Monday, December 30, 2013

Afternoon in the park

Afternoon in the park, golden light and the air is crisply mild. There’s a grinding, shredding sound from the chipper chewing up discarded Christmas trees for the City’s recycling recycling program. The sound rises and falls like an animal's feeding growl as the branches catch the blades. A slap-crack-whack sound as skateboarders jump the curb. I stand up from my desk and stretch, looking out the window. Out on the sidewalk, a kid drives a toy car shaped like a bright blue egg.  

There are three skateboarders; two pre-teens and a tall, lanky man wearing a t-shirt advertising Coca-Cola. The kids’ dad, maybe? He has greying sideburns. They flip and jump the curb, copy-cat, challenging one another.

As I continue to watch, a small boy about five years old furiously pedals a green bike up the paved pathway and cuts a right turn around a tree trunk; too sharp, he wipes out, sprawls on the ground beneath the bike. At the window, I wince, waiting for the crying to start – despite the helmet, his elbows and knees are bare and I can feel the scrape of concrete. But, surprisingly, the kid is quiet, lying there a minute and then rising, stoically, brushing his palms on his pants and bends over the bike.

The force of the fall has twisted the handlebars in the bike’s fork, so they’re no longer aligned square to the frame. The kid’s too small, he can’t twist them right.

The skateboarders had stopped to watch, too. After a pause, the tall skater stops, kicks his board vertical and carries it with him to the fallen bike, then lays it on the ground. He straddles the bike, clamping the front wheel and fork between his knees and twists the handlebars. Adjusts it again, then gives the bike to the kid.

As I watch this, I figure the tall man and the kid are related; maybe it’s a whole family, here in the park having fun on wheels. The man demonstrates the twist, points something out on the bike frame, and the kid listens, then nods. Then the man flips his skateboard upright and glides away, following the other two teens, as the three glide north toward the boulevard. The smaller boy mounts the bike, then pedals back toward the playground.

No connection, then; just one guy helping another. The brotherhood of sport.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Live bait

There's no doubt it caught our eyes. The small, low building on Fletcher Road where the I-75 on-ramps curved was bright blue and festooned all over with fishing floats painted in candy colors. To one side, a tall tower of piled and braided floats rose, like a tree made of corks.

"What the heck is that?" we said, as we passed it by. "A bait and tackle shop? Art?"

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Florida room

Dockside on the Gandy causeway in St. Pete. Shrimp, oysters and smoked fish spread.

Watching the pelicans.

Can anything be better?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas tradition

The posting of my top favorite Christmas song has become something of a tradition at this blog. It's my favorite Christmas song. Ever. You can listen, and you can read the story that the song inspired me to write.

Christmas songs

Heard this song on the radio, while we were on the road to spend the afternoon with my husband's mother, my son's grandma. 

Merry Christmas, everyone!  I think grandma would have liked it.

Nochebuena feasting

We're in Florida for Christmas, and it's great to spend the holiday in a warm and sunny climate. Flip-flops, bathing suits and guayaberas are the proper attire, and the holiday menu is influenced by local culture.

In many Catholic cultures, it's customary to eat fish on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena in Tampa's Cuban community. This city's rich cultural heritage includes 19th Century Cuban and Italian-American communities, more recent Caribbean immigrants, and a Greek-American community on the Gulf Coast. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico teem with abundance of fish and shellfish - making Tampa Bay one of the best places to be for anyone who loves seafood.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Our hearts were singing

It felt like Christmas time.

Another favorite Christmas song of mine is The Pretender's "2000 Miles."

He's gone,
2000 miles,
Is very far.
The snows falling down.
It's colder day by day.
I miss you.
The children were singing,
He'll be back at Christmas time.
And these frozen and silent nights,
Sometimes in a dream,
You appear.
Outside under the purple sky,
Diamonds in the snow,
Our hearts were singing,
It felt like Christmas time.
2000 miles.
Is very far through the snow
I'll think of you
Wherever you go.
He's gone,
2000 miles,
Is very far.
The snows falling down,
It's colder day by day.
I miss you.
I can hear people singing,
It must be Christmas time.
I hear people singing,
It must be Christmas time.
When I first heard this song, I thought it was about family and loved ones being far away during the holidays. But there is more to this song than that. The song is one of remembrance for deceased band guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, lost too young at age 25 in 1982. Another one of rock's lost.


It's the Brainiac cocktail, served by bartender Jen at Fuma Bella, an off-the-beaten-track secret hideaway in historic Ybor City in Tampa, Florida.

The drinks are unique, masterfully mixed, and strong. So be careful, and watch out for the trolley on your way out the door.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Scenes from I-4

Driving from Orlando to Tampa on Interstate 4, the Flordia skies are always fascinating.

We drove as dusk came on. Traffic was good, except for a jam near the Happiest Place On Earth.

It's not a long drive, but the landscape can be bleak.

We pulled into Tampa after darkness came on, but the scenery was what I remembered.

We're settled here. The water's fine!

Thursday, December 19, 2013


The Duck Dynasty scandal is getting a lot of attention for family patriarch Phil Robertson’s homophobic comments during an interview with GQ magazine, but he’s also getting attention for something he said in the same interview implying that African Americans were not unhappy with their lot during the Jim Crow years.

But overlooked by most commenters is the radical claim Mr. Robertson makes, that, if true, would revise the entire history of American folk music and Southern culture:

In his comments remembering his early life in pre-Civil Rights era Louisiana, he said,

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
Hmmmm. Really? What were they singing, then? Italian Opera? This raises a whole new area of scholarly inquiry!



I just got into work when suddenly there was a "bump!" and my desk heaved and creaked. Then I heard everyone in my office exclaim and laugh nervously.

Earthquake, 7:53 am, 2 km ( 1 mi) NW  of Marina del Rey, CA.

Today is "Ugly Christmas Sweater Day" at work. I think maybe we caused a rip in the space/time continuum.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Casa Asqueroso

It was the worst margarita I've ever tasted.  Acid and harsh, it was like Alka-Selzter cut with lime. A pale, unnatural foam floated on top.

At the bar, one old geezer turned to another seated there. "Hey, man, how ya doing? I didn't see you there at first."

"It's my 86th birthday."

"No kidding, how 'bout that, we're the same age. You get out to the track much?"

"Naw, haven't been lately."

"You wanna get out there one more time before they shut it down. Then you'll hafta go all the way out to Santa Anita."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Click to "embiggen"
 Sometimes you need to get your mind off the daily drudge, and let it wander wherever it wants to. This is a scan of a snapshot taken in 1997 at Stokesay Castle in Shropshire, England.

It was my first visit to the UK, and we spent a week in a rental car, driving west from London through England, staying a few nights at a seaside bed and breakfast where we walked through beautiful countryside to a small village. I was enchanted with the countryside, the flowers, the historic cottages.

Then we drove through Wales, where the landscape was wilder, visiting a magnificent manor on a lake in Snowdonia. We rounded the northern coast, visiting Caernavon Castle, then stayed one night in a scrummy working class town where rowdy drunken punks (the cultural kind) caroused late at night at the pub across from our inn.

The next day, we drove to visit friends in Birmingham, and on the way, on impulse, we stopped at Stokesay Castle.

It was a beautiful little jewel, a 13th Century manor house cobbled together with a fortified octagonal tower, and a 17th Century half-timbered gate house, set in the remains of a wall and a ruined moat; its inner court filled with cottage flowers in bloom. Beyond the walls, and from the tower's windows, the Shropshire Hills and Welsh Marshes stretched away. It all looked a little "Cold Comfort Farm" - ish.

This picture is the gate-house, with its warm ochre plaster and timbers. You can see more photos of Stokesay Castle HERE.

It was nice to stumble on this image from the past as I browsed through my folders. Just weeks ago, I stood in the sere, dry and fantastic landscape of California's Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea.  What a contrast this beautiful English castle is.

And how lucky I am to have been able to visit and experience both places.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A stop for rest along the way

Click any photo to "embiggen"
Highway 111 in the town of Thermal, California typically has the right of way through the crossroads that intersect it, but at Avenue 62 there's a four-way stop.

This change-up in traffic control may be one reason the roadside shrine caught our eyes when we slowed down to stop in the southbound lane.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Adventures in crafting

I haven't touched a sewing machine in over 20 years, but back in my young womanhood, I used to be pretty competent, if not expert at simple sewing projects. I made a duvet cover for my bed; curtains for my apartment windows, and one summer in the late '70s I made a little money fashioning a collection of hippie-ish skirts and drawstring pants for my friends.

I had a little Singer Featherlight machine - this was a small, portable machine that did only one thing - straight stitch. But it was a nice, solid, workhorse of a machine, easy for someone with a peripatetic life like mine to move around with, and I made good use of it.  I gave it to my mother when she got into quilting, and I guess it ended up being sold with the rest of the contents of her house.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Coming on Christmas

Christmas trees for sale on Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London
I first heard Joni Mitchell's song "River" when I was a lonely high school girl, listening to the radio in my bedroom at night. It was the early days of "album-oriented-rock" radio, and sets of songs were played in succession, blending into one another. I heard a mournful song sung in the high, reedy voice of a girl, about Christmas and frozen rivers and sadness and loss - and then I heard another song in a woman's voice, and yet another, and the next day I went to buy an album I thought the song was on, but that turned out to be Carole King's "Tapestry." Which was OK, but not what I wanted.

 It took me a while to find out who the singer was that had so struck my heart. By the time I found out it was Joni Mitchell, Christmas was long over.

No matter. "River" is still one of my favorite Christmas songs.  What's one of yours?

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

But it don't snow here
It stays pretty green
I'm going to make a lot of money
Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I'm so hard to handle
I'm selfish and I'm sad
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Oh, I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby say goodbye

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thematic Photographic - Dawn to Dusk

Carmi at the blog "Written, Inc." posts a photographic challenge each week at Thematic Photographic. This week, the theme is "Dawn and Dusk."

I take so many pictures of the view across the canyon where I live, but that's because it's so beautiful, and, indeed, the play of light and sky make it look different all the time. Here's an early morning photo, as the sun colors the hills on the other side, while our eastern side of the canyon is still dark, and the roof of my neighbor's house still wet with dew. The setting moon is in the west, and a trailing wisp of fog floats in the air.

At dusk, the sun drops behind the western hills, and low clouds behind the saddle of the mountain flush ruddy.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A life too short

Over the weekend I attended a memorial gathering for a woman who died too young. Accomplished, funny, beautiful, and in love with her husband of over twenty years, she was remembered in story after story told by friends who struggled to contain their grief as they spoke. She was a person who lived her life with gusto, who never hesitated to explore what interested her, and, who, generous with her enthusiasm and joy, shared it all with her friends.

I listened to the stories and each person told of how by a casual connection, an invitation for coffee after class, or a successful work assignment blossomed into a deep and lasting friendship that enriched their lives. I had met her, but I did not know her well - our connection was that our husbands are colleagues. At one point, perhaps, someone suggested we ask contact her about a mutual interest, but we never got around to it.

I am struck by how hit-and-miss it all is. How many wonderful people do we pass everyday, and miss connecting with them? What would your life be like if you hadn't taken that phone call, accepted that invitation, gone to that dinner party? How many friendships and enriching experiences are passing you by, right now, today?

 She lived her life being open to what came. Her optimism, curiosity, and joy sustained her and those who loved her, even to the end. How did I manage to meet her, and yet miss knowing her? Who else am I - are you? - missing? It's a lesson to remember.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A city where no city should be

Click any photo to "embiggen"
 When Edward Abbey wrote:
"There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free open generous spacing between plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be."
He was writing about greedy cities that hog for themselves the water of rivers and streams that nature would share with the land.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Finding Salvation

Click all photos to "embiggen"
We knew we'd find Salvation eventually, but driving through the low, dry desert between the Salton Sea and the Chocolate Mountains, there were times when it seemed to elude us.

Then, through the small town of Niland, past the electrical transfer station, around the bend, we could see it rise up before us, the rays of the low afternoon sun making its color blaze against the amber hills.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mellow yellow

The post office may tell you that the International Banana Museum is in Mecca, CA, but to the traveller, it's south of that small date-growing town, along the North Shore of the Salton Sea. It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

From the 111 highway, the clean, bright yellow, white and blue painting building with the jaunty yellow Volkswagen beetle out front catches your eye with enough time to slow down and turn into the parking lot.

The sign on the door says the suggested $3.50 admission fee is credited to your first purchase, but when you step inside the screen door, there are no uniformed museum guards there to collect. Instead, we encountered a child wearing a banana suit. It just seemed normal, given that the entire room was filled with banana-like objects in all sizes and guises.

Display cases were crammed with banana memorabilia, artifacts of banana-flavored processed food and candy, stuffed banana toys, and plastic bananas. Kitschy banana dishware and objets d'art, banana-themed lamps, banana themed books, magazines and LP covers were arrayed all over the room.

I loved these unusual banana salt-and-pepper shakers - unusual because they were PEELED bananas.

A lovely Carmen Miranda - er, Banana - like ceramic décor piece on the bar.

I love this little boudoir lamp, with a bronze monkey holding a bunch of bananas. Note, too, the variety of banana wall décor.

The banana-girl's parents and siblings were seated at the glass-topped bar or at the small tea-tables, while behind the counter an industrial-size milkshake machine whirred away, where Fred, the museum's owner, artistic director, CEO and most devoted docent, was making banana shakes.

When it was our turn, I ordered a banana-strawberry shake, while [The Man I Love] asked Fred for his recommendation for banana-flavored soda.

Photo from HERE

Fred recommended Empire Banana-flavored soda, a classic dating back to the 1930s. Fred has owned the museum since 2010, having bought the collection from the man who founded it in 1972.  Here's an article on Gawker about Fred and his mom saving the museum.

The Museum shares an attractive Mid-Century Modern concrete block building with Skip's Liquor Store.  There's a large parking lot, to accommodate hordes of visitors, and out back there's a tiny concrete shed with a clean and serviceable restroom.  I took the opportunity to check it out, and take Jack for a little walk.

Beyond the museum and Skip's,  there's nothing to see but flat open desert. Shimmering far on the horizon, you can see the silvery water of the Salton Sea.

The strawberry-banana shake was delicious, sweet, and almost too thick to get through a straw.  The taste of banana soda was like a blast from the past - like any banana-flavored candy, popsicle, or pudding from childhood. If you like that kind of thing.

The vast, unpopulated reaches of southwestern Imperial County seem an unlikely spot for a tourist attraction, but Fred's enthusiasm seems to attract plenty of visitors who are delighted to Go Bananas!

Don't miss it if you're passing through!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gibson girl

A gibson is a profoundly grown-up cocktail. Gin, a whiff of dry vermouth, and a pickled pearl onion. That's all it is. No fancy stuff.

Recipes for the gibson go back to the turn of the 20th century. Some say that gibsons were drier than ordinary martinis, so the onion garnish helped their afficianados distinguish them. Other stories claim that the gibson was actually a trickery practiced by canny bar schmoozers hoping not to get drunk - it was mere water, and the onion garnish marked it out.

No matter; today a gibson is a sophisticated take on a classic martini. This is not your sweet and fruity cosmopolitan, or a vodka charade. It's even more hard-core than the pure, bright and citrusy chemical classic gimlet. It's unconditionally gin, and when you have one, you know you're having a goddam drink.

For the home cocktail lover, the only trouble is finding the pickled onions. Supermarket pickled onions vary in flavor and quality, and - let's face it - they look a little creepy in those teensy dusty jars that stay neglected on the shelf for ever.

This Sunday, at our local farmers' market, I noticed one stall that had baskets of assorted pearl onions for sale. White, yellow, and red baby onions, the perfect size to garnish a cocktail. What if I tried to make my own?

I make some pretty good pickled red onions for enjoying with meats, but I thought that a cocktail onion called for a little less sweetness.

Pearl onions are tricky - you have to peel off the papery outside, and preserve the whole, round shape of it. The trick is to blanch them in boiling water for a minute or two. After draining, you cut off top and bottom ends and squeeze - the center sphere of the onion pops free from the outer skin. (one internet tipster says you can buy frozen peeled pearl onions in the supermarket. You don't have to peel them. Sounds like a good thing to try.)

Wash a jar in hot water. If you want to make a batch of onions, then you'll need to process them in a water bath, but I think this is a recipe you can make in small batches and keep in the fridge.

Make a brine, and put it on the stove to boil. You  want to have a 2:1 ratio of vinegar to water - so 2 cups of vinegar to one cup of water. A light vinegar is best - I used champagne vinegar because I found an old bottle in my cupboard, but you could use white vinegar, or white wine vinegar, or even rice vinegar.

Add some flavorings. You can put these in the jar before your fill it, or you can put them in the boiling brine. You might want bay leaves, peppercorns, or pickling spices. Herbs are good; so are red pepper flakes or little dried cayenne peppers. If you like gin, you might want to enhance the taste by using juniper berries. Or lemon peel, for a citrusy taste. For my onions, I used peppercorns, a sprig of rosemary, and red pepper flakes.

The red onions turn a lovely pink!
 The critical issue is how much salt and how much sugar to add. Do you like a sweeter pickle, or one that's more tart, or even sourly puckery? The recipes I've seen vary greatly - some add equal amounts of salt and sugar; some have a lot of each, and others have only a little of each.  I think for a small batch, a couple of tablespoons of sugar and salt work well without being too strong. Start out conservatively, and TASTE. If you are not processing them to keep on the self, but keeping small batches in the fridge, you can safely experiment.

Boil the brine, add the peeled onions, and boil for another minute or two before taking it off the heat. Then ladle into the clean jars, fill with the hot brine, cap and cool, and put in the fridge. Wait a day or so before you try.

Your pickled onions will be crisp, delicious, and oh, so sophisticated! You'll feel just like Roger Sterling is buying you a drink!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Desert scenes

Click any photo to "embiggen"
 Scenes from the desert along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea.

Skies and landscapes that draw the eye.

A sere and desolate beauty.

Traces of human habitation, now gone.

Or remaining, and lonely.

Or on another plane altogether.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Introducing the oyster

This post has been cross-posted at Derfwad Manor. Go visit and read more writers, brought to you by the incomparable Mrs. G!

My introduction to oysters was not a promising one. My father liked oyster stew. He was the only one in my family who did. I don’t remember what occasion sparked his appetite, but often on weekend afternoons he would eat things that he enjoyed in solitary pleasure. Like sardines, spread on saltine crackers. Peanut brittle. Canned tamales from Old El Paso. Or oyster stew.

It came in a can; it was cream colored and had a rich smell, but I thought it was gross, how the grey shapeless oysters swam and bobbed, hidden in the milky broth.