Saturday, January 31, 2009

Pink Saturday - Pink Pasta

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

In Puglia, Italy, there's a small factory that makes brilliantly colored pasta. It's made with hard durum wheat, and shaped by being forced through bronze dies, which give a rough texture to the final product, unlike modern pasta factories' teflon dies, which made a smoother noodle. A rougher texture helps sauce cling to the pasta.

The color comes from natural vegetables and flavorings - beets, spinach, carrot, red pepper and turmeric, and reviews of this brand, made by the Marella pasta factory, report that the colors stay vivid even when cooked.

As you might imagine, these pastas are more costly than your basic box of Creamettes. I saw them in a specialty food store in Santa Monica, and the price tag for a bag was a whopping $13.95. Still, for a special holiday meal, it might be worth trying.

This pasta is so pretty it's perfect for Pink Saturday. And wouldn't a plate of rainbow colored linguini look great for Valentine's Day, tossed with a pesto or cream sauce? Or - how about a pink sauce? Just cook some plum tomatoes in a pan with butter, and add some heavy cream. Simmer until the sauce thickens, then toss with the pasta, some chopped parley and grated parmesan. Pretty! - and pink!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dude and Dudette

By now everyone's familiar with certain universal symbols that direct us in public places. There are symbols that point us toward services, symbols that forbid us from doing things like smoking, symbols that warn us against dangers, and symbols that help us find what we need. Like this:

Have you ever wondered how these symbols came to be, who invented them?

Me neither, until the other day.

Turns out that these symbols were designed in 1974 through a collaboration between the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation, at the urging of designer Henry Dreyfuss. They were designed for use in situations where people of many different cultures, languages and ways of life would need direction and guidance, and intended to be universally understood.

The AIGA symbols are ideograms - symbols that communicate complex ideas visually without words or language. Some are variations of symbols that have been used for centuries, and are so deeply rooted in our culture that few would question them. Directional arrows, for example. The AIGA arrows are bold and graphic, but for centuries people understood the idea that something shaped like this:

Meant we should walk in the direction of the pointy part.

Other symbols were invented by the AIGA designers, and have become universally understood today. Prior to the debut of these symbols, I don't think anyone would have assumed that this:

Meant "Don't come in here." Or that a circle with a diagonal line through it meant "prohibited." How'd they think those up?

I wonder whether a time traveller from 1900 would understand those two symbols. But it's amazing how, in the years since 1974, we've so easily come to accept and understand the AIGA symbols. That must say something for the skills of the designers, Roger Cook and Dan Shanosky.

Whenever anything becomes part of the establishment, however, we human beings have a tendancy to tweak it, to make fun of it, to get creative with it. The AIGA designs have been subjected to a lot of creative tweakage. Like this:

I'm sure you've seen many more.

The other day, I was touring a new recreational facility, to open in a few months, and I was tickled to see their version of restroom signs.

This is Southern California, after all. Here are the universal symbols for Dude, and Dudette:

I dunno. He looks pretty cool. But she kinda looks like she's wearing Mommy-shorts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


PROMPTuesday - today's prompt is "This week, tell us about your first job."

The room was filled with long workbenches, faced with metal stools. The big room had a wide, worn wooden plank floor, thick concrete columns breaking up the space. The windows were huge spans between the concrete beams, murky textured glass in small panes held in metal mullions. They let in a soft dirty light, but we couldn't see out. An AM radio played, the sound echoing off the walls, a cheerful chorale singing, "Double-You Em Eff Peeeeeee! Smoooooth Muuuuusic!"

On the bench, a small vise with knobs and adjustable handles stood on the work surface, and to one side a soldering iron was poised, point down in a thick coiled holder, to guard against burns. There were bins near the back of the bench, some holding flat dull-green chips, and others filled with the intricate, toy-like capacitors, transistors, resistors; emblazoned with drops of bright red paint, shiny with silver, or striped in brown, blue, pink, yellow.

Beside me, a young Filipina woman bent over her vice, probing with the soldering iron as a thin veil of smoke rose up from her work. She wiped the hot tip of the iron on a damp sponge, and stuck it back into the holder. She reached into a bin, selected a resistor, and deftly threaded its leads through the holes in the circuit board. She flipped it over, and neatly clipped the ends off with a tiny pair of cutters.

"Hey, Cal, can't we turn that thing to some real music?" A tall black woman entered the room, laden down with a big bag and a box of donuts. "Why do you like that damn elevator music anyway, you think we're working in a high-rise?" She twiddled the dial and the pure sound of the Temptations flowed out of the radio.

I was nineteen, home from my first year at college, and it was my first real job. I earned minimum hourly wage, assembling printed circuit boards for walkie-talkie radios, at a factory in Red Bank, New Jersey. My co-workers were mostly women, young and uneducated, some who were young mothers, some wild-child Jersey girls who spent their nights and weekends on the boardwalk in Asbury Park.

For eight hours a day, I bent over my work, crimping tiny wires, holding the malleable thread of solder to the hot iron's tip. I loved how it held firm, first, and then suddenly melted and ran and puddled.

By the day's end, my back would ache. My fingers were sore, because I was still clumsy and new, poking my fingertips with the little wires. We had two little jars of fluid at our workbench - they were actually baby-food jars, brought by the women workers from home because the size was convenient. One held an amber liquid resin, the other a clear industrial solvent. We sometimes dabbed a connection with resin to make the solder flow better. When we finished a board, we dipped our brush in the solvent, and cleaned it. The resin and solvent fumed in the thick air, and the foreman was good about allowing girls to get up and clear their heads when overcome.

I liked soldering. I was pretty good at it - I was praised as a "natural." I loved watching the solder flow, and even better, I loved it when I had to un-do a solder joint - press a ribbon of braided metal against the joint with the hot iron, and watch as the fibers sucked the molten silver into themselves, freeing the trapped wire from the board. The braid, once flexible, now stiffened and solid with metal.

Our quality control was casual, but it was all about the electrical connection, and the flow. Connections that let the electrons flow from one component to the next. That summer was about connection - with Mina, who gave me my first taste of Filipino food in the lunch room. The back-and-forth arguments over the radio station - soul or salsa, all-news or easy listening. Watching Vonda, waving her hands in the air as she told an ever-more-crazy story, her acrylic nails sparkling. Covering for Joy, who was dating a guy in the stockroom - I'd let her run my refill orders instead of going myself, so she could grab a few minutes with him in the stacks. We'd sometimes smoke a joint together on the loading dock after our shift ended, the smoke like the burning incense of resin up in the factory loft above.

I was the only one on the floor who was going to college, but I easily slipped into the flow anyway. I propped my elbows on the table in the lunch room, red sauce from meatball subs dripping down onto the oily paper. I cackled at the put-downs and practical jokes. I met the boyfriends, shook hands with the husbands, wiggled my fingers "hi" at the children. The life of the factory fumed and flowed around me, the current buoyed me, and I rode my circuit-board rafts through the rapids. I let the molten solder flow and fuse all the different pieces of my life together, joining them.

I learned to tell the difference between a properly done solder joint, shiny and flat, mirrored and pure; and what we called "cold solder" where the joint, while firm, had been disturbed in the cooling process. Cold solder was dull and pebbled, cold joints were weak, and compromised the ability of the electrons to freely flow. The solder must be hot enough to meld the disparate parts of the circuit board as if they were one, to properly make the electrical connections - or so we were told.

In this room, we never actually saw a fully assembled radio - except for Cal's boom box, whose sound connected our days. We breathed vaporized silver and listened to sweet soul music all summer long.

Monday, January 26, 2009

They don't make 'em like this anymore

Let's say that you're a girl from Brooklyn, a pretty blonde with a flair for cracking jokes, a nice figure and, like your two older sisters, an ambition to make it on Broadway.

You change your ethnic-sounding name to something a little more refined-sounding, more mainstream. You get a job as a chorus girl and do a little modeling, get your picture in the media. Pretty soon, you start attracting attention, and admirers send flowers, candy, and little gifts to your dressing room, a little notes with invitations for after-theatre dining and nightclubbing.
Pretty heady for a girl from Brooklyn, especially when one of those admirers happens to own a film studio, and can help you with your career.

Oh, sure, he's married - they always are. But he loves you, only his witch of a wife won't give him a divorce. There's nothing else he can do but set you up with a little place of your own, where the two of you could be together. A little cottage, a getaway by the beach. A place where the two of you can entertain your friends, and have a little fun .... wouldn't it be nice?

Recently, I was lucky to get a private tour of a neglected house, now in the process of restoration, built by a noted architect for a rich man's mistress. The magnificent main house is gone, destroyed years ago, but a smaller structure remains, giving a hint. What I saw was only a trace of how the rich lived - before the rise of technological innovations that changed the entertainment industry forever, before a stock market crash that plunged the nation into an economic crisis.

There were glittering crystal chandeliers, in beautifully designed spaces. This was the house where the overindulged guests of the tycoon and his sweetie slept it off, after the parties.

Carved woodwork. The craftsmanship was amazing, and the themes varied from room to room. The restoration was incredible - whatever they did to clean, strip, and refinish the woodwork preserved the sharpness and crispness of the detail.

Hallways lead to the service areas, with well-equipped kitchens and pantries, and where the servants lived in tiny rooms, climbing narrow back stairways to carry out their duties to their wealthy employers.

The main rooms were elegantly appointed, with views of the beach. Wide, with high ceilings, paneled walls, and french doors opening onto a columned porch.

But the best part? The bathrooms. Vintage bathrooms.

With custom painted tilework. Oh My God. Gorgeous.

I can't say too much more about this place right now, because it's still under construction. But if this was the guest-house, what do you suppose the bathrooms in the long-gone main house were like?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Detour into history

We were heading to Chinatown, and we were hungry. We were trying to decide where to go first. Grab a banh-mi at the little Vietnamese deli? Or try a bowl of noodles at a Chiu Chow place I'd read about? Or get a lamb and bleu cheese dipped sandwich at Philippe's?

Traffic on the 110 was heavy, so we decided to slip off the freeway into downtown. As we rolled up Broadway, it occured to us - "Hey, wait a minute! Isn't Cole's re-opened?"

Los Angeles food and history lovers alike know about the long-standing rivalry between two downtown joints over credit for inventing the french-dip sandwich - roast meat on a crusty french roll, dipped in the roasted meat juices.

Cole's was established in 1908, on the ground floor of the Pacific Electric Building, which was the main terminal for the interurban Pacific Electric Railway, or the "Red Cars" that was Los Angeles' mass transit system before it disappeared in the 1950s. Cole's claims to be the longest continually operating restaurant in the city - and if you don't count the months between March 2007 and December 2008 when it was closed for its recent renovation, that might be true.

The signature french-dip sandwich was invented when a customer, concerned that the bread was too crusty for his sore gums, asked proprietor Harry Coles to dip his sandwich in the juices of the roast meat. Other customers asked for the same, and it became the restaurant's signature sandwich.

Of course, across the 101 freeway on Alameda, Philippe's restaurant claims to be the inventor of the french-dip sandwich - but that's for another blog post.

In 1974, Coles was designated as Los Angeles Historic Landmark #104. But despite that honor, in recent years the place mirrored the general decline of its neighborhood. I read somewhere that Cole's was the kind of place where you would typically see a bookie buying a drink for a prostitute, a drunk passed out at the bar, and an exterminator spraying the place for roaches, all during the same visit. Debates over the french-dip rivalry on Chowhound invariably mentioned the seedy atmosphere at Coles. When Jonathan Gold's book "Counter Intelligence" was published in 2000, he described going to Cole's as

[stumbling] into another era, with real Tiffany lamps, sawdust on the floors, and a couple of pickle-nosed guys at the bar who look like they haven't budged from their stools since 1946... There's horseradish and hot mustard on the tables , darts in the back rooms, and dark Ritterbrau on tap; a sort of romantic, Chandleresque dinginess you won't find anywhere else in town.

Gold notes that the offerings at the cafeteria-style buffet ranged from bad to worse - the only attraction was the french-dip sandwich - but what a sandwich. Gold rated them better than those at Philippe's.

Recently, Cole's was purchased by Cedd Moses, downtown developer and entrepreneur, owner of the Golden Gopher and other downtown bars. He closed Cole's for renovation in March 2007, and re-opened in this winter. His pledge to preserve the historic interior has been praised by preservationists. His re-vamping of the old menu has met with mixed reviews.

I had never been to the old Cole's - I learned about it just a little too late. But once we heard it was reopening, we were eager to try it. So, instead of continuing up Broadway to Chinatown, we took a detour east on 6th. We parked on a rooftop lot off Los Angeles Street and rode an elevator with a Latino family to the sidewalk, passing the wholesale fabric dealers and discount lingerie and toy stores bustling with shoppers and bacon-dog vendors. Round the corner on 6th, a ramp beyond a wrought-iron railing sloped down past a trendy coffee shop to the entrance of Cole's. Even in such a short walk, you can't avoid the diverse and ever-changing flavor of downtown Los Angeles.

We sat at the bar - its original dark varnished wood substantial and solid. There were chrome-trimmed formica-topped pedestal tables surrounded by deep maroon upholstered booths. There was red-flocked wallpaper, and white penny-tiled floors, old photos on the wall and stained glass panels inset into the woodwork.

It no longer has a cafeteria-style buffet like it did in the old days. The menu is limited to french dip sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, and caesar salad. There's a handful of sides, a tomato soup, and a choice of two pies for dessert.

The bar menu features classic cocktails and draft beers.

We decided to have a cocktail first, opting for a Manhattan made with rye whiskey in the classic manner. They were stirred, not shaken, in an ice-filled mixer in front of us, and served without the usual maraschino cherry, in coupe glasses - the kind that you often see incorrectly used for champagne at celebrations. The coupe is the classic cocktail glass, before the vogue of today's martini glass. Even though we were starving, we savored the drink before ordering our lunch.

The sandwiches come in your choice of beef, lamb, turkey or pork, and cost $8. Cheese is a dollar extra; for another $3 you can get extra meat. [The Man I Love] had a french-dip lamb and bleu cheese. I wasn't in a french dip mood, so I had the tomato soup and grilled cheese combo.

While we ate, we chatted with our neighbor at the bar, who was enjoying her own french dip along with a draft beer. She is one of downtown's new residents, living around the corner in a loft building. We talked about the economy, the prospects for the revitalization of downtown, and mused on what the future would bring. We shared our experiences living in other cities - she was raised in Manhattan - and talked about raising kids. I have to admit, I had a flash of envy. How exciting it would be to be in her shoes, participating in the transformation, and preservation, of one of America's great cities.

And not only that - she gets to have Cole's as her local!

Our new acquaintance is also a blogger, and if you want to know what life is like living in downtown Los Angeles, visit Li's blog, Under the Alexandria.

Cole's serves two types of pickles - one called Atomic and the other called Garlic. We tried them both. The Atomic pickle's heat comes from horseradish, while the Garlic pickle was surprisingly hot from flaked red chiles.

I asked [The Man I Love] for his review on the sandwich, and here's what he said -

There was less meat on it than there should have been, and I had a couple of pieces that were gristle. The bleu cheese was great. And the pickles were great, both kinds! I didn't notice the bread. The setting really made a difference, having a real bar with a knowledgeable bartender in an historical setting, serving historically accurate cocktails is a plus. If you're looking at strictly the sandwich, Philippe's still has the edge, but if you add up the whole, I need further research.

My tomato soup was delicious, warming, and, while in the classic style of Campbells, very much better. There was a hint of red pepper or pimiento along with the tomato. The grilled cheese on thick sourdough bread was comforting - just the meal for a January day with looming thunderclouds.

We'll see how Cole's develops. There have been some negative reviews in Yelp and Chowhounds, mostly in reaction to the meagerness of the helpings and the price - $9 for lamb and bleu cheese compared to Philippe's more abundant sandwich at $6.50. And the menu, frankly, could be expanded.

But we'll study it. [The Man I Love] is a scholar, after all, and it's important to research thoroughly before drawing conclusions. It will be arduous, requiring several future trips as well as comparison forays to Philippe's. But I think we're up to it.

Chinese New Year

Monday, January 26, 2009 is the second new moon after the winter solstice, and for many Asian cultures, the beginning of the lunar New Year.

We took a trip down to Chinatown to see how people are preparing for the holiday.

The lunar New Year is celebrated by Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tibetan and Mongolian people. The holiday is called Chinese New Year, but also sometimes called the Spring Holiday, or, in Vietnam, Tet. In the Los Angeles area, big celebrations take place in downtown Chinatown and in Monterey Park. In Garden Grove, down in Orange County, the Vietnamese community holds a huge holiday celebration.

2009 is the Year of Ji Chou, or the Ox. We saw lots of pictures of ox, here Disney-fied with big soft eyes like Bambi. There were also golden figurines of oxen, reclining and surrounded by gold ingots.

The New Year has been celebrated at the beginning of the lunar calendar since the Han Dynasty, over a hundred years before Christ. The legend surrounding the celebration tells of a village that had been terrorized by a mysterious beast, called the Nian, or Year, that came to steal villagers' winter stores of food, livestock, and even their children. To placate the beast, people would pile gifts of food outside their doors, as bribes. The legend goes that once, the beast saw a small child dressed in red clothing, and was filled with fear at the sight. Villagers started hanging red lanterns at their doors, and red scrolls, to scare away the beast. They also began lighting firecrackers, so the noise and smoke would scare the Nian.

There were lots of embroidered clothes on display, red cheongsam dresses and little children's tunics. I found a pretty red sweater embroidered with flowers, for only ten dollars.

Now, New Year celebrations always include firecrackers, red lanterns, red decorations and parades with lion dances and dragon dances.

In the days coming up to the New Year, Chinese families thoroughly clean their homes. Cleaning before the New Year sweeps all the past year's bad luck out of the house. People are very careful to put away the brooms and dustpans before the New Year starts, though. If you sweep up after the New Year starts, you risk sweeping good luck away. And all washing and cleaning must be finished before New Years - or you risk washing good luck down the drain. People start the New Year with a fresh haircut, a fresh coat of paint on their homes or doors. New clothing is worn, usually in the color red, which symbolizes the holiday.

Chinese households keep an image of Zao Jun, the Kitchen God, displayed in their kitchens, often by the stove. Zao Jun watches over the household - not just to protect, but also to keep an eye out that the family is behaving properly. As an example of theocratic bureaucracy, just before New Years the Kitchen God reports to the Jade Emperor about how the family's conduct over the past year. Family members often smear the god's mouth with honey to sweeten his words - that or stick his lips firmly shut. Zao Jun's journey is aided by burning his picture - his smoke rises to the heavens. A new image of the Kitchen God is hung for the following year.

The celebration lasts for fifteen days, and each day has its own special activity. It begins with a big reunion dinner for families on New Years Eve. The dinner includes traditional foods such as whole fish or chicken, representing surplus and abundance. Uncut noodles represent longevity. People exchange gifts of money in red envelopes. It's important to avoid multiples of the number four, because in Chinese the word for four sounds like the word for "death".

New Years Day is for honoring the gods and visiting the oldest members of the family. It's also marked by some by abstaining from eating meat, so traditional vegetarian dishes are popular.

The second day is for honoring the ancestors. It's also considered the birthday of all dogs, and a day to honor dogs.

On the third and fourth day, it is considered unlucky to visit relatives - perhaps to avoid getting into arguments, or perhaps because it is more appropriate to visit gravesides and remember those who've passed away.

On the fifth day, many businesses reopen, because the fifth day is the birthday of the god of wealth.

The sixth day through the tenth day people go to the temple and pray.

The seventh day is considered "everybody's birthday." On this day, farmers display their produce, people light firecrackers, and there are lion dances in the street.

The ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor.

The tenth and twelfth days bring more family visiting and celebration.

The thirteenth day is for taking a rest and eating simply - wouldn't it be great if all holidays had a special day for chilling out?

The fourteenth day is used to prepare for the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the fifteenth day.

The Lantern Festival is the culmination of the New Years holiday. People hang red lanterns at their doors and along the streets. There are parades and dragon dances in the streets.

Throughout the New Year, people decorate their houses and offer treats to eat that are as symbolic of the holiday as our Christmas trees and candy canes symbolize Christmas.

Plants and florals include blossoming plum branches, orchids, chrysanthemums and water narcissus. People gift one another with kumquats and tangerines. Painted decor include pictures of koi fish, or sometimes food is shaped or decorated to look like koi. Coconut candies, lychees and gingko nuts, and peanuts are offered as treats.

In Los Angeles's Chinatown, the holiday is celebrated with a parade and dragon dance on Saturday, January 31st. Other Southern California community celebrations include the city of Monterey Park and Westminster (Little Saigon), both of which take place the weekend of January 30 - February 1. The San Gabriel Valley's parade and street festival take place on February 7th - rounding out the New Year.

The traditional New Years greeting is "Kung hee fat choi!" which means "congratulations and prosperity!"

If you want to learn more about customs for Chinese New Year, go to This Link.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pink Saturday - Pink Toenails

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

I got my toenails painted the other day. I picked a pink color for my polish. I always go to the same salon, and I tip pretty well, so the ladies who run the spa treat me nicely.

I think I was probably 45 years old before I ever had a professional pedicure. My friend Sue took me out to her salon, during a lunch break when we worked together.

Like many salons in Los Angeles and other cities, the ladies who work there are Vietnamese immigrants. I have wondered why this community managed to fill this specialized niche. Here's an article from the Los Angeles Times about how Vietnamese women began working in the manicure/pedicure trade, with the help of actress Tippi Hedren.

One time at my salon, one of the ladies' young kids were there, and they took a fancy to me. I don't know why the kids were there - I haven't seen any kids there before or since, so their mom must have had some kind of child care emergency. Anyway, the kids were about 4 and 7, and while their mom was doing someone else's nails, her daughters sat beside me and drew pictures for me. I could tell their mom was embarrassed, but I honestly enjoyed being entertained. When I get my toes done, I always ask Linh how her children are. I notice that sometimes if there's a wait for a spa chair, they jump me ahead in the queue.

These days I always have painted toenails. I don't often do my fingernails. I can't maintain a manicure for long, what with computer work and dishwashing, so it never seems like a good value. Although perhaps if I had chipped fingernails, I'd go to the salon more frequently - disgustingly, I let far too much time go between pedicures. Especially in winter. But it always feels so much better when I finally go and get my claws trimmed and painted a fresh pretty color.

Like the dentist's office, the nail salon is the place where I get to read trashy celebrity magazines. It's a guilty pleasure.

Do you paint your toenails? Do you do it yourself or do you go to a salon? How old were you when you got a pedicure for the first time?
Do you see it as a necessity, a luxury, or an indulgence?

Friday, January 23, 2009

New baby

Midnight blue Dell laptop. Coming soon.

Since my computer died back in December, I've been haphazardly maintaining this blog through the kindness of strangers loved ones. But today I ordered my new laptop, which should arrive before the first of February.

I'm so excited.

It matches my desk!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Snowflakes in Los Angeles

We don't get much snow in L.A. But this morning I stepped out my door and there were snowflakes in my front yard!

The amazing thing about spring flowers is how suddenly they appear. It seems like nothing was blooming a week ago, and now each morning there's something new.

Earlier, the narcissus surprised me. This morning, it was the Snowflakes.

Leucojum vernum are called Spring Snowflakes. They are native to Southern Europe, and so they enjoy the Mediterranean climate of Southern California. They also thrive in the warmer parts of the U.S. South.

Although they are also charming, and have white flowers touched with green, they should not be confused with Snowdrops, or members of the Galanthus genus, which are native to northern Europe.

Snowdrops have an odd-shaped little flower. Snowflakes have a modest bell-shaped flower, pinked on the edges and marked with spots of green. They are said to have a faint fragrance - I haven't detected it in mine, but perhaps I should get my nose down closer to them.

If you're interested in growing unusual spring bulbs, or if you're interested in gardening in general, you might enjoy a book called "The Little Bulbs" by the late Elizabeth Lawrence.

Lawrence gardened in North Carolina, first in Chapel Hill and then in Charlotte. She wrote several books and articles about gardening, and was a friend an correspondent of other noted gardeners and garden writers. Her Charlotte garden, is open to the public for touring. While you're at it, check out a neighboring garden, Wing Haven, created by Elizabeth Clarkson. The Wing Haven Foundation supports the preservation of both gardens.

"The Little Bulbs" focuses on early spring flowers, the modest, non-showy things that lift a tender leaf and subtle blossom through the crust of snow or frost, beneath the skirts of shrubs or in the shade of trees. Lawrence leaves the big-flowered daffodils and showy tulips for other volumes; here she tells us about small things, like crocuses, winter-blooming aconites, dwarf spring iris or cyclamen. She writes about the plants unimproved by the hybridizers and marketers and corporate flower industry - the wild flowers and species bulbs. She describes how these things bloom in her North Carolina garden, and tells us how to introduce them into our gardens.

"The Little Bulbs" is subtitled "A Tale of Two Gardens," because it is also an account of Lawrence's correspondence with a Cincinnati gardener, Carl Krippendorf. Lawrence had a small urban garden, while Krippendorf planted a huge estate. Nevertheless, they were friends, and, as Lawrence describes it,

as soon as spring is the the air, [we] begin an antiphonal chorus, like two frogs in neighboring ponds: What have you in bloom, I ask, and he answers from Ohio that there are hellebores in the woods, and crocuses and snowdrops and winter aconite. Then I tell him that in North Carolina the early daffodils are out but that the aconites are gone and the crocuses past their best.

I know some readers of this blog live in North Carolina, or perhaps in Mr. Krippendorf's Ohio. If you don't already know Elizabeth Lawrence's books, I urge you to check them out - whether you're a gardener or just like to look at flowers, you will enjoy learning about these lovely flowers.

Mr. Krippendorf's garden, Lob's Wood, is now a nature preserve known as Rowe Woods, in Cincinnati.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Playing hooky

If staying home to nurse a cold or flu is important, is it just as important to take a little "mental health break" sometimes?

Or have you stayed home from work so you can take care of important household matters or errands?

How about calling in sick so you can interview for a different job?

Have you played hooky so you could do something way more fun?

Are there days when the weather's so pretty you just can't bear the thought of sitting in the office?

Come on. Fess up. I won't tell. Have you ever called in sick when you weren't? And if you do, do you ever feel guilty about it?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sharing a new beginning

This morning I watched Barack Obama sworn in as 44th President of the United States of America on TV.

The TV was in a breakroom at a workplace. There was a time clock on the wall, a clock and a bulletin board with workplace safety posters.

The TV was mounted on a rig high up on the wall. It was a 24" TV. A looping cord stretched from the back of the TV to a set of rabbit-ears propped up on the neck of an empty Sparkletts bottle on the windowsill. The picture was as good as it would get, but it was a little fuzzy, even so. I couldn't tell if it was static on the screen, or if it really was snowing in DC. There was a pink cardboard box of donuts on the formica-topped table. Someone had kindly gotten me a metal folding chair to sit on when I came in from the parking lot.
I watched the ceremony with these guys:

  • M, a quiet African-American man I don't know very well, but who has a beautiful smile.
  • N, a big, blustery Caribbean immigrant who became a U.S. citizen two summers ago.
  • L, a sweet-faced young Mexican-American guy with elaborate tattoos on his arms.
  • E, an easy-going, slow-talking custodian who got married this summer, and is restoring a '60s vintage Ford Fairlane he sometimes polishes in the employee parking lot.
  • B, an older African-American man with whom I've shared my stories of caring for my aged mother, and he has shared his stories of caring for his mother with me.
  • A, a young, funny Guatemalan immigrant who's saving up for his oldest daughter's quincinera celebration this summer.
  • F, an older Mexican immigrant with limited English skills - we've spent the two years we've known each other smiling and nodding to one another with good will, but not really communicating. Today I vow to change this.
  • R, an African-American woman, mother of two daughters close in age to Malia and Sasha Obama, a devout 7th Day Adventist and one of my office-mates.
  • L, my peer in the hierarchy at work, a man my age of Norwegian-American ancestry, we share memories of working in the music industry.
  • J, the guy who started working here as a part-time high school student, and over 15 years has worked his way up to a supervisory position.
  • A, a new hire in my office, a woman Army veteran who rides a motorcycle to work.

The room was filled with joy, jokes, interracial teasing, heartfelt admiration for Aretha's fabulous hat, the furtive wiping of tears from eyes, the stoic posture of workingmen watching the tube with crossed arms, splayed feet on the floor, quietly. Slowly expanding big smiles. Spontaneous mutterings of "Oh, yeah," polite bemused tolerance at the Poem, and quiet chuckles at Reverend Lowery's benediction.

And then we all went back to work. With a warmer smile for one another. It was a memorable day.

This land was made for all of us

We Topangans often feel like outsiders, out of the mainstream. But this weekend, this country saw and heard a song that resonated not just with the millions of Americans that have gone unnoticed for the last eight years, but also with people who live in my own community of Topanga Canyon.

Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" in 1940. Interestingly enough, historical accounts say he wrote it as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which he thought was unrealistic and complacent. He was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio.

I have no quarrel with the sentiments expressed in "God Bless America," but I have to say that I agree with Woody. I apologize to those who differ with me, but, frankly, I think it's a dull and boring song. It has a dumb plodding melody and unimaginative lyrics. The first Seattle Mariners game I saw televised after 9/11 they played Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful." I loved that. Why couldn't that have been the song chosen to memorialize our national unity? Maybe it if had, the last eight years might have turned out differently.

When "God Bless America" became institutionalized as the memorial song of 9/11, it felt like duty. I will put my hand on my heart during every seventh inning stretch and sing it, but I cannot rejoice in it.

Woody Guthrie lived for a time in the 1950s in Topanga Canyon, staying with his good friend the actor Will Geer. Also around that time, singer Pete Seeger began touring the US, promoting Guthrie's songs.

This Sunday in front of the Lincoln Memorial, following Beyonce's heartfelt rendition of "America the Beautiful," Pete Seeger, his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and an assembled choir of wonderful, promising young men and women sang Woody's best known song in front of a crowd of millions, in celebration of the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama.

It's a beautiful moment. Two wonderful songs. So full of joy. So uplifting.

Today Barack Obama will become our 44th President. I'm so happy to see this day. Celebrate! Enjoy the joy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Making mountains

We live near Topanga State Park, in the western part of the Santa Monica Mountains. The Santa Monica Mountains begin just above downtown Los Angeles, and run westward to Point Mugu in Ventura County. These mountains are unusual in that they are a Transverse Range, running east-west rather than north-south. They are one of only two such Transverse Ranges in North America.

Yesterday we took a hike along the East Topanga Fire Road. The road runs along the top of the ridge on the eastern side of Topanga Canyon, from the main entrance of Topanga State Park at Trippett Ranch, south to an overlook onto the Pacific Ocean.

We always take a short cut to begin, taking a steep dogtrack up a hill through an oak grove, until we emerge on the wider Fire Road. The trail is wide enough for a truck to pass, although only Park Service vehicles are allowed. Mountain bikers and horseback riders use the trail alongside hikers.

At the top of the first rise, a bench invites hikers to rest a moment and take in the view. From here, the trail goes about 6 miles to its end at the Parker Mesa Overlook. We've gone to the overlook before, but not for several years. Our goal was modest - we would walk until we got tired of it, conserving enough energy to walk back.

The natural landscape here is called Coastal Chaparral. Plants include black sage, California buckwheat, ceanothus, scrub oak, manzanita and chamise. On a day like yesterday, with a clear sky and a bright sun and 80 degree weather, the resinous oils in these plants warm and rise up to perfume the air.

In January it's a bit early for the spring flowers. On this hike, we saw a few early blooms. Big shrubs of Ceanothus cuneatus, or Buck Brush, were covered with delicate clusters of white flowers.

One of the amazing things about these mountains is the geology. The Santa Monica Mountains are relatively young as mountain ranges go. They were caused by the collision of two of the earth's plates - the Pacific Plate, which forms the pan of the Pacific Ocean, and the North American Plate. The Pacific Plate pushes beneath the edge of the North American Plate, heaving it up and buckling the rocky crust of its surface. This began near the end of the Miocene Epoch, a mere 5 million years ago.

This collision of the earth's plates is visible even on a short hike like ours.

The oldest of Topanga's rocks are of the Chico Formation, created about 90 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Era. These rocks were created as sand, gravel, limestone, silt and conglomerates built up in layers by the actions of ancient oceans. They are tan and finely grained, and contain the fossils of ancient snails and squid and other sea life.

Past the bench, the road curves down around a huge golden sandstone boulder that juts out of the brush. We always call this rock "Lioness Rock" because we think it resembled a sleeping cat. Past Lioness Rock, the trail curves and runs along the eastern side of the ridge, below a cliff of crumbling tawny rock, subject to rock falls during rainy seasons. It overlooks great tilted boulders folded into the earth forming Santa Ynez Canyon below.

Here the overhanging cliff shades the path, and the air is still cool. We met up with our friends John and Foster, biking down the gentle incline as we ascended. They had gone out early and were heading for home.

Here on the shady side of the ridge, a small California bay tree was starting to bloom.

The elevation of the Fire Road on this ridge is between 1400 and 1600 feet above sea level. After a time skirting the east side of the ridge, we reached a saddle, where you could see East into Pacific Palisades, with the meandering development of Palisades Highlands, and West into Topanga Canyon, where Topanga Canyon Boulevard threads its way through the folded mountains.

That's the road I drive to work everyday. I should remember to look up at this peak where I'm standing, next time I'm in the car.

Past the saddle, the trail winds on the Topanga side of the ridge, and we're exposed to the mid-day sun. As we look south, we can see the length of the trail as it winds toward the Outlook.

Here, the rocks are grey and crumbly. They may be part of the Martinez Formation from about 50 million years ago during the Paleocene and Eocene Epochs, dark grey or greenish siltstone and dark brown sandstone.

Beyond and around the curve, boulders of pinkish mauve sandstone rise above the trail. These are part of the Sespe Formation, dating from about 25 million years ago during the Oliogocene Epoch. They have the characteristic reddish coloring from the presence of iron oxides in the rock. The Sespe Formation is also dramatically displayed in Red Rock Canyon, but here on the East Fire Road, it bulges up in a great outcropping.

There is a dramatic difference in the plants that grow here on these pink rocks. The boulders are shaped and runnelled with channels by water run-off. Perhaps there are springs that bubble up here, because, unlike other parts of the ridge, riparian plants such as oaks and toyon, small succulent plants and tiny ferns nestle in the folds of the rocks.

The pink rocks give way as the trail steepens and turns. Here is a striking rock formation, where dark siltstone and shale rocks are interspersed with white deposits. I am not a geologist, but when I read about these mountains, I wonder if these rocks were part of the Topanga Formation, which took place 10-12 million years ago, where ancient eruptions sent magma through cracks and fissures in the sedimentary rocks, and blasted bombs of volcanic boulders onto the landscape.

Here deposits of white-colored rock thread through darker rock, as deposits of basalt bulge among them.

We climbed to a broad place where the trail turns eastward and rises steeply. It was perhaps another mile or so to Parker Mesa Outlook, but from here this view stretched before us.

That's Catalina Island beyond. The sun glittered on the waves. Our water bottles were drained by half. Our feet and legs were tired. We turned and looked at the distance behind us. It was here we decided to turn back. Parker Mesa Outlook could wait for another weekend.

Here's the view from the walk back. This is looking back to where we turned around. You can see, near the upper right hand corner of the picture, where the trail rises sharply and then disappears into a fold in the hills, the place where we turned back. And you can see how the trail curves round the hill. The steep dog-track in the center of the picture is a little branch-off trail for more adventurous climbers than we are.

The way back was daunting on the uphill stretches. At the saddle at the top of this rise, the trail switches to the eastern side of the ridge, where we were grateful for the shade and the cooling breeze.

By the time we reached home, my face was flushed and red, and our legs felt like jelly. Even now, a day later, I can feel the muscles in my legs.

We'll go again, next weekend, and see if we can make it farther.

Here are samples of the different kinds of rocks we saw. You can see the pinky-mauve rock at center; the dark basalt on the right; a chip of white stone on the bottom, and a chunk of crumbly brown sandstone veined with darker blue shale on the left. The Santa Monica Mountains are still being formed today, as geologic forces continue heaving upward, rotating minutely clockwise, as the earth continues its growth