Thursday, June 29, 2006

Wisdom from Annie Dillard

From An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard.

All that winter I played with the microscope. I prepared slides from things at hand, as the books suggested. I looked at the transparent membrane inside an onion's skin and saw the cells. I looked at a section of cork and saw the cells, and at scrapings from the inside of my cheek, ditto. I looked at my blood and saw not much; I looked at my urine and saw long iridescent crystals, for the drop had dried.

All this was very well, but I wanted to see the wildlife I had read about. I wanted especially to see the famous amoeba, who had eluded me. He was supposed to live in the hay infusion, but I hadn't found him there. He lived outside in warm ponds and streams, too, but I lived in Pittsburgh, and it had been a cold winter.

Finally late that spring I saw an amoeba. The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park; it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was as blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.

Before I had watched him at all, I ran upstairs. My parents were still at table, drinking coffee. They, too, could see the famous amoeba. I told them bursting, that he was all set up, that they should hurry before his water dried. It was the chance of a lifetime.

Father had stretched out his long legs and was tilting back in his chair. Mother sat with her knees crossed, in blue slacks, smoking a Chesterfield. The dessert dishes were still on the table. My sisters were nowhere in evidence. It was a warm evening; the big dining-room windows gave onto blooming rhododendrons.

Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down.

She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself...

When I left the dining room that evening and started down the dark basement stairs, I had a life. I sat to my wonderful amoeba, and there he was, rolling his grains more slowly now, extending an arc of his edge for a foot and rolling on. I gave him some more pond water.

I had hit pay dirt. For all I knew, there were paramecia, too, in that water, or daphniae, or stentors, or any of the many other creatures I had read about and never seen: volvox, the spherical algal colony; euglena with its one red eye; the elusive, glassy diatom; hydra, rotifers, water bears, worms. Anything was possible. The sky was the limit.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Weekend flurry

Jon's return home from Switzerland created a flurry of activity and no time to post. I picked him up from the airport on Friday night and we immediately went to our favorite Mexican restaurant, Dos Taquitos, with our friends Holly and Adam.

Saturday, we spent 6 hours doing yardwork and then went to
Falls Dam. This 'park and play' spot is created for kayakers when the Army Corps of Engineers release water from Falls Lake into the Neuse River. In this instance, all of the rain collected from Tropical Storm Alberto. We grilled out at Falls Dam with our kayaking friends and made plans to return the next day.

Sunday morning, Jon, Adam, and I rode about 15 miles on the
Capital Area Greenway, while Holly baked Adam's birthday cake. To our delight, we discovered that we could ride from our house to Adam and Holly's house entirely on the greenway in 7 miles. We spent the entire ride home dreaming up ways that we could traverse the city on our bikes.

Later that day, we learned that the water release from Falls Dam was turned off due to flooding downstream. Our plans to kayak and celebrate Adam's 30th birthday were waylaid, so we quickly regrouped and decided to have an impromptu gathering at our place.

In the garden

I have been meaning to post photos of flowers in the garden. We get loads of compliments on one in particular, which is our cardoon plant. It is about 7 feet tall and looks very archaic, like this plant hasn't changed since the Mesozoic Era. To the left is a picture of a cardoon in full bloom. You might notice that it looks alot like an artichoke, which is because the two plants are related.

Below are photos of our front beds, which were inadvertly planted with varieties that attract hummingbirds, butterflies such as admirals, monarchs, skippers, and swallowtails, and honey bees.

For reference, some of these varieties include:
Butterfly Bush (Buddleja 'Black Knight')
Purple coneflower (Echinacea)
Hyssop (Agastache)
Yarrow (Achillea 'Moonshine' and 'Paprika')
Lamb's Ear (Stachys)
Whirling Butterfly (Gaura)
Russian Sage (Perovskia)
Catmint (Nepeta)
Coral Bells (Heuchera)
Foxglove (Digitalis)
Hollyhocks (Alcea)

While scrolling through the camera for photos, I laughed out loud when I found this one. What makes it particularly interesting to me is the fact that it is a self-portrait, meaning that a fair amount of effort went into creating it. I can only guess that Jon was trying to illustrate how tall our tomato plants are.

So, besides tall tomatoes, how do we know that summer has arrived? Easy. Tucker tells us.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Let's get this harvest started

Finally! Last night I picked our first tomatoes (not counting the few marble-sized White Coyotes). They are the Sweetgold Yellow cherry variety and they were hiding out under the protective leaves of their plant. I would share a picture, but the camera is in Zurich, Switzerland right now with Jon.

For me, growing tomatoes is like a water drip torture. The plants become flushed with fruit, and then you wait, and wait, and wait. It seems like an eternity from the time the fruit appears until it ripens. I estimate that we have several hundred tomatoes 'on the vine' right now. I'm hoping that we will be overrun with ripe tomatoes here shortly.

I should reassure everyone that the oil tank is hundreds of feet away from our garden and even I am confident that there is no danger of contamination. I am typically very concerned about chemicals and petroleum products. I hate the fact of the thing in my yard to the extent that I walk all the way around the 20' shed just to avoid being anywhere near it. Realize that this is more of a personal statement and that snubbing the tank does not serve any practical purpose.

We avoid using chemicals (either pesticides or fertilizer) in the yard, the trade off being that our lawn is a melting pot of grass, violet, clover, plantain, and other low-growing plants. But hey, it's green, and when a plague descends on all of the monoculture fescue covered lawns in our neighborhood, we will be alright. I guess the other consequence of not using chemicals in the yard is that we spend alot of time weeding. The benefit of hand weeding is that you get up close and personal with your plants.

The flower beds are looking really nice right now. I will leave you with this photo of a canna lily and will post more flower pictures as soon as the camera, I mean Jon, comes home. Which is tomorrow, by the way. I can't wait to have Jon home again!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Life has thrown us a curve ball. Just when we were feeling all blissed out about our new marriage, our house, our garden, and everything in general, something bubbled to the surface. Old heating oil, to be exact.

To our misfortune, that oil represents not a windfall as for our affectionately remembered Clampett family. We will not be cashing in to the pe-tro-le-um company. Instead, we will be hiring an environmental consulting company to mitigate the soil contamination.

Underground Storage Tanks, or USTs as they are vernacularly known, were commonly used in this area. They fell out of favor in the 1980s in lieu of gas heat, but most older homes had them and many still have them, buried or above ground. They are relatively harmless until they start leaking, which is exactly what happened in our yard.

How did we find it? Nestled between the back of the house and the shed was a patch of grass that suddenly gave up the ghost. We noticed the dying grass a few weeks ago but were busy with the wedding.

In denial, I posited theories about the stain, such as, "maybe there was an old car parked here," "the old gardener* must have spilled a something," and most recently "Aha! When the HVAC was replaced, they pulled the old unit out onto this very spot! It's freon!" Meanwhile, Jon the realist quietly recited his new mantra, "it's an oil tank, it's an oil tank."

See, the thing is that there couldn't be an oil tank on the property. I had already eliminated that possibility during the weeks leading up to the house purchase. Because of a suspicious nozzle on the exterior kitchen wall, I had someone come out and perform a highly scientific gravity test using a metal washer on a string. Not convinced? When the kitchen floor was opened and my plumber crawled under the oil tank.

Well, at least, not in that spot.

Anyway, you may recall from just a few posts ago that we had a good deal of rain from Tropical Storm Alberto. Shortly after the skies parted, it became evident that we had a situation on our hands. I got out a shovel and began to dig. About two feet underground, we found it. Apparently, the 8 inches of rain we got in five hours had flooded the tank, pushing the contents to the surface. Now we have a toxic waste site on our property.

Stayed tuned for additional installments of the saga and wish us luck! Gross, huh?

*Yes, the people who owned this house previously had a personal gardener. No wonder I can't keep up with the weeding.

The Roof

Just in case anyone out there is wondering, the plastic tarp is a grand invention. It did stop the leak and it stood up to the wind. Soon I'll be able to do a bit of roofing at my house. Maybe I'll be able to work on it Saturday if the jet-lag isn't too bad.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

All in a day's work!

Yesterday I set out on my first international trip in what seems like forever, but it hasn’t been much more than six years. I’m not sure how to describe the feelings I had about this trip. The first thoughts of traveling again were thoughts of apprehension, but that moved quickly to excitement about seeing a new place for the first time, and then the reality started to set in and I found my outlook changing. The change was subtle. It was a feeling of disdain for work, this thing that would temporarily remove me from the life that I love so very much. Don’t get me wrong it’s not that I actually hate my job or that I don’t want to travel. I don’t hate the job, but I think there are other things I could do that would be more fulfilling. If I have to travel I’d rather travel on my terms with Kate and Tucker instead of business travel. Business travel seems great if you aren't the one leaving, but if you're the one going, it's just working while you're away. If you are lucky, you might get a break to take in the local charm. Since March of this year I’ve had to travel three times for work and none of these trips included my preferred travel companions.

I left Raleigh Saturday at 1 o’clock pm bound for JFK. I don’t know why I had such grandiose expectations of JFK but my expectations were not met, the design was poor, the people were not friendly, the construction was a nuisance, and the smell…not even sure how to describe it, other than saying yuck with a very large “Y”. So, on with the trip! I followed the signs to Terminal 8 and found myself going through the security again to get to my connecting gate. Thankfully the flight from JFK to Zurich was uneventful and I was able to get about 3 hours of sleep. Do you think that would counter the jet lag? If you say yes, you’re so wrong. After reaching my hotel, I checked in and basically passed out on the bed from 10 o’clock am until just after 1 o’clock pm. It was then, just after waking up, that my day got better. The phone was ringing and it was Kate! We chatted for a little bit about nothing in particular. We spoke of the weather, the jet-lag, how much I wished it was Friday, and Tucker (he was being cute laying on his back in our driveway). The call was enough to get me out of bed and into the shower (as Kate suggested). I walked down the street past the round-about to a small pub and had some lunch. The weather was unseasonably hot today, the sun was shining brightly, and the temperature was about 33 degrees Celsius.

Apparently the good people of Zurich had a dismal winter and spring. The hotel bus driver mentioned that up until Friday he had not seen the sun but a few times since September. I was heading out to explore downtown Zurich. The taxi ride into downtown was pretty short, just about 15 minutes. The lake is very scenic, much like the mountain lakes of the United States except this lake was very crowded with young people, and boats today. I assume that part of the reason for the crowds was due to the Inline Skating race that was taking place in the streets of downtown Zurich. After walking a few miles, taking some pictures, and catching a glimpse of the race, (pictures will come later since I forgot to bring the cable) I hailed a taxi to take me back to the Intercontinental. I wish I would have been able to make it to Bern to see the finish of the Tour de Suisse, but it was not in the cards. So a bit of World Cup football on the television, dinner, and that is my trip so far. More to come in a couple of days!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Nature's Show

Here is a list of the carnage I have seen in the past week:

--a dead squirrel in our neighbors' flowerbed, apparently from a mis-step and subsequent tumble out of the tree.
--a baby robin on our lawn, fallen out of its nest.
--just a few minutes ago, as I sat listening to Backporch Music on NPR and sipping a glass of wine on the patio, I heard a bird ruckus from the rear left of the yard. A gaggle of birds darts by and I notice that the giant crow being chased is carrying a baby bird in its mouth. That was really disturbing.

Just a few reminders from nature that these bodies are temporary.

On a positive note, this week we have harvested
, zuchini, patty pan squash, broccoli, more potatoes, a single bell pepper, the occasional red or gold raspberry, and a few Coyote cherry tomatoes. I just finished making zuchini fritters and ate them with yogurt cheese.
We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of amaranth, hot and sweet peppers, tomatillos, black beans, and loads of tomatoes. Our tomato plants are literally bursting with fruit.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Our Cup Runneth Over or Heeeellllloooo Alberto!

Local creeks are rising fast.
Tropical depression Alberto is on it's way. Creeks and roads are flooding, low spots in the yard are filling with inches of water, and the rain is loud enough to be distracting.
Our rain barrel filled quickly,
diversionary tactics were employed,
the levees are holding.
Some collateral damage is evident,
but we mitigate using a tarp and landscape bricks.
We need the rain, but this is a bit much. Alberto is currently 75 miles SW of Raleigh. We'll see how our solution holds up against the 35 mph winds.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Ten Reasons Why I Love My Husband

In no particular order of importance.

1. Jon is extraordinarily good natured in the mornings, despite the fact that I most definitely am not.

2. Jon makes the coffee in the morning, which helps immensely with item #1.

3. Jon readily accepts that despite being married and having lived together for two years, I continue to live my domestic life as a single person.

Example #1: I have a habit of leaving kitchen cabinet doors open, especially the upper ones. My reasoning has to do with economies of scale--why bother to close the doors when you might have to open them again in the near future? Jon rarely complains, but I worry that someday I just might give him a concussion.

Example #2: I leave clothes all over the bedroom floor. I don’t just leave clothes on our shared bedroom floor, but I also leave them on the floor of the guest bedroom that I have adopted as my “dressing room.” I don’t just leave said clothes in a single pile, but rather in individual piles correlating to entire outfits, littered across the room wherever I decided to peel them off. The piles could lead a stranger to believe that the body wearing them simply vaporized.

4. Jon does a lot of laundry. Perhaps to address item #3, example #2?

5. Jon does floors.

6. I have only mowed the grass once.

7. Jon makes sure that my vehicle gets regular oil changes and maintenance which is something I am really, really bad about.

8. Jon knows the difference between the taste and energy costs of a home-grown, in-season tomato and a store-bought tomato flown in from Holland in December. Jon appreciates fresh, local, and quality food, which is so gratifying because I love to cook with these ingredients.

9. Jon loves the T-dog as much as I do.

10. When one day I exclaimed, “Jon! We should be composting our kitchen scraps!”, he built this two-bay compost bin out of recycled wood pallets.

Even better, when one bay gets full, Jon cheerfully waters and rotates the compost. Notice that he is smiling!

It should be evident that I had no choice but to marry this man.

You may be left with the burning question, "What's in it for him?" Maybe one day he'll tell you.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Duck, Duck, Chicken?

I don't know when I started wanting chickens. Actually, I do. I just remembered as I was writing that line.

When I was in elementary school, my class had an egg incubation project. Any kid who wanted a chick after they hatched was welcome to take one. Looking back, this was a very impractical thing for an elementary school to do in urban Miami, Florida. Like me, I'm sure every other child went home and asked their parents if they could have a chicken.

It took my mother all of, oh, 5 SECONDS to respond after her initial reaction of shock. First of all, we lived in a townhouse with a concrete patio and no yard. Secondly, my working mother had learned from experience that the care of all animals eventually fell onto her list of things to do. The answer was an emphatic "no" to chickens, but being a diplomat and wanting to placate me, she offered a trade. That weekend, we went to the pet store to choose my parakeet. I wonder what happened to all of those chickens?

My want for chickens was dulled, but still remains. I have been trying to find out if chickens are legal in our city and county for over a year now. I have been reading lots of websites about raising chickens. Finally, Jon found an article in the Raleigh News & Observer about some folks living nearby that keep chickens! Surely they wouldn't go public if they weren't allowed to have them. Just to make sure, I called animal control (why didn't I think of that before) and was told that chickens were fine, as long as the neighbors don't complain about the noise (crowing rooster) or the smell (do chickens stink?). I am quite sure that I can supplicate my neighbors with fresh eggs.

The benefits as I see them are thus: pest control (they eat bugs), soil movement (they weed and till as they peck the ground for food), a readily available source of chicken poop compost, and fresh eggs. I have also read that they like to be petted and in my estimation, this is a plus. We do not intend to eat our chickens, just pet them and eat their eggs. The negatives are that it seems time and labor intensive to brood chicks and we already have more than we can handle, the possibility that our dog or feral neighborhood cats will want to or actually will attack them, and the need to find caretakers when we are out of town. We take our dog Tucker with us everywhere, but chickens are not so mobile. As Jon put it, "If I have to cancel a trip because we can't find chicken-care, I'm going to be really pissed off."

I knew that the decision was ultimately mine, because Jon is a willing accomplice for just about anything. When I very seriously told him that I thought we needed to get a good rhythm for the garden and yardwork before we take on another responsibility, he applauded the decision.

The problem is--I still want those chickens.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Today marks another Sunday. I have a love/hate relationship with Sunday. This morning, Jon and I slept in and then sauntered over to our neighbors' house to have morning coffee on their deck and share their newspaper. Sunday morning is a time for slow waking, brunch, and a time when you have finally settled into your weekend. Pleasant. But by Sunday afternoon, you feel the uncomfortable pressure of a day of relaxation teetering on the edge of the knowledge that tomorrow you must return to the weekday rigor of work.

We had our semi-annual neighborhood association meeting this afternoon. We deepened our connection with the people we already knew and met quite a few new folks, including a couple from New Orleans that bought and are renovating a house in the neighborhood. Their story of losing a business, their home, and all of their belongings to Hurricane Katrina, as well as a friend's recent diagnosis with breast cancer have provided a reeling perspective on attachment and loss. Each time I try to think about or try to plan for my own future, I am yanked back into the present moment, because I am reminded that not everyone has the luxury to think about what lies ahead. And then I remember that to live in the present moment is a most sought after and self-realized state of being. I can't imagine that I would willingly endure loss and sickness in exchange for self-realization, but I think that the least I can do is to be aware of the fact that as of right now, I have a choice to live in the moment. And as such, I have a cosmic responsibility to be here, be now.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Where We Want to Be

When I was a freshman in college, my parents and I took a trip out west. Partly to whet my father’s lifelong fascination with the Battle of the Little Bighorn and partly to explore my newly acquired obsession with the Plains Indians. So with my mother in tow, we made our way across Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

My parents and I fought bitterly at Mount Rushmore. Being young, impudent, impressionable, and having just finished reading Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, I refused to get out of the car. According to John Fire Lame Deer, Mount Rushmore "fits into our sacred Black Hills like a red-hot iron poker into somebody's eye…They could just as well have carved this mountain into a huge cavalry boot standing on a dead Indian."

I did ultimately get out of the car and I think there is a very cranky picture of all of us in front of the monument. When the trip was over, we had seen the Little Big Horn Battlefield,
Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, the Badlands, Devil's Tower, Rosebud Indian Reservation, Jackson Hole, and of course, Mount Rushmore.

My obsession with the Plains Indians evolved into a more manageable deep respect, but my love for Montana remained. I have a confession to make. When Jon and I first met, a part of me fell in love with the fact that he was from Montana before I fell in love with him. So when Jon and I drove out to his family’s ranch in Bridger, Montana in the summer of 2005, I was awestruck. Now there isn’t a whole lot going on in Bridger, but just a few miles outside of the sleepy town lies the 80 remaining acres of the Albrecht homestead nestled in a valley between the Beartooth and the Pryor mountains.

I have this image in my mind of a particular landscape. A very particular panorama of dry rolling hills viewed from the shade of a front porch. The feeling I associate with the image is comfort, contentment, and a general sense of well-being. I don’t know where the scene came from; perhaps a film, a photograph, or a dream. But although I may not know from whence it came, after visiting the ranch in Montana, I know just where to find it.