Friday, February 22, 2019

Teacher Voice

Two summers ago, a former student from many years ago who is now my friend was passing through San Francisco and asked if I was free to catch up. We decided to meet at a casual bar in the Mission to tell each other the story of our lives since we had last seen each other. After giving each other a big hug, we ordereed our drinks. I grinned at the bartender, jabbing my thumb towards my friend, "This guy was my student and now he's a teacher, too!" My friend responded with a similar gesture, "The woman standing next to me is the reason I became a teacher." The bartender could hardly contain herself: "Oh, this warms my heart so much!"

When we sat down to talk, my friend told me about his romantic quandries and his challenges in finding the right teaching job. He struggled to know whether he should stay teaching in California or pursue his long-distance girlfriend in another state where teaching was a less comfortable fit. He was up in the air at the time, but he was young, and either way would provide him so many options. I knew he could find satisfaction whichever path he chose.

Of course, I had my hopes of what he would do.

While I sipped my wine and he his beer, he told me a story of vacationing with friends in Poland. He explained how he and his friends were walking out of a bar and they witnessed one man throw another man out of a doorway down the block. Within seconds, both men were pummeling each other. Always the adventurer, my friend went toward danger rather than away from it. He didn't speak Polish, but he did have a weapon: his teacher voice.

He didn't raise his hands. He didn't get angry. Instead, once he was within ten feet of the men, he told them, very assertively in English because that's the language he had, to stop what they were doing. He told them, with that powerful voice, to take a break, for one of them to step one direction and the other to step the other. The men didn't step back from each other, but they did stop hitting each other. They stood, glaring and panting. My friend repeated his message, incomprehensible in language but clear in tone. Slowly, arms sinking to their sides, the two men walked away from each other. He credited the whole experience to his teacher voice.

Last winter my friend called me. He had broken up with his girlfriend and stayed in California. He had a teaching job he loved. He was happy.

The teacher voice is a real thing, a thing students need to hear. It provides confidence and familarity; it provides clarity and sometimes humor. But students aren't the only ones who need it. Using the teacher voice feeds the teacher.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Unreliable Narrator

When Scott and I were at my parents' house for Christmas this year, I told him how I broke my collarbone when I was a little kid. When my parents heard me tell this story, they said no, it didn't happen like that. 

My Abbreviated StoryMy Parents' Abbreviated Story
We were camping at a lake.We were camping at a lake.
I was little.I was little.
There was a hill.There was a hill.
There were many mosquitoes.There were many mosquitoes.
I chased the mosquitoes away from my family down the hill.I ran away from the mosquitoes down the hill.
I fell and broke my collarbone.I fell and broke my collarbone.

My parents laughed when I told the story because I had made myself the hero of it. I trust completely that their version is correct; they were adults at the time and I was very young. But it also makes me wonder what about that moment made me tell myself through the years that I was chasing mosquitoes away. I've always been less likely to receive mosquito bites than my relatives and friends. Maybe that fact became conflated with the story, and I made myself the person protecting my family. Maybe it was the love for my family that made me remember I was protecting them. Maybe I felt so vulnerable and in such pain about the broken collarbone, I created something in my head that unconsciously helped me feel less weak. Whatever the cause, no part of me was intentionally lying; the story I told at Christmas was the story I believed to be true for years and years.

I have conflicted feelings about this situation. I imagine I frequently unintentionally make myself the hero of my own story. But, of course I do. I hope you do too. In the long run, it's up to you to save yourself. Then there's the other part of me that wants to raise the banner of objective truth. Tell the truth! Be honest. There's the difficult tangle of when we don't know if we are telling the truth or not.

I've been thinking about this a lot for a couple reasons. First, I read the memoir Educated by Tara Westover not too long ago. If you are not familiar with the book, here's a quick summary: Westover was raised in a family cult headed by a dictatorial, mentally unhealthy father and a mother who found great pride in her position of spiritual authority. Westover's parents did not allow her to go to school and she had a spotty home education, though her physical environment provided her a wealth of practical knowledge. She details the abuse she experienced growing up, as a young girl from her father and as a teenager from her brother. When she escaped her family and sought out an education, she had to learn a whole new way of understanding the world.

It's painful to read. I also don't believe it's 100% true. I believe the pain is true. I believe that Westover is still broken today because of the experience she had growing up. However, even she admits to being muddy on details, especially in situations of high stress. And, she points out that she and her siblings remember events differently. Yet, Westover comes out of a clearly unhealthy situation in a position that allows her to function, and even excel, in the world outside her family. Is it partly the way her brain has worked with the details of her life that has allowed her to do that?

A second event has me wondering about memory and narration. I remember hearing stories about my mom's mom and aunt making ice punch bowls for parties. These punch bowls were particularly special because they contained flowers caught in the ice, frozen spectacularly in place. Something in my memory holds deeply to the idea that camellias were the flowers caught in the ice, but when I talked to my mom about it, she said no, camellias wouldn't work and that they'd brown when frozen. She couldn't remember which flowers specifically were incorporated, but she imagined evergreens and berries for winter parties.

Based on the stories in my memory of my mom's memory, I made my own version. I picked fuchsias and salvias from the yard and placed them in a very large bowl. I added water to the bowl and placed a another bowl inside of it, weighed down with various heavy kitchen objects, enough so that it floated but made an indentation large enough to hold a generous batch of punch. I set the whole contraption in the chest freezer.

After I took the bowl out of the freezer a couple days later, I set it in the refrigerator for an hour so it wouldn't be so cold that it would crack the second punch, at a higher temperature, hit the surface. After an hour in the fridge, the bowl gleamed. Scott took pictures. I took pictures. The perfect flowers, unharmed by the quick freeze because they were trapped in ice, looked like they were caught midair. The ice punch bowl looked even more lovely than I had imagined it in these years of stories.

Before the party, we set it on a folded towel so it wouldn't slide around, and set that towel on a platter. Scott watched as I started to fill it with punch. The coral of the large batch of Jungle Bird complemented the fuchsias. I poured more in, most of a batch. A small dribble began to leak from the side of the bowl, following the countours of a fuchsia through the ice. I thought the leak might slow down, but it didn't. Instead, the bowl fissured along the edges of another flower and spouted ferociously from the bottom, quickly soaking the rag and filling the platter.

Scott and I worked quickly, saving what we could, scooping it into a another container, and sopping up what we couldn't save. Eventually, we dropped the whole ice bowl into a huge metal bowl, and it floated, iced flowers and all, in another batch of punch.

The ice bowl was beautiful, and people commented on it all night long, but because the flowers leaked, it didn't do what we thought it would. My bowl based on layers of memory couldn't hold punch. Perhaps another's would.

Does memory ever work the way we think it will?

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Miners' Lettuce

In the late spring two years ago, my first spring in my San Francisco home, whenever I wandered through McLaren Park, I collected Miners' Lettuce seeds. A native plant that's also a delicious salad green is a plant that is made for a garden like mine.

The following late winter, my now-stepdaughter and I threw seeds in places in my yard that seemed like natural habitats for the plant. Of the thousands of seeds we tossed into the soil, only one plant grew to maturity. I was frustrated. The climate and conditions seemed perfect for this not too picky plant. But I also consoled myself: prior to the work I started in my garden when I moved in, the soil had been covered with a thick layer of industrial plastic—not weedcloth—topped with mulch. No rain got to most of the soil. I didn't find worms or beetles or red spiders when I dug around. I found very little that was alive.

But, that one plant made it and I didn't nibble on even a single leaf. Instead, I babied it along, and when it went to seed, I tossed those seeds everywhere.

This year in the rainy season, Miners' Lettuce has popped up everywhere, even in places I don't remember tossing the seeds. Perhaps the plants have resulted from seeds that have laid dormant until they could find their foothold. Perhaps they needed the fungus and worms and slender salamanders that have moved in.

Perhaps everything just needed to rot a while for the growing to get good.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Holding the Sun

Over Thanksgiving, Scott and I rented a friend's beachside cottage on the northeseat corner of Oahu. We had planned this trip for a long time, but we hadn't known how incredibly perfect every part of it would be. We didn't know to dream how good it could be.

  • Watched sunrises.
  • Hiked ironwood, Norfolk Island pine, and native forests, orchids popping up trailside.
  • Rode horses through banyan groves to the coast.
  • Found Scott an incredibly beautiful-sounding ukulele.
  • Drank mai tais while watching surfers. 
  • Drank mai tais while watching a snowy college football game (can't take the WSU out of the man, even in Hawaii).
  • Snorkeled and snorkeled, encountering every color of fish, vibrant eels, and even a sea turtle.
  • Shopped at a farmers' market and ate all the available mango and banana varieties, passion fruit, guavas, papayas, and even a new-to-me fruit, the eggruit. Eggfruit, by the way sounds like something you wouldn't want to eat, a fruit the texture of a cooked egg yolk. But, it's rich and delicious and reminded me more of a particularly nice roasted kobacha squash.
  • Picked out ice cold young coconuts from a cooler, watched the tiny elderly woman machete off the top point, then drank from them greedily. Scott, who had never tasted fresh coconut water, said, "This tastes like really, really good milk." Later, I broke the coconuts open by hurling them against concrete, and I devoured the tender, pliant flesh.
  • Visited a botanical garden and explored the ethnobotanical section of the garden, mesmerized by the medicinal and food plants.
  • Fell in love with breadfruit and breadfruit trees. Seriously, they are amazing trees.
  • Visited a coffee and chocolate roaster, tasting our way through Oahu grown and Oahu roasted washed process and natural processed coffee and local chocolate.
One of my favorite pictures from the trip. We really enjoyed watching this woman surf. 

We came back with sunshine inside, and when Scott and I found yummy California-grown mangoes in the grocery store the following weekend, we bought a bunch. I knew I had to make something that preserved that feeling of gold.

And, so I consulted every mango chutney recipe I could find, and came up with something that's a hybrid of several recipes. It's gently spicy but not burning, sweet and fruit-fragrant, sharp with mustard and ginger, held to the earth with nigella and tumeric. When I make it again, I will up both the ginger and the chile, but here is exactly what I made this time. Scott and I had it with lamb shoulder steaks the other night and ate almost a whole jar. This is happy food.

Mango Apple Chutney

You will need:
3 pounds ripe mangos, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1" chunks
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (I used Diamond salt)
2 cup sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
3 garlic cloves, grated or finely minced
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 1/2  pounds tart apples, peeled, cored, and chut into 1/2" chunks
1 cup golden raisins
2 finely minced chiles (I used Aji Amarillos)
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon grated fresh turmeric
1 teaspoon nigella seed
1 1/2 teaspoon brown or black mustard seed

To make the chutney:
Place the mango chunks in a glass or other nonreactive bowl and toss with salt. Let sit overnight, or for at least half a day. When you're ready to cook the chutney, drain off whatever liquid has collected.

In a large pot that has a lid, stir together the sugar and cider vinegar, and place unlidded over high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has melted. Stir in all the rest of the ingredients. Turn the heat down to medium. Partially cover the pot until all the ingredients come to a boil, stir, partially cover again, and stir again. Repeat this for 10-15 minutes or longer (depending on what variety of apples you have), until the apples just begin to soften.

Remove the lid and cook for another 10-15 minutes or so at medium heat, or until the mixture is thick like a sturdy applesauce. The mango should have mostly cooked down and lost its structure, while the apple will likely keep more texture.

If you'd like to preserve this for a while, as I did, you can follow the USDA National Center for Home Food Preservation guidelines here.

This recipe makes 4 to 4 1/2 pints of chutney.

If you can't transport yourself to Hawaii this winter, here is Scott's beachside rendition of White Christmas, complete with Hawaiian shirt, ocean waves, and ukulele to help ring in the season.

Thursday, October 11, 2018


A few weeks ago, my family biked through our frequent Sunday route in Golden Gate Park. After we had loaded the bikes on the back of the car and begun to drive away, I remembered I had wanted to stop by the Fuchsia Dell, a corner of the park I had not yet visited. We skirted the edge of the park then dropped back in a small parking lot near the main entrance. Scott and my stepson stayed in the in the car to read while my stepdaughter and I hopped out to explore the fuchsia beds. We walked wide-eyed through the glen, pointing out different remarkable flowers that hung like costume jewelry on huge bushes, often also loaded with edible berries. We fell most in love with Fuchsia denticulata and held the neon pink, orange, and green flowers to our ears like giant '80s earrings.

Fuchsia denticulata

The original Fuchsia Dell was built in Golden Gate Park in the 1940s. In fact, fuchsias have been in San Francisco likely since Spanish times; Pam Pierce reports that 24 varieties appeared in a flower show in 1854, just a few years after the Mexican-American War. But, an invasive pest, the fuchsia gall mite, arrived in the 1980s, wiping out most of the fluffy hybrids that lived in the Dell and in the city.

A friend who recently toured our neighborhood's gardens texted me a picture of another gardener's Fuchsia splendens with its coral and green tubular flowers and tasty, tangy fruit. "Get me a cutting," I replied. Too late, she had already left the garden by the time I replied. By the way, that's the way our community is—we can ask each other for cuttings without seeming rude. It's my gardening heaven.

Since I have been thinking so much about fuchsias lately, when I had a half day at work yesterday, I spent the afternoon poking around another great collection in Golden Gate Park at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. The Cloud Forest gardens are loaded with species fuchsias blooming right now. Their flowers are orange and magenta, or green and carmine, or really long, or so copious I lose count before I can scan halfway along a branch. The plants are often large bushes or small trees and as loaded with berries as they are with flowers. The hummingbirds are everywhere; their buzzing wings and funny chirp-squeaks sound from every direction. Being surrounded by all this life and color is incredibly joyful.

Fuchsia boliviana

Fuchsia boliviana "Alba"

In researching more about the weird fuchsias that call to me (not the ballerinas of the genus but the modern dancers), I came across the website Fuchsias in the City. I understand this man's interest, and the depth of his research is incredible. Check out the Fuchsia Dictionary page. Amazing. To share such a resource makes an obsession admirable.

Fuchsia vulcanica

At this point, I have three fuchsias in my own garden that make me happy but not satisfed: the sometimes mite resistant Gartenmeister Bonstedt; one of the first, now almost historic, mite resistant hybrids, Fanfare; and the species Fuchsia fulgens. But, I want more, especially of the funky, fruity, non-fluffy species varieties. I'm putting out an all call now. Here are species I hope to someday have in my garden: Fuchsia denticulata (I want this plant so badly), F. splendens,  F. vulcanica, maybe a F. boliviana in either red or white, too. Got cuttings?

I have no idea what species this is, but it is as tall and wide as a person and loaded with flowers. I want it too.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Star of the Party

Yesterday, lots and lots of people walked through our backyard. It made both me and Scott particularly happy when a group would cluster on the patio on top of the property, relaxing on the benches and chairs, taking in the view. It's what we like to do, too. It is centering to observe downtown, the Bay Bridge and the freeways, way down below, the traffic silenced by distance. It's like watching the city's blood pump, further proof of its vibrant life. 

Visitors asked about the peppermint geranium, about the runner beans, about the pepino dulce, about the apples and pears, and about where we found all of our cobblestone. However, none of those took as much attention a small, sturdy annual. Early two springs ago, I planted two starts of Blue Pimpernel (Lysimachia monelli, formerly Anagallis monelli). They grew well for me, and even reseeded within the same growing season. At the end of the season last year, I tossed seeds from the old plants in places where I wanted more of that deep blue, and it came up everywhere I wanted. In one part of my yard, right along the front stone retaining wall, there's a thicket of flowers.

I don't water these plants. Sometimes I cut them back when they get too leggy. They show off with very little help from me. The bumblebees love them, and they look so good with California poppies earlier in the season. They've made my yard their home.

Yesterday, visitors stopped, surprised by the blue, at the front stone wall. They took pictures. They asked me what it was and how much water it needed. They happily accepted the seeds I collected from the older branches for them. 

These little plants have given so much pleasure with so little effort, and now they're on the way to new homes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Two Ps and Lots of Pods

This Saturday, the Portola Garden Tour is happening. Though I've had lots of people in my gardens through the years, they'be been friends, produce swappers, and interns; this is the first time my garden will be a stop on a garden tour. I'm a little nervous.

Since I know people will ask questions, I wanted to take the time to write down what we have done to get to this moment, and where we're planning on going from here.

What We Have Done (Preparation)
  • In order to prepare the house to sell in the spring of 2016, the previous owner covered the entire back that wasn't dense with shrubbery in thick plastic and poured mulch over it, plopping occasional succulents haphazardly across the slope. My first order of business was to remove all the plastic and scoot the mulch back over the soil. Plastic over my soil? Nope.
  • I next pulled out banks of rosemary (no one needs that much rosemary), leaving one plant that arches gracefully over a retaining wall. I pulled out sticky Pride of Madeira bushes, fungus ridden roses, misplaced succulent plants (placing them in better spots), and ivy that threatened from all the edges. 
  • Once I removed sad, sick, or overwhelming plants, I discovered that I had a pretty good framework to build upon. I removed some rotten planters and built up edges and low retaining walls, echoing the existant cobblestone walls. 
  • In the space the rosemary left behind, I began building a meadow on one side and planted a couple citrus (Meyer lemon and Bears lime) on the other.
  • After Scott and I met and fell in love, he became an active and enthusiastic participant in the development of the garden. He and the kids helped me remove the overgrown shrubs: purple hops—almost tree-sized—and flannelbush. The flannelbush made me sad. I had yearned to grow that plant in a garden for years, but once I had it, I learned it really didn't work in an urban setting. I couldn't plant anything around it without making it rot away, I couldn't prune it without destroying its architecture, and its soft wood couldn't stand up to San Francisco's strong winds. And, once we took it out, the views opened up to all of downtown and the Bay Bridge. We also took out a mostly dead lemon bush.
  • Scott and I built our vegetable bed and the first bean and pea trellises. My method for building these towers (also great for tomatoes), is to bend a 4' by 7' concrete reinforcing wire panel into a cylinder—lengthwise for beans and peas, shortwise for tomatoes—wire it together, and wire it to a couple stakes driven into the ground.
  • We hired a contractor to rebuild the portion of our retaining wall that was failing on the north west side of the property.
  • I planted and began espeliering two apples (Hudson's Golden Gem and Goldrush) and two pears (Comice and Warren).
  • Scott and I built a small bed dedicated to garlic in its growing season and a cover crop in garlic's off season.

What We Will Do Next (Planning)

  • Our first project that we can't wait to start is rebuilding the garden's pathway. We plan to tear out each wooden beam and replace it with mortared cobblestone. We'll dig out the landscape cloth (because landscape cloth is always a bad idea in the long run), slightly grade each long step of the path, set flagstone in, individually and permeably mortared, and in-fill with gravel. This will be much easier to maintain than the disintegrating decomposed granite path. It will also tie in to aesthetic elements we already have in place in the space; in short, it will look more unified.
  • Next, we need to pull up the bricks on the top patio, regrade the surface, re-build the patio's perimeter, then reinstall the brick patio.
  • In the early spring, when the Carex pansa begans to grow gangbusters again, I'll dig up runners and begin a meadow on the opposing side of the existant meadow. Each side of the path will then begin with a carex meadow underplanted with bulbs and studded with perennials and reseeding annuals. The carex to the south of the central path will grow around and under the citrus trees eventually.
  • We will build two more bean/pea/squash trellis towers and install them between our three existing towers.
  • I need to sketch out a plan for potted plants on the lower patio to help it look more cohesive, then we will put that in action. 
  • We will break down and use up a lot of the refuse wood from taking out the shrubs; then, I will be able to continue installing my fuschia, begonia, and Ericaceae (native huckleberries, Agapetes serpens, Madeiran blueberry) mania up at the top. Maybe, if I can keep them alive, I'll plant some native lilies up there, too.
  • We will continue to build up the succulent bed to make it look more sculptural and oceanic.

My Favorite Thing Happening Right Now In My Garden (a Lot of Pods)
I can't get over this Ayacote Negro runner bean tower. It has unstoppable flowers, brings in droves of hummingbirds, and offers a bounty of juicy green beans and future dry beans.

This is the top of the trellis, looking over the fence into the yards of my neighbors and down the hill towards downtown. If you look hard enough, you can see the SalesForce tower poking its tall head above the fog below it.