Monday, December 23, 2013

The End of the Year

I've moved, remember? To a place where you won't have to subscribe to Google+ to leave me a comment. Please join me at

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Here, and There

It's been a quiet stretch for gardeners here in central Texas. Since I'm not of the mettle to be starting tomatoes from seed or checking to see how my daffodil bulbs are doing in their own private refrigerator (all that lethal off-gassing your apples do, you know), I spend the cold wet days indoors feeling profoundly sorry for myself. And thinking up projects as if there were no tomorrow, as if my semester break would last forever, or I didn't even have to see patients until the middle of January. How is it possible to run out of time when you're doing nothing?

Nowadays the blog is in two different places*, and I feel like I'm in more places than that. You would think that being in more than one place would mean getting more done, but, just as the research on "multi-tasking" suggests that multi-taskers don't actually get more done or  do things any better than single-taskers, being all over the place just means I'm not getting a whole lot done on a whole lot of projects.

Take the sweater project, for instance. The weather around here, as you may know, has been abysmal. Day after day of cloudy, wet, freezing cold. As good a time as any to try to live up to my resolution to finally knit a sweater I might actually wear (even if only for yard work). So far I have a back, a front, and one and a quarter sleeves.

I'm encouraged, even if the most aggravating part still lies ahead. See, once you knit all these pieces, you must "sew" them together with yarn and a hypothetically invisible stitch that connects tiny horizontal yarn bits from one piece to tiny horizontal yarn bits on the other piece. This sounds quite easy, and the photos make it look quite easy; but somehow I persist in making things out of utterly aggravating yarn that refuses to cooperate with the sewing segment of the operation. I'd start a blog called "The Unruly Knitter," but I am neither knitter enough nor blogger enough to pull it off.

Then there's the ongoing kitchen project. I'm thrilled with the stainless steel backsplash, don't get me wrong. When I'm facing the living room, our kitchen seems absolutely up to date. Unfortunately, sometimes I have to face the other direction and confront aspects of our kitchen that remain steadfastly loyal to the 1990's. What to do?

Sadly, even the finished part isn't really finished: our most brilliant designer friend has informed me that I must get rid of the yellow color behind the stove ASAP. This will entail the distraction of a visit to Benjamin Moore tomorrow morning with the last remaining quarter cup of the pervious homeowner's darkish greenish paint from the living room to see if they can match it for me. Unless of course I want to paint the offending wall charcoal to match the tile grout, leading to a complete re-thinking of the entire house's palette. What to do?

I'll think about that tomorrow. Today I'm finishing up the wash-all-the-bottles-from-the-spicerack-you-never-use-so-you-can-bring-it-to-Goodwill project. Now there's a use of time and energy that will surely set the world right in its orbit once again.

The spice rack project pushed its way to the head of the agenda because we needed a countertop microwave to replace the one we took down from over the stove when Floyd put in the vent hood. Why must even the smallest microwave be as big and unwieldy as an ocean liner when you are trying to find an inconspicuous place for it in the kitchen? It didn't thrill me to give it space on my baking counter, but it's the only location I didn't hate. Sometimes that's the best an object can do.

I'm not altogether sure how the Junk Drawer Project insinuated itself into the midst of all this, but there you have it. I think I was thinking about losing all that cabinet space in the kitchen and believing I might solve at least a tiny portion of the storage problem by emptying the kitchen junk drawer and putting that space to better use. A household with only two people and one dog cannot possibly need two junk drawers, can it? (Okay, three if you count the closet drawer with all the orphaned electronics and mysterious power cords. Okay, four if you want to include the guest room where I've stashed things like Vernon plates and dead laptops.)

If it has compartments, it's hardly even a junk drawer any more! But there went about two Saturday hours, right there. How???

Meanwhile, I've been working on some actual work stuff. The end of a semester obviously entails turning my grades in on time, which is far more onerous a task for my TA's than it is for me. Finally checked that one off the list; all I need do now is wait for the complaints and a few grade changes.

The more challenging work-related task has been preparing for a three-hour workshop I was somehow hoodwinked into giving the staff over at the university's Health Services three days from now. I can't fathom teaching anything for three hours, let alone to actual professionals seeking "continuing education" credit. It has cost me many hours of Candy Crush Saga, I can tell you that, and all I have to show for it is an outline and a sketchy plan to fool them into a brief chat and eleven or twelve bathroom breaks.

Today is Sunday December 15th, and I wish to go on record as saying that the sun has been with us all day and appreciated every single minute. There are only just so many miles I can bike in the living room, even if I do have every episode of "Prime Suspect" on Netflix to entertain me the whole way.

Travis and I took a walk in the woods this morning and it was just lovely, except that the trails are still amazingly muddy. I had my camera but didn't deem anything really photo-worthy; it was just a treat to be outside under a cool blue sky.

When we got home I tackled the chore of clearing the truly dead stuff out of the sidewalk garden and the bench corner. Lots of plants like to be cut right to the ground, from the Texas hibiscus to the inland sea oats and a ton of salvia. It's hard to be cheered by a landscape that looks like it has melted, or browned to a crisp.

Even though it was sad, my favorite moment was cutting back the Mexican mint marigold and burying my face in that most scrumptious foliage as I jammed it into the leaf bag. If you've never savored that licorice smell, you are really missing out. Cutting back some of the rosemary was no slouch in the fragrance department either. Yummers.

I did my best to bear up in the face of roughly five hundred squats as I trimmed and cut back and cleared leaves. My quads are not going to be happy with me tomorrow, I fear, but seven leaf bags sit at the curb as a testament to my endurance. It's also an excellent opportunity to work among the cactus, agave, and yucca in thick pants, an old Wesleyan sweatshirt made of armor-grade cotton, and gloves. I'm not often that well protected doing yard work, and I wanted to take advantage. (In summer I just put on jeans and a welding shirt and hope for the best.)

Plenty of the yard plants remain green and happy, and they look so much better when not surrounded by wimpy summer things that can't endure a night or two of freezing temperatures. It will be nice to actually be able to gain access to the little corner bench. It really is a good spot for sitting and spying on passers-by. Today as I worked a number of neighbors stopped by to chat, which is one of the nice parts about gardening. Paradoxically, it's right up there with the fact that when you're gardening, you don't have anyone bothering you or expecting you to check your e-mail.

Between bouts of yard work I decided to make mujadara to get me through the week, and bake up a galette while I was in the mood for kitchening. Nothing like lentils and brown rice to make you feel alive.

As far as the galette was concerned, I'd bought frozen blueberries on my last Costco trip with an eye to making a batch of hand pies for Floyd. He's been unable to buy any for weeks now, since Central Market likes to mess with your head by ceasing production of wildly popular goodies as soon as you are deeply addicted to them. Then I decided to go the easier route with the galette, which won't be winning any accolades from Martha Stewart. It leaked.

Oh well, you know what we do with inferior home baked goods at our house, don't you?

*Don't forget to check it out at

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Despite my constant clamoring for a moratorium on change, I find myself in the midst of a move from one blog "host" to another (whatever that means). My main motivation is to allow my three faithful readers to post comments without selling their homes and social security numbers to Google.

You are probably put in mind of Kuhn's classic text The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which reminds us all that shifts from one mode of being to another tend to leave us in a state of anxiety. Look what happened to Copernicus.

While I am not particularly afraid of being excommunicated or beheaded for what I'm up to, I am a little apprehensive lest my three faithful readers be unable to find me. So here's a link to the new site:

Maybe that won't even show up as a link. Maybe you'll have to love me enough to type the address in by hand. I sure hope you'll get there, however you can. I'd hate to be left out here talking to myself.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Sunday Walk

Let's face it: this is not my kind of weather. Just under forty degrees and cloudy, with mizzly little showers off and on. Despite owning an array of cold-weather play clothes, there won't be any biking for me today. So I skim through The New York Times, check out PostSecret and reddit, breakfast, bind off the sleeve I've been knitting for two weeks, play a couple of Facebook games, cast on the front of the sweater, lunch…by noon, death by boredom seems like a genuine possibility.

Having endured the intense brown eye stare of a hapless border collie for the past three hours, Floyd texts a nearby friend and issues Travis out the door to head for the greenbelt to work on trails. No way around it, I'm going to have to go for a walk. Might as well collect some color on what at first glance looks like an afternoon drawn in an array of grays. I wrap myself up as if heading out on an expedition to the North Pole - including a hat, which I almost never wear - and force myself out the door.

The neighborhood is as deserted as a post-apocalyptic "Twilight Zone" episode. Not a cyclist, not a car, not a jogger, not a dog walker. Where is everybody? Here and there I catch the unmistakable tang of woodsmoke, so some people must be comfortable beside their fireplaces. Real woodsmoke is such a pleasant cold-weather scent that the chemical fumes from grocery store paper fireplace logs are horrid in contrast. 

I'm ambling along the streets where I usually ride my bike. As usual, once I've made it through half a mile or so, I find I am enjoying myself. Going even more slowly than usual gives me plenty of opportunity to notice splurges of color both large and small. Down here we must savor what fall foliage we do have, with no comparisons to northern woods. I think bright leaves with dark green in the background are very dramatic looking.

I walk from block to block with half a mind to drop into the greenbelt for a stretch to see what colors might be popping in there. The big drainage field where people often bring their dogs for a game of fetch is deserted. One quick slope down and I'm surrounded by woods. Now I'm on trails I've only travelled on my mountain bike. Ever since the rains began a few weeks ago, the trails have remained saturated, the rocks absolutely treacherous. No biking possible: the mud instantly clogs all the knobby parts of your tires and you have no grip on anything. Besides, it wrecks the trails. My sneakers are quickly weighed down with nearly black, sticky clay.

If the streets were empty, the woods are positively lifeless. I'm a city girl as you know, and there are only two factors that keep me from running as fast as I can back to civilization: first, it's so cold I'm not likely to encounter a rattlesnake - even though this is exactly the trail on which I saw one summer before last. Second, I think it is too cold and too early in the day for zombies - even though I know for a fact that they are in here somewhere.

Astonished to have survived half a mile of mortal danger at every step, I've never been so grateful to emerge from the woods. I get busy scraping some of the gunk off the bottoms of my shoes and resume my walk, immediately immersing myself in colors.

Sometimes I'll see a flare of red and orange that gives the impression that the woods are on fire. It's a lovely thought, when it is merely an impression and not a reality. By this point in the walk it is drizzling heavily, but I'm having a great time. Against all odds, my feet are dry and very warm; and when my feet are warm I am comfortable.

Besides, I've reached the neighborhood's "Wildflower Preserve," a plot of land on the edge of the 'hood that someone somehow convinced the Homeowners' Association to purchase a few years before we moved here. Some of the charmers among my neighbors gnash their teeth at such a waste of money, going so far as to point out that it would have been quite handy to have a gas station here instead. I am always relieved that they didn't show up for the vote.

In any event, this is the farthest point in my walk, a good halfway spot. As I roam around looking for color, the drizzle tries hard to become real rain. My glasses are wet and my sweatpants are streaked with mud.

During the last mile I encounter some signs of life emerging from the houses. A few cars rush by, a few well-wrapped dog walkers accompany their canines on a potty run. My mind turns to one of the great pleasures of taking a walk on a day like this: the prospect of a long hot soak in a great big bathtub with an Elizabeth George mystery and a cold beer.

Can that be my pace quickening?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Here's the Thing

Here's the thing about the weather right now: I can't keep up. We spend the months between July and October locked in to a pattern of hot, hot, hot, sun, sun, sun, hot, hot, hot. We become accustomed to a simple, if occasionally tedious, reality. Then the winds start to shuffle stuff around, and we can hardly figure out what to wear when we head out the door.

We've had ninety degrees this week, we've had thirty degrees this week. I've gone to work in sandals, I've gone in my warmest socks and boots. Open windows have let warm breezes run through the house, this morning my car is coated with ice. Can you blame me for feeling a bit discombobulated? I am too old for this kind of thing.

It's Friday already, it's late November already. The streets are filling with confetti-colored leaves, making it look as though color is draining out of the world from the treetops down. Damp black pavement is carpeted in yellow, orange, and wine-red. It's true we don't have the New England foliage I grew up with, but we have our own version; and it tends to be a gradual progression, with lots of green giving way to vivid hues and burnished, bronzed expanses. At the moment, we're still taking on color.

Out the back door this morning. Cold. Wet. Wind.

When the north wind sends crisp oak leaves scuttling loudly down the street, you know the season has changed for real. The markets are overflowing with excellent apples from both coasts, baking pumpkins, winter squash. Television has been an odd admixture of Thanksgiving menus and the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. I'm not sure how to feel.

I've been thinking about what makes autumn so unbearable - aside from the wretched holidays and their obligatory disappointments - and one thing I keep coming back to is that soon the world will be monochromatic. Bare trees, dead lawns, gardens full of empty stalks. That weird milky sun that gives you a headache as you drive along. Down here in central Texas we won't even have the splendid respite of snowstorms to compensate, with that wonderful hush you experience walking out to a white world. No color, no snow days, nothing but cold feet and hands, and the desperate urge to stay home by the fire all day.

Just yesterday morning, letting Travis out, I stepped out onto the patio as the coffeemaker was grinding up the beans. When I closed the door behind me, the whirr of the grinder was replaced seamlessly by the whirr of crickets, and I thought about how the insects' sounds will be gone soon too. Tomorrow morning the world will be silent.

Maybe I'm jumping too far ahead. We still have plenty of autumn going on. It's just ironic that such loveliness summons such bleak anticipations.

Last night it was seventy degrees at bedtime; today it's under forty degrees and rainy, with similar atmospheric misery expected all weekend. There's nothing like cold rain to drive me to unpleasant indoor chores that have been put on hold since last March. I'd rather dust bookcases than go out in this.

One of the other unbearables about autumn is its manner of reminding us just how quickly time goes flying by. This is probably the oldest whine in the history of humanity, but it's mine just the same. Last week I met someone's brand-new baby, and waxed nostalgic - not for the days when my own two were little, but for the days of tiny grandchildren! Nobody warned me that might happen.

I may be a slightly unruly and irreverent grandmother, but the five grands can count on at least two things when they come to our house: we'll all walk over to the closest playground at some point, and at some point there'll be a Nerf gun battle in the house. I'll find Nerf bullets in every nook, cranny, and houseplant for months. It's always a big day for Travis.

Travis making sure the herd stays together

And that no one crosses until I say it's OK

Here's the thing: the kid in the red shirt is #1 Grandson, and he is now officially as tall as I am. It's true that I am on the short side of normal and he's on the tall side, but still. No more little babies in this picture. Just the other day I teased him - he can take a teasing with a dimple in his cheek - that he'd better tell his kids good things about me. He said he would.

It all goes by too fast, but like a kid at the very top of his swing, up where your feet fly past the treetops and into the clear blue sky, there's no stopping it. We're going.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Good-bye, Summer?

I'm finishing up this post at mid-day on a November Sunday. Austin's Formula One race seethes and screeches excitedly from the television. I'm having a hard time telling a coherent tale of the beginning of autumn.

At nine on this past Tuesday morning, this was the temperature outside the kitchen door. That's as warm was it was expected to be until Thursday. Two days of arctic conditions! My hands immediately became cold and stubborn. Those endless polar nights would bring our first freezes of the season. I rifled through the coat closet in search of my gloves.

So I thought it would be comforting to just ramble on about the last of our summer colors.

Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii)

Bronze fennel for the caterpillars to eat
Chinese fringe plant (Loropetalum chinensis)

Growing up in New England, it seemed the seasons moved slowly into one another, a gentle segue. At the beach in late August, a string of oppressively humid, motionless days would usher in a huge thunderstorm that we'd watch from the picture window in our parents' bedroom. Half thrilled, half terrified, we'd count the seconds between light flash and ka-boom. Did we ever really believe it was angels bowling?

The next day would be clear and cool, the sand coated with a sticky layer of itself. Take a step to break in, feel the soft white sand underneath, and bend to pick up trapezoids of the broken damp layer. Who could pick up the biggest piece without breaking? Thinking of memories like this remind me that I was a child once, with a child's way of dallying over the slightest amazement in a world filled with amazements. No wonder it can be so trying to take people like that for a walk: every single thing encountered merits exploration.

Back in town right after Labor Day, we might have had a strand of warm days, but you'd still start the day in a sweatshirt. Afternoons might have stretched into an Indian summer, days of brilliant sunshine and trees in what Anne Sexton called "sourball colors." (Can you believe that the spell checker doesn't know what a sourball is?) The cold, it seemed, came gradually: one morning you needed a sweater. You needed a sweater for a few weeks. Then you needed a jacket. A couple of weeks later your warmest coat and mittens. You wouldn't need leggings (!) for the bare-leg-freezing walk to school until January.

Gradual transition, that's what I'm talking about.

But seasons don't behave that way here in central Texas. You can walk into a building for class quite scantily clad, with a bead of sweat running down your back, and emerge ninety minutes later to find it's thirty degrees colder with a humorless north wind. That's why, on a day when frost has been predicted, it's good to walk around and memorize all the colors that will soon be gone.

The butterflies and bees have been insanely busy this week. Not that they spend a whole lot of time "laying up with the dry cows," as Floyd would say. The bees create a mild electric buzz in the air around all the salvia, seeming to prefer it above all else just now. At #1 Grandson's Little League game yesterday, a honeybee searched me over and over for something promising to drink.

The colors of autumn are orange and yellow, bronze, and the shadowy reds dark as dried blood. Around the 'hood, fall flowers and the transitional trees - half green, half red - make their ways in fits and starts toward the end of this long hot season.

A handful of little mums

Mutabilis roses
Stopping by en route to a milder winter

The best part of autumn and winter, as far as I'm concerned, is the return of the screech owl to her box in the live oak on the corner. She came back weeks later this year than last, and during that final weekend of waiting I was convinced she wouldn't be back at all. Had it been her body I'd seen that afternoon beside the gravel path in the woods?  The thought of her absence was like the traumatic loss of something that had never really been mine. Neighbors told us they'd heard the screech owls trilling to one another in the evenings, but we hadn't heard or seen a thing.

Then on the first cool Monday morning of the season, there she was. Now autumn could begin.

I should take full responsibility for the rough nature of this post, but I won't. Here I am trying to tell a tale of autumn. We have leaves turning color and new flowers on the salvia. We enjoyed a fire in the fireplace several mornings this week. Three days ago my basil plants refused to take another step toward winter: I pulled their slimy frozen and defrosted bodies gently from the square-foot garden and sent them to the world of yard waste.

Here I was trying to make a case that in Texas seasons change as if shot from a gun: BAM! That abrupt. I got you feeling sorry for my poor stiff cold hands. Is it any wonder this post is all jagged? I am simply not writer enough to weave a smooth narrative with conditions like I face around here. A moment ago I stepped out the back door with my phone to take a picture of what I'm up against, just trying to tell a tale of autumn:

Obviously, no matter how faithfully I try to report on its arrival, autumn tells its own tale.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Down here the long summer ends at midnight.
A dark wind flies down fast, on an impulse,
unplanned for and ill thought out. It just comes.

At first you think you are dreaming. If the trees,
shaken from top to bottom, fear it,
you cannot tell. They wake you, whispering
familiar words in a familiar voice.

Then you are aware of other undoings: dead branches,
set free, comb the lawn and come to rest, empty,
against a corner of the shed. The shed door opens
and shuts, opens and shuts.

Pulled up without warning from the long corridor,
the ceiling made of sand, the wingless flight,
leaving the party where you spoke easily to the dead,
you feel for some time you must still be dreaming.

The bed surprises you, it has grown so cold.
What does this darkness mean, blown and blowing?
Who has pulled the blanket of summer off?
The clock's blue digits claim it is tomorrow.

Only hours later will events be revealed:
when morning comes it is the light of autumn,
a flawless sky and old leaves coming down.

Walking out, there is the shock of sun and cold.
The air seems too sharp to breathe.

The cats, tucked under and wise, watch you
from rail and rooftop. They are relieved:
the rain is gone, the long fever broken.

It is as though your life has been removed,
and almost replaced with something else.

Low in the west not, the moon remembers.
It is pale but still there, unmistakable.

And now on every leaning stalk and flower,
a fuss of wings, a clamor of hunger.
They know the time of feeding must be short:
Get it now, get it now, they say.

It is no good, this looking to the past.
Let the old photographs stick to themselves.
Let the yellowed envelopes yellow,
let them crumble. Let the words fade.
Let the old sentiments live out their lives
untouched, secure in what they were,
holy as ever.

Looking back,
you will only see small young faces caught
in the light of joy and bravado.
What did they know?
Looking back,
you will only see the slender forms of young
lovers, not who they are now. Not even
who they were then.

Looking back, you will only find sad
fierce letters, postmarking loss
from Camden, Hartford, and Sagamore:
where are you, where are you? Even then
you were alone, and knew it. Looking back,
you must see how much of love is failure.

This is autumn: live with it.
Recognize that this sharp light, this blue
against yellow, this last foolish leaf about to fall,
this sudden slap of cold against your face:
this is what there is now.