Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Death of the Lawn -- 8 Years Out

The death of a lawn may not seem like an important lifecycle event to you. For me, killing my lawn is up there with learning to drive a stick shift car and my Bat Mitzvah (which says something about the level of spirituality I felt at my Bat Mitzvah). One of the first landscaping initiatives I pursued eight years ago when we moved into this house was killing my front lawn. This murderous act surprised, mystified, and disturbed my largely conservative, suburbanite neighbors, particularly the one who has a yard comprised mostly of immaculate lawn and gray rocks. I have refrained from pointing out to him that rocks are not edible. Why would someone pay to purchase that many rocks? I could think of better things to spend my money on, like tomatoes and basil. 

In drought-wracked California, maintaining a lawn is reprehensible. Lawns require a boatload of wasted resources and are, historically, merely a demonstration of excessive wealth. In short, lawns are decadent. You can’t eat a lawn. Versailles has huge expanses of lawn. Do American suburbanites wish to pretend they are French aristocrats? I say, ban the lawn and let them eat green beans. Here is my short list of things you can do with a lawn:  look at it, mow it, have a picnic, play croquet, step in dog poo. I am mystified as to why anyone would want a lawn on dirt that could be used to grow food and flowers. In my case, I can’t plant much in the way of food in my front yard because it isn’t fenced so the deer forage. Most foodly items I might plant would swiftly become what we call in my part of the world “deer buffet.” Where I live, Bambi is a public nuisance barely one step above a rodent. I have plenty of space in my well-fenced back yard to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. In the front, for my own pleasure, I grow native plants (many flowering) that love the blistering blast of the sun and resist drought and deer.

My most critical neighbor, the one who has the rocks in his yard, whom I will call Dick because he is one, used to sidle up to me periodically during my first couple of years in the neighborhood when I was out hand-pulling weeds (because RoundUp is an abomination upon the earth) to comment on my non-lawn. He would tell me it wouldn’t take much to bring back my lawn and he even offered to help me do it. Clearly he was pining for my annihilated grass. Dick is about as amusing as Dante’s Inferno without the laughs. We refer to Dick’s yard as his “plantation” because he brings in a team of new-immigrant yard-workers every other day to beat it into submission with extremely noisy, dangerously sharp, and impressively shiny power tools. At his direction, they blow every leaf into a pile and remove it, wipe the dust off his trees, vacuum his grass, scrub his rocks, polish his shrubs, and boil his patio umbrella to sterilize it. (Note:  you can kill weeds by spraying them with straight vinegar, which is cheaper than RoundUp and won’t make the neighbor kids autistic, give your granny Alzheimer’s, or cause the dog to have seizures.)

Dick is the guy who spent forty minutes in an ecstatic post-holiday frenzy cutting up his Christmas tree with a chainsaw to put it in the green yard waste bin (by comparison, Ron chopped our tree of similar size in half with an axe in forty seconds and stuffed the two pieces into our green bin). A few years ago, when Ron was weed-whacking in the front yard, Dick came over, waved to get his attention so he would muffle the weed-whacker, and informed him that some of the neighbors had been talking about how unsightly our front yard is and that he was of the opinion that we should reinstall our lawn. He implied that Ron could not control his psychotic lawn-murdering wife. Ron growled politely and turned the weed-whacker back on. I can imagine that for someone brainwashed into believing the 1950s American Dream of the front lawn, our yard may appear wild. But if you consider the native landscape where we live, what grows in drought conditions, and what plants are resistant to the fickle tastes of deer, then our yard is a beauty and a teacher. It attracts multitudes of bees, butterflies, and spectacular birds. It does not appear to attract gray rocks.

This year in particular, because we had so much winter rain, my front yard has truly come into its own, with mature giant purple flowering sage, rosemary, lavender, violet erysimum, pink and magenta cosmos, olive trees (I put up a couple of jars of olives from them last year and they are showing signs that they will fruit again), peppermint eucalyptus, yellow Jerusalem sage, purple butterfly bushes, tarragon, red ginger sage, verbena, red pineapple sage, and a host of little pink and purple salvias. There are also ornamental grasses, a cottonwood bush, and I just planted two new elderberry trees. Perhaps this yard looks wild and unkempt to Dick and some of my other neighbors, but I happen to like wild and I wouldn’t trade my riot of color for their manicured, plush, boring lawns. Furthermore, my yard requires a fraction of the water they dump into their yards.

A few years ago, an Apache friend, who lives on forty acres at our beloved former “neighborhood” at McNab Ranch, was at our house for a barbecue. After studying Dick’s rocks and pristine lawn, his handful of stunted and over-pruned trees, and a privet hedge along our shared property line that I suspect Dick planted to block his view of my unruly yard, my friend asked me, “What’s up with your neighbor’s yard?” Indeed. That is the question. His privet hedge prevents him from having to look at my lascivious cherry trees, which fruited in buckets. I spent yesterday picking, sorting, washing, pitting, and putting up cherries. My fruit is apparently overwhelming to Dick’s Puritan sensibility. Pollination must seem too much like wanton sex to Dick. My yard is fecund, unlike his rocks that have no female parts.

I wanted to post photos of my yard to accompany this blog, so Ron and I went out in front with his camera early this morning. As he was photographing my giant sage, a cluster of neighbors on a walk happened by. They stopped to admire the yard and ask me questions about my plants. From the window at my desk, I frequently see neighbors stopping to admire the yard as they walk past. So I don’t think Dick is going to pull together a neighborhood referendum to banish my giant purple sage and bring back my lawn. I hope he can find a support group online for people who grow rocks.

Photos by Ron Reed. These are glimpses of parts of the yard, and it's hard to see the colors and variety. I have half a dozen bright purple giant sages all across the front. This gives you a taste of the view.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Stories from the Road

I just returned late last night from ten days of travel to the East Coast. I am not an enthusiastic or efficient traveler. I did take my Magic Bullet blender, pillow, towel, and drinking water filter, and yes, I did have to take things out of my suitcase at baggage check to get it under fifty pounds. I did not take a homegrown zucchini (they are not in season) or my cats, not even my favorite cat Ella; and I did not take my deep dish frying pan (however, I would have taken it had there not been a weight limitation on the suitcase). Ron shook his head in disbelief when he discovered that I had AAA maps in my possession, since he has used navigation on his phone with brilliant success for several years now. I like to look at a real map. I like to see where I am in context. On the East Coast a traveler passes through so many states at dizzying speed that it’s like going warp on the Millennium Falcon. I need to see which state I’m in.

Ron and his phone took us everywhere we wanted to go quite nicely and even helped us avoid a potentially phenomenal disaster by informing us that an accident had caused the closure of the Tappan Zee Bridge. When I realized the bullet we dodged by going via the George Washington Bridge instead, I told Ron that I knew there was a reason why I married him. He pointed out that the accident did not appear on my AAA map. I will write AAA and ask them to look into developing an interactive real-time paper map. There’s a concept. In my youth, I loved to travel. In my youth, I could fall fast asleep on the floor of an airport if necessary. Now it would take me half the night to get up and down off the floor. I miss my bed, my garden, my food and water, my cozy study lined with books. However, I love visiting people on a journey, which is the thing that pries me out of my reclusive life to catch a plane and go. And I visited some good folks these past ten days out. I also took in a couple of museums (the Rosenbach in Philadelphia and the Princeton Art Museum), viewed abundant gorgeous scenery, and admired the symmetry and glory of historic structures of the old-tymie sort (such as the bridges on the Merritt Parkway, the Princeton campus, and the restored buildings in downtown Philadelphia). So all things considered, the vacation was worth the hassle of travel.

On the morning of our departure, Ron lolled around in bed working industrial-strength crossword puzzles from his latest volume of the NY Times Grand Master Wordsmiths from the Planet of Obscure Words that No One Ever Says but that Count as Real Words Series. I asked him if he intended to get up and prepare for our trip and he said, “Nah, I’m on vacation.” Vacation from what? This man is retired. Vacation from making coffee, reading the newspaper, listening to music, surfing the internet, obsessing over the Golden State Warriors, and watching Turner classic movies? Harumph. He nearly passed on the vacation altogether when I told him he had to wear shoes. But the spark for the vacation was our desire to attend a wedding in Salem, Massachusetts and he was motivated to go so he did finally put down the crossword book, traded his bedroom slippers for sneakers, and packed his bags.

Our adventures began with a drive to the Bay Area to catch our flight East. We stopped off at the new Amy’s organic, sustainable, vegan/vegetarian fast food restaurant in Rohnert Park for a take-out healthy special-diet dinner. As a lifelong vegetarian, I loved Amy’s veggie fast food joint. I got a delicious gluten-free veggie burger, which I ate while Ron spent his usual three weeks studying the menu. By the time he ordered, I was satiated and ready to take a turn at driving. As we pulled out of the parking lot, Ron opened his take-out bag. I thought he got a veggie burger, just like mine. But he had ordered the deluxe model. “Wait, are those fries?” I asked. He knew that I would simultaneously not approve and want to eat most of the fries. So he denied that he had purchased fries and hid behind his hand to eat them. However, next he produced a strawberry milkshake from the bag. Whoa. We never drink milkshakes. This was totally a vacation kind of treat, with whole milk and all the bells and whistles. “Is that a milkshake?” I asked incredulously, as a prelude to sucking down a substantial portion of it. “No, no,” Ron replied. “It’s a pork slurpee.”

I will never understand the point of airport announcements. You would think that in the Age of Technology, an establishment as sophisticated as an airport could manage to make comprehensible broadcast announcements. But this is not the case. It is impossible to understand these announcements. Because I’m 80% deaf, I kept asking Ron what they were saying. How long was the flight delayed? Were we boarding? Which group was boarding? When? Were we in the right terminal? What is the meaning of life? He couldn’t make any more sense out of the mishmash of squawks and hisses that emerged than I could. When we asked the people around us, they shrugged in befuddlement as well. No one could figure any of it out. Apparently a deranged airline CEO gets his kicks from putting the announcements through a scrambler that makes the human voice sound like a washing machine on the rinse cycle. Judging by the sound of the announcements, we probably flew a washing machine to Philadelphia.

Whatever we flew, we made it to Philadelphia, rented a terrific car (I want one like that), and after several days visiting our friend Janine in her rococo house on the Schuylkill River (I dare you to pronounce that) that she inherited from her dad, we drove to the wedding. Unfortunately, we had great difficulty finding the wedding venue at the Salem Waterfront Hotel. When we arrived in Salem, Ron’s trusty phone navigation system had a psychotic episode and heard voices directing it to the wrong hotel. We drove around in circles for quite some time before Ron’s bladder trumped his phone navigation and that’s how we wound up at the Salem Witch Museum where Ron used the restroom and asked for real directions. Later, when we shared this with the friends with whom we were staying, they explained that all things conspire to take out-of-towners to the Salem Witch Museum and that’s how the museum makes its money. So we figure that the phone navigation had a spell cast on it by the Salem witches.

The wedding was as joyous, beautiful, fun, and touching as we imagined it would be and was well worth the journey, Salem witches and all. It’s such a treat to witness a wedding between two people truly in love who have a relationship that will clearly last. It certainly makes you want to dance, and dance we did, with longtime friends from our salad days in Berkeley. We celebrated with wild abandon. Although we like to party, we rarely party so rambunctiously, and I woke up in the morning with aches in unusual places and glitter in my underwear. When I crawled into the bathroom and peered in the mirror, I had a shock. I must have slept strangely on my right eyebrow because at first glance it looked like part of it was shaved off. Hmmm, I thought, I don’t remember people shaving off eyebrows at that party. When did that happen? But I soon realized that I could smooth the eyebrow out and no part of it was missing. Phew. I did remember the events of the night before correctly after all.

After the wedding we drove to New Jersey to see my father at the senior community where he lives. He took me to the Princeton Art Museum, and we had lunch together in Princeton. Since I had left my frying pan and most of my kitchen appliances behind, I was dependent on restaurants for food throughout the trip, which did not turn out to be as disastrous as I had feared. Fortunately for me, Princeton is accommodating for people on special diets. Directly across the street from the parking garage, I discovered a cafĂ© that served vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, fair-trade, and sustainable food. Yippee. When Dad and I walked in the door, he commented, “This restaurant even smells like you.” I think it was the cinnamon and other aromatic spices, so I take that as a compliment. Dad has a terrific life in his senior community. He remains lively and active. His sense of humor has not waned. In fact, during our visit he performed in an evening of comedy sketches and monologues about aging. As he was taking off his shoes at the end of a long day touring sculpture gardens and sharing Sabbath dinner at my brother’s house, he said, “I bought these shoes online and they almost fit me.”

After months of making do with skyping my brother’s new puppy Rosie, I finally played with her and received many sloppy doggy kisses. When Rosie joined the family, I sent her a squeaky stuffed owl toy. It became her favorite. I brought her a brand new one when I visited, and don’t you know that puppy immediately lost interest in the old one, which has been her beloved object for months, and switched allegiance to the new owl. She understands about ten words and one of them is “owl.” If someone asks her were her owl is, she looks for it, finds it, picks it up in her teeth, and darts around hoping someone will attempt to wrest it from her so she can hang on fiercely and growls ferociously. After tearing around the backyard like lightning, she fell asleep on the floor near the table where we sat talking. My niece watched Rosie adoringly and told her, “You’re so cute Rosie. Oops, you just got cuter.” 

While I’m on the topic of lightening, I have a story about that. In Massachusetts we stayed with my college friends from my days at Syracuse University, Carol and Ken. I took a class in Wordsworth and other English romantic poets from Ken when he was a teaching assistant and I was an undergrad. They have been married for over forty years, raised two children, and have a baby granddaughter. Carol gave me a tour of her house (which I have been to before) to show me all the changes they made after the house was struck by lightning a few years ago, caught on fire, and had to undergo extensive repairs and remodeling. Carol said that the lightning came in through an upstairs window, struck a wall, and set the wall on fire. Half the house burned and the other half didn’t. They were home at the time and they grabbed their computers, car keys, and phones and ran out. While waiting for the fire department to arrive, and watching her home burn (they have lived there for thirty years and raised their children there), Carol thought the house would burn to the ground and that she would lose everything. She felt lightheaded. Then Ken, a Wordsworth man to the core, turned to her and said, “You’re all the home I need.”

Beware the tentacles of the Salem Witch Museum that will ensnare you by corrupting your navigation system.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Addicted to Books

My name is Amy and I am addicted to books. My relationship with books goes on beyond enjoying a good read. I like to read books, and  I also like to write them, collect them, discuss them, recommend them, give them, discover them, loan them, borrow them, touch them, stroke them, smell them, house them, and hoard them. If they were edible I would eat them. Some of my best friends are books.

One of my favorite events is the monthly used book sale at the public library. I attend religiously and arrive uber-punctually before anyone else turns up. Books cost about a dollar (less for small-size paperbacks) at the sale. Some months I buy only a couple books and other months I fill a shopping bag. It all depends on my mood and what they have available. Because I constantly donate books back to the library, I have to be careful not to buy back my own books, which I have done on more than one occasion. I also try (don’t always succeed) not to buy duplicate copies of books that I love with the idea that I will find someone to give them to, like stray puppies. I whisper to strangers, “That’s a great book, you should buy it.” I am the eccentric annoying old lady at the book sale. (At least I don’t constantly hum under my breath like one guy who always turns up at the book sale and drives me crazy because I can’t concentrate with him humming.)  I have trouble walking away from a book that I love and leaving it homeless. It requires tremendous restraint for me to pass up a $1 hardback copy of one of my most beloved books in mint condition. I am tempted to buy books I have read and loved because, I admit it, I am a book hoarder.

Every few years I cull out books that I have not opened in years and will likely never read again. I have been strict with myself on several occasions, and whittled my collection down to a dull roar. Three years ago, I finally gave away three shelves of classic poetry books purchased while in graduate school. I donated the books to the local college library. This act required me to admit that I would not be reading copious amounts of Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, Wordsworth, or Coleridge in the near future. I had collected the entire canon of Western poetry, beginning with Beowulf (in the original Old English, which I could not make sense of in the 1970s and still cannot make sense of today – who swims around in rivers in full armor?). I even had a copy of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which I never read in grad school. I kept several shelves of poetry books, mainly to impress the neighbors, since I don’t read poetry much these days. Divesting myself of my grad school poetry was a watershed moment. After that I could divest myself of many other books that I had not read and that I originally bought in the hope that they would enter my brain and psyche via osmosis if I had them on my shelf. My education looked impressive according to my shelving. I could take photos of my bookshelves and attach them to my resume.

I cannot walk past a book store without going inside. Bookstores are swamis playing my tune. When I go to other people’s houses, I study their bookshelves like I do the departure and arrival boards at the airport. If I see a box or rack of free books, I must stop and see what’s there. My friends tease me that when they see me at the monthly library book sales, I am hyper-focused. It’s true. I read every spine as if the survival of the human race depended on my ability to acknowledge every book on the table. Don’t get between me and the book sale tables, you could lose a tooth. Sometimes I stop in at the library just to walk between the shelves and absorb the energy from all those carefully placed words. Some days, I am biding my time for the entire day until I can crawl into bed in the evening and read. If I don’t have a stack of books on my nightstand I feel naked. No e-reader for this gal. When I need to feel more centered, I stand in front of my bookshelves and read the titles. Old friends. If reading was an Olympic sport I would have a gold.

One of my favorite questions is “What are you reading?” I also like to ask people to tell me what good books they have read lately, what their book group is reading, and what they have on their nightstand. I wear people out talking about books. I live vicariously not through the lives of others but through descriptions of the books they are reading. If I had not met my husband and raised a family, I would have spent my life as a recluse at home in bed reading. I would have had a nightgown collection worthy of consideration for induction into the Smithsonian. Excuse me now, must go fondle spines.

I enjoy images like this one of bookshelves organized by color, but, seriously, 
how could you ever find anything using this system?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Please Try

Last weekend I spent Passover with longtime friends and their bright and determined five-year-old daughter, Stella, who is my goddaughter. While Stella and I were playing with her dolls, she asked me to put her Barbie’s glittery party dress on her baby-doll. I told her the baby-doll was not allowed to wear a dress designed to show so much cleavage. Just joking. I explained that the dress wouldn’t fit on the baby-doll, which was larger than the Barbie (and smushy with no hips or bust). “Please,” she entreated. I showed her that the shapes of the two dolls didn’t match, and the small Barbie dress wouldn’t transfer to the bigger baby-doll. It would have been a good Sesame Street sketch about things not being the same. A few minutes later, she asked me to take the rubber band out of Barbie’s hair. That rubber band was as tangled in Barbie’s hair as a shoelace sucked into the vacuum cleaner rollers. I told Stella that I couldn’t get the rubber band out of Barbie’s hair. (I was proving to be an abject failure as a playmate.) “Please,” she begged. So I asked her for a pair of scissors, which she brought, and I cut the rubber band out. I soon discovered that Stella’s “please” was a common refrain. Stella used it to implore others to meet her demands. I liked it. I imagined that Stella was encouraging me to try harder, to be more resourceful, to have more gumption, and to consider that maybe there was a solution I had overlooked. She wasn’t willing to let me give up easily. She sure didn’t.

After dinner, Stella and I retired to the living room, where Stella said, “Now you crawl around on the floor while I sit on your back.” Nice try, Stella. Even though I work out at the gym three days a week and walk two miles every morning, I still have lousy knees. My days of crawling on the floor ended at the turn of the century. If I didn’t know better, I would suspect that my knees were a casualty of Y2K (remember the dire predictions of doom packed into that acronym). But since all the computers didn’t flash the word “Armageddon” and then melt down at midnight on January 1, 2000, I can’t get away with blaming anything on that event. My knees don’t even have a computer chip in them. Armageddon aside, there is no possibility that I would crawl around on the floor either with or without a child on my back. I informed Stella that I can’t crawl. She took my hand sympathetically, gazed deeply into my eyes, and said, “Please. Please try.” For a fleeting moment, I considered giving it a shot. I did. Then I told Stella that I really, really was not going to crawl. My adult children can’t fully comprehend the limitations of my aging body, so there is no chance that a five-year-old would be able to make sense of it. Young people can’t fathom.

I am often astonished by the physical feats youth can accomplish. How quickly I have forgotten the resilience of a young body. A few days ago, I was on my morning walk. The temperature was about forty-five degrees, and it was blustery. I was bundled up with a scarf, gloves, boots, and my winter jacket. I walked past a house just as a little girl emerged. She was about Stella’s age. She wore a bright pink bikini, red rubber boots, and a snorkel mask. I came to a standstill and watched in bone-chilling horror as she proceeded to run gleefully through the lawn sprinklers watering her yard. I nearly froze to death just seeing her hit the first spray of water. Had we sailed on the Titanic together, I have no doubt she would have swam 400 miles to Newfoundland and survived the disaster while I turned into a popsicle at the mere sight of the villainous iceberg that sunk the ship. Sigh. The aging body is so disappointing. It requires so much upkeep for so little return on investment.

But Stella’s “please try” set me thinking about what I will call the capability gap. By this, I mean the disparity between what I think I can’t do and what I really can’t do. I expect I could do more than I imagine if I just tried harder. For instance, half the workout machines that I use at the gym appeared beyond my capacity when I first started working out there. Now I use a lot of machines I never thought I would use, like the Stairmaster. I can’t climb the Empire State Building on it (the number of steps is pictured on the front), but I can do 100 steps. In August I could only do 10 steps. If I live long enough, I’ll make it to the top of the Empire State Building, even if I have to drag the Stairmaster into the elevator to do it.

Stella has inspired me. I can’t read the microscopic print on the vitamin supplement label with my naked eye. OK, please try. We do this. My husband takes a picture of the writing with his phone (because I don’t have a Smart Phone), and then he enlarges the print, and I can read it. Let’s do another one. I can’t pack a suitcase that is under 50 pounds for air travel. OK, please try. I won’t take any spare food, nothing grown in my garden, no kitchen appliances, no rocks, and no more than two books. I can do this. I can put my suitcase on a portion-control diet. Here’s another one. I can’t go to the movies because my hearing has deteriorated so much that I need subtitles to understand what the people are saying on the screen. OK, please try. My husband suggests that I ask the manager if they have any assistive devices and I actually take his advice, even though I cynically doubt there will be anything that works for me (I have tried headsets and they amplify the sound beyond recognition), and to my surprise, it turns out there is now an astonishing gadget called “Sony Subtitle Glasses” (because, duh, they were invented by Sony) that reveals closed captions for the wearer. I’m not making this up. Using holographic technology, this nifty device subtitled the new Star Wars movie for me and I understood the jokes and the dialogue and how people were related and what planet they were on. [Spoiler alert.] I will never understand why Harrison Ford had to get killed off, but that has nothing to do with my hearing. I think he will be back, though, because when people die in sci-fi they aren’t necessarily permanently dead. I had no idea the Sony Subtitle Glasses were a thing until I asked, which I would not have done if my husband had not urged me to do it. Sometimes he earns his keep.

When I moved to this house, I discovered that people in my neighborhood don’t grow peach trees because they are ruined by peach leaf curl (the peach trees I mean, not the neighbors). I really wanted to grow peach trees, so I did some research. I learned of a fungicide, recently introduced to the market, that kills peach leaf curl. It is made from clove oil and rosemary oil and is completely organic and nontoxic. I spray this clove/rosemary oil on my trees every spring and it makes a big dent in the peach leaf curl. It also makes my yard smell like a Hindu temple. Delightful. This is another example of the difference between “I can’t” and “please try.” The leap can’t always be made, of course. I know that. But I think it can be made more often than we imagine. So, because I played with Stella, who reminded me to please try, I’m going to look for more ways to make that leap in the future.

Sony Subtitle Glasses

[If you don’t see a new blog post from me for a few weeks, it’s because I’m taking a vacation. If I can find the time, I might post something, but no promises. I hope you’ll tune in again when I return. Thanks for reading.]