Saturday, December 18, 2010

Blizzard journal pages

After our rather exciting weather last weekend—the fifth biggest blizzard in Minneapolis, at least since they've been keeping track of such things—I realized that I'd really be kicking myself years from now if I don't do a page or two in my journal about it.

Craig had gone to Albion, Michigan, on Thursday (Dec. 9) to bring Nora back home from college. They weren't able to start driving home until Friday afternoon, because Nora had a paper to write. So I had an image in my mind of the blizzard bearing down from the northwest as Craig and Nora were driving home from the east. They crossed into Minnesota around 11 p.m., just as the blizzard was starting to blow. "We met [the blizzard] in Woodbury," Craig said.

Then, on Saturday, Martin took the car to work at Target in the morning, and ended up working until 3:30 p.m., although he was originally scheduled to work until 1, because so many people couldn't make it in. In the meantime, we were running low on groceries—most notably, cat food—because the day that Craig left for Michigan was payday, and so I hadn't gotten to the co-op to stock up. Craig announced that he would walk to Lunds, a mile away across the river and the Ford bridge, and I said, "I'm comin' with!"

For much of the way at the beginning, the snow was knee-deep, and so it was much more effort than a simple one-mile walk! We had agreed that we would take the bus home, then learned that bus service had been stopped. We found Lunds to be surprisingly busy, and most people there quite cheerful, except a couple of women who had become stranded because there were suddenly no buses (I could think of worse places to be stranded, myself).

The walk home went a little better than getting to the store, mostly because we discovered that the sidewalk across the bridge had at least been plowed. There is something, too, about knowing you're on the home stretch that makes a challenging trip a little easier. Still, the wind blowing down the river corridor was really something—it even made us stumble sideways a few times. I had taken a few pictures of Craig walking before me on the bridge, but couldn't quite capture those moments when his scarf was blowing straight out like a weathervane, so I used one of those photos and my recollection to make the picture of Craig on the bridge.

We got home about 4 p.m., shoveled out our sidewalks, and enjoyed a lovely steak dinner that night with the whole family at home. There's nothing quite like a good old-fashioned Minnesota blizzard to make a home feel especially cozy!

My photos from the blizzard weekend are on my Flickr page.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy Bodhi Day

Today, December 8, is Bodhi Day, which commemorates the day that the Buddha, while sitting under the Bodhi tree, attained enlightenment. I once asked a Buddhist friend how to observe the day, and she suggested eating an orange mindfully. Since the orange is obviously not the point, but, rather, mindfulness is, perhaps this is a good day to begin or renew a mindfulness practice, which usually means sitting in meditation.

Meditation, it seems to me, is about setting aside a little time to step outside of our daily activities for the sake of a few moments of mindfulness. I've no doubt that's a good thing. But the appeal of eating an orange (or eating anything) mindfully is that it brings mindfulness to our daily activities. Or at least one of them—and one that most of us are especially inclined to do without awareness, while our monkey minds are racing ahead to the next thing on our to-do list.

But what does it mean to eat something mindfully? A friend once told me that her doctor gave her guidelines for doing just that, advising her to consider the texture of the food, each little nuance of flavor and so forth. I remember listening to her description of those instructions and thinking that it sounded like way too much work. It was more like eating analytically—and I can't help but think how typical it is of Western medicine to complicate something that should be elegantly simple and natural, to the point of making it seem unnatural.

I prefer an eating-for-pleasure approach: slow down, savor, enjoy. It's explained very nicely, without prescriptiveness, in this interview with nutritional psychologist Marc David.

Happy Bodhi Day. Enjoy!

Monday, November 29, 2010

You Can Have Your Willpower, I’m Baking More Cookies

Isn’t it interesting how sometimes seemingly disparate parts of our lives intersect one another, like a Venn diagram? Things that we probably would have never connected come together and offer clarity where before there had been only obfuscation. This has happened for me recently with the surprisingly overlapping topics of a children’s story, my failed efforts in the past to lose weight through dieting, and my recent experience with the Feldenkrais method. At the center of all that is the misguided notion of willpower.

I'll begin with the children’s story.
When our kids were little, we used to read the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. The stories are always about the friendship between the title characters, as they confront very ordinary problems together, things that we all deal with every day, and so gently encourage us to be more forgiving of our (and others’) shortcomings.

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is the one called “Cookies.” In it, Toad bakes cookies and brings them to Frog’s house to share with him, and soon they find themselves eating and eating the cookies, seemingly unable to stop. “We need will power,” says Frog.

“What is will power?” asks Toad.

“Will power is trying hard not to do something that you really want to do,” says Frog.

So they try to stop themselves from eating all the cookies by putting them in a box, tying string around the box, and putting it up on a high shelf; but each time, they realize that they can still get at the cookies to eat them if they want to. So, finally, Frog takes the cookies outside and feeds them all to the birds. Toad laments that all the cookies are gone, but Frog assures him, “Yes, but we have lots and lots of will power.”

“You may keep it all, Frog,” says Toad. “I am going home now to bake a cake.”

I always thought that story offered a pretty good explanation for why dieting doesn’t work! Who can sustain that constant effort? I know I never could. I have lost many pounds by using willpower to restrict my calorie intake, but eventually I got tired of the effort and slid back into old habits, and always ended up gaining back more than I lost. I quit dieting a long time ago, and eventually quit gaining weight. In fact, my current weight is about 30 pounds less than it was two years ago, despite my refusal to restrict my calories through dieting.

I thought about that story recently when the topic of willpower came up at a Feldenkrais lesson. My Feldenkrais explorations have expanded beyond my knee to developing an awareness of how I carry tension in my back and shoulders and neck. And whereas I pretty quickly got the hang of relaxing my back whenever I notice that I’m arching it, and so have largely eliminated the low-back pain that used to plague me, I was having trouble doing the same with my shoulders.

“When I notice I’m arching my back, I can relax it into a better posture,” I explained to Nick Strauss-Klein, my teacher. “But I find I have to push my shoulders down.” He responded with a knowing nod, like he encounters this sort of thing all the time. The rest of that lesson focused on my neck and shoulders, and one of the things he did was ask me if I could let my neck be long, rather than direct my attention to my shoulders.

That helped a lot, and although the hunched-shoulder posture is still a very persistent demon of mine, I at least have a more successful strategy for addressing it. When I reported this back to Nick, he said something that made me think of the Frog and Toad story—in essence (I didn't write down his exact words, of course):

“Moshe Feldenkrais said that whenever we try to make changes through effort and willpower, it’s much harder to sustain.”

Frog and Toad went to a lot of effort to try to not do something, and I think that’s a pretty good definition of willpower. They couldn’t sustain it, and neither could I. But just as the two friends couldn’t force themselves to be satisfied with the cookies they had already eaten, I can’t force my shoulders to relax.

A dieting mindset is one that focuses our attention on what and how much we should not be eating: Cookies and other sweets are taboo, as are high-fat foods like whole milk and butter. I always found that it encouraged me to obsess over those kinds of foods, which made me want them more—you know, the lure of the forbidden—and to feel bad about eating them, and weary from the internal battle over trying hard not to do something I wanted to do, or thought I wanted to do. So, just like Frog and Toad, I kept eating more, seeking the pleasure that the cookies are supposed to provide, and faulting myself for lacking the willpower to resist eating them. I got all of the calories and none of the pleasure.

When I quit dieting, I stopped focusing my attention on what I thought I shouldn’t eat. And when I quit choosing low-fat versions of foods that are naturally high in fat (like dairy products), I also stopped feeling the urge to eat more and more in pursuit of the elusive pleasure that whole foods naturally provide. Even though I’m not dieting these days, and I’m including high-fat foods as a regular part of what I eat, I’m consuming fewer calories while at the same time feeling more satisfied.

And that’s almost enough to make me relax my shoulders. Almost.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ancestor Hunger

Sometimes something I'm doing triggers thoughts of relatives long gone, and I find myself missing them. It's not so much a memory as a longing to share this experience with them, because there's something we have in common in that moment, an affinity for a particular activity.

When I discover a new coffee shop, I think of my Grandma Clausen and how much she would have enjoyed it. How she would have looked around and smiled and said, "Isn't this nice." She would have appreciated the proliferation of coffee shops, which really started after her death (in 1991). She would have understood them as places of conviviality, and I think she would have liked them all, and the way that they reflect their various communities. I often wish I could take her around to all the coffee shops I like and share them with her.

It's when I'm doing something inventive that my dad enters my head. Especially when it's something  creative and a little bit quirky, something that seems in the moment brilliantly useful, but probably only to me. Yesterday, I was clearing my desk because I needed to spread out the proofreading I was doing (due this morning), and there were a few business cards I didn't know what to do with, and pretty soon I was cutting and folding and creating a little mini portfolio to hold business cards. I even fished some cardstock scraps out of my recycling bag and cut them and glued them on as covers. And as I was making this little scrappy portfolio, I was thinking what a good idea this is and how I should make some for my Etsy page (only out of more attractive paper). All this, while I should have been proofreading!

And this morning when I was looking at the little portfolio, I thought, Dad would have liked this, and I could imagine myself sitting at the table with him, figuring stuff like this out together. And I actually felt sad and missed my dad in that moment.

I know, they are still with me in these ways that I have just described. There's a piece of each of them in me, I know that. But it's in those moments when I feel their presence that I miss them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rediscovering the Joy of Reading Aloud

About a week ago, Craig and I drove to Albion, Michigan, to visit our daughter, Nora, who's attending college there. It's about a ten-hour drive in the best of conditions, easily 11 or more depending on the whims of Chicago traffic.

When we drove Nora out in August, we brought along an audio book (one of the Artemis Fowls), but we didn't have one this time, so I brought instead a thick novel—Driftless, by David Rhodes—that I had bought from the publisher, Milkweed, at the Twin Cities Book Festival in October. I selected that one largely because it is set in southwestern Wisconsin (in the driftless region), and since we would be driving through Wisconsin for a good portion of our trip, it seemed apropos. I had also read the foreword and liked how the author strung his words together.

So I read aloud as Craig drove, for as long as my voice and the fading daylight made it possible, with several long breaks to rest my voice as we listened to one of our music CDs. By the time we returned to Minneapolis, I had made it through about half the book. After we got home, Craig took up the role of reader, and over several evenings this past week, followed the book through to its conclusion.

It's a terrific story (many stories and one story, skillfully interwoven) and I hope to get Craig to write a review of the book for the Minneapolis Observer blog soon, but right now I just wanted to tell you about the experience of sharing a book by reading it aloud to each other. It's so entirely different than reading silently, separately. For one thing, it drew our attention to the rhythm and sound of the words, and with a writer as skilled as Rhodes, that's especially delicious. Playing the role alternately of listener and of reader further enhanced this aspect.

Second, it led to an ongoing discussion about the book, and a very different sort of discussion than one you might have with a book club or even with your partner when each of you reads a book separately. It's very immediate, and we were always at exactly the same place in the story, so neither had to worry about giving something away that might spoil the other's experience of the book; and these pauses to discuss the book informed our inferences when we continued. And we've continued to talk about the book over the last couple of days since we finished it.

When our kids were little, we used to read aloud to them, of course, as all parents do. And I remember some discussion with other parents about the joys of reading aloud and how you never grow too old to enjoy being read to. And during that time, as well as before we had children, we used to read to each other once in a while—usually essays or poetry, though, not so much whole novels.

But somewhere along the way of raising children and the ordinary demands of life, we stopped doing that. And I don't think it would have occurred to me to resume the practice if I hadn't been looking for something to pass the hours on that long drive to Michigan and back. But now that we've shared a book in this way, we both agree we want to do it again soon.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Walking the Dog

I've been taking Feldenkrais lessons since spring, but it looks like I haven't yet written about it on this blog. It has made a big difference in my life, and it's high time I said something about it. For one thing, it has allowed me to resume my daily walks with our dog, Brigit, a routine I had given up sometime last winter, when I realized it was making my bad right knee worse, and frequently had me limping painfully by the end of the walk. The dog is especially happy that we have resumed these walks, since nobody really picked up the slack when I left off.

Feldenkrais is described by its practitioners, who call themselves teachers, as "somatic education." I first learned about the method about a year ago from an article in the magazine my husband edits, but wasn't able to find a local practitioner until last spring, when a Google search lead me to Nick Strauss-Klein.

My knee problems stem from an injury more than 30 years ago and subsequent surgery to remove a torn medial meniscus. About ten years after I (and tons of others) had the surgery, orthopedists said, "What were we thinking?," and stopped routinely removing torn menisci.

Lacking this rather crucial body part, my knee has kind of collapsed on the side where the meniscus should have been, resulting in bow-leggedness and osteoarthritis, with a few bone chips in the mix. The bone chips may have resulted from my misguided attempts to take up jogging, likely causing excessive grinding where the bones meet. I didn't realize how bad it was getting until my husband watched me one time and told me that my knee actually wobbled a bit from side to side with each step. I quit jogging after that, and cut way down on walking, fearing that I was doing damage to myself with every step.

Last spring I finally sought out an orthopedist for the first time since the surgery, hoping for a referral to a physical therapist and maybe some recommendations for ways that I could be more active—like some sort of knee brace that would prevent the wobble so that I could try jogging again, or at least walk more.

He took an X-ray and observed me walking and offered the insightful diagnosis, "That is one messed-up knee." He then asked me a few questions that hinted at a certain incredulity that I could walk at all, that I wasn't in a great deal of pain all the time. I'll admit that I took a certain pride in this line of questioning, because I thought it suggested that I must be pretty tough.

He said I had two options, then changed it to three, which encouraged me for only a moment: knee replacement surgery (no surprise there), doing nothing, or getting an expensive brace that would hold my leg more or less rigid, to straighten out the leg and correct the bow-leggedness, at least while I was wearing the thing. It sounded like the equivalent of putting my leg in a full cast, albeit a removable one; a device that would hardly facilitate my desire to be more active.

So, remembering the article about Feldenkrais, and my failed attempt to find a local practitioner the previous fall, I decided to do another search, and this time found Mr. Strauss-Klein, who, together with his wife and two sons, had just moved into the Twin Cities area. I started seeing him in April, and have gone for "lessons" several times a month since.

What I've been learning, to put it simply, is what that old folk/gospel song "Dry Bones" tells us: The knee bone's connected to the ankle bone, and the hip bone, and all those other bones right on up to the rib, neck and shoulder bones. Over thirty years of coping with chronic pain and instability, I'd become very rigid, and that rigidity meant that my knee was taking the bulk of the impact of every step, rather than allowing it to reverberate upwards and throughout my body. During one lesson, Nick explained that our ribs act as shock absorbers—except mine. They were acting more like cinder blocks.

So the lessons involve roughly two things: helping me become aware (but without judgment) of the habits I've developed that are aggravating my problems, and helping me find different ways of moving that are easier, gentler on my knee, and more graceful. Sometimes, the different ways of moving involve intentional actions on my part—learning to let my arms swing more freely and my pelvis rotate naturally. Sometimes it involves him gently poking me in the ribs, for example, or pulling or pushing on my arm or leg, in an attempt to, as he puts it, ask my brain a question, or offer it a suggestion. Unlike massage therapy, a Feldenkrais teacher doesn't try to complete the process through external manipulation. Rather, he leaves you a little bit hanging, allowing your brain to chew on it a bit and find the best solution. This results in a more sustainable change, even if it's sometimes a bit disorienting. If you've ever left a great massage session only to have your muscles become tight again the next day, you'll appreciate the difference.

Yesterday when I was out walking Brigit, it suddenly hit me that I wasn't limping. A slight limp had become such an integral part of my walk, that this was quite a realization. Even near the end of our walks, which are typically about a mile and half long, I'm not limping. If I start to experience knee pain, and I sometimes do, I ask myself, "What can I do differently?" and then try shortening my stride, or slowing down, or turning my right foot slightly out (I used to turn it inward), or even swinging my hips a little more, and one or several such changes solves the problem. Whereas a year ago I would have thought I had blown it and walked too far, and felt very discouraged and defeated, now I have options.

I won't be taking up jogging any time soon (or probably ever), but I'm enjoying getting out on these beautiful autumn days and exploring on foot the parks and woodlands so near my house, and I can tell that Brigit enjoys it too. And I feel very optimistic that it's only going to get better, and that I'll be a happy and grateful perambulator for many years to come.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My quest for a shrubbery

Since we bought this house this summer, I've been eager to get something planted now to enjoy next spring (not knowing what spring flowers are already here, if any), so I've decided to focus my attention on this corner at the front of the house, which faces west, because, for one thing, it's a rather dull collection of generic hostas with a little astilbe here and there; and because it featured a misguided attempt to deal with a waterfall that cascaded off the roof whenever it rained, pounding a depression into the ground, with the water eventually finding its way into the basement. An odd assortment of rocks, bricks and paving stones marked the spot where the water hit the ground.

Gutters we had installed in early July took care of the waterfall, and this fall I've been working on removing the rocks and pavers and digging up the hostas, which have developed a dense mat of roots over the years. What I thought would be one afternoon's work has occupied me over two weekends so far, with rests in between for my knee to recover after all that jumping on my shovel to cut through those hosta roots.

The long process has afforded me a lot of time to observe the sunlight that reaches this corner and think about what I'd like to plant here. I'm planning to whitewash the gray concrete foundation blocks so there will be no need for the usual foundation plantings to hide them. I decided that I'd like a shrub with an open form that won't grow tall enough to obstruct the windows, and to surround it with some ground covers and spring bulbs. I've got some purple tulips that I mail ordered from Scheepers (and that are sitting in their box in the garage, waiting to be planted). Plants with deep colors, such as a shrub with dark green leaves and dark berries or colorful stems for winter interest, along with the purple tulips, will stand out nicely against the white. Of course I want my shrub to get good fall color, too.  

On my walks and bike rides, I've been noticing and admiring a shrub with dark, glossy oval leaves turning a nice, deep red, a graceful vaselike form, and shiny black berries. Thinking it might be just the thing for that corner garden, I did a bit of searching and learned that it's aronia, or chokeberry, and that it requires full sun. My corner garden gets only part sun, so do I have to start over?

I remember noticing on one of many neighborhood garden tours I have gone on over the years, a sun-loving shrub (in this case, Nishiki willow) growing in part shade and appearing to thrive. I asked the gardener about that, and he said that you can grow shrubs that are said to require full sun in part shade if you don't mind them developing a more open form. I tend to prefer the more naturalized look of shrubs that do not take on the dense form of, say, a well-pruned boxwood (although I also like that look sometimes, as an edging), and I was specifically looking for a shrub with an open form for this spot, to stay away from that foundation-planting look.

But, form is not the only consideration. Sometimes plants will not be healthy if they do not get the amount of sunlight they want. Is that a concern for aronia? I asked Google, and it led me to an entry at that answered my question: it will tolerate partial shade, getting leggy (that's the same as open, as far as I'm concerned), but it may be afflicted by mildew in "darker corners."

The usual way of minimizing the risk of mildew is through good cultural practices:  plenty of air circulation. For that, I want nothing obstructing the prevailing winds, which in Minnesota in the summer come from the south/southwest. If I place it towards the center or slightly forward in this garden (on the west side of my house, but to the north of the porch), and plant only low-growing groundcovers surrounding it, it should have no trouble catching those southerly breezes.

The specific cultivar of aronia that I want is called "Autumn Magic," so I called Bachman's and learned that they had six plants in stock, and they were only $20 each, definitely affordable on my budget. Having done my homework, I headed over there today (Tuesday), after an appointment that had me out in the car anyway. Even though it's cold (in the 40s), rainy, and very windy (gusts up to 50 mph!), I was determined to capture my prize. I grabbed the umbrella I keep in the car and headed into the store to find out where they keep the aronia. A helpful indoor employee called an outdoor employee to help me locate the shrub without too much wandering around in this miserable weather, only to be told that they don't have any aronia.

"I called yesterday," I said, confident that they couldn't possibly have sold all six plants when business is so slow due to these uninviting conditions. After sorting it out and confirming that they did, indeed, still have six Autumn Magic aronias, I headed out into the lot to meet the hardy shrub man, holding my umbrella close against the wind so that I could hardly see where I was going. I heard someone call "Ma'am" twice before I located him, looking around my umbrella, which was braced against the nearly horizontal rainfall and completely obstructing my view of whatever was in front of me. After the umbrella inverted itself a couple of times, I gave up and folded it, getting a tad wet in the process but more easily finding my way back to the checkout while holding the shrub in its pot on the cart with one hand, lest the wind toss it to the ground, while pushing the card with the other.

And now it sits in its pot in the garden, where it will remain until the weather settles down and allows me to plant it, along with its companions, those purple tulips.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A popular plant

Since we moved in to our new house this summer, I've been observing what's growing in the garden, thinking about what I want to keep and what will become compost fodder. Some plants that seem to impress visitors to my garden don't really appeal to me, such as the tropical-looking hibiscus, which gets rave reviews from visitors pretty often—it's quite showy. But it just looks so out of place in an upper midwest cottage-style garden, I can't see it sticking around and fitting in gracefully. Perhaps more significant, though, to me, anyway, is that, popular as it is with my human visitors, the plant's big pink flowers don't seem to be attracting any insects. That's not surprising, I don't think there's any relative of the hibiscus (that I'm aware of) that's native to Minnesota. So, naturally, there are no insects that have evolved here alongside it.

A marked contrast is this New England aster (despite its name, it's a native plant) which probably planted itself, since it's wrapped itself around the clothes pole, an unlikely place for a tidy gardener to have put it, and I believe that Julia Johnson, 60-year owner/resident and gardener here, was a tidy gardener. The garden itself has what I would call a good foundation—it was well-planted and well-tended at one time. This aster has not won any complements from my human visitors, but today I noticed how it's teaming with insects—not only the clouded sulphur butterfly that stands out in this photograph, but if you look closely, you will see two different kinds of bees on the flowers, too. Besides those caught in the photo, I noticed one or two types of wasps, and a couple other types of bees, and multiples of all these species all over the abundant blooms of this weedy flower.

I had been a little concerned that the raspberries growing along a fence on the south side of the backyard weren't getting pollinated—quite a few of the blossoms never formed into fruit this fall, and I haven't seen many bees in their vicinity. But the few straggly raspberry plants in the tangle of weeds between this clothes pole and the alley do seem to be producing fruit quite nicely, even though I haven't been able to get into the thicket to pick them. Those raspberries must surely be benefitting from their close proximity to this magnifient polllinator magnet, and that's as beautiful to me as it's pretty purple flowers.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wren moves in to the chickadee house

 I bought a birdhouse from the Wild Bird store in Highland Park last summer, embellished it a little with bottlecaps, and hung it on the side of the garage, near the raspberries. I kept an eye on it, but it appeared that no birds moved in. I figured the bottlecaps were too shiny or the birdhouse was too new, maybe it just needed to weather a little. Then when Ian, who, with his wife, Julie, owns the house we live in now, needed to take things down off the garage in order to prep it and prime it last fall, I just put the birdhouse  in the garage to try again in the spring.

In the spring, the garage was still ghostly white with primer, and I didn't want to put things back up that would have to be taken down again, so I hung the birdhouse on the clothes pole, close to the garden. Soon a chickadee was checking it out, and not long after, I saw stray bits of grass and weeds sticking out of the sides, just under the roof, where there were little gaps to allow for ventilation. When I was working by the clothes pole, running strings up and over to trellis the snow peas I had planted, the chickadee kept landing on the phone line above and scolding me! Soon, I heard tiny chirping coming from inside the house, and two chickadees were busy coming and going, with frequent visits to our birdfeeder in between.

Since we're moving later this summer, I had been watching for the chickadees to fledge so that I could take down the birdhouse when they were done with it. I figured I would clean it out (the roof is designed so that you can remove half of it fairly easily for that purpose) and store it in the garage so it would be ready to put up again at our next house.

But, although I saw lots of chickadees in the yard, perched on branches of the Norway maple that holds our birdfeeder, and sometimes flapping their wings insistently the way baby birds do, I wasn't sure whether they had truly fledged yet. The English sparrows who had built a nest above the back door under the eaves seemed to still be using their nest, and they had started at about the same time as the chickadees, so I thought maybe the chickadees were still using the birdhouse, even though it was hard to tell. And, of course, I didn't want to disturb them if they were still using it.

When it seemed like the chickadees had really moved out, and I was thinking I should clean the birdhouse soon, I noticed a little bird head sticking out of the hole. It wasn't the familiar black-and-white of the chickadee, though; it was brown. I knew it wasn't the English sparrows (who will invade a birdhouse and kill the occupants, if they find any) because I had bought a house with a metal plate around the hole to prevent the sparrows from widening the hole -- only chickadees and wrens could fit through that hole, and I didn't think wrens were very common in the city.

But then when the little fellow popped out of the house and landed on a nearby twig and began singing his happy bubbly song, I could see (and hear) clearly that it was indeed a wren! And he must have cleaned up after the chickadees, because the grasses are no longer sticking out of the vent slits. I've seen him bringing tiny twigs in his beak, and having to turn his head this way and that to get the little twig through the opening. And then he would land on one of the long dogwood twigs I had stuck in the garden for the snowpeas to climb on, and bubble away cheerily. I figured he was advertising for a wife to share his little house with him, and wished him the best of luck.

I told Julie about the wren moving in to the house after the chickadees moved out, and she took that as a good omen. "If the birdhouse found new renters already, maybe we won't have trouble finding new renters, too," she said.

Then, a couple of days ago, I didn't see or hear the wren anymore. I was a little concerned -- although we don't let our cats roam outdoors, there are cats in the neighborhood who sometimes make an appearance in our yard (mostly to hunt the mice in our compost, it seems). Could a cat have gotten our little wren?

Well, this morning (Sunday), I awoke to the familiar bubbling wren chatter outside my window. And when my husband went out on the patio with his newspaper and tea, he called back to me, "The wren is back! And there are two of them!" And the two of them have been hard at work all day, adding tiny twigs to the nest and musically declaring the backyard their territory. I may have to leave the birdhouse behind when we move, and that would be OK with me.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A cottage garden by any other name

When we were reading the paper last night, hubby mentioned that there's a story on the front page of the Variety section about edible landscaping, "but there's nothing in it you don't already know." So I had to read it to see if he was right.

While it proved true that the story offered no great revelations about gardening--the gist of it was that you don't have to establish a separate vegetable garden, you can mix edibles and ornamentals--I kept reading because I wanted to know if it would occur to anyone (the writer or her sources) to credit this idea to the old English peasants and their cottage gardens. And of course it did not; there was no mention of cottage gardens or peasant gardens of any kind. It was as if this woman, Rosalind Creasy, who wrote a book in 1982 called The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, didn't just coin a new term for the old practice, but actually invented the practice herself. I haven't seen the book, which will be reissued and updated with the title, Edible Landscaping later this year, so I can't say that Creasy doesn't give credit where it's due, because she very well may do so in her introduction or something. I may have to get the earlier edition of the book from the library just to satisfy my curiosity.

But, really, "edible landscaping" is such a prosaic term. I'd much  rather have a cottage garden. Wouldn't you? (My photo isn't really very exemplary, since it doesn't include edibles--I just picked up something I shot last summer rather than use somebody else's photograph. There are lots of wonderful images on the Web, though, such as those offered here.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Earthly Delights

This is our fourth spring in this house, and when we moved in there was no garden. I brought a few shrubs and perennials with me from my old house, and have planted more perennials and a serviceberry in the front yard, and quite a few bulbs, and I feel like we're really starting to reap the benefits. I'm enjoying the starlike blossoms of the serviceberry, but realized after I photographed it that white flowers don't really stand out against a light-colored house, It looks lovelier "in person" than it does in photos, but I took this photo by putting my camera practically in the middle of the tree and placing the red tulips in the background, so it shows you the serviceberry blossoms but not the tree, so much. I'm going to try to find the right angle on the tree so I can get a photo of it's overall form.

I posted some garden photos earlier on my Flickr page, but I don't know if anybody's looking at them there, so I thought I'd try posting them here instead.

I love the way a perennial garden unfolds in stages, so this is the serviceberry and hybrid tulip phase. Before this was the forsythia and species tulip phase, some of which you'll see on my Flickr page. Next to bloom should be flowering crabapples, except I don't have one of those yet! I know where we can plant one, though, so that will be this spring's planting project.

And the dandelion and violet phase is well underway in the lawn!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hack Historian, a rant

I've been fact-checking a list of historical trivia for a local publication, and was having a hard time tracking down some of the statements, so I asked the editor if the compiler of the list could provide me with his documentation to make it a little easier for me. Knowing where he got a given piece of information allows me to do two things: verify that he didn't transpose any numbers or mispell a name, and determine whether the source is credible.

The editor responded that the compiler acknowledged, "quite a few of the facts you will struggle to corroborate because they were found in strange places and that he hasn't kept notes." Well, that explained a lot, I said, and then, assuming that this must be a volunteer, and clearly someone with no training in doing history research, I offered to provide guidance next year to improve the accuracy of the list.

Then I found out that my assumptions were wrong, and that I had given the guy way too much benefit of the doubt. The editor informed me that this person, whom I will decline to name, is "actually a fairly well-known Saint Paul historian and has published a few books on Saint Paul history. He teaches history . . . [at a respectable local college]," the editor said. "He used to be a Minnesota legislator," she added, as if this somehow boosted his veracity (politicians don't ever get their facts wrong, right?). But the real kicker for me was when she added,  "He said he didn't see these history facts as needing the same rigorousness of note taking as a research book, and I tend to agree with him."

I was flabbergasted. I had spent a total of about 8 hours trying to verify the accuracy of this list, and in that time had gotten through about 35 of them, and found 5 to be flat-out wrong. I sat and stared at that message for a few minutes, then replied: "OK. That's interesting. Since I've been finding a lot of errors, it raises the question, how important is it to you that these facts be accurate?"

I became a little obsessed. I googled the guy, I looked at some of the books he's had published -- none by historical society presses, that I could find. I searched the faculty directory of the college where he was said to teach and did not find him (that could have been a flaw in the college's search engine, of course, but still, it made me wonder . . .). Some of the books were clearly commissioned works, like the history of an organization. Now sometimes, people do an excellent job with such commissions, and for all I know, his commissioned history work could be very good. But what I came to believe is that he's a hack historian -- one who works only for pay, not for the love of history or out of a heartfelt desire to help tell the story of his community.

The editor responded to my comment about errors with some contrition. She admitted that she had found a couple of errors in the spelling of names in the list he submitted last year, and she rememebered that I had also. She wondered whether I was exasperated with her.

I was not -- I was exasperated with him. It appeared to me that he was applying a lower standard to the work he did for her than he does for his own books, which, if true, is incredibly arrogant.

I have encountered this sort of thing before. Writers who have established for themselves a good reputation, who have impressive credentials (ie, initials after their name), who command a high price for their work, are often not such good writers; and if they deign to write for you at a lower rate than that to which they are accustomed, they measure their words accordingly and give you exactly what they deem to be your money's worth.

Of course everyone is entitled to make a decent living, and some people are stuck in jobs that give them no joy but they slog along and do the best they can. But if you are fortunate enough to get paid to do something that many talented and dedicated people do for no money -- writing, art, and, yes, even history research -- then recognize that it's your good fortune, and not your innate superiority, that put you in that position, and rise to the standard of your profession.

Sorry. Just had to get that rant out!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Drawing inspiration

At the beginning of the year I told myself I was going to draw something every day. I haven't done so well on that account; it's sometimes hard to make the time, and I often find myself uninspired. What to draw?

Recently I was surfing the Net for that very purpose and came across the Urban Sketchers Web site. It's exactly what I needed. It reminds me that very ordinary things are worth drawing, and look somehow not so ordinary when rendered as a drawing.

That evening I went to Spill the Wine restaurant with my husband, and when he left the table for a few minutes, I took out a piece of paper and pencil from my purse (yes, I do carry around a small envelope/pocket of paper and a pen or pencil everywhere!), and drew the parking meter in the snowbank outside the window, incorporating the branches from a tree across the street.

Earlier that same day, I was supposed to meet a friend at a coffee shop, and got my signals crossed, so I was waiting for her at Anodyne while she was waiting for me at Nokomis Beach. While I was sorry for my screw-up, I did take the time to do a drawing of the view outside their windows, and a person sitting there. (I want to practice drawing people more, but I don't want the people I am drawing to catch me in the act!) I have to admit, I find fewer things to draw at Nokomis Beach, even though it's my neighborhood coffee shop and I spend more time there than at any other coffee shop. I may have to resort to doing more people drawings there (discreetly, of course).

 Other than a couple of drawings done this past week for the spring MOQ, which is almost done, I still haven't done a lot of drawing, But maybe I'll change my goal to spending some time drawing every week, rather than every day.

I may have to frequent a variety of coffee shops in order to find more things to draw -- but sometimes we just have to sacrifice for our art!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Shanty art town

On Saturday, Craig and I went to the Art Shanty Projects on Medicine Lake, just 20 minutes northwest of Minneapolis. It's a site-specific art happening that takes place over four weekends in January and February, right out on the ice. Modeled after the ice fishing houses that dot Minnesota lakes in winter, these are artist-made constructions, each having its own specific function. Some, like the Science Shanty, are educational (when we visited, an ecologist was explaining about water quality and what's happening with the water under the ice under all those shanties), and all are interactive in some way.

I was excited to encounter the ArtPost Shanty, an actual post office on the ice, with flag, even, to let you know it's a post office. They had run out of the artist-designed postcards that were made just for this year's installation (they had printed 500, they said they would print 1000 next year), but they had supplies for making your own postcards, and since it was a week before Valentine's Day, that occasion was the theme, of course. There were several different hand-carved rubber stamps with heart motifs of one kind or another, and so I just grabbed a red card and stamped away, then addressed it to myself, bought a commemorative stamp to put on it, and left it with them to be mailed. They'll bring it to the Long Lake Post Office, which has a special cancellation just for the Art Shanty Projects. How cool is that? If I had known, I would have brought the addresses of a few of my art buddies and mailed postcards to them too. Next year, I'll be sure to do that.

I also visited the Art Swap Shanty, where I brought a handbound blank book I had made a long time ago, and traded it for an offbeat thingy made from a Dixie cup. It had a tiny drawing attached to one side with thumb tacks, and some loopy wire sticking out of the top like an antenna. I can go look on the Art Swap Shanty's blog to see who, if anybody, selected my contribution. They take a picture of you with the thing you brought, holding a sign that says "I brought," and then another picture with the thing you selected and a sign that says "I Got." When I looked at the pictures later, I noticed that were a lot of kids participating, and one kid was clutching something with his "I Brought" sign that could have been my Dixie cup (his mitten hid most of it). It's a pretty fun concept. What I liked about the Dixie cup thing that I got was that it was creatively quirky and not just a drawing. I added it to my car's dashboard gallery of found objects.

Craig wrote about our visit for the spring issue of MOQ, which will come out in March, so I won't go on any more about it. But I will say that I was glad I finally got out to see them, it was really great, and I will definitely do it again next year (with my address book!)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A little bit of spring in my kitchen window

I used to think that Groundhog Day simply meant that there may be only six more weeks of winter, if we're lucky. No St. Patrick's Day blizzard to weigh us down in the middle of March? Sounds good to me!

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the second of February could mark the beginning of spring weather somewhere, provided that skittish fellow didn't see his shadow on that fateful day. Spring in February? What a concept!

And one of those harbingers of spring, wherever it is that they get that heartwarming season so early, are the wild yellow primulas that brighten wet, shady places along the streambanks in the woodlands. Maybe that's why I get a craving for these cheery flowers about this time every year. My mother's birthday is January 29, so I've taken to buying a yellow primula for her birthday, and then a second one for myself. This year I also picked up a couple of parsley plants and chives, to capture something of the flavor of spring, as well.

I'm also reacting a little to the preponderance of reds and pinks in the color schemes of both Christmas and Valentine's Day -- I want some yellow as an antidote to all that! (I do like pink and red, I just get tired of them!)

So, happy post-Groundhog Day to all, and here's a bit of a harbinger of things to come . . . eventually!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Winter walking meditation

I just got back from a brief trip to Seattle, where the sidewalks are always clear and you can walk at any pace you like without fear of slipping on the ice. Walking outdoors in Minneapolis this time of year is different. It's more like walking meditation.

Walking on city sidewalks in winter requires mindful attention to each step. Even so, you may be placing your foot down with intention, and suddenly it slides out in front of you and down you go on one knee, like a medieval knight before his liege. Except nobody will dub you Sir anything. And somehow, when I have done that this winter, I have managed to go down on my bad knee, the one that doesn't want to bend more than 90 degrees. The fall forces a sharp bend in the knee and soon after, that poor abused joint swells up and is stiff for a few days.

After the second such occurrence this winter, I decided to give up on our city sidewalks until spring. So it was a treat to be in Seattle for a few days and walk around freely outdoors. The mild temperatures (in the 40s and low 50s) were just a bonus, it's the relief of walking on nonslippery sidewalks that meant the most to me.