Saturday, December 27, 2008

Well Hello There!

I like the pine tree background. It's very Minty Fresh, you know?

Sorry I have not posted in... well, a long time. Things got interesting in the fall -- I did an original post for Matinee at the Bijou (Brother Can you Spare a Dime? Going to the Movies During the Great Depression) and then I launched into learning / re-learning l33t web skillz with some software that would explode after 30 days. Next thing I knew, it was now.

And you may be thinking, "Those two facts are related how?"

We at Café Tor don't particularly like to mention The World Out There because the whole point of Café Tor is to leave The World Out There, you know, Out There. I mention it now only as point of reference, to wit: as I wrote about the experiences of my family during the Depression I noted that the economic clime was quite similar to what we are experiencing now, and I wondered just how far history would repeat itself. Then the stock market tanked in November, and I thought, "Oh isn't this interesting?" Now I'm trying to get a new job in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and I can't help but think, "Oh isn't this interesting?"

Actually, I could think a lot of other things at this point, and I have, but they don't really do much good, do they? During the Great Depression very little popular culture and entertainment dwelt on hardship. Roosevelt's campaign song was "Happy Days are Here Again," Little Orphan Annie was a smash hit on the radio, and Ginger Rogers sang "We're in the Money!" in pig-latin (I just had to work that in because that scene cracks me up). Trust me, I am no Pollyanna, but I do understand Depressions, both personal and economic. Dwelling doesn't help.

So put on your glad rags and join us at Café Tor! I promise to try to be a little more balanced in the new year and update more regularly. Who knows? I might even develop Peach Cam for all you fruit tree lovers out there. Hey, don't laugh -- January is when all the gardening catalogs come out.

Be assured that despite the economy, we will not raise our prices at Café Tor! Coffee is only a dime here. Do join us.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

When my father talks about the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), he calls it “Moon River,” after the theme song by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Mancini’s score cinched the film for him – “I knew as soon as the titles came up and that song started playing it was a good movie.”

"Breakfast at Tiffany's" Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, 1961, Paramount, **I.V. - Image courtesy

It was one of the movies I particularly remember he let me stay up late to watch, although “let” is not the right word. It was more like, “Sit down, Mar, you’ll like this.” Like a tour guide he made little comments along the way: “I love the way [Audrey Hepburn] wears her hair, almost like a crown.” Watching Cat survey the people at Holly Golightly’s cocktail party he remarked, “Cat’s not really a cat; he’s a person.” Up until seeing that movie my only experience of George Peppard was from The A Team, and I never would have recognized him so young (and with red hair) if my father had not pointed him out. There was no part of the film that my father did not enjoy without a chortle or admire -- until the scene when Holly suggests to Paul that they steal something from the five and dime store. “This is the only part of this movie of which I do not approve,” he said emphatically.

When I watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s now, it surprises me that my father liked the film so much at eighteen (Consider that this is a man who taught his kids to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool because that’s how John Wayne did it in Hondo (1953)). Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems like a chick flick, a pre-Sex and the City paean to the single girl in New York City, complete with Givenchy dresses, cocktails and marrying the richest man. When I asked my father recently what he liked so much about the film he told me, “I enjoyed every minute of that movie. I loved the music. I liked the actors, Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard with hair. I liked Patricia Neal in her role, too. The only thing I didn’t like about that movie was that when it was over, I was still failing all my classes.”

Failing? I vaguely remember him telling me once that he almost failed out of college after his first semester. When I think of the film in this light, it makes sense: my father liked the movie because here at last was someone who put a name to that vague feeling of fear and malaise he had. He identified with Holly and what she called the “Mean Reds.” Yet when I asked about this, I did not get the answer I expected.

“Huh? Mean Reds? No… I didn’t go to the movies to think about them, Mar. I went to be entertained.”

My family is used to me asking seemingly random questions. As a writer and a naturally curious person, it’s what I do. Most of the time they answer without much fuss, but I recognize that sometimes I stray into memories undisturbed for a long time. While my father answered my question, that was as far as it would go. I could tell he didn’t want to talk more about it.

My father went to school on an academic scholarship. He definitely wasn’t stupid. Failing classes? How? What happened? I ask other questions, different questions. I piece together things I remember hearing, different conversations from long ago. Here is what I know:

By the time my father went to college he was very definite about what kind of movies he liked, and his tastes have not varied since: “I am not impressed by any overriding theory or philosophy in a movie, which is why more than anything I hate a movie with a message.” He did not care for The Apartment (1960) (“Everybody was a rat.”) or Spartacus (1960) (“The guy died.”) He loved Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (“The scenes in the desert were amazing. At the intermission, everybody wanted a Coke.”) for the music as much as the story. He saw films from the 1930s and 40s on television, watching late night movies at 11 P.M. and weekend movies at 1 P.M. However, he still went out to theaters to see the latest films. He lived at home and walked to classes, but he also had a car – a green and white Olds Rocket ’88 that went 100 mph, and he drove it along the same back roads he worked construction on in the summer to get to the theaters in Rittman or Orrville. He often drove without point or purpose and went to the theater of whatever town he drove into. This was how he saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, stumbling into the Orr Theater.

The film opens with an orchestral arrangement of Mancini’s song. Audrey Hepburn gets out of a cab on a deserted New York street. She pulls a Danish and a cup of coffee out of a bag and walks north on 5th Avenue, studying the jewelry in the windows at Tiffany’s. Fade to a row of unremarkable-looking brownstone apartments. Holly tries to sneak past a man in a car, but he sees her and follows her, shouting about how giving her fifty-dollars for the powder room gives him certain “rights.” Mr. Yunioshi (an almost pathetic role played by Mickey Rooney) objects to the noise, and the angry man leaves. Cut: Paul Varjak gets out of a cab in front of Holly’s apartment and looks around. Cut: the doorbell rings and Cat jumps onto the sleeping Holly. Holly opens the door to find an apologetic Paul – he just moved in, he doesn’t have keys, blah blah – but Holly can’t hear him through her earplugs. Paul asks to use the phone and Holly invites him in.

And there it is. The scene which occurs fifteen minutes into the film, an almost tossed-off exchange:

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?
Holly: No. The blues are because you're getting fat and maybe it's been raining too long – you're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?
Paul: Sure.
Holly: Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that'd make me feel like Tiffany's, then - then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name! (Courtesy IMDB)

Holly’s struggle to “find Tiffany’s” is what drives her. It’s what makes the romance between Holly and Paul sweet and funny and a little bit sad. It’s the whole point of the movie. And my father says he never thought about it?

Random bits of advice and observations from my father fill in more details. He always stressed academic achievement, but he also told us there comes a point when you can study too much. Cramming the night before an exam isn’t going to help and you might be better off playing shooting baskets until one in the morning. He also prescribed contemplative solitude. Years later when I was deep in my own funk, he drove me along the same back roads he drove to various small-town movie houses. We eventually ended up out to the OARDC Experimental station. “I used to come up here at night and watch the lights twinkling,” he told me. Another favorite spot was a large rock on campus. When I went to the same college, I saw the rock of which he spoke.

“That rock isn’t private. It’s right next to the main path.”

“You’d be surprised how private it is at two in the morning.”

If all this does not sound like a man who wrestled with the Mean Reds, then I don’t know what the Mean Reds are.

I cannot believe that he missed the idea of the Mean Reds entirely. At some internal level, he must have felt that here at last was someone who knew what it meant to be scared without knowing why. Perhaps he didn’t recognize it because Holly’s society-girl aspirations were so different from his own. I do not know how he came so close to failing that semester, nor do I know how he pulled his GPA up. Perhaps he views that almost-failure as a weakness he can’t admit to, and recognizing Holly’s Mean Reds means recognizing his own failings from that time. Or perhaps I, being of a more imaginary temperament, insist on seeing a pattern where there is none. Line the facts up however you like; the stories that we tell ourselves about our past selves mean everything.

I see now that, in a sense, he gave that movie to me. He gave it to me in the same way he tried to teach me how to use a volt-ohm meter, change the oil filter on my car, and make bread – because having the same temperament as he does, it was information I might someday need to know. Whatever the reasons he liked it, whatever he did or did not see in the film, he recognized that Breakfast at Tiffany's was a wonderful movie that could banish, if only for a time, those feelings of being afraid and not knowing what you’re afraid of. In a darkened theater, my father found Tiffany’s.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Junior Mints (1956)

The Wooster Schine Theater was a classic example of an art deco movie palace. The ticket booth was a smooth chrome curve extending from the wall, and a ramp lined with movie posters of features and attractions led up to the two sets of bronzed double doors. They opened into a lobby of sky-blue walls, burgundy velvet curtains, and gold starburst chandeliers. There was a long glass candy counter and a brass machine for popcorn. Off to the left, stairs led up to the balcony, while on the main level two aisles led down to a real stage, where occasionally there was live entertainment (my father remembers for his senior prom night that they had entertainment and movies until 2 or 3 am. I thought group fun on prom night to keep kids out of trouble was a modern thing).

When the curtains opened, the movie began. On Saturdays, for a quarter they ran trailers of what would be showing a few weeks out, a cartoon, a lesser picture (a B film or something shorter) and then the feature. My father remembers, “When you went to the movies, you spent your Saturday there. It would start at one and you wouldn’t get out until four or five in the afternoon.” Most of the time the movie was a quarter, but for some of the big releases the price was a dollar. Ben-Hur was one such film. He thought that was nothing short of robbery. I asked him if he paid the dollar. He says he doesn’t remember, but he knows he saw Ben-Hur.

The interior of the Wooster Theater in the 1930s. Note the organ next to the stage. More images here.
I wondered if he ever really thought about or noticed the theater itself. While he knew that it was “nice,” it never struck him as anything particularly special. “Really Mar, I was there for the movies.” The Wooster Theater had ushers – always men, never women – that wore burgundy jackets and carried little flashlights to help you find a seat. “Why no ladies?” I asked. “Don’t really know, but they were definitely always men, college age or a little older. How else are you gonna get a bunch of high school kids to quiet down?” To me, growing up as I did in an age of twelve screen megaplexes, the concept of sitting in a balcony to watch a movie sounded romantic and sophisticated. “They only opened the balcony when they had a guy [usher] to watch it. You couldn’t have twenty kids running around up there with nobody to watch them.” So much for sophistication.

My father was like his mother in that if it was a movie, he liked it. Some of the earliest films he can remember seeing at the Wooster Theater are The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Man from the Alamo (1953). His most vivid memories are of movies like White Christmas (1954), Bambi (1942, probably the ‘57 re-release) and Singing in the Rain (1952) -- big, colorful films with music and wide screen cinematography.

He remembers a lot of hype leading up to the premiere of Forbidden Planet (1956). Quaker Oats Puffed Wheat sponsored a national contest for kids to name the robot. But in searching for this contest, for the kid who won or runner-up robot names, I can only find a Quaker Oats promo to give away free tickets to see Forever, Darling and Forbidden Planet. What could my father be remembering? Or misremembering? I’m not sure I want to tell him that this memory he has is false; if memory is better than reality, what difference does it make after fifty years? What is absolutely true is that Robbie the Robot inspired Spielberg, Lucas, and my father with a lifetime love of sci-fi thrillers, and I am pleased to see that Robbie, like Trigger has his own IMDB page.

Talking to my father made me remember something from my own childhood. “Hey Dad – you know that story you told us, about that thing you did with the washers and the rubber band on the seats of the theater?” “Oh… That.” Yeah Dad, that. I couldn’t get him to confess how old he was when he did it (which means he was old enough to know better) but at some point he and his friends, utilizing the same principles as the motor of a rubber-band airplane, created a gizmo to make a sound like “stinkies” (his word). Apparently against the corduroy seats it sounded amazingly realistic. I’m not sure if they did this to embarrass unsuspecting others (probably) or purely for their own amusement (undoubtedly), but it has always reminded me that my father is not all that he seems.

Once my father started high school he began seeing movies with large groups of friends (for all I know this is when the “stinkies" gizmo was at its most humorous). “It was nothing for just my brother and I to start out and end up with a group of ten or twenty kids. We’d fill up an entire row of seats.” He watched Psycho (1960) with one such group. According to my father they were deathly silent during the film, right up until Vera Mills found Mrs. Bates. Apparently he was not the only one who let out a yelp.

It occurred to me that maybe he and his friends were the reason that they needed male ushers. Did he ever get into trouble? “Oh, we’d get a ‘If I hear one more thing, this row is out of here!’ Other kids got thrown out, but I never did. Besides, we were only noisy during the previews. We wanted to see the movie.” I suspect that my father was probably as rowdy as anybody else, but he’s probably telling the truth. Getting thrown out would have embarrassed him profoundly, so I’m sure he never crossed the line -- or more to the point, never got caught.

My father may not have been particular about the movies he saw, but he was very discriminating regarding his refreshment choices. Grandma usually gave my father and his younger brother 30 or 35 cents apiece, which left them with a nickel or dime for candy. My father didn’t buy candy in the theater, though – too expensive. Just next to the theater there was a candy store. “It was tiny, maybe the size of a small room. One wall was all glass jars filled with penny candy, but I didn’t care about that. The counter with the cash register was a glass case that had pre-packaged candy – Snickers bars and stuff like that.” My father bought a box of junior mints for a nickel.

Junior mints, introduced in 1949 by the Welch Company, makers of Milk Duds and Sugar Babies.
For as long as I can remember, chocolate mint is a flavor I associate with my father. In the summertime there was a stash of small peppermint patties in the freezer. Junior mints, however, were something I had only at Halloween.

“How come I only remember peppermint patties growing up? Did you ever get peppermint patties at the movies?”

“No, not usually. I preferred junior mints. They melt in your mouth better. They also came in a cardboard box, so you didn’t have to eat them all at once. Peppermint patties do not survive well in pockets.” Ever the chemist, he then explained that junior mints, depending on how they’re shipped and stored, will develop a grainy texture in hot weather. The hydrophilic nature of sugar and its properties of re-crystallization aside, peppermint patties just travel better. Once again we are reminded by our elders that candy was a whole lot better in their day.

Or maybe not. My first memory of junior mints comes from when I was five years old. I was in the hospital and had to stay overnight, alone for the first time. Just before my parents left, my father put a box of junior mints in the top drawer. He made sure I saw him do it. “There are junior mints right in there, Mar, so if you want a snack, go right ahead and have some.” I’m sure he did not know that each night they tied a net (they called it a “canopy,” but I was not fooled) over every crib so we couldn’t wander around in the middle of the night. Needless to say I couldn’t get to the junior mints, but I remembered that I had them – a talisman against loneliness, a gift from my father to me.

Details matter. It’s just not always the details that you’d expect.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

King of the Bullwhip

Back in March the folks at The Bijou Blog posted “Literary Depictions of the Movie Matinee Experience,” wherein Rich Mendoza pondered the lack of literary descriptions of the early twentieth century bijou experience. There was a contest for readers to send in whatever passages they could find describing the simple act of going to the movies. My mind went immediately to Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the chapter where Vivi and her friends enter the Shirley Temple look-alike contest. (You can read my entry here) And whaddya know? Little ol’ me won, and Bijou Bob sent along one of the original Matinee at the Bijou press kits circa 1982, filled with nifty goodies. (My detractors will be quick to point out that I was also the only person who actually sent anything in, but leave us not dwell upon mere technicalities.)

However, even as I wrote up my entry it occurred to me that my father was an untapped source of afternoon theater experiences. So I called my father one Saturday afternoon, and I tapped him. We talked for well over an hour, and I asked about all of it -- how old he was, what he saw, if he remembered the décor of the buildings or what he thought about the movies.

Oh what I found out.

As a matter of fact, I learned so many interesting things about his experiences that I have to divide what he told me into chapters. This is the first of three.


Glamorous art-deco theaters have been well documented and photographed, but I don’t think people realize the importance of the little second run theaters in introducing classic films to a new generation. After World War II, the movies had to compete with a new form of entertainment – television. It took a long time for Hollywood to take the challenge of TV seriously and embrace the medium as a new venue for their films. In fact, Metro Goldwyn Mayer was one studio that refused to allow its stable of actors to even appear on television. Eventually there were local, then national programs which showed old movies, but when my father began seeing films in the late ‘40s, the only way to see The Wizard of Oz or Mutiny on the Bounty was through second-run releases.

The Wayne Theater was narrow, with only one aisle down the middle and no balcony. It was so small that it didn’t even have the means to pop popcorn. “They had imported popcorn,” my father recalled, “In big bags behind a counter.” The Wayne Theater did not show first run movies, only B films, second run films, and serials. My father recalls seeing a lot of film noir there as well. (“When you were eight years old?” “Yeah.” “Did you understand any of it?” “No, but who cares? It was the movies.”) However, what really attracted my father to the Wayne Theater was The Cowboys.

Just listing their names conjures fabulous images: actors like Wild Bill Elliot and Rocky Lane, Whip Wilson and Big Boy Williams, and characters named Red Ryder, the Cisco Kid, the Durango Kid and Chico Rafferty. (“Excuse me?” I said to that last one. “You heard right. His mother was Mexican and his Father was Irish.” In a genre fraught with nasty racial stereotyping, there’s a bit of early diversity for you.) But the name that stood out most in my father’s mind, one I could tell from his voice held special memories, was Lash LaRue.

I had never heard of Lash La Rue.

“Sure! Guy with a whip, always wore black. Looked a lot like Humphrey Bogart. You know, Song of Old Wyoming? Eddie Dean and Jennifer Holt were in it. You remember Jennifer Holt; she was Tim Holt’s sister.” (Discussing the actors in Cowboys with my father is like an eerie family reunion where I have a feeling I should know these people and I don’t.) I don’t know how my father can rattle off all these facts, but he’s been watching Cowboys for sixty years and I take him at his word. Lash La Rue? I needed to investigate this.

LaRue as the 'Cheyenne Kid' in SONG OF OLD WYOMING (PRC, 1945)(From Minard Coons)

As the photo shows, La Rue did indeed look a lot like Bogart. For his role in Song of Old Wyoming (1945) La Rue chose a black outfit with white piping, which became the look he had throughout his career. No one could mistake La Rue for a singing cowboy, and that was his intention. He made many B films at PRC Studios in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and as his name suggests, his trademark was his use of a bullwhip to bring down his foes. There is an unsubstantiated Internet rumor that Lash La Rue coached Harrison Ford to use the bullwhip for his role as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (I don’t believe it, but I like the continuity of the image). What is absolutely certain is that Steven Spielberg had Lash La Rue in mind while he created the Indiana Jones character, and Anthony De Longis, the man who coached Ford for his role in the 2008 movie, was inspired by La Rue and the whip-wielding characters who came after him.

(If you want to learn more about Lash La Rue, go where I went: The Old Corral at I could summarize more, but this site is the best. Chuck Anderson has rounded up information on scores of the cowboys, villains, stuntmen, and those little-known players essential to the B-Western genre. And if you need live action thrills, go to YouTube and look up “Lash La Rue.” If you haven’t seen Lash fight El Azote in King of the Bullwhip (1950), then you ain’t seen a cowboy film.)

After careful research and viewing of archival footage (i.e. – YouTube) I can only say that… those films were bad. Low budget. Thin plots. Footage constantly reused, both from earlier in the movie and other films from the studio.

And yet…

Those aren’t the things you care about when you’re eight years old. You only care that you’re out of the house and off on your own, you’ve got a whole afternoon of movies with cowboys and bad guys, horses and chases and action. Even at that age you can feel that being in a darkened theater is a place apart. Cliff-hanging serials and Lash’s whip action weren’t about reality; they were about possibility. For whole afternoons, those possibilities were my father’s only reality, and he, like so many others of his generation, never forgot how that felt.

I think the reason my father was such a fan of Matinee at the Bijou was because their format was how he grew up seeing movies. In the early ‘80s home video was only just beginning. There was the late movie or the Sunday movie, and the local UHF stations might have a movie host or two, so you could see High Noon or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on occasion. But nobody showed serials. The first time he saw that MATB was showing serials, he was gone.

“All right fans!” he shouted. “They’ve got Crash Corrigan!”

“They’ve got what?”

“Not ‘what,’ ‘who.’” My father gripped the arms of his Lazy-Boy, eyes widened with disbelief that a child of his should have lived so long without knowing Mr. Corrigan’s fine body of work. “Sit down, Mar. Pay attention. This is educational.” And it was. (You’ve got to have a cool name like “Crash” in order to carry off what amounts to argyle socks and scaly BVDs. Trust me.)

From my father I learned that some really great cinema comes in small segments, and that sometimes something can be so bad that it can actually be kind of good. I learned that the improbability of a cliff-hanging ending makes it that much more fun to watch, that much more engrossing. The more impossible the premise, the more you are transported to a different world. More importantly, I learned it doesn’t matter if the film is a classic or B list, if the theater is an architectural landmark so small they have “imported popcorn” or your own darkened living room – what matters most about viewing films is your own willingness to suspend disbelief.

Details matter. It’s just not always the details that you’d expect.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Update: Science

Well, MP's hair seems to trump feline urinary practices -- SO FAR. Clearly MP can only refresh the deterrent on a limited, 3 week basis.

And yes, the cats have changed their location, but at least it's not the front walkway anymore.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Experiment: MP vs. Stray Cat

There is a black and white feral cat that's been digging in the front flowerbed. Oh who are we kidding here -- he's using it as a litterbox. I've decided to try deterring him from this habit by scattering MP's hair clippings around the bushes (MP has a very distinctive hairstyle, and I cut it. This is worthy of its own post.) Cats are supposedly picky about where they do business, so the introduction of something new and weird (i.e. - MP's hair) will make him go elsewhere (probably the next flowerbed over, but let's take it one bed at a time).

If this experiment is successful, I don't know what we can draw conclusions about -- cats' urinary habits or the smell of MP's head.

I love science.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gardened Out

The growing things are winding down, and this is just as well. I am feeling a bit gardened out. But like all gardeners (well, all obsessive-compulsive gardeners) I am taking stock in what I’ve done and what I would change next year. Let me share my successes and failures, beginning with...

Undoubtedly the biggest disappointment, my curcubits (cucumbers, melons, zucchinis, and, well… “squashes”) were slow to start, forcing me to replant, and then were very quickly set upon by both spotted and striped cucumber beetles. I got sucked in thinking they looked kind of cute before I realized what kind of havoc they could wreak, which they promptly did. I got fewer than ten cucumbers before the vine succumbed to cucumber wilt, so I pulled the rest of the plants to avoid further soil contamination. (At this point I have to say how impressed I am by the simplicity of garden nomenclature. My cucumber vines wilted, and the disease that caused it is called “cucumber wilt.” The bugs that carry the bacterium in their evil little guts are stripy or spotty beetley-looking things, and they are called “striped cucumber beetles” and “spotted cucumber beetles,” respectively. I’m all for transparency in gardening.)

The butternut squash succumbed to a slightly different problem. Not knowing that the Sungold tomatoes would grow into a sprawling jungle of nightshade fecundity, and I planted them too close to the squash. I couldn’t find the squash plants again until they bloomed, but by then they weren’t getting enough sunlight. On the plus side, the striped and spotted cucumber beetles were so busy in the cucumbers that they pretty much left the butternut squashes alone. On the down side, in some kind of pre-arranged turf-agreement, the squash bugs took over the butternut squashes, and they, too, left wilt in their wake (How dumb is it to kill your primary food source? No, wait… Humans do that. Never mind.).

Bottom line on squashes: controlling pest problems begins at the seedling stage either by physical means (row covers and screens) or chemical means (spraying). Weeds trap moisture and provide cover for insects; if they are allowed to gain foothold it’s harder to control the insects, and bacterial vine wilt is inevitable. Spacing is also important; good airflow, especially in humid climates, discourages fungus. Everything needs room to spread out properly without competing for nutrients, not to mention that it’s nice to be able to find stuff, unless you’re like me and enjoy that Eastery feeling of discovering hidden butternut squashes.

But having made all these mistakes, I still managed to eke out 3 tiny squashes (one at 1 lb. and two at 0.5 lbs.), which made the most delicious roasted butternut squash risotto. It was enough to encourage me to try again next year. As soon as I see seedlings, I’ll throw down mulch or newsprint with mulch to keep the weeds down, and I’ll skip the neem oil and go right to pyrethrin.

The concept of creating a “bean fence” with anchor poles and cross poles and twine wound around is a load of compost. The Blue Lake pole beans had those cross pieces and twine ripped down by the end of July and were cruising towards the neighbor’s fence. The quality of the beans was great; I only wish there had been more. But once again, I didn’t mulch soon enough to keep down weeds, and I planted too many beans in too tight a space, resulting in mineral deficiencies and fungal blight. That was easily controlled when lack of water caused the diseased leaves to fall off (I’m a “hands off” gardener, sort of “organic through lack of doing anything else”).

So! Mulch. Weed. Water. More importantly, there’s a reason they’re called “pole beans.” I’m putting up a line of seven foot poles and planting three seeds at the base. I might wrap a little twine around the pole to give the vines something to hang on to, but I’m not sure that’s necessary.


a 1.25 lb tomato on a scale
This is the first time I’d ever grown tomatoes from seeds (they’re fuzzy). My first Paul R. tomato weighed one and a quarter pounds and I ate it like a steak, but every one after that has been considerably smaller. I was really bad about letting them get too dry before watering, which lead to cracks in the fruit, making each tomato a potential insect hotel. I also let the spray schedule slip a few days, with disastrous results. I can track tomato hornworms by the damage they do, and I do not let them live (which leads to a whole other topic about karmic debit accrued by snipping large caterpillars in half with garden pruners).

As for the Sungold tomatoes, well… It didn’t matter what I did. Unwatered, unweeded, crowded, and attacked by an occasional hornworm, the three Sungolds produced pound after pound of tiny orange tomatoes. By late August I realized that if I ate another Sungold tomato, I would puke. And there they sit to this day, producing tiny orange tomatoes without a care in the world. Of course, those tiny orange tomatoes are full of tiny fuzzy seeds, dropping off the vines as I write. Next year I don’t think I’ll have to “plant” Sungolds anywhere; I think they’re just gonna come up. As a matter of fact, I think they’ll be the new weed problem in that section of the garden. I will plant three Paul Robesons, but only TWO Sungolds next year. Fertilizer and consistent watering will help yield more consistent fruit.


I’ve been blogging peaches all season, so I’ll spare you most of those details. My two big lessons: thin more aggressively and keep spraying with the pyrethrin. I think I’ll also seek out some oriental fruit moth traps and see if I can’t make a difference in that problem. Pruning this winter will be essential to try to reverse the damage done by the OFMs. Based on the flowering schedule of this year, I’ll wait until mid-February before I prune. This will give me a few branches I can force indoors for an early spring treat. I’m still trying to get MP to smoke ribs using last year’s prunings, but not having any luck. After this season, I am proud to say I can field-strip a peach in 10 seconds.


zinnias everywhereThe zinnias are the sleeper story of my garden year. I had a tiny patch of dirt left over, and I thought I’d just put in some happy flowers for the heck of it, something I could use as cut flowers and give the place some color. I ordered Burpee’s Cut and Come Again Oklahoma Mix and paid $5 for a packet of seeds that produced… fourteen seedlings. I was livid. “Rip off” and “robbed” were words oft bandied about, as MP will attest. And yet those zinnias exploded. Look at them. I love how this photo makes them look like acres of flowers, but really, we’re talking a 3x4 ft. space, tops.

a goldfinch seeks a snack of zinnia seeds When the zinnias really started going and a few flowers had begun to fade, I noticed petals strewn over the ground. It was like the leftovers from a colorful wedding. I didn’t think much of it until one morning I caught a goldfinch absolutely ripping the flowers apart to go after the seeds. That was the end of spraying the zinnias with pyrethrin (yes it kills bugs, but it also kills fish and is not so hot for frogs and birds, either. I try to go with the least damaging pest control, but this year, the beetles were bad).

I’m glad I stopped, because not long after I was in the garden, crouched down and studying the beans, when I heard a deep buzzing sound over my shoulder. Certain I was facing down the biggest bee in the Mid-Atlantic States, I turned very slowly and saw not three feet from my head a hummingbird, wanting to have a go at the zinnias. As we regarded one another, my first thought was “My, what a sharp and pointy little beak you have.” Did you know they cheep? Kind of a funny, squeaky sort of cheeping. I did not know that, nor would I have if not for planting the zinnias.

There are still a few things left growing – the zinnias will go until frost, as will the tomatoes. MP has a tiny little jalapeno pepper that survived some kind of fungus and is thriving, in a tiny sort of way. And just the other day I harvested some greens for a salad. MP found me at the sink, gasping and raking at my tongue. “Mustard greens!” I sputtered, hoping the burning in my sinuses wasn’t permanent damage. “Here, try some.”

Gardens. Amazing entertainment, I tell you what…

Friday, September 19, 2008

This Little Piggy Hurts Like Crap

MP hates it when I say, "Eww! This smells terrible! Here, sniff it." I'm not sure what irritates him more: that I'm inviting him to sniff something nasty, or that, for a brief half-second, he leans in to sniff before giving me a withering look and stalking away.

Like the telling of a nightmare in the hope it will fade, sharing bad experiences (i.e. -- the scent of cheap candles, the flavor of uni sushi, or that time you ate half the cream cheese bagel before you noticed that, while the cream cheese was fine, the lid to the cream cheese was covered in mold) is necessary to balance the horror of it. Some things are too big for the individual to handle alone.

Which is why I want to tell you about my big toe.

All summer I keep my toenails painted. Where I live, well-groomed feet are a must. I am known for my bright and eccentric choice of colors -- "tidal wave" (turquoise blue) and "parrot" (lime green) are my particular favorites. Unfortunately, even if you remove the toluene and the formaldehyde, nail polish is some wicked nasty chemistry. For that matter, so is nail polish remover.

So here it is mid-September and I've had nearly six solid months of painted toenails. I removed the polish to give my toes a chance to breathe. The nails are not pretty; they are yellowed (dark colors stain) and dry like you would not believe.

Therefore, it was no great surprise that while I was putting on my kung fu pants, my big toenail snagged on a seam and split. The horrifying part, and whole reason why I'm sharing this, is that is wasn't your typical, horizontal split. No, this was a vertical split, 2 mm wide and 4 mm of side nail all the way into the quick.

After the initial swearing, I stared at it and reviewed my options. I couldn't put my foot in my kung fu shoes with this hanging off. I had no clippers, no file. I could have asked Sifu for a knife, but he probably would have handed me some KA-BAR drop point knife and I couldn't do anything but cut off my toe with that. Nope, only one thing for it -- I pulled.

The whole experience left me surprisingly queasy.

I think I read somewhere that you cannot walk without your big toe. I believe it. Just having that bit of nail gone from the side of my big toe has completely messed me up. Stepping down on my foot feels wrong wrong wrong. It doesn't exactly feel painful, but God knows it doesn't feel right, either.

I think I'm done with painted toenails for the season.

(And thanks for letting me share; I feel better. Really.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Adaptability Revisited

Our house was built by crack-smoking monkeys. The upstairs ground fault switch is in the hall bathroom, but when it goes out, it doesn't shut off the lights in that bathroom, but the lights in the master bathroom. But only on one side, because the end of the circuit is at the ground floor outdoor receptacle on the back deck.

Crack. Monkeys. Believe it.

I know all of this because for a long time, when it rained I would end up taking showers in the dark, and after I tried to deal with the problem myself, tasting 120 volts in the process (In the last words of every dead electrician, "but I turned it off at the junction box!"), I had a long conversation with an electrician, who informed me that the wiring in my house had monkey-prints all over it.

Well, it rained and the lights went out in the bathroom – on the Friday night beginning Labor Day weekend. No matter what we did, the ground fault switch would not stay set. You never ever want to call a union contractor during a holiday weekend if you can help it, so I tried to think of the bathroom's new look as "mood lighting."

All of this, by the way, is prologue, which is why this post is called "Adaptability Revisited" and not "Crack Smoking Monkeys," which is a good title that I will probably use someday. I wanted to call this post "Adaptability," but I see I already have a post by that name. Strange how events involving MP lead to musing upon this elastic quality of mind...

MP decided he wanted to smoke a pork shoulder for Labor Day, the first one this year. He's been working on ribs, with fabulous results, but he misses doing shoulder. More to the point, he misses smoked pork shoulder leftovers. Doing a pork shoulder is something of a commitment. A 7-8 lb shoulder takes about 12 hours to smoke, which means MP has to *gasp*... get up early! Like, say, 8 AM.

Let me be fair. There are Morning People and there are... What are they, Zombies? You never hear "Night People," what...? Oh yes, "Night Owls." I am a Lark, and MP is Night Owl. He never willingly goes to bed before 12:30 AM, so 8 AM does not find him... fully refreshed. Actually, MP is seldom fully refreshed before 8 oz of coffee, and 20 oz is safer.

So. Pork shoulder. MP decides to get up “early.” I'm up toodling around by 7 AM, fluffing the garden, watering the yard... And it occurs to me to wonder if MP actually set an alarm clock or if I'm supposed to be the alarm clock. What if I was supposed to wake him and I don't? What if I wake him at 8 AM, and he doesn't want to get up until 8:30 AM?

At 8 AM I remove the shoulder from the refrigerator and make a pot of coffee. At 8:15 AM I flitter softly into the bedroom.

I am a terrible flitterer. MP grunts and raises his head immediately.

“Um yes, uh... Hi Sweetie. Was I the alarm clock?”

“No,” MP moans, “I'm waking myself up.” (Translation: fifteen more minutes and get the hell out of the room.)

At 8:30 AM he comes down fully dressed with shoes on, but I am not fooled. He still has pillow lines on his face.

As he transfers his equipment out to the back deck, I have a horrible thought – the lights are tripped in the bathroom, and since the end of the circuit is on the back deck, there's no way the electric smoker will work. Why neither one of us thought of this earlier, I don't know. I mean, you can intuitively grasp the logical connection between the upstairs bathroom lights and the back deck, right?

“What?” said MP.

“Don't worry about it. There's another outlet down in the yard.”

MP stares at the cord of the electric smoker. It's 3 feet long. He stares at me.

“Have some coffee!” I sing out as I trot out to the garage for the 100 ft extension cord. Problem solved.

Or not. Fifteen minutes later MP is still staring foggily at the coils of the smoker. “Isn't it hot yet?” I ask.

He reaches out and wraps his hand around the coil, ““No,” he replies, “I don't think so.”

And wouldn't you know, the receptacle on the front porch is out, too. Son of a Gun. Curse those monkeys. “Well, you can use the outlet in the garage and smoke it out on the cement pad in front of the driveway,” I suggest.

“No, I can't,” MP says as he props himself against the countertop. “I don't want to do it out in front. I don't want anyone to see me. I don't know why, but I don't.”

Barbecue Performance Anxiety? I ponder this. I mean, is he worried about uninvited neighbors looking for handouts, asking questions? It's not like you can hide what you're doing. Big puffs of smoke, cooking meat. It smells. And it's not like MP wears anything stupid when he cooks; no “Kiss the Cook” aprons. He does drink beer, but it's nice beer. And it's stupid to get drunk and play with burning hot metal, he knows that. No, clearly this was a “thing” he just had. There was no talking abut it or convincing him otherwise; it was just one of those “things.”

I popped out of my reverie. MP was staring at me, awaiting Truth. He had not blinked.

“Out one of the windows?”

“Smoke in the house.”

“Good point. Well, if the wind blows south, we can use the north window. Of course, if the wind bows north, then we should use the south window. I wonder what the weather is supposed to be like. Have you seen a weather report? Because I thought maybe it might rain later in the afternoon, but that might hold off till tomorrow –”

MP stood against the countertop with eyes like those of a shot and bleeding deer. Despite being out of bed for 45 minutes, he had not had coffee.

There are times to Think and times to simply Do. “Stand here,” I said, and put him in front of an east facing window. I went outside and knocked on the window with the plug. “Hello? Take this.” MP plugged the cord into an inside socket and the smoker at last had charge. An hour late, maybe, but he was off and... crawling. He still desperately needed coffee.

Adaptability. You wake up thinking you're gonna do one thing and end up doing another. It's too easy to get scope lock and not see the other possibilities, to to end up focused on what you don't have rather than utilizing what you do have. I am a terrible one for getting scope lock. But even when you're trying to avoid fixed-mindedness, you still have limitations. That's why you've got to be honest, and hopefully surround yourself with people who can shore you up when you need it.

MP had his coffee and the pork smoked. Unfortunately, starting an hour later meant everything came in an hour later, which meant we were standing in the kitchen at 11 PM pulling pork. MP was fully awake and singing the praises of his spice rub, and I was trying not to snore in the pork. The only reason I kept eating what I was supposed to be pulling apart was to stay awake. Seriously. After we were through, MP pried the two forks from my hands and gently pushed me off to bed.

You gotta love a man who will smoke pork and clean the kitchen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Say "No" to Beach Bums

I'm watching the Olympics, with all it's pomp and glory, and getting into it more than I have in years. What's different for me this time around is that China is the host, and I'm interested in the cultural/political background and how it will all play out before the world. And too, of course, there's the sport.

Ah yes, the sport. Hard work, determination. The training, the physical demands, the excitement, tension, drama, all leading to the one moment of decision -- Can she do it? Will he make it?

So why, then, are the Women in the Beach Volleyball competition practically naked?

You don't need to be in any way hormonal to immediately zero in on the fact that the women are wearing itty-bitty bikini bottoms. And I have no problem with women in bikinis. But as a world-class athlete competing in the Olympics, wouldn't you want -- nay, demand -- sports apparel that is practical and does not distract your attention from the game?

I wish to be tasteful and I wish to be clear, so let me present some facts: These women are fit. These women have worked hard to be in this competition. These women have glutes of steel and they look good.

But those bikinis, they keep riding up. On a normal woman, those little bottoms would be a thong. If those bikinis ride up on world class athletes, then the only thing to conclude is that the bikinis are poorly sized and they don't fit. Whoever chose these uniforms made a poor decision.

However, I could be wrong. Perhaps bikini bottoms are, in fact, the most reasonable apparel for this sport. That being true, one question: why aren't the men also wearing them?

I saw one of the women dive for a volley and go face first into the sand. She got up and examined her stomach, which was scraped up, and had to re-arrange her bikini, which obviously contained sand -- not part of any woman's Olympic dream. If she had been dressed like the men -- in T-shirts and shorts -- she would have been fine.

Ultimately, it's up to the athletes to decide what is the appropriate uniform for their sport. As an observer, I cannot help but note the obvious disparity between the men and women and wonder who really chose the costumes for the women -- because they sure didn't. The sports bra top? Infinitely practical. The bottoms? I can't think of any other event that requires the competitors to obtain a Brazilian wax.

Here at Café Tor we ask only for logic and fairness: put the women in boy shorts that offer some coverage, or require the men to wear Speedos. Let the athletes choose. One-sided sexist exhibitionism has no place at this level of sporting competition.

Besides, no one wants to pick a wedgie on the world stage.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Peach Panic

The peaches don't look so ugly now, huh?

I have been inundated with peaches. I have a surfeit of peaches. I have 18 jars of Pure Peach, Spicy Peach, and Very Berry Peach jam. I have given away over 5 pounds of peaches.

I have Peach Fatigue.

And you know, MP doesn't even like peaches -- not to just sit and eat. He enjoys the Very Berry Peach jam, but he digs the raspberries, and the peach just sort of tags along. He did approve this cake from the latest Martha Stewart Living Magazine, but only on the first day. I have to agree; sugar, fruit, high humidity, sitting on the counter... My advice is eat the whole thing at once with ice cream.

It isn't just the peaches, though. Summer's fecundity is thorough, and I have two pints of Sungold tomatoes. Daily. Every day. If the body can store lycopene, we've got it made. My sifu is more than happy to eat all the peaches, but down here, giving away tomatoes in August is like giving away kittens -- really sweet, but no thank you.

As for the Paul Robesons, MP is keen on perfecting his raw salsa. Unfortunately, the tomatoes grew so big that net doesn't quite cover the plants anymore, and there's this raccoon wandering around. Does he eat the Sungold tomatoes? Of course not! (Well, I wouldn't know, there are so many, he just may and I can't tell) But he finds a PR tomato that's maybe 2 days from ripeness, gnaws on it, then leaves it. So I have to cut out the parts with raccoon spit. I brought 6 in to let them ripen indoors, but with the peaches and tomatoes, I now have a fruit fly problem.

And to cap it all off, MP had to leave suddenly on assignment. Although now that I think of it, that may have been intentional...

Peach tomato ketchup, anyone?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

Somewhere during the Fourth of July weekend everything exploded -- which is what the Fourth of July is for, actually.

Since then I've been picking about a pint of sungold tomatoes daily and peering anxiously at the beans. I have seen the future and it is coming up cucumbers. When I am not squashing spotted cucumber beetles or striped cucumber beetles between my bare thumb and index finger, I am fretting over the peach tree.

Be honest. Are these not the ugliest peaches you have ever seen?

That doesn't bother me. And although I'm not happy about it, I'm not particularly bothered they're only the size of large apricots (gee, that "thinning" concept really was important!). What really set me off and running was that a mockingbird slashed into (and ruined) one of the peaches.

Harper Lee wrote something to the effect that shooting a mockingbird would be a sin because a mockingbird doesn't hurt anybody, it just sits and sings. Respectfully I submit that Ms. Lee didn't own any peach trees.

I picked and set the spoiled peach aside ("spoiled"? Like the buckshot disease and the oriental fruit moths and the curlicoes left anything "unspoiled"?) and got out the bird netting. And then I wondered how I was going to get the net up and over the tree. I unfurled the 14' x 14' squeare in the driveway and stared at it a while. Then I got the ladder and clipped my cellphone to my belt. MP would not be pleased about my getting on the ladder by myself , but if I fell and broke both legs, I could at least dial 911 while gazing at my beloved peaches. (MP hates it when I get on ladders, and I'm not sure why. Although it may have something to do with how I crash through doorways because I misjudge the clearance, and he just doesn't want to see that talent taken into three dimensions.)

There's a reason fishing nets are weighted.

After I ate the net, wore the net, and picked the net off every screw and splinter on the ladder, I got the net over the tree using my martial arts staff. The net didn't completely cover the tree, however, so I secured what I could with bread ties and then hung a wind chime over the large uncovered part. Now the peaches are ugly, the tree looks weird, and the birds are confused (or laughing). I hope I entertain my neighbors as much as I entertain myself.

I did in fact sample the green peach that got slashed. It was unripe, of course, but I can tell that they're going to be lovely. Perhaps within a week?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

We Be Jammin'

In preparation for being crushed by a mound of peaches, I've been studying the science of making jam.

Women old enough to remember having to preserve food discuss canning and preserves-making with only slightly less eye-rolling than childbirth. “All those tomatoes/strawberries/beans!” “It was so hot!” “It never set up!” I wondered -- was it true? Was canning really that mysterious, precise, and difficult? I wanted to see what the big deal was.

Bon Appetit
had a nice little bit in their June issue by Molly Wizenberg entitled Jam Session: The Simple Secret to Making Homemade Jam. She made canning sound downright cozy, sort of the fruity version of Proust's madelines -- infinitely doable. I went to the kitchen with two pounds of strawberries, her recipe, and three of those super-cute, eight ounce Ball jam jars that look like quilted glass.

And I promptly hit a wall. Two cups of sugar would be way too sweet for me and I knew it. However, in old-fashioned recipes for jam-making (the kind that don't require the addition of pectin), sugar is more than just a sweetener; it's hydrophilic properties are necessary for making the stuff jell. Without enough sugar, you get fruit soup. So never having done this before, I did what I usually do: threw away the recipe and went with my gut (This explains why MP does almost all the cooking).

Macerating the berries in one cup of sugar for two hours brought out more juice than I ever imagined strawberries possessed. Ms. Wizenberg's recipe notes that the jam mixture should jell after boiling for about 18-20 minutes. After an hour of boiling, I was feeling decidedly like Meg in Little Women (Part 2, Chapter 28 “Domestic Experiences”). The fact that the stuff wasn't jelling didn't particularly bother me, as clearly I'd deviated from the recipe, but being a literary heroine was wearing thin. I relied on my candy making skills (now those are some recipes you never, ever deviate from), watching the mixture sheet off a spoon to tell me where I was in the jelling process. It was a dicey wait, but after a full hour and twenty minutes of boiling, I had jam.

Ms. Wizenberg's directions for canning were fabulous and I had no trouble with the actual canning process. I finally got to use my antique kitchen utensils for their original purposes. The most nerve-wracking part was dipping the jars of jam into the pot of water and wondering how this was going to vacuum seal anything. But after the appointed boiling times the jar lids did indeed pop with a little vacuum sealing sound, and I felt very clever (Following directions can do that).

That was as good a time as any to sit down, lick out the jam pot, and survey my trashed kitchen while contemplating what I learned about making jam.

It wasn't that big a deal.

However... Our grandmothers were right to dread it. We have a few advantages that they never had. I only had two pounds of fruit, but what if you had ten or even twenty pounds of stuff? It's possible if you were harvesting from your garden and everything came in at once. Not like you can store it in the refrigerator. You'd need at least one other person to help you wash and prepare it. Moreover, fruit typically ripens in June or July, when it's hot. They didn't have air-conditioning or huge kitchens, and for a fact, where my one grandma grew up, they only had a wood stove. The jars have to be sterilized and kept hot. There's the pot containing the jam, which could easily boil for an hour, the pot with the jar lids, which needs to be simmered, and the canning pot, which contains 4-6 quarts of water and must be brought to a boil. And before self-sealing lids, the surface of the jam would have to be sealed with liquid paraffin, which also had to be melted on the stove. That's four burners going. By the way, paraffin is flammable. Keep those elbows in!

No AC, tiny kitchen, stuck in there with another person, up to your elbows in fruit? No way. Let them eat dry toast.

But oh, licking hot jam from the pot? Wow.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Now in TWO Locations!

This is great! We're a chain!

It turns out there really is a Café Tor now open for business at Park Mill, Helmshore in the UK. I have to say, it looks like my kind of place -- lots of space and light. They're also serving local foods, which makes for a tastier menu.

So if you're ever hanging out in Helmshore, you know where to get a cuppa tea or have a nosh!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Peachy Keen

I don't see how you can make something as fundamentally fascinating as a peach tree so boring. Listen to this: “For many years the use of 'flush cuts' has been recommended for pruning fruit trees to promote rapid wound closure. Recent research results with peach and other tree species indicate that flush pruning cuts are more susceptible to disease infection than cuts in which a portion of the lateral branch remains.”

Four years back I had an opportunity to plant a new tree in the front yard. I wanted a tree that would do something – flower, or provide fruit, or attract flamingos, whatever – and be different from the endless Bradford pears and water maples dotting this planned urban landscape. My parents suggested a peach tree, which right there should have stopped me cold. Accept parental advice? To this day I'm not sure why I planted a peach and not a nectarine, because I infinitely prefer nectarines. Biting into a peach is like eating a kitten. But like a sap, I thought having a peach tree would be “fun,” so in the spring of 2004 the nursery sent me a five foot “Elberta” peach stick. I flipped a coin to determine which end was up.

The first year it put out leaves. In October all the leaves turned yellow and dropped off. I freaked until I remembered the concept of “Fall.”

The second year it bloomed but had no peaches. I wondered if maybe I had a male peach (don't laugh – some fruit trees are male and female).

The third year it bloomed and produced a gazilliion tiny peaches, which proceeded to drop off one by one, leaving only one peach remaining. I petted that peach from spring halfway through July, until a mockingbird savaged it and knocked it off the tree. I cut out the beak slashes, peeled off the black spotted skin, and cautiously had a slice.

It was the best peach I've ever had in my life.

So here we are on the fourth year. It occurred to me that, in order to set more than one peach, I might actually have to do a few things, like prune and spray and study what actually makes a peach tree peach. Spraying proves to be key. For example, last year I noticed a running sore in the trunk two inches above the ground. I took pictures and went to a local nursery.

“Waaal... It's either canker or a borer,” the gentleman stated calmly. “If hits canker, hits gonna die and there's nothin' you can do. If hits a borer, waaal... you spray. But you'll have to call the county extension.”

Die? Where's the phone?

“It sounds like the Greater Peach Tree Borer,” the Master Gardner said in a slow round accent. “I'll send you the spray schedule for stone fruits developed at Tech.” The chemical recommended was so toxic it required a license to purchase in Australia. It also came in a one gallon container, which was enough to cover 1,000 acres. Hello? I am not a farmer, I just have a pet peach. In the end I unfolded a paper clip and stuck it into the wound, hopefully ramming the borer's backside into his brain. Farming can be cruel.

Last fall I found Gardens Alive, a catalog specializing in natural/organic pest control for the home grower, so I bought the Perfect Fruit Spray Kit for fruit trees for this year. I also pruned as best I could, but despite having multiple degrees, I still could not understand the notes from the Cooperative Extension (“Moderately vigorous shoots have a high proportion of nodes with 2 flower buds. The leaf buds at most nodes develop into lateral shoots that may be fruitful in subsequent years.”) The wound is closed now and the tree seems fine. As a matter of fact, this spring, the tree set tens of hundreds of thousands of little green peaches. So I thinned them. Four times.

In doing this, I noticed other things. The tips of the new growth were slowly dying back. I split open a few and found a tiny white worm with a black brown head. Digging around on the Internet I was able to identify it as an oriental fruit moth -- probably. “Use a hand lens to detect the presence of an anal comb under the last abdominal sclerite, which helps distinguish oriental fruit moth from other white or pink worms, such as codling moth, that may be found in stone fruits.”

You see what I mean? Fascinating.

I delivered some samples to the County Extension Office. I gave them a copy of my organic spray schedule, but they didn't care. They sent the samples off to Tech. Tech sent back pages printed from the Internet about oriental fruit moths -- the same as the ones I used to make my analysis. However, according to Tech, I not only have oriental fruit moths, but also plum curculios! So Tech sent me... A spray schedule. Same as before. For grins, I looked up the sprays. One was a nerve toxin and the other was an endocrine disrupter (Peaches, by the way, absorb the most pesticides of any fruit).

So I'm thinking that when you get down to it, these curculio guys, they're kind of cute, what with their funny noses. A lot of character.

We shall see what happens. I have plenty of fruit. I now see how pruning and thinning are crucial not only for the development of fruit, but also for natural deterrence of insects -- curculios burrow into fruit where two fruits touch. Let's face it, nobody in their right mind would go to all this trouble just to grow the same traditionally farmed peaches you can get at the store for $1.99 a pound. I'd rather eat a tasty ugly peach than a beautiful one that will slowly poison me. But I also understand the farmer's need to spray. If I had known what I was getting into I would never have planted a peach tree. It really is a lot of work and worry.

Endlessly fascinating. I'm having the time of my life.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Like a Pizza Bagel

It was inevitable.

Wandering the aisles of the grocery store I suddenly realized that the background “elevator music” playing to inspire me to buy frozen fish sticks was actually a song from my high school days, and it hit me: I had officially entered that shady period known as “middle age.”

But it wasn’t just any song. It was Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” For me, hearing this song wasn’t just about getting older. It was about something far more sinister: pizza bagels.

Like Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate, I snapped.

I made it through the wilderness/Somehow I made it through
It is 1985, my sophomore year of high school, two days after Christmas. There is a huge ice storm and we are awakened in the dead of night by my father, who fears the heavy ice will cause tree branches to crash through the roof while we sleep. He herds us like bleary-eyed sheep, my mother, sister and I, into the living room. My father’s logic dictates that as long as his frantic pacing keeps us awake we cannot possibly be killed in our sleep.

We are at the end of the power grid in the middle of nowhere, so the electricity is gone and we know we will not see it again for some time. We have a small generator, but it can only run a few lights or the refrigerator or the water pump. My father does not even consider running the furnace; we will build a fire instead. Except for a twice daily toilet flushing, the generator runs the refrigerator, despite the fact that there is ice everywhere. Two gallons of milk and five pounds of frozen chuck must be preserved.

Didn’t know how lost I was/Until I found you
The days that follow are pared down to a surprising simplicity: we gather wood, we tend the fire, and we make pizza bagels.

The pizza bagels are my mother’s inspiration and I blame her for them entirely. She was able to get the ingredients into a cooler before my father put the refrigerator on lockdown. The stove and oven are gas, so by candlelight we make tomato sauce and toast bagel halves covered in a tablespoon of cheese and four slices of pepperoni. Well, warm them up, anyway – the broiler doesn’t quite work. But the bagels get hot enough to bring the grease up to the surface of the pepperoni quite nicely. This will be our only food for the next six days.

My sister and I are glad to get out of the house to haul split wood in our sleds even though each trip outside means we have to endure a lecture from my father. His warnings touch on points like, “Don’t walk under trees because the weight of the ice will send heavy limbs crashing down on your head” (which is good advice, but we live in a forest. Where does he think all this wood we’re hauling comes from?) and “You two have to stop fighting so that you can gather wood to heat the house” (my sister and I both instinctively know that nothing warms the blood like a good spat, and we are happy to keep one another from freezing to death).

But it’s worth this lecture to get away from his more paranoid ruminations, which all seem to begin, “People die in situations like this!” My father’s greatest fear, just edging out the “Tree Branch to the Head” scenario, is that we will have to defend our 2200 watt generator against the neighbors or a mob from Detroit (which is an hour away on a clear day). However, unless the Horde drives a Zamboni machine, nobody will make it down our winding gravel road coated in three inches of solid ice anytime soon.

I was beat/Incomplete/I’d been had/I was sad and blue
At first I pretend that I am Laura Ingalls trying to make it through the Hard Winter, but the pizza bagels are anachronistic. I try reading, but this requires light. This also seems to annoy my father, who feels I am not taking the situation seriously enough. I try to take my father seriously without succumbing to his sense of doom, but as the days pass I realize that all I can do is lay low and keep warm. Paranoia, like pizza bagels, becomes monotonous.

The real question is, can I survive listening to Madonna? Because while we desperately scan the radio dial for weather reports (if another storm comes and we don’t take it seriously we could all die!) and news about when Consumers Power will restore electricity, every station between Detroit and Flint plays “Like a Virgin,” at least four times an hour.

But you made me feel/Yeah, you made me feel/Shiny and new
The contrast between Madonna wearing a fishnet tank-top and me wearing the same five pound yellow-orange sweater for six days straight does not escape me. But after hearing “Like a Virgin” over and over, I at last achieve the kind of mental clarity only a diet of pizza bagels can bring. I see beyond the vulgar lyrics, beyond the images of the Material Girl acting slutty on a gondola to the true meaning of the song: you’ve already lived through Hell, so hold out for the one that keeps your dream alive. In the meantime, get on the boat and start dancing!

Like a Virgin/Touched for the very first time/Like a Virgin/When your heart beats/Next to mine
I came to in my shopping cart, surrounded by more than a dozen 8-packs of D-cell batteries, countless boxes of frozen pizza bagels, and a carton of Ohio blue tip matches clutched against my chest. My head was pounding in time to the chorus, a sort of mnemonic hangover from a week lost twenty years ago.

Yes, the power lines were put back on the grid and the ice melted. I went on to have my senior picture taken wearing the five pound yellow-orange sweater and a pair of enormous gold earrings. And in the highs and lows of the years that followed, no matter how bad things got, there was always one question I could ask myself that put everything into perspective: Have you had any pizza bagels lately?

As long as the answer is “no,” I know I will be okay. You can’t stop aging, but you don’t have to give in to it. Get on the boat and start dancing.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Becoming One with The Suck

My current banner, cracks me up -- "Something Fresh." What, you mean it's April already?

Their rejection is your luck. Here -- have a story.


The morning they introduced the new routines I knew it was time to find a new workout. With the music thumping and our lycra-encased behinds gyrating in rhythmic circles, I felt like I was cross-training to be a cheerleader or a stripper. At 9:30 A.M. I wasn’t ready to be either.

For the past year I had received acupuncture treatments to alleviate the symptoms associated with endometriosis (i.e. – menstrual cramps that could drop a horse). A daily workout that gave me the benefits of circulating qi (energy) through my body would be ideal. Tai chi, with its long, slow movements combining the qi circulating effects of acupuncture with aerobic strength training, seemed perfect. Finding an instructor was easy – there was only one listed in the phone book.

But when I called and asked about classes, the instructor laughed sheepishly and apologized for the outdated listing. The school hadn’t taught tai chi in years, he said, but they did offer something called “qigong.”

He explained that qigong is similar to tai chi as far as moving energy, but unlike much of what is taught in the U.S., the qigong taught at this school is not separated from its martial roots. His school taught bagua zhang, which consists of two parts – the external, martial art, which is bagua, and the internal, health-building art, which is qigong. Both share the same fundamental concepts and many of the movements.
Me? Martial arts? I’d never done anything like that before. No way.
Except… I didn’t like how I automatically cringed when people tossed things at me. And when it came to expressing a contrary opinion or telling people what I really thought, I folded. Maybe martial arts could teach me something about the art of confrontation.

Sifu (“sifu” is the Chinese word for “teacher”) seemed more jovial than I expected a guy with 40 years of martial arts experience to be. With his gray beard and sparkling blue eyes, he seemed more like… well, Santa Claus. He began my training with warm up exercises (some of which required me to hang on to a chair because my ankles were so weak) and floor stretches.

One in particular, the “sideline stretch,” increases the twist of the spine while opening the pectoral muscles. The arm goes back and the shoulders rest on the floor. Except that mine wouldn’t. Actually, my arm didn’t even go all the way back. “Well, sometimes the intercostals and shoulders get tense and they take time to stretch out,” Sifu explained. “Just relax into the position.”

In the months that followed I learned that the more beautiful the Chinese name for something, the more tortuous it is. Contemplating poetic phrases like “Small Mountain-Climbing Step” or “Wild Goose Skims the Water” directed my focus away from my screaming quadriceps. “Relaxing in these stances will strengthen the tendons of the legs,” Sifu explained. “Eventually you’ll hold all seven stances, forward and backward, for one minute.” Forward and backward, left and right sides meant… 26 solid minutes.

This did not help my shoulders to relax.

The slow motions of qigong move energy through the body, but the same motions used at a different speed make for devastating self-defense. In the lyrically titled “Flower under Leaf,” the “flower” is actually a “snake,” coiled for a sweeping blow across the ribs. Only every time I moved the top arm (the leaf) over the bottom one (the flower), my shoulders popped up next to my ears. When Sifu did it with toes and knees turned in, he looked dangerous and ready to strike. When I did it, I looked like I was hugging myself and trying hard not to pee. “You’re carrying too much tension in your upper body,” Sifu explained. “Just drop your shoulders and relax.”

And then it hit me: I sucked at this.

Of course I was tense. This was something completely outside my experience. After six months of turning my knees in, twisting my spine, and trying to feel qi move, I was still really terrible at it. And I didn’t care if he did look like Santa Claus; if Sifu told me to relax one more time, I would have to train that much harder just so I could beat the crap out of him.

But if I was so bad at it, why was I still there? I could always go back to the old workout.

No I couldn’t. It was finally time to confront what made me so tense: my expectations to succeed fabulously at everything. The reason that qigong was outside my experience was because I had never let myself continue anything in which I couldn’t be perfect. And for me, qigong was unquestionably The Suck.

Physical coordination is not one of my particular talents. At my age, I could not compare myself or physically compete with 23 year old men. We were fundamentally different, and I could not change that. But if I could allow myself to become One with The Suck and make the mistakes… I might learn from them.

And I learned that in martial arts, your first confrontation is not with an “opponent,” but yourself – your own expectations and ego. I learned that I do not have to hold on to an identity that longer works for me.

Slowly, with each palm strike, I saw that proficiency isn’t always about skill (although believe me, it helps), but about quitting or not quitting. Some people can accept their mistakes and try again, and some people can’t. Their egos won’t let them. They have to quit, or risk losing an identity based on unrealistic expectations. But once you embrace The Suck – that your skill level is what it is right now, and whatever that is is okay – you can get rid of your insistence on perfection and relax.

And your shoulders will drop, just like that, because you are no longer trying to squeeze yourself into an identity that does not fit.

Recently I was practicing an exercise called “dragon back,” which moves qi in slow undulations up the spine. Sifu stopped to watch, and after a minute of silence, he nodded and said, “It’s looking very nice.” I thanked him for the compliment, but I finally understood. As Sifu has explained before: “Dragon back is not something we ever perfect; it is only something we practice.”

Sunday, March 16, 2008

We Are Here!

They say that it's important to attract viewers to your blog with photos, so here are some that are cheerful and springy:

The coffee one one isn't springy, but it is cheerful. It's the background image, courtesy of Backgrounds Archive.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Checking In

I have nothing of note to say other than "Hi," and please bus your own table because I am too busy to do it. Seriously.

I have been on a deadline for another project that has completely baffled me. How can I take something as fundamentally humorous as being attacked by a street clown on the Champs-Elysees and write something so horribly flat? I don't know. I am either a much better or much worse write than I first supposed. And pardon the lack of acute accents, but I really don't feel like looking up a bunch of ASCII characters right now.

Well, back to it.

Friday, February 22, 2008

An Analysis of the Literary Merit of Reviews of the Panasonic ER421KC Nose and Ear Hair Trimmer

MP’s nose hair trimmer died last month in a spectacular death of crystallized battery guts. I suppose he could have scraped the contacts with dental tools and tried to salvage it, but MP just isn’t that kind of guy. He requested I put an order in for a new nose hair trimmer, because MP isn’t that kind of a guy, either. “I don’t need one with a giant LED,” he told me. “RPMs. I want RPMs.” (That’s the kind of guy MP is.)

Now, what did I say in the neti pot post? Nobody is interested in me talking about pouring saline solution in one nostril and out the other. So it doesn’t take a great mental leap to conclude that nobody is particularly interested in talking about nose hairs or how to trim them, either.

Except that I have definitive proof that people are interested in talking about nose hairs and how to trim them, and I absolutely must share this fascinating topic with you, because this is why I opened Café Tor in the first place.

I stumbled across the proof in this way: Having received MP's mandate to “go for RPMs,” I realized I needed information to make an informed consumer decision. For a fact, some of these gizmos have LEDs like Christmas tree lights, and vacuums so that your delicate fingers never touch the nose hair clippings. Are they really worth $30 or $40? I went to some sites and read the reviews, and that is how I discovered this untapped source of literary wealth.

Here’s a review of the Panasonic ER421KC Nose and Ear Hair Trimmer, Wet/Dry, Lighted nose-hair trimmer from Leonard in Arizona: “Whatcan I say... it trimmed my nose hair. Inly challenge is that you need a battery. Works well though.” (Direct quote, his typing).

I love this. No shilly-shallying. Brief. Manly.

Here’s one on Amazon from Richard in Oakland, CA: “Had this about 4 weeks and no problems so far. I haven't dropped it/run over it with a car/fished it out of the toilet, so I can't vouch for its durability. The light is completely useless, unless you need an emergency trim during a blackout. The cheaper Panasonic is probably just as good. Final word to potential purchasers - nose hair stubble is a completely new experience.”

My friends, I am not being sarcastic when I say that I am in awe of these men’s writings. They have taken a customer review form, a tiny RTF block typically associated with dry clipped sentences, and turned it into a literary genre filled with humor and sparkling prose. On there were 164 reviews for the Panasonic ER421KC Nose and Ear Hair Trimmer alone – that’s 17 pages! What is even more fascinating/terrifying is that Amazon allows the user to post a review video, although no one has done this for this particular trimmer (so far).

And there was controversy! The little light, described by one use as having a corona “the size of a freckle” was the make or break feature of the product’s overall review:

“First, the light actually is useful...just not when you've got it stuck in your nose cutting hair. Its use is when you periodically need to examine inside to see how you're doing. So spend the big bucks for the lighted model, otherwise you'll have to keep a flashlight around.”

“Perhaps my nostrils are abnormal, but I found the light useless.”

Most of these reviews are signed with screen names or first names, but my absolute favorite was signed with a real name that I was able to track down to an email address. I sent him (well actually, I had to send it to his wife, because that was the contact info from his blog profile) an email requesting permission to post his review on this blog. (Fred the Editor is looking at me, as he often does, like I have lost my mind. Well Fred, I was acting in the spirit of journalistic integrity, and sometimes you just gotta put yourself on the line.)

Mr. Gene Twilley’s 350 word review was not only hysterically funny, but was also actually useful in describing and rating the product. For example, his usage tips:

“I've found that this trimmer works best when you cut as if you’re trimming bushes, not as if you were cutting grass. What I mean is that it would be best if you refrain from just cramming it up your nose. Granted, if you're purchasing this device, you're probably used to just yanking hairs anyways (hence, you're also used to the associated pain). Trust me, if you take it a little at a time, the pain is greatly diminished and the effectiveness of the trimmer is enhanced.”

His review, in its entirety, can be found here on Amazon. I would point out that Mr. Twilley is in the “Use the Light” camp. (I also recommend searching his other product/literary/movie reviews. While perhaps not as amusing his nose hair trimmer review [what could be?], they are all useful and insightful. For even more of the Mind of Mr. Twilley,

This is the link to the Amazon page for the Panasonic ER421KC Nose and Ear Hair Trimmer, with the reviews at the bottom. I urge you to flip all the way back, as some of the best ones are buried, and decide for yourselves whether or not the product review is the up and coming literary genre of the new millennium. As for me, the reviews were too much to resist – this is what I purchased for MP.

Now I’m inspired to go write my own review of the product. Of course, that would mean using MP’s nose hair trimmer…

Huh. This could take our relationship to a whole new level.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Putting Pants on Your Truck

While running some errand this weekend with MP, we pulled up at a stoplight behind a large Ford truck. Something appeared to be swinging from somewhere behind the trailer hitch.

A scrotum. With testicles.

I said, “MP, am I really seeing this?”

“Classy…” he confirmed.

“Where do you buy something like that?”

“Trust me, you don’t want that catalog.”

But I did. Because I am curious. Because someone needs to explore these weird cultural topics without prejudice or vulgarity. But mostly because I cannot fathom why you would put testes on your truck.

It didn’t take me long to find a website that sold – nay, was proud to bring me “America’s favorite novelty testicles.” (My God – what was the ranking system?) Apparently, I need to get out more, because these have been popular for some time. They come in a variety of colors (blue is a favorite) and materials, including chrome, steel, and brass (how, um… “Clever”). Some of the models could even be lit up, because everything is way cooler with an LED in it. This site – which I am not going to link to because I want in no way to be karmically entwined with it – has quite a number of videos on it featuring David, who is happy to demonstrate all the colors available as well as how to affix your purchase to the vehicle of your choice - because yes, you can put these on your motorcycle, too.

I will spare you the reviews and customer “teste-monials.” One involved an unfortunate incident with an armadillo late at night that I am still trying to scrub from my brain. I find it sufficient to say that people who wish to exercise their freedom of speech by hanging novelty testicles from the back of their motor vehicles probably need to get out more.

But here’s the thing – There’s at least one Virginia lawmaker who also needs to get out more. He’s introduced a bill in the state legislature to get automotive novelty testicles banned, or declared a misdemeanor with fines up to $250. His reasoning is that he would not know how to explain them to his 5 year old granddaughter, and he would not want her to be embarrassed.

Why do adults fall apart when children ask questions about reproductive biology? It’s really easy people. Watch:

Child: What’s hanging on that truck?
Possible replies (choose one, depending on age of child: It’s somebody’s idea of a joke that really isn’t that funny.
It’s a grown up being silly.
It’s somebody making their truck look like a boy cow (yes I know, but let’s not give them too much to handle at once, okay?)
Child: Why would somebody do that?
Parent: Because they’re silly.

Watching David crow ecstatically that he is able to offer novelty testicles in such a bright array of colors, I think he would be the first one to agree: My God, yes – we are silly! And any kid old enough to know that they’re seeing injection-molded male private parts is going to be more embarrassed for the truck’s owner than for themselves.

Once upon a long ago, far away time, I worked in corporate America on the web team of a Fortune 500 company. One day an employee called, furious. Who did we think we were publishing such vulgar pictures on our website, and with children in them? We were supposed to stand for family values (which was news to me), so how could we put these picture up in front of the world?

I got him calmed down enough to send me a link so I could see what he looking at. He wasn’t even on the web. He was looking at a page on our intranet (which was not my department, but at that time nobody could talk or spell or knew the difference between the Internet and a company’s private intranet) from the recent family day at a farm. A group of maybe ten kids were standing in front of a huge draft horse while a woman talked about the horse and held his head. Other pictures showed the kids reaching out to pat the horse’s nose or shoulder.

It took me a while to realize he objected to the horse’s penis.

“I’m sorry, are you objecting to the horse’s penis?” I asked. (When dealing with customer service and complaints, one needs a clear understanding of the problem before a solution can be found.)

But I guess that was the wrong thing to say, because I never did get him calmed down after that, even when I promised to remove the pictures. I hung up on him while he was still muttering about “moral turpitude.”

Horses don’t wear pants. Neither do trucks – though I guess whether or not they should is up for debate in Virginia – but these facts aside, the truth is that one of these days, at a farm, a zoo, an art museum, you or your child will see a naked testicle. It is assured.

So take a deep breath, relax, and remember: everybody knows that naked women are beautiful, while naked men are hysterically funny.