Saturday, April 02, 2016

Wandering Through the Woods

X is gifted. She's golden and gorgeous, and when she enters a bar, she owns the room. She's got it, that thing that makes flirtation as present as her breath. And watching her flirt is watching a performance, fully immersing. This winter, we've walked through the rain-shiny neighborhoods, bar lights glowing iridescent like oil slicks. We'd give each bar a look as we passed: is that the crowd we want to explore next tonight? Several times, we have ended up with wealthy tourists and conference-goers at a fancy bar in a fancy hotel.

The hotel is swanky, beautiful, and weird. The lobby is full of lovely and mismatched chairs, including a giant one that reminds me of Lily Tomlin, and another, a carved wooden throne with stylized lion armrests. The long bar itself is carved from redwood—legend has it from a single slice of a single tree. Framed in wide panels of redwood, five or six large portraits of aristocratic-looking people hang in the corners of the bar; the portraits aren't paintings or photographs, but LCD screens. The portrait subjects wobble a little bit as they breathe, and occasionally one will look right into a drinker's eyes.

One night, we first spoke to two men in town for a fancy food show. X nudged me towards one who I promptly learned was unpleasant. I didn't know how to remove myself from the conversation though, and X saw I was stranded. She brought her conversational partner over, who was much more pleasant than his friend. Neither, however, were people I wanted to get to know better. She excused herself to get another drink and whispered in my ear, "Diversify!"

She called me over with her eyes when she had our drinks and I excused myself to get mine. I met her in a stand of German software engineers that had collected around her and with whom she was already deep in talk. She was the golden prize, the apple, the grail, the victory ribbon that each competed for through jokes and braggadocio and good stories. But I was soon intercepted by a man who initiated a conversation that got interesting immediately. I didn't want to date this man and knew that the second we started talking, but talking to him was fun. I didn't want to diversify. I was more interested in this conversation. Who knows how real his stories were: Grandmother a gyspy who taught him to read palms? Another night, while X was getting to know a single dad in town from New York, I found myself in a conversation with someone who claimed he owned racehorses in Lexington. Whatever. I really don't care—these conversations ended at the bar where they started.

I'm not a flirt, or at least one that works like this. I can't flutter from person to person easily, and witty conversation doesn't always roll out of me. But as I said, it is a true pleasure to watch X work a room. And her ease with unknown people is contagious, so I'm learning to find my way to enter into new conversations.

There's no rush. This meeting people is a skill which I'm relearning slowly. I have no deadlines, expectations, or needs other than to find my own way along this path through this strange-to-me forest. The trail is unclear, exciting, circuitous, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

First (Not Last) Visit to Garden for the Environment

The Garden for the Environment is tucked along the inside edge of the Inner Sunset in San Francisco; the Sunset, both Inner and Outer, is notorious for the near-constant presence of salty, cold fog. But here, in this tiny urban lot, a small staff and a lot of volunteers have created a drought-tolerant, food-producing, gorgeous garden. 

Native currants.

Fruit trees and miner's lettuce with urbanite terraces.

Native Pacific Coast iris.

Espaliered apple tree.

Terraces with fruit trees, roses, and others.

I spent an hour wandering through the little garden today, gathering ideas as I poked around. Several things stood out to me:

  • A lovely balance between food-producing, California native, and other non-native drought tolerant plants.
  • Careful pruning of fruit trees that opened up the centers of the trees to sun and air movement.
  • Terraced, steep hillsides planted with fruit trees, mostly apples. Terraces are built from "urbanite," broken concrete.
  • Lots of compost.
  • Permeable surfaces.
  • Lots of South African bulbs, bestillmyheart.

Terraces with fruit trees, rosemary, and others.

Ceanothus, golden smoke bush, and others.

Blue honeywort showing off its dark flower stalks.

This is a place to which I want to return in order to see how different seasons unfold. Between the classes the garden offers and the free wisdom it provides just by existing, it has much to teach me as I look forward to growing food plants in my San Francisco future.

The first of the feijoa blossoms.

It's a salvia party!

I'll be back.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Building My Own Damn House (But Not By Myself)

Volunteering at Habitat for Humanity on Saturday, I worked with my colleague Sister S to install door casings. A group in the downstairs bathroom worked together on cabinets, and another person measured, cut, and nail gunned moldings. Some people painted. At another unit further away from completion, groups installed dry wall. One man, a frequent volunteer and confident builder, worked to finish framing roofs. He hopped from board to board like a pirate in riggings. Next door to where we worked, the family that would eventually move into that house installed parts of their future kitchen. I didn't meet the people who would move into the house on which I worked, but I could feel the moments they'd have there, the mud they'd track into the entry, the scent of food cascading down the stairs, and how warm the sun would feel to them as it streamed into their living room.

On a Habitat for Humanity build site, walking backwards with your eyes the opposite direction of where you're moving, even when you're helping someone carry something heavy, is not allowed. Everyone must always look and move forwards.

It's no secret to my friends and family that I plan to purchase a house sometime in the next year. It'll be a fixer, not in a hip neighborhood, but I'll no longer be stranded in the suburbs paying lots of rent for something that'll never be mine. Most importantly, it'll be my little piece of earth. But here, in this city, I'll need help from my community to make this happen.

The community that builds the Habitat houses is a combination of weak and strong ties: the family who will own the house, their friends, and city-dwellers who just feel like working on construction for a day. The importance of finding help not just in the more obvious strong ties, but particularly in the loose ties became clear to me a few years ago when I first heard the story The Hostess with the Toastess on This American Life. After listening to the history of Giuletta Carelli and the way she saved her own life by building her community of loose connections, I cried. Now that I work in her neighborhood, I occasionally stop by Trouble Coffee for a perfect latte. I'm part of her loose connections.

My circumstances are completely different than Carelli's, but the need for community, ties both strong and weak, is just as real.

The home of my future will only happen with the help of strong ties—my family, my friends—and loose ties—my colleagues, trustworthy tradespeople and real estate professionals, neighbors who may be willing to lend a hand, and those whose roles I can't yet imagine. Thank you, people who will help me. There will always be room for you at my future table. I look forward to feeding you.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Alma Mater

Tonight, I sat at the hotel bar drinking Kentucky bourbon that a very, very cute (dimples! humor! intelligence!) multilingual bartender poured generously for me. I began by reading a book I had just purchased at Kramerbooks and Afterwards, but, being where I am, the bartender turned on the GOP debate rather than whatever athletic event may be on tonight, so I became distracted from my book. Every time he-who-shall-not-be-named spoke, most people at the bar guffawed and rolled their eyes. A Josh Charles lookalike sitting next to me tossed pointed, very funny political jabs my way. I laughed. He was cute, too. Across the bar, I noticed a woman. I kept looking at her, as I was sure I knew her. Before I left to head to my room, the bourbon buzzing electrically in my brain but not so much so that I couldn't connect, I approached her: "I know I know you," I said. And I did. She was a former neighbor from Altadena, a member of the produce-exchanging community in which I had been a participant; I used to buy eggs from her. She works for NASA and is in town for a big black-tie event. Yup, I'm back in the city, the city that draws the brilliant from all over the world, the first city that as an adult I could call home: Washington, DC.

Dupont Circle at dusk.

K Street, aka law and lobbyist central, at dawn.

940 24th Street, my former home in DC; it was a little house for a big life.
When I landed Monday afternoon at Washington National, I cried as we flew over the campuses, bridges, and monuments. When I saw places that were so deeply familiar to me, I had to slide my sunglasses on in the plane. I'm here for a work conference, the best professional conference I've ever attended. In 1993, I came here to learn, and now, in 2016, I'm back, learning deeply again. But, I've also used every non-conference moment to walk down memory lane, and it has been so good.

Each morning, well before the conference begins, I've risen early to hit the streets, mostly squared but intersected irregularly by state-named avenues. I've walked through the neighborhoods I used to walk when I was a university student. To protect my mental health in college, I'd take long, wandering walks through Georgetown, Kalorama, through the monuments and National Mall to the capitol building, and further, to Eastern Market and beyond. This week, I've found myself wandering again, not to protect my happiness but to accentuate it. At night, I've walked more, sometimes to tenacious restaurants familiar from my past, but also to new, wonderful ventures that make the best of local produce and food traditions. The first place I visited Monday when I arrived was the florist where I worked in college, and as soon as I crossed the shop's threshold, the scent of memory hit me like a boulder: lilies, carnations, roses, greenery, the smell of Oasis brick. I spoke with a man who was a brother of the brothers with whom I worked, his cat-like nose and brusque mannerisms made plain his family.

Sunrise on a typical DC neighborhood street.
In the mornings, early as the sunrise, I've gotten out of my hotel room take these walks, starting with coffee. The other people in the early morning coffee lines have been at most 25 years old, each wearing expensive suits and cheap computer bags, shoes that are too fancy and awkward hairstyles that don't match their suits. In these outfits, there's no individuality, just the costumes of political professionalism. They are the interns and young folks trying to make it. As I walk longer and later into the morning, the adults come out, professionals in suits that are even more expensive than those of their young colleagues but shoes that are much more comfortable, and each of these adults has an individuality, a way to make themselves their own in their lobbyist and Capitol Hill uniforms—remarkable necklaces, funny socks, flamboyant ties, weird glasses. The young ones conform. The old ones stray.

There are just as many shiny black Lincolns as ever, and this afternoon when trying to rendezvous with a former roommate, I had to trek around a Secret Service blockade and what seemed like a hundred black Lincolns and SUVs to reach her. There is no doubt that I am in a Very Important Place surrounded by Very Important People doing Very Important Things. The flags, all of them, from the Embassy of the Sendirad Islands to the Canadian Consulate, are at half-mast for Nancy Reagan's death. In the center of the city, it's hard to walk a block without encountering an obvious presidential or congressional employee. Yet, there are no more bicycle couriers. My brother and a former beau were bicycle couriers here in the city, and the frenetic speed and purpose they brought to the streets is absent. One of the city's currents has dried up. Other changes exist, too. Neighborhoods that were dusty have been spit-polished, and places where rent used to be accessible are nearly comparable to San Francisco markups. Blocks that were commercially empty host fancy roast-in-house coffee shops, and my old campus, well, it houses a Whole Foods.

The Cairo apartment building: no matter how hard you try to set up the photo, you can't straighten it out, like both Art Nouveau and politics.

Last night, I brought a colleague to Larry's Homemade Ice Cream, where through the years I have ordered many a cone. I ordered a small scoop of Key West Chocolate Fever on a sugar cone, the same order I've placed a hundred times. I told the server (a man who looked approximately my age and therefore may be the owner's son) I used to come here 20 years ago. "20 years? It feels like 20 minutes," he said.

Is this home? It sure feels like it. But, then again, I'm a woman of many homes. Those 20 years are a heartbeat, but that heartbeat is strong among many. I wouldn't trade this mixed up rhythm for the world.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snowstorms, Shit, and Hot and Sour Soup

My dad asked me today if I was glad I wasn't in DC.

The truth is, I love Washington, DC in a snowstorm. The whole city shuts down. Everything slows. The only things you can do are the following: sleep, enjoy each other's company, go for a cold and sloppy walk, party until you run out of booze then return to simply enjoying each other's company because everything is closed and you can't buy any more booze and the people you are around are awesome anyway, sleep again.

In the four-year period I lived in DC for college, I had two such stretches of time. The first happened my freshman year, when the snow started just after everyone had arrived back to school but before classes began, so none of us had homework or reading or tests. It was a perfect moment because there was so little opportunity for stress. We had a few days trapped mostly in our dorms with crazy escape runs to the national monuments to sled illicitly on cafeteria trays. I kissed a couple boys in a couple days. We all did.

About a week after the perfect, icy days of freedom, I came down with the worst case of flu I have yet experienced. (How long is the incubation period for the flu? In other words, who should I blame for this monstrosity of illness?) I passed out in the shower. My roommates, who in most ways for the first two-thirds of the year barely tolerated our co-existence, banded together to take care of me. My friend, my first and life-changing friend in college, S., came to check on me while I was so sick.

I remember his face floating in and out of focus in front of mine as I lay feverish on my lofted bed. "You're right, she does look like shit," he told my roommates. He fed me Nyquil and hot-and-sour soup. Eventually, when I became more mobile, he and another friend walked with me, slowly—so slowly—to student health services. There, the doctor gave me antibiotics and told me to sleep and drink lots of fluids, just as S. had been helping me do.

Two weeks ago, S. was in the city for a conference. I hadn't seen him for years, but when I picked him up from the airport, our friendship picked up right away. In my memory, I knew how funny he was, but it had been so long since I had felt it in person. He delivers jokes in a perfect deadpan, then laughs a couple seconds afterwards with a goofy "he he he." He's colorblind, so he asked me—just as he had almost every day of his college life—if his jacket matched his pants. He's still kind and genuine, interested and interesting. I had met his strong, fiercely intelligent wife independently of him before they got together in college, and I was there at the party that sealed their future. I joyfully participated in all three days of their wedding. I love them both, even through time and distance.

Sophomore year of college, in the year after the first big storm and the year before the second, S. helped me not through illness but through a very debilitating breakup. During this time, I spent all the hours I wasn't in class in bed. S. may or may not have brought me hot-and-sour-soup then—I can't remember—but I do remember he did whatever he could to distract me from my own misery and try to help me appreciate all the goodness that surrounded me. He was honest with me. He was also hilarious.

One damp autumn day during that gray time, he lured me out of my dorm room down to the muddy playing fields near the monuments to watch him and his team play intramural football. Standing on the sidelines, I watched them cajole each other and cheer each other on, smiling so big I could hear their grins. They loved each other and they loved the game. Towards the end, S. made the most beautiful play I'd seen in an intramural game: it was a near-impossible interception made with Inspector Gadget-like elastic limbs. He stretched arms and legs—telescoping antennae—to make the connection. The edges of his fingers touched the ball, he coaxed it into his palms, pulled it to his chest, then fell to the ground, rolling and laughing.

I screamed like the cheerleader, for him at least, I was.

After the miracle play, he ran towards me, arms wide, grinning again. "That was for you, baby!" he yelled. He threw his arms around me, laughing. It was a great hug. It was also funky, because he had rolled in dog shit when he hit the ground after his interception. I ended up with shit all over my sweater.

Two weeks ago, we talked about all that had happened to each of us since we left the city that hosted that game. We've both had joy. We've both rolled in more shit. And even after all this, every time I looked at him, I wanted to laugh with sheer happiness. He's such a good man, so funny, generous, smart, and warm-hearted. After I spent the day with him, I keep thinking how wonderful it is to have people like this in my life. Good friends do something remarkable: in their goodness, they encourage greater goodness out of us; in their specialness, they remind us of how special we are.

It's snowing in DC right now. Damn, I have such a hankering for hot-and-sour soup.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

In Cars

He called me Tiger.

I met him when I was seventeen. M was a friend of a friend, and I picked the two of them up with other friends to give them a ride to a home football game. I was always giving people rides because Scarlet, my 1974 Jeep Wagoneer, was generous in space and opportunity for story. People wanted to go places in that Jeep.

When the second trimester rolled around, M and I ended up in the same physics class. We got to know each other through learning physics, and though the subject was very difficult for me, I loved the class. It was so fascinating. It was why everything worked. We had a passionate, very funny teacher who recognized my struggle and struggled beside me to find ways I could learn in his class: he bought a book for me titled something along the lines of Physics for Humanities Students, he used me as an example in all demonstrations involving electricity (I received a near-weekly electrical shock in that class), and he made sure to still be at school at 4pm when I needed him to be there. Right after school let out, I (often accompanied by M) would go straight to Denny's and get jacked up on bad coffee while working furiously on physics homework. If I got it done by 4pm, I'd head back to school, and Mr. K would be there waiting to go through my work with me and guide me where I went off track. I would then have the evening to make corrections so I would have quality homework to turn in the next day in class.

M and I enjoyed each other in part because we were both so excited about learning. After starting the love letters that he left in my locker with "Dear Tiger," or sometimes just "Grrrrr," he'd go on to tell me something fascinating that he learned or why he liked the project he was working on in his history class. Our relationship wasn't entirely academic, of course. We spent hours in Scarlet making out and making each other laugh. I remember collecting a group of friends and all of us heading to a sledding hill well after the lift closed and the flood lights shut off. We snuck into the park, dragged the tubes up the hill ourselves, and hurtled over and over down in the velvety dark. Our laughter eventually attracted a pebbly-faced, slow-talking security guard on a snowmobile who escorted us out. That Christmas, I gave M a careful pencil portrait of Scarlet, all shiny chrome and seventies weighty steel. In each other, we saw curiosity, creativity, humor, determination, and a whole lot of high-energy fun.

Though it may sound like I have some romantic longing for this boy from my past, I don't. Our relationship was necessarily short-lived. Though so kind and curious, even at his young age he already had some demons he hadn't yet figured out how to set free. When M and I were finished soon after Christmas, I was confident in our relationship's end. Though I don't still carry a torch for him, I do for someone else: Tiger.


Until yesterday, I owned a 2007 black Yaris, one that was stripped down, free from cruise control, antilock brakes, and power windows, and what little the car did have was manually controlled. In this car, I drove across deserts and through mountains. It was my mini farm truck, and it hauled manure, lots and lots of manure that I used to build my garden and orchard. It was perpetually dirty and not very comfortable. I appreciated this car, and when I first got it, I really liked it. But, there was never any passion. The Yaris was all serviceable efficiency, small and necessary.

I donated the Yaris. A large-grinned man came to my house yesterday, hooked it up to tow, and carried it away to auction. It's not pretty, but it runs really well still, and it—hopefully—will be for someone a good, efficient car that will get that someone where that someone needs to go. The proceeds from auctioning the Yaris will go to my local animal shelter. Even in its going away, the Yaris is serving.

I was able to make this donation because in July I ordered a new vehicle. Unlike when I bought the Yaris, this time I did spring for more than just what was necessary. I bought a vehicle that has removable roof panels so the whole sky can be mine, a build and trim package that will allow me to skitter over boulders and through sand dunes when I so choose, space enough to fill comfortably with people and stories, and a color that makes me happy. GMC built my orange Jeep Renegade in Italy and took forever to ship it over the Atlantic, across north America, and finally to me.

Tiger Lily arrived in December. I can't wait to see what happens in her.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

In the Snow

When my mother was in graduate school, she had a French roommate. There are very few stories about this French roommate, and the few that do exist revolve entirely around food. The two didn't have a real kitchen in their room, but they did have a hot plate and a sink. My mom tells about good Southern corn just pulled off the stalks, boiled on that hot plate until the kernels were crisp-tender, then slathered with butter and salt. From this roommate, my mom also learned how to make crêpes, a skill that has flavored my entire life, since many family weekends, special occasions, and sunny Saturdays have been marked by their fragrance. 

The night before she makes them, in an old plastic quart-size measuring cup with a sharp nose of a spout, she beats as many eggs as people she's feeding with enough flour to make a stiff paste. She gradually loosens the paste with milk until the mixture is the consistency of light cream. Into the refrigerator goes the mixture, which she returns to the next morning after it has thickened a bit, when she loosens it further with milk and perhaps a little water. In her blackened steel skillet over a blue flame, she plops a tablespoon of butter and swirls it around until it is melted and covers the bottom of the pan. Once the butter stops spitting, she tilts the pan this way and that as she pours in a slick of crêpe batter, rolling the pan around until the batter coats the bottom. It becomes a rhythm as she makes one after the other: drop butter in the hot pan, spread butter, pour while swirling pan, swirl pan until the bottom is coated thinly, rest a minute, edge a spatula under, flip over. Steam rises around her as she works. She stacks each crêpe on top of the other until the platter is a tower of plate-sized, laced brown, eggy silk. The kitchen fan makes conversation loud. Gradually, the whole house comes to smell of browned butter.

My mom made such a feast this past Tuesday, her birthday. We ate the crêpes with sour cream, powdered sugar, and, frozen this summer to grace the winter table, fruit from my parents' trees—this time cherries and peaches. We also ate them my favorite way: drizzled with melted butter and lemon juice, then snowed with powdered sugar.

Rabbit tracks.
After we stuffed ourselves with crêpes, my mom and I went on a walk, visiting neighbors in the small, close-knit neighborhood, warm adobe to cold snow and back to warm adobe. We saw puppy tracks, rabbit tracks, elk tracks, bird tracks, and other, unidentifiable tracks, sometimes cutting straight across the fields, sometimes crisscrossing, sometimes suddenly appearing trail-less and disappearing just as quickly.

Elk tracks.
I wonder if my mom's graduate school roommate, whose name I do not know, knows that this skill, making crêpes, has been such a part of our family's life. I wonder if she knows the tracks she left.

Crow tracks.

Any idea what tracks these are? Bird wings beating the snow?