Oh, Glorious Redbud

I might be able to convince myself that I can make food or do jigsaw puzzles or dig in the yard, but I draw the line at technology. Last week I was out of my mind trying to get the pictures in this post to upload, tried this, gave up, tried that, gave up, chatted with the person you can chat with who might be able to solve the problem (that didn’t help either), got distracted making Easter dinner for eleven people and a very cool Easter carrot cake / cheesecake with my sister — wanna see?…

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…and the only way I am uploading photos now is through my phone’s hotspot (which I have never used in my life anywhere) but hey, it’s working.

This tree, the one I tried to write about in the first place, looked this pretty a week ago. Its leaves are coming out now but just pretend it still looks like this.

It had to have been standing there in that same spot at the one end of my driveway when I moved here eight years ago. You can’t miss it, right? I’m talking about the pink one. Please note: I am not responsible for the pink tree bearing the name “redbud.” Do you see red? I don’t see red.

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But I hardly remember seeing this tree the first few years, which tells you something about how busy I was with other things, how un-focused. Shall we say blind?

Maybe I just didn’t know what I was looking at. I did not grow up with redbuds. Maybe the climate in New Jersey is too cold for them? Certainly they don’t grow in Vermont, where I spent twenty-some years. But in Virginia and south of here (maybe north of here? maybe Maryland or Pennsylvania? I have no idea), you find them randomly all over the place. I especially like their splash of color along the highway here and there.

Two years ago my son Bradley transplanted a smaller one to the front of the cottage. It was small in comparison with the one at the end of the driveway, but big enough, i.e. the roots were already deep enough, that he did not have much hope for its survival.

We chose the wrong time of year to transplant – May (!) of all times. It had fully leafed out by then. To be honest, I didn’t even know what kind of tree it was. I just knew it was getting too big to stay in the back corner of the garden (as were some others, but this one was in front of them and had to come first). Look how big it is! This is a tree that started as a stick with wet, icky, short white tentacles at one end that you take for roots, the kind of stick you get in the mail when you send the arbor foundation a donation. I’d say it did pretty well.

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But getting it out was not fun at all for Bradley.

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Poor tree. If it had a way to protest, I’m sure it would have. Wintertime, folks! Wintertime or fall or springtime is best for transplanting! At least wait until after my leaves have fallen and I’ve gone dormant!

Oh, well, what did we know? I was just glad for Bradley’s muscles! He even smoothed out the dirt after moving the tree. Piper was so small two years ago!

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It makes me think about how many things I have done or continue to do with so very little understanding. These are a few items on my very long list, which does not include the aforementioned tech stuff.

  • Something is wrong with my rhubarb. It’s not growing as well as it did for a few years. There’s a reason for that, but I have no idea what it is. Maybe it needs food? Maybe it gets too much sun? Maybe I should look it up?
  • Some of the plants I put in the large planter boxes last year have returned. I think. I mean, I think they are the same. Maybe they are weeds. Maybe they are a perennial, which would be nice! I’ll wait a bit and see.
  • Weeds have definitely barged into the strawberry bed. They are purple flowers, quite pretty actually. But maybe I am beginning a losing battle?

 

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Sandy and I moved many clumps of these purple weeds, and they look nice (for now) next to the arbor that leads into the garden, though I suspect we will be moving them out of the strawberry bed on a regular basis.

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Back to that redbud Bradley transplanted two years ago – I did know to keep it well-watered, especially in the heat of summer. Every evening I watered that poor tree, knowing full well it was complaining about being jerked around and relocated. I had hope! This is what it looked like initially. Pretty good, huh? Looks healthy!

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Bradley was doubtful, un-encouraging, disbelieving. Brace yourself, Mom, It’ll probably die. Every time I gave him a report about it (The tree’s doing well, Brad! It hasn’t died yet!), he’d say Don’t get your hopes up. I kept watering and watering.

Look at it this spring! Two years later and it has flowers. I think it survived!

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The redbuds bloom just before the dogwoods. Here’s a close-up of the buds I saw last week in one of the trees we transplanted this winter. I think it too is going to survive.

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Pretty soon they will be gorgeous white flowers. Oh, right, that was last week. By the time I got the pictures to attach, those buds bloomed. Now it looks like this.

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Soon something else will bloom. Don’t ask me what – I have no idea! I might know a little more about gardening than about technology, but not much. Right now I’m just glad to be able to post something again.

 

Old-Fashioned Beef Stew and Biscuits

Sometimes, when it’s damp or raining or even just overcast and cool — and even April days can be like this — you just want a bowl of something hale and hearty like beef stew. When you complement the rich broth, tender meat and delicious vegetables with flaky biscuits, you have a winner of a meal. And neither one is hard to make!

I would start with the stew because you can make the biscuits later while the stew is stewing. This version has beef, carrots, potatoes and edamame (soy beans that taste kinda like lima beans). I always feel better if a stew has some green in it, and the package of edamame was the first thing I saw when I opened the freezer, so that’s what went in the stew!

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Peas would work too, or green beans, or lima beans, or any other green you want.

Or no green. You are free to add no green. That’s what I love about cooking. You make it the way you like it.

Naturally, though, you start with an onion – everything is better started with an onion. Well, maybe not everything. But in this case onion is good, and I added a can of petite diced tomatoes besides. That’s a fairly new ingredient for me, but I keep doing it, so it must be good.

Put a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven over a medium flame and add one chopped onion. It doesn’t matter how big the onion is or how small you chop the pieces, but the bigger the onion, the more onion flavor your stew will have, and the bigger the onion pieces, the more you will see them once it is cooked. Some people don’t want to see their onion; I cannot explain this.

I used about two pounds of  bottom round beef. This is going to cook for several hours, so it does not need to be a prime, expensive cut. You can buy it as a roast and cut it up yourself, or you can buy it already cut up as “stew beef.” Obviously, you decide how much meat you want in proportion to the rest of the ingredients. If you want it mostly meat, then add just a few vegetables. If you want the meat to be a background ingredient, then load on the veggies.

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Let the meat cook on a medium flame until it has browned. It will make some juice of its own, like this…

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but you want it to simmer for a while in liquid, so add enough water so that the meat is almost covered. Cook on a low flame, covered, for about an hour and a quarter. An hour and a half won’t hurt anything. Then add your veggies. I peeled and cut up five big carrots and three big potatoes. Let that simmer, covered, again with enough water that the veggies are almost covered (a little more than in the photo below, remembering that if you decide to add tomatoes later, they add liquid too). 

(By the way, this works really well with pearl barley instead of the potatoes, but you will need more liquid.)

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I let the carrots and potatoes cook about another 45 minutes. During this time I prepared the biscuits and put them in the oven, then added my frozen green vegetable, the can of diced tomatoes and my flavorings – salt and pepper (to taste) and whatever else appeals to you. This time I used about a tablespoon each of dried basil and parsley and a teaspoon of oregano. The time it takes for the biscuits to bake is about how long the green veggie needs to soften a bit. I never want my green too mushy. If you want yours mushy, add them sooner. Turn up the flame a bit — adding frozen anything to this pot will lower its overall temperature, and you do need the green stuff to cook a few minutes, not just warm through.

You can also add the herbs sooner. A case could be made for that.

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The biscuit recipe I use comes out of my old Fannie Farmer cookbook. I do it a little differently though. First of all, I use butter, not vegetable shortening. Goodness! I use six tablespoons of butter. And I use buttermilk (or milk with a teaspoon of vinegar added) instead of the plain milk. (I don’t mean I follow what it says below for “Buttermilk Biscuits” though I expect that would work too. I just mean I use buttermilk instead of the plain milk.) Also I definitely don’t knead it 14 times. I handle it only as much as necessary to make a flattened dough. And I make mine 1″, not 1/2″ high.

I guess I change it more than I realized…

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The dough is one of those you can’t play with too much or your biscuits will be tough. Mix all the dry ingredients with the butter, get that all looking like “coarse crumbs” before you add the milk.

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Then add the milk and stir just enough to combine.

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What’s in the bowl doesn’t look like a ball, but it comes out in one blob, so turn it out onto a floured board, sprinkle a little flour on it and flatten it to about an inch thickness. You can flatten it with your hands or a rolling pin. I like the irregularity of using my hands. I don’t want them perfect. These are not Pillsbury, not manufactured, not factory-made. I love them looking homemade. That’s good.

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To cut them up I use a cutter from a set Kim gave me years ago. I love being able to pick the size that seems best that day. Sometimes you feel like a big biscuit. Sometimes you don’t.

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Thank you, Kim. I chose the fifth from the center this time. It helps if you dip the cutter in your flour canister — just coat the edges with a little flour — so it doesn’t stick to the dough as much when you cut through.

If you don’t have a biscuit cutter, you can use an upside down drinking glass or a jar. Or any cookie cutter with high sides. You can make stars or dog bones or hearts or anything you want.

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When I have cut as many as I can, I gently bring together the remaining dough and cut a couple more. Then with the bit leftover I make a ball and stick it on the pan. Waste not. Someone will eat it.

Bake them for 15-20 minutes until they are as brown as you like them. See what I mean about them looking homemade? I think they have character 🙂

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By the way, this stew will taste even better the second day, so it there’s leftovers, all the better.

See What Happens When You Start a Monster Show?

When is the last time you heard of a family with seven brothers, five of whom worked together in one hugely successful enterprise, one of whom amassed a fortune that includes what is now the official state art museum of Florida? When is the last time you heard of five brothers who worked together?

I was super impressed with The Ringling, a must-see Sarasota attraction that includes a fine arts museum, a circus museum, extensive gardens and a waterfront palatial mansion. John Ringling, who died in 1936, the only one of the brothers to make it to age 70, bequeathed to the state the estate he and his beloved wife Mable had developed.

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John was born in Iowa to German immigrants, the sixth of seven brothers. When they opened their first show in 1870, the oldest was just 18. John was four. The show was called “The Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan and Congress of Trained Animals.” They charged a penny for admission and traveled to their next location with horse-drawn wagons. By 1889 when John was 23, their traveling show was big enough and profitable enough to travel by train from one town to the next.

Imagine if they had kept their name The Ringling Bros. Monster Show! Imagine how our vernacular might have evolved. We wouldn’t say: “People were laughing and carousing everywhere during that festival — it was a circus!” We’d say “… it was a monster show!”

Alf, Al, Otto, Charles and John partnered in this venture. The show got better and better and more and more well known, and in 1907 they became “circus kings” after purchasing Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, which traveled separately until 1918 when the first world war and the influenza epidemic necessitated a merging of the two. On March 29, 1919, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its debut performance in New York City at Madison Square Garden.

All good, right?

About six months later, brother Alf (a juggler) died, the third of the five kings to pass, leaving John and Charles to manage the circus. They chose Sarasota, Florida, for the circus’s winter quarters, but Charles died before they even got there.

That left John. He expanded his wealth, buying into railroads, oil and real estate. He bought other circuses. He bought 600 acres of bayfront property in Sarasota, commissioned a Venetian Gothic style mansion and began collecting old world art, including five of the original eleven paintings in a series by Peter Paul Rubens. His dear wife Mable carefully and lovingly oversaw all aspects of construction. She loved her rose garden so much that she chose to have her own room face that direction rather than look out over the bay. Only three years into living in their dream home, she died.

Three years after that, right about when he spent $1.7 million (more than $24M in today’s dollars) the stock market crashed.

John died in 1936 with $311 in the bank.

Think what you will about early 20th-century tycoons. This one left a great gift to the people of Florida and the world.

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Massive and Magnificent

When you go to Sarasota, you really have to stop in and see The Ringling. I hardly know where to begin. Oh, wait, I did begin. I told you about the garden gnomes and the banyan trees and the roses in the rose garden already in Florida Curiosities. Creepy/ amusing/ freakish/ enchanting as those gnomes might be to you, fascinating as the banyans were to me and lovely as the roses are (hopefully) to everyone, these were just the beginning.

We started at the art museum. Its gorgeous courtyard includes a replica of Michelangelo’s famous David.

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I realize that not everyone would be as enthralled as I was with the marble walkway up near that statue, but, I mean, look at what you’re walking on. Some unknown, very talented team of laborers a hundred years ago chose which piece should go next, how to organize the colors, which way to turn each piece so that it best complements the next piece – its own kind of puzzle.

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And this is no short or narrow path. Do you think the design is random?

Hey, Jack, hand me another piece.

Which one?

I don’t care. Any one.

No, I think more thought than that went into it…

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We went from the walkway to the armor exhibit. This is the real McCoy, authentic armor worn by men four or five hundred years ago who were much smaller than today’s men. The knight on the horse doesn’t look that small…

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…but when you look at the sampling of upper-body styles, you think maybe these guys didn’t eat as well as we do. The lady there told us a guy of about 120 pounds would fit in them.

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Anybody for a sword?

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The courtyard, armor and the art museum were all worth every minute, but besides the charming gnomes (here’s another for your pleasure – dontcha just wanna hug her??)…

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…the best part of the day for me was seeing the circus. Well, not exactly the circus. You start in a room with old-time posters like this… “Presenting 600 Educated Animals” – Educated?? 600??

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…and this. “Hilliary Long Defies Death in His Thrilling Head Slide” (oh, my! looks to me like an upside-down slide on a descending tightrope – guessing he wears some sort of cap with a groove in it for the tightrope??) and “The Most Novel, Moral and Entertaining Exhibition Ever Given Under Canvas” (moral?) and “Mile-Long Massive, Magnificent Street Parade (who wouldn’t want to go to the circus??).

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The next room has some of the leftover equipment they used, such as the truck converted to use for the human cannonball.

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Yes, human beings of sound mind loaded themselves – feet first – into the barrel of this thing, which by means of air compression shot them out approximately 200 feet (60 meters) onto a waiting net (hopefully they landed on the net, assuming they did the math right and nothing went awry). Hugo Zacchini, a circus performer with two engineering degrees and later an advanced degree in fine arts, who could also speak or interpret eleven languages, was discovered by John Ringling in 1928. He and his sons joined Ringling’s circus and continued performing this famous, thrilling and death-defying act for years.

Death-defying. As if the guy sliding upside down on a descending tightrope is not risking his life. Or the lady on the trapeze a hundred feet in the air. Or the guy in the ring with the lions or the one swallowing a flaming sword.

The circus was a big deal back in the day. About 100 railroad cars transported many hundreds of people and animals from one town to the next, where crews followed mind-bogglingly tight schedules allowing them to set up, perform and tear down in one day – so that they could then travel, set up, perform and tear down somewhere else the next day.

The Ringling wants to give its visitors an idea of what the circus was like – not only what ticket-holders would see, but behind the scenes as well. It’s a fascinating look at the massive operation. Can this miniature version (1/16th scale model) that is super neat and clean (way neater and cleaner than reality would dictate) possibly give the idea of the magnitude of the operation? For example, thousands of people – 5000-8000 typically, but as many as 15,000 – came every day to see the animals and the acts. This three-ring “Big Top” reproduction is just one of many tents in the 3800-square-foot exhibit.

 

 

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Another part of the miniature exhibit shows the “midway,” where visitors could see the fat man, the tall man, flame throwers, the bearded lady and other very well paid “freaks,” and get shaved ice and popcorn to eat.  

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This next part shows the dining tent. All the performers and crew of course had to eat – a whopping 3900 (!) meals a day were prepared and served. Anyone who has worked in the restaurant or hotel business can appreciate how efficient the staff had to be to make this happen.

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Each person had a designated seat! China plates, silverware, a water pitcher and condiments too. Imagine how much food they would need. Records indicate that a typical day’s order included two barrels of sugar (not sure how big a barrel is), 30 gallons of milk, 36 bags of table salt, 50 bushels of potatoes, 110 dozen oranges, 200 pounds of tea and coffee, 226 dozen eggs, 285 pounds of butter, 350 pounds of salad, 1300 pounds of fresh vegetables, 2220 loaves of bread, 2470 pounds of fresh meat and 3600 ears of corn. My mind cannot wrap around those quantities.

To say nothing of the animals that are also hungry every day. Where did they get the food? Imagine the expense. Imagine how many animals are needed to feed the animals…

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The “Menagerie” was another important and popular part of a visitor’s day at the circus. A valid case can be made that exposure to exotic and interesting animals – then as now—increases awareness and understanding, which (I would like to think) improves the animals’ well being in the big picture (even if, for some, it is not the best life).

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For many people back then, the circus was the only time in their lives that they would see animals from other parts of the world – zoos being rather uncommon. Think about the trains that carried the circus from town to town – about 16,000 miles per year on average! – giving kids and adults in remote places, with few other options for entertainment, a window into a fascinating world available to them in no other way. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, movies were just beginning to be a thing, forget about television. The circus also gave performers who love to perform a new audience every night.

Like so many things, it wasn’t perfect. Like so many things, through today’s lens it would be seen as fraught with problems, inconsistencies, unfairness and worse. But for many decades, starting in the mid 1800s when railroads made a traveling extravaganza possible, the circus brought color, fun, fascination, education, thrills and entertainment (and employment) to countless thousands.

I think if you were a kid back then, in some small town far from everywhere and you found out that the circus was coming to town, you might be good and glad to go see what there was to see – the animals, the lady on the swinging trapeze, the elephant walking regally through the big top. You’d probably see it the way The Ringling chose to display it – bright and extensive and amazing. You might like the giant sea elephant best. “Wow!” might be all you could say…

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Best Beach Puzzle

I love a good puzzle. I love the innies and outies of varying size, bulbousness and depth, and the super pointy corner spades you get sometimes. But I was not prepared for these pieces. Do you see what I see?

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One piece near the middle looks fairly normal – more or less rectangular in shape with two innies and two outies opposite each other. And then there are lots of nonstandard elements about the other pieces – curved edges (curved edges!), odd angles, random jut-outs. For example, that one with one outie, one innie, some white coloring and two straight-ish edges (bottom left area of photo) – which edge is the straightest edge and does that mean it’s an outer edge? If there are two straight-ish edges, the puzzle makers have thrown convention off the 14th-floor beach hotel balcony. Maybe one of them is an outer edge, maybe neither.

I knew we were in for it. Our Sarasota beach puzzle was a doozy.

Under the following conditions a beach puzzle will call my name. 1. A fun design that is challenging but not too challenging (the trip was five nights, not five weeks), 2. A surface to work on (let’s assume we are willing to not eat at that table), 3.  A few willing, interested and capable people (Debra, you were amazing!), and 4. The ability to break it down when it’s time to go home (the hardest part, so I say, best to let someone else do it when you are out of the room!).

Our doozy of a puzzle was a great pick by Dina: beachy theme, not too many pieces, numerous colorful and distinct objects — and “not too much sky” as my grandmother used to say – or in this case, not too much water!

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You see five starfish, two clown fish, two angel fish, two dolphins and some random other sea life – all different enough from each other to give you confidence that it can’t be that hard. (Ha!) One angelfish is more orangy than the other (I think those are angel fish), and one of the starfish is purple, one has dots, one is more brownish, one has little white mountains on it (that’s what they looked like to me) and one is, well, other.

Standard puzzling starts from the edge and works inward. I have never put one together in which we started on the inner sections and did the edging last. Until this one. You see the edge on the box cover image. Crazy!! The pieces were oddball shapes with sorta-straight or downright curvy sides – yeah, no way was the edge happening first.

Let’s do a starfish. The one with dots. And sure, a few edge pieces, but not many.

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Onward. Group like colors or patterns together, one creature at a time, one fin or flower or ill-defined squiggle at a time. Little by little connect the creatures. Now (below) you see five starfish (four connected), two angelfish and some other pretty fish in between – and only slightly more edge than before!

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But it’s okay. There are no rules to puzzle-making. You can put it together however makes sense to you. Kind of like life when you think about it. Like food. Like friendship.

I take that back. There are some rules. With a puzzle, the pieces have to fit together, duh, which is harder than it looks. With food, the ingredients have to work together and the flavors have to play off each other in such a way as the outcome is delicious and hopefully appealing. With friendship, well, we all know what happens when fun is not had and mutual benefits (disparate as they might be) are not forthcoming.

Night after night, when we all had had enough beachy sun for one day, enough fishing, enough shelling, enough exploring (note I did not say enough eating or drinking!), some of us headed to the puzzle table. It came together nicely. There is a sense of triumph only puzzlers know when a piece that has been hiding suddenly calls your name. Here I am, and I have been here all along! Kind of like discovering that someone you have been working with for years or the quiet neighbor down the street is way nicer than you ever knew, and you also happen to have a lot in common. Been here all along!

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Puzzles come together piece by piece, step by step, bit by bit, the way you weed a garden or iron a shirt or make a cake or write a poem. You start with the decision to do it, knowing full well that it will take time and patience. You pay attention to detail if you want to end up with the puzzle whole, the garden gorgeous, the shirt pressed, the cake delicious, the poem meaningful. You try and try again, sometimes the same wrong piece in the same spot where it didn’t fit before over and over. Oh, right, that one doesn’t work there! You smile a little, inside or outwardly, when someone notices your diligence and progress. Hey, looks like a starfish to me!

You keep going until you finish or you decide it’s enough or you run out of time. We all know it’s not the end of the world if you don’t finish, but there’s something enormously satisfying about finished, completed, done – even if weeds will grow again, the shirt will get wrinkly, the cake will be eaten (oh, yum!) and the poem will be unread by many who would enjoy it so very much. Even if, difficult as it is, you break apart those puzzle pieces you spent so much time putting together.

We finished!

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Debra, have fun doing it again, this time with your grandson!

Florida Curiosities

At my house in Virginia I am surrounded by trees: giant trees, trees with bark, trees with leaves that fall off, trees kids can climb. We do not have concrete trees. We do not have trees that cannot be content with one trunk. We do not have trees with lattice-work trunks.

When I first came across what look like concrete palm trees in downtown Sarasota standing next to an actual concrete pole, I thought perhaps the city’s tree-trimming crew had manicured these somehow to make them easier to maintain or because, mimicking concrete, they are more fitting for the cityscape. Or the city planners had chosen this type because they are so odd, so straight, so smooth – a Florida curiosity (among many!) that would make heads turn (though hopefully not causing: look! oops! crash!).

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You know, the same way they put up statues that draw your eye. Everyone remember this one from the famous V-Day photo in Times Square?

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A different city committee approved this one, for sure, such a very iconic image of joyful reunion, of national celebration, of profound relief. “Unconditional Surrender” was sculpted by Seward Johnson and stands in the bayfront area despite protests that it is not art. A local blog nonetheless says “there’s no denying that it’s a unique stop for any Sarasota visitor. When visiting, please remember that drivers should keep their eyes on the road and never take pictures from behind the wheel.” Right.

Intriguing as the sculpture is, my own eye went back to the concrete trees. I thought maybe the city landscapers decided to shave off the regular bark instead of 1. leaving it the way it might occur naturally (whatever that is) or 2. trimming it, lattice-like, as you see here, the unkempt, controlled stubble look.

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But no, the concrete palm trees are easily found outside the city as well.

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They line the streets with them. Here is a collection in front of the Ritz on Lido Key. Note the gawking tourist! What IS it? Are they real?

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These smooth-trunked palms, so well defined, so sure of themselves, are a stark contrast to the banyan trees that seemingly had a contest for trunk superiority, and no one won. Countless verticals seem to compete: “I’m the real trunk! No, I’m the most important! Well, I’m the most interesting – look at my twists and curves!” On the extensive and impressive grounds of the Ringling estate, thirteen banyan trees (classified under the genus Ficus, or fig (!) – who knew??) stand in a grove. The story goes that they were given to John Ringling by Thomas Edison in the 1920s. Here are Debra, Brian, Fred and Dina dwarfed by them.

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Speaking of dwarfs, the little gnome hiding in the back is one of many that adorn the grove. Their story is magical. Way back in the Ringling heyday, the gardening crew arrived – early, as per gardening crew norms – and were surprised to find the little oddballs being set down into their places by larger, stiffly moving, clearly older garden gnomes. Could it be a new gnome colony being planted? Or was it time-out for misbehaving youngsters? When said gardening crew arrived (gaping, no doubt, aghast at the sight, unsure – having not yet had their morning coffee – that they weren’t maybe just seeing things), they saw the larger gnomes placing their presumably more shy little compatriots among the trees in rather hidden spots and the gregarious ones as greeters along the path.

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Just kidding. John Ringling found the sculptures in Italy on one of his art-collecting expeditions, and they will evermore enchant visitors to his estate. I’m not sure I’d call them “amusing,” “delightful” and “whimsical,” as estate literature does. “Creepy” comes to mind.  I sent Samuel a photo of me in front of one of them to give him an image of the new Sanuk shoes I had bought.

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If you zoom in, I said, you can see them. The top is stretchy fabric, super comfy.

Not happening. “Honestly I can’t look at that photo and pay any attention to your shoes with that weird gnome,” he replied. And that was that.

Fair enough.

Birds are everywhere – on the beach, in the air, on the docks. Here’s one Mary and I saw after unsuccessfully trying to get a table at Dry Dock Grill in Longboat Key. We did not get lunch there, but he did!

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Birds are even on the room number plates where we stayed, the Lido Beach Resort (pronounced “Leedo” by the way).

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And how is this for cool? Your room key is part of a snazzy wrist band that you can wear in the water or wherever – no more trying to remember where you placed the thing. Here’s Fred’s, memorialized at the pool. I thought they were great! Okay, maybe these are the norm everywhere now — I don’t get out that much!

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There were so many cool things in Florida! Such vibrant colors too.

Orange pancake mushrooms on a dead log.

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Red roses (in Mable Ringling’s rose garden).

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And a black lizard that Fred was quick enough to catch with his camera. See it on top, toward the back of the log?

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Tractors (needing headlights!) comb the sand in the early morning …

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… tempting visitors like me to get, shall we say, a little too much Vitamin D? Oh, how white can she be?? the locals are saying. Sweetie, put on your sunscreen!!

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I got a little smarter after that and wore a shirt the rest of the day. Seeing dear friends from Keswick – Mario, Mary and Victoria – made this very special trip even better!

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But a post about a trip to the beach in Florida would not be complete without a really awesome sandcastle. Check it out! Dripped turrets all around, shells lining the road leading to the moat, distinguishing upright shells at the entrance… very impressive.

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My own shell collection made it home with no breakages and I proceeded with Shell Show & Tell. Next thing I knew, Samuel had used a barnacled clamshell as a hat for Coco. This poor dog. But she didn’t care!

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It’s good to be home, but what a wonderful trip!

 

A Rest on the Beach

It doesn’t take much to make me happy. Feet in a hot tub.

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Feet in the sand.

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A warm breeze. A few collected shells.

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Nice conversation. A gorgeous sunset over the ocean. (Guess where I am!)

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A breathtaking view from the hotel room. And water – what is so peaceful about water (when it’s not, of course, in a violently raging storm)?

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How is it that we sometimes don’t know what we need until we get it? Or, in my case, until we are gifted it. I am careful of the word “need.” I do not “need” (though I am loving it!) a few days at the luxurious Lido Beach Resort in Sarasota, Florida, in the company of my amazingly generous college roommate (thank you Dina!) and her wonderful family (hello Fred, Debra, Luana and Brian, Walt and Jené!).

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What I “needed” was a rest – the I-do-not-have-an-agenda kind of rest, with all the relaxation, perspective and refreshment a good rest brings. It does me good to get outside my ordinary everyday world (much as I love that too), to eat other foods (“Fin & Crab” was outstanding tonight), to talk about other things, to see other sights.

What a godsend of a place for a rest! I am reminded that some people like to fish on the end of a jumble of rocks…

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…or think giant rubber duckies are cool…

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…or make impressive sand animals (is it a manatee?)…

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…or write their feelings with excellent handwriting (sandwriting?). I love the beach too!

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I get to see for myself some of the wildlife that could be chosen for nature programs like Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II (exceptionally well done shows). These, as Fred so kindly looked up for me, are Royal Terns.

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We wondered if the ones with all black feathers on their heads are the males and the ones with only partial black are females, or vice versa. The color of their beaks made me imagine a paint color card – the kind you see at Lowe’s – with Royal Tern Beak Orange on it. The birds stick together (for safety in numbers?) and don’t let you get too close. In the water against the setting sun they are some kind of beautiful.

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On the sand during the day they are harder to spot.

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They clearly have one or two self-designated “spokes-terns” that do all the squawking for all the others (on which point you will have to trust me). I suppose it’s also possible that they had some sort of in-house competition for loudest/most obnoxious squawk and those that won need to continually prove their superior skill.  Yes, yes, everyone on the beach hears you!

The Royal Terns undoubtedly have various other fascinating characteristics that the nature show producers would call attention to. Maybe they dive bomb their prey. Maybe they mate for life. Maybe they are fashion divas and change their feather colors with the changing seasons. I will wonder – and likely remain ignorant – because hey, so many shells, so little time!

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Do you think this little lonely beauty is unbroken?

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A Skink in a Log

When your alarm goes off at 435am so you can leave for the airport by 515, it’s very dark outside. It’s hard to get up. Your eyes resist opening. They slit open only enough to deactivate the alarm. You roll over and tuck in again. Just a few more minutes, you think, just a few.

No. Today is Travel Day. Time to get up. Now.

That’s just how the skink must have felt, the one we found inside a cut log this weekend. The one we woke up.

If you have ever wondered what the inside of a tree looks like, look on the outside for clues. If you see a lot of holes, especially large ones – fist-size or bigger – worry. If you see squirrels and birds disappearing inside those holes – worry more. You might have a tower filled with condominiums for your local wildlife. If that tree is anywhere near your house, call someone to come take it down.

The 80-foot (or so) tree that stood about an arm-spread from the back corner of my house, right next to my bedroom, was one such tower. Last winter a professional climber lopped off numerous branches while hanging from a rope tied to the jib of a 40-ton crane. Do you see him up there? He’s just under that heavy ball attached to the rope that’s attached to the jib.

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Then they felled the tree. Afterwards he said to me no fewer than four times, “You are so lucky that tree didn’t fall on your house. You are so lucky.”

The cut branches revealed all stages of disintegration: some entirely without a core, some with wood fluff that fell out like finely shredded Styrofoam, some with spongy innards, not yet dry enough to slough off and out. I was so lucky.

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Some of this wood we cut up right away for firewood. Some of it sat in a jumble near the garden, waiting, aging, drying some more. Fourteen months later it was time to split and stack the rest. I’m good for rolling cut sections toward the cutting area and for picking up and stacking the cut pieces. Samuel swings the ax.

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“Hey, look. Is it dead?” He brought over a split piece to where I was wrestling with nasty, thorny Virginia creeper. Do you see the little fella with the unmistakable blue tail ?

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The aptly named blue-tailed skink seemed to be sleeping. Do skinks hibernate? The impact of the ax, the sound and disturbance of the cracking, the force of the split log falling to the ground – none of this disturbed him. He snoozed soundly in his little crack, hoping perhaps that it isn’t spring just yet.

Awwwww – just a few more minutes??

No. Sorry. Today is Wood Splitting Day. Time to get up. Now.

The fresh air must have roused him. Off he scampered, easily disappearing among some dead leaves. Within minutes Samuel spotted his compatriot, a little brown lizard way better camouflaged and surely able to claim a better name than “little brown lizard” but sadly I don’t know my woodland wildlife well enough. See him just below the toe of Samuel’s left boot?

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Two lizardy creatures awakened to Spring 2019 before our eyes! That’s not a thing you can say every day.

Maple-Rosemary Pairing

Every now and then I get a hankering for French toast. Visions of warm maple syrup tempt me more than usual right now because I know the sap of maple trees is running well (nights cold enough, days warm enough, correct differential). Plus, I had some bread that was two days old.

In the bakery section of my grocery store (and I don’t mean the bread-in-plastic-bags aisle) they sell a variety of in-store baked bread. I’m not naïve enough to believe that they mix up the dough there, but at least they bake it there, so it’s fresher, sometimes even still warm. You find a decent rye with caraway seeds, a crusty multigrain loaf and a lovely “country” white made with rosemary and olive oil.

Lightly toast a slice or two of that rosemary bread and top it with butter and honey – that’s some good eating! So on Saturday I said to myself: Why not French toast? Fairly thick (just under one inch) slices soaked in the egg-milk mixture, browned in butter and topped with maple syrup – hmmm, using the rosemary bread for this just might work. So I tried it.

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I love how the pieces puff up as the egg inside them cooks. I love the crispiness formed (especially on the edges) by the hot butter coming in contact with the soaked bread. I love warm, pure syrup dripped over top and then soaking into the soft inners.

Any meal, any occasion, any success, any failure happens because of the confluence of numerous factors, a specific alignment of the figurative stars. This specific breakfast is no different. For it to happen included 1. having this kind of bread on hand, 2. knowing how to turn bread into French toast and 3. being willing to experiment.

Let’s start with the bread. Somewhere along the line it occurred to someone to put jalapenos in pickles, sugar on corn flakes, barbeque flavoring on potato chips. Why not rosemary in bread? Who can doubt that Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme helped bring all these wonderful herbs into kitchens they had previously not entered, introducing a generation to flavors and aromas that enhance many foods? I’m not sure which is better in bread – kalamata olives or fresh rosemary – but I’ll take either on any day. If there is honey in the cabinet for drizzling on top, I am in heaven.

French toast is such a simple meal to prepare – I should make it more often. For the five pieces you see in the pan above, plus the two in a second pan (no point squishing French toast), I used four large eggs (my good eggs, which undoubtedly contributed to the amazing result) whisked up with half a cup of milk. This was a bit much – three would have done – but I took the extra egg mixture and carefully poured it onto each slice after I put them into the pan but before I flipped them, which maybe added to the puffiness. Oh, and I used about two tablespoons of butter in the large pan and one in the smaller and cooked them over a medium flame. Get the butter hot before you put the soaked bread in the pan.

The being willing to experiment part is, for me, both limited and expanding: Limited because I know what I like and what I don’t like (so I outright refuse to consider certain things like jalapenos, sorry to say), but expanding because 1. My experience over time has accumulated in a mysterious and wonderful way. New combinations occur to me that never would have. A new method I never used pops in my head for something I’ve made many times. It’s super cool! And 2. Let us always, at least in some benign thing, remain unpredictable. Life is just more fun 😊

Some of the world’s best things came about by similar alignment of stars, i.e. having/doing a thing routinely over time and then a need or a change or an idea turns it into a version of the original by way of experimentation. Ice cream cones come to mind. New Yorker Italo Marchiony sold ice cream off a pushcart to Wall Street customers looking for a quick snack. He served it in little (let’s assume fairly inexpensive) glass cups, but too often these either broke from being dropped or were not returned to him. He came up with an edible cup and was awarded the patent in 1903 for his ten-at-a-time cone-making mold. At the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition his cones were so popular he still couldn’t keep up with demand, so he reached out to fellow exhibitor Ernest Hamwi, who was selling a thin, waffle-like Syrian cookie. The cookies, molded while still warm, made great impromptu cones.

Oh, yum! Never mind French toast – who wants an ice cream cone??!!

Mountains and Molehills

Have you ever been driving eastward in the morning and found yourself blinded by the rising sun? Or by the setting sun going westward in the late afternoon or early evening? You put down the visor, you wear sunglasses, you extend your neck this way and that or hold your hand up flat against the piercing light to try to shield yourself from its powerful interference in your field of vision. I’ve done these things a thousand times myself, looking like a chicken that can’t figure out which way her neck should be angled off her body, but it never occurred to me to do what Carolyn did.

She cut out the side of a cereal box, glued it to a paint stirring stick and put it in her car, readily accessible, for those moments when the sun is right in her eyes and too strong. Her no-cost, highly effective solution does the trick every time.

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I watched her do this as we drove from Underhill to Cambridge (Vermont) one bright morning when I was there. I was struck by the crazy simplicity of it.

It made me think about the mountains we make out of molehills sometimes, the money we spend, the time we take, the ways we fret – when the situation has an easy fix. And I don’t mean just sun-shields. Not everything is complicated, expensive and difficult. Oh, if only I’d thought of that! My own clunky, roundabout process (if I even have one, to say nothing of looking like a chicken) seems so un-brilliant in contrast.

If we can manage to get smarter over time (study, read, watch, learn and do the thing that’s helpful/expedient/sensible), we can uncomplicate and unclutter our lives a little. From working in hotel kitchens I learned about CAYGO Clean As You GO – so I don’t end up with a gigantic mess of dirty dishes and pots and utensils at the end (important especially in my tiny kitchen). If something I use can be just rinsed, say, the knife I just cut up the cabbage with, I rinse it and stand it up to dry. If the spoons, beaters and measuring cups are all over the counter, they are going to get in my way. Instead, I put them in the mixing bowl, in the sink, with water and a little detergent, and when I pop the cake in the oven, I do these up quickly instead of waiting till, say, after dinner. Well, most of the time – no one wants to be obsessive, right?

Yeah, but…

Why do some things seem like nothing and others overwhelm us?

The old saying is Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. A mole, the size of a mouse, tunnels in the ground right under the surface, loosening the dirt, creating a slight ridge as it pushes along that might (might!) be half an inch high. Hardly a mountain.

All well and good. All easy to say. All sensible until we encounter something we somehow can’t fix or keep up with so easily.

Like the inside of my fridge. I open it numerous times a day and recently realized there were things in there that 1. Had been in there quite some time and/or 2. I didn’t know what they were. I am not in college. I don’t share a fridge with random people who were assigned to live with me. It’s my fridge. But okay, this is a portion of what I took out (and I’m glad the photo is dark!).

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I don’t remember the occasion I bought Reddi-wip for. I do remember buying/opening horseradish spread for roast beef sandwiches for a neighborhood event maybe four years ago and that’s still here. And that white wine, oh dear. It says 2017. Is it still good? There’s an open can of coconut milk we used for something a month or so ago (or was that right after Christmas?), a re-zipped bag of shredded coconut of a kind I never buy (who bought that? when?), the little lemon juice squeezie-bottle (or is that lime because it’s green, and why do I have it?), small unlabeled mason jars with vaguely sweet substances of unknown origin…

Here I am, Miss CAYGO-CAYGO (and proud of it, thank you very much!), able to keep up with and tout the virtues of washing up the dishes as you go along so you don’t have a big mess at the end, clearly unable to avoid old items, mystery items, no-longer-fresh items in my fridge.

We are so very inconsistent, we humans. Just this week I was thinking about how being organized and efficient in one arena should mean we are organized and efficient in another arena. More broadly speaking, if we exert control over one area of our lives (and most of us can manage this), why can’t we exert it over another? Shouldn’t the same principles apply? Pick a system, adapt it for whatever situation, practice until it’s habit, and voila(!) one less thing to be mucking about in, one less thing to struggle with all the time. Right? Shouldn’t we see the parallels and be able to say A is just like B, so I’ll just do for A as I do for B? Is it that hard? Yup! It is that hard, we are that complicated, situations do vary, personality does plays in, life is complex. We are not little robots that can just see the thing, do the thing and carry on.

And I might need the Reddi-wip!

…All right, fine, I’ll buy more next time…