Monday, November 30, 2009

Oh Christmas Tree

Like many Americans, I find Christmas trees to be festive and lovely. The smell of pine, the warmth of lights, the ornaments with sentimental value. So I'm not going to rain on this tradition--as I so often do with traditions that have long since ceased to be reflected upon. Rather, on Andrea's suggestion, I am going to offer equally festive and lovely but more eco-friendly alternatives to our current and common habit of chopping down live trees (or buying already-chopped-down trees from Big John or Big Bubba or whomever), dragging them into our homes, stringing them with lights, surrounding them with gifts wrapped in paper, and then--after the parties and the unwrapping and the eggnogging are over, dragging them back out of our homes and into the streets to be taken off as trash.

What would Jesus do?

Well, he might purchase a potted tree that can be replanted and live a long life producing oxygen after Christmas is over. Your local nursery is a wonderful source of such trees.

Or he might go on ebay (yes, Jesus uses ebay) and order a vintage artificial tree that speaks of times and celebrations past and otherwise would end up in a landfill.

Or decorate a tree in your yard. Presents can find other places to look beautiful and await opening inside the home. Have one of your children write Santa a letter to let him know where to leave the electronics.

Or make a family project out of making a tree from scrap materials--cloth, lumber, newspaper. The new family tradition could be to see who comes up with the most creative idea.

Or bring the spirit of sharing back into Christmas by choosing one tree on your street to be the "town tree" that neighbors help decorate.

A lot of people love decorating their homes for Christmas. Some see it as a chore or an obligation. Those in either camp can make the season more fun by challenging themselves to imbue their traditions with a pinch of eco-awareness. I'm thinking of having an edible tree this year: a little rosemary cone tree for the dining room table.

If you've already bought a chopped tree, there's always next year. And remember, when it comes time to take it down--don't just drag it to the trash. Recycle it. For tips, go to

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

a poem for Fall

Stomping through the ‘Hood on a Recent Evening

with apologies to Robert Frost

Whose leaves these are I think I know.

His house is not on this street though.

He cannot see me seething here.

He’s busy finding things to blow.

My little dog must think it queer

the way I’m tearing out of here,

a garden rake clutched like a sword

and on my face a boarish sneer.

The blinding dust, the deafening roar,

the Marlboro butts at my front door.

More fuel used up for easy’s sake.

I’ve had it; I’m declaring war.

Through storm of trash and twigs I quake

and give my rake a violent shake.

I find the man out near his pool

with blower that I want to break.

“I scream at him, “This rake’s a tool

you use like this: you reach, you pull,

and piles appear. It’s really cool!

And quiet too! You thoughtless fool.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Layers on Layers

I just moved. That sound you hear is the sound of me riffling through boxes trying to find the flatware.

We downsized on this move. Less space. Fewer things will fit. I see this as a positive thing. Purging is good. Unless you just ate.

But as my partner and I went through things to make decisions like whose grandmother's china wins, I was reminded of certain customs and traditions that involve "things" that I just don't quite understand.

For instance: chargers. Nope, not the kind you juice up your phone battery with. The kind you put under plates. In fact, they are sometimes called "underplates," but even though they've been around since the 1800s, they make less sense to me than, say, underpants. My chef friends and my Martha Stewart type friends (Michele, Kate) will probably fault me for faulting the charger. I suppose using a charger under a plate would make sense to me if one used only a charger. But I was at a dinner party recently where my dinner plate sat atop a charger, which sat atop a placemat, which sat atop a tablecloth, which sat atop a tablecloth liner, which sat atop the table. My filet was touching the bottom of my chin. This seems downright silly to me. I don't even like to own a table that requires I use a little bitty coaster for my water glass. After all, isn't a table something with legs under a flat surface on which one is served food and drink, or dealt a deck of cards?

Another case in point: floor mats in cars. The floor of a car is something you put your feet on. You get in and out of your car a lot. Why do you need the floor of your car to stay pristine? When other people get in it, do you momentarily remove the mat and say, "Look, look how clean and unworn the floor of my car is under the mats! Now, let me put this skank mat down and you can get in." Mats are also a safety hazard, as accidents are sometimes caused by their getting stuck under one of the foot pedals. This is why I love my matless Honda Element. Go on, root your ratty mudcaked boots around on my car floor! I can clean it just as easily as I could clean a mat.

And that flatware I'm riffling around for? My partner insists it should go in a handy little flatware tray, which separates knives from forks from spoons from our one chopstick. Really? Isn't it enough that it's in a drawer? I recognize the forks because they have tines, not because they're in the left-most section of the tray. The spoon is the thing I'm right-side-up in on one side, and upside-down in on the other. Plus, it stresses me out when there are too many forks to fit in the fork section and so some of the forks have to move in with the knives. I get all OCD when that happens. But if all the flatware is just living communally in the drawer, resting on the bottom of the drawer itself, I relax. (Don't even get me started on contact paper.)

Some types of layering make sense. A three-layer cake, for instance. Because one layer of cream cheese icing is never enough. A down vest over your hoodie on a winter morning. When the sun comes out, you shed a layer. The case I bought for my iPhone, because I have dropped it 720 times and the case has kept it from croaking.

So have me over for dinner, please. Make me a layer cake. But don't serve it on a plate on a charger on a place mat on a table cloth . . . well. You know.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Second Home

Seems most of my friends have been spending time this summer at various "second" homes to which they have access. They don't own them, but their family members do, or friends; or they know people who know people, you know?

A beach house at Pawley's Island, or Amelia Island, or Kiawah. A condo in Montana. A mountain house in North Georgia. A place in Naples, or Destin. A friend. An in-law. A mom. A dad. A sister. A business partner. It's the summer of free places to stay. And good thing. We're in a recession.

With Labor Day approaching, no doubt more friends will be escaping, facilitated by free accommodations.

I'm headed to Tennessee for Labor Day, to see my parents and spend some time at their second home--my dad's wooden storage shed in the back yard beside the garden. I'm not taking my bathing suit, or sunblock, or hiking boots, or a case of wine, but I am looking forward to it. My folks are of modest means; "stock" to them is something before "yard" or after "live," and they never made enough money to buy a vacation or weekend home where the smell of salt hangs on the breeze or the front yard slopes into a lake. But I sure never felt I was missing anything. The one home we have always smells like bacon or country ham, warm chocolate cake or peach cobbler.

This trip home, though, I'll mostly forego the kitchen to hang out in the shed, where I'll find a few years' worth of canned goods that will long outlive my parents, mason jars of liquor hidden behind jars of home-made tomato juice, a cardboard barrel filled with old golf balls my dad collected at the driving range where he worked after he retired, shelves of half-organized tools, electrical tape, twine, car wax, leather work gloves, and a mower--dried grass clinging to its belly.

These are the things that transport me. Sure, it would be nice to be sipping rum on a beach during the holiday weekend, my mind carried away on the wings of seagulls; but instead I will close my eyes in the dark shed--blackbirds lined on its eave--and breathe deeply the scents of sixty years of hard work, yard work, engine grease, gasoline, slightly ruined winesap apples, and sweat. If I close my eyes tightly enough, I will feel, rather than the splash of a wave, the slight spray of Dad's aftershave, even though it's been forty years since I used to stand on the toilet seat and watch him shave.

That imagined sound of blade scraping wet stubble will be more refreshing to me than rain. My father was recently diagnosed with dementia, and while he has many moments of lucidity, his memory is fraught with holes. So I relish remembering.

I remember the lines of shave cream disappearing down the drain with his facial hair those mornings before work; dandelions disappearing row-at-a-time, their seed heads fragmenting and floating away as he walked back and forth with the mower in our yard on Saturdays after the dew had dried; golf balls lost in the neighbors' bushes when he hit them too hard while practicing his pitch shots; oil from the Chevy dripping into the pan on the driveway, all but Dad's feet sliding under the car as he worked; inches of scotch evaporating from the bottle between midnight and daylight. What I don't remember are the years evaporating, yet they have.

This Labor Day, I will try to collect what they left like beach glass, and to cherish the years ahead like the last hours of a summer at the lake.

Monday, July 13, 2009

You Don't Eat Asbestos

Yesterday one of my friends called me a food snob. It's not the first time I've been assigned the label. I started thinking about what that means, really, because it does not seem appropriate to me. For instance, I hate caviar. I'd rather have a hamburger than a filet mignon. The very idea of pate or foie gras makes me sick. I am not a great cook. How snobby can I be?
This friend and my other friends, and my family members, and my partner--all the folks who've called me a food snob--do so because I'm unusually particular about what I put into my body. I prefer my beef to be from cows who've grazed on grass (their natural diet) and not corn-fed in a factory doing the bump with the other cows squished in next to them. I prefer my ice-cream to contain milk, cream, sugar, vanilla, and a dash of salt rather than milk solids, corn syrup, artificial flavor, guar gum, carrageenan, soy lecithin, and maltodextrin. I would rather pay two bucks more for my collards and buy them from a local organic farmer than to buy them from a grocery store to which they've been shipped from 1000 miles away after being grown downstream from the above-mentioned cow factory and sprayed with pesticides. In short, I value knowing where my food comes from --when possible-- and knowing that the practices used to grow or raise it and get it to my table are good for the environment, good for the food itself, and good for me. 
Now, if I were a builder, or even a home-buyer, and I told you I'd rather have a house made of brick than one made of asbestos siding, that I'd prefer my foundation to be solid rather than shabby, that I thought the value and livability of the house would improve if the kitchen floor were made of bamboo or tile and not peel and stick linoleum squares, would I be a house snob? Or would I be an astute person with an eye to the future? (Note: Somewhere between two- and three-thousand people, give or take, die yearly of asbestos-related malignant mesothelioma in the U.S. 59 million Americans are obese, and suffer from all the concomitant maladies.)
If you're car shopping and you want a hybrid with great gas mileage and high safety rating over a flimsily built car or a gas guzzler, are you a car snob or smart buyer? 
I learned--and continue to learn--a lot of what little I know about good (snobby?) food practices from my friend Michele. ( She has her own example of a friend who regularly eats boxed frozen meals containing, among other things, the following ingredients: sodium phosphate, whey, citric acid, annatto color, bleached flour, carrageenan, and cheese flavor, but almost would rather die than use toilet paper that "pills." I won't point out the irony around the points of ingress and egress.
My partner is a vegetarian, which I admire and respect. I tried life without meat once and didn't feel so great. She respects that. But it's interesting to me that if she asks whether there's pork in the collards, that's fine. Yet, if I'd rather my dessert not contain fractionated palm kernel oil or high fructose corn syrup, people want to hit me in the face with a pie. 
Maybe it's my approach. I admittedly can be obstinate, opinionated, acerbic. But at least I'm not artificially sweetened. Or maybe it's that questioning people's food choices is just too personal, like questioning their sexual practices. I don't know. Either way, I'm probably not going to shut up about it completely. 
It's not just that I try to take care of my health. I am fully aware that I could be hit by a car tomorrow or die next week of stress related to my concern over hydrogenated oils. But I do feel better and think better and make better decisions when I take care of my body, when I eat well and exercise. And it's bigger than that; it's about not buying into the practices and prosperity of big agribusiness, which puts small farmers out of business, produces greenhouse gases and bacteriological contamination, and negatively affects human health and the health of the land. And that's just the tip of the melting iceberg. I'd rather not have my potato sprayed with twelve pesticide applications (that's the average number) before I buy it.  
Not everyone can afford to make smarter food choices, which is a travesty that I recognize. Hell, I can't really afford it either. But I'd rather buy wild caught fish than have a nice couch, and if you don't believe me stop by my house sometime. We all have our priorities. But the people who really cannot afford to reject the products of big agribusiness in favor of more healthful choices will never be able to if those of us who can afford it just don't bother. I'm lucky to have friends who are great cooks and share my interest in supporting local farmers, if not my adamancy. I hope they think they're lucky to have me, too--their friend the food snob.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hump Day Manners and Friday's Poem Merged on a Thursday

I had no time for manners yesterday, and tomorrow I'll be on vacation and unable to post Friday's poem. So today I've turned to one of my favorite poets to help me kill two birds with one stone, as the saying unfortunately goes. Enjoy.
 For a Child of 1918

My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
"Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet."

We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather's whip tapped his hat.
"Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day."
And I said it and bowed where I sat.

Then we overtook a boy we knew
with his big pet crow on his shoulder.
"Always offer everyone a ride;
don't forget that when you get older,"

my grandfather said. So Willy
climbed up with us, but the crow
gave a "Caw!" and flew off. I was worried.
How would he know where to go?

But he flew a little way at a time
from fence post to fence post, ahead;
and when Willy whistled he answered.
"A fine bird," my grandfather said,

"and he's well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he's spoken to.
Man or beast, that's good manners.
Be sure that you both always do."

When automobiles went by,
the dust hid the people's faces,
but we shouted "Good day! Good day!
Fine day!" at the top of our voices.

When we came to Hustler Hill,
he said that the mare was tired, 
so we all got down and walked,
as our good manners required. 

Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday's Poem

Been thinking today about my feet. I have a blister from running. I need to paint my toenails. And later I'm going shoe shopping. All of which will help explain why today I've chosen to share this particular poem:


The salesman's shoulder and a silver shoe horn helped me climb
into a pair of red Buster Browns with black trim and laces,
plod around the JC Penney admiring my sublime
feet. I slept in those shoes, dreamed that I was going places.

First week of first grade I got a pair of black canvas Keds
with rubber soles and three parallel white stripes on each side.
I felt balanced, could grip the waxed floors with groovy tread
that left its mark. They never knew I was petrified

of slipping into view, just as scared of disappearing.
At recess I hid in the playground's concrete tunnels,
kicked rocks at the kids playing near the openings, clearing
my escape route, imagining myself running until

the scenery changed. It did. My shoes were different
in my teens, when I tried on sex and higher heels for size,
lost my head in the halls. Still I carried an inherent
need for groundedness, gave up dresses and skinny thighs

for a chance to plant my feet in cleats and take the track,
loved the crunch of spikes striking asphalt, flinging gravel
in my wake, scared of being caught, never looking back
to see what was behind me. Even now when I travel

I watch my feet, sure only that I need to keep moving,
wear neon sneakers to which Phidippides would pray,
live as though quickness were a certain way of proving
worth, like a firefly, whose rapid light protects and gives away.

Jennifer Wheelock, 2006