Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bird ornaments

These sparrows, puffed up against the cold, like to gather in my neighbor's lilac bushes by the alley. I'm sure they hang out there all year round -- I often hear their chatter amidst the leaves in summer, but can't see them. Now that the branches are bare, the birds stand out like kinetic ornaments.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


My sister-in-law made her usual cheese ball this Christmas, and packaged it very nicely in a basket with some crackers to go with it, After I put the food away, I set the basket aside to decide what to do with it later. Silly me. Obviously, the basket is a present for my cat Spot. Of course it is; and she did not hesitate to claim it (even though I don't think she really fits, do you?).

It sure would be easy to capture a cat: just put out a cozy basket or box (or paper grocery bag on its side) and wait for one to come along and sit in it. They can't resist!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The way to travel

I'm at Kopplin's coffee shop in St. Paul, and the owner, Andrew Kopplin, is talking to the people next to me, and my ears prick up when I hear him talking about a recent trip to Europe -- to Norway, as it happens, by way of Iceland. I had to look up and say something, mostly to be transparent about the fact that I was listening (it's a crowded little coffee shop, with tables close together, so it's not like I could have avoided hearing the conversation next to me), and to acknowledge that his tip sounded like a really good idea -- to have a planned layover in Iceland that allows enough time to get out and visit the hot springs. Having endured a flight of 6 or 7 hours to Brussels recently, with our only layover at the Manchester airport (not much to do there besides being shuttled about from one terminal to another), I wanted to make a note of his advice for future reference, because I would like to go again, and I've long been curious about Iceland anyway.

He was saying that the break and the hot springs really helped to not only break up the time you're sitting in an airplane into more manageable segments of a few hours each leg, but also to allow his system to adjust to the time change.

"And they have great coffee," he added -- and he would know, being the owner of pretty much inarguably the best coffee shop in the Twin Cities. But I'll admit I have a certain bias in favor of any European coffee already (no surprise there).

[I borrowed the image of a map of Iceland  from, but decided not to put a link here because the site has so many ads it's rather a pain to download!]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving bouquet

We've had a weird fall here, weatherwise. It was cold and wet in October, and it's been unusually warm and sunny in November. No complaint there! Apparently this confused my yarrow into blooming again, albeit sparsely, so when I took the dog for a walk as the turkey was roasting this afternoon, I noticed the blossoms and thought, hey, I could collect a little bouquet from my garden for the table, and on Thanksgiving Day no less. So I picked some yarrow, along with some sprigs from the spirea bush that were still hanging onto their leaves, a couple of small hydrangea heads, and part of a fir branch I picked up in the alley on my way back from the walk. Altogether, a nice little autumnal bouquet. It's not often I can do that in late November in Minnesota!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bee Brains

I'm something of a bee geek. I collect interesting facts about bees with the intention that I'll put together a bee zine someday -- a compendium of bee trivia, serialized. If I ever get around to it! In the meantime, perhaps I'll share bits and pieces of my "collection" on this compendium.

So here's something I came across today on Science News: a new study that concludes that African-European hybrid honeybees (aka "killer bees") aren't as smart as European honeybees. The study gauged bee IQ by offering them a whiff of Jasmine scent followed by a little sugar water. When the researchers proffered a second whiff of Jasmine, more of the European bees were quick to stick out their tongues in anticipation of the sweet stuff than did the Afro-Euro bees.

This is apparently a standard measure of bee smarts, and since the killer bees have been taking over territory formerly forgaged by European bees, the researchers expected to find out that they were the smarter ones. Now they're somewhat at a loss for what to make of these unexpected results.

It seems to me that the scientists need to read some of Howard Gardener's writings on multiple intellgiences! Maybe those killer bees are smarter, and they're just not impressed with that whole scent-followed-by-sugar-water trick. They could be smarter in a different way than the scent/sugar test measures.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bye-bye Jack, and Jack, and Jack

In truth, I put the jack-o-lanterns in the compost about 2 weeks ago, but finally got around to taking a picture of them yesterday. They look so forlorn, don't they?

I needed a photo to go with an article about hugelkultur. And I just got a kick out of their sad little shrinking faces. The middle one, pictured again on the article page, is Nora's, which she carved Anime-style; but now she says it looks like an old lady.

Interesting coincidence that I should have gardening on my mind today -- I just got my first seed catalog in the mail! That's got to be the earliest I've ever gotten one. It's from Pinetree Seeds, one of my favorites for offering lots of variety, little or no hype, and modest prices. I'm already circling things I want to grow, and no doubt my wish list will outgrow my available space in no time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Philosopher Mailman and Poetry Journal

My regular mailman is George, a nice fellow probably in his 30s who, I'm told by my friend who's also a mailman, is stridently liberal and is consigned to sort his mail every morning next to the local post office's only conservative, a mousy fellow who listens to talk radio on his headphones as he delivers the mail. So George's day often gets off to a lively start; but my house is near the end of his route and he seems to be in a good mood by the time he comes to my block.

This is an interesting contrast from Dave, my former mailman, who was the local branch's other right-leaning carrier (according to my friend, who used to stand next to Dave to sort mail). After the 2008 election, we didn't see Dave for a few days. My husband speculated that he was sitting in a dark room, staring at a picture of Sarah Palin. Dave went AWOL for a few weeks this winter, and then called in his resignation. For several weeks after that we had no regular carrier and our mail arrived at a different time most days, often after 5 p.m., as the post office parcelled out Dave's former route in pieces to carriers who already had a full route of their own to deliver.

I like a certain degree of predictability with my mail, whether I'm expecting a freelance check, some mail art, or the Poetry Journal I seldom get around to reading; and I like to know the name of the person who brings my mail, if for no other reason than because that person knows something about me and my reading habits. So one day last spring I grumbled to my husband that I wished the post office would give me a mailman. He gave me that look and said, "No, dear. You can't have a mailman."

Well, now I do, in a manner of speaking, and he's a nice, dependable fellow. On George's regular day off, our mail is usually brought by Tim, one of the few other mailmen I know by name. Tim sometimes takes a break after he finishes his route early and has an espresso at the local coffee shop, which I also frequent. Tim has a master's degree in philosophy, leans well left of center politically, and is a bit of an intellectual eccentric. He's friendly enough, but I'm often not sure what sort of topic of conversation I should broach with him, so I usually end up talking about the weather, unfortunately.

One day I was at the post office around 4:30 p.m. or so as Tim was just leaving for the day, he said hello as he came out the door, and added, "I delivered your Poetry Journal today."

That evening after supper I decided to ignore the Sudoku and read Poetry Journal instead.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Can you count to three? Or, the grumpy voter

We voted today in the first Minneapolis election to use instant runoff, or what the City prefers to call ranked choice, voting. They say the term "ranked choice" more accurately describes it. Maybe so, but I suspect it doesn't matter what they call it, just as it doesn't matter how well they design the ballots or how plainly they explain it. Some people hate change almost as much as they hate reading directions, even when those directions are brief, clear, and illustrated.

At least that's what Martin and I observed when we went to the polls today. A woman was at the table unhappily returning her ballot for a new one because she had voted for her three Park Board candidates in one column, even though the ballot clearly indicates that you vote for one candidate in each of the three columns. There are three at-large seats for the Park Board, you see, and so all three were her first choice. The election judge patiently repeated the directions, and the woman said, with a tone of exasperation, "So this ballot is ruined, then?" Not to worry, the official assured her, you can have a new ballot. And they took her mismarked ballot and gave her a new one.

"Who came up with this stupid idea, anyway?" she demanded. The voters, explained the official. "I mean who designed this ballot, it's just stupid," she persisted. Listening to this, I just couldn't imagine any way that the ballot could have been designed that would have been simpler. I wanted to answer, "Someone who can count to three." But I didn't.

Later, as Martin and I were feeding our ballots to the voting machine and collecting our jaunty red "I Voted" stickers, this same grumpy woman also turned in her ballot and then declined a sticker. "I'm not proud to have voted," she grumbled, muttering something again about how stupid it all was.

Don't you just love democracy?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

More small stuff

Since I wrote that last post about small but tasty coffees in Belgium, there've been a few little stories inspired by my little coffees (and worth reminding myself before I slide back into old habits -- such as now, sitting at Anodyne with a mug of coffee, which I've just polished off and am about to get a refill!).

I thought that my new preferred drink -- two shots of espresso with a little foamed whole milk in a demitasse (6 oz., actually, which is really just tasse, not so much demi), was the same as a small cappuccino at my local coffee shop, but when I ordered a small cappuccino I got a huge mug, at least 12 or 14 ounces. I thought I had forgotten to say small, but the barrista said, this is a small." After that I would just say, "In the really small cup, I'd like two shots of espresso with a little steamed whole milk, please." Now they're all getting the hang of it and they ask if that's what I want, each one having a different way to summarize it.

One of the baristas, Tony who goes to MCTC (Minneapolis Community and Technical College), commented the first time I requested the drink, "The Italians would be proud." And subsequently, I would come in and he would have the same drink prepared for himself, which he showed me (using the only other small cup -- there are just two, I believe), and tell me that I had gotten him started on drinking it that way, too.

Then, the other Tony (who's in the military but hasn't been deployed anywhere yet, and, frankly, I hope that he remains that way! Maternal me, I suppose.) said, "You could simplify things and just say you want the Stockel special." Which refers to the now-retired mailman, Jeff Stockel, who used to have just such a drink there after he finished his route. Jeff has a teaching degree, and lived in Europe for a time before he came back and found that he couldn't get a teaching job, and so ended up delivering the mail. We have such sophisticated mailmen in my neighborhood -- besides Jeff, there's Vince who's published a book and traveled to Italy with his wife and is now taking Italian classes, and Tim with a master's degree in philosophy (and who also drinks espresso in the small cup).

But I digress; there's more. Another barista, Eva, is of Polish heritage; I often see her mother in the coffee shop when Eva is working, talking to her in Polish. Eva's mother was there one time when I ordered my little beverage, and she said to me, "That's so European." We talked for awhile, and she told me that when she went back to Poland for a visit, she ordered a double cappuccino because she had gotten used to the larger size, and her relatives there said, "That's so American of you."

So, I guess the thread through all of this post is that the joy of going against the norm is that you provoke all sorts of interest. I mean, how often do you order a coffee at your local coffee shop and hear so many little stories and comments in response? And that small is still beautiful, of course.

(The photo is of a demitasse cup I bought at the Magritte Museum in Brussels.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Small is beautiful

I'm in that post-travel mode where I keep finding myself comparing my home and surroundings to that fairy-tale world of the tourist visiting only the best a place has to offer, knowing full well that if we lived there we would begin to see and experience things in a more down-to-earth, less charmed way. But that's the beauty of travel, isn't it? We don't think about or see things in the same way as we do at home. And how could we? That travel mentality is hardly sustainable, especially on the budget! But I think there are also some things we can take back with us, things we may have learned from other cultures or from the experience of visiting a place with the enthusiasm and curiousity of a tourist, rather than the habits of a resident.

So I do find myself trying to re-create some of the things I enjoyed about our visit to Belgium, and one of those pleasures is coffee. Rediscovering coffee as a pleasureable drink, that is. At home, I had put away the coffee maker more than a year ago, and both hubby and I had taken to drinking tea in the mornings instead. I still enjoy this, although most of my relatives haven't gotten the memo, so we still have a bag of fair-trade coffee someone gave us for Christmas last year, stuck in the freezer, reminding me that I used to make a pot of coffee every day and a half-pound of good coffee like that would not have been around long enough to need storing in the freezer.

I had gotten into the habit of believing that if a mug of coffee (with cream) was a pleasure, then two mugs are twice as pleasant, and so on. Except after the second or third cup of coffee, not only would I get a bit jittery, I also didn't really enjoy it anymore. I didn't really like the taste by the end of the second cup, nor the coffee-mouth feel and breath, nor the knowledge that I had also consumed close to a half cup of cream along with it!

My husband had read in the guide books that in Belgium you drink cafe au lait. Naturally we assumed this would be the milky coffee beverage served in a large bowl-like mug that we know it to be here. But we figured there would be something special about it, and besides, we were in Belgium and wanted to do as the Belgians do. So when we went out to dinner for the first time in Brussels, with my sister, who has lived there for several years and was advising us on the ways of Belgians, I asked for a cafe au lait with my dessert.

That was my first mistake. My sister quietly explained, "Did you see how the waitress looked a little surprised? That's because Belgians don't drink coffee with dessert, they have it after." Ah. I immediately realized this was a lesson in mindfulness: savor the dessert while I am eating it, don't wash it down with coffee; then enjoy the coffee for its own merits.

So she brought us our coffee, and it was not what I expected: a demitasse cup (slightly bigger, actually, probably 6-ounces) of what must have been espresso, with a little container of evaporated whole milk on the side; at least, that was how I decifered the French and Dutch list of ingredients -- it was not thick and syrupy like our condensed milk, which is sweetened, but was more like, well, whole milk, with the fuller body of cream, but without quite as much fat (yet, it was whole milk, not a low-fat version -- the Dutch for that is volle melk, I learned).

I poured the milk into the coffee, took a sip, was surprised at how good it tasted (I expected it to be bitter, but it wasn't). It was served with a little ginger cookie, and a cute little spoon to stir it with. Despite its small size, it took me several minutes to drink it, perhaps as long as I would spend over a larger cup of coffee at a restaurant here. I think it was just something about the whole ritual, and the size, that led me to naturally slow down and enjoy it.

So now when I go to my local coffee shop, instead of asking for a "small" latte, which is served in something like a 16-ounce mug, I ask for two shots of espresso with a little steamed whole milk. I get it served in a small ceramic cup that the owner calls a demitasse, but it's really about 8 ounces, like an old-fashioned coffee cup. I find it a little bit bitter, but I am happy to put a little sugar in it. After all, when the portion size is small, I feel that I can afford a little sweetness along with it.

And when I find myself thinking, "That was good, I'd like another," I remind myself that the second cup never tastes as good. Old habits die hard, but enjoying the one small cup of coffee makes me feel a little bit like I'm still a tourist. Next thing you know, I'll be visiting our local museums and historic sites.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A little Belgian garden

We're visiting my sister in Brussels, Belgium, actually in the adjacent town of Kraainem (suburb, I suppose, except it's nothing like what we think of as a suburb in the Twin Cities). It's kind of near the airport and the beltway, although neither of these seems to impose on this idyllic place, really -- not to us, anyway, as accustomed as we are to living near the airport and the crosstown freeway ourselves. In fact, we were sitting in her little courtyard garden this evening, and at one point I did have to pause while an airplane few over, and we kind of had to laugh: "Feels just like home!" I said.

But this little courtyard garden (and the cobblestone street on the other side of it) is very unlike our grassy backyard: it is all pavement like a patio, and one wall is covered in the kind of ivy we grow as a houseplant back home, while another has a wisteria vine clambering over it. It's very sunny in the morning and early afternoon, but cool and shady later in the day. The little stone statuary on the ivy wall is a nonfunctioning fountain (Penny says it leaks), which looks charming enough without water. It would look fabulous as a planter, though. Maybe I'll suggest it. Her housekeeper apparently takes care of the garden, insomuch as she trims the wisteria so it doesn't cover her doorway! So maybe her housekeeper would like the idea of planting the basin.

I, on the other hand, will try to resist the temptation to do this for her while we are here! (I wouldn't know where to get the dirt or the plants, anyway.) I am certain I can be quite content just enjoying the little courtyard when we are relaxing after a day of exploring.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Friendly bouquet

Yesterday I stopped over at my friend Judy Anderson's house to look over her pottery, which she had on display in her front yard in an art-in-the-garden sale. I enjoyed touring her garden as much as looking at all the beautiful pottery. You can see some of it for yourself at her Web site, Dragonfly Guild.

Craig selected a mug for his morning chai -- when we were up at the cabin a couple of weeks ago, he had complained that none of the mugs in the cupboard were quite right for his tea (they were all a little on the small side, I guess), so I had suggested we buy him a handmade mug to keep up there. We looked a little when we were in Bemidji, which is quite an arty town, but he didn't see anything that struck his fancy. (And we didn't get to the gallery that our friend had recommended because it was surrounded by torn-up streets. What was it called, Terry? Wild Cat, or something like that. I want to visit that one next time we go up north.)

So when Judy announced her sale, I said, let's go. Craig didn't have much trouble selecting a mug, but I had a time looking over all the beautiful vases. I settled on this one for it's medium size, and I thought the black glaze would set off a bouquet of colorful flowers nicely -- although then I went and put all-white hudrangeas in it!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bird gardeners

Earlier this summer, I had reserved a spot in my garden for pole beans, and was waiting to plant them until I found some suitable poles. In the meantime, I saw sparrows pecking around in the bare soil, and I figured they were finding bugs or weed seeds or something to eat. Then, about a week or two later, sunflowers started sprouting in the garden! There are plenty of sunflower seeds in our bird feeder, and there are sunflowers sprouting under the feeder, which is usual, and not surprising, but I didn't expect the birds to actually carry the seeds the 15 feet or so to the garden and plant them there!

I thought about planting the beans anyway and letting them climb up the sunflower stems, but bean vines can get pretty heavy and I didn't want to topple the sunflowers, so I just resigned myself to growing sunflowers in this part of the garden instead. Beans are cheap at the farmers' market this time of year anyway, and the sunflowers are such a delight in the middle of the garden.

This is the first one to open, and as you can see, a fat bumblebee is enjoying the fruits (or pollen, more like) of the birds' efforts! And, of course, the bumblebee is returning the favor, since her foraging will pollinate the flowers and allow them to make seeds for the birds. I'm happy to just be the spectator to it all!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Good Vibrations

My potato plants have blossoms, and I was amazed at what pretty flowers they are. I don't remember potato blossoms in quite this color before. Then, when I went out to photograph them, I discovered a bumblebee busily flitting from blossom to blossom, doing her pollination thing.

I know that bumblebees like this one perform a special service for certain types of plants, called "buzz pollination," but I didn't understand quite what that was until recently, when I interviewed an entomologist for the fall issue of MOQ. I wanted to know more about bumblebees in the city, and specifically what we might look for when observing bees in the fall.

She (Elaine Evans) explained that certain flowers, like potato and tomato blossoms (closely related plants, by the way), have this cone-shaped center that contains the pollen. In order to get the pollen out, bumblebees grab hold of the cone with their mandibles and then vibrate their wing muscles without actually moving their wings, so that their whole body vibrates, and in so doing, manage to shake loose the pollen inside the cone. From the bees' point of view, they get the protein-rich pollen to eat, an important part of their diet. But it has the added benefit, from the plants' perspective, of getting that pollen out and onto parts of the bee's fuzzy body, which provides a way for that pollen to mix with the pollen from other potato blossoms, thus allowing seed formation to happen.

While we humans don't really need this to happen with potatoes, because we eat the roots, not the fruits, for other plants with these pollen cones -- tomatoes being the most notable example -- this is such a valuable service that commercial tomato growers actually purchase or "rent" hives of bumblebees to ensure that their plants get pollinated and they get a good crop as a result.

Honeybees don't perform this particular service -- buzz pollination -- so the peculiar shimmy of the busy bumblebee is especially important to growers of tomatoes and any other plants with their pollen trapped inside these floral cones.

It was fun watching this bumblebee grabbing hold of the cone at the center of the flowers and doing the shimmy, then moving on to the next blossom.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Garden multitasking

Yesterday I was rinsing out and refilling the birdbath in the backyard, and thought I should probably water my one-year-old cotoneaster hedge, which I planted as bareroot stock last summer. It also needed weeding, but I didn't think I had time to do that too. I don't have a sprinkler that will cover a long narrow strip like this hedge, so I started to just stand and water it with the hose, one little shrub at a time, thinking that would be better than nothing and I could do it fairly quickly.

Pretty soon I noticed that some of the leaves looked kind of chewed, so I examined them more closely with my left hand while holding the hose with my right. Not finding any obvious infestation, I started to use the hose, to which I had attached a spray nozzle, to rinse the leaves, paying special attention to any that were curled or chewed, rubbing my thumb over the undersides of leaves to scrape off any aphids that may have taken up residence there. I figured I could do this and water them at the same time.

Then I thought, well, as long as I'm doing this, and the ground is getting softened by the water, I may as well pull up the weeds too. After about a half an hour, I had watered, weeded, and debugged (more or less, as far as I could tell), the whole hedge. The weeding, in particular, I had been putting off for weeks, and it took just a half an hour -- while getting the watering and pest patrol taken care of at the same time.

I always seem to get the most done when I am trying to do less!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Fond Farewell

Mom's all moved, and her new place is swell -- a nice roomy apartment with oak woodwork and loads of closet space (I'm jealous) and a sweet little patio with a southeastern exposure. I'll have to get her a nice patio tomato plant for Mother's day.

And I thought it was auspicious that the magnolia tree at the old house, the one we planted in the spring of 2003 in memory of my dad, was blooming so prettily on the day she moved out. It often blooms earlier, in April -- even as early as April 11, my dad's birthday, which is why I chose that particular tree. But here it was at its peak on May Day, as though it were bidding Mom a fond farewell and wishing her the best. And what a beautiful moving day we had -- sunny and mild, with a high of about 60 degrees.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pansy time

Last weekend, we were at our local liquor story to stock up on wine, and we noticed that there were pansies and violets in the planter by the door. The sales clerk, a buxom, amiable woman who would look right at home serving pints in an old-fashioned pub, said she planted them and told us we could get some of our own at Wagner's, a Minneapolis greenhouse that grows their own flowers.

So on Monday, I headed over to 60th and Penn, just a few miles west of us, and bought two flats of pansies. Then my son, Martin, and I headed out to Mom's house to fill the two little planters in front before the Realtors' open house scheduled for Tuesday. Mom had finally got through the ordeal of painting and floor refinishing (a few weeks during which she barely had a place to sit) and her Realtor had listed the place at last on Monday.

The house has pinkish siding and a brick red door, so I selected pansies that picked up on these colors. Then I grabbed a bunch of dogwood twigs from my winter outdoor arrangement (I had long since tossed the evergreen bows from that onto the compost), and put them in the pots with the pansies to give the whole arrangement some height. It looked pretty good, and Mom liked it too, and then she said we have to go, someone's coming to look at the house in about ten minutes.

Mom called on Wednesday to tell me that she sold the house! In fact, she had two offers, and selected the one from the family with three children (the other couple had no kids), even though it meant a little less money for her because they requested help with closing costs. But she so liked the idea of providing a home to a family, and she told me that the oldest child was 8, the same age as my big sister (our oldest) when they moved into the house in 1960, and the younger two, twins, were 3, the same age that I was at that time (I'm the baby). So I guess it just felt to her that it was meant to be.

I planted some of the remaining pansies in my pot on the front steps, pictured here, along with the corkscrew willow branches I've had for about a year now, and I added a dangly ornament (you can see the star at the bottom of it here, I'll try to get a better picture this afternoon when the sun is shining on it). I had selected the plants with the most open blossoms for Mom's pots, so these aren't as colorful just yet, but I'm sure they'll be blooming like crazy in no time. They're getting lots of sunshine, and I mixed some granulated organic fertilizer in with the soil when I planted them.

It felt so nice to get out in the garden and do a little cleaning up and planting yesterday. I am deliberately doing just a little at a time because I don't want to wake up with a painfully stiff knee and an aching back in the morning! But it's only the middle of April, so I have lots of time, right?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mom's Stuff, Part 2: A Roving Rooster

At one of our visits to Mom's house to help with packing and sorting for her upcoming move from a four-bedroom suburban rambler to a two-bedroom apartment, we came home with a rooster.

Not a rooster like the one that patroled a friend's hobby farm where my daughter, Nora, sometimes used to farm-sit when the owners went out of town. That rooster was aggressive and downright scary -- and loud. Nora said that it only took him three days to figure out where she was sleeping and then position himself outside her window each morning to let her know loud and clear just exactly when the sun's rays first peeked over the horizon.

My mother's rooster is made of resin and had quietly occupied a corner of her dining room since 2003, when it had come home with her after one of her daily mall-walking escapades. It was shortly after Dad died (on December 13, 2002) and she had begun walking about three miles a day, indoors at Har Mar Mall in Roseville. She would walk past a garden store that had the rooster on display, and the colorful fellow had become a welcome and cheery sight on those daily walks.

Then one day it wasn't there, and she missed it. So when the store got another one in stock, she immediately bought it and brought it home. It's the sort of thing Dad would have gotten a kick out of, and probably on some level it made her feel a little connection to him.

And that may be why, when she said she was ready to part with the rooster, I claimed it. Neither of my brothers showed the slightest interest in it, and they may not have known how Mom came by it. To me, it's not only a colorful and whimsical garden ornament, something to jazz up our yard's feng shui with a shot of rooster energy, it's also a token of my parents' playful side; something that brought my mother a bit of cheer at a sad time, and a reminder of my father's mischievous nature.

It made me think of the time Dad bought my mother a stuffed animal, and soon after, she kept finding it in unexpected places around the house, posed in odd postures. Soon after the rooster came home with us, my husband started to notice that it showed up in different spots in the backyard each day when he came home from work.

Then I began to find it in new places when I would look out the kitchen window shortly after Hubby got on his bicycle and headed off to work. Our teenage son observed all this with his usual amused detachment. Or so it seemed. Then one day when my husband was still at work and I came back from a bike ride, I opened the garage door to find it inside the garage.

And so it continues to rove about the backyard, and seems to be enjoying its new habitat, spreading its animal energy wherever it goes; and maybe, just a little, channeling my father's playful spirit in the process.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Evidence that spring really is on its way

March has been dragging on, even threatening to spill over into April. So I was surprised and delighted yesterday when I was out walking my dog and noticed that my neighbor's crocuses had not only emerged, but were starting to bloom. These lovely pale blue buds look so sweet, don't they? This is on the south side of her house, which is on a corner, so she gets lots of sun exposure. When I toured my own yard to see if any of my crocuses or tulips were up, none of them had even emerged yet. But I did discover my chives a few inches high; those are on the south side of my house. I'm thinking now that in the fall I really must plant some bulbs along the south side so I'll get a little early color next spring.

Other signs of spring in Minneapolis I have noted lately:
• On March 15, my husband cleaned out the garage and got his bike out for the first time. He rode it to work the next day.
• On March 16, my favorite mailman started wearing shorts; although I didn't notice whether he returned to long trousers when the temperature dropped again. (I know, how could I not notice?)
• Also on March 16, I spotted ducks in the puddles around Lake Nokomis, even though the lake itself is still frozen.
• There are loads of robins everywhere. I really should get mealworms from the bird seed store for them, they say that there aren't many insects or worms about yet, and the robins and other birds need their protein.
• Yesterday, as I was biking around Lake Nokomis, I heard red-winged blackbirds trilling in the trees.
• The wild turkey in Minnehaha Park has become a more common site, and a couple of weeks ago we even saw four of them all clustered together. Then one day last week my husband witnessed a male turkey chasing a small red car! He said it ran pretty fast.

Today it's rainy and gray, but not too cold. The birdbath water remains unfrozen. But the Eloise Butler Wildflower garden, which usually opens on April 1, has delayed opening for a couple of days. It does feel like April today, though, so that's encouraging.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mom's Stuff, Part 1: Dumpster Diving

My mom is planning to move on May 1, and she's been living in a big house in Roseville, a suburb of St. Paul, since 1960 (with a brief interruption in the 1980s). She's got a big Dumpster in the driveway, and my brother and I (with assistance from our spouses) have been throwing stuff in it as much as we can. There are also boxes and boxes labeled Goodwill, with stuff to be donated to that worthy cause, and then, of course, the boxes of stuff she wants to take with her -- enough of those to prompt Hubby to ask me more than once, "How big is this place she's moving to?"

This has been a good incentive for us to keep to our own downsizing agenda. Sunday, we came back from Mom's with my husband resolving to clean out the garage and the attic -- this weekend.

So on our way to Mom's on Sunday, as we pull up and eye the large Dumpster, I say "I promise I won't climb into the Dumpster and say 'Hey, this is cool!' and pull stuff out." He thanks me for that.

Then we park our '91 Honda (rather a piece of junk itself) next to the Dumpster, and the next thing I know, Hubby is saying, "Hey, that's one of those nice oak wall shelves your dad built, isn't it?" And he's climbing into the Dumpster to pull it out!

It's especially appropriate, I think, that we salvage those shelves, because I know that my dad made them from salvaged wood originally -- oak 2x4s that he reclaimed from some railyard or other. He thought that the wood was too nice to discard, and he was right. The shelves are narrow ("Perfect for paperbacks," says Hubby), but the grain is really quite lovely.

Then I spy the old avocado ceramic cups and saucers that were Grandma's, and insist that those don't belong in the Dumpster either -- at the very least they should go to the Goodwill because somebody could use them; and I know it's my unsentimental just-get-it-done project manager brother who threw those out. So I dig them all out and Hubby gamely assists me in putting them in the car to take home.

So now we are the proud owners of more stuff. But it's good stuff, and I am going to go through the buffet and remove something to make room for the avocado dishes. I have some other cups and saucers that once belonged to my other grandmother -- but I don't ever remember Grandma Parker actually using those dishes, whereas I do remember Grandma Clausen serving holiday meals on her avocado dishes; and since I have other mementoes of Grandma Parker, I tell myself I can let the other cups go.

Although . . ., I've always liked those teacups-on-a-stick you sometimes see in gardens, and I do have a couple of ideas about how to mount them for such outdoor display. Hmmm . . .

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Who cares if it's gray? It's the end of winter!

"I dwell in possibility." -- Emily Dickinson

A friend of mine here in Minneapolis told me today that he finds this time of year rather depressing -- it's so gray, and muddy, and the melting snow reveals a winter's worth of litter, and so on like that.

I was dumbfounded. I mean, c'mon, it's the end of a Minnesota winter! What's not to like? Sure, I can understand if you live farther north and it feels like winter is just dragging on, but here in Minneapolis we have air temps in the 50s, the snow is rapidly melting, the sidewalks, which have been icy and treacherous for months, are nearly dry. I can ride my bike without feeling like my finger tips are going to fall off. I can walk the dog without risk of injury!

On Sunday, my husband got his bike out for the first time since fall. He also cleaned the garage and scooped out all the ice that had accumulated there. Our garage is old and sits kind of low, so when there is a midwinter thaw, water seeps in and then freezes. Sometimes the door gets frozen shut. This is not a problem for anyone but me, since we keep our cars outside (it's a very small garage) and I am the only one who rides at all in the winter. Now it's all nice and clean and it's so easy to get my bike out.

I can be outside, I can ride my bike without freezing, the birds are singing -- and it's only going to get better. Who cares if it's gray? It's better than white! Maybe I'm odd, but I find this time of year exhilarating.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Our Friend in the Park

We first spotted it last fall: the wild turkey that had taken up residence in Minnehaha Falls Park. A stunningly large, long-legged fowl, it was usually walking along on the grass, head down, apparently grazing on the seeds, acorns, and insects scattered under the oak trees. Then, soon after we published Milissa Link’s essay in the winter edition of MOQ, about the coyote she spotted in the area, we stopped seeing it.

I speculated that it had likely become coyote dinner. My husband accused me of being pessimistic. “Not if you see it from the coyote’s point of view,” I had countered.

Despite my coyote sympathies, I was delighted when I spotted it again on a late February afternoon (naturally, I assumed it was the same turkey). It had strolled onto the parkway that runs east of Hiawatha, and there it stood, in the middle of the narrow road, calmly stopping what little traffic there was. It took a few steps to the left, and a northbound car crept past; then it stepped to the right, and a southbound car edged by. It turned and watched these vehicles with a mild and curious gaze.

But as I approached in the northbound lane, I had to bring my rust-speckled ’91 Honda to a complete halt as the turkey planted itself right in the center of the road. It eyed me, then turned to gaze at the southbound car that had also stopped in the opposite lane. It was a standoff. I could see that the other driver was talking on a cell phone and wondered if he was reporting this event to someone.

Convinced that the turkey, possessing all the time in the world, had no intention of going anywhere anytime soon, I slowly eased the Honda onto the sloped curb to my right to edge my way around the recalcitrant critter. As I passed, it turned its magnificent homely head on its long turkey neck to look me in the eye through the driver’s-side window. I felt a certain relief that it was winter and my window was closed. My, that’s a big bird, I thought.

Now we make a point of looking for it whenever we pass through the park, and succeed in spotting it a few times a week. Even though we haven’t gone so far as to give it a name, we do refer to it as “your friend” (“I saw your friend in the park today”). Like a regular at the coffee shop, it has become for us a fixture in this place, its absence as keenly felt as its presence. Long may it wander there.

(From the spring issue of MOQ, which will be available next week.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

A god's garden in a pot, or just some grass for a cat

For my garden column in Southside Pride in March, I'm writing about starting seeds indoors, which reminded me of Adonis gardens, which I first read about in Eleanor Perenyi's book Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. She explained that women in ancient Greece and Rome would plant little pot gardens of wheat, barley, lettuce and fennel for the festival of Adonis, which I took to be in the spring, like Easter. The seeds would grow quickly, then became potbound and die, symbolizing the short life of the handsome young demigod and lover of Venus/Aphrodite. And then the women would toss them out into their gardens.

Except it turns out I was mistaken on several points. I thought it was a sort of fertility thing, and it even made sense in a way -- if you started a pot of seedlings and then tossed them into your compost pile while they were still green, they would add nitrogen to the pile. But when I started looking for more information about Adonis gardens, I learned that the festival most likely took place in the summer and was meant to symbolize the wasted and unfertile life of the young hunter -- for he died without fathering any children. Actually, I made up that last part (I'm pretty sure he had no children), but it makes sense to me. The original Adonis gardens were just tossed into a stream or something, they weren't turned into anything useful, symbolically or otherwise.

Then I got out the book and re-read the passage on Adonis gardens. Perenyi claims that the custom of growing these temporary gardens in pots on the rooftops is the origin of pot gardening. And she also claims that a Christianized version of the old Adonis cult continued in Sicily into the 20th century, when women would plant pot gardens to decorate the church on Easter. I guess that's where I got the idea that growing grass for our Easter baskets was a remnant of this old pagan practice. So I must have put these bits and pieces of information together with my own thoughts about turning the spent gardens into compost and made up my own version of the custom. I guess that's how rumors and misinformation get started!

I still like the idea of planting my Easter basket as a kind of Adonis garden, even if the precedent for such a practice is unclear.

This photo is of my young neutered male cat, Tres, doing his imitation of Adonis frolicking in his garden. No, there is no catnip in this pot -- just wheat grass and alfalfa.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I am such a wimp

It's sunny out for a change, after a week or more of cloudy weather, and the temperature is in the upper teens. Not bad for February in Minnesota. I was going to bike to the coffee shop with my computer to do some writing, but after standing outside for a few minutes adjusting the dog's leash, I was feeling the cold on my legs. Besides, I couldn't find my long underwear -- not that I looked all that hard. So I tell my husband that I'm going to drive to the coffee shop instead.

So here I am at my neighborhood coffee shop when in walks our friendly neighborhood bike shop guy, Jim Thill of Hiawatha Cyclery. He's with a friend. He says hello and tells me that they've been biking "all around."

Oh, I say, did you bike the grand rounds? That's the route that loops through the Minneapolis parkways, about 50 miles if you do the whole thing, but I was just imagining the portion that goes around the lakes, which is still maybe 30 miles round trip. No, he tells me, they've biked out to the eastern suburbs, White Bear Lake and the like. Well, White Bear Lake is about 30 miles by freeway each way. And they've not only biked there and back, but biked "around" to other places as well.

When they get up to go, I ask, are you done now? Are you going home? I know that Jim lives in the neighborhood. "Well, I am," says Jim. "But he [referring to his friend] has a ways to go yet. He lives in Robbinsdale." That's about another 12 miles. The friend acknowledges that his legs are a little tired, but he is undaunted by the trek that remains for him. It's about 4:15, he's probably got an hour before it starts to get dark.

And I couldn't bring myself to bike the 1.6 miles to the coffee shop! I feel like such a wimp!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cutting the rug

A while back I bought a large woven rug for the dining room, and soon discovered that, being floppy and not very heavy, it gets sucked up by the vacuum cleaner, but being a bit large (about 5X7 or thereabouts), it doesn't fit in the washing machine. And being a nice solid red, it showed all the dog and cat fur within a few hours of laying it down.

So, what to do? Well, I folded it up and deposited it in the basement to deal with later. Then I got the idea that I should cut it down to fit the landing on the basement steps at the back door. The space is about 38 inches square, so the usual washable rugs are never quite the right size to cover the whole area. I had to think about this for quite awhile, of course, to figure out how I would finish the cut edges. I thought I might sew a binding around them, but I didn't think I was likely to match the red. Of course, red things usually bleed the first few times you wash them, so maybe it didn't matter what color binding I used.

In the meantime, Hubby decided to just fold it and put it down on the landing anyway. He put a couple of the smaller rugs on top of it, and that wasn't a bad temporary solution, but it bugged me to have it sit there with its too-thick folded edge hanging over the edge of the step threatening to become a tripping hazard.

So I just cut it today -- it made two area rugs the right size for the landing, with a couple of little strips left over. After some looking around for a sturdy red thread to overcast the edges, I realized that the warp thread (string, really) would serve very nicely.

So I pulled some from the remnants and was using this to bind the side where I had cut across the weft, but when I got around to the crosswise side, where the warp threads were exposed, I eventually realized that it made more sense to pull some more of the weft pieces out of the way and make a fringe. I then knotted the warp threads by taking three from the top and three from the bottom and tying them together. That worked quite well and only took about 20 minutes, and was kind of nice little meditative exercise.

And it lays nice and flat on the landing, and is just the right size. Happy ending.

Artists' books at the Walker

Hubby and I went to the Walker to see Text/Messages: Books by Artists last Thursday and I thought it was fabulous. The exhibitions in the galleries that you pass through on the way to the artists' books were not my sort of thing so much -- severed body parts and phallic objects; you know, the usual Walker stuff -- so although I'd like to go back and have another look at the books, I'll be taking the elevator directly to gallery 7. Or maybe have lunch in Gallery 8 and then walk down to 7.

Text/messages is great, though, and even worth wading through the trashy "fine" art to get to. I found some of it quite inspirational, making me want to try something new when playing around with altering or constructing books, and some of it downright awe-inspiring, like the one with the intricately laser-cut notepad that had paper staircases and landings extending down from what was really just a regular legal pad attached to the wall. Wow. Sorry I can't tell you who made that one, I didn't take notes and I didn't see an exhibition catalog or anything like that. They did have some notecards featuring a few of the items, with information about events that go with the show, like panel discussions and a "Multiples Mall" sale of small DIY-press stuff.

You can get all the details on this page at the Walker Web site.

It's showing through April 19. Admission is free on Thursdays after 5 p.m. and on the first Saturday of the month.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Putting down roots

Last year we gave up some of our more ambitious ideas about quickly saving a sizeable downpayment and moving from being renters to homeowners in, say, three years, to a more content-to-stay-put-awhile mindset. And that influences the way I think about gardening.

It's not unusual for me to start thinking about and planning my garden in the middle of January, even though spring doesn't come to Minnesota for about three months. It's the combination of having the busy-ness of the holidays behind us, the increasing sunlight, and the arrival of seed catalogs that turns my thoughts this way. Besides, on a day like today, when the air temperature isn't expected to even get up to zero, garden planning serves as a kind of balm for my spirits. It reminds me that winter is ephemeral, and immersing myself in catalogs and maps of my yard makes this finger-numbing time pass more quickly.

When we first moved in, I was sure we would be moving out again soon, and so didn't look at this yard as truly my own, nor did I take a long-term view to gardening. I did some landscaping and planting that, though it pleased me, was designed to be more generically pleasing as well as low-maintenance, because I wanted to leave behind an asset, not a burden. I was reluctant to plant anything that wasn't going to look good right away. That was OK for awhile, because I dug up and moved a few shrubs from my old yard, and those were already a few years old. Taking some of our shrubs with me also made me feel better about leaving my garden behind. But buying trees and shrubs that are big enough to look like an instant landscape is prohibitively expensive -- I couldn't spend that kind of money, and I knew our landlords couldn't afford it either.

But now that I realize we are going to be here awhile, I feel less urgent and more patient in shaping my surroundings. Last summer I planted a hedge in back, for which I ordered scrappy little bareroot stock that will take more than three years to amount to something, and thus didn't try to talk our landlords into spending a few hundred dollars on plant materials -- the total cost was less than $100, an easy sell.

I have some more ideas about what I'd like to plant this spring, and I'm really enjoying thinking about it in both short and long-term ways. What shrubs and small trees would be fun to grow and an asset to the house, and where can I fit in more vegetables, herbs and annuals for this year's harvest? I'm thinking more in terms of edible landscaping and less about a separate kitchen garden. Not only could a neglected kitchen garden quickly become an eyesore once abandoned, but in a city yard it doesn't make much sense anyway -- there isn't really one sizeable spot where the sunlight is just right for such a garden, but there are several small places where sun-loving vegetables and herbs could grow well.

Mixing culinary plants in with ornamental ones can actually make for some very aesthetically pleasing vignettes, and it serves an additional practical purpose -- the flowering plants attract pollinators and other beneficial insects and serve as buffers between like plants to keep diseases from spreading, as diseases will do when you plant a single species all in a row.

Of course, the old-fashioned term for edible landscaping is cottage gardening, and that's more the image I have in my mind as I begin making my plans for the greening season to come. Just thinking about all this makes me feel warmer already.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A victory garden at the White House?

My latest garden column in the Southside Pride mixes a little history and politics with gardening. At my editor Ed Felien's suggestion, I wrote about calls to plant a victory garden on the White House lawn; and, being the history buff that I am, I had to provide a little background on victory gardens in the process.

I shouldn't point this out, but you might find something unusual about my flag, if you were to, say, count the stripes. I got a little muddled in all the folds and flapping-in-the-wind. My husband says my extra stripes represent the "lost" colonies.