Monday, December 28, 2009

Why I Garden

My local garden/blog heroine, Mary Ann Newcomer, organized an essay contest this year: "Why I Garden," with essays due — most appropriately — by midnight on Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice. Here's the essay I submitted. The story you're about to read, is true.


I garden because I'm a grazer from way back.

I grew up in an old South Boise neighborhood with trees medieval in scale, where chilly irrigation ditches ran through the dark shade, popping with water skippers.

When you grow up in a place like this, you know what it's like to wake up on a summer
morning, tie your Keds, and set out to look for breakfast. You don't go to the kitchen. You go to your mother's garden for raspberries fresh off the cane; plums plucked from low-hanging branches; and green apples. They're sweet, a little wormy, and one of your friends swears they taste like pancakes around their bruises.

Eat like this during your formative years, and you will never agree to a life without plants.

I tried to be plantless for a while, during a decade-long interlude as an imposter New Yorker. I dug up a tiny sagebrush once when I was home on a visit. Took it back to Manhattan in a paper cup, intending to grow it on the windowsill of my Avenue A apartment. You already know how that turned out.

Plant ended up as dry grey shavings in a muslin bag. At least it smelled like home. And some people call the smell of sage as narcotic as heroin for a westerner like me.

Pretty soon, when I realized my favorite place in the City was actually kind of rural — a community garden on Houston Street that grew tropic, with hibiscus, and turtle pools, and true blue morning glories on the chainlink — I packed up my things, and moved back home.

Some ten years later, I have a tiny garden of my own. It's all possibility there. I want to plant an alphabet garden, labeled and fastidious, with one plant for each letter. Acanthus is a perfect "a." Acanthus grows big and showy. Probably why Romans decided to stick it on the tops of Corinthian columns. But go with acanthus' common name, and you get the letter "b."

To his friends, old, grand, columnar acanthus is "bear breeches."
Bear breeches. Bear pants. I don't think there's much funnier in the botanical world than bear pants on a column.

So I garden for the humor, not just the bear pants, but the sinister "Bela Lugosi" daylily, and the blossoms of the dicentra that look like a bathing beauty in a tub when you pull them apart.

I also garden for the home sentiment of place.

To plant the letter "Q," which is truly a challenge, I would go with quince.
A quince tree grows on the edge of my old back yard, where my parents still live, and my mom still gardens. The quince tree is not beautiful. Its fruit, in the pesticide-free yard — the reason our dogs always live so long, say the vets, and the reason I could graze in a freewheeling way — is measly and pocked.
The smell of the fruit is sweet and clean, though, a smell you might choose if someone told you to designate a representative aroma for the year 1932. The color for that year, by the way, would be fly-paper yellow.

When my grandmother was alive, she made jelly out of the quinces from this tree. The jelly was clear, pale pink. The tree is not beautiful, but its jelly was.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Special Olympics World Winter Games: A-go-go

Covering the Special Olympics World Winter Games for the Statesman was a whirlwind — wrangling press passes, weathering high decibel youth rallies, dodging the assignment that loomed, to interview Olympic skater Scott Hamilton about his eight rules for good living (rule number two: heed the "Almighty Coach!")
But it was heartening, too.
I wrote a couple times about the McCollum family from Illinois. I met them on the first day of competition, and again on the last, after Susan McCollum, their daughter/niece/sister had won the bronze medal for figure skating. The McCollums all wore sweatshirts with iron-on images of Susan in her skating costume.
Seven relatives made it out to Idaho to don the sweatshirt, and watch her compete. Her dad had shot about 17,000 hours of video at the rink and was looking forward to inflicting it on his relatives and friends back home. "They better like movies," he told me.
You have to love that kind of family affection, Special Olympics or not.
It reminded me of something from my own family that still kind of chokes me up.
My brother used to be a serious cyclist. My parents drove all over hell-and-gone, a.k.a. every cardio-crunching elevation in Idaho to watch his races. This generally meant standing on a roadside in the sun, or sometimes the wind, for hours, only to catch a glimpse of the pack as it passed and disappeared around a bend. Not a spectator-friendly sport, is what I'm saying.
But they'd go anyway. One of them would even run out into the road to slip my brother a bottle of water, or a banana to put in that zippered compartment in the back of his jersey as he sped by, usually in a foul mood.
With giant events like the World Games, I worry that they will also come and be gone. I don't know if the games changed anyone's perception of other people.
I don't know if organized events ever create change.
The visit of the Dalai Lama to Sun Valley back in 2005 had the same effect on me. A discomfort with the mass movement for "goodness."
Everybody wore matching scarves then, too, as you'll recall. White ones, blessed by his holiness himself rather than a fleet of world-wide knitters.
I still have an image seared in my memory, all those rows of people, including me, mind you, in sunglasses and scarves, and those rubber Lama bracelets made, unfortunately, in China, taking in that easily digested message of compassion — or what I like to call, "Lama lite."
I'm suspicious of giant happenings, especially those with professionally designed logos, that continually insist that they're life-changing, and give too many knob heads the chance to congratulate themselves on their great humanitarianism.
I just don't know.
I do know that I liked what Evelyn Grime, mother of Kaitlyn, a six-year-old who has Down syndrome, said when I met her at Young Athletes, a Special Olympics program that gets little kids interested in sports.
Grime said she appreciated that the games were raising the curtain on families like hers that live, and thrive, with children with developmental disabilities.
"It's nice to have this attention," Grime said, "We've been here all along."

Saturday, January 31, 2009

More proof of Italian high style...

In Italy, you're likely to:
1. Sleep on sheets printed with giant slices of cantaloupe...

2. Find chocolate easter eggs as big as watermelons, wearing hats, yours for 230 euros. 

3. Turn on the television and see women dressed as mice.

4. Find that nose hair clippers are a more desirable, and fashionable item than you knew.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Pizza, love and fantasy

Italians demonstrate panache and undeniable style by...

Printing portraits of David Niven and Sophia Loren on their take-out boxes and filling them with pizza, love and fantasy.

(Bologna, Italy, 2005)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New York City, 1988: Pilgrim girl vs. cockroaches

I moved to New York City a month after my college graduation. Late 1980s, I was 23. I finished my last college class in December and was in New York City by the next February. I remember nothing about the preparation for this adventure besides shopping for a new set of cooking pans at the Bon with my mom and putting $1,000 of savings into travelers' checks to bring with me.
I also forced myself to look at the Sunday New York Times at the Boise Public Library. I read the job and apartment listings because it seemed like I should. But classified ads about a place I didn't know, and jobs I couldn't imagine, were far too abstract.
I always thought my brother, Peter, was right when he said that for my generation, living in New York City for a time was a cultural imperative. He didn't go. He went to East Germany for a time instead, which says something about him and his freedom from cultural imperatives.
My college roommate Katharine, and a friend of hers from high school, found the apartment we lived in. A building on E. 22nd Street. This street was as abstract to me as the classifieds, mere shapes and lines in my Michelin guide. But my new address was near Gramercy Park. This was a place I loved, at least from the outside, since I'd never been inside New York's lone private park. I had admired it, urchin-like through the iron gates, though, during many past trips to the city.
Our apartment had a low-ceilinged, chilly basement room that I shared with Katharine. White walls, short, grey, industrial carpet, a scent of new drywall and aftershave that hinted a man had lived there last, and florescent light that I tried to never turn on.
If there's anything worse than the sight of one's face and body under florescent overhead light, I have never known it. 
This basement room would provide me with an indelible image that still rankles me 20 years later: florescents turned on in panic after a distinct sensation: insect feet on bare arm. Then spotting a brown, leaf-shaped water bug, lunking its way across the grey carpet.
I spent a month looking before I found my first job, development assistant at the Guggenheim Museum. Before that, I had a few bad, directionless interviews for editorial assistant positions — the kind of interviews where they say, "Do you have any questions for us?" and you say, "Uh, not really," because you really don't.
My job goal at that time was to find something entry-level, but dignified, not embarrassing to tell people about, and not entirely at odds with my interests, which were then, what they are now, art and writing. 
The museum job was dignified, even if it paid $15,000 a year. It saved me from that certain sense of "outlaw" — walking around in the middle of the day when everyone else has somewhere to be, counting up quarters to see if I really should spring for that cappuccino. And back then, before grunge music and Seattle-mania made it popular, coffee was cheap. Cappuccino was just an ethnic take on a cheap drink.  
I was so relieved to get the Guggenheim job that I can still remember the sensation, riding the subway back downtown in the chilly mid-morning after my last interview, knowing I would have a place to be.
For the final interview, I'd worn an outfit I considered very stylish, but which, in retrospect, resembled a pilgrim costume. It was a flowy, tentish black Laura Ashley dress with a big white collar and a longish necktie attachment. I wore black hose, low black heels, a jacket with padded shoulders and grey plastic buttons meant to look like granite. I wore my hair in a long braid and the candelabra earrings I favored at the time.
When my boss-to-be, a Park Avenue matron with a girlish nickname, gave me the job, she also gave me two big, soft-cover catalogues of paintings in the Guggenheim's permanent collection.
Whether meant as a prize, initiation or study guide, I couldn't believe my good fortune, getting such books for free. I carried them home on my lap. They've been in my bookshelf in every apartment and house I've lived in since.
I wish I could say I was thrilled at the idea of being among great art, and that I had a plan worked up in my head that would transform me from assistant, to curator. I did love the building. I loved walking in the employee entrance every morning. I loved the nondescript door that led from our offices right onto the spiraling ramp of paintings. I loved walking through the collection, alone on Mondays when the museum was closed.
But the truth is, my happiness about getting that job was grounded in relief, not in ambition.
I've felt versions of that particular sense of joyful, weightless relief throughout my life.
As a little kid it came from studying for tests and getting all the answers right, seeing that glorious red "A," sometimes accompanied by a "+," at the top of the page.
My private celebration back then was to sing Simon and Garfunkle's "The 59th Street Bridge Song," quietly to myself on my walk home. The line, "I've got no deeds to do, no promises to keep," was code for: I got an A on the test and now I don't have to worry.
As an adult, the sensation of joyful, weightless relief has mostly come from getting a job I wanted.
There's that magical period of time, before the new job actually starts, but you know it's there, secured. It feels like a suddenly clear conscience.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Little spud in the big city

Last spring, a new eatery just north of Union Square, New York City, was showing off a cutting edge menu: baked spuds with an array of delicious items to put on top. 
The proprietors were also showing off cutting edge window design in the form of authentic "gunnies." The very burlap containers that the dads of you, me, and every other true Idahoan worth their tubers have hanging in the garage, filled with various western items. 
In our case, that's the pump for my dad's fishing boat. 
We also have gunnies in the back of the family car. For what, I don't know. To carry firewood? Dispose of road kill? Keep the apples you've just gotten at a u-pick-'em orchard from rolling around in the back seat? To throw down in case you have to sit on something dirty? 
My dad says you can't go anywhere without a gunny.
But it's still weird to see a bunch of them on 18th Street.