Saturday, August 12, 2017

Blackberry Season

I returned Thursday from what was, for me, a mammoth road trip across the northwest, from here to Montana to the San Juan Islands. In central Montana and eastern Washington, grain fields reflect the sun. Light bounces around, ringing through the softly rolling hills of Washington and the mountainous architecture of Montana. In both places, grain elevators mark settlements like church steeples. At one stop to stretch my troublesome legs, I picked a ripe just-dried wheat head off a plant. I tore the long tail off the seeds and ate the grains. They tasted like nuts and good bread and sun. It's no wonder that my souvenirs from the trip are bags of different flours and grains.

But, there aren't grain fields over the Lolo pass from Montana to Idaho where the Nez Pierce made a famous escape, nor are there many grain fields on Orcas Island where plums and pears grace square orchards and feral apples mark the cedar forests. There are, however, lots of blackberries, just like here in San Francisco and the rest of the Bay. If there's water, there are Himalayan blackberries.

This trip was an important, beautiful, and mostly fun trip, but it wasn't an easy one. It was a trip for me and my boyfriend to learn each other's families better. As such, there were the brambly tangles of comforts, joys, and tensions that come with family. There were thorns too. My winding veins took another jab at me and clotted for a second time in my left leg. A show my boyfriend planned to play in Bozeman didn't happen because of the venue's disorganization and poor communication. We had some really sleep-deprived days. On the other hand, there were family feasts, leisurely bike rides, long hikes, swimming with happy kids in bodies of water, all the campfire foods, beautiful sites, and lots of laughs.

Once home, I discovered a series of challenges, ones that shouldn't necessarily weigh on me, but collectively have been really hard. I'm still tired, and I guess that has made everything stickier. It took a lot of effort today for me to even take Indy for a walk.

We did walk, though. After a stop by a neighborhood block party where Indy let little kids pet his soft ears and only barked once at one of the other dogs, we wound our way back up the hill and into the park. The blackberries are really ripe on a particularly sunny hill, and there are lots of them. I took out a poop bag—unused, of course—and began to fill it with berries. Indy expertly picked out the low ones.

While we picked, a family came by and began harvesting fruit off of a nearby strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo. They talked quietly among themselves as they picked. To me, strawberry tree fruit pales in comparison to blackberries. The fruits are mushy and a little tangy, but mostly bland, no wildness to them at all. Indy, a fruit hound, won't touch them. Yet, the family seemed happy with their mild bounty and Indiana and I were happy with ours. I picked a pound of berries that were so ripe they were practically juice by the time I got home, where I promptly turned them into syrup* to pour over pancakes or vanilla ice cream, or to mix with booze, sparkly water, or both.

My fingers are still stained after a couple washings. I have some jabs in my arms. They'll heal quickly though. They won't even scar. The stains and blood are worth it to have the jars of goodness for myself, and more importantly, for those I love.

*I use Hank Shaw's easy and delicious blackberry syrup recipe which I modify slightly by adding lime juice to heighten the wild flavor.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

First Week of Vacation

I kept the windows down and the sunroof open all day on Tuesday and I took every farm road I could, singing loudly to songs I wanted to listen to. I gulped cow manure air, alfalfa air, horse sweat air, vineyard air, golden oak-studded hill air. I wandered through Luther Burbank's garden because our imaginations are kin. I picked blackberries to stain my fingers and eat memory.

It was a good day.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

North Westy

On the day before spring break, someone asked me what I was doing with my time.

"I'm going on tour with my boyfriend," I said.

Her jaw dropped. "Seriously?"

"Seriously. He's a musician, among other things."

"You know you're living every teenage girl's dream, don't you?" She grinned. "I want to hear about it after spring break."

I remember the teenage ache for a boy with a guitar in his hands, but that ache disappeared as I grew up. Musicianship wasn't something I sought out. Creativity was essential to me, but how that creativity manifested itself wasn't as important. Now, however, I have the man with a guitar in his hands, and last month, we headed out in his VW Westy and hit the Pacific Northwest.

Each night was a different town and a different show as we rolled across new-to-me landscapes and into the arms of his family at the far end of the journey.

Living (mostly) in a van with someone for nearly a week is a really good way to get to know someone better. We spent the week on the road swapping stories, figuring out pee breaks, deconstructing his performances, listening to music and podcasts then talking about both, smelling each other's farts, and enjoying being around the other. We hiked waterfalls and shopped for snappy Western shirts in a farm supply store. In all of this, the most important thing we learned about the other in such close quarters was how the other deals with discomfort or uncertainty. I forgot my toothbrush and he forgot his ukulele. We shared a toothbrush, and he swapped out the ukulele bits in his show for his guitar. When the power steering belt sounded funny, we looked for a place to fix it, neither of us fearing the worst, but both expecting success (which we found, friendly and for $20). When a place we imagined staying for the night didn't work out, we kept going, knowing that there was at least a KOA ahead, and that we'd be fine wherever we landed. For us, traveling together is imperfect and therefore easy. It is comfortable and fun and free of tension.

And lucky me, every night I got to see him perform. I could see how opening with a quiet song silenced the room and caused the audience to listen deeply for the rest of the show. I could see how well it worked when his songs held together through storylines he wove. I witnessed a woman who saw him play almost 20 years ago in St. Louis be overjoyed to find him in a small town in the center of Oregon, friends of his from band days insist on getting on stage to play with him, and new, besotted fans offer to treat us to last call after a show. On his side, he got to relish my bread and homemade jam, revel in my stories and easy humor, sit with my calm, and delight in my ability to identify—with often both common and Latin names—each plant he pointed to on our hikes.

Yes, I'm a fan, but the fandom flows both ways. And, we've smelled each other's farts.

Monday, April 10, 2017

On Salads

Falling in love at 41 has been the same as falling in love every other time. In the first few weeks, there was the inability to sleep, the twitterpation, the feelings of mania as I realized I was spending time with someone amazing. And with time, that mania stretched out like a cat in the sun into feelings of comfort.

Falling in love at 41 has been completely different than falling in love every other time. The last time I fell in love was over a decade ago, and this time, I’ve found someone very different than that time or any previous experience. This time, because we recognize traits in each other that we both have wanted out of a lover forever, we fell quickly. We both have weathered life and have come through still liking ourselves, and our ability to like ourselves has made loving each other happen as naturally as breathing.

We both agree on what home means, and we’ve found part of it in each other. His ability to really listen makes me a better listener. His kindness is profound; I hope to match it with my own. We leave nothing off the conversational table: money, religion, sex, family, disappointment, pride, we talk about it all. We deeply appreciate the best in each other, and in doing so, hope to become even better.

Both of us are wise enough to know a relationship isn’t just two people, but two people and all the ways their lives connect with the cast that populates their individual theaters. Introducing each other to our friends and families is to bring to our people another person to love them, to bring further stability and goodness into our communities.

All this is mushy talk. True, yes, but terribly mushy.

So, here is something else this incredible man has gifted me. With him, I’ve gained the ability to make the best damned salads.

Oranges and diced celery with shallots, cilantro, and smoked almonds, tossed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Butter lettuce with sugar snap peas, strawberries, mint, cilantro, and roasted peanuts, tossed in a citrusy, gingery, garlicky dressing. Slaws of all kinds. Greens and vegetables and fruit and nuts and herbs with abandon. I go into the kitchen not knowing exactly what will end up in the bowl, but what does end up in the bowl we greedily consume. They’ve been delicious.

He says to me, “You should write a book about salads.” I say, “No one will read a book about salads.”

Besides, I know what goes into these salads, and you can’t find it in any garden or farmers market, not even the best. You can’t find it in a specialty grocery store. It’s his smile and my laugh, him sitting on the corner of the counter while I cook, and his doing dishes after dinner. It’s listening to the stories of each other’s day. It’s us.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Portola Love

A few nights ago, I woke around 2am for no particular reason. I didn't turn to a book to read myself back to sleep. Rather, I lay in my bed with Reggie the cat tucked into my armpit and enjoyed the quiet of my neighborhood. I live in a dense city, 7 miles by 7 miles horseshoed by saltwater. Lots of people live in this thumbnail of land. But, as I lay the other night in my big bed in my sweet house in my quiet neighborhood, I heard a familiar open space sound. The coyotes began to yip and squeal. I've found the wild here.

This district of the city is far to the southeastern edge, and therefore, experiences some of the best weather. In the summertime, when I drive from my house to work on the western edge of the city, I leave a blue and bright sky in the morning, roll over a few hills, then dive into the persistent gray. In the afternoons, I return to the sun.

Because of the good weather, this district used to be where nursery families raised plants and especially flowers for the downtown florists. Old dilapidated greenhouses lean against each other down the hill from me. The glass walls have mostly caved in, though a few roses still reach up through their frames. Blackberry vines climb over and around the old steam furnace and storerooms. Four peach trees mark the edges of the fenced off property, and this summer, they were loaded with fruit that no one could access except the birds and raccoons. This 2 1/2 acre parcel is the last remaining agriculturally zoned property in the city, and its future is up in the air. One group trying to purchase it aims to maximize on its zoning and turn it into an instructional urban farm.

My neighbors are among the best I've ever had. A neighborhood cop lives on the north side of me in the house in which he grew up and raised his own children. He's crawled up on my roof to check for leaks and his son has helped carry furniture upstairs. We've walked our dogs together in our nearby park. On the south side of me, an older woman, also a gardener, frequently sits on her back deck in the afternoon sun, enjoying a beer. When I can, I sit on my back deck too, and we talk about gardens and life over our shared fence while we both look out over our yards. Last week, just after I arrived home one day, a neighbor from across the street whom I had not yet met rang my doorbell. She came over to tell me that I had left the garage door open the other day, and she had watched to make sure no one snooped in my garage until she got so anxious she came over and figured out how to close it from the inside, running out without tripping its sensor.

My house is at the top of one of the hills in the district. From the top of my backyard, I can look straight out to an unencumbered view of downtown and the Bay Bridge. A few blocks away sprawls McLaren Park, a rangy, shaggy-haired park criss-crossed with trails. On weekends, families hold barbecues in the picnic areas, and corners of the otherwise peaceful park bump with music and spicy meats on the grill, so many flavors of sound and scent. In the park, the poppies are beginning to bloom already, and more wildflower waves are on their way. Dribbling now from a spigot, but until a couple decades ago—according to my neighbor—trickling right out from the side of the hill, a natural spring feeds what becomes Yosemite Creek.

Last year, the city officially designated my neighborhood San Francisco's Garden District. This neighborhood of agricultural history, neighbors that talk to each other and watch out for each other, coyotes, and real back yards is unique in this city. The Garden District isn't just the identity of Portola's past. Portola, like every good gardener, plants with anticipation of the seasons ahead. The Portola District blossoms and will fruit, again and again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Horse Heart

Yesterday, I read the prayers of the faithful in a funeral. Mostly, I looked at the prayer as I read, but occasionally I looked up at the pews. The church was full of people who loved my friend: fellow faculty members who had appreciated her charm and humor, neighbors who couldn't help but be sucked into her warmth, students who she had protected, loved, and teased.

Of course, the room was also full of her family. One daughter gave a eulogy so wonderful and rich with my friend's essence, I marveled at her composure. Her daughter told us that her mother knew all the life stories of the employees and regular customers at the McDonalds where my friend stopped for her ridiculously large daily Diet Coke. She reminded us of my friend's deep and abiding fandom for the Cleveland Browns. She wasn't from Cleveland or even Ohio, but she was always on the side of the underdog. The Browns's one win this year was the day she was discharged from the hospital.

She was tiny and mighty with love. Life, as we know, is no competition, but if it were, she'd win in the hugeness of heart award. I already miss her.

Another friend, X, who similarly embraces the world with an octopus love, gave me a copy of this poem in the autumn because she knew it was a poem written for me. I have it on my bulletin board in my office at work.

A big horse heart, we can't set a better goal for ourselves.

"How to Triumph Like A Girl"
Ada Limon
Bright, Dead Things

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let's be honest, I like
that they're ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don't you want to believe it?
Don't you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it's going to come in first.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cutting Down

I cut down a tree this weekend. I still have a few more to go.

This one, the first tree to go in my yard, was slow. I cut off all the branches I could to reduce the weight. Using bungee cords, I put some pressure on the tree in the direction I wanted it to fall. I cut a notch out of the falling side. With a band saw, I cut and cut, then came the sharp crack and swoosh of the remaining leaves as the tree fell.

Cutting down trees, even to give me more sun and space, makes me a little melancholy. It's a life and a home and a silhouette that will never be again. To counter this twinge, I use as much as I can from the trees I cut. In previous yards, the small branches served as pea sticks for bush beans and flowers that needed support, and the trunks served as firewood. The felled trees supported and warmed. In this yard, I'm saving the long, elegantly shaped trunks with a few branches on them. I'll use them to build trellises for runner beans and sweet peas. This weekend, I spent a lot of time looking at the first trunk I cut, examining how layers of papery bark fit against each other, how the tree's grain twisted gently through its years of growth. All of this carbon coming together in this particular shape, all this energy, it really is a miracle. This trunk will be in my yard for years to come, just in a different function, supporting a different beauty.

In my world, a tree is never simply a tree.

My friend is dying. In the fall of 2015, when what I had previously understood of stability slipped from my feet, in that very same week, she received her diagnosis. We worked together every day through the school year last year, laughing, crying a little in the beginning, but laughing a hell of a lot more, all the way into the summer. She taught me the practical bits of librarianship, the cataloging, the book sources. We decided together the experience we wanted our students to have when they entered the space, and we made big changes to what had previously existed. The library is a happy place we crafted for ourselves and our students. With the joy in work she shared with me and that we kindled together, I know I can continue to make big, positive changes in the library and the school.

This summer, her sickness worsened, and by November this year, she could no longer continue working and had to leave our daily laughter.

She's a physically small person, and each time I see her, she's smaller. Her spirit and humor are as big as ever though, and when I visit her we talk and laugh until she runs out of breath for words. "What's the scoop? What's the news? What's the juice?" she asks when I arrive. So I tell her what's happening with me and we gossip about work, but we also inevitably end up talking about her death, too.

She is looking at her life now, examining how it has turned and branched, her role as mother, wife, sister and daughter, businesswoman, and eventual high school librarian. She's reflective. She's reading a lot. A few weeks ago, when I visited her, she gave me the latest book she had loved reading, Neil Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book about the wonder of childhood, nostalgia, mystery, and celebration of the unknown. I loved reading it, too.

She is teaching me to die gracefully and appreciatively.

She says she hasn't lit the world on fire. I don't agree. I tell her that her daughters are building mighty flames, and dammit, I am, in my own way, too. She held the match for me.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


I've been doing some research lately, of the online dating sort here in San Francisco. I've collected the following findings*:

  • 88.3% of straight men in their 40s who list themselves as eligible on dating apps include the phrase "I'm looking for my partner in crime" in their profiles. 11% of this group abbreviate the phrase to PiC.
  • 76.7% of men ages 37 to 55 include a picture of themselves doing one of the following activities: jumping out of a plane, skiing difficult moguls in expensive gear, climbing a sheer cliff, charging a giant barrel on a surfboard, or flying over a ridge on a mountain bike. 48.9% of this group include pictures of themselves doing more than one of the activities listed above.** 
  • 93.2% of men from ages 37 to 74 are looking for a woman "preferably in her mid-20s."
  • 37.8% of men over the age of 60 list themselves as being in their low 40s, but in their profile reveal their actual age, along with the following (or similar) statement: "I've listed myself as 42 because that's how I feel, and my friends say I look and act young."
  • The word "adventure" appears at least three times in 73.2% of listed profiles.
  • The older a man is, the higher the chance he will include a picture of himself sitting on a parked motorcycle. 
  • In the profiles of men in their 40s who say they like to read, 85.3% mention the Oxford comma. Only 23.0% of this group use a comma anywhere in their profile.
  • 65.1% state they prefer "meeting in person" to "endless messaging." 52.8% of this group flake out on the dates they arrange with potential connections.
  • When meeting or talking on the phone with a potential connection for the first time, 38.9% will spend the entire time talking, never asking the potential connection a single question.

*These numbers, though exaggerated, aren't as far off as you may think.

**I apparently live in a city full of adrenaline junkies. That's fine. I appreciate adrenaline. I also, however, enjoy reading, cooking, and conversation, among many other non-adrenaline producing activities. The junkies I've been out with appear to struggle unless they are getting their fix.

This sounds miserable, I know. But it isn't. I've actually been (mostly) having fun. People are fascinating, and since I have no deadlines, a date that doesn't go anywhere is not a failure. Instead, I've discovered great bars and restaurants, and I've grown confident in my straightforward exit strategy: "Thank you. I've had a nice time, but I know we're not a connection."

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Meadow Rx

At the home on the edge of the Southern California canyon where I lived for a while, I had a meadow. It was small, it took a while to grow in, but it was a great pleasure to watch fill in and change, catching light and breeze. Here, at my new home on the slope by the bay with skyscrapers and the Bay Bridge rising to the north, I need another meadow. I need a place that adds to the peaceful beauty of my yard, a place where Indy can sit in the sun, that needs little water, that moves with the frequent singing wind, and in which I can tuck bulbs that will poke their petals up like surprise satin gifts throughout the year. Lawn? No way—this is so much better, and I don't need to mow it.

Over my winter break, I've been working on making this happen whenever it isn't raining, but it's been raining a lot so my progress was slower than I liked. I pulled out two banks of rosemary because no one needs that much rosemary. The previous owner, probably in an effort to make the yard look tidy quickly, laid solid white plastic sheeting—not landscape cloth—under a deep layer of mulch. While no weeds can grow up through the plastic sheeting, no water can run through it either, and I want my soil to absorb as much water as possible into the underground aquifer, rather than lose the rain as it runs off into the bay. So, I've pulled lots of plastic sheeting out in preparation for planting. In the corner of my yard, under the robust manzanita tree, probably the selection Dr. Hurd (tall for a manzanita and covered right now with plentiful white flowers), I have worked to install the small meadow.

Unlike the very drought tolerant Carex praegracilis I planted as the backbone of the meadow in the dry Southern California yard, I've planted Carex pansa and lots of it; it is more appropriate for my current damper climate. Right now it looks like bad hair plugs, but it will grow in.

I bought the Carex pansa plugs at Bay Natives nursery, a nursery on the far eastern edge of the city, tucked up against the lapping waters of the San Francisco Bay. There, loose chickens and roosters strut and play soccer with snails, landscape-clearing goats talk happily to each other in the pen near the fruit and vegetable plants, James Taylor blasts over the speakers, and feathers are everywhere, settling over the large propagation area and flitting between the gravel stones in the parking lot. (As a side note, I really, really don't like James Taylor. I had a roommate who would play him every time she was depressed which was often during that period of her life, so in my brain, his music means deep sorrow. I try to avoid it whenever possible. But I won't hold James Taylor against Bay Natives. The nursery offers so much that brings me joy that it easily wipes out the residual gray attached to him.)

Tucked among the Carex plugs, I planted narcissus, ipheon, alliums—all necessarily gopher resistant—some California native bulbs and perennials, as well as lots of poppies. This meadow of mine will probably be too colorful its first spring. But, after having been hungry for my own soil again for so long, I want all the flowers. I may have to edit over time, but this will at least let me know what works well here.

Some people need live music fixes, frequent hits of adrenaline, or a tri-weekly doses of SoulCycle to feel human. Those are pleasant experiences for me, but not necessities. As for me, I'm a dirt junkie.