Sunday, May 26, 2013

My Father's Birthday

Today is my dad's birthday, and as I garden and grow influenced by a model of life my parents gave me, it isn't hard to wander through my yard and see my dad all over it.

While my mother is much more a visionary when it comes to design and a steel trap when it comes to remembering the specifics of individual plants and their needs, my father is more methodical. His vegetable gardens, unlike mine, have straight lines. Unlike me, he finishes garden projects in a timely manner instead of them lingering on in various states of completion until finally, finally, I manage to complete them. 

Dolly Parton's maiden bloom in the rose garden; my father loves music, and though Dolly Parton doesn't appear on his play lists, the fact that a musician lives in my rose garden is very appropriate. While I may be very wrong, I don't think there is a rose named Bruce Springsteen.

The earliest of my two apricot trees, Goldkist, is beginning to surrender its crop. When we lived in the Central Valley, we had a home orchard with several apricot trees; those are the first apricots I remember eating, and they shaped my expectations of what apricots should be. My father pruned, sprayed, and monitored those trees. I remember him directing me on which trees during their winter dormancy I should dump the manure I cleaned from my horse's stall. It seemed to me he had a system in his head of how much each tree needed.

The grapes have set fruit. My dad loves wine.

If my father hadn't gone into business after the Navy, perhaps a career as a history teacher would have suited him. Whenever he has a chance, Dad will teach anyone interested both the small, intimate stories of history and the big arcs that shaped the future. When I see Jefferson's poppy in my garden, I think of my dad.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Last week, I wrote about our surprise May rain. Today, there is no more rain, only heat, surprise May heat: 99 right now and an expected 103 tomorrow. The flopped over onion tops called me outside into the heat anyway, and I have a hard time resisting the call of the vegetable, so I went out and harvested them.
Texas Legends, just after harvest.
Hybrid Southern Belles, just after harvest. 
I've never had success with onions like I did this year. After seeing my parents' gorgeous onions the last couple years, I ordered seedlings from their source, Dixondale Farms, then planted them right away when I received them in January in soil well-amended with compost and bonemeal. I kept them watered through the dry winter and spring.

In my garden that smelled like sweet onion salads, summertime picnics, and prepping for hamburger cookouts, I placed an old rack over my red wagon and created a portable drying rack I can roll in and out of the shed. The onions will dry out on the wagon-rack until the tops are wispy and the outer layers are silky wrappers. Since they're sweet onions, they won't last too long, so we'll be eating them in all sorts of incarnations around here in the next couple months.

Inside the shed, more garlic has joined the varieties I've already harvested. This week, I pulled up the Red Toch, a reliable Artichoke variety. Basque Turban and Belarus, early varieties I already posted about, are coloring beautifully as they dry.

Red Toch
Basque Turban, like other Turban varieties, gets pretty candy stripes that darken to purple when completely dry.
Belarus is beginning to get pretty color, too.
Back outside, under bird netting, Jewel blueberries are beginning to color. Summer is coming, and I'm hungry for it.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

My Saint Crispin's

"But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending man alive." Shakespeare, Henry V
It's heavy, the air, with honeysuckle, sweet peas, and wet earth. Lightning keeps smacking the mountains, followed by the growls of thunder. Looking west out my living room window, I can see the crepe myrtle sagging under the weight of the fat drops, but through the rain, the sun, a washed tangerine, sets over the west hills. Everything glimmers gold. Along the canyon edge, each car is a slither-slide as it passes.

It's May 9th, and it is raining at my house. I'm not sure it is raining very many other places around here right now, but here it pours. I can't remember another May with rain. It's beautiful.

Tomorrow morning, my AP English Language students settle in at 7:45 in the gym. They turn off their phones, place them in envelopes, and hand them to the proctor. All along far edge of the gym, they line their backpacks and purses. The proctor gives each of them two sharpened pencils and a pen, as well as a sealed-shut exam labeled with their names and individual AP numbers. When the proctor says go, they've got an hour to complete 54 questions on five passages, assessing their rhetorical analysis skills, vocabulary, understanding of syntax, and advanced reading comprehension. After the hour is up, they get a 15 minute break. I tell them to jump around, do cartwheels, shoot some hoops, do anything they can to get the blood out of their butts after sitting for an hour and reading and bubbling, because, as soon as they sit down again, the hard haul begins.

The proctor and her assistants hand out two packets: one includes the essay questions and one the lined paper in which they're to write their essays. When the proctor says go this time, they have 15 minutes to read the seven sources for the synthesis essay. When the proctor says go the second time, they get to start writing. They start with the synthesis essay, an argument essay in which they have to respond to an abstract question in concrete form, including at least three of the seven sources in their argument. They have 40 minutes in which to write this essay. The second essay is the rhetorical analysis essay. Here, in another 40 minutes, they read a complex argument and explain how the author moves his audience towards his rhetorical purpose. And finally, the argument essay comes along, and students receive a philosophical position which they need to defend, challenge, or qualify in some way, all in 40 minutes. They have 120 minutes plus 15 minutes of reading time for three challenging essays.

And this year, my students are going to eat that test up, smile, and run up the rally stand steps as if they were Rocky making his way, two steps at a time, up the steps of the Philly Museum of Art.

They sky has changed as I've written. It no longer glows orange but a hot neon lavender. Even the trees look recolored; only the crepe myrtle stays black in silhouette and weighted.

I'm a jumble of feelings for my students. I'm so proud of their bravery and humor going into this test: today we sang Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" at the top of our lungs. Yet, I'm scared for them. My students' pass rate is never as high as I hope it will be, though it has risen every year I've taught the course. But this year, this year I think it is really going to happen. We've worked so hard. My students have written more, read more difficult texts, analyzed more, and challenged themselves more than they could have expected when they entered my classroom in August. One girl said to me last week, "You're killing me, Wenger." I asked her if it was worth it. "Absolutely. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Why does this test matter?

Most of my students live on incomes that qualify them for free-lunch waivers; for them, the test costs $15. For everyone else, the AP exam costs $90. Either way, if a student passes with a 3 out of 5 for most schools and a 4 out of 5 for elite universities, the student receives college credit for English Composition. In other words, if they pass this test they take in high school, they've paid either $15 or $90 for a credits that might cost them thousands in college.

Now, more than ever, my students are fighting for those credits.

And so, with windows wide open to let the thunder in, I have attempted to calm my nerves. First, I wandered outside to plant more summer squash, a sturdy open-pollinated variety, Dark Star zucchini. I had already walked the dog, so I played fetch with him in the rain. My heart was all zingy still, so I came inside and set out to mix up a Manhattan, my go-to drink, but ended up instead with a twist, replacing the sweet vermouth with homemade nocino (spiced green walnut liqueur). The drink has done its magic, letting my little tension springs free in my head.

There isn't anything I can do to help my students anymore. Tomorrow, they have to go into battle alone. I'm hoping that the thunder, rattling my house and ears and brain like war calls, is on their side.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

It's Starting to Smell

The Love-in-a-Mist is starting to bloom, which means it is also time for something else.

We have entered Allumania, the time of year all things allium start to go bonkers. 

Egyptian Walking Onions send up their curly tops against the fennel.
Belarus Garlic, just after harvest. It is one of my earliest-to-harvest garlics.
Today's haul of Belarus garlic.
Basque Turban, another very early variety, pulled a week ago and cleaned up today, ready to hang dry.
And, as if you didn't need another picture of Belarus, here is a close-up. So much more garlic to come!
The onions look better than ever: this is Texas Legend.
An elephant garlic sends up its scape in front of a sweet pea tower.
The elephant garlic scape.