Sunday, December 28, 2008

Miscellaneous: Salmon, Steelhead, and Banana Slugs

Yesterday, we went on a walk through Muir Woods, south of us in Marin County. The idea was to see Coho salmon and steelhead trout coming up Redwood Creek to spawn. Sounded interesting, so we went along. Unfortunately, there has not been sufficient rain to swell the creeks enough to entice the fish upstream. We saw only fingerlings (one-year-old fish from eggs laid around this time last year--forgive me, but I couldn't held thinking of potatoes every time I heard the word). They were small (about two inches long) and very well camouflaged--the color of algae-covered rocks and fallen leaves. The highlight of the hike turned out to be a large banana slug (see photo). Did you know that the banana slug is the California state mollusk? Did you know California had a state mollusk? It's the only slug native to the state. All those garden slugs are imports. Those were among the interesting tidbits the day yielded.

Plants I'm growing: Cuckoos and Clocks, Aloes and Woes

It's said that English gentleman used to vie for the honor of reporting the first cuckoo call of spring each year. (I wonder how many imagined cuckoo calls got mixed in with the real ones and how much paper and ink was consumed staking the claim?) No doubt, the origin of the cuckoo clock is buried in there somewhere. Quaint.

OK, I admit it. I like this way of marking the passage of a year. Englishmen used cuckoos. Egyptians used the flooding of the Nile. I suppose there are any number of natural cycles that could be tracked to gauge the duration of a year. Over time, it would be interesting to see how closely these approximate the astronomical year. It wouldn't surprise me to learn there are people whose hobby it is to follow some natural indicator of the passing of time. So, this is hardly a new idea. I like it nevertheless. 

For several years I've made half-hearted attempts to record the first bloom date of the various plants in our rather diverse garden as a way of marking time. Kept up long enough and carefully recorded, a record of these dates might provide a bit of interesting quaintness for someone to ponder in the future. Typically, I have scribbled notes on scraps of paper and then promptly lost them or given up mid-year. In short, I've never really made a go of this little project. With January 1st looming, however, I'm thinking of trying again. Dates reported here might be easier to keep track of than scraps of paper. Stay tuned. 

Our Aloe arborescens (a large aloe native to South Africa) put up a flower stalk this year for the first time. I've waited several years for this plant to bloom. What else offers showy spikes of bright red flowers in the middle of December? So unexpected, so welcome. Unfortunately, the plant is sensitive to frost. Planted with its back to a stone wall that blocks wind and radiates heat from the sun, it's well protected, but the single flower stalk has blackened and gone limp, a rather depressing development. I will have to wait another year for the chance to see it, a year spent wondering if it will bloom. When it's time to put up another shoot around Christmas, will I be able to see it? I don't know. I can only wait. Perhaps I will be able to use the annual withering of my hopes for this blossom as one of my garden indicators of the annual cycle; it may simply be too cold for it.

(The plants here were photographed at the Strybing Arboretum, in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.)

Birds I'm Watching: Woodpeckers and Goldfinches

Not a lot of activity in the garden in the past few days. Our most common residents, the American Goldfinches and Lesser Goldfinches, have been busy at the feeder and in the garden elsewhere. A small flock of them were devouring Zauschneria seeds this morning from plants I have left uncut (Taxonomists have changed the genus Zauschneria to Epilobium, but I still think of them as Zauschneria; commonly known as California fuchsia. I love them for their scarlet blooms in late summer to late autumn. Zauschneria canum is my favorite). A Downy Woodpecker stopped by briefly, but didn't have much to say. A Spotted Towhee splashed a bit in the birdbath.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Miscellaneous: Christmas Tree Bedhead

I stood this evening admiring our Christmas tree, a nicely proportioned noble fir. It has old-fashioned lights on it and many old-fashioned ornaments. I'm especially fond of the German glass birds we have from the late 1950s (my mother was in the habit of labeling each ornament with the date and place it was acquired, a custom my family continues) and the delicately scratched and patinated glass balls made by Shiny Brite (see photo), but I also like the quirky assortment of newer ornaments and other things we put on our tree.

The oddest are from my early years in Tokyo when I had little money. We made do with paper pinwheels and amulets from shrines, with plastic animals that the drugstores gave away to advertise products, and with other worthless trinkets we've kept and hang each year with the same reverence accorded ornaments passed down from my grandmother's generation and before--well, almost the same reverence. The room was dark, lit only by the lights on the tree, the glow softly reflected in the polished maple floor. My son came into the room a little after me--we were both on our way up to bed--and I said to him (with satisfaction in my voice) "A pretty good tree this year, huh? It's very nicely shaped." He stood beside me, examining the tree. Then I said "Except for that one branch on the left there that's sticking out a bit too far...." I pointed. He thought for a moment and said "Yeah, it looks like my hair in the morning." He was right.

It was sunny and clear today in Northern California (if cold), but news reports are full of storms--snow and ice--throughout the country, with many people stranded in airports from the nation's capital to Covington, to Dallas, to the West Coast. I wonder who made it home this year and who didn't?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Miscellaneous: Holidays

It is my considered opinion that holidays are often more trouble than they're worth.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Miscellaneous: Another Perfect Rainbow

Another perfect rainbow this evening. Santa Rosa is charmed. If anything, this one is better than the one of two days ago. Sadly, the charm is likely to last only a few days more.

Today the rainbow was again complete and double. I had time to take a proper photograph--with a camera, rather than my iPhone. You can easily see the secondary bow, the inverted colors in the outer bow, and the way the sky is brighter within the main rainbow than without (although the latter is less obvious in the photo than it was in actuality). Very cool. 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Books I'm Reading: Gardens and Music

In the middle of Michael Pollan's Second Nature (1991, Grove Press). So far, interesting. On gardens and man's relationship to them in contrast with natural landscapes. More a collection of essays than an extended argument of any kind. A bit lacking in cultural breadth (exclusively the Western point of view here), but a good read nevertheless. More when I've finished it.

Just finished This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin (Plume, 2006). Although the author's conclusions are never startling, they are always interesting. He has a lot to say about why the music of our youth stays with us the way it does--a subject much on my mind in the past year. The power certain songs have to immediately bring back a moment in time, a specific place, or a specific person, can be astonishing.

To this day, hearing Petula Clark's Downtown transports me to a small apartment in Brooklyn, New York. I'm in the kitchen/utility area. The song is on the radio--a portable, blue, marine band model in a leather case that my father bought because we had a small sailboat at the time. There is a fold-up clothes drying rack in the room. The horizontal metal rods are sheathed in bright yellow plastic with longitudinal ridges. Atop the yellow rack sits a tiny calico kitten--we called her Marimekko because of her coloring--batting at my fingers. I would have been about four at the time, the cat about four weeks. The year, 1964.

Joni Mitchell's Rainy Night House, from the live Miles of Aisles album is as powerful, transporting me equally vividly to another place (Ohio), another time (1975 or so), another cast of characters. Certain lines resonate especially strongly. "You sat up all night and watched me/Just to see, who in the world I might be" is one. The high notes Mitchell hits after the line "I sing in the upstairs choir" literally give me goose bumps every time I hear them. I remember the day I first heard it, upstairs in my room in my mother's house in Dayton, a house that had been her mother's. The music had arrived in a letter from a friend, on a Memorex cassette tape. Coincidentally, it's raining in Santa Rosa tonight and this book mentions Joni Mitchell in a number of places.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Food I'm Eating: In Search of the Perfect Tomato

Even in California, there's no such thing as a perfect tomato in December. Having found fresh sea urchins at the farmer's market this morning (a treat we get only once or twice a year), I went looking for ripe tomatoes to use in a tomato cream sauce for pasta with sea urchins. It was hopeless from the outset. All made of rubber. I settled on some fat cherry tomatoes that at least had the scent of the vine to them after trying Whole Foods, The SkyHawk Market (a place I never go, but something attracted me there today; must be the time of year), and then to Oliver's, driving past Howarth Park, and the Rialto theatre along the way. What possessed me to drive all over the city for a good tomato? I suppose I wanted the tomatoes to live up to the promise of the sea urchin. Or was it something else?

This is what I did with my tomatoes:

I chopped them. I chopped a big shallot (onions will do, but shallots are perfect). I chopped a clove of garlic. I sauteed the shallots in butter and olive oil (mostly butter). When they were browned, I added the tomatoes. When the tomatoes were soft (but not too soft), I added the garlic (nothing worse than bitter, burnt garlic; never add it too soon). While the pasta was cooking, I added a few tablespoons of heavy cream and a couple tablespoons of tomato paste (not required if the tomatoes are perfect) and simmered it all very gently for a few minutes. When the pasta was cooked, I turned off the heat under the sauce and added great chunks of sea urchin, letting the lingering warmth of the pan heat the roe, not cooking it at all. I added the drained pasta into the sauce, tossed it, sprinkled it with salt (pink Murray River salt from Australia is my favorite at the moment) and finished it off with a little parsley from the garden.

And there it was. Very tasty, if I say so myself. With a 2006 Domaine Daulny Sancerre, it was perfect. It's meals like these that make me surly at expensive restaurants with big reputations and chefs that cook no better than I do.

The Domaine Daulny Sancerres are worth looking for. In Santa Rosa, you can find them at the Wine Spectrum Shop & Bar ((707) 636-1064). Tell Roland that Colin sent you. It won't do anything for you, but it might get me something next time I'm in (that's a joke), although I rarely get to go. It's at 123 4th St. in the old section of downtown.

[Update (9/27/09) Roland is no longer at the Wine Spectrum. Say "Hi" to some of the other nice people that work there.]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Miscellaneous: Hard Frost

Hard frost last night made the morning walk to school more interesting than usual. Here are some photos.

I love the way the morning sun melts away the frost to leave behind frost shadows in the shapes of things--as in the last photo.

Words I'm writing: Opening Lines

Is it just me? I suppose it is. I occasionally find myself writing books in my head. I never get beyond a few opening lines. Things like this:
Arnold, the neighbors' son, was an odd child. So odd, in fact, that many otherwise rational people occasionally entertained the notion that he might be of another world. In summer, he'd sit on the sidewalk for hours frying ants with a magnifying glass. One by one, they'd crackle faintly and curl up. I can hear you protesting—"I did that as a child!" 
But Arnold was different. Sometimes he would name the dead ants and take them home. He kept their corpses in a box. Sometimes he would pull the legs off one ant and feed its tiny limbs to another. He once showed me an ant carrying a leg, looking--as Arnold, himself, astutely pointed out--like the builder across the street who just then happened to be walking by, carrying a long 2x4 over his shoulder. Sometimes Arnold would eat the fried remains of an ant or two. 
As he got older, Arnold focused hot sunlight more often on things made of paper that burned in an entertaining way (I used to keep a bucket of water on my porch, just in case). As a teenager, Arnold was fond of killing stray cats and talking to the sky. Later in life, Arnold found a way to combine some of these talents: He killed his wife, dismembered her, and burned down his house, having consumed part of his spouse before the fire. The newspaper reports were unsure about his intent. Had he meant to roast her? Thankfully, Arnold had moved away by then.
Where to go from there? Nowhere really.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Birds I'm Watching: Turkey in a Tree

Walking this morning, I saw a black phoebe--a comparatively unusual bird around here--and robins, one of our winter species. The robins have moved in from colder parts, but they will find little relief at the moment. It was down to well below freezing last night.

Further along the street, I saw a turkey calling rather forlornly from high in a tree. Turkeys are a common site in my neighborhood. They run around in packs of up to thirty or more, often stopping traffic as they cross streets. They rarely fly into trees, however. I think this one had lost his friends. I say "packs" rather than "flocks" because these birds seem vaguely threatening. They leave tracks that suggest dinosaurs. They look to me like bitter old men in tweed coats, bent over, running with their hands thrust in their pockets. I try not to get too close.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cars I'm Restoring: New Hub Covers

Much of the restoration saga is finished--too late to be chronicled in this newly started blog, but I continue to make small improvements to my 1978 Alfa Romeo Spider. I finally located a set of new hub covers for the car, on Ebay. Technically, hubcaps, I suppose, but these are only about two inches in diameter. They are adorned with the Alfa Romeo logo, which comes in many minor variations of drawing, but all with some sort of humanoid being swallowed by a serpent. The humanoid on these looks more adult than the "baby" the serpent is often eating whole.

The usual sources of Alfa information suggested removing the old caps (and the snap rings that hold them in) might be difficult after 30 years of corrosion and grime build-up (someone suggested I'd have to jack up the car, remove the wheels, and tap them out from behind), but they came off from the front--in a snap, you might say. I had allocated a morning to this project, but did it in about half an hour. No one will notice the improvement--a detail--except me, but I'm grateful for little pleasures.

Old cars can be mysterious. Today's little upgrade offered this mystery: Behind two of the wheel caps (those on the front wheels) there is a ball of metal. Each has a dab of sky-blue paint on it. Behind the covers on the back wheels there was nothing, just a hole. Hmmm...... Sort of makes me want to take apart the wheels on my other little convertible, a blazing yellow Miata. Not really.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Miscellaneous: Rainbow

Fabulous rainbow at 4:30 in Santa Rosa today. It appeared in the east as a bank of charcoal rainclouds moved past the sun on the opposite side of the sky  and let orange shafts of late-afternoon sunlight beam through the rain. Perhaps the best rainbow I've ever seen outside of Hawaii. A full half circle, deeply colored, with a distinct secondary rainbow above it, also complete. Not long ago, a friend pointed out to me that the order of the colors is always reversed in the secondary bow. Sure enough, the green was on the inside of the main semicircle of color but on the outside of the second one. I can't remember the physics of the phenomenon. It's Google time....

Which yielded this very interesting link: Atmospheric optics

Unfortunately, my hastily snapped photo captures only the main rainbow.

Music I'm listening to: New Kid on the Block

I have lived eight years now in Santa Rosa but have never had a tuner in the main pile of components in the living room. Why it took me so long, I don't know, but today I finally got around to buying a receiver. After the usual struggle with cords and jacks that connecting a new component entails, I now have--for the first time in a very long time--easy access to music programmed by somebody else. I listen mostly (but by no means exclusively) to classical music, so I've tuned in KRCB, our local PBS station. I wish it were commercial-free classical 24 hours a day. It's not, but it's something. I noticed immediately upon returning to the US after nearly 20 years abroad that not even PBS is entirely commercial-free anymore--especially the TV stations.

You would think the San Francisco Bay Area could support at least one such radio station, but I guess not. Makes me nostalgic for WOSU in Columbus--my standby during my college years--or WGUC in Cincinnati, the station that fed me classical when I lived in Dayton, Ohio, many years ago. All classical, all day long. All-classical public radio fed the growth of my record collection in those years. Maybe it will now do the same for my CD collection--not that I have room for many more. The radio is playing. I look forward to that little thrill of hearing something new that is immediately exciting. Sometimes you recognize a piece that will be a friend for life the first time you hear it.  

About This Blog

I had intended to keep subjects separate, in discreet threads, but I can see no way to do that, so I guess this will become a linear affair, with topics indicated by their headings and with various subjects interwoven. I intend to attach key words to each post, in the hope of making distinct trains of thought easily navigable.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Thinking that a blog might allow me to keep track of thoughts and to communicate with people that I cannot communicate with directly, I have begun this blog. It is mostly for my own consumption. I have decided to tell nobody about it--not out of modesty or a desire for secrecy (a secret blog doesn't quite make sense)--but as an experiment in information spread, to see if anyone finds it and likes it. Will it acquire a following? We shall see. Categories I plan to write under include:

Wines I'm drinking / Wines I'm making
Music I'm writing / Music I'm listening to
Words I'm writing
Films I'm seeing
Books I'm reading
Art I'm seeing / Art I'm making
Plants I'm growing
Food I'm eating
Places I'm visiting
Photographs I'm making
Birds I'm watching
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