Saturday, August 28, 2010

The face of the Sacred

Endlessly delightful: flowers that bravely square themselves off, resolutely point themselves toward scorching sun and withering salt, and bloom with such equanimity you might think them at home in an English garden. These are the faces of delicate white morning glories, looking into the overcast skies of the southern Atlantic this morning. They are a fit metaphor for a person facing chronic pain armed with a good combination of stoicism and pharmacology, though the metaphor breaks down as the person walks determinedly into the northeast wind. His is not to simply survive, as morning glories must; his is to set aside pain and keep walking, keep walking, keep walking. His is to find joy at every turn, as often as he can.

Have you ever been in a hospital on some occasion of pain or worry or fear or uncertainty? If you have, you may also have found yourself in the L&D "baby gallery", looking at tiny miracles brought to life by people you don't even know, moved to a smile or perhaps that tightness behind your eyes where tears dwell. For here is hope. Here is the future. This morning is not so different, as you dear, patient readers have heard from me so often this summer; it is not so different here this year, as turtles nest in breathtaking numbers. There is no glass-walled nursery into which we can peer for comfort, but hope prevails: here is the future.

My old teacher (she of honored memory in this blog, Sister Patricia Eileen) used to remind us that the face of Christ is to be seen in every person we meet. The "Christ" part is a matter of spiritual or theological nomenclature, in my opinion: one might refer to the face of the Buddha, the face of the Goddess, the face of the Great the end it all means the same thing, which is that we look into that which is Sacred when we look into the faces of our sisters and brothers. This is not always easy. It is seldom uncomplicated. But it's there. My dear old person shows me the face of that which is holy every day, and some days I am actually able to see it.

For today, it was enough to walk along the beach, taking note of the still-increasing numbers of sea turtle nests (we saw N 143 today), watching the clouds rolling out of the dark sky to the northeast, grateful for the glimpses of that which is Sacred in the sea, the wind and the small cold drops of rain that found our faces now and then.

At home, a meal came together.
If you have a gas grill here's how to make nice tender baby back ribs. (If you're a serious cook, or heaven forbid, a serious Grill Cook, you can skip this part as it will only make you laugh.) Unless you have lots of time to slow-cook ribs, this always works. Season them with salt and pepper and cook in a slow oven over a pan of water. If you have a nice gas grill you can use like an oven, do it there. Tonight I put two racks of ribs on the grill with no direct heat, cooking over a pan of water. After about 2 hours, perhaps less, put the ribs over direct heat to finish them with a nice crisping. If you have a sauce everyone agrees on, you can baste the ribs with it throughout the cooking process and certainly at the end of the process. If not, finish the ribs in individual servings to taste.

We made mashed potates in the usual way. Dylan is a master of this art, but he asked me to consult when he was nearly done: they tasted flat to him; I tasted and agreed. I tossed in a half teaspoon of kosher salt, a dash of good old Texas Pete and a big tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese. Dylan whipped them up and we all agreed that mashed potato-ness really can be next to godliness. We have tasted it for ourselves.

A simple salad finished things off, fresh garden greens, toasted almonds or pecans, golden raisins and virtually no salad dressing. The fridge died earlier this week and was beautifully and sadly cleaned out. Beloved jars of things like tahini dressing and the dregs of pickled okra were among the victims. Still, it managed to be, as one Friend of the Blog would say, "Fit to eat". And so we are grateful, my dears.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Keeping a book

The summer has been a fine one, good weather and bad. This weather crept up from the east, with me keeping an eye to the changing cloud formations while I marked the evidence of nests, true and false, along the beach. It rained, of course, so we took ourselves to a comfortable bar for a beer and a bite. It was one of those places they keep the TVs on behind the bar without the sound. One of the TVs was tuned to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, and this started a rant inside my head. Rodney's heard it before so I spared him. You, naturally, are not so lucky.

Long years gone by, my heroes, I gave many hours to St. Augustine Little League. It was a natural fit, more or less: the boys played baseball, I'm bossy, er, assertive, by nature, they needed volunteers, and all else aside, there is this simple truth: I love baseball. Our boys played, and I volunteered in the concession stand. They played, and I was the Team Mom. The boys played on, and I learned to keep a scorebook. They played, and I eventually served as a league VP. Apart from the possibiity of good karma earned for the volunteering, the thing that stayed with me was the Art of Keeping a Book. I read a memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a fine historian and deovted fan of The Game, in which she recounted learning to keep a book and sharing its arcane details with her father in the long summer evenings, and especially during several World Series. Her father taught her that a good scorebook is a guide to every pitch, every hit, every out...virtually everything that happens in a baseball game can be recorded in a book by any scorekeeper meticulous enough to take it on.

It was harder to learn than you might think. I asked people I thought would know: the coach at my kids' elemetary school, baseball fans I knew, to no avail...I had to take a class to learn the basics. From there I had help from my friend O'Hare's husband Tom, a sport cameraman who first taught me (by phone, long distance, during a Phillies-Braves game) the meaning of "6-4-3". He was astonished to find I didn't know what it meant. Later, I was astonished to find that while an average guy watching a game knows it means the out was made because the shortstop (6) threw the ball to the second baseman (4), who threw it to the first baseman (3) for the out, most of those guys aren't quite sure about the relationship of that numeric sequence to a scorebook. In time I would learn to keep a book clean and legible enough to be read by someone who had not seen the game (thank you, Lynyrd).

And when the boys eventually left Little League behind, their dad and I were left to watch the Little League World Series on television. The rant comes to this: the love of the game is a fine thing, and the gift of instilling that love in a new generation is fine, indeed. Even having a final tournament to determine, once and for all, who's best that year, or whose team has the best day that year. Having grandmas and grandpas come out for the games is a tiny bit of magic; having them cheer and perhaps have a tear gather for the departing youth of their young ones is no less common and no less magical. But maybe it shouldn't be on TV. Maybe it should just be kids, their families and coaches, the dedicated volunteers who serve as umpires and officials, who sell the popcorn and hotdogs to pay for next year's uniforms, the quiet grass and a breath of a breeze on a hot afternoon in late summer...maybe it should be just them. And maybe it will all be penciled into some grandma's tattered scorebook, stored in the attic with the dog-eared baseball cards and the balls nested in gloves, wrapped in rubber bands, until the next kids trot across the grass and the next spring sun warms the base paths. But that's just me.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pieces of summer, for remembrance

Summer draws to an end. School begins this week across much of the state, despite the hot, humid breath of the season, almost certain to persist for another month. Still, I can see the promise of October blue skies just beyond our reach, the cooler weather hinting at the coming of the holidays, and the gathering of our precious circle around a bright blue and orange fire in our back yard. It lifts my heart, the notion of the changing weather, shortening days and the homeward-turning of our boys, however brief it might be. But it's too soon, of course. So before I trot off into the sunset on the back of my imagination, here are some things I've meant to share, little squares of summer sunshine to be sewn into this year's quilt of ideas and memory.

For instance: this enormous old gopher turtle, ambling down our road as if on his way to the corner market, as I was myself at the time. There was a time when a turtle of this size, seen finding his way along the side of a country road, would have been swept into the back of somebody's pickup truck or dumped into the trunk and cooked into a stew. He (or she) was about the size of the platter you probably use to serve your Thanksgiving turkey, or at least a big roast chicken with vegetables. He was BIG. And to my surprise, he was also FAST, so that when I tried to photograph him, his external parts disappeared into his shell a couple of times until finally he began to speed-walk away from me at quite a breathtaking speed. I stood on the side of the road, watching and photographing him for 10 minutes or so. But despite the urbanity and charm of our small city, I am often reminded that Rodney and I live in the country, among the people we grew up with, many of them still quite capable of tossing a gopher turtle into the trunks of their cars and from there into their boiling stock pots. A truck pulled up alongside me and a man stepped out. "What is it?" he asked. In a voice I recognized, to my annoyance, as the one I use when I am especially delighted with the natural world, I said, "It's a gopher turtle. I was just watching to be sure he didn't cross into the ro...", but before I could finish the man strode up to the turtle, picked him up, and hurled him into the scrub oak trees between the road and our friend Giselle's (and formerly Claude's) pasture. And then he walked back to his truck and drove away. I sighed and went to the store for a Diet Dr. Pepper and a wistful thought for my brief acquaintance with the gopher turtle.

Rodney and I had talked not long before about the contrast between our own interactions with turtles and those of our parents' generation. We've spent so much time thinking about sea turtles this summer that the topic comes up pretty often. A few weeks after my meeting with the gopher, and since I last wrote here, we ran into our friend Scott, who helps care for nesting sea turtles at our beloved Guana. Scott confirmed what we'd been hearing about the stunning numbers of nests this year, shared some other details about the science of the subject and spent some time helping educate us. I promise to tell more about this, my loves, but as I've been absent a bit and deadly boring on the topic for months I thought you deserved a break. Don't worry: it won't last. But on we go...

This almost embarrassingly flamboyant display of color was provided in late summer by a collection of bromeliads Rodney has been cultivating at the base of a palm tree. Bromeliads brush too closely to cactus for my taste, mostly. But I have a fondness for plants that work with diligence obvious even to me at their own propogation. The lovely climbing pink Seven Sisters rose we have preserved through three generations is a great example, but it's a ROSE, for crying out loud. Bromeliads? I wasn't sure. But look at this thing. It's dramatic and glamorous and sings its own song. A bit of summer under the dappled light of the oak trees.

And what ode to summer could be complete without a view of the beach? Well, at least an ode to summer in my hands...but you knew that. Here's a view of the north entrance to Guana as we found it today, scoured by a wind out of the southeast pegged by FairWeatherFriends (my preferred weather app) as being "5-10 mph". This was clearly a lie. The wind was blowing strongly enough that stinging grains of sand blasted our legs on the southbound return walk, filling in the depressions of footprints as well as dusting over shells left in by the falling tide. But the day had its own rewards. About a mile into our walk I was pulled up short by one of things we dread most to see on the beach: a baby sea turtle, motionless and beached by the tide. Flippers and all, his little body was about the size of the palm of my hand. His eyes were closed; I thought to take a photo and pulled out my phone, but Rodney was there and touched the turtle gently as he said, "Is he dead?" and to my astonishment, his EYES OPENED. The law is clear that you must stay 500 feet away from sea turtles and they are not to be interfered with, and this is a law I respect more than most. But I didn't think. I just scooped up the baby and ran into the water with him, placing him beyind the first breakers as far out as I could go. And then we watched.

It took several minutes, but his flippers moved constantly in the timeless rhythm of life with which baby sea turtles are hard-wired. He rolled in the breakers a bit, seemed to struggle, and then seemed to swim, and finally, disappeared. We watched. Finally we continued our walk, another half mile to the north and back, watching all the while for the tiny body to appear again. All the way back, we scanned the breakers and the incoming tide, watching carefully. The little turtle had disappeared, though, for good or ill. Tomorrow I'll let Scott know, and give him as a reference point the nearest nest labels. And we'll hope for the best.

So, my dears, here are some glimmers of summer as its days grow gently shorter. I hope they speak to your hearts, as they're shared from mine.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Of biblical proportions

The rain came this afternoon with comfortingly distant rumbles of thunder and a fresh, steady pouring that made it easy to drift off into a nap over my book, a Chinoa Achebe novel borrowed from Dylan. Drifting, I thought of the resurrection ferns coming back to green from their dry brown dustiness, and then was lost to thought. The rain continued.

I worked on a blog post; Rodney watched a race on television. It was preceded by a prayer, offered by a Christian minister with a fervor that astonished us both. We looked at each other and recalled moments from childhood. And those thoughts bring me to Pablo Notes. Pablo's been on a theme of childhood and other recollections associated with a collection of Bibles he's amassed. There's no religious screed here, no uncomfortable opinionating, no ranting of any kind: there is only the usual excellent writing Pablo offers, his view of youth in the Bible belt wry and as refreshing to me as a summer afternoon gin and tonic. With lime. It's writing for Writers and Readers. And the rain continues.


Another dog, another potato salad

Upon careful review, it seems I can't quite keep away from certain topics here. You know what they are: sea turtles, the beach, dogs...and recently, potato salad. I promise not to mention it, at least for awhile, after this post. But since some of you very dear readers commented on the undeniable charm of potato salad when it's freshly made and the potatoes are still a bit warm, I have one more to share. But rescue before food, my dears.

Pictured is Rubin, who joined us as a foster dog today. I have a feeling he won't be here long: he is a perfectly beautiful Boxer, a dark brindle color like our old dear Sheba. (For those of you who didn't know Sheba, she helped us raise our boys in a manner reminscent of the dog Nana in "Peter Pan" and was an honored member of our family for nearly 14 years.) Rubin is a young dog, full of energy and very eager to please, and he's sure to find a forever home soon. It's always enlightening to bring a foster home and observe (and of course direct) the dynamics of the pack. This is a guy without much experience with other dogs, so it was really fun to watch our dogs exert their varying influences. Meg's timid nature challenged his ability to control dominance impulses. Ty, who brooks no nonsense, tolerated him with her usual disdain. Calvin was the hero of the day. He was the soul of balance, setting an example of calm for everyone else. We learn something new from every dog, and Rubin is no exception.

So: the potato salad and then I really DO promise to shut up about it. This is based on a Moosewood Cookbook recipe with my own touches. It's too exotic for most of my family but I love to make it when Katie is home. (Remind me to put it on the list of favorites this fall, when the whole gang is home from Africa....)

If you can get them, Yukon Gold potatoes are lovely for this salad. Peel and shop as you would for any other potato salad, seasoning with some kosher salt as they cook. If you have new potatoes or those tiny red bliss potatoes, don't peel them, just scrub them well and chop into the size you want before cooking; kosher salt still applies, of course. I'm not sure how to tell you how many potatoes you need for this; I'd use about 2-1/2 pounds but it's a salad: you can't go wrong with the proportions. You can refine next time you make the recipe, so don't let it worry you.

While the potatoes are cooking, dice an onion and a clove or two of garlic. Saute these gently in a touch of olive oil, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Very finely chop some fresh parsley (or other fresh herbs, as you like - a touch of fresh thyme or rosemary would be lovely) and set this aside. When the onion and garlic are translucent and fragrant and the potatoes are fork-tender and have been drained, toss together in your best big salad bowl along with the chopped herbs. Add an 8-ounce container of ricotta cheese, toss gently and serve while warm. This is one of those recipes in which a low-fat or even fat-free ricotta will do very nicely. Bon appetit!

P.S. Rodney and I noted Guana sea turtle nest N138 this weekend. If the turtles of the southern half of Guana State Park are keeping pace, there should be well over 200 sea turtle nests so far this season. In the immortal words of Lulumarie (and indeed, of us all): GO, baby sea turtles!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

My sisters Make Things. My response? Potato salad.

The sisters of my heart make things, almost without exception. This is an interesting perspective for me, as I've always been richly blessed in this part of my life with friends so dear that the very word, friend, is not adequate to describe them. And as different as they are from one another, there are some threads of commonality. This breathtaking pink flower was made from rare, beautiful and oh-so-French antique ribbon by Elisabeth at Mon Amie Ribbonerie. She's also a gifted songwriter, singer and producer so music is something she makes, too, but it's not as visible in blog land.

Every now and then, something delightfully pickled will come to me from Jayne's garden; in this case, okra. Long years ago Lis and I were assigned to a video production crew and had lunch together. Though I'd known her loosely and admired her intensely from afar, this was the first time I'd sat down to a meal with her. She made turkey sandwiches with baby Swiss cheese and served them with pickled okra, commercially made but delightful and something I'd never tasted before and immediately loved. Years have passed, but when Jayne brings me a jar of pickled okra made with love and care in her own kitchen, I am always thrilled by the taste, by the homegrown nature of the thing, for she has grown the vegetables in her own organic garden AND done the cooking, flavoring and preservation. Imagine!

And there are other sisters dear, who make other things. Miss Jo makes something bittersweet and eternally hopeful every year with her classes of drama students, lighting the way to the stage for them. Remember me telling you that I'd learned public speaking poise (if one can call it that) from Sister Patricia by sheer force of having to sing in front of 400 people at the Cathedral? Whether any of Miss Jo's kids go on to the stage in London or New York doesn't matter. What matters is that she has given them confidence, shown them how to see into themselves, given them Art as something real and accessible, and taught them to make it part of their lives. And if you read Ms. Moon and her intriguing accounts of Life at the Opera House and Movie Making with Elusive Legends, you have an idea how valuable this insight can be, regardless of age or stage of life.

Debra makes poems to bring you to your knees, poems to make you glad to be alive and poems to make you glad to have lived through some things and rejoice. Miss Judy makes music other people can bring alive. Without her, the MadriGalz would not continue, because she teaches us how to harmonize, how to hear each other and ourselves, how to amaze ourselves. Lulu makes living space magical. She did it at our beloved Cafe Alcazar, and she does it at her own house with color and flowers and tiny, perfect touches, and at your house if you're ever fortunate enough to get a card from her when a much-loved pet has died or you've taken a fall and need a warm hug from a friend. Katie makes people feel good. It sounds so little, doesn't it, but it is so, SO much. Clare makes astonishing designs for things, including tattoos. Every single one of you makes something that makes life better.

In an effort to remain in step with my swan-like sisters, here is what I can make: potato salad. It came to me from my sister-in-law (I am not making this up), Elvis, and yes, she did grow up in Memphis. Apparently it was a common name then and there, regardless of gender. Anyway, she taught me to make this. And because it uses pickle juice, I encourage you to make friends with your local farmers and crafters, because the more homemade, the better. Enjoy.

Summer Potato Salad

Peel and dice about 8 medium potatoes, and two or three eggs (hard-boiled). I use those small baking potatoes that you can get bagged at the grocery store, but Yukon Gold or small red bliss potatoes are also really good, and you don't have to peel unless you're married to Rod, which I'm pretty sure you're not. Boil the diced potatoes with a teaspoon or so of kosher salt until they're tender and then strain and set aside. Chop the hard-boiled eggs and add to the potatoes.

Dice one small onion, one or two stalks of celery and two or three kosher dill pickles to as fine a dice as you like; add to the potatoes and eggs and toss together.

Now you have to make a decision: mayonnaise or not? If not, use olive oil and go from here. If so (and I do use mayonnaise in my version), combine about 1/2 cup of mayonnaise with a couple of tablespoons of mustard and a couple of tablespoons of juice from the pickle jar. (This is where having Jayne donate pickled okra to your cause becomes even more alluring.) If you're not using mayonnaise, you can see how olive oil, mustard, and pickle juice would combine for a lovely dressing. If you have fresh dill, chop some and toss it in. Season the dressing with kosher salt and a touch of cayenne pepper. Toss over the vegetable mixture gently and serve at room temperature if you can. It's great out of the fridge, but that first taste while it's still warm will make you very happy. I promise.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


In beautiful Guana State Park, we're having a banner year for turtle nests. As we see more news stories about turtle hatchlings being released in other locations than the Gulf of Mexico, including the northeast Florida coast, I find myself fascinated with the topic. Well, after all, who doesn't like to see pictures of what we like to think are rescued animal babies, being released into what we hope is safe habitat? In species like most of the sea turtles still extant, we know nature is doing its best to ensure survival against daunting odds, if for no other reason than the sheer number of eggs one female produces in a season. There are lots of nests every year, each with many dozens of eggs. The hatchlings face human encroachment, predators, artificial light, beach driving, inadvertent daytime many obstacles that serve to prevent their reaching of the open ocean and relative safety.

And it's one of the very few things we can all feed good about in the wake of this incalculable disaster. Most realistic people probably realize that this will be with us long, long after the well is finally sealed and cleanup efforts solidly underway.

Okay, okay. Nevertheless, most years see 90-100 turtle nests along the beaches of Guana in northeast Florida. These are watched over by a tiny, dedicated army of volunteers who get up in darkest dawn to check the nests, to mark the new ones made during each long, starlit evening and report the status to the biologists who keep careful track. The biologists in turn mark the date of the nest, and know down to a pretty specific estimate, when the hatchlings are due to emerge. They monitor nest viability and do all they can to ensure the success of each clutch.

But except for extraordinary interventions like the ones the news channels are reporting occurring as a result of the oil spill, they can't affect the number of nests. The turtles labor up the beaches every summer season, and most summer seasons they produce roughly the same number of nests. But not this year. As I've discussed before, this year, there are nearly 200 nests along the Guana beaches. This Sunday Rodney and I were delighted to photograph N125, which is the 125th nest in the northern section of the state park's environs. I find this nothing short of magical, and wanted to share pictures of some of the labors of the turtles, who must find their way from the water to the safety of the high beaches near the protective dunes to lay their precious eggs. And of course I couldn't finish without including a closeup up of N125, for which we continue to root as though for the Braves or the Red Sox. Yay, sea turtles!

Booksmith Recollection IV: Peter Bogdanovitch

This was the view he would have had, Mr. Bogdanovitch, as he set up a scene and began shouting at the young woman at the other end of the block. He was standing with the Cathedral on his left, looking down toward that very small, very last building on the same side of the street. This tiny block was home to so much of what was central to my life, for a long time and through much change.

I worked at the wonderful Booksmith, as many of you know. I learned the fundamentals of small business there, where it was closely tied to the magic of matchmaking though admittedly the matching of books with people is less fraught with disastrous possibilities than matches with no books involved. Some of the friendships that would frame my whole adult life were born there. We gradually began the long process of mourning the demise of the small, independent bookseller, and we figured out how to keep our professional affinities alive in times of drastic change.

Just up the block was the Cathedral. I was born with a love of singing and perhaps some small talent, but it was at the Cathedral that my voice found its wings, coaxed and nurtured and enriched by Sister Patricia. More friendship came to me, or (in the case of Miss Jo) returned to me, and here again, the architecture on which I was building my life was made strong. Here I learned how to be a friend and how not to. Here I learned about love, and about having sisters, an ironic lesson for one whose family includes 3 half-sisters. Here I learned that people really can love you forever, no matter what, and that you can love people in the same way. The lessons I would need to be a married person, to be a mother, to be a friend: too many of them to count were learned on this tiny block. At the Cathedral end of that block, they were all learned against a backdrop of musical scores. Standing in front of that very large congregation, I found some reserve from which I could sing week in and week out without being crippled by stage fright. So well-integrated is that lesson that to this day I'm able to talk in front of people without more than a gentle nervousness. Sister used to say, "As you rehearse, so will you perform..." and she usually added some reference to not goofing off, or working harder. She was right in many ways, not the least of which was repetition helps improve performance, and training shows, often just when you need it most.

In large measure I grew into the person I am in the tiny neighborhood described by that block. And one morning, as I stepped outside the beautifully embossed brass door of the Booksmith to hang out the "Open" sign, the street was deserted except for a handful of people all focused on the same job of work, a man in big glasses standing in front of the Cathedral shouted down the street, "HEY! You there! Get off the street!!" And then I saw the camera, and realized what the job of work was: they were the movie crew we'd heard about, come to town to shoot a movie. The shouting man was the director, Peter Bogdanovitch. (Another of his movies had enjoyed a summer run during the time of my first high school job at St. Augustine's drive-in theater, but that, my loves, is a tale for another long winter's evening.)

Back into the store I stepped, away from my closest brush with moviemaking, to wait for Gamble Rogers to browse through a copy of Wooden Boat, to wait for Mr. Montagnaro to pick up a stack of erudition and art books and tell me about the blue collar working person passion for opera in Italy, to wait for you, maybe, and all you brought me in that tiny, dusty, beautiful library of books and sisters and learning, down the street from the heart of music, emerging spiritual thought, sisters and music. What a block that was you shouted down, Mr. Bogdanovitch. What a street. What a town.