Monday, October 27, 2014

Music To My Ears

She was determined to give us the benefit of a classical music education...whether we wanted it or not.  

She was the principal violist (and no, that's not a mis-spelling, it's a different instrument) in a symphony in a town in the shadow of San Francisco.  We were the unfortunate few who had taken up string instruments, cello, viola and violin.   

Looking back I wonder if she was looking for the next Yo Yo Ma (altho at the time he wasn't a famous cellist, but really, how many of you have ever heard of Pablo Cassals?)  Or if she was hoping we would eventually feel the joy she felt from playing.  

I had taken up the cello quite by accident.  I wanted to play the guitar, it was Peter Paul and Mary days, the heady summer of love, and although I was too young to participate in the love part, and lived in the suburbs, not San Francisco, those currents blew thru my life.  I was thrilled by the daring, the thought that you could defy your parents and live.   That being young didn't mean being subservient.  That we didn't have to wait to think, that we could make a change.  Heady stuff.  

The local private music teacher knew just enough guitar to stay ahead of me, no more.   I think she was studying the same book I was, just a few pages ahead.  But she knew a great deal more about the cello, and about manipulating children, and so I was shunted coerced convinced propagandized browbeaten into playing the cello.  And eventually into buying more and more expensive cellos from her.  No cello sold in this valley for fifty years without passing thru her hands.

Consequently I found myself, at age twelve, in the District Orchestra.  We were horrid.  Unlike the piano, a string instrument needs to be tuned each time you play it, and sometimes in the middle of playing.  And if you can't hear if you're sharp or flat or right on pitch, then you can't tune it.

Violins and violas and cello also lack frets.  Those are the little crosswise ridges that tell you where to put your fingers.  So we not only  had to hear if we were in tune to tune up, but we had to hear - and adjust - while we were playing.  

Now imagine half a dozen of these twelve year olds (who'd much rather be sleeping in, or playing with their friends, but were too polite or too intimidated to say so), sawing away for an hour before school.  Twice a week.  Frightening.

We gave concerts.  Only the parents came, and it was painful to watch their faces.  

This was at a time when schools had music programs, closets full of instruments to lend, music for us to play, space to practice and perform.  And music teachers.

A few of us kept going, partly because we were obedient children, partly because we got better and began to enjoy playing.  By high school we were pretty good, and having fun.  I wonder how many are still playing?  

I can still distinguish the sound of a clarinet from an oboe, a French horn from a trumpet.  I can pick out - and hum - the cello line in almost anything.  I know what the open strings are tuned to (and yes I know you do not end a sentence with a preposition.  Deal with it).  Heck, I know what an open string is.  I know which instruments are tuned to A, and which to B flat. 

I still love Vivaldi and Bach and Mozart, and pretty much any music up to and including Beethoven.  I have a mad pash for 
Medieval music , the stern structure and the complicated harmonies.  

So I did get a gift from her, just not the gift she thought she was giving.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Troubled Relationship With Napkin Rings, or How Not To Set Your Thanksgiving Table

I have a troubled relationship with napkins.  Not that I don't use them - I do, lots of them, and only cloth.  Those little paper squares?  Please God, no.  Like trying to dry off after a shower with a kleenex.

Washing?  I'm a fanatic.  Every time they're used.  Ironing?  Not so much.  And my staff is not much help.  (That would be Ally the dog who, while willing, is lacking opposable thumbs and consequently is not adept at ironing, and Wally, who, while he is not deficient in the opposable thumb department has zero interest in ironing, or anything to do with laundry other than how his is folded - by someone else, natch).

And here's the crux of the problem:  Napkin rings.  

Every article about cooking for Thanksgiving has advice about setting the table, and they're all hip-happy about napkin rings, talking about how they make the table much more elegant, and show how much you care.  Puhleeze. 

You know the history of napkin rings, right?  They were invented so you could tell your napkin from other people's, and use it again.  For a week.  Since laundry was only done once a week.  The mind reels. 

While I appreciate that I'm not wiping my lips with someone else's greasy used napkin, probably crawling with germs, I'm not keen on wiping my lips with my own greasy used napkin, either.  

Now that you know their history, when you put napkin rings on your dinner table, what message do you think you're sending?  Are your guests thinking "Hmmm, I wonder if I'm using someone else's old napkin...or if someone else will use mine after I'm done?"

It's not about decor, darlings, it's about decorum. 

You can read a history of napkin rings here.  Not a scholarly discourse, no citations, and I'm not sure how much is fact, how much conjecture, how much rumor. 

So much of what we take as truth is not.  Remember the story of the newlywed woman who cut the ends off her ham before she put it in the oven?  When her newly minted husband asked her why, she said, "Oh, but that's the right way to do it!  It's the way my mom always did it."

So he asked her mom (his mother-in-law), and she said, "That's the way my mom always did it."

So he asked her mom, his wife's grandmother, and she said, "I had to cut the ends off.  My pan wasn't big enough."

Moral: be careful what you take for granted,  what you take as truth.

Oh and please don't get me started on vintage napkins.  Some are beautiful, well bleached.  Clearly clean.  Some are full of stains and gross.  

New napkins: polyester?  No thank you.  It's like trying to mop something up with a plastic bag.   100% cotton please.  Or well-washed linen.  And for God's sake don't starch your napkins, they are for dabbing your lips, not exfoliating them.  

Some yahoo recommends in his Setting The Thanksgiving Table article (in a fancy decorating magazine that really should know better) that you use paper napkins in napkins rings to save on laundering.  If you really want to save time and effort at Thanksgiving, tell people to stay home.  

But if you're having guests, treat them like guests.  Real napkins, real smile, real joy in your heart.  Really.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More Dog Days

If you read the last post about our dog Ally, you're hoping when you come to visit she doesn't go ballistic upon your arrival.  That would besmirch your character in ways from which it's hard to recover.  (No dangling participle!)  No, you're hoping she will lick your outstretched hand, and snuggle up to your leg.

Not bloody likely.  

You may be able to touch her - briefly, and only under the chin - when you've known her for half an hour.  Like an old society matron, she has her own notions of what is appropriate, and she's not afraid to tell you when you're overstepping.  Although I would not advise chuckling an old society matron under the chin, no matter how long you've known her...

But here's the weird thing:  Wally can open the garage door (it rumbles as it goes up, so loudly you can hear it in our bedroom, about half a mile away).  He can open the back door (beep! beep! that's the alarm that tells us when a kid is heading for the pool.  Or for freedom, but that's another story) and not a peep out of the dog.  She doesn't even raise her head.  

In contrast to a rat climbing the drainpipe who gets the entire anvil chorus in barking, or an amorous squirrel who really must be out of the mood after listening to Ally carry on, Wally gets the silent treatment.  Just a wag of the tail.  Nope, he can walk right into the bedroom and she won't even come out of her house.  

Is it scent?  Or sound?  How does she know it's us?

And here's the other weird thing:  Ally rarely wags her tail.   She's not unhappy, she snuggles up to my leg and demands petting at breakfast, and she can be quite demanding.   Many mugs of tea and spoonfuls of cereal have landed on the rug thanks to her shoving me with her nose because I got engrossed in the newspaper and forgot to keep scratching. 

She hops up on the bed in the morning and burrows into the warm down comforter, pressing her back against me, then turning over to wash my face.  So as you can see she's not intimidated, or unaffectionate.   But that tail?  Mostly reserved for other dogs.  I'm feeling a bit like I'm in the cheap seats, at least where the tail is concerned.

Maybe she knows we don't know the code.  Maybe she's noticed we don't have tails.  Apparently our noses are not the only parts that are not up to snuff.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Seriously Eating

I have a new secret passion - Serious Eats.  Seriously, check it out.  Sign up for their daily emails.  Their great recipes always come with thought-provoking history, details of trials and errors, and some zippy discussion.  I'm passionately addicted. 

Don't you hate it when someone swears the recipe they're sharing with you is the best recipe ever, and when you make it, it tastes like the bottom of a dirty pan?  What a waste of time, and how can you ever trust that person again?  About anything?  No worries here.

Their treatise on chicken stock - pure gold.   Love the way they get down in the weeds with the sizes of the aromatics (read the recipe, I'm not  your dictionary) the toast of the chicken, and which tasty parts (and unsavory parts - I am so not using the feet!) make the most deliciousness.  
Having had some epic fails in the chicken stock department (too much celery, not enough chicken flavor, tasted like muddy boots) I am soooooooo happy they spent weeks - and millions - demystifying all the conflicting advice.  

This is from their discussion of the very best ever slow cooked tomato sauce for pasta.  
I can't wait to make it, and I completely agree about cooking with olive oil.  Plus, if you have read the book 'The Big Fat Surprise', you will know that vegetable oils are poison (olives are a fruit.  Pickypants.)  

So here's what they have to say about cooking with olive oil: "Some folks will tell you that you should never cook with extra-virgin olive oil, as it ruins its flavor. Poppycock!

"Yes it's true that some of its flavors will break down. But then again, a neutral oil like canola or vegetable has pretty much zero flavor to begin with. You do the math. Or let me just do it for you: A Lot - Some > None. Sauces made with good olive oil will have noticeably better flavor than those made with neutral oil (of course it doesn't hurt to drizzle some fresh olive oil in at the end as well).

"Texture-wise, fat adds a rich, mouth-coating feel to a sauce, both when it's broken out of the sauce on its own, and when it is emulsified with the sauce's liquid phase, making the whole thing creamier.

"Olive oil on its own does a decent job of this. But here's a trick:

"Add a bit of butter in there as well. Butterfat emulsifies much more easily with liquids, and it adds a creamy, fresh flavor to the mix."

See what I mean about the zippy discussion?  And about getting down in the weeds?  As soon as I'm able to stand I am so making this.  Come for dinner.  Bring your appetite.   



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Clear And Present Danger

Our dog Ally takes her responsibilities very seriously.  Apparently she has decided she is responsible for the safety of the republic, said republic being not only our house and garden, but the street and anything within a quarter mile of home as well.

A passing raccoon or skunk in search of a snack, a neighbor walking his dog, all are announced with teeth-jarring barks.  A normally calm person would soon be reaching for the Valium.  I am not a normally calm person.  Fortunately I also am not a Valium fan.

As these events often occur late at night (the neighbor's dog) or in the wee hours of the morning (the skunks and raccoons) sleep has become a precious thing, much interrupted.  Coffee, once a pleasure, has become a necessary precursor to prying our eyes open.  The sort of sleep that deals with knitting up that raveled sleeve of care?  Our sleeves are in tatters.

During the day, it's the squirrels and birds that get her attention.  Pray that you are not holding anything sharp, or anything liquid, when she sounds the alarm.  We have several stains on the kitchen rug, now fading, and a good number of nicks and dents in the counters (and our hands) that testify to the quality and volume of her bark.

She is part Basenji, and if you are a dog person then you know the African Basenji is a barkless dog.  Apparently Ally didn't get the memo.  During the day as you are trying to get  bit of work done, the dry cleaning delivery is announced with several minutes of sharp crisp barking, made worse by the delivery person trying to make friends with the dog thru the door.  The same chorus announces the arrival of the mail, the neighbor children returning from school, the neighbor's gardener, and anyone driving by.  She seems to take special offense at real estate agents trolling the cul-de-sac.  

A few evenings ago just before dusk, Ally was barking like the Visigoths were thundering down the street.  Having never met one, I opened the front door to look for Visigoths, and she shot out between my legs, disappearing around the corner of the house while barking like a madman.  There was a brief scuffling sound, after which she parked herself at the bottom of a big tulip tree, and proceeded to try to wake the dead.  

Wally looked up into the tree and said "Oh, of course."  
Two young raccoons, more pissed off than scared, and rather pleased at Ally's frustration.  We finally put her in the house and shut the door so they could climb down and be on their merry way.  I'm sure we'll be hearing more from them later.   Probably in the wee hours.

I know Ally is disappointed in our sense of smell.  We are disappointed in the length of her memory - the command "Quiet!" does not seem to be in her vocabulary, no matter how much we try to teach her.  The fact that the same skunk ambled by just a few minutes ago does not seem to lodge in her memory.  Or maybe she is worried we are unaware of the grave danger posed by the passing skunk...or realtor.

We finally bought a bark collar, one that gives her a gentle shock when she barks. (I tried it - it feels like the pinch your mother gave you as a child when you misbehaved in public).  When we (she) first took it for a test drive, there was a loud bark, a surprised little yip, then just quiet grumbling.  Lots of quiet grumbling.  I swear she can talk.  

The only disadvantage of the collar, apart from the humiliation Ally lets us know she is suffering while wearing it, is that she cannot bark to be let in.  There was one early fall afternoon when she was not in her usual place by my side, so I went in search.   I found her patiently standing by the back door.  The look of reproach she gave me was eloquent, and she now wears the collar only when there is an unusual amount of activity in the neighborhood.  And during skunk and raccoon dating season.

She is the most intelligent and engaging dog we have ever had.  She does not suffer fools gladly.  She is an excellent judge of character.  She has never bitten a stranger.  She only snaps at people who are overly familiar, and only growls at people who are insincere, or not trustworthy, or mean.  I concur with her on all points.  I have, on more than one occasion, wanted to snap at someone who took my arm against my wishes, and leaned in for unwanted and unwarranted confidences.  I have more than once wanted to growl at the shallow, the insincere, the duplicitous.  Instead I have plastered a smile on my face and said "How do you do?" or something equally inane.

Ally may be on to something.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Its The Pits

Well,  congratulate me, because I have reached a new fashion low.  No, I'm not wearing Juicy Couture (the person who thought up that name - and that slutty look - should be shot).  No, I do still have standards, reduced though they may be.

Nope - I now choose my outfit based on what doesn't chafe my pits.  Don't laugh - have you ever been on crutches?  In a lace dress?  Seemed like a good idea at the time, the dress was nice and loose, and easy to get on over this ginormous black boot.  No struggling to get pants on without bumping the pin in my toe that I swear feels like it goes all the way up to my spine.  

But oh that lace.  Sort of like wearing a cheese grater. 

It looked elegant, at least until my armpits began to glow like hot coals.  Come to think of it, that's what they feel like...

I'm afraid it will take weeks for the damage to heal. So! no tank tops, no underwire bras (those crutches really get around).  No rough seams, no ribbon edges. And no silk blouses either, they would be reduced to shreds in minutes. 

Just the softest tee shirts.  Well washed, well worn. Well loved.  And especially well loved now that I really need them.   I'll figure out the bottom half later, or maybe I'll just stay in bed.

So what's in your closet? 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Plant It Now

I just gave a talk on planting - where I live, in the SF Bay Area, this is prime planting time.  And on planting responsibly, because we are having a drought.  

People say we're in the middle of a drought, but how would they know?  I'm hoping we're at the end of the drought, and for a while the weather prognosticators were predicting a very wet winter, but we haven't heard much from them since they said "Um, maybe not..." a few months ago.  I realize it's a tough job, but seriously?  if you can't do it, don't sign up.  And if you're not sure, say so.  Although a career based on "Really, we're just guessing," or "This is what the dartboard/ouija board said" is perhaps a career with a tenuous future.  Or not...what does the dartboard say?

But back to the garden:
Plant things that need less water, please.  Get them established now, while the soil is warm (better root growth!) and the days are shorter (not so drying! less watering needed!)  And really, you know that even things that are drought tolerant need water to get established, right?   Daily water if it's hot, more often if it's stinkin' hot, less if it's cool.  The best watering guide is your finger: stick it in the soil up to the first knuckle.  If it's dry, water.  If it's wet, don't.  And if this grosses you out, you should get another hobby.  Or obsession.  Maybe needlepoint, because if this grosses you out, you are so not a gardener.

Another recommendation: don't plant a bunch of water-sucking annuals.  Of course if you believe in Murphy's Law, and you find your drought-tolerant cyclamen rotting in a puddle of water in January, you can be upset with me, and rue the unplanted pansies.  Or you can consider the cyclamen an offering to the rain Gods and be thankful the drought is over - for now.  

My friend whose roof will be off all winter says she's fine either way - either it doesn't rain until the new roof is on, and things stay snug and dry, or it does rain, and she is willing to sacrifice her hardwood floors and plaster walls for her garden.  For all of our gardens.  

So back to planting annuals: think about where you'll actually see them  - like just outside your kitchen window.  Or right next to the door you come in when you come home.  (Note: this would be a problem for me - I would have to plant flowers on the refrigerator in the garage.)  And don't plant annuals along the driveway if you don't walk down the driveway, or you can't see it from inside the house.  Just sweeping past with the headlights  once a day does not justify all that water.  

Remember that the color you can see at night - the only color - is white.  But yellow is so cheery on a gloomy winter day I always put some yellow pansies or primrose outside the kitchen window.  And for those of you who are snarking that white is not really a color, off to the needlepoint store with you.

Plant a pot or two of annuals by the front door - if you use the front door.  Or of you're planning a party.  You can ignore the water rules in a few pots.  Plant the annuals with something perennial and spiky, and something that will spill out of the pot.  Because you know when you're planting a pot, you're thinking "Thriller, Filler, Spiller", right?  After contemplation, if this does not make sense to you, see the note above about taking up needlepoint.

This is also the best time to plant perennials that are fragrant directly into the (well amended) soil in the garden.  Sweet Box (sarcococca ruscifolia or s. humilis) in the shade next to a door, or under a bedroom window, will waft soft clouds of honeysuckle fragrance all winter, and it is brilliant in a flower arrangement.  It lasts forever and smells heavenly, and no one expects that divine fragrance to be coming from such a mild-mannered plant.  I try to have a few sprigs in a vase by my bed.  I love waking up to the smell of the garden.

Daphnes are great - the variegated forms are my favorites, because they light up the shadiest corner.   Try Sweet Olive (osmanthus fragrans) in a sunnier spot - it smells like the most divine freesia, starting now and blooming off and on thru the year.  I have one osmanthus by the pool that blooms mostly in summer, and one by the gate that blooms mostly in fall and winter.  No idea why.  But never thump a free melon.

And if, like me, you've let some of the thirstier plants die this summer, now is the time to replace them with less thirsty cousins.  My hydrangeas had a really tough time, they spent most of the summer with leaves drooping limply.  I'm giving them to a friend who has springs on her property, and I'm putting in sweet box, and camellias (surprisingly tough) and some topiary boxwood just for fun. 

Sloat Garden Center in Danville is a great resource for less thirsty plants.  So is Orchard Nursery in Lafayette.  Passionate knowledgeable staff, beautiful displays - where are my keys?  I'm off to look for inspiration.