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Saturday, November 5, 2016

That Hallmark Feeling

A friend’s recent Facebook post reminded me of something I’d long forgotten about…  Hallmark stores.  While not a terribly exciting subject on the surface, his comment brought to mind a lot of happy memories.

Things have changed a lot since I made regular forays into the local Hallmark store with my mom.  We lived in Corvallis for much of the time and I can well remember the little shop that was set between the Payless drug store and Roth’s Market.  Payless itself is memorable for the small candy store just inside its front door.  They made the most delicious caramel corn throughout the day, pouring the hot, buttery caramel over piles of popcorn on a water-cooled metal table.  The candy maker would then use to large metal spatulas to mix the corn and caramel, letting it dry until crisp and then breaking it into pieces that would fit in the old-fashioned black and white boxes.  Trips to Hallmark usually included a box of caramel corn!

The card shop itself was memorable for many reasons.  One was the smell.  The scent of votive candles combined to give it a sweet floral smell in the spring and summer, and a spicy and piney one in the winter and fall.  My mother always bought candles at the Hallmark store, especially for the holidays.  The small votives and larger pillars that smelled like bayberry and pine, and the tall red and green and white tapers that would sit on our dining room table and mantle.  Perhaps even more than cards, when I think of Hallmark, I think of candles.

Hallmark was also the place for decorations and centerpieces for birthday parties and holidays.  Large envelopes filled with cardboard and paper sheets that needed to be cut and folded and assembled to create circus scenes, haunted houses, pilgrims and Nativity scenes, these decorations were often saved and used again, year after year. 

My mom is also a careful and thoughtful card buyer.  Now I appreciate the fact that she looks for just the right combination of sentiment and design but, as a child, it seemed to take and AWFULLY long time!  It must have been worthwhile, though, because I’ve saved virtually every card she ever bought for me.

My sister seems to have bought a lot of fun things for me at the Corvallis Hallmark store, too.  There was a tiny cloth Santa Clause doll and a tin Christmas tree that, when a little lever was pushed, would spin around and open to reveal a tiny Santa Clause in the middle.  And, perhaps most memorably, a pop-up book called “Christmas in Many Lands” that I bring out every year to this day, almost forty years later.

Hallmark also had a fine selection of seasonal paper plates and cups and napkins.  Generally, my mom brought out the silver and her Minton china for Thanksgiving and Christmas but, if we were really lucky, she’d decide to use what seemed to me like beautiful and exciting paper plates and napkins decorated with brightly colored turkeys and leaves or poinsettias and holly and pine boughs.  The napkins would coordinate in bright reds and greens and, sometimes, even a matching paper tablecloth would be purchased!

Finally, a large number of porcelain knickknacks and bibelots that have appeared on my mom’s mantel year after year, many of them from the same Hallmark store.  There’s the little blonde boy wearing red pajamas and a Santa hat that reminded her of me – a personal favorite as you can imagine.  And, there are the small Christmas tree candles – one a faded green, the other pink – that my grandfather lit one year, just to tease my mom who liked to use them over and over again (I think we like them even better for the blackened wicks and the story that goes with them so many decades later).  The very best, though, is the miniature Claus couple – Santa and the Mrs., that are placed facing each other, tiny red lips pressed together.   The shiny red of their clothes and the bright white of the furry trim has enchanted me for many Christmases.

I haven’t been to a Hallmark store in years, but I sometimes see their old products when I visit thrift stores and, often, I’m tempted to buy things that remind me of my childhood – usually things made at least a decade before I was born.  They may not be the height of style or modernity but, when it comes to such things, that’s how I prefer them.  Nostalgia and charm always beats shiny newness in my book.

Hallmark stores remind me of a time when 24-hour one-stop shopping wasn’t necessarily the goal.  A time when we visited unique and individual shops that specialized.  Of course, I still do that today, although it takes a little more effort, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll have the same affection for the things we buy today that we have for the things we acquired when we were small.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Christmas Cookies I Have Known

One of the fabulous pages from Betty Crocker's 1963
"Cooky Book" showing Candy Cane, Thumbprint
and Merry Maker Cookies.
When the holidays come, there are few things that I enjoy more than being in the kitchen.  In fact, just between you and me, I think I like being in the kitchen even more than I like being at the party itself!  The kitchen is my bailiwick.  I am in almost complete control and love listening to the merry voices of my family chattering in the next room.

Don’t get me wrong, I am hardly anti-social and I love spending time with my large brood, but I also find special pleasure in hearing them laughing and joking and talking among themselves.  As a parent, knowing that they get along and enjoy each others company quite apart from my wife and I seems like an achievement, and one that I take great satisfaction in.  But let’s get back to what I started with…  The kitchen!  Even better, the kitchen in the midst of holiday baking!

“Holiday time” has a rather loose definition in our house.  For most of you this probably describes the period just before Thanksgiving and running to the New Year.  I’m apt to start it all a little earlier – October being a reasonable time to kick off the festive season in my mind.  It’s true, Perry Como and Bing Crosby start to fill the air in my car and in my house sometime just before Halloween.  Not exclusively, of course, but enough to give that faint whiff of the excitement to come.

This is also the time I start to think about holiday food.  Thanksgiving, being Thanksgiving, doesn’t give one the widest latitude when it comes to culinary experimentation, and I like it that way.  A wise woman once said, “Don’t mess with Thanksgiving!”.  Christmas, however, is another matter entirely.  Will we have a Christmas party?  Will we host Christmas Day dinner?  What will we do for New Year’s? 

We’ve had every kind of Christmas menu.  We’ve been terribly traditional with Roast Beef and all of the expected accompaniments.  We’ve considered Chinese a la the Christmas dinner scene in the much-loved “A Christmas Story”.  We’ve pretended that it was Easter with ham and scalloped potatoes.  And we’ve had a Mexican feast complete with enchiladas and tamales.  This year, it looks like a Scandinavian extravaganza is planned.  Can you say frikadeller?  Don’t worry, I can’t either.

While we pretend that New Year’s Eve might mean something new and exciting from the kitchen, in truth, we would be lost without a giant takeout feast from our favorite Chinese restaurant and, thought we can stay up until all hours any other night of the year, sleep by 11:30!

The real planning comes when the holiday baking is considered.  That, to me, is the essence of the season.  The desserts for Thanksgiving and Christmas; the cookies; the candy.  THIS is where my true passion lies. 

I am amazed that, even with a large collection of cookbooks and holiday magazine special editions, there are still more and different things to try each and every year.  With cookies alone one would think that the ideas would run out, at least the good ones.  But it seems safe to say that as long as there are holidays, there will be clever cooks finding new ways to combine butter, sugar and flour.  The challenge is that one can only make so many kinds of cookies…  Right?  Wrong.

In our family there are some “sacred” cookies.  If these are not made, we might as well just cancel Christmas.  In many cases, they’ll be made several times as the supply dwindles.

  • Candy Cane Cookies – Why they are flavored with almond extract and not peppermint, I don’t know.  But they’ve been my favorite since childhood.  My favorite to eat that is.  I could never understand why my mom grew tired of carefully intertwining the strips of red and white dough and bending the resulting “stick” into the perfect cane.  I understand now.  And, of course, my kids love them as much as I do.  And I hate making them as much as my mom did.  Oh, the sacrifices we make for our children!
  • Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs – These came from a Susan Branch Christmas book years ago and they are an absolute must.  While I think of them as a Christmas cookie, they end up in the oven in mid-October.  The first of many, many batches.  They are the simplest cookie ever – a dough of butter, sugar and flour wrapped around a Hershey’s milk chocolate kiss.  The biggest drawback?  The uncooked dough is SO good.
  • Chocolate Waffle Cookies – These are most assuredly a year-round cookie but, at Christmastime, they can REALLY shine!  There are tricks to making this cookie just right, though.  Too long on the waffle iron and they can be dry.  Not enough time on the waffle iron…  Actually, I’ve never had that problem.  These yummy morsels are best when they are slightly underdone and frosted with red or green peppermint icing.  One really can’t make enough of these.  And, like Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs, the dough is, perhaps, even better than the finished product!
  • Thumbprint Cookies - There are countless recipes for the ubiquitous thumbprint.  My favorite comes from the 1963 Betty Crocker Cookie Book (a.k.a., the BEST cookie book EVER).  It’s made with butter, brown sugar, egg yolks and rolled in either walnuts or pecans.  Growing up, these were always filled with homemade raspberry or blackberry jam.  I still use raspberry or blackberry jam, but rarely have the forethought to make my own at the end of the summer.
  • Russian Tea Cakes/Mexican Wedding Cakes – Do Russians really eat these with tea?  Do Mexicans really use these as wedding cakes?  Regardless of the answers, these buttery cookies just TASTE like Christmas.  Rich and dense and rolled in powdered sugar, they are two-bite cookies and can be made with nuts (Russian Tea Cakes) or without (Mexican Wedding Cakes)…  Or is it the other way around?  Oh well, this is another recipe from Betty’s superlative book.
  • Ethel’s, or Mary’s, Sugar Cookies – I don’t know who Ethel was.  I don’t even know who Mary was.  But, whoever they were, they each made a fine sugar cookie!  Betty Crocker liked these dames enough to include both of their recipes in her magnum opus “Cooky Book”.  One is made with granulated sugar, the other with powdered.  And, rolled, cut and frosted, they are classics.  They are perfect at any holiday – pumpkins for Halloween, turkeys or Pilgrim’s hats for Thanksgiving, poles for Festivus – and Christmas is no exception.  This is another one of those dough-as-good-as-the-cookie recipes and, as a child, I can remember many a post-cookie baking stomach ache as a result of enjoying too many of the scraps when my mother turned her back!
  • Mocha Nut Butter Balls – Growing up, I always thought that these were very elegant cookies.  Perhaps it was the addition of coffee powder and finely chopped almonds to the chocolaty dough.  I always remember that these were carefully stacked between layers of waxed paper in an ancient English biscuit tin.  I loved putting them out, with the jam-filled thumbprints and the red and green tinted Spritz cookies, on the three-tiered cut glass cookie stand that had to be screwed together.  It felt like a terribly important job, always done on Christmas morning in preparation for “company”.
  • Toffee Squares – This is a perfect cookie to make after all of those “the dough is so good raw” cookies.  The dough for these is just meh…  But once they are baked and topped with chocolate and almonds?  Oh my!  Word to the wise and diet conscious:  tuck these safely away for the night.  If you happen to be the littlest bit lazy and leave a pan of them out on the counter, you will find that you need to get up for some reason or other throughout the night and will find yourself, butter knife in hand, cutting tiny squares of this delicious candy-like cookie.  They are also great fun to make.  After spreading the buttery, brown-sugary dough in a pan and baking, you get to top the hot cookie with big squares of Hershey’s chocolate bars.  After a few minutes, the perfect rectangles will have melted sufficiently enough to smooth over the entire surface, which will then be sprinkled with toasted, chopped almonds.
  • Spritz Cookies – You might as well save the best for last and Spritz cookies really are the best.  I have two circa 1940’s cookie presses and I love them as much for their charming packaging as for their reliability.  Today’s cookie presses – all hard plastic – have nothing at all on the aluminum wonders of days gone by.  They come with several perforated disks that fit into the top of the press, each one creating a different shape.  There are four-petaled flowers, six-petaled flowers, trees, wreaths, clovers, zig-zags…  The disks themselves are such fun to look at!  The best shapes, in my estimation, are the trees and the wreaths.  If one wants to do things perfectly properly, the buttery Spritz dough should be flavored with both vanilla AND almond extracts.  Additionally, the trees should be a pleasing green shade and the wreaths a rather shocking pink.  Why, you ask?  Because that’s how my mom and my Aunt Laurie make them and therefore, that is how they are made.  I should come clean.  I don’t make Spritz cookies.  I leave that to the aforementioned mother and aunt.  And each year, if I am really good, I am rewarded with a large back of these cookies that I hoard like nobody’s business!  There’s a proper way to each Spritz, too.  The wreaths are eaten one segment at a time, the trees, one layer of “branches” at a time.  Done properly, not only can you savor each cookie and make them last…  until around Valentine’s Day.

You might ask HOW after making ALL of these cookies, one could possibly see the need in making more.  Of course, that would be a silly and impertinent question and you would never ask it.  After all, “need” is in the eye of the baker and the lucky recipient of tins and baskets of Christmas cookies.  And, we haven’t even covered Linzer Cookies or Shortbread or Cashew Butter Sandwich Cookies or Salted Peanut Crisps or Cream Wafers or Merrymake Cookies or…  Well, surely you get the picture!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Gardens I Have Loved

As I take my evening bike ride, I am delighted to see and smell the many gardens that bloom in our neighborhood. On warm evenings there's often the scent of sweet petunias, languid lilies and spicy marigolds on the breeze. There are so many kinds of gardens along my five mile route but there is one that I like particularly... What I think of as "The Man Yard”.

I've been lucky to know a couple of really good gardeners. Perhaps my favorite is my German aunt who has the most enormous garden filled with perennial borders, roses, raspberries and countless little “rooms”. It's a garden in the true European style – expansive, overflowing and abundant. It looks effortless in its informality, which is perhaps the hardest thing of all to achieve. It's a place to get lost in and a perfect idyll on hot summer days. I have the happiest memories of playing in that garden and of eating raspberries, Concord grapes, apples and dusty Italian plums that were such fun to polish to a shine.  In the autumn I was sometimes allowed to help with burning the leaves which was a great treat, and a chance to spend time alone with my wonderful aunt.

My late grandfather was another kind of gardener entirely. He was a bachelor for his first forty years and a widower for the last twenty. But this fact never took away from his commitment to perfectly clean and well-kept surroundings.  His was unapologetically what I'd call a “Man Yard” and I think of him each time I see others just like it.

A "Man Yard" is, first, exceptionally tidy with every shrub clipped, every blade of grass equal in height and hue.  It also contains only flowers and plants that one can easily buy at the local hardware store. The scent of fertilizer and barbecue smoke are often present, and early in the morning sprinklers can be heard. There is almost always a fence of some sort – certainly separating the front from the back yard and sometimes all around the property, front lawn included. The fence must be simple white picket or, equally acceptable, chain link. There is no pretension to this yard. The keeper of the "Man Yard" aims for beauty, yes, but also order and organization. It is an extension of the rest of the man's life which will likely include a spotless garage that smells of gasoline and oil and some sort of workshop in the back yard – rock polishing in my grandfather's case.

My grandfather's yard surrounded an equally tidy and well-kept home. The house itself is was a compact mid-century ranch style. It had shutters, as all such houses must, and it was air conditioned. There was a “front room” used exclusively for “company” and a perfectly kept 1950's kitchen with a giant white range with which my grandmother made Friday night fudge and Sunday afternoon roasts. It's the kind of house where you would find powdered sugar donuts, coffee and plenty of packs of playing cards.  You'd also find an ashtray and book of matches always at hand because, despite an almost slavish devotion to cleanliness, smoking was a way of life.  In fact, I can't even picture my grandfather without a cigarette or a cup of coffee.

My grandfather's yard was the epitome of "The Man Yard".  There were always hedges. Tall, deep green laurel and, for good measure and added work, perfectly clipped boxwood. (There is nothing like the scent of recently clipped boxwood to make one think of simpler, happier times that probably never existed.) The front yard contained several large hydrangeas, the blue of which astonished and delighted every year. The pathway and porch were always swept. There were deep red geraniums in clay pots – they seemed to grow larger every year – and there was sweet alyssum and sky blue “Crystal Palace” lobelia planted with them. There were also huge, drooping fuschias in impossible colors hanging on the front porch and, every evening, the front door was opened and a light breeze carried the noise of the children playing in the street through the aluminum screen door. Along one side of the front yard there were rows of some sort of show flower – blazing dahlias in every color and shape from pom pom to dinner plate or the tall and tropical looking gladioli that would make one think twice about their designation as “funeral flowers”.

The back yard was nothing less than a slightly more utilitarian version of the front. Utilitarian only because it contained, along with more flowers, the vegetable patch. The back yard and its toolshed had a place for everything and everything truly was in its place.

Along the fence - sturdy chain link in the back - there was a line of roses.   And what roses they were!  There are bright red “American Beauties”, pearly pink “Queen Elizabeth” and peachy, glowing “Peace” roses. There was also a silvery white “John F. Kennedy” and a brilliant yellow variety of unknown origin that produced the most aromatic blooms on long, deep red stems.  The leaves on these rose bushes were uniformly shiny, the deepest green, and would never dare to be weak enough to fall prey to blackspot or any other mundane disease. These were champion roses, and the man of the house knew it. The roses were a source of conversation for my grandfather and his longtime neighbor – the one who never seemed to have any luck with his roses or tomatoes or strawberries.

The vegetable patch was laid out in neat rows along the opposite side of the yard. The side that edged against “the other neighbor”. The neighbor with the enormous, constantly barking Doberman. The neighbor who mowed his lawn, but only on every third Sunday of the month and, generally, at around 6 a.m. Despite this lack of neighborly harmony, the vegetable plot remained a constant source of pride. There was no place in the yard that had richer soil or fewer weeds. The very idea of a weed would have caused my grandfather to crawl, on hands and knees, between the rows of green beans, sweet corn and Beefsteak tomatoes, daring the tiny invaders to show their green shoots. From this vegetable garden he produced bushels of carrots and radishes, lettuces and beets, baskets of tomatoes and endless barrows of squash and zuchini. There was more than enough to see my grandfather through to the next summer, and neighbors up and down his block were welcome to take what they liked from the cardboard boxes and brown paper bags marked “FREE” that sat along the curb in front of his tidy house with that square of emerald green lawn. If you asked him what he used to produce this bounty he'd likely answer humbly, “Nothing special.  Oh, maybe a little Miracle-Gro.”

The back yard also had beds that overflowed with petunias in patriotic plantings of red, white and deep purple. There were marigolds in perfect rows, arranged by height, with the huge, tall, yellow varieties at the back and the daintier gold and rust colored blooms in front. There were snapdragons and plots of cosmos and hollyhocks which appeared every year in places that they were never intended to grow.  In that shady spot under the bathroom window there was always a solid mass of pink and white impatiens carpeting an area a yard long.   And, on the shaded cement patio, among the ancient, white-painted Adirondack chairs that would have to last another year, were clay pots of red geraniums and blue lobelia and white alyssum, just like those that lined the front porch. Finally, providing just a hint of the tropics, more pink and purple and red and white hanging fuschias that swayed gently in the early evening breezes so sweet in the hot summer.

My grandfather himself appeared in the early mornings and early evenings to survey his masterpiece. He would look to the left and to the right and consider the height of the corn and the redness of the tomatoes.  He would stoop to pick out an invisible weed from the perfectly smooth expanse of green, green grass and, for a moment, he was content.  The whole property was a mirror of him: simple and straightforward and calming. It exuded silent, uncomplicated competence and strength.  In fact, most of things he did in his life were just like that - quiet and invisible to others, but always reliable. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Queen Focuses on Fashion - Excerpt from New Story by Jake Gariepy

“Mummy!  Granny has curtains just like her dress!”
The little girl couldn’t have been more than five, and she’d done a commendable job of presenting her little bouquet to the Queen.  Smiling as the child walked back to her mother, the Queen couldn’t help but overhear the girl’s comment.
Now, as she looked back over the day in Coventry from the comfort of her sitting room in Buckingham Palace, the monarch pondered her wardrobe choice for a moment.  She thought of the lovely silk dress, with splotchy flowers in violet, magenta, yellow, spring green and orange.  Really, it was colorful, and no one could possibly miss her diminutive form in a crowd.  And wasn’t that what being the Queen was all about?  Being seen?  “Silly child,” thought the Queen.
The next morning as she was prepared for the day, Elizabeth asked her dresser to bring out something new, something a bit more “fashionable”.  Caroline was at a loss.  The Queen’s style had evolved into an even more rigid pattern of simple dresses in rather shocking fabrics.  Her Majesty’s figure had also changed somewhat.  It was a bit fuller than it had been, leading her to sometimes appear more upholstered than dressed.  It was not that she looked badly, in fact she was the world’s idea of what “the Queen” should look like, but it was hard to find anything that one could term “fashionable” in the royal wardrobes.
“Did you see Dame Shirley Bassey’s hair at the last Royal Variety Performance?  I thought it was rather nice…  for her, I mean.   And that dress!  It was quite low-cut.  Lots of beads and sparkly bits.  Rather like Norman used to make.”
The Queen was referring to her late couturier, Norman Hartnell.  A man known for elaborate, and costly, beading on his fabulous ballgowns.  Shirley Bassey’s gown was certainly sparkly, but bore little resemblance to anything that Norman had ever made for the Queen.
“You know, she’s in her late sixties now.  I think she’s been at every Royal Variety Performance for the last forty years.  Maybe longer.  I certainly do like her better than some of the new ones.  I don’t quite understand that girl, what was her name?  Lady Goo Ga?  Does her father have a peerage or something?”
“Lady Ga Ga, your majesty.  I don’t believe that her father has a peerage.  She’s an American.  Sings or something.”
“Mmm.  American.  Of course.  Did you see her in that dress?  It looked like it was made of a deflated, red balloon.  I’m sure it squeaked as she curtsied.  Those American singers certainly do dress oddly.  Barbra Streisand in that long silver cloak.  Had the fabric been different she really would have looked rather a lot like Philip’s mother when she was a nun.”
“Yes, ma’am.  I remember when Cher performed once.  She was only wearing some sort of thin leather strap that barely covered her…  er…  that barely covered her person.  I think there was a feather, too.”
“Caroline, I quite remember.  That was the year Andrew came along for the first time.  I am sure that had something to do with his penchant for rather unsuitable female companionship.”
The Queen frequently spoke of her favorite son.  The most robust of the boys, Andrew treated his mother with a sort of boisterous respect.  Charles was forever moping, those droopy eyes and constant complaints about how, ‘Mummy never did this, Papa never did that.”  What did he really expect?  She always read those lovely books about horses and corgis to him, and she would watch the racing results with him whenever she was able.  And Philip had done his best as a father.  He didn’t really yell all that much, and the boy was so tiresome talking to those plants and things.  Charles could never seem to forgive his father for the cold showers he had to endure at Gordonstoun.  Imagine how much better things would have been had he taken a few more cold showers rather than meeting up with that dreadful Mrs. Parker-Bowles.  She had to remind herself to think of her daughter-in-law as anything else.  Diana had been just as tiresome as Charles, but at least she didn’t look like a bulldog in a big hat.  Of course, she was quite fond of the Duchess of Cornwall now that she’d got to know her.  But what a lot of trouble the 1990’s were!  More of a “decade horribilus” if she was being honest.
Anne was a dutiful daughter, and a great support, but she was so forceful.  The Queen didn’t like the way she barked back at the corgis, or the somewhat too strident way she spoke to the staff.  She also wondered at her fashion sense, ironic really, but there you have it.  She might have worn the same dress she wore to Charles and Diana’s wedding to Charles and Camilla’s had Philip not pointed out the error, if that’s what it was.  Anne never really did like any of Charles’s women.
Edward.  Well, poor Eddie.  She really should have known better than to give him that name.  Her ancestor, the Duke of Clarence was also known as Eddy, and he had his own problems.  Some suspected him of being Jack the Ripper.  Her own Eddie didn’t have such serious issues, but she never understood why he was always trying on her tiaras as a child.  Even now he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time modeling his wife’s hats.  But, he had those two lovely children and that charming Sophie.  If only she would stop trying to sell invitations to the Garden Parties and State Dinners.
“Ah, well, this will have to do, Caroline.  At least it’s new, if not exactly modern.”
Considering her reflection in the mirror, the Queen seemed resigned to her appearance.  At least she was living up to people’s expectations, but it would be rather fun to surprise people after all these years.  She remembered looking at her late and much beloved mother’s wardrobe after her death.  Every dress was exactly the same, as were the hats, shoes and coats.  The only difference was the fabric and the color.  Was she becoming like that?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Spring, Lovely Spring

Autumn, I often say, is my favorite season.  My birthday falls toward the end of September and from there the celebrations and holidays of the fall and early winter promise plenty of interest and excitement.  The weather is, at long last, friendlier, and the harsh light of summer fades to an altogether more flattering glow.  It is, to me, a magical and welcome time.

I am not sure how I forget about Spring, though.  Each year I am somehow surprised at the joy I take in the first signs of new life as they push their way through the hard, gray earth.  Little piles of old, dead leaves are no match for the strength of even the tiniest purple or bright yellow crocus as it seeks the sun.

Although each Spring I anticipate filling my somewhat empty flowerbeds with bulbs when Autumn arrives, I either don’t have the money or the time to put this plan into action.  And so, every year, I am impressed by the golden yellow swathes of daffodils in neighboring gardens and wonder why I didn’t just get on with it in October.  Yet, my own yard is never entirely bereft of color and flash and I find myself delighted at each new bloom.

First, there are the tiny crocuses that I bought almost twenty years ago from one of those catalogs with all of the showy bulbs.  They range from the lightest lavender to the deepest purple with a few cheering yellows to brighten things up.  There aren’t many of them, but I rather like that.  Just little hints of what’s to come here and there.

The next to bloom is the deep pink camellia at the corner of my front porch.  When I first arrived at this one hundred year old house, the bush was no more than three feet high and barely as wide.  It didn’t bloom for years when, quite suddenly and with no urging from me, it was covered by thickly petaled flowers with canary-colored centers.  The dark, glossy green leaves are the perfect foil for the showy pink blossoms.  Today, my camellia towers at nearly eight feet in height and is, again, nearly as wide.  If I want to pick a bower of its abundant flowers I don’t even have to leave the sheltering dryness of my old porch to fill vase after vase.

Soon other bushes are making their presence known.  Tall spikey branches of bright yellow forsythia are next.  I cut them just when the buds start to fatten so that I can force their bloom inside.  A bunch of them in a tall, blue and white Chinese vase is almost a cliché, but for good reason.   They seem to last for a very long time, providing a springy touch with absolutely no fuss.  That’s one of the lovely things about blooming branches.  They look terribly elegant and dramatic yet one needn’t do a thing to them.  Even arranging them is easy as they look best when artfully shoved into the narrow mouth of tall containers.

Flowering currant, originally bought because I liked the name (“King Edward VII”) is another timeless favorite.  With leaves that are the shape, if not the texture, of strawberry leaves, its branches drip with pendulous carmine blooms.  The whole of the bush looks like it’s been decorated with the most marvelous Christmas baubles, expertly spaced for maximum effect.  Like forsythia, flowering currant can also be forced inside and are wonderful when mixed with any other blossoming branches.

We have several other flowers around the yard, many of which were unwittingly placed there by birds on the wing or seeds floating in the wind.  My favorites are the cornflower blue Forget-Me-Knots with their cheery tulip yellow centers.  Forget-Me-Nots are exquisitely flower-shaped.  By that I mean that, if instructed to “draw a flower”, nearly everyone would draw something with a lovely yellow center and five or six perfectly shaped petals surrounding it.  Every year my little patches of these lovely flowers seem to spread and I have to be careful to look out for them as I trim the lawn.

Johnny Jump Ups are another delightful little volunteer that pops up in interesting places.  One tiny patch is in the very center of my lawn.  I wouldn’t mow over them for anything.  Another larger bunch makes its home at the bottom of my front steps, just beneath my box hedge.  They even take over part of the crack in the pavement.  Like the Forget-Me-Nots, I never disturb them.  Their unexpected appearance only increases their charm, their lovely purple and yellow faces looking up to the sky hopefully.  When the breeze touches them, they really do seem ready to jump up!

In a week or two the very best of my Spring blooms will start to appear in my woodland garden.  “Procured” from a forest of unknown ownership across the street from my house, my beloved English bluebells come in shades from snowy white to deep azure.  These little, cheerfully nodding bells on their perfectly postured stems of bright green never fail to make me feel happy and a little nostalgic.  I well remember being a little boy and taking bouquets of them, wrapped in tin foil with a damp paper towel in the bottom, to school as gifts for my teachers, Mrs. Parker and Mrs. Lobb, on Teacher Appreciation Day.  I recall how the stems seemed so satisfyingly crunchy when I cut them and how sweetly they smelled. 

And so, when I am next asked what my favorite season is, I will still say Autumn, but I’ll give an appreciative nod to the lovely, cool months of Spring with their heavenly scents and days of watery sun or blustery rain. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Art of Doing Nothing

"What are you doing, Max?" I asked my five year-old son as he lounged on my bed.


And indeed, he was doing "nuffing".  Well, nothing but sprawling on the bed, gazing at the ceiling and singing a nameless tune.  And, he was being happy.

Recently, someone I follow on Instagram posted a picture of himself, wrapped in a blanket, binge-watching cooking shows.  He proudly noted that he had spent his entire weekend thus.  Doing...  You guessed it...  NOTHING!

Doing nothing is entirely different from laziness.  Laziness seems to have a moral component.  It's about constantly doing nothing, even if you REALLY should be doing something.  It's about avoidance, not enjoyment.  Doing nothing is an essential part of life, or at least it should be.  And it's a part of life that I seem to be very, very bad at.

For the purpose of making my point, perhaps I should define what "doing nothing" means to me.  Of course, it could mean the obvious - a total absence of activity.  Or, it could mean doing nothing but reading, chatting, listening to music or watching television.  Doing nothing implies a blessed lack of productivity.  It's end result is a feeling of peace, not of accomplishment.

My children can judge how much I will get done in a weekend when they hear me respond, "Absolutely nothing," to the question of what my plans are.  For me, making that declaration is a prelude to sudden activity such as weeding, raking and mowing the lawn, painting and entire room in an afternoon or a day spent on the town.  It will also likely lead to a baking marathon and several hours of drawing or writing.  You see, like a dieter who proclaims that they will never eat another carb, only to be found huddled in a corner with a loaf of hot french bread, the more I declare my intention to be still, the more I end up doing.

Before you think I am somehow fishing for a compliment about my amazing energy or commitment to "doing", let me assure you...  I am not.  Sympathy would be more appreciated.  Or a really good idea on how to dial it back.  For some reason, when I am not actively doing something, I feel like I am going to miss the boat.  If I don't draw that picture, write that essay or send that email NOW, someone might get to it before me!  Of course, since I am thinking of such projects as my poster featuring the gowns of Queen Mary, it's highly unlikely.  But, I digress.  There is rarely a time when I am not doing at least two things at once.  When I am reading I am listening to music.  When I am watching television I am drawing.  When I am trying to get to sleep, I am frantically planning the next day.  Oh to lay on the bed and do "nuffing"!

My wife children know how to do nothing.  They know how to take a break from the world and allow themselves to drift.  To think or not.  To listen to music and do nothing else.  To read a book and block everything else out.  They are SO Zen...  And then there's me. 

I'll blame "society".  Like "The Man" they are an easy target for anything that ails us.  Of course, since we as individuals actually comprise "society", the responsibility inevitably comes back to ourselves.  As a people, we seem to be under the impression that to be "busy" is an asset.  It means we are important, engaged and productive.  If we are "busy" we are valuable.  Ironically, we probably get less of real use done now than ever before.  We fill our minds with false deadlines.  We project our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves onto others.  We are forever envying those who seem to have and do it all.  In fact, what we need...  What I need... more than ever is a little more "nuffing" and a lot less activity.

Now, as soon as I check my Instagram, post to my Facebook, tweet to Twitter and take those selfies...  I'm doin' NOTHIN'!