Saturday, May 20, 2017

It's getting there. I think.

I had promised an update on my experimental clover yard. This is the side yard. It is shaded by enormous hemlocks and smaller dogwoods, and is shadier. It's patchy still, but the clover is spreading.
And this is the main part of the front yard. There are parts where the clover is thick and other areas that are essentially barren. With highs approaching the 90's lately, it's really too hot to plant more clover.  I'm going to just watch though the summer and then see what needs re-seeding when the weather cools in the fall.
The only weeds I've had trouble with in the front yard are these little grass-like things. They just pop up everywhere and a couple of times a week I pull out the new ones. I don't believe they are actually grass - they grow from a single root and generally pull out of the ground cleanly. They also pop up in my mulched beds.
Eventually I hope the whole lawn will be covered thickly like this patch. Then my front yard will be a bee and bunny heaven.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mother's Day weekend.

I keep thinking I'll have more time to blog, but life keeps happening and I stay busy. Mostly happily so. I've been baking sourdough bread fairly often and made this loaf of Simon & Garfunkel bread last week when my son and his girlfriend came over for dinner. I made it up - it's a spiraled butter and herb loaf with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. I asked the kids and was surprised to hear they both knew the song Scarborough Fair. We just had the bread and a big pot of stout and chicken stew.
Sometimes the busy is just hanging out in the hammock with my younger stepdaughter. She has recently become a voracious reader and we go to the library most weekends to stock up. She and I celebrated mother's day a day early, when she made me a card and brought chocolates. We have a tight bond and I think of her as my daughter now.
I'd heard cheeps coming from one of the bird houses so she and I opened it to check. Baby black-capped chickadees! I took a quick photo and shut the box back up because one of the parents was watching from a nearby branch, waiting to bring food to the chicks.
My older son made a rare visit home and spent both weekend nights at my house. I can't tell you how happy this made me. Mother's Day morning, he, my younger son and my younger son's girlfriend (these two are joined at the hip, so I'm thankful that I really like her!) joined us for brunch. I'm trying to be mindful of their privacy, so this is a before photo. We had spinach quiches, a hearty chicken salad, roasted potatoes and berries with coeur a la crème. We talked and laughed for quite a while and I hated to see them go.
The next day, I was carrying out some recycling and was started by a squawk and flutter of wings in the giant rhododendron by the driveway. The little stubby-tailed blue jay fledgling hopped further into the interior of the shrub and watched me anxiously. I, of course, ran for my camera. But I didn't linger because I was being chided by an adult perched in the hemlock tree above us. I gave it some space until the little bird was coaxed by its parent back to the safety of the nest. I could relate - as a prent, I just want the safety and happiness of my kids.
A belated happy Mother's Day to all the moms (in whatever form that takes) out there.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Maybe not exactly "magic."

Once I moved past my pack-rat childhood years, I found that clutter makes me edgy. And I started gravitating toward a more stream-lined life. And yet, it just seems to keep accumulating. If I lived completely alone, it wouldn't be as difficult to keep clutter from building up, but I knew I had to have my husband on board if it was going to work. As I often do, I did some reading first to psych myself up. I have read many books and articles on de-cluttering and I can easily say this is the oddest one I've ever read. By far, in fact. First, it is hard to get past the author's obsessive attachment to "tidying." She traces the arc of her personal history with the subject, beginning as a very young child:

"My interest in housework and tidying began when I was about five, and I believe that I was trying in my own way not to make trouble for my parents, who were clearly busy taking care of my other two siblings. I also became conscious from a very young age of the need to avoid being dependent on other people. And, of course, I wanted my parents to praise and notice me. From the time I was a first grader, I used an alarm clock to wake up before everyone else. I did not like being dependent on others, found it hard to trust them, and was very inept at expressing my feelings. From the fact that I spent my recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child. I really enjoyed wandering around the school by myself, and I still prefer to do things alone, including traveling and shopping. This is very natural for me. Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things."

Well. I'm no psychologist, but... wait a minute. I am a psychologist. But you don't have to be one to see that this does not describe psychologically healthy development. And then there is this passage which I feel compelled to post in its entirety:

"This is the routine I follow every day when I return from work. First, I unlock the door and announce to my house, “I’m home!” Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the entranceway, I say, “Thank you very much for your hard work,” and put them away in the shoe cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the entranceway. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gently on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hanger, say, “Good job!” and hang them temporarily from the closet doorknob. I put my tights in a laundry basket that fits into the bottom right corner of my closet, open a drawer, select the clothes I feel like wearing inside, and get dressed. I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves. My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag on the rug and put each item away in its place. First I remove all the receipts. Then I put my wallet in its designated box in a drawer under my bed with a word of gratitude. I place my train pass and my business card holder beside it. I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case in the same drawer and place my necklace and earrings on the accessory tray beside it. Before closing the drawer, I say, “Thanks for all you did for me today.” Next, I return to the entrance and put away the books and notebooks I carried around all day (I have converted a shelf of my shoe cupboard into a bookshelf). From the shelf below it I take out my “receipt pouch” and put my receipts in it. Then I put my digital camera that I use for work in the space beside it, which is reserved for electrical things. Papers that I’ve finished with go in the recycle bin beneath the kitchen range. In the kitchen, I make a pot of tea while checking the mail, disposing of the letters I’ve finished with. I return to my bedroom, put my empty handbag in a bag, and put it on the top shelf of the closet, saying, “You did well. Have a good rest.” From the time I get in the door to the moment I close the closet, a total of only five minutes has passed. Now I can go back to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of tea, and relax."

I have to tell you that is one of the saddest things I've ever read.
And yet, I myself like things to be organized and I found myself motivated in spite of the bizarre advice in the book. I don't worry, as Kondo does, about labels on things that are out of view. "Strangely," she writes, "just closing the cupboard doors does not conceal the flood of information. The words become static that fills the air." She advises you to remove labels whenever possible. Yeah. That's not going to happen. And I did not do my discarding and organizing wearing a dress and blazer to indicate my respect for the process. Nor  did I begin by offering a greeting to my house. "If you do this repeatedly, you will start to feel your house respond when you come home. You will sense its pleasure passing through like a gentle breeze. Then you will gradually be able to feel where it would like you to tidy and where it would like you to put things. Carry on a dialogue with your home while tidying. I know this sounds totally impractical and fantastic, but if you ignore this step, you will find that the job goes less smoothly."

But what I did do, which seemed to go smoothly enough although in spite of my lack of conversation with the house and the fact that I was in pajama pants, was go through the bathroom cabinet and weed out everything that we weren't using or was past its expiration date, and set up a system where back-up products were up higher and stuff used more regularly organized and accessible.
That leaves the open shelf clear and uncluttered. Kondo advocates storing things in shoeboxes and boxes from Apple products (she must a big consumer of iPhones and Macbooks). I don't think keeping cardboard boxes around is a good idea since the glue in them attracts roaches. Maybe that's not an issue in Japan but in our house, cardboard goes into gardening projects or recycling. For storage containers that show, I like prettier things anyway. Our vitamins/meds boxes go into the woven lidded basket we bought in Gaiole, Italy, washcloths in another basket, cotton and swabs in ceramic and wooden cups. It's just more aesthetically pleasing to me, but that's my quirk.

Also on the list of things that didn't happen: "One of my clients cleared out a closet and shed that she had neglected for ten years. Immediately after, she had a strong bout of diarrhea after which she felt much lighter."  What. The. Hell.
What I do agree with is discarding things first and then organizing/storing things. And I also already knew that it helps to drag everything in one category out of the closets and drawers and into one spot. But she suggested a slight re-frame that made sense to me - to decide what you want to keep rather than what you want to get rid of. So from the pile on the bed I picked up one piece of clothing at a time and either put it in a stack to return to my room or tossed it into the discard pile. Possibly the most helpful bit of advice is to ask whether each thing "sparks joy." That's a bit of an overstatement, but in all seriousness, why keep things you don't love? At one point, as we were going through my husband's clothes, he threw a t-shirt on the discard pile and then looked at it sadly. I said, "Wait a minute - I thought you loved that shirt?" He acknowledged that he did and I told him to keep it - it definitely fell under the "sparks joy" category for him.

In the end, I had a pile of 83 articles of clothing and 8 pairs of shoes to donate and my husband had off-loaded 54 articles of clothing and 6 pairs of shoes. This doesn't count the non-donateable items like socks and underwear or t-shirts too shabby to give to anyone. To be fair, I have significantly more clothes than my husband because women's clothing tends to be much more specific and varied. So his outgoing numbers represent a bigger percentage than mine.
Kondo also advocates vertical storage, a technique my older son had shown me years ago when he was still in high school. The idea is that you can see at a glance everything you have and stuff doesn't get lost at the bottom of a pile. But again, her mystical thinking about organizing clothing leaves me cold. She writes, "Folding properly pulls the cloth taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the material stronger and more vibrant. Clothes that have been neatly folded have a resilience and sheen that can be discerned immediately, clearly distinguishing them from those that have been haphazardly stuffed in a drawer. The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle." Folding actually improves the fabric. Sure. Sure it does.

She believes that clothes can guide you in their own folding: "There is nothing more satisfying than finding that “sweet spot.” The piece of clothing keeps its shape when stood on edge and feels just right when held in your hand. It’s like a sudden revelation—So this is how you always wanted to be folded!—a historical moment in which your mind and the piece of clothing connect." Sigh. Is this sort of animism really necessary?

She even wants you to gently fold your socks. Your socks. She chides one client: "I pointed to the balled-up socks. “Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?” That’s right. The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest." Who knew we've been mis-treating our socks all this time?

Kondo is Japanese and she threw in this wacky little racist gem for good measure: "Japanese people quickly grasp the pleasure that comes from folding clothes, almost as if they are genetically programmed for this task."
But still. Although I certainly don't believe that "clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in the company of others who are very similar in type, and therefore organizing them by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure," I can agree that storing by type helps me find what I'm looking for more quickly.

Marie Kondo strikes me as rigid and obsessive in her routinized, solitary life. I don't want to be like her. So I think it's safe to say that I will not be storing my carrots vertically in the fridge, thanking my belongings before I discard them, texting my old phone from my new phone, weeping when I notice soap scum, setting my dishes on the veranda to dry, asking my house where something belongs, or throwing out any book I have not yet read. However, somehow it still encouraged me to start the purge I've been building up to do to get my house back to the uncluttered state I am happiest in. And my small closet? It currently has only clothes I really like. I may not feel my "cells buzz" when I gaze upon it, but you have to admit - it is now an organized thing of beauty.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On the trail.

See those pink lines in the right lane? Our city has thirteen designated Dogwood Trails, which are open every April. One of them runs through our neighborhood. It also happens to run along one of our frequent walking routes.
Around the corner from us, one family has put in a labyrinth marked by stones which they keep open to the public. When we go by, we often take a few minutes to walk it. I really love that feeling of quietly centering down.
On our last visit, we were surprised to find our cat already there. Hodr got up from her perch on a nearby chair and walked with us. In her own way, of course, cutting straight through to the middle to demand attention.
The trails are timed to be open when the dogwood trees are in full bloom, and there is hardly a house on the trail that doesn't have at least one of the white- or pink-flowered trees.
The same goes for azaleas. I love the great variety of colors of azaleas.
This house has a wonderful mural painted on their shed. It's an actual door, but it looks like fairies might live there.
The pink guiding lines have arrows to keep drivers on the trail. When I first moved in a few years ago, I had trouble finding my way around the neighborhood because there is nothing remotely grid-like about it. The streets wind around and two roads can be parallel for a bit and then twist to become perpendicular and cross each other. It helped me to have the arrows to guide me back to my house.
Hey, what a cute Little Free Library right on the Dogwood Trail!
Our neighborhood trail is this year's featured trail. That means we've had even more April traffic than usual. Fortunately people are driving very slowly because they are busy looking at all the houses and yards.
We live in the sort of neighborhood where people play basketball, walk, ride their bikes, and hang out in the street chatting with each other. It really is a remarkably friendly place.
Most people who live along the trails take gardening/landscaping seriously. It helps that we have a landscape architect on the block who is always happy to field questions and give advice.
And many people I've talked with in the neighborhood are interested in gardening in a way that doesn't harm the earth, so you don't see a lot of people employing chemicals.
It's a joy to drive home down my street under the dappled shade of the big trees.
And hey, look at that cute little house on the trail... okay, that's mine. I felt a little badly that my yard is covered in straw while the clover is growing but it doesn't seem to stop all the cars and church buses from slowing down and taking pictures. My yard is more of a summer yard than a spring one, though. In a couple of months everything will be full and lush.
But spring is still the perfect time for sitting on the deck and having dinner. We grilled swordfish with tarragon butter and zucchini with balsamic vinegar. From the deck, all you can see is green all around. I love walking the trail but it's also good to be home.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Easter weekend.

With an unexpected Friday free, we decided to use the excuse to step out in the shoes we bought in Italy and go downtown for an Irish whiskey on a rooftop bar.
The weather was perfect all weekend long, and we stayed until it was starting to grow dark, and then had a glass of wine and some pita bread with crawdad dip at an outdoor cafe on the square.
We had he younger daughter only for the day on Saturday, so we went to the Botanical Gardens for the annual Earthfest. I used to take my kids to it when it was held at the World's Fair Park, including one memorable day when my younger son, then 9, took a Segway for a wild spin that had the Segway rep yelling and waving his arms as he chased him down. I still laugh when I think about that.
No Segways on loan today, but we did stop at some of the booths, including one that had monarch butterflies. We got to feel how their little hooked feet grasp your skin when they walk on it.
And the monarch caterpillars, who leave a little trail of silk on your hand. I was happy to be able to say that I already had all the monarch-friendly plants they were offering in my bee/butterfly gardens.
There was a free kid's environmental craft section and the younger daughter made paper from scraps, tie-dyed a handkerchief with water run-off from a bituminous coal mine, and dug in the compost to uncover red wriggler worms in a vermiculture set-up. Our favorite was the applesauce and taffy samples from an Appalachian exhibit.
We had a picnic under a shaded pavilion and watched the crowds The poor guy in the plastic bag tree looked miserably hot. Given the choice, I'd have gone with the ridiculous mushroom costume.
After lunch we sat and listened to this guitar and banjo duo for a while.
Then a quick look at the peonies in their gardens before heading home for ice cream in our own backyard.
After we'd taken the daughter back to her mother's house, we grilled swordfish steaks in tarrgon butter and yellow squash and zucchini in balsamic vinegar and had that with salads and white wine on the back deck. I didn't want to ever go inside.
Easter morning we had a small brunch on the sunporch before my husband headed off the work. And me? Well, I headed out to the yard to get my hands in the dirt again, of course.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday musings.

I've been completely preoccupied with yard work lately and have been spending every possible minute of these amazingly warm sunny days with my hands in the dirt instead of on my computer keyboard. So, until early next week when there is rain in the forecast, a few thoughts:
1) Why do radio DJs insist on saying, in a very upbeat way, "Happy Good Friday!" It's "good" as in holy, and meant to commemorate the torture and death of Jesus. I'm not part of the church any more, but I still find that misplaced cheer a little grating.
This flyer was up at my office building. Assuming they are saying the real reason for Easter is the resurrection of Christ, why celebrate it with an eggfest? Do they not understand the eggs (and the Easter bunny) are Pagan fertility symbols? Personally, I like that aspect of Easter as a spring merging of two very different religious traditions, but I suspect this church would not if they stopped for ten seconds to think about it.
3) Whether your celebration is a religious observance of the risen Lord, a spiritual reveling in the cycle of death and rebirth manifested in the warming soil and plants erupting into bloom all around you, or a purely secular focus on chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps, Silver Jesus and I wish you a very lovely Easter weekend!

Thursday, April 6, 2017


I've been a little pre-occupied with yard work lately and will take some pictures of blooming plants this weekend. In the meantime, some recent random photos from my phone:
Quite by chance, the younger daughter was sick with the flu on Friday, March 17th, and elected to stay at her mom's house for the night. We made an impromptu decision to get fish and chips downtown to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. We realized as we were sitting there that we've been at that very restaurant the last three St. Patrick's Days (last year with the younger son along) and decided that clearly this needs to be our tradition.
On the way to my office one morning, I stopped at a gas station and saw that next to me was a truck with one burial vault on its bed and another on a trailer behind it. Nothing much to say about that except it's a little creepy.
I saw this sticker on the back of an SUV and for the life of me couldn't decide whether the weird yellow hair on the elephant was a sign of admiration or was meant to mock Trump.
A neighbor asked me to be a sub in her bunco group. That's new for me, but she said if I could roll dice and count to six while drinking cocktails, I'd be fine. As instructed, I showed up with $5 and was handed a bourbon slush when I walked in.  The protocol in that group was that I had to choose beads from a bag and wear them and that whenever I got a bunco (three of a kind in whatever number we were trying for), I had to wear this ridiculous crown until the next bunco was scored. We stopped mid-way for a dinner and dessert break. In the end, I won $10 and had some silly fun in the process.
And lastly, in spite of the fish and chips on St. Patrick's Day and the brownies topped with two kinds of ice cream at the bunco party, we've actually made a serious effort to cut way back on carbs and processed foods. In particular, we're eating lots of fish, chicken, and veggies and have leafy greens with dinner every single night. Dessert, when we have it, is usually a single chocolate truffle. I found this modified version of the USDA's ChooseMyPlate image and thought it was as sensible and succinct a guideline as I could hope to find.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

So, I'd mentioned that we had looked for fabric while we were in Argentina...

In a shop in Ushuaia, we found a stack of fabric rectangles and bought two matching pieces with a print featuring guanacos in earth tones that go well with our living room. I hung them up side-by-side at home with the second one backwards so that the pattern is in reverse.
I sewed the edge down at the top, and attached clips to hang them from a curtain rod with jute-covered finials.
They now act as curtains which can be slid open to expose the television. (I didn't mean to get me in the photo.)
When I originally set up this living room, I had the television attached to the wall across from the big picture window in front. When it was sunny, there was a glare on the screen. And worse, it made the living room feel like a TV room, with almost all the seating facing it. Unless you were standing in the room or twisted around on the couch, you could not see out the window to the front yard. After Christmas, we took down the TV and moved it to the far wall and re-arranged the furniture and lighting to accommodate conversation rather than TV-watching.
With the new arrangement, the television screen is no longer the focal point of the room.  We can see the front yard and watch the world go by from the couch. And, as a happy byproduct, we have found ourselves turning the TV on less frequently.