Thursday, December 31, 2009

Once in a blue moon

It's New Year's Eve which is a singular enough occasion, but this New Year's Eve is even more rare.

Tonight is the night of the blue moon. The last time there was a blue moon on New Year's Eve was in 1990, and there won't be another for 19 more years.

No, it's not really blue. A "blue moon" happens when the full moon occurs twice in a calendar month. There was a full moon on December 2, so the full moon tonight is a "blue moon."

A blue moon is rare, hence the expression "Once in a blue moon," meaning a rare occurrence.

Perhaps because it's so rare, we remember our own lives' blue moons. It's been a long time since I've been there, but I once used to hang out at the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle's University District. Bet they're rocking tonight.

An astronomical blue moon happens every two and a half years or so - the next one will be in August of 2012 - but having it happen on New Year's Eve is special.

So let's toast the blue moon tonight as we bring in the new year.

1993 Photo by Joe Mabel from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thematic Photographic - Feet

Each week Carmi at Written, Inc. has challenged readers with a theme for photographic inspiration. This week the photographic challenge continues with the theme FEET.

Here on the trail through the park, you can see the many feet that have been here. Dog feet. Coyote feet. Deer feet. Human feet.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cooking our goose - Part Five

Christmas day, and the goose came out of the fridge. We had blanched it in boiling water the day before, and allowed it to dry in the fridge overnight. We stuffed its body cavity with an onion, a quartered lemon, some quartered apples, and a branch of rosemary.

The legendary five-hour cabbage was done, and the oven thermostat kicked up to 425. The goose was gently laid breast-up into the roasting pan on top of a lattice of celery stalks, and in it went.

The recipe said roast for 15 minutes at 425, then reduce the heat to 350. Then we were to turn it onto its side. Every 25 minutes we were supposed to baste it with a ladle full of boiling water, so we kept a saucepan on the stove. It's hard to balance a goose on its side. The lattice of celery stalks, which were supposed to keep it out of the fat, softened and slithered to the side of the pan. We wedged a quarter lemon against its hip to keep the thing in position.

By the second 15 minute basting time, it was surprising to see how much fat was in the base of the roasting pan. [The Man I Love] tilted the pan while I sucked the fat up with a bulb-baster. This happened two more times before we were told to turn the goose on its other side.

By this time, I was busy with the pie - an open-faced French pear tart. The tart pan with the shell had been in the fridge since morning. Between goose-fat suckage, I chopped dark, semi-sweet chocolate that went in a layer at the bottom of the shell, then I sliced pears and arranged them in a pinwheel pattern. Then I mixed up a custard with eggs and cream and a touch of kirsch, and poured it over the fruit.

For the last 20 minutes we laid the goose on its back again, and [The Man I Love] mixed us a Kir Royale, a glass of champagne or sparkling wine with a dollop of creme de cassis - a Burgundian cocktail. The goose came out, I cranked the oven up to 400 degrees, and put in the pie.

Then, time to set the table. I used my Great Aunt Louie Boyd's china, and polished three place settings of her silver.

We had bought this bottle of wine home with us from France, and had saved it for this occasion.

The goose? Oh, so you wanted some pictures of the roasted goose? The sad fact is - I just plain forgot to snap a shot of the bird in all its triumph. Is that lame, or what?

Here is its pitiful carcass after being carved. I was busy making gravy and steaming beans.

And then it was time for the pie to come out.

Here's our meal. The goose breast was succulent and rich, and not greasy at all. I used someof the poaching liquid from the prunes to add a touch of flavor to the gravy. The stuffing was perfect, and the cabbage was intense. The simple steamed green beans were a nice contrast to the complex flavors of everything else.

Will I cook a goose again? I'm not sure. On the one hand, it was fun and I got some goose fat out of the deal. On the other hand, the bony carcass didn't leave much in the way of leftovers. Would a duck be easier, or just as much work?

I hope you all had a very wonderful holiday!

Cooking our goose - Part Four: Well-stuffed

The goose recipe from Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" called for stuffing the goose's body cavity with prunes - prunes being a classic accompaniment to roast goose in the Alsace region of France. The prunes in turn are stuffed with a mixture of bread-crumbs and herbs and chopped cooked goose liver and fois gras - the controversial French delicacy of livers from geese that have been force-fed to increase the size and fat of their livers.

We did not choose to use fois gras. We couldn't afford it, for one thing. I figured we'd use the normal liver from our goose, and that would be enough. We got some lovely dried prunes from the Farmer's Market, and following the recipe, we soaked them in hot water for five minutes.

Our prunes had pits in them, so we tried to pit them. It was a hopeless task. The pits clung to the inside flesh, and the soaked skins were so fragile the prunes just came apart. I couldn't imagine them holding together to be stuffed.

It was a mess. And it was obvious that there was no way I could stuff these prunes with breadcrumbs and herbs.

So I changed the plan. I made a bread stuffing instead. I had some corn bread in the freezer, and a day-old baguette. I cut the bread into cubes about 1/2 inch in size.

Then I chopped some onions and celery, and melted some of that amazing goose fat in the skillet and sauted them. I chopped up some of the mangled prunes - about 1/2 cup, since they were very intense (I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of them - I'll think of something)

I cooked the goose liver in the fat, too, and then chopped it up into bits. I stirred the sauted vegetables, the prunes and the goose liver into the mixed bread cubes and moistened it all with goose broth. Then I put it into a casserole dish with a cover, and baked it in the oven alongside the goose.

There was enough stuffing to fill a second casserole dish, which I sealed and put in the freezer. I have a whole chicken in there, too, which I can thaw and roast this week - the stuffing will go great with it.

Meanwhile, the goose - see Part Five to come.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cooking our goose - Part Three: Five Hour Cabbage

M.F. K. Fisher once wrote of "vegetable snobbism" - the idea that some foods were tied to social class. In her essay "The Social Status of a Vegetable" she wrote of a middle-class American lady who was intrigued at the look and smell of a dish, until she was told that it was cabbage, and she immediately changed her mind about the quality of the restaurant, since cooking cabbage was something one only found in "the slums." It was hardly a vegetable one would consider serving at a festive, holiday meal.

Yet I love vegetables in the cabbage family. I like cole slaw, cabbage soup, sauteed cabbage; I love the pickled cabbage condiment curtida that's served with pupusas. I love stir-fried Chinese cabbage and its relative, bok choy. I like corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. I even like to eat chunks of raw sweet cabbage along with carrot and celery sticks for crudites (try it sometime!).

And, seriously, look at these beautiful red cabbages I got at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market the Wednesday before Christmas. They're so pretty and perfect for a holiday table.

I wanted to make braised red cabbage as an accompaniment to our Christmas goose, and the recipe I used was the one Julia Child recommended in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." According to her directions, you braised the cabbage in a slow oven for between four and five hours!!!

That seems like a lot of work, but really, once you put it in the oven, you don't have to do anything but wait.

I sauteed bacon, onions, and carrots in the wonderful goose fat we rendered out the day before. Then I added the shredded cabbage, and rolled it around in the fat and wilted it over the heat for about 10 minutes.

Then I added 2 cups of red wine - I had an open bottle of Syrah that seemed to have the right kind of fruitiness the cabbage needed. The recipe called for 2 cups of beef broth, but I had broth on hand from the goose neck and giblets, so I used that instead.

I added a cup of chopped tart apple, a couple of smashed cloves of garlic, some bay leaf, allspice and a good vigorous grating of fresh nutmeg.

Then I brought it to a boil on the stove-top before covering it with a lid and putting it in the oven at 325 degrees.

And then I let it cook for five hours. The recipe in the book adds chestnuts to it in the third hour, but we couldn't find chestnuts in our market, and probably wouldn't have wanted to mess with them if we had.

The smell of the cabbage cooking perfumed the house throughout the afternoon. It was just amazing - even Mrs. Fisher's acquaintence would have been tempted by it. It was rich, winey, fruity, with a deep bacony undertone and not a hint of the sulferous fumes cabbage is sometimes accused of.

By the time we were ready to put the goose in, the cabbage and the vegetables had reduced down to this amazing dark, concentrated rich vegetable mass.

This is what five hours does to cabbage - reduces it down to its very essence. It ain't pretty, but it's darn good. It's worth the time it takes.

Cooking our goose - Part Two: Schmaltz

[The Man I Love] decided that he wanted to cook a goose for our Christmas dinner. See Part One for how we started the project.

The day before Christmas, we prepared the raw bird for cooking. As I started reading about cooking a goose, I discovered that one of the characteristics of goose is that they have a lot of fat.

It's quite a chore to de-fat the goose so that the resulting meal isn't disgustingly greasy. But one of the secret benefits of goose-cooking is that, if you're careful you end up with a lot of goose fat for cooking.

Goose fat is prized for cooking - it's quite common in French cuisine. Potatoes roasted in goose fat are said to be sublime. You can buy imported French goose fat for around $10 a pound. Or you can save the fat when you cook a goose.

I pulled off the fat I could, and, following recipes online and in cookbooks, put it in a saucepan. You're supposed to put the fat with water in a pan and slowly simmer it until the water evaporates.

Many of the instructions I read cautioned against letting the fat get too brown, or it would be spoiled. Yet it was hard to figure out when the water was all gone.

One recipe described the sputtering sound it would make as the last of the water boiled away and the leftover bits fried to cracklings in the fat.

After about an hour, I finally heard this sound, and - following the recipe - took the pan off the heat after the sputtering dwindled to almost nothing.

After perhaps 90 minutes, I ended up with a bit less than a cup of clear golden liquid.

I strained this and put it in a jar. I capped the jar and put it into the fridge after it had completely cooled.

The next day when it was time to start cooking the braised red cabbage served with the goose, I got the jar of fat out of the fridge. It was actually beautiful - pure white.

It smelled rich and savory, yet not at all strong. When I melted it in the Dutch oven for the vegetables, it ran clear and didn't sputter at all.

There will be more goose fat to save from the bird while it cooks. It will be more strongly flavored, and require more straining, but it will still be worth saving. Later this week, we'll roast some potatoes in it!

Next? The five hour cabbage.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cooking our goose - Part One

[The Man I Love] decided that he wanted to cook a goose for our Christmas dinner.

Goose was a popular choice for Christmas dinner in northern Europe - it was a favorite in England and in the Alsace region of France. St. Martin was the patron saint of geese, and roast goose was a traditional meal on his feast day, Martinmas, in November. St. Michael's Day is also a traditional time for feasting on roast goose.

In "A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens describes the goose dinner the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Bob Cratchit's family enjoying in Scrooge's dream.

The Cratchits' kitchen is inadequate for cooking such a large bird - so like many in their neighborhood, they take it to a baker down the street to cook while they are at church, and fetch it home when it is done. Despite the fact that the poor Cratchits' goose is cheap and bony, it's a rare treat for them, making the smaller children so excited they can barely contain themselves.

Mrs. Cratchit makes the gravy, son Peter mashes the potatoes, the girls sweeten the apple sauce and set the table, and then the goose is set on the table and grace is said. As Mrs. Cratchit makes the first slice
"one murmur of delight rose all around the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!... There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by the applesauce and the mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone on the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eybrows!"
The Cratchits' real Christmas dinner, which they received after Scrooge's redemption, wasn't goose, it was turkey - the prize one hanging in the butcher's window. Turkey was becoming fashionable, and it was expensive. Apparently, few in the Cratchit's neighborhood can afford turkey, since it is still hanging there on the real Christmas morning.

Dickens' tale in England and America boosted the popularity of turkey for Christmas dinner, causing bony, greasy, inexpensive roast goose to become even less fashionable than it already was.

The French have a greater appreciation of roast goose. After our visit there this summer, I had been meaning to re-read my copy of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and seeing the movie "Julie & Julia" only made it more tempting.

I pulled my old book off the shelf. We were going to have Roast Goose stuffed with prunes, and accompanied by braised red cabbage.

We started to prepare the bird the day before we roasted it. Like duck, goose is notoriously fatty, and various methods have been devised to avoid having a greasy meal. When I opened the plastic warp and started to pry the bird's still-frosty limbs away from its body, it was easy to see that there was a lot of fat in this bird. There was fat beneath the skin and big globules of fat around the body cavity. The carcass was actually greasy to the touch - a very unsettling feeling. I found myself reaching for a piece of paper towel after handling it.

I pulled as much of the globs of fat out as I could, and then pulled the packet of giblets out of the cavity. I saved out the goose liver from the rest of the giblets - the heart and gizzard. I cut off the wings at the elbow joint. The gizzard, the heart, the neck and the wing-tips went into a pot of water with onion, celery, carrot and bay leaf to make broth.

I second-guessed Julia to try a de-fatting method I'd seen online - you blanch the bird for a minute in boiling water, and then let it air-dry in the fridge overnight.

Even though ours was a relatively small bird, at about 9 pounds, it was still bigger than any pot we had, so we dunked it in head-first for a minute, and then pulled it out and flipped it upside down and let it stand feet-first for another minute.

When we pulled it out, it was astonishing how much fat was in the water. We put the bird on a platter and let it sit uncovered in the fridge overnight.

See Part Two for what happens next.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pink Saturday - December rose

Pink Saturday - Beverly at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!

For several weeks now, each morning as I walk the dog through my neighborhood, I've been greeted by the amazing scent of a late-blooming rose that grows at the front gate of someone's property.

It's a large shrub, growing in a rock-walled bank of earth raised up from the street. It faces southeast, and has its back to a fence - this probably gives it a warm and protected microclimate. Its flowers are bright pink, or cerise, and are semi-double. Their shape is somewhat informal, blowsy.

Its scent is so strong you smell it from twenty feet away.

Because roses are so valuable in every human culture where they are cultivated, and because it is relatively easy to propagate them, roses have gone along as passengers in most human journeys. Rose cuttings traveled from the Middle East through the Ottoman Empire and into Bulgaria. They traveled from Spain to Mexico. They traveled from the gardens of Tudor England to Virginia, Delaware and Georgia. They traveled from France to India.

Here in the U.S., roses from Eastern gardens traveled with pioneers settling the west. Women in Conestoga wagons broke a spray from their mother's rosebush and took a rooted cutting along with them as they cross the American continent.

Roses are long-lived, and often a rosebush will endure longer than the house in whose dooryard it was planted. This one looks as if it's been there since the little bungalow nearby was planted, probably in the '20s or '30s.

Some people just enjoy flowers, no matter what they're called. Other people - myself included - are afflicted with a peculiar obsession. We have to know this particular flower's name.

Rosarians look at each aspect of a plant to determine what type of rose it is.

In addition to the color and shape of its flowers, there are other important clues. Are the flowers carried together in clusters, or do they bloom alone at the end of the stem?

How are the flowers' sepals shaped? These are long and straight, unlike the fringed and fuzzy sepals of the European gallica roses.

What are its leaves like? They can be rounded or slender, glossy or wrinkly, grey-green or bright. What about the thorns - is it wickedly armed, or does it have few, if any, barbs? This plant has rounded, matte leaves, and is sparsely thorned.

What is its bloom habit? This rose doesn't bloom year-round like a modern Hybrid Tea rose, but rather it blooms in one big flush in the spring, and then once again in the fall. This blooming habit is an important clue to its identity.

Old Garden Roses - the ones grown in Europe - bloomed only once a year. This was a disappointment for gardeners, so during the Crusades, they were thrilled to discover a rose in the Middle East that bloomed again in the fall. This was the Damask Rose - rosa x damascena semperflorens, named after Damascus in Syria. It was also extremely fragrant.

Northern gardeners bred them with European roses to create roses with a longer bloom season that could still take the cold.

A few centuries later, travelers from Asia returned with specimens of roses with a much longer bloom season. These China Roses and Tea Roses also brought new colors to the European roses - yellow and orange and true red. They were bred into the mix, and by the 19th century, hybridizers crossed and re-crossed different roses to create a marketed commodity for a rising middle class - and the qualities they valued included a variety of colors, summer-long bloom, hardiness against the cold, and the ability to produce lots of large lush flowers for cutting.

What kind of rose is this? I've looked in all my books and looked online, and I wonder if it is one of the family of roses called Portland roses, which originated around 1800. The English Duchess of Portland obtained a rose from Italy called "paestana", probably a Damask and China cross. The Duchess, in a show of international goodwill in spite of the conflicts between their nations, sent a plant to Empress Josephine at her garden Malmaison in France. The Empress's gardener named the rose after the Duchess, and developed other repeat-blooming roses from it.

These roses were the ancestors of the beautiful Bourbon and Hybrid Perpetual roses of the 19th century - but Portland roses are still prized by gardeners on their own merits.

Is it possible that this rose, or one of its descendants, traveled all the way from Empress Josephine's garden to Topanga, California? Are there any rosarians out there who'd like to take a crack at this mystery?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Story

This is a repeat posting of a Christmas Eve short story, inspired by one of my favorite Christmas songs. The song is "A Fairy Tale of New York," sung by Shane MacGowan and the Pogues, with the late Kirsty MacColl.

It's a song set in the '80s, during the period when young Irish men and women immigrated to New York City to find their fortunes. I mean the 1980s - the Irish recession of 1980 - 1985 spurred a new wave of immigrants. These migrants were educated professionals - accountants, medical technicians, doctors and engineers, unable to find work in the bad economy at home.

The song is a duet between two lovers who've been defeated by life's hardships, yet remember the exhilaration of being young and in love in New York at Christmas time.
Shane: "I could have been someone"

Kirsty: "Well, so could anyone. You took my dreams from me when I first found you."

Shane: "I kept them with me babe, I packed them with my own. Can't make it out alone, I built my dreams around you."
It has one of the best opening lines of any Christmas song. If you haven't already played it, go listen.

There's another line, though, that for me holds a lot of meaning. It reminds me of another Christmas Eve in New York City, around that same time. The line goes:
"We kissed on the corner and danced through the night."
It's one of the reasons I love this song. I wrote a short story about two lovers in New York, at Christmas Eve, during the 1970s.

The office was closing early, because it was Christmas Eve. She'd called Arthur at work, and he said come over. He got off at 6:00, so she'd have to hang out, but that would be OK.

Everyone in the office wished one another a Merry Christmas. The two company patriarchs, Mr. Hodges and Mr. Sweeters, had passed out Christmas treats; tins of butter cookies for the ladies, and tall cardboard boxes holding bottles of whiskey for the men. Ruthie the bookkeeper had given Jen and Doris handmade brooches she'd made of glittery yarn, crocheted in the shapes of wreathes. Jen had waited, a little breathlessly, to say "Merry Christmas" to young Mr. Hodges. "So, congratulations on your first Christmas in the big city," he'd said, and had given her a hug, briefly pressing his cheek to hers before releasing her.

Jen ducked a kiss on the cheek from Eddie, whose shiny mouth smelled of the whiskey from the boxes. She rode the elevator down to Fifth Avenue, where a light grainy snow was beginning to fall, making the sidewalk slick.

The bar where Arthur worked was over near Pennsylvania Station. She got there at 4:30, which meant that by the time he clocked out at 6:00, she had already had two drinks, sitting at the bar. She loved watching him talk to the customers, Midtown regulars, the way he looked at their faces as if he cared about them. The corner of his eyes crinkled. Did he look the same way to others when he talked to her?

When Ralph, the manager, came out of the kitchen, Jen made a point of placing a ten dollar bill on the bar in front of her cocktail napkin - Ralph had warned Arthur about buying her drinks before. She gave him an insincere smile in return for his glare.

As they stepped onto 33rd Street, Arthur slipped the ten back into her coat pocket, and they both laughed. "Where to now?" she asked.

He wore a navy peacoat over his jeans and sweater, and a battered pair of boots. The snow looked like little bright beads in his hair - full and wavy, though it was going grey. He was 37, he'd told her. They had met while working on a play in the East Village, he in the cast and she as the stage manager.

"You hungry?" he said. "Over at Flanagans, they have a happy hour buffet. Not like that cheap bastard Ralph."

He wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He was taller than she, and rangy with wide shoulders and a kind of loping gait. "You walk like a farmer," she'd once said to him. "There's a reason, I guess," he had answered. That was the only clue he'd ever dropped about his past.

They took the short cut through the ground floor of Macy's. She showed Arthur a pair of gloves lined with tartan wool, and a matching scarf. "Winter's just started and you don't have gloves," she said. Then he held a pair of dangly earrings near her cheek, saying, "I'd rather buy you these," as she peered into a mirror. "But now I've spoiled the surprise." As they passed the perfume counter she sprayed Chanel No.5 on one wrist, and Arpege on the other, and held them to his nose. He kissed her in front of the revolving door onto Herald Square, and she tasted Bushmills and tobacco.

Flanagans was warm and dark and not so crowded they couldn't find a table. They ordered a round and filled their plates at the buffet - cheese cubes, crackers, Swedish meatballs in sauce and fried zucchini with marinara sauce for dipping.

"Not too many places have a free buffet anymore, " said Arthur, watching the crowd of office-workers having a drink before they plunged down to the train platforms.

"So did you go to that audition?" asked Jen. "Wasn't that this morning?"

"I went, yeah, I went up there. There were a lot of people, and I got to thinking about it and decided I don't want to do TV," he said. "It's too commercial. I didn't like the way those people looked."

"But you don't know until you - "

"Anyway, Jonathan says the director's a shit. Why would I want to work for someone like that? I already have enough trouble with Ralph."

Jen had come to New York right after college, hoping to work in theatre. She read the trades and sent her resume out for anything she thought she could do - stage managing, lighting, props. She never turned down a job without even checking it out. She looked at Arthur and thought, a real acting job paying real wages is way different than tending bar, then she looked down and decided not to say anything.

Arthur prodded the food on his plate, but didn't eat it. "So when did you tell your folks you'd be home for Christmas?" he asked.

"I said I had a show to work tonight," said Jen. "It's such a drag to take the bus to Jersey now, with all the commuters. I told them I'd come tomorrow morning. It's OK, Mom and Dad haven't done a Christmas tree in years, dinner is the important thing, and that's not till later."

His eyes smiled into hers. "Well, we'll see you off in the morning," he said. He put his hand on her thigh beneath the table.

They took the PATH train down to the Village - the fare was 30 cents, cheaper than the subway, and it stopped at Christopher Street and Hudson, not too far from her apartment on Bleecker. They climbed the stairs and opened the door to the darkened apartment - all theirs, her roommate gone to Connecticut for the holidays.

She took off her coat, and he dropped his coat on the wood floor. He put his hands on her waist and looked her up and down. Her work skirt and sweater, dark tights and heeled shoes. "You look just like someone in a respectable business."

"But I'm not," she said, "you know I'm not." Because she was small and he was large, it was easy for him to pick her up in his arms and carry her into the bedroom.

After, he lay in the bed while she packed her overnight bag. "So are your folks cool about you living in the city?" he asked.

"I haven't asked them about it," she said, "not really. They know what I want to do. My dad left home when he went to college and never came back - so he knows. I suppose they think its OK, it's just good that they live so close to New York I can see them on Christmas."

"You got anything cooking?" he asked.

"Um, yeah, a couple of things. I'm lighting a play by Eugene O'Neil, down in SoHo next month. This off-off Broadway rep company," she said. "What about you? You don't want to do TV - is there anything else casting?"

"I don't know, I'm actually thinking about looking for another job. Ralph said he would give me more hours but he went back on his word."

"I don't like working in the office," she said, "but it pays the rent, and I can still do shows at night and on weekends."

"You got more energy than me." He rolled to sit up and reached for his jeans. "Hey, Jonathan's gone skiing in Vermont with some girl he met. Let's go to my place, we can light the fireplace. You got your bag?"

On the way to the subway, they went past Village Liquors on 7th Avenue to buy something to drink. It was just before 11:00, closing time. Inside the store, a green parrot on a perch in a cage said "Ho ho ho!" every time the door opened and the bell rang.

When they came up the stairs at Borough Hall in Brooklyn, the snow was falling heavier and it was fluffy now, not gritty sleet as before. It came whirling down past the street lights, and lay soft on the wrought iron fences and railings in front of the brownstone houses. "Look!" said Jen. "It's like magic." The snow dusted the sidewalk, and their footprints showed where they walked.

There was a Christmas tree lot on the corner, and - amazingly - the lights were on and the seller was there. "You're still selling trees?" said Arthur. "Who buys Christmas trees now?"

The guy shrugged. "Maybe there's someone who doesn't have one yet," he said.

In the A & P they bought some bread, some cheese and some green apples. "You want anything else? How about some twinkle lights?" Jen laughed as Arthur held them up. "Candy canes? Half price."

When they came out, the lights were still on in the tree lot. "Look," said Arthur. "It's almost midnight. What do you want for that tree there?" He pointed.

"Five dollars," said the guy.

"What, at midnight? Two seconds and it's not worth anything. C'mon, what about it?"

"Go on, take it," said the guy.

"Arthur," said Jen, "You're not serious, are you? What are we going to do with it?"

"Don't you worry. Here, I got it if you take your bag. Can you get the groceries too? It's not far." He hoisted the tree somehow on his shoulder. As he walked ahead of her, she followed the cross of rough new boards, nailed to the tree's base, shining in the street light.

His place was just a half block down on Henry Street. He stumbled up the flight of stairs ahead of her, the snow from his boots melting on the linoleum steps, the scent of pine close in the narrow hallway. The living room was darkened, but the blinds were open, and beyond the wide windows the lights of the bridge and the city beyond gleamed in the dark, as the snow fell past them.

Jen looked out at the lights. The faint glimmering buildings of Manhattan looked so near and so far at the same time.

Arthur set the tree in front of the window. "How's that? We don't need decorations. It's pretty nice just like this."

He built a fire in the small fireplace, and then brought the cushions from the couch to the hearth, the pillows from his bed, and a quilt. He got two glasses from the kitchen, and cracked the seal on the whiskey bottle. He slipped a pen-knife from his pocket and wiped the blade on his jeans. He held out a slice of apple with a paring of cheese to her.

"C'mon now. It's good."

It was 1:00 a.m. They drank whiskey by the light of the fire. In the morning she would be on the bus to New Jersey, but for now, the scent of pine filled the room and the snow fell outside the window.

Christmas dinner preview

Guess what we're having?

It was [The Man I Love]'s idea. I'm not sure why he wanted this. He said something about giving me a little goose.

Disregard the beer and the bottle of wine there - they won't be around for long!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Exotic rescue

Deppea splendens, coffee family, native to Chiapas, Mexico. The sign at the Conservatory said: "The last stand of these small trees grew on a mountainside in Mexico. Now it's thought to be extinct in the wild."

In 1981 a botanist collected seeds of this plant and distributed it to some west coast botanical gardens. In 1986 when he returned to the site, it had been cleared. The plants were gone.

The Huntington Garden in San Marino, California was one of the institutions that received the seed, and this plant is growing in the Conservatory there today. You can read about it at this link.

It is a tender plant, good in mild climates or protected over the winter in greenhouses. Plants grown from cuttings are available to purchase at the Huntington's annual plant sales, at several nurseries, or even through Ebay.

Sounds interesting, doesn't it? Wouldn't it be fun to help keep such a beautiful plant from extinction? If you're a gardener, you might give it a try.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sit on the couch

There are some places that defy the imagination. 2400 feet above sea level, you stand at the edge of the world, the valleys and the city and the coast stretching far, far beyond. The solid ground beneath you is concrete, flat, geometric with right angles, yet also kaleidoscopic and psychedelic and otherworldly.

Click to "embiggen"

Don't get too close to the edge.

Get comfortable instead. Have a seat on the couch.

What is this place?

The tower in 1938 - Photo from LA Public Library

We're in the Santa Monica Mountains. This is a concrete pad where a Los Angeles County fire lookout tower once stood. This land belongs to the County, and there appears to be no enforcing authority overseeing it.

One mile down a dirt road that follows a rollercoaster ridge, you climb a narrow trail and end up on a knob of rock topped with a concrete pad. The layers of graffiti and chips of green and brown glass are evidence of those who've come here before - and what they do here.

Click to "embiggen"

Some minds have been seriously blown here, I think.

We come here several times a year - we like to bring visitors here and impress them with the view. It's a hard hike in the heat of summer because there's no shade, but once it gets cool, it's an easy enough walk, with just enough uphill and downhill to get your blood flowing. It's been several months since we've been, so today when we made our afternoon hike here, we were surprised to see that there was something new.

A couch. Someone carried a couch all the way out here. What a perfect way to enjoy the view.

I don't know how long it's going to last, but for now, put your feet up and sit a while. And respect the couch.