Monday, June 25, 2007

Mistress Mary, quite contrary... does your garden grow?

I know you were all wondering. The garden is actually the contrary one at present, so I gave it some extra attention today, with frequent consultations of my gardening book. It doesn't seem like gardening is something one should learn from a book but one manages as best one can. I'm already thinking about what to try next year.

The daylilies had stopped producing, quite early in the season, so I dug them up and replanted them on the side of the yard. They may not survive it, but they weren't doing any good in the pot and the squash and pepper plants can use some extra room. I stuck a few more green bean seeds in the empty spot, though; they take less space than the lilies.

The lemon basil had gone almost entirely to flower and seed, despite being repeatedly pinched off, so I cut it back almost to a single stem to see if it will regrow. A few of the trimmings will go in tonight's green curry (with eggplant, red pepper, and green beans) and the rest will infuse a sugar syrup for herbal lemonade.

The cucumber and squash plants seem to have an aphid problem. They are crawling with ants, which is supposed to be a warning sign, but I haven't been able to spot more than a few of the pesky little varmints. So far I'm trying kitchen remedies; I don't want to use chemical pesticides and the organic garden center is too far away for a quick dash, so I'm removing them by hand and spraying with homemade insecticidal soap (Dr. Bronner's castile soap and water) and monitoring. Despite the bugs, the cucumber has just started producing a gratifying number of tiny knobbly cukes.

The squash, however, is not well at all. It has white and yellow blotches all over the leaves, and the one tiny hint of an actual squash has turned brown and shrivelled up. I suspect some sort of mildew and have just removed the worst leaves and sprayed with baking soda-water, at the book's suggestion.

I also had to cut off the first pepper, because it had some sort of rot and I didn't want it to spread. Fortunately the second one is growing fine so far. Also the tomatoes look fine; the little green ones are now big green ones, and the vines are taking off.

Any advice is welcome!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"pure, fresh, equitable, and simply outrageous"

My sister Jena is here for the summer, and we have already been discovering girly indulgences. We wandered up and down Connecticut Ave. near Dupont Circle yesterday, going into all the salons in search of the perfect shampoo. We happened upon a great little wine shop having a free tasting of four wines, each paired with a different chocolate truffle. The wines were mostly sweet and not my favorites on their own, but the pairings were excellent and the truffles themselves completely amazing. Krishon Chocolates makes everything by hand with only organic and fair trade ingredients. The "well-tempered chocolatier" even churns his own butter out of organic cream and juices his own fruit extracts. Some of the more exotic flavor choices include pomegranate, hibiscus, lemongrass, and lapsang souchong, along with the always scrumptious strawberry, ginger, and coffee. He also limits the amount of paper and plastic used in packaging. I'm not sure if the gentleman behind the table was the Main Man (although he talked about the production process in the first person) but he was exceedingly nice and I wish I could afford to patronize him regularly!

Brooks just walked up and asked what I am writing about. He writes long posts about Orthodox theology while I write short posts about chocolate. I guess the relationship has balance. I do probably think about theology more than he thinks about chocolate.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

getting out

Large black cop at corner table, getting ready to leave. Holds up Bible and book with pigs in the title. "This is great stuff. This is right where I'm at, you know?"

Small old Indian man with cane and checkered pants: "What is that book?"

Cop: "This here's about the Spirit."

Indian man: "What Spirit?"

Cop: "The HOLY Spirit."

Indian man: "Oh yes! When I was a boy in Madras, a French priest came to our school, and he sang this song 'Come Holy Spirit' in my language. I am so drawn to that! I love this Holy Spirit!"

The cop, the Indian man, and the Ethiopian coffee shop ladies banter about handcuffs for a few minutes before the cop leaves. The ladies go back to work (having been chatting with the Indian man about the friend he visits every day in the nursing home, and his next trip to India, while I eavesdrop shamelessly from behind Syme's Roman Revolution.) The Indian man asks what I am reading. We strike up conversation and he tells me,

"I was never married, but I used to tell people that I have two women in my room. They ask what are their names. I say, MUUUUU-sic -- I love music, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky--and books. I read, I read, oh, I read everything. I lie in bed and write in notebooks. See? [pulls out notebooks] I write down what is inspiring and beautiful, and I read it to my friend Sonya [in the nursing home]. We are friends fifty years! She is Lutheran; I am Catholic; she is a beautiful, beautiful woman. A beautiful soul. She is not interested in sex either so we can be such good friends and talk about everything."

He says he likes to read about the great philosophers, and he always skips to the end to see what they did and said at their death. He tells me about Plato, Pascal, and Voltaire. "I don't say I am not afraid. Everyone is uneasy about the unknown. But what I know is so beautiful! and when I have done what God gave me to do, I am ready!"

I ask what he did before he was retired (he is 83). For the next twenty minutes he tells me how he was a teacher in India and came to Chicago without a green card. After a job transporting mail on the railroad, he managed to get into Loyola for a masters in social work because the head of the department knew the priest he had studied under in India. Then he was alternately a teacher, a social worker, and a missionary of sorts (I couldn't always understand his English). He talks with deep emotion about the priests who had mentored him. "They gave me so much; GOD gave me so much, I must give to others, to share the love of God, the love of Jesus. I don't want to waste any minute of my life! People say in letters, you are a leader, well, you know, a leader is someone who loves other people and lifts them up to do more than you yourself have done. Jesus says this, you know, that his disciples will do the works he has done and more also. This is a leader."

He shows me a poem he is writing about the Holy Spirit, and a campfire song written by his boyhood mentor.

I need only nod and smile understandingly to keep the flow of words coming. I half-watch for closing time so I can leave, but am also moved by his warm-hearted enthusiasm.

The Ethiopian coffee-shop lady tells him about someone in Africa who is 140 years old. "He eats honey every morning! Is so good for you! Keep you strong." She goes across the street to buy him a loaf of bread ("Whole wheat. Is better.") so he can eat honey on it.

I leave to collect my vegetables from the farmers' market before it rains, happily reminded how many interesting people there are in the world, and how worthwhile it is to occasionally venture out of the house to find them.

Monday, June 18, 2007

world's second-best cherry cobbler

cherries from last week's CSA box and apricots from the organic grocery = natural goodness
simple crumb topping = old fashioned comfort
dashes of triple sec and cardamom = subtle flair

(The world's absolute best cherry cobbler involves a deep dark chocolate souffle topping... I'd better make sure I didn't lose the recipe when I left my cooking job! One of the serendipitous perks of that job was that I made the cobbler once for a big dinner party before an evening lecture, and they ran out of time for dessert. The regular inhabitants were on diets so I got to take the whole thing home. Yum.)

I wish I were a better photographer because I love food pictures. I don't like taking pictures during events because it makes me feel too detached from the experience, so I am happy to let the talented Brooks take over that job. But my favorite thing about cooking magazines is the photography. It makes me wish for an alternate career as a food stylist. That's also why I love this blog; I don't know her and don't remember how I found her, but the pictures make such magic of ordinary things. Her house seems to get its light from a different sun than mine does.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Environmental thoughts

Going back to my original reflections about authentic living in multiple spheres, I was going to start with the spiritual aspect but the blog and my attention got hijacked by the environmental aspect, mainly because of the timing of things like Low Impact Week.

I'm not sure how this interest got started for me; in some ways it feels like it sprang suddenly full-formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, but in others it just seems like a natural progression that was being held back by the chaos of the past year. After all, I did grow up in Oregon, and Dr. Mitchell did get us all reading Wendell Berry junior year, and I did write my senior thesis on early conservationist theory and landscape design. (John Muir is an absolute trip and you should all read his letters. One of my favorite quotes from that project was from one of Muir's political opponents who exasperatedly characterized Muir's ideal as "me and God and the rock where God put it.")

So, armed with vague notions about nature, anti-modernism, community, and the human scale, I have found myself initiating some moderate lifestyle changes. I also find myself periodically depressed about their effectiveness against the vastness of the problem. I am too much of a libertarian to want the government to mandate personal changes (although I realize that infrastructures need to be significantly reorganized), but also too much of a pessimist about human nature to think that everyone will naturally do what is best for the rest of the world. (Passing reflection: could we say that people are too good for unbridled capitalism and not good enough for genuine socialism?)

But the whole project for me personally comes down to love and authenticity, and the need to act accordingly remains, regardless of whether human action has any impact on global warming, or whether peak oil is going to arrive in 5 years or 20 or never, or whether genuinely sustainable technologies are going to develop quickly enough to save us.

It is about authenticity, because trying to live in harmony with natural processes goes against the modernist tendency to alienate us from the rest of the natural world. I admit I like being comfortable; I don't like being cold or hot or dirty, and I've never gone camping. But neither do I really think that natural harmony is only about being as uncomfortable as possible. It's about developing a different way of looking at reality, trying to cooperate with it instead of resisting it unthinkingly at every turn and automatically relying on technology to create new realities (as valuable and necessary as this may be at times; I certainly don't mean that we should just let people die of diseases or stop trying to make more efficient use of the resources we have).

It is about love for other people, because I don't want to consume more than my share, in order that other people, anywhere in the world, at present and in the future, might have enough. I can't ensure that they will have it, but I can at least avoid wasting what they might otherwise be able to use.

It is about love for the planet in all its beauty and variety. I realize Christians have tended to dismiss this as "worldly" and unimportant (although the tide is turning). But the more I am drawn into sacramental theology, the more I acknowledge the vast and mysterious significance of physical things. One of these days, I want to pursue my suspicion that Orthodox theology provides a much deeper and more organic relationship of spiritual and material things than does the Western tendency to dichotomize the two, and try to work out its implications for environmental thought.

And for right now, it means making reasonable changes like recycling, gardening, and cutting back on disposable goods. It means trying to develop community. As an introvert, it's easy for me to retreat into loving people from a distance and allowing my lifestyle choices to substitute for meaningful interaction with real people. It means doing what I can, out of love and not out of guilt and peer pressure, to change the way I look at the world and act within it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

the work of her hands

beautifully paperless

early summer preserved

All the Pretty Horses

I finished Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses on Thursday, and we watched the movie on Friday, so I have a few thoughts to add to Brooks' review.

It is a beautifully written book. Any of you who like Hemingway would probably like it; McCarthy shares his fascination with tough men and strong-minded women, battling the elements despite their internal and external wounds. He has a similar economy of language (especially in dialogue) but a bit more fluency of description. The images are never wasted, though. I have a tendency to skip the scenery when I'm reading. Here I couldn't because it was an audio book, and by the middle of the book I realized how integral the scenery was, not just to the setting, but as icons of his central theme: the interrelationship of violence and beauty.

I'm not sure I agree with Brooks about the women being more effective agents than the men. I think they are more aware than the men of the impotence of all human action against the inexplicable violence of the world, because their greater level of social constraint deprives them of the illusion that they have any control over their lives. The Duene Alfonsa articulates most fully the second theme of the novel: individual responsibility for the things that happen to you even when you have no control.

The importance of place, the struggle of the old world against the new, the coming-of-age, the combination of tough-acting expediency with integrity and a sensitive conscience that might just allow survival--all these things come into play in a narrative that is never forced or heavy-handed. I was afraid all the way through that McCarthy was going to throw some Kafka-esque twist into it and pull the rug out from under all the carefully balanced struggles of violence and beauty, choice and vulnerability. In the end, in this novel at least, he is still a Romantic in the stoic Hemingway tradition and the tenuous balance holds.

The movie made a valiant effort, and was beautifully filmed, but didn't capture the central problems of the book. I read a few reviews: Ebert liked it and realized that it wasn't plot-driven but was meant to convey the feeling of being an adolescent cowboy born too late. Others accused it of being too slow and having no plot or character development. I was at a disadvantage for assessing it because I had read the book so recently that I was essentially re-reading the book with the scenes in the movie as shorthand, but I felt that it was rushing from one episode to the next. It followed the book's structure and dialogue, but it was too heavily weighted on the beauty side of the scale. The violent events happened but without really challenging the attitude of the youthful adventurers. The problem of control and responsibility never emerged at all. I'm not sure how much sense it would really have made if I hadn't read the book, but maybe someone should volunteer to watch it first and then read, and tell me what you make of it. Any takers? Local friends can borrow the audio book; the reader is quite good.

In any case, the book is definitely on the short list for my 2007 Book of the Year. Funny how I'm getting through fiction much faster than the other things on the sidebar list.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Vegetable Obsession

Emily accused me of being obsessed with my plants. Actually I am obsessed with all produce.

I have been waiting for weeks for the Tuesday farmers' market to start in my neighborhood (I never manage to make it to the Sunday market that started a few weeks ago). The day before yesterday was the big day! There were only two vendors, but one not only had a beautiful selection of organic produce--eight kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, swiss chard, green onions, broccoli, asparagus, strawberries (I passed on the strawberries, since I probably have enough for now!)--but he also turned out to have one CSA share left. (Community Supported Agriculture is an arrangement by which you pay a local farmer a lump sum at the beginning of the season and he brings you a box every week of whatever is growing.) I tried to find one about a month ago when I first found out about this system, but all the farms I found online already had sold out all their shares. So I signed up and I get my first box next Tuesday! He said it would be a lot for two people to eat, so I'm hoping Jena and Adam will want to share it with us when they get here for the summer, if it does turn out to be too much.

Local Harvest is a good start if you want to find... well.. your local harvests.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Low Impact Update

Confession time.. and then I'll talk about something else. I promise.

1. Electricity and gas: Not bad. The rain and the temperature drop enabled me to convince someone that we could open the windows at night instead of running the A/C. Temperature is one of our biggest disagreements regardless of season and energy-saving efforts. Lucky for me this experiment is happening in summer instead of winter.

2. Water: Better because I'm not just letting it run, although again I have no good way to measure. I've saved at least a few gallons by watering my plants with the shower water.

3. Food and packaging: The Tuesday farmer's market is finally starting (today!) so I should be able to get nice local produce for the rest of the week. Again, we didn't start the vegan thing until yesterday, but I found some nice new recipes. Packaging is my biggest problem...I didn't order the reusable bags soon enough so they aren't here yet and I've had to shop without them. I am going to take some of my plastic to the market this afternoon, though.

4. Paper products: Good. I only had four cloth napkins so I made a set of 6 (with matching placemats in progress). Also I've been using rags quite successfully in the kitchen and bathroom.

5. Garbage: I am recycling now, and taking stuff to Goodwill as I declutter the closets, but the packaging problem still makes the trash fuller than I'd like.

6. Driving: Well... it's one of those trade-offs. We drove an extra 90 miles round-trip, but had four people in the car and came back with almost 50 pounds of strawberries and 4 bags of spinach from the u-pick farm. Now I have to drive out again to get canning jars and stuff for jam.

So in general, I don't feel that the week itself has been dramatically successful, but it did give me the incentive to actually start some things I'd only been thinking about, that will last longer than just this week. And isn't that really the point?