chips, played a lot of Aretha Franklin loud on the boombox, and collapsed the posts that held up the hammock. My children were always well-behaved, but they were, of course, children. Some things go with the territory.

In an effort to make my stay easier for my host, I bring my own towels and sometimes even my own sheets so my host will not have a lot of laundry to do after I leave. In the event that I use my host’s sheets and towels, I put them in the washing machine before I leave in the morning. And depending on how long we linger over breakfast, I might have them dried and folded before I’m finally out the door. Once, Ron and I were watching an episode of the TV show “Monk” in which Monk went to stay with a friend for a night. Monk (who is germaphobic) brought several suitcases of supplies with him. As he was unpacking, the friend pointed out that she owned sheets and towels she could provide. Monk replied, “Well, as long as I brought my own, I might as well use them.” Ron busted out laughing because he had overheard me say the exact same thing only a few months before.

Last week I asked a friend if I could stay at her house while traveling. I told her I didn’t want to inconvenience her. She laughed and said that I was the easiest house guest ever since I brought my own sheets and towels, did the dishes, and cooked for her. I’m beginning to think that when people need to have some work done on their house, they invite me to stay over. Being the perfect house guest is a family tradition. Once, when my oldest child was a toddler, my mother came to visit. She shooed me and Ron out of the house and promised to look after our daughter. We went to dinner and a movie and came home many hours later. Four or five months after Mom’s visit, I glanced at the kitchen ceiling and realized it had been washed. Not just washed, but scrubbed. The grease film that had covered it was gone. I called my mother and asked her if she had scrubbed the ceiling while we were out at the movies that night. “I wondered how long it would take you to notice,” she replied.

In recent memory, my son Akili mentioned to me that he and his wife were going somewhere for the weekend. “Oh, do you know someone there?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “Where will you stay?” I asked. “In a hotel,” he answered. “I know someone who lives there. An old college friend. Do you want his contact information? I’m sure you could stay with him,” I offered. “Mom, we’ll stay in a hotel. That’s where normal people stay when they go on vacation,” he told me. He says he felt deprived as a child because he rarely got to stay in hotels. Go figure. Now Airbnb is all the rage. People stay at Airbnbs in the homes of perfect strangers. I’m thinking of giving trainings in how to stay in someone’s house for the Airbnb traveler. Lesson one:  bring lots of food (if traveling in California bring water too), trim their hedges, darn their socks, reorganize their kitchen cupboards, hang wind chimes on the deck, increase the speed of their internet connection, and wash out the barbecue grill.