Monday, June 29, 2009

End of June Garden Update

I have not written about my gardens since early June, when tilling the second garden exhausted me. With June about to end, I thought an update was in order, especially since we have gone digital on the photography front and I can now show off some of the results.

The tomatoes are going great guns. I have caged some, I have staked some, I have more yet to stake.Everywhere I look, there are yellow blossoms. By August, I should be awash in tomatoes. I plan on canning some, as well as freezing some (an idea I first read about in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and tried successfully last year), but most of all I plan on eating lots fresh off the vine, which is my idea of a perfect meal.

Bonus: Warren does not like fresh tomatoes, so I don't even have to think about being polite and sharing.

The peppers continue to lag, although recently they have shown some mild interest in growing again. Lag behind? I have blossoms setting on a pepper plant that is less than 6" high. I had such high hopes for the peppers; my hopes are pretty battered at this date. The biggest plants are the plain old green bell peppers that my dad brought over. I don't mind bell peppers, but I had so hoped for Purple Beauties, Sweet Chocolates, and mighty King of the North. (Not Munchkin Delight, which is apparently what I planted instead.)

The broccoli is tall and showing no signs of doing anything except looking beautiful. (Warren,
whose parents gardened, told me the broccoli will come. We'll see.) I have had to clip some leaves here and there because they were overshadowing everything around them. Broccoli is pretty though right after a rain.

The artichokes are racing the calendar; artichokes are slow to mature in this part of the country and it will be nip and tuck to see if they bear anything before the weather turns cold. Close by, the eggplant also has showed signs of being interested in growing. I don't remember which plants are which, so I will have to see what comes of them.

All around the rim of the first garden are herbs. I did not start the herbs inside; I just threw the seeds - all of them - in the herb "containers" made from filling the center inserts of the concrete blocks that edge this garden. While preparing dinner last night, I walked out the back door with a pair of scissors cut the first cilantro, basil, and oregano of the season. I have never grown herbs before and was just about knocked over by the sharp fragrances that rose up as I cut. I can see that herbs are seriously addictive just for the scent alone.

The second garden, my first year "sod garden," is at the back of the lot where it get soggy when it rains. And it has been raining this summer. I found out after the fact that pumpkins don't particularly like to be soggy, but they came up all the same. I have two rows of zucchini seedlings, which at this stage look just like pumpkin seedlings, and five (yes, five!) rows of pumpkin seedlings, which at this stage look just like zucchini seedlings. I am banking on a lot of pumpkins, and hope I am not disappointed. There is also a short row of potatoes, solely because Scott from two houses down had seedling potatoes from a friend of his that he could not plant as his yard is ruled by a walnut tree. I don't know a thing about potatoes, but these seem to be doing fine.

This has been a learning year for me and I have been keeping notes. Note: Start the pepper seedling earlier next year. I think February and not March should do it. Note: When starting seedlings, one seed per pot really does work. It saves me having to separate the seedlings later.

Note: Weeding is weeding is weeding. It lasts all summer. I supposed if I mulched, that would cut down on the weeds, but I could not even think of mulching until the peppers got more than an inch high lest I lose them in the mulch. So I just weed. It is hot, tiring, aching work but there is the payoff of a cold shower afterwards.

Besides, it turns out I like weeding. I thought I would hate it, but it reminds me of swimming laps (which I do regularly): you fall into a rhythm and just go along lost in the movement until you look up and the garden is done (kinda, sorta).

I find my mind untangling and unknotting while I weed. I am not only turning soil but turning thoughts. Like the plants, my thoughts stand a little straighter and are a little more defined after a good workout in the garden.

Voltaire wrote "il faut cultiver nos jardins" (we must cultivate our gardens). I am cultivating both this summer: the figurative and the literal, the dreams and the plants, the one within and the one without.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sam Has a Birthday This Weekend

I wrote about my son Sam when he moved to Oregon in early April. Sam is still out there, looking for work, living in a house with four other young adults, including his brother Ben. He turns 19 at the end of this month. This will be the first time ever that I have not spent at least a portion of his birthday with him, so this post is in lieu of baking Sam a birthday cake.

Sam has made for some great parenting moments over the years. There was the time when Sam was young - five, perhaps, maybe six - and he and Keegan, a year younger, decided it would be a good idea to throw rocks at Mrs. Roof's storm door. Mrs. Roof, who lived down the alley, was elderly and largely housebound. They tossed rocks until they broke the glass, then fled to their respective homes. I was not home when Mrs. Roof called to complain, but the story related by Sam's father was that when asked if he knew anything about Mrs. Roof's door, Sam denied any knowledge, then suddenly shouted, "I did it! I didn't know what I was doing! I'm crazy! I'm insane!"

Then there was the time that we took a lengthy car vacation from Ohio to California and back again, visiting a number of national parks along the way. The last stop, before barreling back to Ohio, was the Grand Canyon. Sam, who was eight that summer, marched up to the rim, looked at the spectacular vista spread out before him, then promptly turned around and sat down with his back to it. When I asked him why, Sam looked up - angry, homesick, on the verge of tears - and shouted "All you've done on this vacation is show me rocks!"

He refused to look at the Grand Canyon again.

There have been other moments as well: watching him tune his cello by harmonics when he was only six, because he could hear the tones so well, and then watching him put the cello down and refuse to play it ever again at age 11 rather than bend for the strings teacher who would not bend for him. There was the eighth grade science fair where he pulled off a Superior solely on the strength of his knowledge and ability to talk through the topic, having extrapolated data based on only one experiment. There was the one and only prom he attended, as the sophomore date of an older girlfriend, for which he groused and grumbled his way into a tux, posed for the mandatory pictures, then came home hours later exclaiming "That was a blast!"

My friend Katrina recently wrote me: "How is it that when you write, you make even problems with your kids sound poetic?"

How indeed? Probably because I exercise poetic license and exorcise the worst moments. There have been many; Sam and I have had more than our share of just plain awful scenes.

I am fortunate in that I was given a gift by Sam that changed the course of our relationship and kept it from unraveling entirely. Sam at sixteen was in court-ordered counseling; I participated in a family group independent of Sam. Sam's counselors decided he would benefit from a joint session. At it, one counselor asked Sam which parent he thought he was most like? Without missing a beat, Sam said "my mom." The counselor who had worked separately with both of us immediately said "I agree."

I had been sitting there expecting to hear "my dad," as every battle I struggled through with Sam reminded me of his father, who I had divorced after many long and difficult years together. Every time Sam and I crossed swords, I would see his father in him and my defenses would go up.

And here was Sam saying, so easily, "my mom."

Sam seeing what I couldn't - the similarities between us - made me take a long look at Sam, at me, and at our relationship. Life did not become idyllic, but our relationship changed permanently for the better. I started to see Sam for who he really was, rather than see in him motives and attitudes that belonged to someone else, and I learned to trust him and his emotions in ways I could not have before that moment.

We wouldn't have come as far as we have - either of us - without his revelation.

When Sam was a little boy, he once had a perfect day. Sam had kindergarten in the morning, and something exciting happened there - maybe an assembly or maybe just a great kindergarten day. Afterwards, his father took him to the grocery store when they were giving away lots of food samples, which Sam sampled liberally. Walking back to the car, Sam spied a penny on the pavement and scooped it up, exclaiming, "man, is this my lucky day or what?"

My birthday wish for my little boy all grown up is that he have a life full of lucky days - and that he never lose the ability to recognize them when they come along.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Clicking Through Life

Personal Finance (PF) blogs fascinate me. The ones I read regularly, all written by women, tackle on a small and daily level the multitude of ways one can live more cost-effectively and conscientiously in our consumerist society.

(I am not a PF blogger for lots of reasons, including that I could not stick to one topic if I tried. My writing is more akin to walking on the beach: I write about whatever flotsam and jetsam I come across.)

An event that often pops up in the PF world is the "no-spend" event, be it a day, week, or month. A no-spend whatever means exactly that: do not spend money. On a monthly scale, it means setting a specific level of spending (not counting housing and utilities) to cover whatever crosses the threshold for the month - gas, food, entertainment, clothing, gifts - and sticking to that amount. A number of PF bloggers have also joined "the compact," a San Francisco based movement whose members agree not to buy new products of any kind for a one-year period (most after setting out certain personalized exemptions).

No-spend events are fun to watch from the peanut gallery and that is exactly where I intend to stay. While I have many no-spend days in any given month, I doubt I'd do well with an "official" no-spend event for the same reason that I avoid any diet involving counting calories - my mind doesn't work that way. Set me a daily caloric limit and I will find five ways to amortize a Snickers bar into the calorie count. I have a feeling I'd approach a no-spend event with the same spirit.

Some PFers appear to pull off these events effortlessly. They write of being energized by the creative ways in which they feed their families, have fun outings, decorate their homes, and give to their favorite charitable causes, all without spending. Others admit to weariness at times - of hitting the frugal wall, so to speak. Sometimes creativity wanes when faced with beans and rice for the fifth night in a row or the whiny child who wants "just one little candy bar, mom! Just one!"

Sometimes the bloggers' efforts recall the words of poet Langston Hughes:

It's such a bore
Being always poor.

The bloggers I read are not poor, but at times their self-imposed limitations weigh them down as if they were.

One of my favorite bloggers, Sharon at "Musings of a Midlife Mom," recently tried a no-spend June. Last night she wrote of spending above and beyond her goal, then said:

I haven't added everything up yet, but I can tell you I don't regret any of the purchases I made today. I needed it. Yes, that's right, I needed it...I needed to do something fun, and in this case, it cost some money.

I've reached my goal of paying for a lake house this month. I sent the last check on the 15th. So, I've decided to officially end my No Spend month today, after only three weeks. Not that I'm going to go into a spending frenzy on the last week, I simply can't because there aren't enough funds in my checking account to do that. But the stress of worrying about going over a certain amount has taken it's toll.

What came to mind reading Sharon was Jane O'Reilly's essays about clicks and clunks in the feminist movement.

O'Reilly, a founder of Ms. magazine, is the essayist who identified the click, that moment in a woman's life when she was radicalized by experiencing gender inequality. Several years later, she wrote a follow up essay in which she talked about being tired, of being tired of doing it all, and of being afraid that being tired meant she wasn't a feminist. Those were clunks. After recalling that clicks were "engaging and stimulating and tend to strengthen," clunks were when one "got unreasonably dispirited and embarrassed by minor failures."

After chewing on the problem, O'Reilly concluded that the antidote for clunks included imagination and laughter.

I agree. I think Sharon would also agree; her sense of humor is one of the reasons I enjoy her blog. Certainly from what I can read, she is not letting her early termination of her no-spend experiment dampen her life.

Life is full of clicks and clunks, and not just in the feminist movement. Clicks are energizing, regardless of where and when they occur. Often they are the laughter-filled moments that dispel the clunks. The small moments I celebrate are clicks of the first order of magnitude.

That is a good thing, because my life has a few clunks in it. Right now my garden has a couple of clunks posing as pepper plants in it. The car transmission is making clunking sounds, and that could be a major clunk. This coming week will be unusually busy and it is too early to tell whether that will be a click or a clunk, or both.

But the tomatoes are blossoming, we just finished a great week with Warren's daughter, and the fireflies are back.

Click, click, click.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

All Our Daughters

I returned late last night from four days in Chicago. It was cold, windy, rainy, and glorious.

I spent the time in ways I had not anticipated before leaving. The short version is this, for those who read my post last week: Lindsay and I did not go chasing down the ghosts of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (although Warren and I were lucky enough to catch sight of a small piece of it - a ticket booth - in, of all places, Oak Park). Lindsay and I did walk for miles on Friday, after we finally met up. (This is not an exaggeration. We walked from the Congress Plaza Hotel to Buckingham Fountain, then along the lakefront to Navy Pier, then to the Tribune Tower and back up Michigan Avenue to the Palmer House. That's 4.4 miles, for those of you counting.)

There were many great Chicago moments, despite the cold and the rain. I attended two days of the national conference of the League of American Orchestras, where I heard and saw some amazing performances and I participated in some impassioned roundtables about the value of music. Warren and I had a wonderful walk around Oak Park our first night in town, followed by a late evening League reception in the stunning new Modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute. Just walking through the Impressionism galleries en route to the reception was celebration enough. While waiting for Lindsay on Friday, I had the tremendous luck to arrive on the University of Chicago campus just as commencement was ending, which means I got to see and hear the bagpipe recessional while all the bells of Rockefeller Chapel - no small assortment - pealed.

But the lasting memory of this trip will be my Saturday morning with Lindsay and Stephanie and the wonder and delight of seeing the adults our daughters are becoming.

I use the phrase "our daughters" loosely, because I have two sons. My experience raising girls, until very recently, has been largely vicarious. But it has been a rich vicarious experience over the years. When it comes to Lindsay and Stephanie, I have known them since their childhood as both were classmates and friends of my older son, Ben. I have known Lindsay since she was five, Stephanie since she was seven. I have been fortunate beyond words to watch them navigate childhood, adolescence, college, and, now, young adulthood.

Stephanie moved to Chicago last year, after graduating from college. Lindsay had let her know we were coming to the city; Stephanie joined the three of us Friday night for a concert at Millennium Park and dinner afterwards. We had so much fun talking that she suggested Lindsay and I meet her Saturday morning to see her neighborhood farmers market and share a cup on coffee.

Stephanie lives on a quiet side street in Lincoln Park on the north side, not far from the lake. From the bus stop, you stroll down a tree-lined street filled with late 19th and early 20th century Chicago-style apartment buildings. Her apartment is in an early 20th century yellow brick with the original interior woodwork still intact. We arrived to find Stephanie's cousin Susannah, who was in Chicago for the weekend. (I have known Susannah for many years as well, and she too had turned into a young adult while my back was turned.) Despite rain, we headed off to the farmers market, several blocks away. We walked and talked; Susannah and I discussed sustainable local agriculture (of deep interest to us both) while Stephanie and Lindsay caught up from when they had last seen each other.

Susannah had other places she needed to be, so she left as the three of us made our way back to Stephanie's apartment. It being lunchtime, we all eschewed a proper meal for Molly's Cupcakes instead. Over cupcakes and milk, the three of us talked for the next two hours.

It was a wonderful give and take, primarily between Stephanie and Lindsay, of where they are in their respective lives and where they see the future going. Stephanie talked about the adventures of being in pharmaceutical marketing, of being young and single in a city as vibrant as Chicago, and of her hopes and dreams. Lindsay, who has taken a year off after college and is presently deciding whether to attend graduate school or start a career, spoke of the soaring feeling of being young with so many choices laid out before her, and of her hopes and dreams. School, where to live, travel, salaries, dating, jobs, careers, marriage, children, lifestyles now and in the future - everything was offered up for conversation.

I watched them light up, grow serious, or break into laughter while they talked. It was one of those beautiful and glowing moments that shimmer and hang in the air.

It was two hours before we all realized we still had other obligations for the day. Stephanie hugged me hard, thanking me for coming to see her; she and Lindsay made plans to meet later.

Lindsay and I grabbed an El downtown so she could get her car and I could meet up with Warren and head back home. When we got back down to the Loop, we hugged goodbye. Lindsay was excited about what the evening held with Stephanie and her friends; she thanked me for inviting her to join us in Chicago and show her a slice of the city. I thanked her: she gave me a gift by sharing my favorite city with me.

As Warren and I headed to the Skyway, I tried to convey the magic of the cupcake lunch. I was talking so fast my words tumbled over themselves, relating my wonder of hearing these two sing a beautiful duet of youth and hope and Life. I have been turning it over in my head and heart ever since, trying to capture it on paper and knowing I am only putting down fleeting glimpses.

You had to be there.

Both Stephanie's and Lindsay's moms are longtime friends of mine. I am writing each a note telling them what they already know: that their daughters have grown into beautiful, thoughtful, bright, funny young women. They are filled with the dreams and talents and hopes that I would think all of us would wish for all our daughters, indeed, for all our children.

I have been blessed to be a small part of Stephanie's and Lindsay's lives and watch their transformation from girlhood to womanhood. I cannot wait to see what their futures hold.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Wednesday morning we are getting up very, very early and driving to Chicago, where Warren will spend the rest of the week attending the national conference of the League of American Orchestras and I will spend the rest of the week enjoying Chicago.

"Enjoying Chicago" means I am in for lots and lots of walking, as the number one thing I love to do in Chicago is look at the architecture. And there is no better city in the world than Chicago in which to look at architecture.

On Friday, I am being joined by Lindsay, who is the same age as my older son (23) and who I have known since she was five. Lindsay also loves architecture.

Both of us are fascinated with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was the first true world's fair and which took place in Jackson Park on the south side of Chicago. The Columbian Exposition featured the White City, a fanciful collection of Beaux Arts buildings that ringed the Grand Basin. With the exception of the Fine Arts building, which was built of brick to protect the works within, the buildings were built of staff, a plaster and straw mix, overlaid onto metal frames. They were only temporary.

After the Exposition closed, most of the buildings either burned down and were razed. The Fine Arts Building quietly rotted for a number of years before being restored and transformed into the Museum of Science and Industry, which has just celebrated its 75th anniversary. Other than that and the Midway, there are only traces of the Exposition left. Some of what we plan for Friday is looking for those traces.

I first saw Chicago when I was 18½. I had been admitted to the University of Chicago, which was built of the north edge of the Midway, and my parents drove me to college. I had never seen the campus, only studied the college brochures and catalogues. (This was long before internet, websites, and virtual tours.) I navigated my father off the Dan Ryan, down Garfield to Cottage Grove, then south on Cottage Grove until we turned onto the Midway and I first saw that magnificent wall of Gothic architecture.

Although I didn't realize it back then, Warren has a lot of Chicago roots. His mother was born and raised in Evanston, and until Warren was well into high school, his grandmother lived in the greater Chicago area. As a result, he and his siblings made frequent trips to Chicago. When Warren was 20, he spent the summer in La Grange, working at the Musser plant. He was leaving Chicago and returning to Delaware to start his junior year at Ohio State just as I was arriving on the Midway. In looking back, I figured we missed each other by one week.

Warren and I talk about everything, but one discussion we tend not to visit is "what if?" We chose other paths back then. Life happened. We'd both rather celebrate we have now than wring our hands over what never was.

We do a great job of celebrating the here and the now.

In the past, I had always felt as if pieces of me were scattered all over the country and I could never quite gather them all up. That sense of being scattered was something I'd carried with me from childhood, for lots of reasons. There were times, more than there should have been, when I felt my life was built of staff - an impermanent fa├žade much like the 1893 Exposition buildings.

It took me awhile to figure it out, but it turns out I wasn't made of staff after all. I was made of something more resilient and lasting. Thanks to a great therapist, great friends, a not so great illness that taught me great things, and the incomparable love of Warren, I have been restored, not unlike the transformation of the wreck of the Fine Arts building.

The beauty of my life now is that all of the pieces are gathered. I am no longer torn between here and somewhere or something else. I am finally home, literally and figuratively.

Friday Lindsay and I will be looking for the remains of an amazing event, the first world's fair ever. We will look at the outside of the Museum of Science and Industry and compare it to the photos from the fair to see the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Columbian Exposition.

I know just how it feels.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Running Races

My friend Cindy got me thinking about rat races. We email daily and hers yesterday morning started out this way:

Every Friday i think.....WHY do "we" spend so much of our lives doing something we can't stand? Of course i know the answer! TO HAVE A ROOF OVER OUR HEADS, feed our kids (2 & 4 legged!), do the things we ACTUALLY enjoy doing. But think about just how much time we spend at our jobs. 8 hours a day ...........pushing papers (whether paperless offices or not, we're still pushing papers!) It almost seems like made-up work. Instead of gardening, canning, preparing fields, building, things that feed us, house us.

Although she didn't use the phrase "rat race" in her email, she was describing one in the sense of futility that descends over many people when they have to work at an unsatisfying job just to pay the bills.

Everyone has his or her own definition of "rat race." I know someone who has practiced tax law in a medium sized, conservative, big city firm for the last quarter century and has found the job to be absolutely soulless. If you asked him why he has persisted, he would probably mutter something how life is just a big rat race. Cindy works in an insurance office, selling lines of insurance. She does it to make the mortgage payment and buy feed for her horses and keep the truck running, when she'd rather be massaging horses (her side business) and planting a garden.

Dropping out of the rat race is not easy and not always attainable. As Cindy points out, there is food to put on the table (or in the manger, in her case). And let's face it: as appealing as Thoreau's notion of living simply alongside Walden pond may be, almost all of us have utility bills and the mortgage or rent to pay. To drop out of the rat race means to make lifestyle choices that aren't always possible or practical.

I am lucky in that I have part-time work that I find satisfying and meaningful. Because I am an independent contractor and not an employee, I set my own hours and keep my own schedule. (There are some downsides: I make less money than I would if I worked full time and I have no benefits, including medical insurance.)

I am fortunate beyond words that I can sustain a satisfactory lifestyle at a modest income level. I don't put much stock in new cars, eating out, new clothes, or jewelry and makeup. My share of the monthly household expenses is significantly less than mine alone used to be. All the same, money is tight at times.

Broke is broke, but poverty is relative, and while I am sometimes broke, I am not poor.

Nor is my life a rat race. Almost four years ago, while recuperating from the second of two stem cell transplants meant to arrest my bone marrow cancer, I chose to retire my law license. I truly enjoyed practicing, but I was not the same person I was before the cancer, neither physically nor personally. My life irrevocably changed the moment my doctor said "you have cancer." Retiring my license permanently sidelined me from a rat race I had been running for some time. (A fun rat race, but a rat race all the same.)

I've never regretted it.

Despite that decision, my life is still sometimes a mouse race, if not a rat race. When I married Warren, we blended our schedules. With his job at the Symphony, his performances, his parenting schedule, my work, and my community volunteer activities, let alone our home projects, family, and friends, our life sometimes moves at a dizzying pace.

As of late, the pace has picked up and I think I hear footsteps behind me. The late, great Satchel Paige said "don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." I know what I would see if I looked back: a legion of mice pattering after me, trying to beat me to whatever finish line I imagine is out there.

One of the lessons I learned when I first got sick and was forced to stop everything I was doing was to value my personal time as much I valued the time of others. It is a Life Lesson that I have to relearn on an ongoing basis. Sometimes that means taking a giant step backward from whatever I am intent on doing. Sometimes that means letting someone else take over the project. Sometimes that means sitting down and reading a book instead of folding the laundry.

The incomparable Ernie Banks often said "it's a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let's play two!" I don't play baseball, but I get the point.

I am writing this midmorning on a beautiful early summer day. As soon as I hit "publish post," I'm going outside to check on the garden. Later I'll bake an apple pie to take to Margo and Gerald's home tonight as we celebrate the first fire ring of the summer.

The mice can find someone else to race today.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Shoe Confessions: Barbie Did It

We were out shopping last Wednesday night for shoes and clothing at the new Kohl's in town.

Shopping, as in "let's go to a store and buy some stuff," is something we never do. But Warren has a national conference to attend next week and needed some new slacks and a shirt.

As for me, I have worn my shoes - what we used to call "tennis shoes" until everything in the sports shoes arena got compartmentalized - to the nubs. Truly: all of the tread is gone and I only have that weird support structure, much like the underside of a futuristic bridge, holding up my heels and ankles. I walk a lot (a whole lot) and insofar as my discomfort has increased proportionally to the wear pattern, I felt a strong imperative to get some new shoes for walking.

Something to know about me: I am not a reformed shop-a-holic. I am not a shopper, period. I have never enjoyed shopping for clothing or "accessories." (I don't accessorize well.) As a result, I tend to avoid shopping like the plague.

I also don't collect shoes. Not counting the two pairs of flip-flops I own, one of which is five or six years old and both of which cost less than $1.50 each, I own only six pairs of shoes, not counting the aforementioned worn out pair. All of them, except for the walking shoes, are four or more years old.

My shoe shopping tends to be very fast. I have three criteria. How much do they cost? How heavy are they? Are my feet comfortable? What they look like is largely irrelevant, which is how I ended up with Avia running shoes with what can only be called lavender accents. (Not a color I would choose under any other circumstances, trust me.)

I was done with shoe shopping in ten minutes. If I hadn't tried on the pair of Nikes, it would have been five. Pretty impressive, no?

But I have a confession. Money issues aside, if I could wear high heels (which I can't and won't), I would own them in every color and height imaginable.

Blame it on Barbie.

My first Barbie was a bubble-cut redhead with those amazingly tiny warped Barbie feet, not unlike the feet of Chinese women back when binding was socially acceptable. Her shoes were open-toed, red stiletto heels, curved exactly like her foot.

I was fascinated with the arch and curve of both her foot and the shoe. They made an indelible impression on me. To this day, if I am doodling, those stiletto Barbie heels show up somewhere on the paper. On those rare occasions I am in a department store, I always glance over at the shoes. Shiny yellow patent leather spikes! Wouldn't those be fun?

I gave up high heels (defined by me as anything over an inch) after wearing them for the first time back in junior high school. Even in an era when I kept a log of everything I wore to school so I didn't repeat outfits "too soon" (don't laugh - you'd be surprised how many of us did that), I quickly realized that I had neither the balance nor the pain tolerance for any type of high heel, let alone stilettos. I never wavered from that decision. Since moving to Cancerland, I now have peripheral neuropathy in my feet, which makes wearing even my lone pair of modestly heeled dress shoes uncomfortable, so higher heels are truly a lost cause.

Fortunately, I now have a stepdaughter who loves shoes and can wear heels with the best of them. Being out with Elizabeth gives me an excuse to dawdle in shoe departments when she talks us into taking her to a mall. On a recent trip to Chicago, she and I waltzed through the Michigan Avenue Neiman Marcus and breathed in the heady fragrance of the Manolo Blahniks. I look forward to some great vicarious shoe experiences through Elizabeth.

If you see me out and about most days, I'll be wearing either flip-flops or my sports shoes, comfortable as all get out. There'll likely be a smile on my face, a song in my heart, and a pair of six inch, ruby red heels in my dreams.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What Would Pa Have Done?

I am a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series. Ever since reading Little House in the Big Woods when I was a third grader, I have read Laura's books countless times. Even now, if I am "between books" and want something to read while eating lunch, I am more likely to grab a Little House book off the shelf than anything else.

I never watched the television show, so my mental images of Laura and her family are those by Garth Williams, the original illustrator. That's a good thing as lately I have been dogged by Pa Ingalls, and I'd rather not have Michael Landon popping into my head as I struggle with starting the second garden.

I knew I wanted and needed a second garden bed for all the vegetables I planned on sowing directly. Zucchini, yellow squash, Swiss chard, spinach, Lazy Housewife beans, pie pumpkins. I even toyed with the idea of having a separate pumpkin patch, as pumpkins sprawl so.

The lawn where I wanted the garden has been undisturbed for decades, and the grass is well established. My dad brought over his old front-tine rotor-tiller, but I couldn't begin to handle "the beast," as my dad calls it, let alone till with it. After several futile attempts, I gave up. I couldn't break through the grass even after dad sharpened the tine blades.

Fortunately, a neighborhood friend has a rear-tine tiller that he was glad to lend me. Last Friday night, Warren and I walked around the corner, walked the contraption back, and then I set to tilling the garden.

This is the point where Pa Ingalls first came to mind.

As already noted, the grass is well established. Warren's house was built in 1964 on a parcel split off from the imposing brick 1869 home directly to the east. A rear driveway from the large residence to our street was removed for this house, but other than that, my guess is that most of the backyard has been lawn for a long, long, time.

Long enough for the grass to grow roots to China.

The borrowed rotor-tiller was a "dirt-eating machine," per another friend. It did not balk once as, inch by inch, it cut through the grass roots and turned the soil.

But it was really, really hard work. And as I sweated and grunted and clung to the tiller, I thought about Pa Ingalls. Specifically, how did he do it? We all know from reading the Little House series that Pa was always breaking the sod of the Great Plains, whether it was in Indian Territory or out in the Dakotas.

We also all know from reading these wonderful books the two basic rules about breaking sod. First, it is very hard work, even if you have horses to help pull the plow. I didn't have horses to help me till, although I did have horsepower. I know the root stems on these lawn grasses don't begin to measure as deep as prairie grass roots, which can reach 15 feet or more. And I'm only digging a garden measuring about 20 x 15 feet, not breaking 160 acres.

All the same, it was hard work. Warren offered to help, but I figured I needed to do the bulk of it since it was my idea to have a second garden. Besides, Warren had a shed to build and a storage unit to move. So most of the tilling fell to me and as I cut through the grass, I thought of how many times and in how many places Pa put the plow to the prairie.

The second lesson about breaking sod is that you don't get very good garden results the first year. As Pa noted after that first harvest in the Dakotas, "we can't get much from a first year on sod-ground, but the sods will rot this winter. We'll do better next year." I hope so because my results dismay me. After three passes through the plot, I didn't have the strength or the daylight left to do a fourth. It was clear from everything I saw that, whatever I did, the results this first year would likely be meager at best.

My dream garden, put together on paper back in February, has zucchini, yellow squash, Swiss chard, spinach, Lazy Housewife beans, and pie pumpkins growing in it. Uh huh. I've got a sod garden that looks like a dirt-eating something or other barfed in the backyard. The garden will take time and hard work, and I am particularly short on any capacity to do a lot of hard physical work, having used up a huge chunk of my reserves in tilling the garden and helping with the storage unit move (one phrase: a ton of rosewood).

Something has to give, and what has to give is my dream garden.

When the Ingalls had to sell a heifer calf to send Mary to college, Mary was dismayed, but Ma was ready with a response. "We must cut our coat to fit the cloth." As I walked the tiller back to its owner, I already had my scissors out and was taking measure of the cloth I was about to cut.

This year, the second garden will be zucchini and pie pumpkins only. I am planting those because I believe that zucchini will grow almost anywhere and that pumpkins are known for their ability to break up soil. (Let me hold onto those beliefs, no matter how deluded I may be.) I never saw a zucchini mentioned in the Little House series, but I know there were always pumpkins, even in that first poor Dakota harvest.

I'll sow the garden tonight if the rain holds off. I've cut my cloth. With luck, come the harvest, my coat will be orange.