Friday, August 01, 2014

August 1st: Front Yard Flowerbed

Though my teenage self would surely recoil in horror at the announcement, I love the early morning.  I feel a bit like I have the world to myself as I wait for the coffee pot to finish brewing and admire the eastern sky viewed from my kitchen window.  This summer, I’ve taken that first cup of coffee outside with a book.  I sit in the rocker and read and sip while the birds keep me company.   With my second cup of coffee, I step off my porch to check on my dahlias.  With the arrival of August, a profusion of flowers is tantalizingly close at hand.

I call this strip of flowers dahlia alley; the western sun and protection of the house seems to be a good fit for the plants.  

From the front of the house, the dark yellow rudbeckia peeks over the shrubs, offering a bit of color before the dahlias come to full bloom.  

There are at least a few more months of warm weather to soak up before seasonal change is upon us.  The dahlias and I are determined to enjoy every bit the summer has to offer.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Our Compromised Understanding of History

A few hours into our visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, T and I realized that our view of the Civil War is shaped by the fact that neither of us come from states with deep associations with the war.  The first time I saw Civil War battle sites was when I lived in Tennessee and was 22 years old.  At places like Shiloh and Franklin, I experienced the horror of the war in a firsthand fashion.  I’ve been to several Civil War  battlefields over the years, but I had never seen Gettysburg.  As I contemplated my fall history class, which will start with colonial settlement and end with the Battle of Gettysburg, I decided that it was time to see the place where the tide of the war turned.

It’s a war I know well, having taught the story of the battle for years.  To see these famous places in person was unexpectedly powerful.  T and I opted for a horse-drawn carriage tour of the battlefield.

Seeing these now quiet battlefields with a guide at the pace of a horse-drawn carriage turned out to be a great choice, because it gave us time to really appreciate the depth of the horror of those 3 days at Gettysburg.  

The carriage drew us up through the peach orchard to the site of the wheatfield battle, where we saw Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, and dozens of the monuments that dot the now-preserved battlefields.

The battle surrounded the small town of Gettysburg and north of the town we saw more monument-filled fields that seemed so distant from the violence of those days in 1863.

Of course, the horror of the Civil War is that such violence could break out between people who were part of the same nation; people who shared a national identity but were frozen by their disagreement about slavery.  That  is a troubling fact in the current political climate, where we also seem frozen, this time into a state of permanent disagreement and dislike, unwilling and unable to see that we must shake-down together to attend to the business of our nation.  We need reminding that conflict need-not be our natural state of political affairs.

At the National Park Service Museum, we sat in a theater and watched a film about the Civili War, a discussion of its causes, the conflict, and the aftermath.  The film concluded with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s passionate defense of self-government.  As the film ended, the crowd clapped in a manner that seemed proud of the experiment in self-government that is the United States.  I clapped too; I am often very proud of my nation.  It isn’t a blind pride.  I am also aware of our failings.  

One of the best explanations of the Civil War comes from historian Shelby Foote, who argues that the war broke out because the American talent for compromise finally failed us and we instead set our powerful resources to work in an effort to destroy one another.  These days, as Republicans in the House of Representatives sue the executive and the President vows to undertake executive action where Congress has failed to legislate, we are once again failing to compromise.  Of course, we aren’t in danger of another brother-upon-brother bloodbath.  But neither are we determined to embrace our historical destiny and listen to the instructions of President Lincoln who reminded us to respect the notion of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  If there is just one lesson from Gettysburg, it’s that we are all in this together.  If history tells us anything, it’s that this is a terribly difficult lesson to learn.  Gettysburg is a reminder of the terrible costs of such a failure.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gettysburg, Take One

Over the weekend, T and I took a ride to see the Gettysburg Battlefields in Pennsylvania.  I’ve been to plenty of Civil War battlefields in the South, but this was my first visit to a Northern battlefield.  It was an amazing place to behold, lovely beyond measure.  At times, it was hard to believe that a brutal war could have erupted here.  Of course, that’s the power of the Civil War itself: a ferocious internal conflict amongst a people who temporarily lost their gift for pragmatic compromise and then proceeded to beat the stuffing out of one another.  I’ll have more thoughts on Gettysburg later this week.   For now, I offer this picture which lingers in my mind.

These woods are deceptively lovely and still.  It seems extraordinary that anyone would shatter such quiet beauty.   But for three days in July 1863 it was the site of a miserable, bloody exchange that would forever alter the course of the war and, ultimately, the history of this nation we now call the United States of America.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Real Life Conversations with T: Regional Awareness edition

The backstory: T and I went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to check out the battlefields and brush up on our Civil War history.  While there, we took the time to stroll through the charming town of Gettysburg, where I sighted a Mexican restaurant.

Me:  That Mexican restaurant looks cute.  I wonder if it’s any good?

Without missing a beat, T issued her response.

T:  In Pennsylvania?

Enough said.  We had supper elsewhere.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Weekends typically find T and I making a visit to Home Deport for the ingredients of the weekend’s project du jour.  We enjoy Home Depot and have been known to wander around unsupervised, checking out all sorts of things.  So it was that we came across the toilet section.  Having recently read Bill Bryson’s At Home, I was a little more attuned to the value of a toilet than usual (our ancestors had frankly appalling sanitary habits) and T and I were both bemused at the names assigned to toilets.  There is the Prelude, which raises some interesting questions about what follows some time spent on this toilet.

Perhaps the Wellworth is more suitable.  A seat here is well worth your time?

I suspect that the Cadet is for the newly toilet-trained.

Those of us who are proud of our efforts might prefer the Champion.

My sister suggests that toilets should simply have serial numbers, which would be more tasteful, though less amusing.  Internet, we can do better than this.  T and I think we should simply call it as we see it.  To that end, we recommend some new toilet lines, with bold and proud names.

For your manly toilet needs, may we recommend:
Jimmy Cracked Corn
Commander Commode
The Rear Admiral (comes in camo)
Dark Logger
The Stink Ninja
The Clearinghouse

We also decided a line of toilets for children is warranted.  How about:
Lil’ Johnny 
The Poop Tray 
The Scout

Let’s not forget the ladies:
The Fashionista (in a lovely Pantone colors, of course)
The Chamber Pot

In our specialty line, we suggest The Elvis: King of Thrones.  This one comes with a spandex jumpsuit and rhinestone belt and buckle.  For obvious reasons, one should take care when seated on this toilet.

Once our line of toilets is manufactured, we intend to stage a store opening.  The theme song is an obvious choice.  We’ll be playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bird House

For Christmas, T gave me a birdhouse.  I rather dithered about where it should be hung before settling on a hook alongside the garage in the backyard.  Over the weekend, T hung up the sweet new bird residence.

I think it looks great and welcoming.  Tiger and Lucy stay inside, so they are no danger to the birds, though the cats are quite delighted by the prospect of better wildlife viewing.

That’s happy!

Monday, July 21, 2014

On the Pleasures of a Simple Taco

I made chicken tacos for Sunday afternoon’s early supper.  I’ve been making tacos in my kitchen for more than 20 years and the familiar steps of simmering the chicken, grating the cheese, chopping and stirring together the salsa, and preparing the refritos and rice is something I now cook entirely from memory.

As I was pulling Sunday’s supper together, I started to think about all the ways that tacos have featured in my life.  Growing up, it was my favorite supper.  It was always the best school lunch as well.  In the fourth grade, when our brand new house caught on fire, it was the oil my mom was heating to fry taco shells that was to blame.  Tacos were the last homemade supper my mother made before I moved away to college.  When I moved from California to Tennessee, standing in the bread aisle looking for tortillas showed me just how far from home I had travelled.  Turns out that in the rest of America, tortillas aren’t in such high demand, so they stay in the refrigerated section.  Over the years that I have been away from California, I've turned looking for authentic Mexican ingredients into a high art.  

These days, many of my favorite Mexican food ingredients are available locally, thanks to New Jersey’s diversity.   There's a supply of fresh cilantro and loads of chiles in the produce section; tortillas can be found with the rest of the Mexican ingredients and aren't in a refrigerated case.  And homemade tacos are still my favorite meal; they still taste like home.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My New Superpower

At work, my colleague T mentioned a scone recipe that sounded delicious.  I promptly made a batch of my own and then I was off and running, adapting the recipe to include vanilla bean.  For Saturday breakfast, I served it with freshly whipped cream and homemade strawberry vanilla jam that I had made earlier in the week.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Firefly Summer

Once upon a time, the transition from the school year to summer was a difficult thing for me.  I’d feel out of sorts with all that unscheduled time on my hands, as if I had lost my anchor.  That was a while ago and for at least the last 6 six years, my unscheduled summers off were a lovely break in a very busy life of work and parenting.  JT and I would plan activities for some days; for other days, we’d relax and let summer have its way.  I came to relish the generous unscheduled time.  

This summer, as a result of my new job, I’m working.  The workdays are shorter and the pace is considerably more relaxed, but I still go in to the office with a list of tasks to complete.  Happily, almost all of those tasks will help to male the school year less stressful.  I’ve had some time off and will enjoy more, but most days I get up and head to school.

The more scheduled summer days have found me missing my relaxed summers, with day after day of sleeping in.  I’m determined to make the most of my time.  I sleep in a little later than I would on a school day and getting ready involves neither blowdrying nor makeup.  Flip flops are my only shoes.

Each morning, I sit outside with a cup of coffee and I appreciate the day.  I repeat that in the afternoon, armed with iced tea and a good book.  I plan chores, errands, workouts, and time in the garden to maximize relaxation.  I make two daily walks through the garden, always making sure that one is at the point in the evening when the lightening bugs are first awake and twinkling their magic in the hazy twilight.  I take the time to appreciate the small daily changes in the garden and admire the state of every dahlia bulb in my care.

Earlier this week, my morning visit happily coincided with the first of my zinnia flowers making an appearance, which thrills me.

I keep an eye on the progress of the season’s first tomatoes.

I count the pears left on my fruit tree, hopeful that a few will escape the notice of the wildlife who like to eat my produce.  

When I get home from school, most days I put work away and choose to relax.  I take the time to really soak up the relaxed pace of the days.   I still miss the prospect of dozens of lazy mornings, but I’m loving my summer days.  I appreciate the way that my new summer schedule reminds me to strike a balance between work and play, mindful that relaxation is a good thing.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Giving Summer Thanks

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve surely heard that the Polar Vortex is back in the middle of the nation this week, bringing cooler temperatures with its breezes.  In my corner of New Jersey, mid to late July is typically the hottest part of summer, usually with a generous side of humidity to go with the heat.  Instead, this week, we’ve instead gotten dry warm air, high temperatures in the mid to low 80s and cool nights and mornings.  It’s been lovely and it puts me in mind of the January cold snap that the Polar Vortex delivered earlier this year.

There were many icy mornings in January that I sat in my car, waiting for it to warm up, bundled up in coat, gloves, scarf, hat, and still cold for all my efforts to block the cold.  On those mornings, the temperature outside was barely in the double digits.  As I grew weary of the cold this past winter it was hard to envision summer and the ease of stepping outside in flip flops.  But the winter did eventually pass.  So today I pause and give thanks for warm breezes and sunlight.  I may even be prepared to take back the unkind comments I once made about the Polar Vortex.