Monthly Archives: March 2012

We Are Trayvon Martin

Many of us will never know what it would be like to be watched walking into a store, watched as we walk around the store, or watched as we walk away from the store. It can’t be easy being young, male, and black.

Seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was unarmed. Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman was carrying a gun, and that is what shot Trayvon.

Since then on any walk in my neighborhood, I have thought that if I were black, the key chain or cell phone in my hand might easily be misconstrued for a handgun. Especially on a rainy night. And especially if that is what you are looking for, or what you expect of me. We’re talking racial profiling.

Impressive, the solidarity for Trayvon Martin we are seeing, not only at the televised marches across the country, but on local school yards, at bus stops, and downtown in the hours after school. All the young, black and white, are donning the hoods on their sweatshirts. Now, hooded sweatshirts are as ubiquitous and American as blue jeans and baseball caps, and I had no idea until this incident, that many black parents have pleaded with their sons for some time to please, not pull up the hood. But of course they do, just as parochial school girls like to roll up their plaid skirts at the waist. It can’t be easy being a black parent.

How can we help? We can teach our children not to hate. And as a country, it’s the gun laws we need to go after. For anyone in the sight of a gun isn’t any more capable of dodging the bullet than a deer walking in the woods. Which is just how it was on that february night in Sanford, Florida between the hunter and the hunted.

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Filed under gun laws, racial profiling

The Politics of Place

The city of Seattle is teaming with Eastern Gray Squirrels. My understanding is that the Woodland Park Zoo first imported these pesky little creatures in order to have something wild running amongst the visitors, so not everything would be encaged. In their effort to create a bucolic atmosphere for the zoo, they gave it to the city as well. The Eastern Gray Squirrel simply thrives here.

My neighbor over the fence is a bright, attractive woman. She lives in an art-filled house and approaches  her perennial gardens like a painting. When we first moved to Queen Anne, I called her Beatrix Potter for her habit of feeding the squirrels. Dizzy with all their comings and goings, I admit to having called a trapper in the early days. But that was a futile idea as long as the feeders were up and the word of a good buffet at her place had long been out. So we all live with a “mess” of squirrels (that’s what it’s called), and the high wooden fences between our city lots are their thoroughfare. Congeniality is learned by living in real neighborhoods.

Like most of my neighbors my politics are liberal, Democratic, and I like to think, progressive. But I have noticed this: it is often the Republicans who have the best-kept homes and grounds, and Beatrix Potter is one of them. And I admire that. I am into architecture, design, and gardens, and this has always been kind of a conundrum for me: a Democrat at heart, and a Republican as far as appearances go. While most of the Republicans seem to have weekly landscaping contractors who descend and maintain perfect lawns, perfectly trimmed hedges, keep window boxes filled, in short, everything ready for a magazine shoot, Beatrix, on the other hand, by doing her own gardening, actually falls in more with the general scheme of things in Seattle—where it’s so “blue,” it’s turquoise, and so “green,” it’s emerald. (The irony to me now is that she is the one with a heart of gold for the squirrels, and I was the one calling the trapper).

It has been said, “A Democrat falls in love; a Republican falls in step.” While the first part remains true for me regarding the upcoming presidential election, the second part, is not, not this time around. But might this be just what we have needed as a country, for the Republicans to lose their lock step? Perhaps they have always been too sure of themselves, and Democrats, too questioning? When it comes time I will have my Obama/Biden sign out there with the best of them in their lawns and gardens—that is, if they ever make up their minds on a candidate.

Recently Beatrix invited me to come and meet Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, Republican candidate for Governor.  Feeling a bit like an undercover agent, I went like a good neighbor. And guess what? I like the guy. Certainaly there are other issues such as education and he covered them well, but I was particularly interested to see if he was friendly toward same-sex marriages—something our current Governor Chris Gregoire recently signed into legislation. I wanted to know that Washington would not back down on this. And McKenna said he would indeed support it, “if that is what the people want.” An amiable guy, as I said.

O.K., now I have a confession to make: Remember the pristine Republican lawns and grounds I can’t-help-but admire in my neighborhood? During the presidential election of ’08, I know that by lingering there I may have inadvertently encouraged my little dog to pee wherever there were McCain/Palin signs. I feel bad about that, and won’t do that again. Unless it’s Newt, or Santorum, or….

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Filed under election, neighborhood, squirrel population, Uncategorized

Color Shock

 “I shut my eyes in order to see.” Paul Gauguin

I am forgetting what my terrace looks like. It has been raining a long soft winter’s cry, and the ground can absorb no more. The sky is either dark, or white, with no definition and no depth. It looks like a sheet, a backdrop, a blank canvas. We long for traces of blue again, spring green in the trees, and the full on orchestration of bulbs. A time when the artist’s paint box is open, the artist’s brushes are busy all day, and the world will pop up and come back like a diorama. Until then, I have to regard my naps as prayer.

How did this happen? A few weeks ago we had a burst of bright warm weather. I started the spring clean-up at our place. Now our lot looks at once like a “Before and After.” No sooner did I hang the hummingbird feeder then the temperature took a dive. Fortunately no hummingbirds in sight. They are smart enough to stay down in Napa Valley or Santa Barbara or wherever they winter. Funny how we northerners think of this as their base, and the southern venture as something they go and do because they have to. No doubt the folks down south see it the other way around.

I wandered into the Gauguin exhibit at The Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Did I say wander? No, I was called! Color shock therapy awaited, just as it had for Gauguin when he began painting in Copenhagen, producing canvases like some form of self-medication. Scandinavian and Pacific Northwest climates being similar in this respect. Gauguin was not happy in Denmark. A stock market crash pulled the rug out from under his bourgeois lifestyle, his marriage dissolved, and he left it all for the love of making art. In Tahiti. There Gauguin was essentially following his own visions. Not even Tahiti was as colorful as Gauguin made it out to be. He believed in it, “Pure Colour! Everything must be sacrificed to it.” And so everything was.

Instructing the young Paul Serusier in art, Gauguin suggested painting the colors he saw before him, but using only brilliance. “How do you see that tree? It’s green? Well then make it green, the best green on your palatte. How do you see those trees? They are yellow. Well then, put down yellow. And that shade is rather blue. So render it with pure ultramarine. Those red leaves? Use vermillion.” And in this way the art world took one giant step from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism: driven in part by the hunger for more vivid color.

I keep coming back to the hummingbirds, the ones who aren’t here. Hummingbirds may go as far south as Mexico and Central America and as far north as Alaska, always taking the same path. To fly so far and so fast, they need to gain 25-40% of their body weight before migration. Then they fly low, skimming over tree tops and skimming over water, keeping an eye out for insects and flowers… And like Gauguin they go solo, going for color.

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Filed under art, color therapy, colorlessness, hummingbird, rain, Uncategorized

A Recipe for Disaster

This I have noticed since I began blogging: the question of what to write about each week always seems to answer itself. Whatever other thoughts I may have had vanished at Thursday night’s Literary/Arts Series lecture in Benaroya Hall, Seattle. Our guest speaker was the very young, bright, attractive and accomplished Amanda Hesser, author of The Cook and the Gardener, Cooking for Mr. Latte, and Eat, Memory. Former New York Times food reporter, New York Times Magazine food editor, and compiler of The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, Amanda has done more than most of us even dare to dream. And now she’s gone on to co-found the site food52.com with Merill Stubbs, to “give people from all over the world a way to exchange their ideas,… to celebrate each other’s talents… and to create a buzzing place for others who do what we do all day long: talk about food.” And what is so likeable about Amanda Hesser is that I honestly don’t think she has any idea how extraordinary all that is.

One question from the audience, however, daunted her a little while it opened an enormous wormhole for me. The question was, “Tell us, please, of one of your greatest culinary disasters.” Amanda hesitated. “Oh there have been so many…” she mused, but personally I suspect she was searching the extensive culinary files of her brain to find one. This is where I had her beat. Both my husband and I, seated next to each other, went spinning through space/time, and visions of silver swans floated around our heads…

Let me explain. The time was twenty-five years ago. The place was an adobe brick house in the foothills of Tucson, Arizona. The setting, nearly a wildlife sanctuary with cactus-studded hills and winding roads, tarantula, scorpion, roadrunners scurrying by like commuters, and occasional sightings of bobcat and javelina (wild pigs). As young mothers out walking and pushing strollers we thought nothing of sharing the road with coyote who sauntered up daily from the gulch, like so many stray dogs.

It was a bit wild on the inside too. I had an infant and a two-year old, and a husband who had moved us all to Tucson for his job, only to wind up spending most of his weekends in Phoenix starting up an investment banking company that would later move us to San Diego. But I am getting ahead of myself. The fact was that he would be driving down with a couple of investors that evening to dinner at our home in Tucson, and first thing on that Saturday morning, my babysitter broke her arm in ballet. It would be just me and the babies, putting on this important meal. I had never met the guests before but was informed that one was a member of the Japanese royal family, a former Olympic marksman and a major sumo wrestling fan, and the other, a fullback on the Atlanta Falcons and in sumo wrestling training in Japan during the off season. That was how the two of them had met.

I did what I always did then when the occasion called for it, and reached for The Silver Palate Cookbook, the very first one. It was my Bible in the kitchen back then. And aside from the fact that it looked rather quick and easy, what captured my imagination about the recipe I chose was the fact that the lamb chops get wrapped in aluminum foil. I pictured making origami birds. Perfect, I thought. And being a perfectionist, I went for it. For this dish 1 1/2 inch thick boned loin lamb chops were arranged individually with assorted vegetables and fruit (kiwi balls, seedless grapes, asparagus spears, cucumber balls), sprinkled all over with mint and parsley and then sealed in foil. I cut the foil in large rectangles and shaped each one into a swan-like bird. This dish would take care of any accompaniments, and in my mind’s eye, we would be dining at The Ritz. That left me free to focus on the table setting, getting dressed, and picking everything up off the floor. (I was working in spurts, between feedings and changes and naps). Oh, and the recipe went on to specify 20 minutes in a 350˚ oven. I preheated the oven and knew not to even bother putting it in until they had all arrived and were settled with a cocktail.

The moment arrived. All the men were seated at the table, the babies, miraculously, were asleep, and my husband and I brought each plate out, setting a silver foiled swan before each guest. There were the usual umms and ahhs, but in this case I thought they really meant it. It looked to me like the ancient Japanese legend of a thousand origami cranes… Then one by one we opened them, and the lamb was raw.

Oh my. With many apologies I picked up the plates and reconstructed the birds back in the kitchen, putting them back in the oven for 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, and still they were not cooked. (All I was asking of them was medium rare). Even another entire 20 minutes didn’t do it. Everyone got drunk waiting for the entre. The baby began to wake… I was devastated. I thought it was me. I thought it was my oven.

I don’t remember how that evening ended. At some point, the lamb must have cooked. The swans, I’m sure, lost their luster and shape with so many wrappings and rewrappings. I kept low for a few days, and then began to discuss the recipe with others. Culinary-wise others. Most everyone said readily, “Why a lamb chop that thick wrapped in foil would never cook in 20 minutes in a 350˚ oven!” Well, we’ve all heard of recipes being published that may never have been tested, and I guessed I had opened to one just when it counted.

So I sat down and wrote the ladies at Silver Palate a letter, describing the dinner party and its importance, and how their recipe had failed me. It felt good getting it off. All the arts need feedback. Then I sat back and waited. Waited for what I was sure would appear one day: a big beautiful basket at my door loaded with Silver Palate delicacies and an elegant apology. Every time I walked up or drove in the gravel driveway, I looked for it. And it was never there. It never came….

Eventually we moved to San Diego, as I said. Apparently my dinner party did not do too much damage. The investment banking company got started. Later I learned that the partnership at The Silver Palate had disbanded, so all I could imagine is that they must have been having their troubles at the time and never got around to addressing the letter from the nice lady in Tucson, Arizona, as they should have.

What I want to say is I don’t care if you are publishing a recipe in a book, posting it on a web site, demonstrating it on TV, or copying it down by hand on a 3 x 5 card for a friend. Just try to get it right. You never know what’s riding on it.

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A Dirty Word No More

Two images have struck me of late. One, a sign at the entrance to a children’s playgarden at The Northwest Flower and Garden Show which read “Go Play Outside.” I can’t remember whether it was punctuated with an exclamation point, but it very well may have been. That age-old admonition to go outside and play being almost extraordinary in our day.

The second image was a recurring scene in the film “The Cure” which I recently viewed in which two neighboring boys in the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota play imaginatively in a garden. Despite the fact that their play was bent on violence utilizing action figures and staging mock attacks and wars, I found it remarkably reassuring and I knew just why. Hey, it wasn’t a computer game.

One boy in “The Cure” was infected with the AIDS virus. The mother of the other boy forbid her son to associate with him. But by being engaged in the natural world the boys forged a remarkable relationship. They worked with what they had: dirt, rocks, water and plants. Digging, sculpting, imagining and creating they found that they could forget all their troubles. There isn’t a gardener on earth who hasn’t had that experience.

“I started to understand something about plants by handling them,” noted landscape designer Russell Banks in his memoir, The Education of a Gardener. “It was on one summer holiday when I was perhaps fourteen that, bored with the riding and jumping competitions at a local agricultural show, I wandered off to the flower-tent…  (Thereafter) all my pocket money went on rock plants. All my holidays were given to my own personal corner of the garden. I would bicycle for miles to get a basket of leaf-soil, I would steal grit, sand or gravel from roadside heaps and I would borrow a horse and cart to collect stones which were hard to come by in our stoneless countryside… I was seventeen when I was given a grass slope, a few cartloads of the local ironstone, a few bags of cement, some plants and a piped water supply with which to make a small rock and stream garden. For three months I really lived in and with this miniature world as I struggled with my pocket landscape. Each stone represented the possibilities of a cliff or a mountain top, my dribble of water could be a lake or river or cascade and three pigmy junipers were a forest. A few moist and shady inches on the north side of a stone were a Himalayan bog… a handful of grit on the sunny side of the same stone stood for a hot stony hillside… a six inch fall of water was a Niagara and my friends who came to visit me at work I saw only as giant feet and legs, so immersed was I with my Lilliputian problems.”

It is interesting to note that the boys in “The Cure” were approximately the age of Russell Banks when he began shaping his surroundings. The important point here is that for all of them the contact was physical, the experience was real, and they all saw themselves as part of the natural world.  It is in going outside to play that we first bond with our environment, and this is essential. Children who are taught first that the rainforests are endangered, global warming is upon us, and the environment disastrous before they have had a chance to engage with it and enjoy it can hardly be expected to become the earth’s stewards. My guess is these children will stay firmly wired to the television and computer. We are far more inclined to love and protect what we know to be ours.

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Filed under environment, gardening, playing outside