Monday, November 30, 2009

Al's and an early moon

Al's Cocktails in San Gabriel, California. And an early rising moon.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Autumn image

Seen at the Huntington Gardens - a Camellia sasanqua past the full flush of its bloom, blossoms shattered and petals strewing the ground beneath the shrub.

Camellia sasanqua is the Winter Camellia, sometimes called the Christmas Camellia because it blooms in early winter. In Seattle mine bloomed in December and January. Here in Southern California, its bloom is already spent by the end of November.

Car shopping

Do you like to shop for cars? Or do you hate it?

Me, I like shopping for cars, and when I am looking for a new car I take my time. I do a lot of research, both online and in person. I have to test drive the cars I'm considering, and I never plan to buy a car on the same day I walk onto the lot.

Doesn't it make sense that if you're going to make a purchase of something that costs tens of thousands of dollars, you should take your time and make the right decision?

I think so, but apparently that is something that most car dealerships actively discourage.

As I may have mentioned before, I am thinking of buying a new car in a few months. Today [The Man I Love] and I went out to test-drive some of the cars I'm thinking about.

We went to a Honda dealer, and test drove a new 2010 Honda Fit. [The Man I Love] had a pleasant conversation with the salesman, who was from the South American nation of Guyana. He was laid back and didn't pressure us after we told him we were just starting out shopping comparison. We said we'd chosen his dealership because they handled both Honda and Toyota, and we wanted to compare the Fit with the Toyota Matrix, and also with a slightly cheaper model, the Toyota Yaris hatchback. We finished the test drive, shook hands and took his business card.

Then we went to the Toyota lot. Our salesman was Jose, who rode with us as we test-drove a dark maroon colored Yaris. He was from Honduras, and talked a bit more than I expected about his religion. Nevertheless, once we introduced ourselves and told him that we were still researching and comparing, he didn't pressure us. When we asked to test-drive two other cars - a Matrix and a Prius - he turned us over to another salesman, an older guy, big and blustery, and - I hate to say it - kind of a stereotypical Car Salesman.

The first thing Mr. Car Salesman did was exclusively address [The Man I Love], who quickly set him straight by telling him that I was the person buying the car.

I explained that I was looking for an economic commuter car, and that I was exploring two price ranges - one quite inexpensive, and one just a little notch higher in price but hybrid. I told him I was comparing Honda models and Toyota models, and that I had just come from his dealership's other lot. I also told him that my target purchase date was several months later.

It was surprising how fast the man's manner changed. He seemed to have two simultaneous reactions - One, to argue me into buying a car today, and Two - to let me know that I was wasting his precious time by demanding such an outrageous thing as to test-drive a car I didn't plan to buy today.

I thought about asking him if he'd prefer I go inconvenience a different dealer.

Mr. Car Salesman pulled the Matrix out of the tight display formation so he could show us its features. Then he suggested I "take it around the block." It was pretty obvious that he wanted to spend the least amount of time on what he considered a poor prospect. As we drove, [The Man I Love] chatted with him, and the fellow seemed to warm up a little to us, but as far as I was concerned, he'd blown it. There was no way I'd give him my business. Although we'd planned to ask to drive a Prius, too, we decided not to. I'll do it another afternoon. Somewhere else.

[The Man I Love] and I talked it over at lunch. He'd been struck by the blatant gender bias - the fact that the salesman had assumed he was "the customer" and didn't take me seriously. Was it because I was a woman?

I think that may have had something to do with it. But for me, my main annoyance wasn't the sexism, it was the fact that he seemed to be withholding access to the car. It was as if he wasn't going to let me see it, look inside it, or drive it unless I was willing to buy it today.

Nordstrom lets me pick a garment off the rack, take it into a dressing room and try it on without question. I can put it back on the rack and go home, think about it and come back later if I want it.

I can try as many shoes on as I want before deciding on the ones to buy - or not.

I can browse in home improvement stores and look at display model dishwashers, stoves, refrigerators, and compare them to models at other stores. I can browse in a bookstore, even read excerpts of a book, without buying it.

But a car - Why do they act as if it's too much trouble for them to let you test it out, and take your time to consider it? It's a major purchase!

When I bought my last new car, back in 2001, I was trying to decide between three different makes and models. I took about two months of serious shopping - online research plus test-driving. As it turned out, the salesman who helped me test-drive the model I finally chose was the one I eventually bought it from. It took two months for me to decide on that car, but once I did I rewarded the salesman for his effort, good manners, and professional attitude.

Mr. Car Salesman today just ensured that if I end up deciding that the Toyota Matrix is the car I want, I'm going to buy it from someone else.

Friday, November 27, 2009

It's my birthday

Well, it's my birthday today. And what I wanted to do was go to the Santa Monica Pier and ride the Ferris Wheel.

Now, I'm a person who likes amusement park rides, and who isn't afraid of heights, and who likes to take a dare.

[The Man I Love] is a person who doesn't like heights, and doesn't much like amusement park rides, especially the ones that flip you around a lot.

But he took me to the Pier and rode the Ferris Wheel with me anyway. Because he loves me.

So we stood in line and watched the giant wheel spin above us, the canopied gondolas rotating past, while overhead the roller coaster twined in and out and around. Because Pacific Park occupies such a small piece of real estate, the rides are close to one another.

While you stand in line to buy tickets, the giant green dragon swingy-thing ride sways up over your head. The roller coaster threads over, under, and around the Pacific Plunge. There's an old-fashioned Scrambler there, like I remember from county fairs in the '60s. It's all so close, so immediate, and contained on this narrow wooden structure reaching out into the Pacific Ocean.

Then we got in and ascended - it was smooth and gentle, and sometimes you could barely sense that you were moving - except the gondolas that were below you soon were above you.

At the top of the circle, the shore stretched away to the north, and to the south.

As the gondola descended again, you could look through its structure to the high rises and hotels on the Palisades, and the huge complex of Cirque de Soleil's striped tents on the beach.

You could smell the salt ocean, hear the screams of the roller-coaster riders, and see the sun sparkling off the water.

It was pretty cool. I wanna do it again.

Except not for my birthday. Next year, I think I want to sky-dive for my birthday.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


This is Tagetes lucida - commonly called the Mexican marigold. It's a half-hardy woody perennial - sort of a shrub - native to Mexico and Central America. This plant is growing along the roadside of my friend Anthea's garden. more orange-yellow. When you rub the leaves with your fingers and then smell the scent, it's like tarragon or anise. In Mexico, they call this plant "Pericón" and use the leaves to make tea.

This plant was selected, bred, and hybridized to make the flowers we call "marigold" today, including the compact russet and gold French marigolds, and the tall fluffy double-flowered marigolds used to decorate family altars on Dias de los Muertos.

Tagetes marigolds are also cultivated in India and Thailand, and used in garlands and wedding decorations.

The city of Lompoc, California, in the wine country of Santa Barbara County, was once home to a thriving flower industry, growing nursery plants and producing flower seeds. This is a field of tagetes marigolds we passed during our visit there this September.

The word "marigold" was applied by medieval Europeans to an entirely different flower - the Calendula officianalis, a hardy annual that grows in temperate climates. It's name comes from the latin calendulae - or calendar, and probably attests to its ability to thrive in mild climates almost year-round. It's an edible plant, its petals are often used in salads, and traditionally farmers have fed its flowers to chickens to make egg yolks pleasingly yellow. This is the flower that Shakespeare meant when he wrote in The Winter's Tale: "The Marigold that goes to bed with the sun/ And with him rises weeping."

It also grows here, in our Southern California climate. In fact, it grows like a weed. Calendula seedlings are growing on vacant lots and hillsides in my neighborhood.

So here we are. Mexican marigold on one corner, Old World calendula on the other. Who says we can't meet in the middle?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Market glory

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is one of the best days to go to the Santa Monica Farmer's Market - if you go early. The vendors bring special things for holiday cooks, and everything looks so beautiful.

I didn't get to go today. Work was too crazy today. And, honestly, I'm not cooking at all this weekend, because we've been invited to friends. "Can I bring something?" I asked. "A pie or dessert?" No, I was told, there are already going to be five pies there!! Can't wait!

But here are some pictures of the Santa Monica Wednesday Farmer's Market - last year before Thanksgiving. Beautiful multi-colored chard, bright kabocha squash, and buckets and buckets of flowers.

Have a wonderful holiday, everyone!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thematic Photographic - Orange

Each week Carmi at Written, Inc. has challenged readers with a theme for photographic inspiration. This week the photographic challenge continues with the theme ORANGE.

The American Military Museum in South El Monte, California, is an amazing collection of military vehicles, armaments, gear and just plain junk. We happened upon it on our trip to a recommended Vietnamese restaurant. As you drive by, you see tanks, camouflage netting, and huge pointy missiles. We saw it and decided to check it out. It's the perfect place for a family with a young boy-child - there are tanks, jeeps, guns and all kinds of military hardware. The color scheme is uniformly olive drab, gray, dun-colored ...except for this startling orange item.

This piece, number 152, is a non-recoverable, supersonic, air-launched missile target system designed to simulate invader aircraft and missile threats. It's officially known as an AQM-37A Target Drone System, manufactured by Beach Aircraft. It was used by the U S Army/US Navy for target practice. It's powered by one Rocketdyne/AMF lr64 dualchamber liquid-propellant rocket-engine.

We wandered around looking at everything, and although I enjoyed it, I felt uneasy, given our day's itinerary. It was an unsettling feeling, to visit a restaurant founded by a foreign refugee from a country torn by a US war, and then view a collection of artifacts, some of which were from that very war. What an odd juxtaposition.

Near the entry of the museum is a Huey helicopter that was salvaged from a 1969 crash in Vietnam.

It looks exactly like the one in this photo. This is the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1979.

Do the cooks and waiters from Pho Minh drive to work each day, past the antique tanks and anti-aircraft guns, and remember those vehicles, the colors and shapes? Did their parents tell them stories? Do they see this hardware as something owned by an invader of their land, or do they see it as theirs, owned by their adopted government. Or are they so young it doesn't make an impression on them at all?

This is what is amazing about L.A. The bump and clash of cultures, the uncomfortable juxtaposition of conflicting views, the kaleidoscopic shifting of visions. It's not an easy place, but it's a place where meaning slaps you in the face unexpectedly. There is room for everything in this city.

And this is my ORANGE photo.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Working on the car

Jack's been with us a whole month now, and we're getting used to him. We're both getting a lot more exercise walking him.

He really needs the exercise, and we want to take him on longer hikes or to dog parks, but we've got one problem...... He's afraid of getting into the car. When we try to get him in, he stops about six feet from the car, braces his feet and refuses to budge. We call, we cajol, but it's no good. When I took him to the vet to get his stitches out, I had to pick him up and shove him in - and I know he didn't like that.

I didn't want it to turn into a problem, so we abandoned any short-term car trips and researched how to train him out of his fear.

So first I just spent time walking him around the car, getting him close to it. Then opening the doors and walking him close to it. Gradually getting him to feel comfortable, but never forcing him.

Each weekend, we work on it. Getting him to come right to the door, and giving him a treat. Putting the treat on the tailgate so he'll approach and take the treat.

For the most tempting treats, we use turkey hot-dogs, cut into small pieces.

All the books say to be patient - go at his speed, don't rush him, always praise him. Last weekend, he was finally willing to put his head and shoulders inside to take the treat. This morning I got him to put his front paws on the tailgate and reach further inside.

This afternoon we were working on it some more. I put the treat just inside the tailgate. Then another one six inches further inside. Then another six inches, and all the way back.

[The Man I Love] had the camera and photographed the action. Jack got pretty comfortable going for the treats, but the sticking point seemed to be getting his back feet inside the car - making the leap.

I sat in the car, and fed him a treat from my hand. Then I arranged the last of the treats in a line on the floor beside me. He came up again for the easy ones.

It's that final moment of committment, I thought. He's just not ready yet. Then Jack stepped back...

And leapt! He was all the way in the car!

I gave him lots of pats and the final treat in my hand.

He quickly jumped back out, but what a great breakthrough! We'll work on it some more tomorrow.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thematic Photographic - Orange

Each week Carmi at Written, Inc. has challenged readers with a theme for photographic inspiration. This week the photographic challenge continues with the theme ORANGE.

The Cuties are in the market again!! Each year around this time, boxes appear in our markets with a net bag full of bright orange small fruits with the brand-name Cuties.

They are sweet, seedless, and easy to peel, making them convenient snacks. And they're ORANGE.

Cuties are actually clementines, named for an Algerian priest, Father Clement Rodier, who is said to have discovered them in his garden.

Clementines were introduced into California agriculture in 1914. They're available in our markets all winter long.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Car woes

I've got car woes.

Oh, there's really nothing wrong with my car. It's nothing special, but it gets me from one place to another. Yes, its fenders are rippled and dinged, its bumpers scuffed. There's that annoying indicator light that stays on all the time, even though my mechanic's says the light's the problem, not the thing it represents. It still runs.

But I want a new car.

I've been driving the 1999 Volkswagen Passat Wagon we bought for Our Son when he learned to drive back in 2005. It was economical; it was safe - drivers, passengers, and side airbags - it could carry around the musical instruments he was playing at the time. It wasn't racy or something that would tempt him into reckless driving; yet at the same time it wasn't a lame grandma kind of car. Nor was it a giant gas guzzler.

When we bought the Volkswagen, we already had a 2001 Mercury Sable wagon - bought because [The Man I Love] is an upright bass player and we needed a vehicle that could haul one around. It also came in handy, with its back rumble seat, for ferrying the middle-school car-pool from our neighborhood to the bus-stop. I could carry seven kids in that car, all wearing seat-belts!

We also had a 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder convertible - that was my very own personal mid-life crisis car that I chose for myself. Unfortunately for me, when I bought it I had a 40 mile commute on the freeway, and quickly learned how uncomfortable it is to drive a stick shift - let alone an open converitible - on the 405 everyday.

That's how I ended up with the Sable, driving the carpool, and [The Man I Love] got to cruise through Brentwood everyday with the top down in the Eclipse.

But that was all before Our Son went to college. When he left, we were a 3-car family with only 2 people at home. It turned out that the Passat - wrinkled fenders and all - was more fun to drive to drive than the Sable, which heaved and bounced like a couch around the S-curves of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. So I drove the Passat throughout our son's freshman year, [The Man I Love] cruised in my convertible, and the Sable sat in the driveway, its wiring and engine cavities tempting our rural wildlife for nesting and chewing on its tasty insulation.

When Our Son came home for the summer, we got the Sable running again, and then when Our Son went back to school, it was the convertible that sat under the oak trees, where rats hid acorns in its engine compartment.

All our cars suffered high maintenance bills from wildlife activity, but eventually we were faced with a $2500 repair bill for the convertible. By that time, it was an 8 year old car with 90,o00 miles on it. The mechanic offered to buy it from us, and we agreed.

So we were a two-car family. With two cars in bad shape.

It was the Sable that gave out first. So we bought a new car for [The Man I Love]. But the Passat is on its last legs. We recently had a repair estimate for about $600.00.

We're going to wait until June, at least, to make any changes, but in the meantime, I'm planning on doing some car shopping to figure out what I want.

I know I want a small car, inexpensive, with great gas mileage. The Fusion Hybrid is our "deluxe" car, so for me I just want a commuter car. And I want to spend less than $20,000.

So that means a Mini is out, at $28,000 new, and $22,000 for a recent used.

A while ago, I rented one of these, and it was a lot of fun to drive. It goes for about $16,000 new, and holds its price pretty well - used Smart Cars are about the same price as new ones. I had a blast driving it, and I loved the attention people gave to it. But I'm not sure it's the best for our rural roads. And it's not a conventional choice.

And it reminded me a little of a car I once had in the '80s. A little odd.

Renault Alliance

I admit I am aware I've made some pretty quirky car choices in the past. Like this one.

Fiat 124

And this one. I bought that one from a friend. Six months later the frame broke apart.

But this time, I'm not buying old used cars. I want something reliable. I'm looking at modern technology cars, new or a couple years old if used.

Toyota's Yaris is a small car that's supposed to get good mileage and be reliable. They go for about $18,000 new, and a recent used one goes for about $13,000. It looks a bit like an egg. Only boring.

The Honda Fit looks a little more interesting. They cost about $19,000 new, and about $16,000 used.

But neither of them are a hybrid, and I really like [The Man I Love]'s hybrid. Why doesn't someone make a mini-compact in a hybrid?

Honda's new Insight is probably the cheapest hybrid on the market, at about $20,000 new.

But you can get a 1-2 year old used Toyota Prius for about the same price.

I've also had people recommend that I look for a used Toyota Camry. You can get a 1-2 year old Camry Hybrid for about $20,000, or a used non-hybrid for about $14,000. Camrys are reliable - but I find them boring. And I don't think I need that big a car.

So....what would you buy, if you wanted a small, energy efficient commuter car for between $12,000 and $16,000?

Picky eater

We rescued Jack from the pound, but just because a person has humble origins, it doesn't mean he's not a discerning individual when it comes to taste.

Although Jack greedily snarfs up his regular doggy dinner without hesitation, for some reason, Jack is choosy about dog treats.

He doesn't much care for Milk Bones. We held out a Milk Bone to him, and he held it loosely in his mouth and let it fall to the floor.

He prefers the squishy, smelly treats. The freeze-dried liver bits. The bright fake-red colored Purina items that are supposed to look like steak. Or bacon. Sometimes we slip him little scraps of chicken or beef from our dinner plates.

When we're training him, we amp up the treat-ness by carrying a little ziplock bag with slices of turkey hot-dogs. All the better to reward him when he follows the commands.

But....if there aren't any squishy treats, or delicious pepperoni slices, or slivers of chicken...

He might reconsider a Milk Bone. If you don't mind.

You got some more?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Green Chopsticks

We went out to South El Monte the other day and stopped in for lunch at Pho Minh, a Vietnamese noodle joint recommended by local foodies for its wonderful Pho - the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

I noticed among the usual table fixtures - the rack of soup spoons and little dishes, the tray of bottled sauces and condiments - that there were two kinds of chopsticks offered. There were the familiar paper packets holding disposable wooden chopsticks. And there were pairs of bright green plastic reusable chopsticks.

We ordered. I had my usual - I like Pho Tai, soup with rare beef. Before the soup we had an order of cha gio, or fried egg rolls. Vietnamese egg rolls are eaten by wrapping them in a leaf of lettuce with a slice of cucumber and pickled carrot or daikon, and dunking them into a sweet/sour watery dipping sauce.

When the soup came, it was accompanied by a platter piled high with fresh herbs, bean sprouts, quartered limes and sliced jalapenos. To eat Pho, diners typically garnish the soup to their taste with all these things, and use chopsticks to slurp up the noodles and push morsels into the spoon along with the broth.

I first learned how to use chopsticks when I was about eight years old. My dad had a favorite restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown, and he would bring us all there for dinner, the six of us seated around a large round table with a lazy-susan turntable in the middle. The chopsticks laid at each place were long and squared at the ends, made of yellow bamboo.

After dinner, we'd walk to the parking lot past stores that had colorful gifts I longed for, like silken pin-cushions and red and gold lanterns. Once we went in, and bought a packet of round almond cookies and a pair of ivory plastic chopsticks for each member of the family - they were printed in red and green with Chinese characters and images.

Chopsticks originated in China as early as 1700 BC. From there they spread to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The word "chopstick" is from pidgin English. In China they are called kuài, meaning "fast" or "quick." In Japan they are called hashi.

Each culture's chopsticks are a little different. Here's a picture from Wikipedia showing an assortment. At the top are chopsticks from Taiwan, and they're just like the ones I remember being from the Chinatown store. Next down are porcelain ones from Mainland China, bamboo chopsticks from Tibet, palmwood chopsticks from Indonesia (Vietnamese style), stainless flat chopsticks from Korea (plus a matching spoon), a Japanese couple's set (two pairs), Japanese child's chopsticks, and disposable Japanese chopsticks (in wrapper).

Disposable chopsticks are known in Japan as warabashi and they became popular in the 19th century. Warabashi are joined together at the top and must be snapped apart before being used, assuring finicky customers that no one else has eaten with them.

They look pretty harmless, don't they?

Disposable chopsticks are a serious global problem, believe it or not. The chopstick industry's consumption of trees is responsible for deforestation in many countries, including China, Indonesian rainforests, and Western Canada.

When they first became popular, warabashi were made from scrap wood, but that's not the case today. Chopsticks are made from trees cut down specifically for that purpose. The most popular tree for warabashi are aspen and poplar. The Canadian Chopstick Manufacturing Company - a subsidiary of Mitsubishi - took only eight years to exhaust the aspen forests of Fort Nelson, British Columbia, with logging for chopstick production.

China itself produces more than 45 billion disposable chopsticks a year, cutting down 25 million trees in the process. In addition to domestic consumers, billions are exported, notably to Japan, which lacks the natural resources to make its own. Some 25 billion warabashi are used in Japan each year.

Environmental activists in both China and Japan are trying to change this. In Chinese universities, students have successfully convinced their universities to stop buying disposable chopsticks. A tax levied by China on exported chopsticks has caused Japanese restaurateurs to react by finding new source material for disposable chopsticks - corn-based, bamboo and rice-waste based chopsticks are on the market. A movement called "My Hashi" or "Bring Your Own" has made it cool for diners to carry their own personal chopsticks with them. Ingenious inventors sell special travel chopsticks that fold in half to save space, and have their own carrying cases.

Other restaurants stock reusable chopsticks, like the green plastic ones I used at Pho Minh.

Like the chopsticks from Chinatown I had as a kid, plastic chopsticks can be a little slippery in the bowl, and are hard to get used to. Noodles and slithery vegetables seem to cling to the texture of wooden chopsticks, while plastic's slick surface makes it trickier to hold on.

I did some searching on line and found that it costs about $20 for a thousand warabashi, while the plastic reusable chopsticks - the cheap ones, like Pho Minh's green ones - cost about $4 for a package of ten. Plus you have to worry about collecting them and washing them. So it might take a little more education and convincing before many restaurants change their habits.

Pho Minh is trying. If you're a lover of pho, pay them a visit and reward their efforts with your business.

Years ago, someone gave us a gift set of Japanese wooden chopsticks, like the pair third from the bottom in the picture above. I rummaged around in the drawer for them just now. I think I'll take a pair to work, and keep them in my desk. No more warabashi when I buy supermarket sushi for lunch.

How about you?