Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Anza-Borrego Pull

Silver Cholla Cactus in Anza-Borrego DesertAnd thank you all for dropping by today. Let’s give the band a hand . . . yes, yes—aren’t they wonderful! I hope you are enjoying the food; I spent hours picking out today’s menu. My friends all said “You better choose something with a bit of ham. People always like a little ham.” Okay, okay.

Today is my one year blogiversary. So I am celebrating. (Here is my first post.)

Yeah, yeah. Thanks so much. And as such, I’d like to say a few words about the glowing silver cholla cactus that sits atop my blog header (a larger version of the same photo appears above).Ocotillo and BrittlebushBack in March of 2005 when the California deserts were experiencing a centennial rainfall year, the desert wildflowers bloomed like never before. I saw whole valleys covered with yellow Desert Sunflowers, purple Sand Verbena and white Dune Primrose. The Ocotillo produce gorgeous red blooms that fly like flags against the blue sky. Jimson weed grows white trumpet-like flowers and cacti of all kinds sprout colorful flowers that emerge from the cactus spikes.
Ocotillo Cactus I love the Anza-Borrego desert. It glows in its own starkness. It’s big and clean. I have never seen more stars than the night I slept outside in the desert. It was August and it didn’t cool down until about 3:00 in the morning. Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I just looked up. No moon. But the sky was littered with diamonds and the Milky Way arced across the heavens.
Jimson Weed The next day my friends wanted to go hiking (they were obviously delirious from lack of sleep), but I talked them into retreating to the cool mountains for breakfast instead. Day time temperatures would sore to over 110 degrees F and ground temperatures can reach 140. I didn’t think we could carry enough water. I didn't think it was safe.
Beavertail CactusThe only time to see wild flowers in the desert (there are none in August) is in spring, which can start as early as February. Things are pretty much gone by the end of April, but it always depends on the winter’s rainfall.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Stories of Eva Luna

My dog-eared copy of The Stories of Eva LunaWith The Stories of Eva Luna, Isabel Allende creates a treasure trove of stories, delicious treats of woven fantasy that explore how people cope with, use, and abuse power. As Allende shows us, power can manifest itself in many ways: in many of the stories she gives us the power of love—how it can bring redemption or destruction. Allende draws for us many powerful women (and men)—people who persevere and tackle poverty, injustice, and brutality. In just a few pages, Allende paints a picture that enthralls you and pulls you into a world that is magical and ethereal.

“Two Words” tells the story of a poor, illiterate girl who learns to read and write with an inborn talent. She makes a living selling words, stories, and letters. She ends up taming the most powerful and feared man in her country with the power of her words and her beguiling spirit.

“Toad’s Mouth” brings us a powerful woman, who mesmerizes and enchants countless men through sexual prowess and who, in turn, is tamed by a mysterious foreigner in a hilarious, bawdy adventure of life in a wild and desolate country.

In one of my favorite stories, “The Little Heidelberg” gives us El Capitán, a Finnish sea captain who has retired in an unnamed Caribbean port and dances weekly with a lovely Russian woman, Eloísa; she smells of chocolate from so many years of making bonbons. While language keeps their communication at bay for forty years, his reticence for speaking is broken when a countryman is able to translate his words for the first time. “Will you marry me?” he asks his long time dance partner and she says “Don’t you think this is a little sudden?” As they dance the celebratory acceptance dance, with each twirl she becomes a bit younger. In the magic of the scene, she twirls out of existence. Her disappearance seems to reflect the dreamscape nature of the scene. Perhaps El Capitán simply imagined asking her and when the music stops, she is no longer there because she had entered his dreams years earlier. We don’t know if her disappearance is her lesson to not wait so long to reveal our true feelings or a magical journey that is unexplained.

Revenge and justice are topics that Allende also explores. In “Revenge” a woman dedicates her whole life to avenging her father’s death. Upon the moment of truth when she must cut down the man she has hunted her whole life, she cannot. Love takes away her ability to carry out revenge. This leaves her unwhole. Her only solution is to take her own life. And the man? He suffers fate worse than the revenge that was long planned for. “. . . he knew he would live to be ninety and pay for his guilt with the memory of the only woman who had ever touched his heart.”

The final story “And of Clay We are Created” is perhaps my favorite for its poignancy and mysticism. It elegantly details the transformation of two people, as well the narrator who vicariously injects herself into the story, in a mingling of spiritual comfort, facing the past, and accepting the present.

This book is one to read, savor, and reread. You will forget the details of a story, and as you go back to reread it, new details will emerge that make the story sweeter, more ironic, and more satisfying.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Bit About Lady Bird

Lady Bird Johnson died yesterday at her home in Austin, Texas. There was a lengthy article about her in today’s Los Angeles Times describing her role as first lady and some of her accomplishments. Among other achievements, she is credited with paving the way (sweet irony) for the environmental movement of the 1970’s.

Of course, President Lyndon Johnson’s role in the Vietnam War tarnished his laudable part in promoting civil rights. According to the Times article, one of the reasons he declined to run for a second term in 1968 was the civil unrest associated with the Vietnam War. This decision was preceded by a visit from his (pregnant) daughter Lynda, whose Marine husband was about to be deployed to Vietnam. She appealed to her father “Why do we have to go to Vietnam?” That night Johnson announced he would not run again for President and also halted bombing of North Vietnam. You see, it does matter when those who propagate war have something to lose. If our current president, also with two daughters, had a like investment in the war of his own family’s welfare, would different decisions be made?

There were several points that came out of the article that amazed me, two in the same paragraph, which I quote here.
The young congressman [Lyndon Johnson] lost a Senate bid in 1941. Later that year, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sent the country into World War II, he fulfilled a campaign pledge by joining the Navy. He put Lady Bird in charge of his congressional office, which she managed efficiently. She overcame her shyness to lobby Cabinet members and other Washington officials on behalf of constituents.
Wouldn’t it be nice of all congressmen and women would promise and then keep their promise to enlist in the armed forces if our country goes to war? But, you say, if every congress person did that, we’d have no congress? Ya think? It might have made for a different vote back in 2002 giving the president such quick and unchecked permission to use force against Iraq.

The second point was that she lobbied Cabinet members on behalf of her constituents. Whoa. What a novel idea. When’s the last time your congress person (or spouse of congress person) lobbied the White House on your behalf?

Update: I contributed this same post at here, which includes a few comments.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Summertime Greenery

Chives and Sweet Basil growing in my summer gardenSummer time is fun for gardeners. Above you see chives (wonderful for garnishing soups and of course they are great with baked potatoes) and sweet basil (I'm a big pesto fan). Here in Southern California we can grow vegetables and herbs year-round, but summer is when we grow the good stuff: tomatoes, basil, beans, peas, zucchini, and cucumber. I use the Square-Foot Gardening technique by Mel Bartholomew (or the updated one is here). There are differences in the books; some reviewers recommend them both for the most complete reference.
Raised garden box with zucchini and cucumbers (on the left)
Here's the big picture: you build raised garden boxes (I made mine four feet by six feet out of two-by-twelve redwood boards and lined on the bottom with chicken wire to keep out root-loving gophers). You import nutrient-rich soil and divide the boxes into one-foot squares. How many plants per square depends on the vegetable. Lettuce, basil, chives all are four plants per square. Tomato is one per square. Zucchini requires nine squares (a three-by-three portion of your garden box, as shown above).
Chive flowerChive bud
Chives have beautiful flowers and buds that give your garden a bit of color.
Still-ripening tomatoesPole Beans
These tomatoes are getting there. And, here are my pole beans, just beginning their climb to the sky.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Four Corners of Europe

Geo Map Overlay from Google AnalyticsI have to admit that I’m addicted to Google Analytics. No, I don’t check my blog’s stats everyday, but I’ll check the reports every week or so (okay, sometimes every couple of days).

One of the most fascinating reports is the Map Overlay, graphically depicting the sources of your visitors using a dynamic world map. You can zoom in to a particular continent, subcontinent, or country. At any level you can view the city-level source, getting size- and color-coded dots representing the number of visitors. (The real report displays the city name and number of visitors when you hold the cursor over the dot. Here you just see a static screen shot, so you won't get the same dynamic behavior.) Of course, some of these visitors are what I call “accidental” visitors, where the search term they used pinged your site, but it was a false match. It happens. Nevertheless, for the month of June, the four extreme compass points within Europe that visited my site are
North: Rovaniemi* (capital of Lapland, Finland)
South: Athens (Greece)
East: St. Petersburg (Russia)
West: Lisbon (Portugal)
The European city that contributed the most visitors is London. Once you sign up, Google Analytics site provides customized Javascript code you embed in each page you want to track (put it in your blog template and it will show up on each page). You can also add custom code to track when a user clicks a link to go to an external page or to download an mp3 file (for example). And, you can put in a filter to exclude your own clicks from the data collecting. The Analytics site tells you how to do all this and (in my experience) the technical support is good about answering questions.

*Rovaniemi is way up north near the Artic Circle. You can see the midnight sun from June 6 through July 7. What a great way to get a bit of geography knowledge.