Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.

The Lexicon of Real American Food

Much as Speaking American taught me about regional differences in words for things throughout the U.S., The Lexicon of Real American Food, by Jane and Michael Stern, taught me a lot about regional differences in food—both specific twists on common foods, and things that seem to be pretty unique. Here are some of the things I learned:

An egg cream has three ingredients—chocolate syrup, whole milk, and seltzer. I have heard of egg creams (New York), but I always rather assumed they had egg in them.

The chow mein sandwich appears on menus of diners, drive-ins, and cafes in parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Made with crunchy noodles topped with sauced sprouts (no meat) on a plate with a bun.

Grape-Nuts Pudding, found in New England, consists basically of stirring Grape Nuts into a custard pudding. I’m not even going to venture to guess why New Englanders wish to punish themselves this way.

The Juicy Lucy is close to my backyard. A hamburger with molten cheese in the middle, it was invented in Minneapolis in 1954. Two bars take credit for it (and interestingly, they are not very far apart). I have eaten at both of them and find the Juicy Lucy at Matt’s Bar the hands-down winner.

A half-smoke can be found in Washington, D.C. Primarily street food sold in carts, it’s a fat hot dog with a coarse texture and heavy smoke flavor, served in a bun and usually topped with beef chili.

Also in the hot dog family, a ripper is a hot dog deep-fried long enough for its skin to rip. Rippers are a New Jersey thing.

Move inland to Ohio and find a different sausage specialty: the Polish Boy. Found in the barbecue restaurants of Cleveland, it consists of a large piece of crisp-cased kielbasa and comes on a bun with French fries and coleslaw, all topped with barbecue sauce.

Pico de gallo usually refers to a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, peppers, and lime juice. In Tucson, however, it is a mix of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and jicama. This is spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with a hot chili-powder mix. Wow.

Barbecue took up more than 10 pages. I learned about pulled pork, whole hog, Kentucky mutton, Texas beef, California barbecue, plus barbecue salad (Memphis, TN and Arkansas) and barbecue spaghetti (Memphis). Chili also gets several pages (including a recipe for Texas chili). But there are also separate entries for chili mac, Cincinnati chili, Green Bay chili, green chile cheeseburger, and Minorcan chowder.

Pizza also takes up a few pages: California pizza, Chicago pizza, Detroit (square) pizza, Ithaca NY’s hot truck that invented French bread pizzas, Maryland pizza, Memphis pizza (has a major barbecue element), New Haven pizza, New York pizza, Old Forge PA pizza, Southwest pizza, St. Louis pizza, and West Virginia pizza. I had no idea.

I also learned a few new things. For example, Jell-O is Utah’s official snack food. There were a lot of red items: red beans and rice, red beer, Red Bull, red-flannel hash (beets are involved), red-eye gravy, and red hots.

I also learned to read this at least somewhat skeptically. When I got to the entry on sloppy joes, I learned that in Minnesota it is gulash. Whoa. I grew up with goulash. Also called plain “hotdish,” Minnesota goulash is a casserole (i.e., hotdish) of hamburger and macaroni in a tomato sauce. It is not put on a bun, and it is very often served with Jello-O and a pickle. We also have sloppy joes (which I also called barbeque sandwiches while I was growing up). No goulash sandwich though.

Quibble aside, this is a very fun book. Check it out from the library. Even if you don’t read every entry, it’s fun to peruse, and there are lots of fun pictures.

Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?

Speaking American

9780544703391I love language. I love language differences. I particularly love regional variations in language use.

When I was growing up, I ordered a pop if I wanted a Coke or a 7-Up. I didn’t find out that this was not universal until I went to college. There I learned that some people who get what I call pop call it soda. To me, a soda was a pop with ice cream in it. I have learned since that most of the country considers this an ice cream soda. (We did have a version of this soda—the root beer float: two scoops of ice cream in a large glass, slowly pour the root beer over the ice cream, add straw, go back to horror/James Bond/Hitchcock movie.)

Speaking American, by Josh Katz, is the book I’ve wanted to read for years. Here’s the soda score:

the-midwest-calls-carbonated-soft-drinks-pop-the-northeast-and-the-west-coast-call-them-soda-and-the-south-is-really-into-brand-loyalty

I had been under the impression, until I read this book, that only we Minnesotans were clueless in the pop definition thing. I am happily surprised to see that Iowa, both of the Dakotas, Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and the most sensible parts of Wisconsin all use pop. Even Washington State largely uses pop. Hmm. I think henceforth I shall eschew soda, and use pop exclusively. I love regionalism. Linguistically speaking.

Here’s a fun one. I grew up totally and completely saying car’-mel, two syllables. Everyone says it that way here. Then I get married, and my New York spouse says care’-ah-mell. What? Really? It sounded so pretentious to me. And then I find out that it’s purely a regional thing:

the-pronunciation-of-caramel-starts-disregarding-vowels-once-you-go-west-of-the-ohio-river

The yard sale takes up several pages. Or perhaps I should say garage sale; they seem equally common. But in Connecticut you have the tag sale, and in southeast Wisconsin you have a rummage sale. In Brooklyn they have stoop sales.

I learned (should I be admitting this?) that a frying pan and a skillet are the same thing (a skillet more common in the central south, a frying pan more common everywhere else). I had always thought a skillet was cast iron, and a frying pan was anything else. Oooh—maybe that’s a Minnesotan differentiation. (Doubtful.)

Who would think icing and frosting could have a regional rift? But they do: In the South, people suggest you can use the two words interchangeably. The north says no, they are not interchangeable (icing is thin, often used on cookies and for a very thin coating of a frosting—like a glaze; frosting is thick and often fluffy; icing doesn’t fluff). You see? You see how we get into our regionalisms? I think it is great fun.

I had no idea that everyone in the world didn’t call the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk the boulevard. I grew up in my small town calling it the boulevard. I think that’s pretty much standard across Minnesota (but I should do some research before you take it as fact). Turns out that about three-quarters of the country doesn’t have a word for this strip. I find that hard to believe! Seriously? Is it possible that most of the country has no word for that strip between the sidewalk and the street, that many of us in Minnesota plant with flowers and other fun plants (I have a neighbor on the corner that has blessedly planted raspberries on their boulevard—can you imagine anything more generous?).

A lot of the food differences are fun. Here’s one:

united-states-dialect-map-language

Yep, they got it right. I grew up calling them crayfish. (I wonder how many people call them anything at all anymore. Are they still common?)

Other fun things I learned:

  • Most people call athletic shoes tennis shoes (I call them tennies), but in the northeast and also southern Florida, they say sneakers.
  • Some regions celebrate the night before Halloween. They call it Mischief Night (South Jersey and Philadelphia), Devil’s Night (Michigan and Pittsburgh), Goosey Night (a small bit of North Jersey), and Cabbage Night (New York and Vermont sides of Lake Champlain).
  • I am in the minority when I pronounce aunt ahnt. Except for most of Minnesota and North Dakota, northern South Dakota, and the Northeast (and a standout in Virginia), everyone else says ant.
  • There are also regional pronunciation differences in pajamas, often (no, I don’t pronounce the T), crayons, quarter, coupon, lawyer, grocery, route, and been.
  • A groundhog and a woodchuck are the same thing. (Yes, I should have known that.)
  • While most of the country has no word for when it’s raining while the sun is shining, some areas in the northeast, Florida, and Minnesota (disparate!) call it a sunshower, while the deep south calls it “the devil beating his wife.” Who knew?

This is a purely fun book, great maps, informative, interesting, and beautiful. Did I mention fun? Usually I regift my books, but I think I will do this one on a loaner basis. I want to share it with a lot of people.

A Whimsical Year

A few years ago, my family adopted the tradition of no “new” gifts at Christmas. You could make something, provide a service, regift, or even buy something used, but buying new was forbidden. It has been a lovely tradition, and has migrated far beyond my family Christmas.

The best idea I have come up with so far is the Whimsy Box.

This grew out of an original idea of coupons to be redeemed over the year (e.g., homemade meal of choice, dinner at favorite restaurant, a day getting lost in Fort Snelling State Park). I originally thought big—a special meal out, a special meal in, a full day at the park), maybe 10-12 a year. A lot of them were fun, but we didn’t do them all. Mood, life, timing. Sigh.

This year, as Christmas rolled around, I didn’t want to do coupons. I wanted to do something a bit more fun, with a spark of spontaneity. Hence, the Whimsy Box.

Partly the idea stemmed from the box: a fine tie box (a Native Northwest design that we got in Victoria, British Columbia; it has hinges)—a box I had thought to use as a box for a gift (thinking the box half the gift), but I changed my mind (thinking 95% chance recipient will throw said box in trash).

Not a box I was ready to part with. Beautiful box. A box for ideas. A box of the imagination. A box for suggestions. Suggestions!

Hence the Whimsy Box: I took this tie box, and filled it with whimsical ideas—things I think we will both find fun, often at the drop of a hat. More than 10. A lot more than 10. More like 50. Some examples:

  • Happy Hour at Dixie’s (great catfish basket)como-tropical
  • Take a walk by the river
  • Spend a winter afternoon at the Como Conservatory
  • Go to the downtown library (Minneapolis)
  • Spend a day at a state park
  • Walk to the mailbox
  • Learn a yoga pose
  • Visit our friend in Hastings
  • Go for a walk in the snow at night
  • Take the bus to Uptown and go to the bookstores
  • Go to Minnehaha Falls

And, since Hal has taken an interest in learning to cook a bit (ever since reading Real Food, by Nina Plank), I included several kitchen basics: learn how to fry an egg, learn how to make French toast, learn how to make pea soup, for example. And also, I thought it might be fun for us to learn how to make something together (even in our small awkward kitchen) and so I threw that idea in the box as well. We have talked about possibly doing a frittata.

This is a super easy and very personal gift you can tailor to individual preferences, whether it be to spend more time together, explore new places, spend less time together (not as crazy as it sounds—example: “I will leave the house for an afternoon and you can have the entire house to yourself.”), get more exercise, try new restaurants, get more culture, etc.

We have already had a lot of fun with it (a walk to leave books at a Little Free Library, learning to make French toast), and this weekend, I think we may make the frittata.

New Year’s Resolutions

I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, though I’ve made them off and on throughout the years with greater and (mostly) lesser success. This year however, I am making three New Year’s resolutions, which is quite unprecedented.

New Year’s Resolution #1: Get back to The B Suite and blog at least once a week. My spouse and I have had several months to get used to mutual retirement. As patterns settle in (and we settle in), I’m starting to feel pulled back to writing. I’ve kept up with the daily haiku project (more than three years now!) and the change of the calendar into a new year and the lengthening day is calling me back to blogging as well.

New Year’s Resolution #2: Get involved in things more locally. While I am not going to drop out of politics at the national level (I will continue to write my senators and representatives on key issues), I am going to focus my primary efforts closer to home. The national Republican sweep included the Minnesota Legislature, with a new Senate majority. The new Senate majority leader said he wants to build bridges—and let’s be honest, there is a LOT of middle ground between Democrats and Republicans. Lots of bridge potential. And so…

Specifically for New Year’s Resolution #2, I decided to write a weekly postcard to the Senate majority leader, giving him my invaluable input on a weekly basis (hopefully in an informative, or at least entertaining, way). I decided to introduce myself via email, telling him to expect said postcards for one year. I have already heard back, and he is looking forward to the postcards!

Seriously. He responded within a day. I wrote to my senator in my district two months ago and she never bothered to get back to me. And here is this new Senate leader and he knows I am a Democrat in Minneapolis (because I told him) and he still responded and wants to hear what I might have to say.

And call me naïve, but I actually do think he might listen. There are some politicians who really do want to work across the aisles. I want to vote for more of them.

Also in the land of Resolution #2, we have “adopted” the six sewer storm drains at the end of the block (Minneapolis Adopt-a-Drain Project). Mostly it’s a piece of cake, but six storm drains in October make for a lot of wet and heavy leaves. And then again, chopping them out for the (relatively rare) winter rain was a bit of a project as well. In a perhaps more interesting vein, we have also volunteered to be caretakers of our neighborhood orchard (a new neighborhood project on an empty triangle of land—peach, pear, apple, and plum trees). We will help with watering and harvesting.

New Year’s Resolution #3: Don’t Forget the May Baskets. I skipped this last year, and I don’t want to miss it again. It’s a great way to appreciate neighbors and celebrate Spring. And for someone who is a non-morning person it is particularly exhilarating. There’s nothing quite like leaving a gift on someone’s doorstep, ringing the bell and running away without getting caught. A total blast from the past.

Happy New Year to you! Any interesting resolutions?

May Reprise

May was mostly about establishing new patterns and routines with both of us home on a full-time basis. It is hard! I am a major lover of solitude and silence and will be forever grateful for these last two years. I found having full days to myself led to a desire to write. Ideas bubbled up based on books, conversations, current events; I would develop a framework in my mind.

The ideas aren’t bubbling up so much anymore, much less the framework to hang them on. I thought about taking the summer off from the blog, or even stopping. But I don’t want to quit writing (and I did keep up with the daily haiku project) and I think I’ve come up with a nice bridge/solution. That’s my next blog post.

Back to May: I read 12 books in May, and for the first time in a while, poetry ruled (5), followed by fiction (4) and nonfiction (3). My hands-down favorite book of the month (2 stars) was Farmacology, by Daphne Miller. This feels like an important, ground-breaking book, kind of along the lines of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. I’m not sure why it has fallen pretty much under the radar. If you are interested in health issues and/or our ‘write a prescription to take care of a problem’ medical culture, you should definitely take a look at this book.

The May reading theme was one-word titles. Super fun. Here are my titles:

  • Georgia
  • Farmacology
  • Pinhook
  • Exterior
  • Fidelity
  • Nurture
  • Fortune
  • Gravity
  • Nimona
  • unflux
  • Pure

Doesn’t it make you want to go to your bookshelves right now and look for one-word titles? I thought so.

I did not do as much birding in May as I should have or wanted to. Lots of rain, and then busy on the days good for birding. Ah well. Still, I added 23 birds to my year list, with highlights of Northern Harrier, House Wren (backyard), Sandhill Cranes (about 30 of them!), Common Loon, Hermit Thrush, Indigo Bunting, and Gray Catbird (also in the backyard, and nesting nearby—very loud!).

In the kitchen I made apple-rhubarb sauce (very good, includes a lot of cinnamon), ham steak (also good though a little dry), scalloped potatoes (first try, not so good), and braised turkey legs (excellent).

We got rid of 6 more bags of books. I can actually see most of the floor in the blue room. Progress.

Haiku for May:

rampant raspberries
want to march across the yard
cheers for the home team!
early morning dark
before getting out of bed
I smell the lilacs
the saucy catbird
ever bold and curious
poses for Kathleen
last night I dreamt that
god is a small blue corner
dusky seaside blue

On to June. In the meantime, good books, good birds, and lots of laughter.