Monday, November 28, 2011

Midwinter's approach

What magicks come to us on the changing wings of the weathers of autumn, as midwinter draws near and we must remind ourselves of the beauties of cold weather and the far-off hope of spring? These are all known to and cherished by us all. We gather by fireplaces; we cook amazing meals. We raise our glasses; we remember to hug each other, even when laughing at timeworn tales and jokes. We remember.

And as warm and sentimental as that notion may be, we also look into the faces of the new and the unexpected. My Dear Old Person and I spend as much time as we can walking the beaches we love, and he is always hoping against hope for Treasure. Really. You never know. Someone's 18th century silver might wash up any old day. But the unexpected turns up all around us: in this case, The Unexpected showed itself in the form of rare, gloriously beautiful Sandhill Cranes, who made a landing in a quiet field near Publix. We've often heard them in quiet spring mornings at Gatorbone, where their ritualized dance of romance is unmistakable. But we hardly expected to hear them - or dear, me, SEE them! - casually feeding in recently cleared fallow land so close to A1A.

We took pictures. We stared. We might have drawn a crowd, if we'd been watching North Atlantic right whales on the beach. It was a late afternoon, overcast and quiet, as though some glamour had been cast; perhaps the most precious among us were kept safe from much notice. So here they are; with or without the glamour my guess is you'll see right into the magick.

So what particular beauties are on offer when the clouds lower in the skies and the winds take their chill from the northeast? The season of gift-sharing draws nigh and the long, dark afternoons can make time for refining stitches. Colors and textures, contrasting and complimentary: matches you thought would work really don't, and matches you didn't expected can be made as the threads and textures show themselves in subtle winter light and shadow. We had a lovely, quiet holiday dinner. I hope you did the same, along the scale of boisterous and lively most pleasing to your own tribe. Warm leftovers and helpful hands foreshadowed the magick of mid-winter at our hearthside, leavened by windblown beach walks and shared hopes. Welcome, Christmas (and thank you, Dr. Seuss):
Fah who rah-moose Fah who rah-moose
Welcome, Welcome Welcome, Welcome
Dah who dah-moose Dah who dah-moose
Christmas day is in our grasp, So long as we have hands to clasp So long as we have hands to clasp...

MadriGalz excitement may just possibly skew this, slightly. Stay tuned for performance details, but we know we'll be appearing at Creekside Dinery and Saltwater Cowboy's on December 17/18 and 22/23.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Queen Palm Sky

October has arrived, and with it the sharp blue skies we long for during the heartless, endless, breathless summer afternoons. With or without the filter of the tall queen palms, the blue is so deep that it stretches to infinity. And this is just our plain old front yard. Welcome back, October, with your reminder of all the promises of Fall. And welcome back, me: I have been long away from this beloved place of words, whispered and shouted, measured and thoughtless, balanced and unhinged. Welcome back, me, to the sharing of reflections and recipes and dialogue. I've been writing (lest you think I'd just been reading novels and eating bonbons these months. Oh, wait: come to think of it, I HAVE been reading novels and eating bonbons. But I've been writing, too, really). I've been writing over at GTMReserve and on a much smaller scale at BandBackTogether. They're a wide range of beautiful, for a range of reasons too wide to summarize here. Go forth and read.

And some things haven't changed. My dear old person continues to walk through pain. The small feet in the middle are mine; the big ones on the outside are his. Those little round dark spots on top of his are as browned by the sun as mine are all over, thanks to the small holes on top of the Crocs he wears most of the time for comfort. Neuropathy continues to make it more comfortable for him to walk with them on, rather than barefoot, even on the sculpted white sand on the beach. Chronic pain is a vague presence in most of our experiential vocabularies - mostly we take an aspirin or some ibuprophen and our headaches or backaches ease enough so we can think. Chronic pain that hovers above 5 or 6 on a scale of 1-10 isn't something most of us have to deal with, or even think about much, unless we suffer it ourselves or care about someone who does. For my own dear person, a walk on the beach sometimes shifts the balance of focus in his brain and allows pain to be shunted aside, at least for a little time. Walking with the power of Great Mother Ocean to one side and the prosaic but intriguing possibility that his metal detector may find a Spanish galleon on the other serves to switch some neurons or synapses off or on; we do not question too closely. We try to accept the gift as it is offered. My feet get brown, his open top-spots get brown; we laugh.

The long, comfortable weekend draws to a close with a touch of gold lighting the blue sky, peeking from behind this rooting angelwing begonia and its garden companion of little frogs. That glimmer of perfect light seated in the west touches the last of the streaky white clouds with pink and beckons the songbirds and fat brown marsh rabbits to their last meal of the evening.
Cardinals peep from every corner of the yard, reminding one another that the bird feeders are full. Barred owls settle themselves into the tall oak trees, obscured by great beards of Spanish moss, repeating their timeless call-and-response just above the canopy.

The kitchen waits quietly for me. I've promised comforting pan-fried cubed steak, mashed potatoes and milk gravy, corn and asparagus. It is at least as comforting to me to cook them as it is for my family to eat them. Did I mention pictures? Next time, my loves. Next time.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Simple words, simple food

Indulgent readers will recall last year's summer vacation, which involved France, my dear old Person and me, the Tour de France, and oh, right: our TV. It's that time again, my dears, for early July brings the high American holiday of Independence Day, and also heralds the beginning of the Tour de France. This will mean occasional mention of my TV boyfriend, Fabian Cancellara, rather a lot of eye-rolling from my very kind dear old Person, an embarrassing number of hours logged by the DVR, and perhaps a few photos. New this year - and you'll be thankful to know this - is the role of Twitter in the 3-week long summer interlude. Twitter might mean less Tour conversation at Eat Here, but of course I'll keep you posted if anything big happens. (I know, I know.)

In the meantime, a very Happy Fourth of July to all. I do hope everyone has a lovely time with friends and family, dogs and burgers, and for those of you who've had enough rain to make them possible, bright fireworks bursting against your starlit skies. Whatever you're cooking, here's an idea for dessert, so fine that I thought it warranted more than one photo.
This was shared with just a few of our dearest friends yesterday evening, as we gathered to begin planning an upcoming family event. I've often spoken here about the gift of the friendship of women as one of the central blessings of my life, and I wrapped myself in its richness yesterday for some long, sweet hours. When small groupings of our circle form we miss the whole, feeling the gaps left by each unique pair of hands. But we're always happy to savor the presence of those of who have gathered; this was one of those afternoons. For those of my sisters whose presence I missed: fear not. There are a million favors to be asked in months to come, and millions of blessings, large and small, to rain down on us. For you who shared the afternoon with us, I have no eloquent words, only ones that have served us since the beginning of time, offered with a full heart: Thank you. I love you.

Just as plain words are sometimes the only ones perfectly suited to the moment, despite how rounded down and smoothed they've become with use, so is plain food often most perfect. So here's what we had for dessert.

It started with a pound cake I made a couple of days ago. You can use any pound cake you like, or come to that, any cake at all. This one is an old-fashioned cake, in which the eggs are separated, the whites whipped with sugar to soft peaks, then folded into the batter. It makes a taller, lighter cake with an especially delicious crust. But whatever cake you prefer or have on hand will serve nicely. Berries are abundant and cheap right now, so we had were strawberries and raspberries. A cup of cream, whipped quickly with a touch of confectioners sugar makes magic. Top with sliced almonds, toasted to bring out their flavor and add a golden touch. It's the simplest thing in the world, isn't it? It will make palates sing with the simple goodness of the flavors, and the memories sing whenever they're brought to mind. These are the rituals by which we are bound together, my dears. Bring on the fireworks. Happy Independence Day. And vive la France!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Figs on a new moon harvest

Here I am, standing on the beach this afternoon. New moon, new beginning. Time for planting things, time for seeking new joys. And time for putting behind us that which is well and truly past, not unlike these past few weeks. It was a long, dark collision of hardware and software issues with the deepening complexities of the large corporate entities that exercise control over our access to precious virtual circles. But it seems to be over now, for the most part, and there is that new moon, and boy, did I miss The BlogLand.

But life has gone on apace, of course, out beyond the borders of the BlogLand. While I've seemed silent, I've had an abundant harvest of many things, including tomatoes. I shared this with you quite generously as regards How I Eat Them and How Good They Are, but have actually eaten most of them myself, sharing only rarely and with a perceptibly surly note when I do. There are just a few left, just as those of you in northern climes are beginning to get fresh beautiful tomatoes. And it's just as well that I can't reach them. You'd have to stab my hand with a fork at the table to make me leave some for everyone else. I had one sliced tonight on 5-grain bread with baby Swiss cheese and just touched with salt and pepper. That tomato tasted like it had been sprinkled with sugar. It did, really. The complex and dazzling chemistry of fresh tomatoes inebriates me and makes me greedy.

Not so the figs; our fig trees bore a small but positively toothsome first crop and have now busied themselves with - yes, really! - a second crop. I've never seen this before, but this second crop looks to be enormous and the fruits have begun to ripen. I promised to put the bulk of the crop in the freezer for Jayne, who promised in turn to make them into Fig Preserves. (Those two words used in conjuntion are quite sacred to my Dear Old Person, so I've been as good as my word, mostly. Mostly.) We are gathering them as they ripen and dropping them into a freezer bag, saving them from birds and other backyard thieves by virtue of the rather horrifying array of rubber snakes with which each tree has been adorned by my Dear Person. These are quite realistic and yet so commonplace to us that a few weeks ago EatHere's Editor drove in, parked, and said, "I just saw a snake by the gate. I pushed it out of the way with my toes, cause I thought it was one of the ones from the fig tree...and then it moved. Wanna see?" We did, naturally. Of course it was NOT a fake, but turned out to be a King snake. Which, by the way, looked uncomfortably like its deadly poisonous cousin, the coral snake. It gave me quite a turn, I must tell you. Thank goodness for the Field Guide to Reptiles, which reassured us. And thank goodness the birds do not have access to the Field Guide, and continue in their reluctance to swoop in for the ripening figs.

So plant something, make a wish, dream a dream, and charge it all to the new moon. Do not let the birds read the Reptile book, say your prayers, and take good care of each other. It is more lovely than I can say to tell you a small story and hum a bit of melody for you, a lullaby in the form of an ode to figs and tomatoes, under the pale light of the freshening moon.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Eat Here embraces summertime, or Involving Tomatoes

Well met, my dear friends. I could say, "I've missed you," but that wouldn't be true, precisely: each of you dwell with me in some inner reflective space, perhaps more than you realize. If I don't know you but you've done me the favor and honor of dropping by for a read, it might be fair to say I dwell on you more than perhaps I myself realize. So then, I do miss you, whether or not you're a regular presence. AND I have this confession to make: all the things I meant to write about as winter drew to a close remain unwritten. I've been caught up in Work and Stuff, (go ahead say it you've been cheating with The Twitter oh all RIGHT, it's TRUE, everyone knows about me and The Twitter so now shut UP!) and, you know, important stuff like Gardening.

It's true enough that my gardening is lazily focused on tomatoes and could be said to be rather one-dimensional. I have a few desultory marigolds functioning largely as splashes of color, masquerading as useful bug deterrents. Basil is a fortunate and wholly accidental side effect of tossing some seeds near the dirt. Rosemary is a coveted triumph which apparently only occurs in the gardens of others. (Ahem. Some of these "others" are dear friends, from whose gardens I have fruitlessly or bootlessly stolen bits of rosemary. Do not tell them. And don't worry; they won't find out when they visit my garden. The evidence seldom remains.) Still, as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and these are those beautifully golden, rather too hot, lengthening summer days where the best may come before the end of any of them.

So brace up, everyone. Truly, you can be the same lazy gardener I am and still manage to put this together. Back in the day, Jayne and I used to make these at the office during summer tomato season, using a small toaster oven, with affectionate support from fans like Mr. Ming's mother. We drew crowds from far and wide. When our small toaster over betrayed us by belching just a bit of smoke we even drew unwelcome crowds from the management offices, but we didn't like them much, anyway so that was all right.

It was this easy and it still is today, as long as you have those all-important fresh garden tomatoes. Toast two slices of interesting bread. This may be sourdough or sunflower or Kalamata olive bread, but whatever your poison you must toast it lightly on both sides. Lightly spread one side of each slice with a good quality mayonnaise. (You can skip this step if you must.) Cover each slice of bread with slices of fresh tomato. Lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper (and if you've a bit of fresh basil you have only slightly stolen from a neighboring garden, now's the time). Top each slice of bread with a solid slice (or a good amount of grated) Cheese. You. Love. This can be a stout Vermont white cheddar or grated Emmenthaler or - really - any cheese you like. Put both slices under a hot broiler and remove when the cheese has melted or browned or bubbled or looks just the way you like it.
If you have fresh figs, put them on the plate or follow an alternate plan and add whatever lovely fruit you can. Add a glass of pinot grigio or cold fresh water and you've captured summer's flavors in your own kitchen and your own house and maybe even in your own garden. Just like that.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Belated birthday blessings

My, oh MY, how the days do whirl past my head like fireflies on a summer night. Days and days have whizzed by without me finding time to write here. And so it comes to pass that I am finally writing a post I meant to write a month ago...ah, as Ms. Moon would say, la. Here are the Easter lilies, blooming well past their expected date, but perfuming the garden, nonetheless. Like them, I thank you for not giving up on me.

Several remarkable women in my circle celebrate birthdays in April, and in their honor I want to remember two other very special women who lived in St. Augustine when I was too young, perhaps, to fully appreciate them. Both of them were known to me by the now almost-extinct prefix of Mrs. They were Mrs. Weiderman and Mrs. Allemano, and though as different as chalk and cheese, they also shared a grace in aging.

Mrs. Weiderman was a frequent visitor at the Booksmith, the marvelous independent bookstore of revered memory where I worked. She was a tall woman, somewhat spare of build, somewhat reserved in manner. By the time I knew her, she must have been in her 60s, but it was hard to tell, really. She was active and self-reliant and might have been a decade younger or older. She had discerning taste and was always reading something interesting. And she lived on St. Andrews Court, a tiny street in downtown St. Augustine that has always welcomed the artistic and eclectic. This was about as much as I knew about her. But I wasn't her only connection to our very young household: she was also a customer at the mechanical shop where my dear old person worked in those years, long time past, my dears. By pure happenstance he mentioned her to me one day. She was an especially kind customer, he said. She'd made him a gift of a calendar from the 1940s that he treasured. I was surprised to hear him refer to her as "June", quite casually. I'm not sure I'd even known her first name. It was typical of him to develop a rapport with customers, because he was both generous with knowledge and unfailingly honest. Over the years he amassed an impressive following and I used to tease him about the mourning period that followed his move to a corporate environment. Even so, I was nearly astonished, and a bit awed, to hear him call this refined lady "June". For me, she was a respected customer. But she was also capable of establishing unlikely friendships, a gift not given to everyone. This wild iris or lily or whatever it is, blooms in a boggy spot under our oak canopy, and has always reminded me of women like Mrs. Weiderman. It is hardy and determined. It's also inherently - and unselfconsciously - beautiful.

Mrs. Allemano was similar to Mrs. Weiderman in height and build, in her love of books and scholarship and her capacity for embracing the unexpected. Mrs. Allemano, however, had an air about her that was at once commanding of respect, and generous and calming. She was quite tall, with a crown of silvered hair, and I never saw her dressed with anything less than the most exacting care and the most perfectly chosen accessories. She had a timeless quality seated in her very spirit which was most easily visible in her sense of style. If her person had been made invisible so that only her dress and accessories were considered, it would have been impossible to guess at the age of their owner. This timelessness was a function of her formidable intellect, as well, but it would be years before I realized that she was honored in many circles for her erudition and spiritual wisdom, but this is a story for another night, my loves. Perhaps it is enough to say that she was imperious and regal, but probably didn't realize think of herself in those terms at all. She raised children who made their homes arond the world, in London and Paris and various points on the African continent. She was an insatiable reader, erudite and relentless in the pursuit of learning. On one memorable MadriGalz occasion when she had gathered her family from the corners of the earth, they came to the Cafe Alcazar for a holiday luncheon. Surrounded by her grown children and Mrs. Allemano, who was was "Irene" to many members of the circle to which I would one day belong, was another breathtakingly beautiful woman for whom age was an enrichment, and nothing less.

For those of you whose birthdays I missed in a blue and beautiful April, I wish you this great blessing. For Tracy and Jackie, for Rima, for Issis and Nirvana and especially for beloved Lizzie, may the blessing of years sit as lightly and gracefully with you as it did with these two unique, lovely women. May a new year enrich and deepen the beauty of each of you. Love to each of you from our house under the oak trees, the Spanish moss and the benediction of the golden hour.
I'm sorry it's so late, but happy, happy birthday to each of you.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Guana is my new BFF. We need you.

So: because we spend so much time at this beloved, pristine, undeveloped beach and because the state has tight controls over how its staff can interact with the Actual Internet, and for other, even more boring reasons, I've created a blog and a Twitter account for Guana (officially known at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve). I know, I know. It's ridiculous. But it's beautiful and a source of peace and comfort to Rodney and I, such that I cannot begin to put into words. I would be grateful for your patronage, even if you don't live here, and can't walk with us on Saturdays and Sundays...just knowing you're willing to follow the blog and perhaps the (what will almost certainly be intermittent feed on) Twitter would be incredibly meaningful to me. I truly do feel that this is one of those places on earth we stand at great risk of losing. Your sister and brotherhood would be more welcome there than I can tell you.
Love, love.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Madrigals, MadriGalz and Mrs. Pellicer

At the very heart of my town there's a web of connection reaching back decades or generations or, in some cases, hundreds of years. In the case of my dear old person, for instance, some of his connections go back to kindergarten at R.B. Hunt Elementary School (conveniently located right across from the Alligator Farm!) and some go back through his Aunt Helen to Spain and the island of Minorca and those descendants who settled along the eastern coast of Florida. The interesting threads of that web include people like Pellicers and Klipstines and Pacettis and Prevatts and Manucys and, well. Ahem. The list goes on and on, and it has a million stories. Father Tom Willis, who was once a plain old St. Augustine boy himself, recalled serving at Mass at the Cathedral, which stands right alongside the central Plaza in St. Augustine, and having everyone dash out the doors at the (locally famous) cry of "Mullet on the beach!" From this same Cathedral along this same Plaza, with their evocative sense of the old cities of Europe, Sister Patricia took one of her boldest steps toward melding our oddly Southern-cum-Catholic sensibilities with an appreciation of the culture and musical history that was always our birthright.

From about 1980 until about 2000, she served as musical director and organizer of a group of Madrigal singers who worked roughly as the MadriGalz do today, during the holiday season. She did Madrigal dinners. She taught madrigals, with their intricate, delicate harmonies, to a small, shifting group of singers who were all eager to learn. She taught Klipstines and Pellicers, at least two of whom married each other. She found people who could make period costumes, and tenors who were willing to wear them. I think it might have been during this time that she realized the breadth of the gift of musicality with which Miss Judy had been blessed, but that's a tale for another night, my loves. The Cathedral Madrigal Singers had a LOT of fun. It was a fine experience of the pure and undiluted joy of a capella singing in close harmony, perhaps something like being part of an ensemble of actors: perhaps too subtle to be noticed by casual observers, small ensembles can create an exhilarating trust in one another and consequent confidence, the effects of which can be felt for a lifetime.

All this leads us to the present day, albeit without the detail I ought to have provided. (Many people contributed to the evolution of madrigal performance in St. Augustine, some of them heroically. And this, of course, is another evening's tale, my dears.) Left to our own devices we were predictably naughty (all Miss Judy's fault, of course.) The MadriGalz pirated some of Sister's early ideas, figured out how to fit them to the vocal talent we had amongst us, and took a long happy dive into singing at Christmastide. Many, many voices and coaches deserve credit for early changes, helping step this quadrant of St. Augustine into the contemporary; driving toward incremetal change.

We - Judy and Lis and I - wanted to be better in our incarnation as The MadriGalz. We wanted to share the journey, however obscure or even invisible it might have been to our friends. We worked as hard as our day jobs allowed. We spent time recording at Gatorbone Studios; we took shameless advantage of indispensable talent (Lon and Rocky and Rick: we're pretty sure we still owe all these guys). But make no mistake: we would not have been able to share that recording beyond geography and logistics without Miss Dot. She made us a gift of faith that enabled us to replicate the CD that had been lovingly recorded for us by Gatorbone Studios. I believe she made many such gifts of love during her life, and I came to believe she was one of those "let not your left hand" people; for Miss Dot it was far more important to do those small good deeds than to be recognized for the doing.

This Christmas past, 2010, we gathered at Miss Dot Pellicer's house (she was 'Mrs. Pellicer', of course, but always 'Miss Dot' to us) and carolled just for her. We were scheduled to sing at Creekside Dinery at suppertime; it's close by and we took advantage of the time. We sang with more care than ever, not performing as we usually might, but rather sharing the music with her, knowing we weren't singing to someone without appreciation. We leaned close to her to sing the Arcadelt Ave Maria, a breathtaking 16th century version that always brings tears to our eyes and gives us goosebumps. Miss Dot closed her eyes and seemed delighted by the sound. Her kids and grandkids and great-grandkids (Pellicers, Klipstines, Prevatts: who knows? who cares?) gathered around our ankles or pushed into the small room. There were no acoustical challenges. We simply leaned together and sang in close quiet harmony, comfortably, hoping to ease Miss Dot in whatever small way we might. We eased one another. I think Lis and I dared to hope that our voices might have eased her mother, but especially that we might have eased Miss Judy in some small measure.

There were madrigals in St. Augustine, some time gone. And there are MadriGalz, and there were countless miles in between, more twists and turns than could be counted or followed. For all these and many other changes and challenges, there was Dot Pellicer. May the next generation of art and music and change find its humble way through the unquestioning blessing of others like Dot. Among the Pellicers is the example of Red River Band, with Miss Judy's brother Jonny and sister-in-law Lori as the principals: Lori was one of the founding members of that madrigal group I mentioned. She had a voice like a silver bell. She went from singing madrigals to singing bluesy ballads with the same command....but this is yet another tale for another night, my loves.

For this night, we send our love to Miss Judy and are simply thankful to Miss Dot. She is gone from us now, but leaves Miss Judy and her siblings as proof of her genetically inherited and shared talent, love and faith in the future.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

For Miss Dot, the Angel of the Pellicers

Just a very quick post, everyone, in brief but heartfelt praise of our friend Miss Dot Pellicer, mom of Miss Judy (Pellicer Bernhard), who is the well-known Boss of Us here at the MadriGalz. When the Madz were trying to figure out how on EARTH to come up with enough capital to record a CD, it was Miss Dot who came to our rescue, as she went often and quietly to many other rescues in our little town. Miss Dot passed from us this week at the age of 89, and while our dear Miss Judy and her family try to figure out how to get along without her, we know she's Up There now, watching out for us all.

The Madz were lucky enough to gather this past Christmas and carol for Miss Dot, but we were poor substitutes for angels. May the angels lead you into paradise, Miss Dot. You will be with us always.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Boys (or, Postcards from Spring, Part II)

My theme of the coming of Spring continues, viewed through the remarkable lens of Gatorbone. There are more tales of boys than I can possibly write, or at least there are more than I can write before I commence my life as a Great Novelist. Yeah, yeah. I know.

Still, there were some great Boy stories. This dreadful photo (I promise there are better ones to come) is our beloved Lis, holding the darling baby of a friend whose weekend trip had been undone by a flu bug of some sort. I think Baby and Dad were the only ones who persevered, and just to be on the safe side, when we served their supper I gave them ginger ale.

And then there was Vergil. As Ms. Moon said (more or less - I am quoting from unreliable memory), It's not fair to tuck yourself in to our hearts like that and then leave. Vergil and Miss Jessie paired their mandolins to give us a delightful song about children learning to spell through the magic of music. They will probably be horrified to hear this, but it reminded me of good old Mister Rogers, who always talked to children like people, and tried to teach children to think of themselves as such. Go to Ms. Moon's: she has a lovely photo of Miss Jessie and Vergil there, and if you see it you may understand why I could not take a photo of them all weekend. They were as beautiful as snowdrops, and as fresh and as welcome. They stunned me with their beauty, their youth, the perfectly tuned instrument of their young love. They made me think of my own faraway boy, and his love and their family. They took my breath away.

It happened that my own old boy called at this moment, and I could put the phone between two great teachers he's learned from, and he could hear them playing together across a thousand miles and more. I whispered into the phone, "Can you hear them?", and he whispered into my ear, "Mom, put the phone back." And here I am again, in the middle of a story with so much more depth and texture than can be captured here, dipping along its still surface with you like a flock of black skimmers at the beach. You must trust me when I tell you that music came to my sons in the cradle, but their welcoming of it as self-determining individuals is a source of great joy to me. Some of the people in this picture stood as musical midwives, if you will, delivering music as a forever part of the lives of my sons. As verbose as I am by nature, I run out of words here. This is where I have no more than sentimental tears to offer; as soon as he called, I began to cry and could barely talk. I handed the phone to another of his mothers, Miss Lorie, whose kind voice welcome as cool water to him. My boys continue to write their stories, tanks be to God (as an Irish priest would say), they have this amazing village to help them along the way.

There was a pinnacle Boy moment, of course. We were diverted and entertained and often made speechless this weekend by our friend Ro, whose precocity is remarkable, yet leavened with a sweetness of spirit to take your breath away. There were long minutes in Lis's garden while we waited for the birds to come, (quiet, QUIET!) while Ro moved bird seed from the feeder to various preferred locations, each certain to make the birds far happier than the status quo placement. I sat at a small round table with my dear old person and Miss Cathy, and we called to Ro as he passed by us on a mission we couldn't quite see. We called to him, and very quickly he turned and blew a kiss in our direction. It was a fine Boy moment, one perfect moment among many on offer at magical Gatorbone Lake this weekend. I am grateful, grateful. Oh, I am.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dona nobis pacem (or, Postcards from Spring, Part I)

Our circle is wide, deep and diverse, and though it consists of friends rather than colorful lines on paper, it could be quite nicely described by one of those spirograph drawings you did as a kid: some circles perfectly repeated, others endearingly imperfect. The circle exerts its gravitational pull across generations, social connections, religion and history. It's made rich by the sensibilities of us all, some deeply religious, some seriously intellectual, all creative in an astonishing range of ways, and every member with his or her own spiritual awareness. My guess - unsubstantiated, for this is the kind of thing I never ask people - is that we have among us the Buddhist and Christian, pagan and atheist, and deeply ambivalent. We ranged in age this year from newborn to celebration of 70th birthdays and beyond. Some of us hold degrees that might genuinely surprise others among us. Others demonstrate their individual educations in their art forms, whether hand-built instruments, songwriting and performance, garden-grown or lovingly prepared food or art forms like ribbon flowers, rescued from a near-forgotten age. We write. We sing. We play instruments. We raise children, and grandchildren. We love, whether as young lovers who promise us babies and eternity or as dearly bonded, life-bonded couples, perhaps more softly but with no less passion. We fight, we forgive, we re-connect. And on the eve of Spring this year, we gathered to celebrate.

On a long dock stretching to reach the edge of a shallowing lake, our precious circle of friends perched Saturday evening and waited for the rising of the moon. I needn't explain here about the exceptional moonrise. It was a once-in-a-century occasion and you know that already. I stood near my dear old person, sometimes holding a camera, and watched with the others as the golden light of sunset bathed our backs and the deepening evening touched our faces. In the quiet before the moonrise I heard a small song rise, voices of my sisters raised in this sweet round: "Dona nobis pacem". Christian, Catholic, Methodist, Pagan and Buddhist, whatever...what does it matter, really? The song was lovely and the sentiment transcendent.

Dona nobis pacem.
And with that, the round of the moon appeared on the horizon over the lake, the pearl white color deepened to auburn for a moment and lightened as it rose above the trees. Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.

Author's note: My unsparing editor tells me, kindly, that much of this is sentimental bilge, though he concedes his definition of "sentimenal bilge" is rather more strict than my own, for which reason he's corrected some typos and given me a pass (dona nobis pacem, anybody?). I promise I'll try to rein in the sentimentality in the rest of the Postcards from Spring series.

Photos(c)Rodney Christensen 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring, jump-started at Gatorbone

The photos are not all downloaded, the dirty laundry is not all unpacked. But the songs still ring in my ears, the scent of wisteria and bloom of dogwood are still fresh enough to breathe in and the blessed circle of friendship and love and sisters is far too humbling for me not to say a word. I have jumble of thoughts to share in the next few days as I sort over them and store them carefully in memory, and I bet I'm not the only one. I'll taste the last angel biscuit and show you where we've been and later this week we can talk about the magic of the moon, the joy of people and food and music combined on ancient sacred ground, and the almost indescribable benediction of shared memories and affection that have been woven into these past decades. Until then, love and deepest thanks to Lon and Lis and everyone else who made this spring ritual more magical than ever before.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Spring floats down from the sky, and Guana sends News

A small yellow flower peeping up from a bed of moss and last year's oak leaves is often the first glimpse of spring where I live. Carolina jessamine is a glorious twining vine that lives happily cheek-to-cheek with oak trees. It climbs high up, seeking the sun, and its first blossoms fall to the ground, calling my eye upward for the message: the light has come. Spring may not be here just yet, but it is close, oh, very close. Creating contrast for the jessamine at treetop-level is the clear blue sky so typical of this time of year, clean as a soul's salvation and as welcome. You can't see it in this picture, but you'll see it in the canopy of oak trees further down the page.

It was a day of contrasts, illustrated by the clear weather at home this morning that gave way to a low, moist fog, waiting to soften the edges of the view as soon as we stepped onto the beach. The fog didn't really pull back its long grey fingers until past noon. As we walked off the beach around 1 pm, it was still visible in the distance, settled between the rows of dunes separating the Atlantic from A1A. Because of the weather the beach was nearly deserted until afternoon, but we happened upon couple who share our simple joy in a good walk in a beautiful place, Irene and Joe, seasonal visitors. They were watching for whales, looking for sharks' teeth, and unsuspecting targets of Bandit's ongoing social outreach program. We met them both south- and northbound on their walk and chatted for a bit at both intersections, in contrast to most beach walks, where we keep our own counsel or talk to each other in the easy shorthand of the long-married. It's funny how chance meetings and conversations with strangers can deepen your appreciation for the smallest things, including the presence of a veritable paradise right in your own backyard.

Contrasts and simple pleasures lingered into the afternoon for us. The peace under the oak canopy was interestingly cracked and broken by the sights and sounds of aircraft, including several really loud passes by at least two sets of planes flying in very close formation, moving so fast it was difficult to catch sight of them through the branches and the Spanish moss moving in the wind.
Aircraft or not, the pileated woodpecker pair continued their work, indifferent to the disturbance, and as the afternoon wore toward evening, the barred owls called "Who? Who? Who cooks for youuuuuu...?" right over the whine of jet engines, taking not the least notice.

The cool damp of the morning fog had by this time given way to a spring day warm enough for the taking off of sweaters. The dogs found puddles of bright sunlight and stretched into afternoon naps. My dear old person and I strolled around the estate, noting the tiny hints of spring. Besides the Carolina jessamine, which fairly burst into bloom two or three days ago, we have camellias blooming at long last.

Those of you who love Ms. Moon's camellias will find no similar expertise here, for I have but one variegated camellia that doesn't take itself very seriously. But its blossoms carry the same promise of spring throughout their very tightly wound winter wait, and are as eagerly anticipated. We found one very tiny perfect fig leaf open on one of the fig trees, small buds on the cherry tree, and the first of the wild violets I love most of all, the delicate flower nestled among its heart-shaped leaves, waiting to be noticed.

Another small, non-botanical flower reached me today, too: my constant nagging about using social media to put a spotlight on GTM NERR is being kindly received, and it may be that I can lend a hand...stay tuned. For now, you can find all the news and events in the newsletter and PAY ATTENTION: whether you're a photographer or a walker or a fossil collector or take an interest in local environmental issues, or are a history buff, there's something in here for you. There are photo safaris, organized walks, visits to Marineland (the "Matanzas" part of "Guana Tolomato Matanzas") and lectures on specific topics...hell, there's even a beach walk, focused on understanding the delicate ecological subsystems we probably don't even think about on our many excursions to this very spot.

As the day fades gently into evening, the theme of contrast echoes once more, carried on the sharp edge of the cooling air. The pools of warm sunshine have disappeared into oak shadows and I need a sweater once again. Time to put chicken on the grill, time to wash greens for a salad, time to check with my dear old person and our dear boy about slicing strawberries. Time to go in for the night, my dears, and wish you sweet dreams and beautiful Sundays.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Coming soon

It hasn't been a weekend conducive to writing blog posts at Eat Here. We've had some issues involving wells and pumps, things evocative of (insert shudder here) Hardware Stores. So since I haven't had the focus for a thoughtful post, I've come up with a list of things I plan to write this spring. This is Eat Here's Coming Soon list for Spring 2011.

I'm going to work on my definitive Sister Patricia Eileen post this spring, collecting the work I've done so far, combining it with the generous recollections of others who've loved and appreciated her, and writing one combined post. Apologies in advance to those of you who know this story already; for those of you who don't, here's a brief recap. SPE, as she was fondly called behind her back when she was at her formidable best, was the Director of Music at the Cathedral of St. Augustine. She was the beloved, marvelous, talented, infurating, iron-willed inspiration to a generation of singers whose voices she brought to full potential, and for me she was a life-changing teacher and in some ways a substitute for my mother. These days she is lovingly cared for by the order through which she served the Church for many long years as she's afflicted by a form of dementia and, ironically, profound deafness. Sister Rosemary is in charge of SPE's pastoral care, and believes the collected memories will help SPE's caregivers have a more complete picture of the many years she lived and worked in St. Augustine. I know she's right. I've been putting it off, of course, because facing dementia is hard, and it's harder for people who've dealt with it in their own houses. To tell the story of a living person whose life has been made hollow and empty by this cruel disorder is to straddle the line between life and death. The person you loved is gone. In her place is another person, no less precious, but a stranger at best. At worst, she's a stranger who doesn't have any idea who you are, or how much she means to you, or how she changed your life. It is a hard thing. But it's Coming Soon at Eat Here.

Hey, this means if you have something about SPE to share, and you haven't sent it to me already, PLEASE DO. Quick, before I lose momentum!

Guana News
A much more cheerful Coming Soon is news from Guana Reserve. I hear another learning session is planned on the topic of Beach Fossil Collecting and Identification and I promise to keep you posted. I'll post any news I have about North Atlantic Right Whale sightings, and I also expect to have lots of news as the nesting season gets underway for the local sea turtles we all watch over with such hope.

Food (of course)
I've been inspired by my friend Lisa to write a post about the lighter side of Julia Child. French cooking isn't always heavy or serious, and I believe Julia knew this and wanted her American audience to understand it, too. I'm no expert on Julia, of course, but we've been celebrating her birthday here for some years as devoted fans, sometimes even marking the occasion with a dinner gathering. So Julia goes to the Coming Soon list, too.

There's more, of course. I've been making some rather nice hats and things, most of the early beauties of the earth have tiny, promising buds, and the Goddess has flung open her arms this full moon with astonishing high- and low tides, among other things, including black and white warblers visiting and wrens actively nesting in our garage...much, much more. But for tonight there is gratitude for an artesian well, which allows us running water, albeit without much water pressure; generous friends; a flexible workplace and best of all, readers who will give me a pass on a real blog post, accepting a Coming Soon in its place.

Follow Me on Twitter
blogspot doesn't have a terrific Follow Me widget, but I really like Twitter and find myself using it more and more. If you tweet, please find me. I'm AngieatEatHere, and remember, Twitter is case-sensitive.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eat Here's favorite grilled sandwich

Time for Eat Here to return to a topic near and dear to us: Did you eat yet?

Sandwiches are always a viable evening meal possibility for us, and this is an old familiar favorite. You probably have your own variation on the theme. For us there are a couple of necessities: sourdough bread, real beef pastrami, good cheese and homemade coleslaw. In your house these may be as varied as rye or wheat bread, turkey pastrami - or, honestly, no pastrami at all; you can leave it off altogether and still have a fine sandwich - and storebought coleslaw. Sorry about the cheese. By Eat Here Eatery rules, you can't really make this without the good quality cheese, though endless variations on that theme are certainly possible.

For perfection, you should make your own coleslaw*, but you can come very close to perfection with good-quality coleslaw from Publix or a local deli you already love. From that same deli, get some thinly sliced pastrami and cheese. I recommend baby Swiss or nice sharp cheddar, but my people are wimpy about cheese; a good quality white American covers this inadequacy pretty neatly. You'll need Thousand Island dressing to add a gentle tangy touch, though of course any homemade dressing meeting those requirements will do nicely. For hardware you need a good cast iron skillet or griddle (we use the latter) but if you don't have one, any skillet will do.

Here's the how-to. Place two slices of sourdough or whatever bread you prefer facedown on the cast iron griddle and set over medium-high heat. (We don't butter these since God knows we do NOT need the extra fat, but you can, if you prefer.) Gently spread the face-up sides with Thousand Island dressing (or your chosen variation). Place sliced cheese on one slice of bread and adjust the heat so the cheese can begin to melt while you add ingredients. Top the cheese with a slice or two of pastrami to taste, or omit this step for a vegetarian version of the sandwich. Top this same slice of bread with a generous dollop of coleslaw. (For the Rodney version of this sandwich, top with sliced bread-and-butter pickles or petite gherkins. For the Angie version, top with sliced jalapenos or roasted red peppers, or, um, both.) Assemble both slices of bread into a sandwich and flip gently as needed to toast evenly. Key to success: toast long enough to melt the cheese a bit without overheating the coleslaw.

Cut sandwich into halves or quarters and serve with salad. Sound good?

In a two-cup measuring cup, place about 4 tablespoons of sugar. Drizzle sugar with best-quality vinegar (raspberry or pear vinegar are great, but plain old apple cider vinegar works just fine), using just enough vinegar to absorb the sugar. When the sugar is completely absorbed, add about about a tablespoon of regular mustard and about a cup of mayonnaise or salad dressing. Let this mixture stand for 15 minutes or so before topping the vegetables.

Shred half a head of cabbage, a couple of carrots and half a sweet onion into a large bowl, and when the dressing is ready, toss everything together. The cabbage will shrink as if by magic and the big bowl will outlive its usefulness, but the outcome of the work is delightfully worth the effort, including washing out that big old bowl.

Time out of mind

When you listen to music, do you hear harmonies in your head? And if you do, can you remember a time when you weren't able to hear them?

In one of the precious moments of very early spring with which north Florida blesses us most years, I walked along the beach at Guana today with a two delighted dogs and a dear old person. This is the time I dedicate to reflection, to contemplation, to what is called prayer in some spiritual languages. Today my internal reflections were framed by the drama of the high and low tide marks, defined by the fullness of the moon. And those reflections turned again and again to memory; specifically, to conditions of my own memory for which I have no fallback recollection. What existed before a given memory?

Until she died about four years ago, neither of my sons could remember a time in their lives when we didn't have a well-loved nursemaid of a dog named Sheba. She came to us when Mac was a little more than three years old. When he searches his memories there are no conscious flashes of images in which Sheba isn't at least a peripheral presence. Likewise, I don't believe either of my sons remember the ocean being introduced to their consciousness. Like their dad, they remember it as always having been there. In contrast I have a mental image, undimmed after all these years, of the first time I stepped into the shifting sand and surf of St. Augustine Beach. I was seven years old, had been born and raised among the hills and mountains of east Tennessee, and I had never seen anything so dazzling. My sons, like their dad, were carted to the beach most days, weather permitting, as babies in diapers, and set down into warm tide pools to sift sand and turn brown as acorns. Like Sheba, the beach was Always There.

Music and vocal harmony feels this way for me. My ear was tuned by my genetics - both my mother and my father were fine singers, and it might be argued that my father was actually quite a gifted singer whose sweet light baritone was relatively untrained but undeniably lovely. My mother fed me close harmonies with breast milk. I absorbed melody, nakedly gorgeous vocal ability and preservation of musical history through the voice of Joan Baez before I could talk. It would be many years before my dear teacher Sister Patricia would introduce me to formal bel canto singing, but when she did I recognized it right away. I'd been able to harmonize with "Barbara Allen" as a toddler; the duet of Palestrina's Stabat Mater was a challenge I'll have to tell you about later but as difficult as it would be to sing (and I'm proud to tell you I did selections from it with Miss Judy, one Lenten season long ago), it sounded like the most natural thing in the world to me. My mother poured the folk music of her time into my open ears and heart but she also believed in its roots, which were most easily to be heard in those days in the Grand Ole Opry. This, too, she poured out like baptismal waters. By the time I was invited to sing in a choir when I was eight years old, finding an alto line a third below the soprano was as comfortable to me as an old quilt. And though I already knew I didn't have the top range to voice them, those upper harmonies a third or a fourth or a fifth above the melody were just as familiar and comforting in my inner ear as that same faded old quilt.

What, my dears, do you recall in this way? Is there something you know you must have learned but cannot remember the learning of it, so that it seems something you were born with? Is there a person to whom you must have been introduced who nevertheless seems to have been with you from the moment of your birth? Are there other like tricks of memory and learning?

Or is it just me?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One Fine Thing

Everyone has a first novel, as a Booksmith publisher's rep used to say; everyone has a first novel because everyone has their own story to tell. True novelists are born storytellers, who have many more than that one best-known and most intimately understood tale. By this standard it's easy to recognize storytellers in those second and third novels that succeed for their authenticity and resonance with readers. But let us not dismiss those who have only that one great and deeply honest tale to tell. Each person's personal story is of interest, though some are made more so by the embellishment of good writing. Occasionally you come across one which is much more than interesting. Now and then, you may be fortunate to hear a personal story so compelling as to transcend any dependence on the telling itself.

On a very ordinary day, I crossed from the building where I work to an adjacent building in search of some insight into a technical problem. I'd worked with Nash* for several years, not every day, but on several large projects where my understanding - and therefore success - had been enhanced by his knowledge and the generosity with which he shared it. Among a sea of cubicles, I found him and pulled a chair into his cube to ask questions, preparing myself to listen as Nash translated highly technical answers into more or less layman's language for my benefit. I posed my set of questions. In a moment during which he quickly considered how to frame his answers in such a way that they'd be helpful to me, I passed a casual eye around his cube, noticing framed awards and certificates of recognition and personal family photos. I focused on a photo of his young son; we chatted about kids, about boys, about having boys who were 5 or 6 years old: homework, headstrong behavior, whether or not to coach soccer or baseball, how to get them to listen. We laughed, enjoying the contrast of common ground and diversity of our connection. I was a middle-aged woman of Irish and English extraction, raised a Catholic in the southern U.S., with all the psychic wrinkles that implies. Nash had emigrated from India, where a deep value for education had been instilled in him. He spoke more than 5 languages comfortably. His dark eyes flashed with inteliigence and humor, and his early education had come from priests and brothers in a Catholic school. They'd seen his abilities quite early on, he told me: when he visited the school of his youth as a grown man, the walls were still hung with certificates of achievement he'd been awarded, records which hadn't been surpassed despite the passing of years.

He began to answer my immediate work-related questions, but I continued to be distracted by the photos on his desk. When I made out the details on one of them, I interrupted him rather rudely to ask about the faces looking out from the photo. Who were they? Did I know any of them? Was the small woman in the middle someone who would be recognizable in the western world? It was a bit of a story, he said, a bit shyly. Could we have lunch together so he could tell me?, I asked. Yes, of course, he said.

When we sat to eat, the tale flowed quickly and with a subtle note of pride. The photo that had caught my interest showed a group of young men, most of them (Nash would tell me) from Indian or Pakistani families. They were college students who'd been relaxing together in a common area, sharing a meal, talking inconsequentially, when their casual talk turned to speculation about the future. What will we do, one of them wondered, What great deed will we do that will define us and make us memorable? As they talked, one of them said, What if we set ourselves a task? What great and fine objective could we challenge ourselves with? They talked a long time together. Nash had been reading a newspaper before the long philosophical discussion began and he picked it up now. Looking out from the paper was a photo of Mother Theresa. It seemed to be a gentle inspiration, and before the evening turned to morning, the group of young students had decided: they would take up a collection of money and perhaps other donations, and they would take these to Mother Theresa herself, wherever she was, far, far away in Calcutta. And they would do it during a break so that no classes would be missed.

What began as a well-intentioned but impulsive, youthful, almost off-handed generous impulse became an informal mission. Because of the physical distance between their university and Mother Theresa's mission, the friends agreed they would bicycle to her with whatever collection of donations they were able to amass. Nash had no bicycle, but circumstances aligned themselves so that a bicycle found its way to him, and the mechanical fixes the bike needed were somehow managed. As the group of friends reached out for donations, they found such an outpouring of generosity that the logistics of delivery became another challenge: it was a long trip, they had a school schedule to keep and they had no money or arrangements for hotels or transportation. And yet it seemed that each question was answered with every step. When they needed to rest for the night, villages opened with hospitality. When they needed to continue their trek by night, word had spread so that truck drivers followed the bicycles at a distance with their headlights on, lighting the way for the riders. In truth, Nash told me, his eyes bright, they felt as though this simple, youthful idea to do just one fine thing had gotten some special celestial notice. Their One Fine Thing was being helped along by an energy they hadn't expected. And before they knew it, they'd arrived in the city and been directed to the facility run by Mother Theresa. Perhaps most remarkably of all, someone had spoken to her and she would be delighted to meet with this group of young men, most of them students of engineering and technology, none of them unusually religious or particularly idealistic. Interestingly, in Nash's telling of the tale religion played almost no part. This had been a mission of kindness. If any of the friends had a particularly relgious motivation, it seemed that was a completely private matter.

On Nash's desk was captured that moment: 8 or 10 young students of varied backgrounds and destinies, towering in a rough circle around the tiny, wizened and perfectly beautiful woman who had touched thousands directly and millions indirectly. Here was a glimpse of his One Fine Thing, he told me, the One Fine Thing he would be able to tell his son about, the thing he would be able to challenge his son to achieve for himself. This was how he saw the conclusion of his brief moment, really. It was his own effort to do something good to make a small but unforgettable change to the world, and it is his enduring effort to pass that human requirement on to his children, whose job it is to find - and do - One Fine Thing.

My own cube, whether or not it really is a literal cube (after all, who doesn't feel at least a little bit at home with Dilbert?) certainly shares latitude and longitude with someone else who has A Story, and maybe someone with a fine thing they've done or are just about to do. I just have to remind myself to listen.

*Nash is not his real name.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ancient and modern, washed on the shoreline

Note to self: Self, you are very lucky. There is no snow on your roof. The air temperature today was close to 60 degrees. You walked on the beach today. Do no complaining, Self.
Note to friends in northern climes: Friends, I wish you were all here.

We attended a clinic today at the Environmental Education Center at GTMMER. It was conducted by one of the guys who works at Guana, a self-taught amateur fossil collector like many of us named Jake, and a good time was had by all. Our friends Suzanne and Chuck came down (we were sorry to miss Ray and JoAnne - feel better soon, Ray!) and we spent an hour or so comparing some of our favorite finds and learning from Jake and each other. One gentleman had what Jake thought might be a sperm whale tooth, collected many years ago from a beach in the Bahamas.
It must have been 6 inches long, or more, and was quite amazing. Another lady brought the beautiful white turtle shell you see in the photo.

Jake's own collection included some examples of fossilized pieces we've all found but identified with varying degrees of accuracy. He took us through a thoughtful presentation, but spent a good deal of time poring over our pieces, identifying where he could and honestly admitting where he couldn't. Perhaps the most exciting piece we talked about was a jawbone with one tooth remaining in it, brought by Suzanne. Since it was Suzanne who first made me realize that the dull old sharks's teeth we'd collected for years were actually relics of planetary history dating back thousands of years, I took special pleasure in finding that the jawbone was mostly likely that of a jaguar, and probably more than 12,000 years old.
It's a terrible photo, taken with my phone, but you get the idea. Interestingly, we have a tooth, found some years ago along the beach in Guana, that almost looks like it might fit into that piece of jaw.

The room at Guana's EEC was full of people. There were old veterans of the beach walk, incidental collectors, people of our age and older, and, delightfully, at least a couple of young fans, one of whom shyly asked several questions and another of whom came in late and asked for help identifying the species of sharks from which her carefully gathered collection of teeth had their genesis. My dear old person and I stopped on the way out to donate a piece we'd found last weekend. It looked like an arrowhead, and so might well be an artifact of an ancient native people, although when we picked it up, it looked like a piece of rock. When it was cleaned up, we started to think it mightn't be an animal fossil, so we left it in the care of the Guana team. From there we set off for the beach, and walked 2 or 3 miles into a chilly northwest wind under a bright blue sky skirted with wind-brushed white clouds. It was a lovely Saturday. I do hope yours was at least as fine.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Beach fossils at Guana's Evironmental Education Center

We have a huge jar of these. They're fossilized sharks' teeth, all collected from the stunning beaches of a Florida State Park. .
Tomorrow we're joining a bunch of other beachcombers and fossil freaks and interested learners at Guana's Environmental Education Center to learn more about some of the stuff we've collected. Walking a couple of miles on a pristine beach several times a week is restorative and healing. In the case of my dear old person, as many of you know, it's also a potent method of pain management, at least for a litle while. And you can build quite a collection, if you want to, of mesmerizing artifacts from the ancient history of the planet.

Good news: the kind people at Guana called me again, this time to say they'd like to do more than just add me to a mailing list. They want to reach out to you, gentle readers. How amazing is that? I can hardly wait to hear from them, and to extend their news to our little circle. Until that happens, please let me know if you'd like to help with invasive species removal, or are interested in learning more about the role of fire in ecosystems. Both involve field trips, and the former is an opportunity for hands-on volunteer field work.

Bad news: state parks have been on the budgetary chopping block. The list includes Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park, and local favorite Washington Oaks State Park, where many springs have welcomed countless visitors as the dazzling, flamboyantly glorious azaleas open their faces to the returning sunshine. For the moment Lord Voldemort has said no to the closings, but keep your eyes open, people. These lands are fragile, diverse and preserve our heritage but they are dangerously vulnerable to loss.

Really good news: your own state parks, whether in Florida or elsewhere, are probably just a few miles from you. And whether or not it seems likely to those of you in the northeast, spring is within scenting distance. A few more weeks, everybody. In Florida and Arizona we can already hear the herald of spring in the eagerly-awaited clarion call with which baseball fans put winter to rest: "Pitchers and catchers report". Spring is coming. Spring training is coming. Birds and flowers are coming. In a few weeks we'll all be able to step outside and bask in it.

Until it gets here, my beloved old person and I will wrap up in scarves and sweatshirts and walk on the beach. And I'll bring you all the news I can from the tiny, beautiful microcosm of life at Guana Reserve.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The weekend before

The weekend brought a couple of beach walks for us under a lowering sky, sometimes promising rain, sometimes delivering on the promise. Now and then the sun would break through and illuminate some small treasure like this beautiful, doomed starfish, washed back and forth in the surf. There were few beachgoers willing to walk in the chilly wind under the dark skies so we had the beach to ourselves, as is often the case this time of year. The new moon brought what weather geeks call "astronomical high tides", along with their companions, beloved of beachcombers: astronomical low tides. On this day the views to the north and south were nearly as astronomical in their contrast.

This was the view to the north. Its warning, to those of us accustomed to subtropical midwinter weather, is of a cold wind and perhaps rough seas.

This was the view to the south. Here the warning is much more dire: I am a cold, dark wind from the south, from which compass point usually come sweet warm breezes. I might even be catastrophe.

There was a beautiful eye in the center of this, an opening in the clouds that really looked like an eye, just above where we walked on the beach. It wasn't so much the eye of a hurricane as it was a gentle celestial eye, opening on the dramatic meteorological activity. I tried to catch it with the camera in my phone, with mixed and mostly unsatisfying results. But you don't need an image. Reach back in your mind to a moment of your own. Think of the weekend, or the weekend before that one, when you walked on the beach or in the neighborhood or in the park and saw a break in the clouds, a beautiful blue spot, touched with swirls of white clouds, a glimmer of hope against the dark, lowering clouds.

So much for romantic reflection on the beauty of the weekend that was. I now direct your attention to THIS Saturday's Beach Fossil Day at Guana's Education Center, which Rod and I eagerly anticipate (what ARE those things we've found on the beach??), and to whatever your own weekend may promise.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The secret languages of families

If you zoom in on this image, you'll see what made me stop in the middle of the road to take it: a wild turkey. She was crossing here to catch up with a flock of 8 or 10 other birds. We still have wild turkeys in Florida. In my younger days I often saw them across cut fields of pine forest, as I walked quietly behind a friend or family member armed with a bow or a black-powder rifle, for turkeys are notoriously suspicious and easy to spook. I haven't told you these stories yet? I must remember to write these, my loves. For now, my only sightings of wild turkeys are along roads, in places turkeys only find themselves because of encroaching development. It's part of the contrast of Old Florida and present-day Florida and a reminder that there are really very few years dividing the two.

This is an aside, of course. My central topic calls back to my past, but is more cerebral than primitive. It's about the language of a family, crafted slowly and almost unnoticed over the course of years and still emerging, despite the fact that our boys are mostly grown. There's magic here, for you almost certainly have a story just like this. It is the magic of love and family and continuity.

When I talk to one of my best friends on the phone today, I often use a greeting phrase like, "Hello, my little plum blossom..." or words to that effect. This is thanks to my girlhood and lifetime friend Carrie O'Hare Hogan, whose greetings included fruit, the more obscure, the better. She would call and say, "Hellooo, my little persimmon", or " little kumquat..." or something like that. After we were both married and had taken our husbands' last names with some reservation, she always greeted me on the phone with, "Hello, Mrs. Christensen", to which I always replied, "Hello, Mrs. Hogan", and these greetings entered the lexicon.

When Dylan was quite small, perhaps four years old, we were driving down a street in St. Augustine, overarched by golden raintrees that actually were wet with recent rain. When a heavy shower fell from the branches and splashed on the windshield, Dylan said calmly, "THAT wasn't very welcoming." It sounds so silly. But we burst out laughing and those words have been part of our family's secret internal language ever since. We say it whenever anything surprises us just slightly with its unpleasantness. Dylan is also the author of a beloved family slur that evolved from his unexpected use of the word "bonker" as the most devastating of insults. This was leveled at me when he was really angry: "You are a bonker poo-poo Mommy." Well. Ahem. For a couple of months I endured this from both my sons; it still surfaces now and then.

In local parlance, The Man Who Came to Dinner is referred to as The Movie. Other families have their own versions. Ours provides a taste of the pleasure of holiday reunions across time and distance. We only have to hear, "You are the moonflower of my middle age and I love you very much" to feel as though turkey and sweet potato pie are about to be served, a warm fire snuggled up to, and soft laughter of friends and family about to envelop us.

Other movies have shaped our language. We've never quite recovered from The Emperor's New Groove, which gave us our standard exchange when a possibly painful challenge is expected to be welcomed defiantly:
Person 1: "Sharp rocks at the bottom?"
Person 2: "Most likely." And then, in unison,
"Bring it on."

Thanks to Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson, who brought to life the character of Blackadder and his dogsbody, Baldrick, new ideas are introduced in very bad British accents with the words, "I have a cunning plan". This falls into the (credit to Monty Python) "say n'more" category. And in recent years, Madagascar, courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen, gave us, "Shut UP, you're so anNOYing!". Since about 1990-something when we saw the movie Black Sheep, the word road when pronounced "row-addddd" reduces us all to helpless laughter. Actually I suppose that doesn't really constitute an addition to our family language. I just put it in here because I know it will make my family laugh. There are others, some more profane and some more obscure. I imagine there are more yet in your houses and hearts. Do tell what they are.

As a good-night postcard, here is the view to the west from Mane de Leon Salon. It was a beautiful sunset. I hope you enjoy it, despite the camera's inability to compensate for what the human eye does with so little effort. Between you and the sun is the Intracoastal Waterway, sunlight reflecting on the shimmering water.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Don't Buy a Puppy from a Pet Store, and other future classics

It's my theme, at least for today. Somebody should write it as a pop song, or maybe Grant Peeples could write it as a moody leftneck ballad with a solid hook. It's catchy. It could have a repeat: Don't buy a, don't buy a, don't buy a puppy from a pet store...and it's just as true for cats, so there could be an alternate version: Don't buy a, don't buy a, don't buy a kitten from a pettttt stooooore...I can pretty much hear it in my head. If I recorded it, I'd dedicate the recording to Calvin, pictured here in his smiley, smart-alecky glory, and to Zeke, who was rescued too late, and to April, who was rescued in time to find her way into the heart of an adoring family, and to Jayda, who was pulled from the Nassau County shelter this morning, and to all the others helped by BARC (Boxer Aid and Rescue Coalition) and countless other ordinary people, making this small but important difference. For simplicity and to avoid writing the Great American Blog Post on the topic of rescued Boxers, let me just talk about Calvin and Jayda. There are so many rescues, of so many breeds and mixes, of cats and dogs, all deserving of applause. But I'll try to stay focused.

So: Mister Calvin. You can see his big smile in that top photo, the face of a dog who surely had every reason to mistrust and maybe even dislike people forever, but somehow managed to retain balance. Ever watch Cesar Millan? He has a dog named Daddy who serves as a kind of canine barometer, a behavioral translator able to relay information from the unspoken but unmistakable animal vocabulary resulting in behavioral predictors to Cesar, who understands that language. BARC's book on Calvin was that he'd been rescued from a dog-fighting situation in which he was likely used as a bait dog. I've also posted the photo of Mister Calvin and April, because if you look closely at Calvin's shoulder, you can see one of the scars.
It was almost the size of the palm of my hand, and his fur never grew back. Calvin developed certain strong preferences (he would rather be told to move than man-handled into actually moving, for instance) but I was always amazed that he seemed more than content to live as a member of our pack. He never acted on what might, in human terms, have been deep and justified resentment. He was adopted into an excellent family, by a woman who was in vet school and was able to give him every veterinary benefit. But vet school...yikes. It sounds not unlike med school, with the on-call hours, the grueling internship...she knew she couldn't give Calvin the attention he deserved, so she surrendered him back to BARC. This is one of the terms to which BARC adopters agree, and one of the things I love most about the organization: if you can't continue to care for a dog you adopt from us, you give it back, and we will always ensure that it's cared for. Calvin's adoptive mom knew she was giving him to a certainty of a good home. We met him as a prospective foster family, fell in love, and never looked back. As most of you know, he died in December, but not before he changed our family.

We adopted Bandit recently, a former foster we'd had and loved, whose life took a turn that happened to give us the chance to have him back. Because we were all adjusting to the loss of Calvin and the addition of Bandit, we decided to take a break from fostering for a bit. It's a tough call, and not just because of our ties to BARC. On a national and regional level, as well as a local one, pet rescue organizations are realizing that foster homes are far more cost effective and feasible than shelters, and foster homes are far better for the animals. A fostered cat or dog lives in a regular house, with people who do ordinary things and are able to offer affection and consistency. Animals kept in shelters experience the stresses of confinement, the surreal atmosphere of fear and uncertainty amplified by presence of other confined animals, and in most cases are likely to face euthanasia if for no other reason than demand exceeding supply. No-kill shelters are the exception; most have no alternative but to euthanize, because their resources are so limited. Our beloved vet, Dr. Searcy of Antigua Veterinary Clinic in St. Augustine, is a vocal proponent of foster homes as an alternative to shelters; he talks about the overhead costs incurred by a shelter environment, many of which are minimized or completely eliminated by utilization of foster homes.

This is what motivates many volunteers to serve as foster homes. In our case, it motivated us to temp-foster this week even though we know we need a break. Another volunteer can take Jayda in a week or so, but her time on death row had pretty much run out.
Though it's a bit dark and fuzzy, you can see Jayda in the middle of this photo. This morning she was in a shelter, this afternoon she walked on the beach for perhaps the first time in her life, and after a bath and a good meal, this evening she's figuring out her place in a comfortable, balanced pack. She'll get good care, attention for her medical needs, and above all, the comfort of a relatively calm, predictable environment.

Take a look at her face, as well as you can see it in this predictably poor photo from my phone. People are paying hundreds of dollars for every imaginable breed of dog and cat in pet stores. Jayda has clearly had more than one litter of puppies. Now she's more than 5 years old, she has a worrying growth in one ear, she is heartworm-positive and she was surrendered by her owners to the shelter because they "couldn't afford to keep her anymore". This may be true. This family may be a casualty of the current economy or victims of any number of difficult circumstances. There are many legitimate dog breeders whose credentials are impeccable and who do much to preserve the unique characteristics of various breeds of dogs and cats; I have no quarrel with them. But we know people breed dogs and sell the puppies for money. Puppy mills are a horrible reality and I imagine there's a parallel hell for cats. In the case of dogs, some may even be sold to people like Michael Vick. (Good Lord: don't get me started.) And when they're older, no longer useful for breeding, and develop the inevitable health issues of aging, they're taken to shelters and dropped off. Or just dropped off. Jayda is lucky.

Finish the melody and the air guitar part in your mind, and enjoy the head-banging and the big drum solo. Just don't lose the message: when you need a pet, adopt one. Find that perfectly sweet kitten or delightfully spotted and striped adult cat. Look until you see that particular expression on the face of a fat-bellied puppy or even better, a mature dog, already house-broken and readymade for best friendship. But don't, don't, don't...Don't buy a puppy from a pet store.

Credits: Dylan C., Editor and Proofreader

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dogs, resting comfortably

Some of you may know that our dear old Calvin died in December. He disappeared one night, and we thought he'd just taken his beer money and gone walkabout. We searched and hunted, got the neighbors involved, all to no avail. A few days went by, and on a morning when holiday vistors were expected, we found Calvin. He'd apparently dropped dead of a heart attack or something, falling into a stand of lilies hidden in the oak trees. He had never put a foot out of his own yard. Devastated, we buried him and tried to avoid talking about it as we marked the year-end holidays.

In an almost uncanny turn of events, we were able to re-home a dog we'd previously fostered, and already loved, Bandit. Here he is, doing what Boxers do best, which might be summed up as "Sitting Where People Might Like to Sit, If Only the Sofa Belonged to Them". From left to right, here are Ty for Short, Meg, and Bandit, who is also known as Burgermeister Meisterburger. Happy news for us, who are so dependent on dogs for mental health and well-being; happy news for Bandit, who's finding himself at home in a pretty comfortable pack.

Here, too, is a sunset photo I took in December, looking back to the west from the west side of the Tolomato River. In this image I'm thinking of my dear friend Annie, who is dealing with new challenges as I write this. It was Annie who shared the ultimate parenting advice with me, which becomes more true each day my boys grow older: It's all about letting go. It's great advice, Annie, and I'm working on it. But for now, with you, can it all be about hanging on? I'm sending you love, love, love.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fossils, courtesy of GTMMERR

This is a close photo of the coquina you see in constrast to the fine white sand along the beach at Guana. Nestled in this stuff, which is mostly crushed or small shell, you can find shark's teeth of all kinds of sizes, pieces of turtle shell and teeth, all ancient, all amazing.

To those of you who love the beaches and inland waterways so perfectly protected and blessedly available to the public at our beloved Guana, here is the equivalent of a Valentine from those fine folks. To those of you who turn an indulgent but slightly bored eye to my praise-singing of Guana's abundant natural offerings, accept my thanks in advance.

Because I wrote a post in celebration of the anniversary of GTMMERR, sent it to the Director and opened a dialogue with him, I've been added to a mailing list. This means info I didn't have before, including an announcement all fossil geeks will find to be the delightful Valentine I promised (and everyone else will find incredibly boring): the GTM Education Center is hosting an educational event on February 12 about collecting and identifying fossils on our beaches. (If you're interested, reserve a space by calling the Center at 904.823.4500 - it's free, but space is limited.) We all think of shark's teeth when we think of fossils and my dear old person and I have a shocking number of these collected, but there's an amazing range of teeth and other fossils to be found on our beaches, and get this: we're invited to bring stuff along to have it identified! I might not have to plan that trip to the Paleontology Department at U of F in Gainseville after all. In all the years I've lived here, as I may have mentioned, I didn't even start looking for shark's teeth until, in the office of a colleague, I noticed a postcard image identifying different kinds of shark's teeth. I commented, because we walked on the beach all the time and I took them for granted. To my amazement, she said, "You know they're hundreds of thousands of years old, right? Some of them are millions of years old." I'd had no idea. And I was hopelessly hooked.

I've written about this, too, of course, in part because the University of Florida houses a great little museum of paleontology AND it is possible, in theory at least, to make an appointment with the nice geeky professorial types who work there. I'm told you can set up time and pretty much literally pour your collection of fossilized stuff on someone's desk for inspection and identification. But why drive to Gainesville? Come down to the Education Center. I wish you could all come, especially the kids. So if any kids care, let me know. I'll write a post for the really discriminating blog palate: kids, who know how fascinating fossils really are, because after all, when you think about it, they're pieces of dinosaurs. How cool is that?