Monday, December 29, 2014

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't

Mommy has been saying for a while that this is her last year hosting Christmas Eve.  "I've been doing it since we lived in the apartment house - that was  long before you were born," she told me.  "And I'm tired.  I'm 88, after all.  It's time for you all to form your own traditions."

Not bloody likely.  Christmas is about family, and although we are very different people we are fiercely loyal.  And Christmas is sacred.  Family only; attendance mandatory.  

The day before this Christmas Eve, mommy called.

"I am too tired to do Christmas Eve this year.  I've been doing it since before you were born, and I'm just out of gas.  I'm 88, you know."  Even tho we bring all the food and drink, just getting the house in order and the table set is too much.  And she can't sneak off and have a rest in the middle of Christmas - so we were on our own.

I asked Wally about moving it here, and he said we were having Christmas Day dinner here, and it would just be too much.  

Mommy had called all her daughters, my sisters, and I found out later one of them had cried for an hour.

Christmas Eve morning mommy called.   The Seattle contingent had arrived late the previous evening, and not having Christmas together was not part of their plan.  Thank Goodness.

 "Would it be alright if Rick, Carol, Ian, and I came for supper?"  she asked about noon on the 24th.  No problem, I can rustle up supper for 6 from the pantry (thank you Maria Franceschini and your pomorolo!)

"Sure" I said. 

"And may I invite Mary and Brittnee and Debbie and Damon?" she asked.  

What could I say?  I was so happy we were having family Christmas, I didn't care if we had to eat cinnamon toast for dinner.  

I was not going back to Lunardi's - it was crazy busy there, just looking for a parking place was taking your life in your hands...  But we had cream and butter, fettucini and parmigiano.  And Pomorolo thanks for Maria.  

A few nuts, a lot of chocolate.  Some of the salad we had planned to serve Christmas day, some pears and apples, and lots of cheese.  Helps to be Swiss.

All my sisters brought things - chocolate and snacks, wine and good cheer.

So we had the miracle of the loaves and fishes - there was plenty of food.  And we sat and told stories and opened presents and laughed until it was very late and Ally was asleep in mommy's lap, and mommy was nodding off on Ally's lap.
It was a great Christmas.  Made more precious for the fact that it almost didn't happen.  Christmas Eve is here next year.  Mark your calendars.   

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Books: Food For Thought.

"Admiring houses from the outside is often about imagining entering them, living in them, having a calmer, more harmonious, deeper life. Buildings become theaters and fortresses for private life and inward thought, and buying and decorating is so much easier than living or thinking according to those ideals. Thus the dream of a house can be the eternally postponed preliminary step to taking up the lives we wish we were living. Houses are cluttered with wishes, the invisible furniture on which we keep bruising our shins. Until they become an end in themselves, as a new mansion did for the wealthy woman I watched fret over the right color of the infinity edge tiles of her new pool on the edge of the sea, as though this shade of blue could provide the serenity that would be dashed by that slightly more turquoise version, as though it could all come from the ceramic tile suppliers, as though it all lay in the colors and the getting."

I am somewhere between picking out tile and living with meaning.  And I am keenly aware of how strongly I am influenced by my surroundings.  

I am not happy in an ugly place.  I am not calm amid a mess.  I crave order, small touches of beauty.  It doesn't have to be expensive, some of the most beautiful things are the simplest.  A flower, a twig covered with lichen.  A picture from a magazine, a tin that once held cocoa.   A pencil drawing made by a child.  A book with a beautiful cover.  All these and more are on my night table.  

What's next to your bed?

You can read more - and find more books that will have you drooling - and thinking - on Brain Pickings Weekly. 

Happy Reading.    Happy Thinking.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Gift of Memory

Long before Christmas, a box arrived from my friend Aileen.  You'll remember her, so many of my favorite things to cook have come from her.
She has decided not to have a tree anymore.  After years of collecting ornaments.  And she decided to give them to me.  Lucky me!
Thank you Aileen.  Every time I look at our tree I think of you - of biking in Morocco, of picking green beans at Round Swamp.  Of biking to Shelter Island coated in bug spray.  Of my first cosmo (but not my last), and the recipe you coaxed out of the reluctant bartender.  Of long summer evenings listening to the waves and watching the fireflies.  
Thank you.  For your memories, for the memories we share.  
It is the most wonderful time of the year.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Yosemite in Winter

We live in a place with no snow.  If you're shoveling snow, that probably sounds like a great idea, but it's been raining for weeks and we needed a little winter wonderland.  So we headed for Yosemite...
It was like being in an Ansel Adams photo.  Compete with wildlife...

Our friends were in the Bracebridge Dinner, a medieval pageant and feast.   And the Ahwahnee was warm and cosy. 
It's beginning to look a lot like...

Monday, November 24, 2014

Chili Today, Chili Tomorrow

I have a troubled relationship with chili.  I have fond memories of rich luscious spicy bowls of deliciousness, and yet no matter how many of the chili cook-off winners I cook, the results don't measure up to my memories.

My mom made chili with canned kidney beans, hamburger, and Gebhart's chili powder.  I have fond memories, but I was looking for something richer and fuller, something with no beans.  

My friend Maddy, a fantastic cook and the most gracious hostess, introduced me to Chicken and White Bean Chili.  It's fabulous, and I make it often, but just now I'm having a craving for a bowl of red. 

I have invested in a dozen kinds of chili powder, I have cried over countless onions - and I have cried over countless batches of sub-par chili.  

So when I took out some frozen meat left over from a meatball making marathon (hint: use an ice cream scoop to form the meatballs.  And freeze them on a cookie sheet, then dump them in a zip-lock and back in the freezer.  More later on spaghetti and meatballs, I promise.)  

But back to the chili:  It was a bottom of the fridge improv with low expectations.  Onions and garlic, beef and pork.  Chili powder.  Tomatoes from a can. A few weird and wonderful spices. So when it turned out to be the Best Chili Ever, I looked at my notes on the back of an old grocery list and wrote down the recipe.

I'm making it again this week.  For when I get heartily sick of turkey.  And here, thanks to a mild case of OCD is the Best Chili Ever.  Finally.  Now if it would only get cold and rainy again...

Best Ever Beef Chili

I made this with what I had on hand in the fridge and cupboard, and very low expectations…it was fabulous.  The chili recipe I’ve been looking for for years.  Simple, easy, addictive.…

1  1/4 pounds hamburger
1/2 pound ground  pork
1 can crushed tomatoes
butter and olive oil
1 minced onion, any color
3 cloves garlic, minced

1 t oregano
1/2 t cayenne
big pinch allspice
1 1/2 t cumin
1 T chipotle chili powder
1 T regular chili powder 
1 cup water
1  generous  Tablespoon Better Than Bullion beef stock

(Note: Spice quantities are estimates - I shook them out, I didn’t measure...except for the chili powder.  Feel free to adjust them to your taste, but don’t leave something out just because it sounds weird.  You'll need them all, even the allspice.  No cheating.)

Brown meat in olive oil and butter.  Yes, butter.  Trust me.  

Add onion and garlic cook till soft.  Add spices, cook stirring constantly for one minute.  Add tomato, water, BTB beef.  Cook on lowest heat for about an hour, stirring occasionally and adding more water if the chili gets dry.  

Serve with grated sharp cheddar, diced shallot and sour cream on the side.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Flower Power

Thinking about flowers and about Thanksgiving, these inspire.

Amy Merrick.  Wouldn't you love to take a class from her?  Or have her do flowers for your house for the holly daze?

Me too.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Thank You, Thank You

I have a friend who is so good with thank-you notes that I swear they get home before you do.  I think she even has a deal with Santa to drop off the presents and her thank-yous at the same time.  She practically beats him down the chimney.  

Hand written.  On beautiful paper.  She even has birthday postage stamps for birthday cards.  

I am reasonably good at thank-you notes, thanks to my mom (we were not allowed to use our gifts until we had written a thank you note), but now I find out from Have Some Decorum that you are not supposed to use the words "thank you" in your thank you note. Who knew?  

Okay you probably all did, and I'm just late to the party, but I have been scrupulously and purposely saying those words in each and every note for years, and now I find out I'm - I'm what, out of touch?  tacky?  misinformed?  or, with a nod to Nancy Mitford, heaven help us, Non U?   Or is she wrong?

I'm thinking here about how our founding fathers used ain't in conversation and correspondence, and our grammer school grammar teachers had a cow if we said ain't.  Grammar changes.  Afraid of being mistaken for someone fresh off the farm, we conformed.  But really, what's wrong with being fresh off the farm?   With being who you are?

I grew up in a time when being from another country was embarrassing.  Something to be ashamed of.  You ate canned food and TV dinners and not the delicious healthy varied stuff of your homeland.  And our family recipes and traditions got lost, all but a few.  But unless you were a Native American (and that wasn't a good thing to be at that time either) you were an immigrant.  So were you supposed to look down on yourself?

Now is a huge deal, people chat away with great pride about where their people came from, every family seems to have someone digging into their roots.   We compare steerage horror stories and recall with pride those who had the courage to believe there was something better across the sea.  We search for and make with pride recipes from the old countries.   So much got lost, so hard to find.  

I am writing down my mom's stories of growing up during the depression, and going to college during WWII.  Of working as a bicycle messenger at a shipyard during the summers.   Of saving seeds and raising chickens.  Of summer rainstorms and dances at Foster Hall.  I wish I had known her then.  I know we would have been great friends.  I am so happy to know her now, so proud to be her friend and her daughter.  I love you mommy - so much.  You are my hero.

So how  did we get from thank-you notes to immigration?  I have no idea.  I'm off to write a thank you note to my dear friend who came for breakfast this morning and made me laugh.  And I promise not to use those two little forbidden words.  Or maybe I will, and just continue to be myself.  Whee!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

November In The Garden

Okay, once again thanks to Dustin and all the smart folks at Sloat Nursery in Danville (and other places), here is your to-do list for November.  Have fun, and don't forget to shop at Sloat!  

November: What to do in your garden this month

  • Look to plant cyclamen in early November. It’s also a great time to plant ground covers and sweet peas.

  • Think fall & winter color: Violas and pansies are perfect for creating mass color in containers or flowerbeds. Available in a variety of hues, they are a terrific ground cover to plant over bulbs in pots or in the ground.

  • For a hardy alternative, consider planting ornamental cabbage and kale.

  • Prepare planting beds for winter. Clear weeds and rocks. Till soil and add soil amendments.

  • Fall is for planting! Get shrubs, perennials and trees into the ground this month. Winter rains will help develop a strong root system.

  • Select bulbs for spring bloom and winter forcing such as hyacinth, paperwhite & tulips.  Refrigerate hyacinth, crocus and tulips 4 to 6 weeks prior to planting.

  • Apply a lawn fertilizer and pre–emergent to control and prohibit annual bluegrass, crabgrass, and other weeds in your lawn and flower beds. Also, aerate and fertilize the lawn with E.B. Stone Nature’s Green.

  • De-thatch lawn if necessary

  • Top-dress perennial beds, azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons with Sloat Forest Mulch Plus and feed with 0-10-10 fertilizer monthly until bloom (E.B. Stone Organics).

  • Divide the roots and rhizomes of perennials such as agapanthus, yarrow and iris.

  • Store away and clean any unused pots and containers that can be used as hiding places by overwintering insects, slugs and spiders.

  • Lightly prune Japanese maples while still in leaf. Select and plant maples for fall color.

  • It’s time to fill your bird feeders for winter. You can also try a suet feeder!

  • Clean up dead leaves, deadhead flowering plants- diseased leaves should go in the garbage, the rest can go in the compost pile

  • Mulch with compost or Forest Mulch to amend the soil and keep down weeds

  • Pull weeds before they have a chance to drop seeds.  Apply a pre-emergent after fall rains to stop germinating weeds.  Concern Weed Prevention Plus is a safe product derived from corn gluten.

  • Move perennials and shrubs between now and January-prune back lightly first

  • Continue to bait for snails with Sluggo

  • Strip roses Dec-Jan, prune in Jan-Feb

  • Fertilize cymbidiums with 6-25-25 food

  • Fertilize blue hydrangeas with E.B. Stone True Blue now for bluer blooms

  • Fertilize winter color with a blooming plant food (primrose, cyclamen) such as Maxsea 3-20-20.

  • Continue to fertilize citrus with E.B. Stone Organics Citrus Food or Greenall Citrus and Avocado food.

  • Clean and store tools- rub down with alcohol after each use. Grease with white lithium grease to prevent rust. Store shovels and saws in a bucket of sand with a little oil (5 parts sand-1 part oil)

  • If frost is imminent, be sure to water your garden (if it hasn’t rained recently).

  • Use Bonide All Seasons Oil when roses and fruit trees have lost their leaves

PLANT IT NOW! October & November are truly the most advantageous months of the year to get perennials, trees, vines, shrubs and cool season vegetables into the ground. 

Planting now will allow roots to become well established for much stronger, more vigorous plants come springtime. Fall and winter rains mean nature does the weekly watering for you, plus most gardeners see fewer pest and disease problems in the fall.

Happy Gardening!

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.  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

To Do In The Garden - October

Okay - courtesy of Dustin and the other wonderful folks at Sloat Nursery in Danville, here's what you should be doing in the garden this month.  And check out the cool pumpkins and squashes they have for sale!  No watering required.  

(And if you sign up for their e-newsletter, all this info  - and more! will appear in your inbox.  Lucky you.)

Sloat's Bay Area Gardening Guide: October


  • Plant it Now! Fall is the best time to plant foxglove, canterbury bells and other biennials. Plant cyclamen in October/early November. It’s also a great time to plant ground covers and sweet peas.
  • Think fall & winter color: Violas and pansies are perfect for creating mass color in containers or flowerbeds. Available in a variety of hues, they are a terrific ground cover for spring bulbs.
  • For a hardy alternative, consider planting ornamental grasses. Grasses require little upkeep and can create a beautiful screening effect against the house or fence.
  • Fall is for planting! Get container shrubs, perennials and trees into the ground this month. Winter rains will help develop a strong root system.
  • Decorate for fall: We have ornamental kale, mums, iceland poppies, snapdragons, stock and ornamental grasses for waves of autumnal color. Also, stop by for pumpkins, then carve something ghoulish and enter it in our Pumpkin Carving Contest.
  • Select and plant maples for fall color (now is the time to see fall color).
  • Select bulbs for spring bloom and winter forcing. Begin chilling bulbs that need an artificial winter: Tulips, freesia, crocus & hyacinth need 4–6 weeks of refrigeration before planting.


  • Top-dress perennial beds, azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons with Sloat Forest Mulch Plus and feed with 0-10-10 fertilizer monthly until bloom (E.B. Stone Organics).
  • Feed spring blooming shrubs with 0-10-10 fertilizer. Feed citrus with Maxsea.


  • Prepare planting beds for winter. Clear weeds and rocks. Till soil and add soil amendments.
  • Divide the roots and rhizomes of perennials such as agapanthus, yarrow and iris.
  • Lightly prune Japanese maples while still in leaf.
  • It’s time to fill your bird feeders for winter. You can also try a suet feeder!


shutterstock_23358712October & November are truly the most advantageous months of the year to get perennials, trees, vines, shrubs and cool season vegetables into the ground. Planting now will allow roots to become well established for much stronger, more vigorous plants come springtime. Fall and winter rains mean nature does the weekly watering for you, plus most gardeners see fewer pest and disease problems in the fall. 

REMINDER: Plant bulbs this fall and enjoy a festival of color next spring!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Advice From A Friend

Michael at Rakestraw Books in Danville has the best sayings.  I made him write this one down.  

Words to live by.  Words to remember.  And speaking of words, get a copy of The Day The Crayons Quit, and of This Book Has No Pictures.  From Michael, please - if you don't shop at the local stores, pretty soon there won't be any local stores.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chrono Bike

If you're in Lucca you really should rent a bike and head for the countryside.  It is in the most beautiful part of Italy - take it from someone who has spent a lot of time biking around Italy.  And it's a bike mad town - even the grocery store has a bike in the window.
And if you're going to rent a bike, there's only one place:  Chrono Bikes.  
Right near the Porto San Pietro, they have fabulous Pinarello bikes, outfitted with Campy or Shimano.  If you're a biker, you know what I'm talking about.  If you're not a biker, take my word for it - these are great bikes.  Normally you can't rent bikes of this quality.  If you just want a cruiser to ride around the medieval  town (no cars allowed, altho there seem to be some anyway) they rent those too.  Altho not this fizzy polka dot model....if I were in the market for a town bike, this would be it.  So retro.
I know the bikes are fabulous because I spent the last week riding one, and there was a time (okay, more than one) when I came into a corner a little hot, and I was sure I would lay the bike down, and be listening to my helmet buzzing across the pavement.  Didn't happen.  Not because of my skill, because the bike stuck to the road.  Great bike.  Scared the pee out of me, but that bike saved my bacon.

The guy who owns the store, Paladino, can just look at you and know what size bike you need and exactly how high the seat should be.  

Gets it right first time.  Our friend Michael accidentally got on Paladino's bike instead of the one Paladino had set up for him.  I should tell you that Paladino is a lot taller than Michael, and Michael came back from his test drive saying "Well, either we have to lower the seat, or I'll have to cut off some of my anatomy..."

Paladino cracked up.  So did we.  Got Michael on his own (much shorter) bike, and we were off.

Here is a true fact about biking in Italy:  You Will Get Lost.  

You will have a lovely map, with the names of lots of small towns   You will stop at an intersection to look at the road signs pointing to lots of other small towns.  Unfortunately the towns on your map and the towns on the roadsigns are not even remotely related.  

And none of the street names are on the map, but that's okay because there are very few street signs unless you're inside the walls of  Lucca.  So what.  Wing it.  I promise you'll have a great adventure. 

No matter which way you go the scenery will be spectacular.  
Just try to stay off the Autostrada.  If there's a toll booth, Do Not Take That Road.  Aim for the smallest roads you can find.  They're usually going uphill, but that's where the beautiful small towns are, unspoiled by tourists (so far).
There is something called the Hills of Lucca  and Montecarlo Wine Route - if you're in a car take it.  If you're on a bike, follow the route Paladino has marked on your map...if you can.
Follow these signs.  Usually uphill.  
On teensy roads with no cars I did surprise one goat, but he surprised me more.  And no, this is not the goat.  Be nice.

Because Lucca has no big hotels, no fizzy resorts, the countryside around Lucca isn't overrun by tourists.  So the little towns have real cafes for real people, not souvenir stands full of plastic Pinocchios and postcards, and busloads of tourists.  Just real people living real lives.
We ride into a tiny town just as the church bells are ringing and people are walking to church, as they have for hundreds of years (okay, okay, not these exact people, their ancestors.  Point taken.)

They were ringing real bells in an old stone tower, not the recordings you get in the touristy areas.  It's near Sant'Andrea in Compito.  I know that compito is homework - is she the patron saint of homework?   And has this patron saint thing gotten out of hand?

We ride thru San Quirico, and joke that he must have been the patron saint of nerds.  Quirico, quirky...

Downhill from the church there is a babbling brook:
with an old stone bridge spanning it - just wide enough for two oxcarts to pass. 
The road across the bridge goes nowhere.  We don't care - we are exploring.

Here is another true fact about biking in Italy - if you are passed by some guys who look like they're training for the Tour De France, you're on the right road.  We got passed a lot.  We tried to follow a lot of really fast riders.  And eventually, hot, sweaty and happy,  we made it home.
If you're not up for a road ride, you can ride the 3 mile loop on the top of the walls.  Everyone else does, two wheels:
or four - with two steering wheels - yipes!  Who's driving?
Dads with kids perched on tiny plastic seats - no seat belts.  no helmets...and one hand is clearly busy...usually the other hand is holding a cel phone.  No idea how they do it.  But it all works.
Even the florist delivers by bike.

Go.  Stay in Lucca.  Rent a bike from Chrono and ride.  Take some friends.  We can't wait to go back.  Thank you Mike and Carolyn for the inspiration, for finding the apartment.  Thank you Paladino for the great bikes.  We had a blast.

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's Not What You Think

So I'm sure you were vastly amused by the story of me washing our clothes with bleach...well, it gets better.

At home, the automatic dishwashing soap comes in a little packet that you drop in the soap holder, and flip the flippy closed.   So that's what we did with our teensy automatic dishwasher.
We were on our second load of not very clean dishes when I saw two slightly rumpled but still tightly wrapped packets of soap lying on the bottom on the dishwasher.  Oops.  Now we unwrap them.  At least we're not washing the dishes with bleach.

All the comforts of home - an Apple computer:
(that only speaks Italian)

and a dryer that's a bit different than we're used to:
It's nearly as fast as my Fisher Paykel.  Since clotheslines are illegal where I live, I'm getting one.  
The kitchen is compact:
but has three coffee makers,

A tiny refrigerator, 
full of yummy things from the local shops. 
A minuscule freezer, maybe six inches deep: 
 just big enough for a small bottle of gin.
But the best bakery in Lucca is right next door.  
And with piazzas full of cafes and restaurants every block or two, and that great bakery, who could ask for anything more?