Monday, December 21, 2009

In the Bleak Midwinter


Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

I love the Christmas season: light and laughter push back the dark and cold outside, and the music … ah, the music … fills hearts with warmth and minds with a sense of wonder.

Years ago, my mother put it this way in a letter to one of my brothers, who spent Christmas that year far from home:

“As the years have gone by, Christmas has taken on new and deeper meanings. At this stage, the significance of the Savior’s birth and atonement grows For me, the most enduring part of Christmas as we celebrate it is in the sacred carols. They carry the joy and awe of his birth. I also cherish the sweet feelings I have toward all the family as I try to think of things that would delight each one--and the pain that accompanies knowing I can’t give every delight. Mixed into that is the memory of Christmases past--mostly the feeling of gathering near the tree with loved ones, playing games, enjoying gifts, listening to sweet music, enjoying life together.”

I remember well those Christmas Eves spent around the Christmas tree. We always had a pinion pine: lumpy looking trees that smelled wonderful, we ate good food, and we sang carols for hours on end.

Like my mother, it seems that the older I get, the more I appreciate the Christmas carols. I’ve come to love one in particular that that we didn’t sing growing up: “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem written in the late 1800s by the English poet Christina Rossetti and first put to music in 1906. (Sarah McLachlan does a particularly good version of it, which you can listen to here: http://music.aol.com/video/in-the-bleak-midwinter-aol-sessions/sarah-mclachlan/1778450.)

The beautiful lyrics dwell on the contrasts that make the season so mysterious and magical:

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day
A breast full of milk
And a manger full of hay.
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But his mother only,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.

(Photo courtesy of Sam Knox on Flickr; available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swampy_bogtrotter/3052022793/in/set-72157604324308880/.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

End of Season Tomato Review


The frost killed all my heirloom tomatoes over a month ago. It was a sad day.

But all good things must come to an end, and so it's time to offer my .02 on which tomatoes are worth planting again, and which ones are not. Opinions have changed somewhat since the mid-season review, and so we're due for an update anyway.

Let's start with the losers:

Moonglow (yellow/orange) - Like a few girls I knew growing up: pretty, but (sadly) without substance.
Yellow Brandywine - Same.
Sophie's Choice - Not my choice. All the charm of a grocery store tomato in December: bland and listless.
Red Brandywine - This is a popular heirloom variety, so I think I must've got a bad or diseased plant. What can I say? These pinkish, triangular tomatoes tasted like barf.

Best cherry tomato? I like the Chadwick Cherry: bright, round, and flavorful. We also planted Elfin: cute (sold in the store as "Santa Claus" tomatoes, or something like that), but not as good as the Chadwick.

And the winners?

Ananas Noir - I changed my opinion on this "black pineapple" tomato by season's end. Great color, and the flavor seemed to improve over the summer.
Black from Tula - Solid tomato. Good size. Nice color. Great flavor.
Nyagous - Far and away the most robust tomato I planted. Huge plant with an endless supply of tennis ball sized "black" tomatoes: sweet, but not too acidic.
Cherokee Purple - My favorite. Big, beautiful purple/black tomatoes with great flavor. My plant didn't produce a ton, but we loved every one it did.

I'll probably replant these next year and experiment with a few more. I realize that one season doesn't prove much of anything, but that's the view from where I sit. Now, if only I can hold out until next June ...

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Bottomless Pit

This past spring, I bought a Lifetime Products' compost tumbler at Costco, thinking to myself, "Cool, this will be a great way to recycle yard waste and improve the garden. Mom would be proud."

While my wife has been a little restrained in her enthusiasm (shall we say?) and my neighbor likes to give me grief about "lowering property values," I've been impressed. It's easy to use, relatively inconspicuous (honestly, does it look that bad?), and here's the kicker: it eats EVERYTHING.

The thing has a "capacity" of 75 gallons, but I feel like I've put 10 times that volume of yard clippings, paper bags, sawdust, watermelon rinds and the like into that little black hole over the past several months, and there's still plenty of room. Pretty odd, really. It's like a reverse magicians hat: insert rabbit, presto! nothing. Open lid, put lots of stuff in, come back later, stuff gone, and what appears to be the same little bit of brown/black dirt keeps tumbling around in the bottom. I kept hoping I'd fill it several times over the course of a season, but no such luck. Not enough stuff around to "complete the batch."

But I guess that's the point of composting. All that junk--which would normally go to the landfill--gets boiled down into some kinda supercharged soil packed with every nutrient imaginable. Not bad, not bad at all, and maybe worth a bit of grief from the Mrs. and the neighbors.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In An Instant ...


Everything can change in an instant, a point driven home with particular force this past Labor Day weekend when I stopped concentrating on a narrow trail for a split second and rolled my father-in-law’s heaviest and most expensive four-wheeler off the trail and down a hill.

It all happened so fast: the left tire caught a steep embankment, wrenched the steering wheel (and both front tires) into the hillside, and I found myself, in a kind of surreal slow motion, thrown over the handle bars and onto the trail. The four wheeler flipped over on top of me. I felt its weight run down the length of my right leg, and then lift off. Dazed, I rose to a sitting position, only to watch the four-wheeler slowly careen off the trail and begin rolling down the hill, gathering speed as it went. Eventually it came to rest at the bottom of the hill, maybe 100 yards away, and, after a few minutes spent recovering from the shock, I was able to limp down and turn off the engine.

I was lucky. Every year, people are killed, paralyzed, or seriously injured in OHV accidents like that one. By rights, any of those things could’ve happened to me—once the tire caught, the consequences were entirely out of my control—but they didn’t, and I walked away with nothing worse than a scraped and bruised right knee.

Sobering. I still can’t shake that “lack of control” feeling. In that split second, a relatively innocent mistake could’ve ended my life or changed it (and the lives of those near and dear to me) permanently and dramatically.

I feel deeply blessed that it didn’t, and I’m thankful, in an odd sort of way, for such a stark reminder of how fragile life can be and how quickly it can change. And if the experience taught me to be a little more careful, I also hope that it reminds me to savor each moment, each breath, each minute spent with a loved one, a little more deeply, because we can take nothing for granted.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Uncivil Discourse


The recent debates over health care reform have brought out the best and worst in American politics. On the one hand, we have a citizenry engaged like never before, discussing a critical issue in forums ranging from Facebook to the family dinner table. On the other, people on both sides of the debate have resorted to name-calling, personal attacks, over-heated rhetoric, and shouting down opponents and elected officials.

I was particularly disturbed by a recent Facebook post that featured a poster with the face of President Obama painted like the Joker from the Batman movie “The Dark Knight” and the words “Obamacare: the Final Solution,” a ridiculous attempt to draw a line between proposed health care legislation and Hitler’s efforts to exterminate the Jews. President Obama is frequently described as a “socialist” or worse, and a democractic congressman from Texas was greeted at a recent health care forum with pictures of a headstone with his name on it.

But vicious, personal attacks and name calling aren’t confined to the Republican right. Left-leaning voters loved to question the intelligence of President George W. Bush, some labeled him a “fascist,” and others frequently invoked the term “jack-booted thugs” as a criticism—yet another disingenuous attempt to brand a political opponent with a symbol from Nazi Germany.

A pox on both our houses. Uncontrolled anger, overblown rhetoric, attacking people rather than policies—none of this serves our democracy well: at best, it distorts the debate; at worst, it feeds the lunatic fringe: guys like Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, who shed innocent blood without remorse because, well, the “others” are wicked enough to justify any act against them, no matter how cruel or violent.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public life, over three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as “Christians.” If so, how can so many of us forget the single most important lesson of the New Testament: the Golden Rule? (Last time I checked, Jesus made no exception for political debates.)

I was struck by a phrase uttered by Ted Kennedy Jr. in a eulogy he gave at his father’s funeral. He said that his father once told him: “Republicans love America as much as I do.” Can we say the same for our political adversaries? As a Republican (and I am one), can I say with conviction that “Democrats love America as much as I do?” ”

Fortunately, I can. It’s a lesson learned long ago from a deeply conservative friend and mentor, Woody West, a long-time associate editor at Insight Magazine and the Washington Times. When I wrote him a letter to praise one of his columns and condemn those who disagreed, he graciously invited me to lunch, and gently took me to task (to paraphrase): “Never forget that ‘those people’ are people too.”

So, please: let’s stop the name calling, the virulent emails, the Facebook rants filled with hateful or politically charged terms that shed more heat than light. Left, right, and center, we owe it to ourselves and to our country to elevate the dialog and to engage in a more civil discourse. The Framers of the Constitution began their debates with prayer, and we would do well to remember that example. My prayer is that we debate ideas—from health care to abortion to the War in Iraq--openly and honestly, and with a sense of humility, gratitude, and mutual respect. “Gratitude?” you ask? Yes, gratitude. Gratitude for this great Nation, gratitude for the freedom to speak our minds and have our voices heard, and, yes, even gratitude for people who happen to disagree with us.

(Photo by Steve Hopson on Flickr; available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevehopson/3802497362/.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mid-Season Tomato Review


So, my experiment in heirloom tomatoes is about half-way through, and I've learned a few things. First, most indeterminate tomato plants really do need 36" between plants. I have too many mature plants in too small of a space. But that's just a side show, the real question is: which tomatoes are worth planting again next year?

Biggest and most robust plant: the Black Nyagous. Incredible plant. Huge and full of fruit. So big it's hard to control. Tomatoes are roughly the size of a tennis ball and a blackish red. Sweet, but not very acidic.

Biggest disappointment: Annanas Noire. The name of this plant mystifies me, as there is nothing remotely "black" about the plant or its fruit, which are big--baseball to softball size--and an odd yellow green color with a touch of pink. Flavor and texture both nothing to write home about.

Best conversation piece: A smaller plant called a Green Zebra. Fruit is small--ping pong ball sized--but beautifully striped: yellow on green. Flavor is good, but I'd plant this one again mostly for its looks.

And the mid-season award for best all round tomato goes to ... drumroll please ... a beefsteak tomato called Cherokee Purple. Smoky purple-red fruit, large, easy to slice, sweet and tangy. A terrific tomato in my book, and you can bet I'll plant several next year. I've also been happy with a similar tomato with an odd and un-original name: Black from Tula, Indiana (what? as opposed to "Black from Timbuktu?"). A little less acidic than the Cherokee purple, but I like acidic tomotoes, which is why Cherokee Purple takes the cake.

That's the view from the tomato patch ...

(The photo above is of a Cherokee Purple I picked and sliced a few days ago. MMmm!)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Investments Good and Not-So-Good


The other day found me weeding in the garden and thinking about investments, as in "Geez, if I calculated all the time, money, and effort that went into these tomatoes, I suspect they'd start to look pretty expensive." But worth it, mind you, definitely worth it.

That got me thinking about other investments I've made over the years: some good, some not-so-good.

Let's start with the not-so-good. Exhibit A: e-Toys. After I finished law school and started working for a firm, we managed to set aside a little money ($500) to invest, even as we struggled to pay off all our accumulated debt from law school. This was the dot.com boom era, and so, when I asked a successful investor friend for his recommendation, he said, "Rambus." I looked up the stock, and was appalled to see that Rambus stock cost $75/share and had held steady at $75/share for a couple of years. I looked at e-Toys, and visions of e-commerce sugar plums danced in my head. What's more, eToys was trading at $6/share, meaning I could buy a lot more eToys shares for my $500, and more is better, right? Wrong. Within a few months, eToys had gone bankrupt, my shares were worthless and Rambus was trading at $500/share. The moral of this story: indexed mutual funds. That, or "I should've gone to Vegas."

Bad contractors. 'Nuff said.

Corners we tried to cut when we built our house. Anything we went cheap on, we regret: from toilets to double doors to "functional" sinks. If the price sounded to good to be true ... it was.

Annuals. You buy them, they look nice for a little while, then they die. (See previous post.)

Pets.

Okay, so how about the good investments?

(1) Good knives. Sounds a little morbid, I know, but if you cook even a tinesy bit, a good knife is worth its weight in gold. The only downside is that good knives spoil you forever, so you can't stand using a bad one. We received a set of high end J.A. Henckels for our wedding, and we still use them 14 years later.

(2) Good pans. Same thing. I've decided that if it's something we at least once a day, it's well worth investing in quality. We currently use a Calphalon non-stick set. It's about worn out after something like five-years worth of use. Cost us $350, but we've used it thousands of times.

(3) Quality outdoor gear. Rain gear, fishing gear.
(4) Travel. This may be a personal thing, but we've never, ever regretted money we've spent to travel as a couple or as a family. Okay, so we may regret the occasional bad hotel or restaurant, but travel, broadly speaking, has been a terrific investment. Along with this one, I've learned to appreciate the value of quality souvenirs. Not junk stuff, but quality art work or crafstmanship that reflects a particular culture or locale. Becky's had to prod me on this, since I hate shopping, but a lot of the stuff we've collected--from Japanese pottery to Lombok masks--serves as a reminder and memento of some great trips to fascinating places.

(5) Chocolate.
(6) Real ice cream. Real gelato.

(7) Time spent with friends and family. Okay, sorry to go all mushy on ya, but seriously. This isn't something that comes naturally to me. I'm a bit of an introvert, and I always have a million things to occupy my time and attentions, so I have to make a conscious effort to make time for, say, a one-on-one trip with the kids or a date night with Becky, but I never, ever, regret that effort. Best investment. Ever.

Feel free to chime in with your own investments, good or bad, but don't ask me for stock tips ...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Christian Comes Home


After nearly two weeks in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Christian decided he'd had enough. With only "proof that he can feed himself" standing in the way of him and home, he tore out his feeding tube (literally) and, almost overnight, went from drinking about 40cc of milk in one feeding to nearly three times that amount.

And so they were forced to let him go, and we abandoned plans for T-shirts that said, "Free Christian" on the front and "Let My Baby Go!" on the back.

In all seriousness, we are deeply grateful to have our family all together again--the first time in over a month--and for the the many wonderful doctors, nurses, and other staff at the University of Utah Medical Center, who made it all possible. (A big thanks too, to Jenny and Joe Davidson, who went above and beyond in watching our kids over the past month to allow me, and later, me and Becky, to spend so much time at the hospital.)

Christian, for his part, will probably soon long for the relative peace and quiet of the NICU, as he's been mobbed by his siblings ever since his triumphal return home at about 11:00 a.m. this morning. We're thrilled to have him home, and feel greatly blessed to welcome another child into our family.







Thursday, July 16, 2009

Garden Lessons

Two lessons from the garden this week: one philosophical, and one practical.

The first lesson has to do with personal growth: I bought a bunch of heirloom tomato seedlings in early May and planted them at the same time. At the time, they were all roughly the same size. Some two months later, one of them--"Nyagous"--towers over all the rest. Here's the point: that tomato plant didn't get so big and healthy in a day; rather, day by day, it did something better than the rest and, over the course of two months, that modest, step by step improvement made a huge difference in the final result. Moral of the story: it's a mistake to think, as I often do, that one can suddenly break out and do great things. In reality, one's life and character are determined by the slow and steady accumulation of good decisions, daily effort, and getting the little stuff right. The little things add up.

The practical lesson has to do with aphids, or some tiny aphid-like fly that seems to have infested my beloved tomato plants (except for the Nyagous, by the way: go figure). I ran to the garden store in desperation, and they said that the only option to "save my plants" was a pesticide called "Sevin," which, from what I've read, is the equivalent of releasing a neutron bomb in the garden plot: killing not only aphids, but pretty much everything else for miles, from earthworms to stray reindeer. Bad idea. After further reading dug up recommendations that included killing them one by one(!) and using an old nylon to dust them with flour(!!) I stumbled upon this revolutionary suggestion: blast them off with a jet of water from the garden hose. Incredulous, I tried it, and I'll be jiggered if it didn't work just fine. Cheap. Simple. Effective. Did it wipe 'em out? Nah, but it certainly knocked 'em for a loop, which is all I wanted in the first place. As for the rest, my garden is full of ladybugs, damsel and dragon flies, and they know just what to do with a wandering aphid ...

(Photo courtesy of AIA GUY..Rwood on Flickr; original available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wood-n-photography/2586365199/.)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth of July

For a variety of reasons, it wound up just me and Sarah (my ten year old daughter) at the fireworks display tonight.

We lay on a blanket in the grass among the glow-in-the-dark frisbees and whirling light sticks, and listened to a guy on the loudspeaker repeatedly express his thanks for the "Decoration of Independence." They played a lot of sappy tunes from the 80s and 90s. Everyone sang along (loudly and off-key, I might add) to I'm Proud to be an American, and the display ended with a massive finale as the loudspeakers blared the 1812 Overture.

So, a bit silly at times? Yes. Hokey? Oh, yeah. But wonderful all the same. I am proud to be an American. What a great country. Happy Fourth of July!

(Photo courtesy of smtpboy (Josh Simmons) on Flickr; original image available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/smtpboy/2042718984/.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Dr. Wiseguy’s Gardening Tip #1 – Annuals vs. Perennials

It’s taken me a long time, but I think I finally got this whole annual vs. perennial thing figured out: if a flower is bright and colorful and looks like something you’d want to put in your front yard, it’s an annual, which means it will die soon. If it’s kinda scraggly looking with itty bitty flowers, chances are it’s a perennial, and it’ll hang around far longer than you’d like.

I’ve figured this out by doing a lot of research on the subject. For example, the word “annual” has both Latin and Greek origins. The Latin word annualis means “buy repeatedly,” and the Greek word anulopolis means “a sucker is born every minute,” which explains why nurseries love annuals so much.

All of this amassed wisdom came in handy today at the annual Fourth of July sale at the local nursery. In front I found these gorgeous black-eyed susans in one gallon pots, with enormous yellow petals and deep purple centers. Appling my rule (see above), I guessed—reasonably enough—that these must be annuals, rather than the perennial variety, which is hard to grow around here and which often has thin, scraggly looking blossoms of pale yellow. It usually looks like it’s dying, even when it’s quite healthy.

But my little rule can’t really be so simple, can it? No-oooooooo. A little research and you will find that Rudbeckia F1 ‘Tiger Eye’ is “technically a perennial” as in “this plant is a perennial if maintained through the winter months at a constant temperature of 82.6 degrees Fahrenheit with Mozart’s Symphony No. 10 in G Major playing in the background,” only they left that last italicized part off the label because, as we learned from the Greek, if a flower looks good at the garden center, it just has to look good in my yard, and it'll make it through the Winter, right?After all, it's a perennial, not an annual, except it really isn't.

Clear enough?

(Photo of Rudbeckia FI 'Tiger Eye' courtesy of mbgrigby on Flickr; original image available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mbgrigby/3616750264/.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pete Hawkes

My brother Pete is a graphic designer and an innovator in something called Flash animation: basically the software that drives all the little moving pieces you see on websites and web advertising. He recently redesigned his website and put together a "Flash Reel" to showcase some of his work: http://petehawkes.com/10_flash_reel/index.html. Pretty cool stuff. Needless to say, he's a tremendously creative guy, and it's always fun to see what he comes up with next. So, stay tuned.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Orisinal

Do your kids like video games, but they drive you crazy? Check out Orisinal, a series of cute and inventive games by Ferry Halim. Here's the link: http://www.ferryhalim.com/orisinal/. Try the lady bug game. It's mildly addictive.

My brother, Pete, a graphic designer, turned us on to her site year's ago. Even the music's mellow and kind of catchy. My kids love it, particularly the younger set, and it's nice to see someone's creativity in full flower.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Frostalicious


Tired of the same old Wendy's Frosty? Try this: take it home and add Hershey's chocolate syrup to taste (half the bottle wouldn't hurt), toss in a tablespoon of cinnamon, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and mix it up good. If it's too melty, stick it back in the freezer for awhile. Now THAT'S a frosty.

My kids just think I'm weird. Genius is always misunderstood.

(Photo courtesy of Nicholas Hall on Flickr; original available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholashall/2722908160/.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Freedom

Incredible stuff coming out of Iran these days. There's such a power in the struggle for freedom: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/opinion/21tehran.html?_r=1. Something should ring true in that account, as that same spirit animated the American Revolution over 200 years ago. It is the struggle for freedom, for liberty, and the willingness to lay everything on the altar of sacrifice for a principle, for an idea, for an ideal.

Here's some more: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/opinion/23iht-edcohen.html. I'm becoming a Roger Cohen fan. He seems to grasp this historical moment better than most.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cranford

For all you fans of period dramas (think Jane Austin's Pride & Prejudice, BBC version), fire up the Netflix queue, as I have a recommendation for you: "Cranford," a BBC adaptation of three novels by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Becky and I have become Gaskell fans since someone gave Becky a copy of "Wives & Daughters" during a trip to Europe a few years ago. We've followed the book up with movie versions of "Wives & Daughters," "North & South," and now, "Cranford," an extraordinarily good adaptation featuring a lot of fine writing and British acting (if you're a fan of English period dramas, you'll recognize many of the faces). Judi Dench and Alex Etel, in particular, turn in stunning performances. The set doesn't hurt either--the town of Lacock, in Wiltshire, England. Gorgeous.

And if you're not a fan of English period dramas ... well, watch it anyway. It'll do you good.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Gulliver on Flickr; original image (and many related images taken in the same village) available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul-g/2073408317/.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Death of the Small Town

The drive home from a recent business meeting near Yellowstone took me through Southern Idaho, and, on a whim, I pulled over in Blackfoot to see whether I could find a small town drive- in to get a bite to eat.

It's not that I wanted a burger, particularly. Rather, I hoped for some fresh cut fries (this was Southern Idaho, after all), a chocolate shake, a line of locals, an eager, fresh faced teen behind the counter, and the energy that one can feel at "the" place to be on a summer evening in small town, USA.

Alas, no drive in, though I dutifully drove the entire length of "Business 1-15." So, I tried Pocatello, the old railroad town where my father grew up and both grandparents lived out their lives. The yellow house was gone, and the chestnut tree, and even the large, smooth boulder in front of the place next door that we used to treat as a slippery slide. I looked in vain for the old feed store, Hawkes Feed & Seed, and couldn't find that either, and the warehouse district felt tired and empty. And no drive-ins to be found, anywhere. One last try at McCammon, with the same results, and that was that.

Over that same stretch of highways, backways, and business routes, I suspect I saw no less than 15 Subway Restaurants, a dozen Burger Kings, at least that many MacDonald's. I could also see--and feel--how the energy had shifted from main street to the strip malls at the outskirts of town and closer to the freeway.

The slow death of small town America isn't exactly groundbreaking news, but I felt it keenly on that little detour to find a decent milk shake. I know it hangs on, in pockets here and there, and each of those towns may hold a classic drive-in that I just missed, but the change--and the loss-was palpable, and left me feeling melancholy.

We live in a world of fast food, the internet, and iPhone, where communities are built around interests rather than geography or industry, but all this technology, even as it expands our capacity to interact with others, can feel oddly isolating and alienating. The dull monotony of the strip mall. The stranger neighbors. The decayed urban core. The rusty old warehouse districts and faded signs. We drive around, one to a car, running a seemingly endless list of errands. We sit up late, typing on the keyboard. Alone. And the glow of the computer screen washes away memories of moon and stars and fireflies, campfires, and the neon sign above the local drive-in on a summer evening.

So, where did I wind up eating? Subway. In the end, I had little choice.

(Photo courtesy of kyfireengine on Flickr; available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/21946699@N02/3345523269/.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly (Restaurant Edition)


The Good

Five Guys Burgers and Fries - We fell in love with this Virginia-based chain when we lived in Maryland. Simple, stripped down menu. Sliced lemon for your diet Coke, vinegar for their superb, fresh cut fries (don't ever order the large fry if you're eating alone; we often split the "medium"), and solid hamburgers where you don't have to pay extra for the fixings. (Best way to order a burger is "all the way."). They don't freeze their meat and they start cooking it the minute you place your order. You can find an equivalent burger, but you'd be hard pressed to beat their fries.

Sawadee Thai - Great place for lunch near the Governor's mansion at about 750 East and South Temple in Salt Lake. For $7.50 you get your choice of two dishes (I almost always pick #7 (bbq pork) and #11 (Massaman curry)). Solid if not stellar Thai. Good, friendly service.

Red Iguana - No secret here as the place in invariably packed. Go off hours. A bit pricey for Mexican but deservedly so. Best Mexican around. A wide variety of great moles (no, not the subterranean rodent kind, those heavy chocolate infused smokey spicy sauces).

Setebello Pizza - Fresh salads and uber thin, wood fired pizzas with a bit of cheese and tasty toppings. Skip the gelato, though, as its expensive and disappoints (to my mind anyway).

Nielsen's Frozen Custard - For some, inexplicable reason the store in Provo never took off, but this Bountiful standby (which a few other branches around and about) serves the real deal, the pinnacle of ice-cream fabulousness: frozen custard. Can't go wrong with the straight chocolate though raspberry is great when they have it, same with the carmel cashew. Though no one orders them, they actually make a pretty good turkey and avocado grinder. I've never had bad avocado there, which says something.

The Bad
Oh, there are soooo many places that deserve to make the naughty list, but I'll single out a few of my perennial (least) favorites:

Chilies (or, as the sign reads: "Chijies") - Question: How do you feel when you leave? Answer (invariably): vaguely sick to my stomach. 'Nuff said. Only I can't stop there: Waitress: can I get a little more cheese on that or maybe a dollop of Crisco? This dish isn't quite greasy enough for me. Thanks.

Any Other Chain Restaurant That Looks Like Chilies including, but not limited to, Applebees (boo!), the Olive Garden (hiss!), and TGI Barfdays (retch!). If it looks like Chilies, chances are it tastes like Chilies.

Lame Steakhouses like Outback and Lonestar. I bet grilled armadillo tastes better than most of their steaks and the bloomin' onion type deals may taste good going down, but raise your hand (anyone? anyone?) if you don't feel just plain lousy after eating one. Salads straight from the bag and taste just that good.

DQ (and equivalents) - You call that ice cream?! Save your calories and spend them on chocolate custard instead. You'll thank me. I promise. It's like the difference between cheetos and cheesecake.

The Ugly
Hard to know quite what to do with this category, but maybe it's best reserved for restaurants that I shouldn't like, but somehow enjoy anyway:

Cheesecake Factory - A chain restaurant serving obscenely large portion sizes (Becky and usually split an appetizer, split and entree, and split a desert, and still struggle), but I gotta tell ya, their Thai Lettuce Wrap appetizer is da bomb. Also a fan of the Chicken Marsala and, alas, the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake. At $7 a slice, their cheesecake is an absolute ripoff, and one waitress confided in us that a single piece of their "peanut butter pie cheesecake" (or some similar name) has 125o calories before adding the whipcream. Still, cheesecake is cheesecake, and that Godiva cheesecake is some serious stuff. About the most sinful food/beverage one can indulge in and still get a temple recommend. (Whether one should be able to get a temple recommend after eating a full slice of Godiva cheesecake is another question entirely ...)

Okay, so please weigh in with your own. I'm really just trying to get folks to cough up the good info. Reveal your fave hole-in-the-walls. Inquiring minds want to know.

Ed. note: this writer has no strong opinions about food. Ed note No. 2: if you don't want to drop $100 or more on a meal for two, $30-40 will buy you at least two filet mignons, asparagus, red potatoes, a pack of Martenelli's, and a pint of Haagen Daaz--and that's pretty tough to beat anywhere or at any price. Only downer is someone has to do the dishes. 1, 2, 3 ... Not it!!)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Fortune Cookie

So, we've had some interesting fortune cookies over the years--Becky swears she got one that said, "You will be married soon," just after we started dating--but one I got at a Vietnamese restaurant last week takes the cake for interestingness if not for its predictive power:  Worry not that no one knows of you seek to be worth knowing.  After puzzling over that for some time, I still have no idea what it means, and maybe that's the point:  make a fortune vague enough, and the recipient will find in it whatever meaning he or she wants to find.  Hmm. Maybe it means:  you're an ambitious son-of-a-gun, but don't sweat it, because nobody cares.  Ouch!  That hits a little near the mark.  Maybe those Chinese are on to something . . . 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Food Edition)


I wish I were one of those guys who gets paid to shamelessly promote name brand products to his friends and family (without telling them, of course), but I'm not. So, I'll shamelessly promote (and demote) products for free, and hope that the retail Gods smile upon me. There's also a nasty, vicious rumor going around that I have strong opinions about things like food, movies, and politics, but it's all lies, I tell you, lies, lies, lies! Just for kicks, I've grouped the following food recommendations into categories that I hope will prove useful: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

(1) Campari tomatoes. (Bet you saw that one coming, eh? That is, if you are one of the three people who regularly read this blog!) What can I say more? Best store-bought tomato out there. Worth every penny of the $6 bucks I routinely fork over for them at Costco. But then again: I feel more stongly about tomatoes than I do about religion.

(2) Redmond Real Salt. Salt?! you say? There's a difference in salt? I'm afraid so. Redmond salt is mined in Central Utah from ancient deposits and has a distinctive reddish white color that I recognize from my childhood, as we used to buy it in huge blocks that the goats would lick, apparently because they needed the salt and it tasted good. Back then, I suppose, any salt other than white salt wasn't considered fit for anything but livestock, but now that old red salt has gone upscale, and let me tell you: it's good stuff. Tastes waaaay better than the chemically refined Morton stuff you find everywhere, and I actually buy into the notion promoted on the Real Salt label that a clean, natural sea salt, replete with all kinds of minerals, and laid down a bazillion years ago during a time when the air was free of soot, mercury, and flourocarbons is better than what we typically sprinkle on our food.

(3) Dove chocolate. I've tried chocolate from all over the world, and I'll be danged if Dove doesn't make a really, really good bar of chocolate. Dark or milk, I'll take both, thank you!

(4) Trader Joe's chocolate covered pretzels. If crack cocaine came in food form, this would be it. I would probably eat myself into a coma if the bag lasted that long. Seriously wicked stuff, and I don't even like pretzels.


The Bad

(1) Produce from Dick's Market in Centerville. I've seen bad produce in my day, including C-Town on 125th Street in Harlem, where two shrink-wrapped bananas set us back something like $1.50, but even C-Town won't, far as I know, sell 20 rotten pineapples at the same time. I kid you not: I've been there when every last, stinking pineapple was full-on rotten, and they still had the gall to advertise them for $3 or $4 a piece.

(2) Grocery store cooking wines. Small, expensive little bottles of "wine" chock full of salt and preservatives. Yuck! But I haven't found a good alternative as--what am I supposed to do: waltz into the Bountiful liquor store and ask, "What goes well with a thyme and mushroom reduction?" Besides, I can't afford to buy a whole bottle when I only need a cup. Arrghh!

(3) Twinkies. Can't believe I liked them as a kid. 'Nuff said.


The Ugly

(1) Breyer's ice cream. This long time family favorite recently started adding a guar-gum/carrageenan type emulsifier, tara gum, to their "all natural" ice cream, in addition to watering down their brand with all kinds of gooey gooey ice creams with ingredient lists a mile long. (The beauty of Breyers used to be "Milk, cream, sugar, strawberries. Period.") And what makes me really mad is that, even with the tara gum, we haven't been able to find a better brand outside of Haagen Daz, so we still buy the stuff, giving the lie to all the threats I sent to corporate headquarters about "never touching their product again." Ed. Note: Again, I have no strong opinions about food.

(2) Cavanaugh's Chocolates (Bountiful). Look: these guys make a decent American chocolate, and I'll be a sucker for a Mindy Mint until the day I die, but--in addition to being reactionary anti-United Nations whackos--these guys put the "cheap" in "cheap skate." A few year's ago, we decided to take the kids to tour their new factory out by I-15--the tour that offers "free samples"--only to discover that the tour costs something like $5 per adult and $4 per child, with a "free" sample at the end. Gimme a break. Sad thing is: they know they're the only game in town, so they've made millions charging a premium for what is at best a middling collection of chocolates.

Ah, but I'd better bring this rant to a close. Still, I think this idea might have some legs. Please feel free to nominate your own "goods," "bads," or "uglies." Future posts may well take up the same theme as applied to things like cook books, movies, and politicians.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Master Gardener

I've read that it's really hard to grow tomatoes from seed--particularly from store bought tomatoes--and that all kinds of planning and complicated steps are necessary to accomplish this feat.  This made me sad, because I really wanted to try and grow some Campari tomatoes from seed. (See previous post on Caprese for why I'm such a big fan.)  

So--get this--I pulled it off.  And here's the trick.  Pay close attention because it's so complicated.  I took a Campari tomato I bought at Costco.  I ate the tomato (yum!) and took a few seeds off the cutting board and put them into a plastic bowl. Once they dried out, I scraped them off the bowl with my fingernail and planted them in a plastic cup full of potting soil.  I watered them once and ... voila! ... one week later I have several healthy looking tomato seedlings.  Pretty complicated, eh? This gardening stuff is tough.  Good thing I'm such a genius.  

I guess the moral of that story is:  don't believe what you read, except for this post . . .  

(Photo courtesy of Zeetz Jones on Flickr; available at:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/zeetzjones/1014666274/.) 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bird Brain!

I found another hummingbird stuck in the garage this afternoon.  They get in there this time of year, and, because the ceiling is higher than the opening for the garage door, they can't see a way out and start flying frantically around until they exhaust themselves. As a kid, I remember finding them dead on tops of the hay bales we had stored in our garage--not for lack of a way out, but because they panicked and couldn't find it.

So, I'm none to impressed by the mental capacity of hummingbirds.  Having said that, in no way do I wish to demean this remarkable little bird, which weighs, on average, less than a nickel; can move forward, backward, up, down, or side to side at will; beats its wings 60-80 times per minute; and migrates over a thousand miles.  Like a three year old let loose in the juice box aisle at Costco, a hummingbird can drink its weight in nectar or sugar in a single day, and burn all that energy just as fast.

For all those reasons and more, I admire the little guys, and wanted to find a way to help this little fellow out of harm's way.  (The bird was already nearing exhaustion, I could tell, as it kept landing on various perches with its mouth wide open, like an overheated dog.)

Inspired by the bright fake flowers I'd seen on hummingbird feeders, I took a bright, yellow plastic cup from Ikea and taped bright, pink, construction paper "petals" around the lip of the cup.  I filled the cup with sugar water and placed in on top of the van, hoping that the bird would either (a) come down and get a drink, and/or (b) finally see the way out.  Didn't know if it would work, so I sat down to watch.  Within a minute, the bird swooped down on the fake flower and tried to land.  While it couldn't land easily on the edge of the cup, the action was just enough to offer the bird a glimpse of sky, and with a whir of tiny wings, off he flew, away and free.   

(Hummingbird facts from www.rubythroat.org.  For a great hummingbird pic, see the following link:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/geekinthegarden/474685182/.)  

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tongue of Wood

I think anyone who's tried creative expression of any kind--music, drawing, painting, poetry, photography (you name it)--can appreciate this poem by Stephen Crane:

There Was a Man With Tongue of Wood

There was a man with tongue of wood
Who essayed to sing,
And in truth it was lamentable.
But there was one who heard
The clip-clapper of this tongue of wood
And knew what the man
Wished to sing,
And with that the singer was content. 

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Mockingbird


In early March of this year I attended a conference in St. George, Utah (in the extreme southwest corner of the State), and, after the conference wrapped up one afternoon, I drove down to the Virgin River to enjoy the Spring sunshine.

When I got out of the car, I noticed a bird sitting on top of a telephone pole and singing the most beautiful music--a song somehow familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. "I should know that bird," was my thought at the time. And then it hit me: the song wasn't repeating, but changing, and--just like that--mystery solved: I'd stumbled across a Mockingbird, my favorite bird of the East, here in the arid West and singing its heart out, like Mockingbirds do.

I love Mockingbirds. Unlike other birds, who repeat--endlessly--the same two or three note theme, Mockingbirds are masters of innovation. A single Mockingbird may have a repetoire of up to 40 different songs, many incorporating sounds from the world around it, including things like car alarms. Seriously. When we lived in Kensington, Maryland, and I often worked late into the night, a Mockingbird down the street would often start calling at about 1:00 a.m., and that particular bird loved car alarms, doing any number of variations on the same, basic, car alarm theme.

What a great bird. If you have them in the area where you live, consider yourself fortunate, 'cause they can sing like nobody's business.

(Photo courtesy of trisheroverton on Flickr; available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11437102@N00/384245868/.)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pollywog Photography

So, I've kicked of a new photography-related blog for two reasons: (1) to officially kick off a side business specializing in fine art children's photography, and (2) to create what I hope proves to be a useful resource for people wanting to improve their own photography.

Please let me know if you find the name, content, etc. good bad or indifferent.

Link on the right. Web address is pollywogphoto.blogspot.com. Eventually, I expect to have a dedicated website up and running, but hopefully this works in the meantime.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Plants Behaving Badly


A few years ago, when we were first putting in the yard, and I was bumming seeds and advice off of anyone I could, my Aunt Janet advised me to avoid plants that "misbehave."

At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. Now, I have a very good idea. Good: plants that quietly do their stuff, mind their own business. Bad: plants that aggressively move around, bully the neighbors, run rampant, and generally cause trouble.

Who's the culprit in the garden this year? A perfectly innocent-looking plant called a white sage. I've got little white sages coming up all over the place, like dandelions or crab grass. Infiltrating the Black-Eyed Susans, throwing a sharp elbow at the Purple Coneflower. Misbehaving. Bad, bad, plant.

Hint for the uninitiated: if the plant propagates (spreads or reproduces) by rhizome, just ... say ... no! If you see the word "rhizome" associated--even remotely--with a particular plant, that spells trouble. Avoid rhizomes. Avoid plants that misbehave. Avoid the evil white sage.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Eat Your Heart Out, American Idol

Okay, so you've all seen the Susan Boyle clip by now, but you gotta love some of the other acts from "Britain's Got Talent" that come up along side her on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GrOMLylvhQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gHvATmUsSg&feature=related

What a great riff on ye ole' talent show.

Hidden Sorrow

I greatly admire the work of a particular landscape photographer. So, I was pleasantly suprised when I ran into a fellow at a conference who had collaborated with this photographer on several books. As we discussed the photographer and his work, this fellow informed me that the photographer in question had, in recent years, suffered through a series of crushing personal tragedies.

If my recent post on Les Miserables suggested we all have it pretty cushy, this experience reminded me that--even in this day and age--none of us is immune to personal tragedy, and that, however good things may appear on the surface, a lot of people still suffer through tragedies small and great, often quietly and behind-the-scenes and sometimes alone.

Fame and fortune can't insulate us from that. Nothing can, though fate never seems to deal a fair hand to anyone. Some suffer unspeakably, while others seem to glide along with nary a bump in the road. But I suppose "seems" is the operative word.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Les Miserables



There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

I just finished rereading this beautiful, heart wrenching novel by Victor Hugo. If you haven't read it--or if you've only seen the play--you should find a copy and start working your way through. There's a reason it's widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written.

Like other great novels--The Brothers Karamozov comes to mind--it will put you through an emotional wringer. But that's the point.

If nothing else, the book stands as a powerful reminder of all that we take for granted. In this day and age, I think sorrow and loss and true deprivation are often vague and distant things. Not to say that such have have been banished from the world--far from it--but rather that here in America, few us of know what true poverty looks like, or recognize that most of the world's population for most of world history could scarce dream of the opportunities we take for granted: education, employment, health care, sanitation, leisure.

Even our perspective on death is someohow distant or muted. So often, death happens in the hospital to old people, not to the young or to people in the prime of life.

I suppose I'm a romantic at heart--a sucker for the sentimental--but something rings true in this social critique that also weaves togther themes of redemption, love, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. Vive la Republique!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Power of Narrative

I've been giving some more thought to this whole Susan Boyle mania (here's the clip I suspect you've all seen by now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lp0IWv8QZY), and I've reached the conclusion that it's all explained by my latest theory of life, the universe, and everything. That theory is: it's all about the narrative.

In other words, finding the right "story" gives meaning to much of our life and experience. Stories play an important role in religious thought (consider the parables or even a concept like "restoration") and religious experience (such and such happened, and then I knew ...). Good narratives make for good books and good movies. Lawyers use them to persuade judges and juries (generally it's the most convincing "story" that wins the day). Even our interest in sporting events is often driven by a narrative of one sort or another. We root for "Cinderella" teams, relishing in the story of an group of misfits or underdogs overcoming adversity. We love it when the the blue collar team everyone counts out takes down a Goliath like the New York Yankees. Figure skating? The need for narrative explains the constant stream of "bio" clips about the contestants. All narratives; all stories. I think we even define ourselves by, essentially, taking a bunch of facts and writing a "script" to make sense of them.

I've think that same concept--the power of narrative--explains the world-wide phenomenon of Susan Boyle. She's a wonderful singer, to be sure, but there are thousands or even tens of thousands of better singers out there. What makes Susan Boyle interesting, even inspiring, is the narrative. So, she gets up there on stage in her frumpy dress and stumbles through a few intereview questions and--guess what?--we've already written the narrative in our heads: check her out, this is going to be funny: a real train wreck. What makes her story so compelling is that she proceeds, in just a few seconds, to turn that narrative entirely on its head, and suddenly we have a wonderful, inspiring story of a 48 year 0ld woman from a small town in Scotland who's never been kissed, and goes on stage in front of thousands of people and sings the living daylight out of a song about someone who's given up on life, given up on her dreams. Witht the flip of a switch, we have a story of perserverence, of courage, a diamond in the rough, a most unlikely hero. Wow. You couldn't write a better script.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Trail of the Ancients


Our spring break this year had something of an "ancient America" theme. Covering roughly 1400 miles in 5 days, we visited, in order: Fisher Towers, Needles Overlook (Canyonlands), Lowry Pueblo (Hovenweep), Mesa Verde (Colorado), Durango, Four Corners (Navajo Tribal Park), Valley of the Gods, Cedar Mesa, Mexican Hat, Monument Valley, Natural Bridges, Hite Overlook (Lake Powell), and, last but not least, one of our all-time favorites: Capitol Reef. Whew!

Fortunately, our kids travel well, so all that time in the car wasn't too bad, and it was fun to round out the family travel map with a trip to Southeastern Utah and the Four Corners region. We saw a lot of great stuff both on--and off--the beaten path, met some great people from all over the world, and learned a fair amount about Native American culture and history. For example, we learned that the term "Anasazi" (a Navajo word meaning something like "enemy ancestors") has fallen out of favor and been replaced with "Ancestral Puebloans," apparently on the assumption that no one can possibly take offense at a word so long and hard to pronounce. Whatever term you use for its builders, however, one thing is clear: Mesa Verde is cool, as are the literally thousands of ruins the Ancestral Puebloans left scattered all over the Four Corners region. In some of the ruins we saw thousand year-old finger prints, clear as day, and corn cobs, the remnants of meals eaten long before Columbus discovered America.

Great stuff.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ahh ... Caprese



For a tomato junkie like me, nothing says "summer" quite so well as a caprese salad, particularly if the tomatoes and basil come straight from my own garden, still warm from the sun. Fresh. Delightful. Delicious.

Alas, for the rest of the year, caprese represents a particularly cruel kind of bait-and-switch: a hint of summer, a taste, a tease, a mirage that evaporates with the first bite of tough, bland, and mealy tomato. And yet still I order it at restaurants small and great, hoping, somehow, that this time, it will be something more than merely disappointing.

Take Setebello, for instance, a recently opened Neapolitan-style pizzeria in downtown Salt Lake. Good, smoky, woodfired pizzas with fresh ingredients. "Okay," I ask the waitress, "How are the tomatoes in the caprese?" "Good," she replies, "Everything here is good." But they are not: watery, tasteless tomatoes (all-too-typical winter tomatoes), coupled with a decent buffalo mozzarella and a few measly sprigs of basil.

But, tomato lovers take note: deliverance is here. A perfect, vine ripened summer tomato in January? Hardly, but pretty darn close. In a word: Campari. They sell them at Costco, and they are far and away the best store bought tomato I've found, particularly off-season. Firm, tangy, and sweet.

Pair them with a good, fresh, hand pulled mozarella (no easy find that, either, but available at most specialty stores; the local Costco sells a reasonably good one under the Bel Gioso label), a liberal helping of basil (I like it cut crosswise into thin strips), a good sea salt, cracked pepper, and a splash of good olive oil and, if you like, basalmic vinegar, and--voila!--a bite of summer, no matter how cold and bleak it may be outside. Winter, snow, and freezing rain ... I scoff at you! It is summer. I am in Southern Italy. The breeze is soft, and sun is warm. Life is good. I have caprese.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Goats



I like goats. I grew up with them. Part of my mother's grand exercise in self-sufficiency. I remember milking them on cold winter mornings, and the way the first squirts of milk rang in the bottom of the tin pan, the warmth of the udder, the steam rising from the fresh milk. The smell of hay.

But even a goat fan like me must admit that they are strange little creatures. Some are cute, like Nubians with their floppy ears and endearing brown eyes; others are not, like Alpine goats; others still are just plain weird looking with Marty Thelman eyes and little stubs for ears.

We never ate goat meat, though my Mom would, from time to time, sell a billy goat kid or two to "the Iranians," who most certainly ate them.

Well, I stumbled across an article today in the New York Times on eating goat meat: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/01/dining/01goat.html?_r=1&em , and loved this description of how they look: "Their unappetizing visage is simultaneously dopey and satanic, like a Disney character with a terrible secret."

Great, great writing. That guy's got 'em pegged.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bribes and Threats

As a family we've been through countless "programs" of one sort or another: some successful, most not. The latest iteration of the 'carrot and the stick'--a Becky innovation--goes like this: we want the kids to keep their room clean, so we help them get the room clean (beds made, floor clean) and then tape a bag of swedish fish to the door. If we see something left out or the bed not made, we eat a fish. If they kids have any fish left at the end of the week, they get what's left.

Well, Mary tried to throw a bit of a wrinkle into the system this morning. First, she demanded that Becky pay her a fish for making her bed. "It doesn't work that way." Becky replied. "Okay, here you go," said Mary, handing Becky a fish as if to say, "Go ahead: I'll gladly pay a fish to have you make my bed." "Sorry," countered Becky, "It doesn't work that way either."

Take that, sugar monkey!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Chocolate Custard


Is there anything better in all the world than real chocolate custard? Mmm. I think not.
(Photo courtesy of stu_spivack on Flickr; available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuart_spivack/477867065/.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Sacred Datura


We had an interesting “nature moment” a few years ago after we finished our home in Centerville. We'd been slaving away for months putting in the yard, moving (and removing) rocks, grading the dirt, digging trenches, laying sprinklers, regrading the dirt, and so on and so on.

I’d noticed a lot of interesting plants (weeds) growing up here and there, but two in particular struck me as unusual. They began growing in a bare patch of dirt out by the electrical boxes and they had dark, rigid leaves. They looked almost like a squash plant or something, only somehow more earnest, even ominous. Anyway, I left them alone to see what they would do. Within a few days, I could see long flower pods beginning to grow, the most mature nearly three inches long.

About that time I started wondering whether they were a desert plant with large white blossoms called a “Sacred Datura.” I knew next to nothing about them, but I’d seen photos of them in the Visitors’ Center at Great Basin National Park—luminous, white flowers that open like a trumpet. Curious, I read up on them, and found out that they are a desert plant that likes dry, disturbed soils. They bloom in the late evening, with each bloom lasting only one night, and they are pollinated by sphinx moths. Considered magical by Native Americans, the plants contain powerful toxins and hallucinogens. Some Indian Tribes used to brew a kind of tea from their leaves, which was then administered to young warriors as part of a coming of age ritual. Some of them saw visions; others likely died in the process. Even today, people occasionally die from trying to make (and drink) their own Sacred Datura tea.

The leaves in the photos I saw were a dead ringer for the plants in the yard, and so I wasn’t surprised at all when, a few days later, the first flower pod opened and sent out a long, tightly wound blossom. Later that evening, as twilight deepened into full darkness, the corkscrew unraveled quite suddenly, and there, sure enough, was the mystical bloom.

(Photo courtesy of Bill Barber on Flickr; available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wdwbarber/2867088239/.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Natural Acts

I've been re-reading this brilliant collection of essays by David Quammen. The man can write. Consider this passage in which he describes his companion on a three-day fishing expedition into Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness Area:

Whisperin' Jack is six foot five and weighs about 140 and wears a brown Dobbs fedora that, despite his degree from the Harvard Medical School, makes him look like the kind of quiet creepy guy whose car trunk is one day discovered to contain the sucked-upon finger bones of missing hitchhikers.

Like I said, the man can write. But clever asides like that are just the appetizers, the main course is a series of fascinating essays on natural history: crows and cockroaches, black widows and vampire bats; life and death and sex all take their turn beneath his wry and inquisitive gaze. Not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure, but fascinating stuff.

(As an aside, I once wrote Quammen a letter and asked him the secret to great writing. His answer: "hard work.")

Finding the Fremont


Our family has spent a fair amount of time recently exploring Native American ruins of one kind or another, particularly those involving the Fremont Indians, who, at the height of their culture in about 1000 AD, occupied much of present day Utah in small farming and hunter/gatherer communities. Though the archealogical record is uncertain, the Fremont culture appeared to die out gradually between about 1250-1500 AD.

Unlike the Anasazi, who built elaborate villages of mud and stone, the Fremont built simple pit houses and rocky granaries to store corn they grew along the creek bottoms. For some reason--war? drought? internal conflict?--the Fremont eventually moved these granaries from the sedate creek bottoms to the dizzying heights above, where they camouflaged them carefully and tucked them into barely accessible nitches and narrow ledges. To this day, it remains difficult to spot these granaries, some of which still hold corn cobs and other artifacts, and even more difficult to access them, with many accessible only by helicopter or by skilled climbers using ropes and rappelling gear. We've found a few, but they remain elusive, even with a good pair of binoculars. (Can you spot the granary in the attached photo? I've made it easy for you by reducing it to a single cliff face. Hint: you can double click the photo and view it large.)

In any event, we've loved learning more about the Fremont and poking around in artifact rich areas like Nine Mile Canyon, which contains a stunning array of Fremont petroglyphs, ruined granaries, pit houses, and even a 700+ year old corn cob, which Sarah and I discovered near the remains of an ancient village (and, which, I'll have you know, we duly left right where we found it).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Photographing Children



As those who know me may appreciate, I'm a bit obsessive-compulsive when it comes to hobbies and interests. I've gone through many in recent years: fly fishing, fly tying, fossil collecting of various sorts, nature photography, English language haiku, and now ... children's photography.

And so you'll have to excuse me if this blog takes something of a turn in that direction.

Here's my gripe with most existing children's photography: it's cluttered and it's fake. By "cluttered" I mean that people love to fill photographs of children with a vast array of cheesy props, objects that pull attention away from the child. At worst, those photographs look something like this: http://www.cindybaxterphotography.com/ (Sorry, Cindy, I wish you well in your business venture, it's just not my cup of tea!). I think that props have their place, but only if they say something particular, and meaningful, about this child.

By "fake" I mean that most children's portraits are staged and awkward looking. Rather than take photographs of children in their natural settings, we like to put them under the studio lights with a paint dabbed drop cloth behind and then expect them "smile" (hold it, hold it!) or "act natural" when, in fact, there is nothing natural about it.

While family snapshots are much better at "telling a story" than Kiddie-Candid studio prints, they typically fall victim to clutter and poor lighting. Life is messy and complicated, and family snapshots reflect that. Besides, a birthday party or other event typically can't wait for perfect lighting or a clean house.

But I digress: what I'm really talking about here isn't snapshots for the scrapbook but portraits of children, where we set aside some time (and often money) to capture a particular moment, expression, age, or interest.

At their best, these portraits don't just show, but tell. The images are simple and uncluttered, the lighting works, and, perhaps most of all, kids are allowed to be themselves. Contrast the images from the link above with those of the Philadelphia-based Karen Carey: http://www.karencareyphotography.com/.

What I love most about children's photography is the challenge of reducing life--a little life--down to something that fits in a square frame, to capture a moment, an expression, that may never happen again. In some ways, children's photography allows us to do the impossible, to hang on to these little ones who grow and change so fast. Ah, yes, time's "fatal wings do ever forward fly," but a camera allows us stop time in its tracks, leaving us with an image, a moment, a story, that can endure beyond life and memory. And you know what? Those little suckers are just plain cute. And perhaps that's reason enough.

So, blah, blah, blah, and philosophic musings aside, here's a picture of guinea pig #1, also known around our house as Mary. I took it last weekend after Church with my new toy (Becky prefers the word "investment"). What do you think? No smile, no flash, no make up, no props ... just Mary.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Democracy is Beautiful


I stopped by a City Council meeting this evening, and, after a presentation on a planned curb-side recycling program, the Council opened it up for public comment.

I spoke and at least a dozen other ordinary citizens did so as well, and it struck me how amazing this democracy of ours remains, for all its faults. I thought of the billions of people around the world who cannot speak freely on subjects of interest or importance to them, and yet here, in America, the idea is so fundamental, so natural, that most of us give it scarcely a second thought.

But there's another dimension worth nothing as well: a kind of creeping cynicism, even here in America, that whispers "Why bother? Your voice [or your vote] doesn't count." And, in truth, I think interest groups of one kind or another, particularly PACs, wield far too much influence.

Nevertheless, ordinary citizens can and do make a difference, a reality brought home again to me during the 2009 session of the Utah legislature, when a bill pushed by two of the most powerful interest groups in Utah--the Realtors Association and the Farm Bureau--went down to defeat on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives. Opposition to the bill was led by a rag tag assortment of trout bums and ordinary citizens, many of whom had never been involved in politics before. This time, however, they called, they wrote, they texted, and emailed. Dozens of them marched up to the Capitol and spoke to their legislators personally. Others testified at committee hearings. And it worked. Democracy works. Somehow. It can be messy, and ugly, but it works, and when it does, it's a thing of beauty.

(Image courtesy of USAID, available at: http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/democracy_and_governance/democracy_rising.html. For those who don't recognize the image, it shows the hands of Iraqi citizens who voted in recent elections, where a hard-to-remove dye is used to prevent repeat voting. Insurgents, incidentally, have used the dyed fingers to single out and execute people for "supporting the U.S." or "supporting the regime." Many Iraqis voted anyway.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Youthful Optimism


So Mary got out the markers the other day, scribbled this picture on a sheet of paper, taped it to a glass jar, and declared it the "vacation jar" (or words to that effect). She was terribly disappointed when, after a few days, I told her that the few accumulated coins and bills wouldn't cover a big family vacation, at least not yet. Still, hopes springs eternal ...

Can you guess where she wants to go?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Pruning 101


When we built our house in 2006, the first and only home we’ve ever owned, I took it upon myself to put in the yard. And so I planted things—lots and lots of things: Russian Sage, White Sage, Burning Bush, Eastern Redbud, Red Spire Flowering Pear, Dwarf English Laurel, lavender, plum trees, peach trees, crab apple trees, apple apple trees, and the list goes on.

I did so with all kinds of happy thoughts running through my head: “Gee, these plants are swell. Won’t this look nice when it all fills in?” In my mind’s eye, I saw the yard as a refuge, a sedate place for light weeding and blissful contemplation.

We finished the last yard project in 2007 and promptly moved to Maryland. When we moved back last August, I was thrilled get back and see how the yard had fared: beautifully, as it turns out, thanks to an improbable renter who loved yard work and had a flair for neatness, a quality that, sadly, I lack. So the yard looked great, but many of the trees and shrubs had grown in leaps and bounds, which got me thinking about … pruning.

And I was excited about it. You know, the cool little nipper things, and the giant scissor-looking shears, and the heavy, muscled lopper … it gives one a sense of power and accomplishment: trim a little here, cut a little there, yes, yes, me, the master of all I survey.

That was before I learned that pruning requires a PhD. Seriously. Astro-physics has nothing on pruning. Each tree or shrub, I learned to my horror and amazement, has different pruning needs, and those needs change based on time of season and the plant’s maturity. And there are rules—lots and lots of rules--though every rule has an exception and competing schools of thought and, as the pruning instructor at the local nursery told me, “Rules are meant to be broken,” except of course, when breaking the rule will kill the plant, or turn one’s life into some kind of pruning Hell for all eternity—the Myth of Sisyphus in your own back yard. Fun!

I also discovered that plants have one serious evolutionary advantage over humans: they can regenerate lost limbs, a lesson that struck me with particular force when I took my new set of nippers and promptly pruned the little finger of my right hand, leading to an episode of rapid blood loss, muttered curses, and stumbling blindly around the yard in near-shock. But, hey: once I wrapped my finger in a mass of bandages and sat down to keep from fainting, at least I had few quiet moments for contemplation.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Power of Forgiveness


I was deeply touched by a recent piece I heard on NPR from the "This I Believe" series on the power of forgiveness. Here's the link, which tells the story of a woman who picked the wrong man out of a police line-up, sending him to prison for 11 years for a crime he did not commit. Remarkably, the two of them are now friends, and they composed the NPR piece together. Here’s the link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307.

The story reminded me of another powerful story of forgiveness from the recent past, that of a community of Amish farmers in Central Pennsylvania who have embraced the family of a mentally ill milkman who killed several children at an Amish school before taking his own life. That story, too, was profiled not long ago on NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307.

In sharing these, I don’t mean to suggest that forgiveness is, or should be, simple or automatic. From personal experience I recognize it as a deeply personal choice, and one that can’t be forced or pressured. For forgiveness to mean anything, the “if” and the “when” must be left entirely to the individual.

But when an individual does choose to forgive, these stories speak of the powerful healing effect of forgiveness on the forgiver as much as on the forgiven. In the end, forgiveness isn’t about what's just or fair, but rather a conscious decision to let go and to move beyond, to love and forget, even when there’s no reason for either.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Joys of Parenting

You know, it's a mixed bag to have a creative child. Today, after I sent ten-year old Sarah to timeout for refusing to help clean the basement, she retaliated by rolling out the big guns: "I will NOT pay your rest home bills."

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Clamshell Boat


One day in early spring, I found myself knee-deep in the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., fishing for shad. The fish weren’t biting, so my attention wandered. Suddenly, my eye caught something on the water not far from me: a small clamshell, like one of thousands I’d seen along the shores of the river, but different in one important respect—it was floating. I have no idea how it got that way, whether a gust of wind had tipped a dry shell onto the water or, less likely, a small child upstream had carefully placed it on the surface film: would it, could it … yes! Whatever the reason, there it was, riding concave side-down, like a little round boat.

The water pressed right up to the shell’s edge, but not over, and it seemed that the smallest thing—another gust of wind or a drop of water—would send it to the bottom, but, for as long as I stood transfixed, nothing upset that delicate balance, and the little clamshell boat sailed off, spinning a few times in the eddy behind my feet, and then away down river towards the open sea.

To the casual observer, the tidal Potomac may seem an unlikely place for miracles. It’s a bit dog-eared, not so much loved to death as ignored—ignored in the sense that most of the millions who live within the wide watershed that drains through that gorge just west of Washington haven’t the faintest idea what’s there, nor do they seem to care, as evidenced by the flotsam and jetsam along the river’s shores: tennis balls, bottles, cans; even toilet seats and shopping carts; and hundreds upon hundreds of plastic bags, caught in the tree tops during frequent floods and now fluttering in the breeze like so many profane copies of Tibetan prayer flags.

And yet, plastic bags aside, there is something miraculous, something almost divine, about that great green corridor that cuts through the heart of the Nation’s Capitol. Certainly, there was a hymn in the air that morning: the soft glow of morning sun on the cliffs. The mutter of cormorants. An osprey launching itself into the wind from its perch high above the river.

There was something miraculous, too, in my fishing for shad. For millennia, millions of shad—American and Hickory—pushed their way from the open ocean and into the Chesapeake Bay each Spring, then up the rivers and streams, where they first hatched, to spawn the next generation of shad. These days those great runs of shad, which sustained Native Americans and spawned local festivals among the American Colonists each Spring, are sadly diminished. Many streams that once saw hundreds of thousands of shad now see few, if any.

Fortunately, in response to sustained restoration efforts involving the States of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the shad have started to return, signalling again, as they have for millenia, the return of Spring.

It's all rather miraculous, isn't it--the light light on the water, the return of the shad, and the clamshell boat, sailing off on its improbable voyage with only me to watch it.

As the French theologian Blaise Pascal once observed, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." They frighten me too, even as they fill me with awe and wonder.

Our knowledge of the universe continues to expand, and astronomers identify new planets all the time—raising the hope that somewhere, way out there beyond time and memory, there may be other worlds like this one. Even so, the mind-boggling distances and probabilities only confirm the miracle of this particular planet: this green earth—our home—spinning its way, like a little clamshell boat, down a river of stars.

(Photo courtesy of waferkitty on Flickr; available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/waferkitty/2052220258/.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Class Dismissed

When we lived in Maryland, we loved "snow days"--those unexpected school closings that accompanied the slightest hint of winter weather.

But imagine if school was closed not just for a day or two, but forever? What if it was closed to girls, but remained open for boys? What if the local elementary school was blown up by people who feared the corrupting influence of education? What if you and your children knew that they might walk off to school and never come back, or wind up in a hospital after having acid thrown in their face? What if you knew that your children, no matter how much they wanted it, could never receive an education?

All that seems inconceivable here in America, which, even in tough economic times, remains a country of enormous wealth and opportunity--a myriad blessings we take for granted, like public schools.

But that nightmare is a reality for many children and families in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. I can recall few news clips as sobering as the following short film documentary from the New York Times that I stumbled acroos this morning: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2009/02/22/world/asia/1194838044017/class-dismissed-in-swat-valley.html .

(Warning: video contains violent and disturbing images; photo courtesy of adibmuhammad on Flickr, available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/adibmuhammad/3110618198/.)