Monday, December 21, 2015

Look what I grew!

Okay, the tree did the heavy lifting, but I watered it.

Just in time for Christmas, my orange tree has given of it's bounty. Six (six!) oranges.

My last harvest yielded oranges the size of golf balls. This time around there is a greater size range. The largest is about the size of a baseball.

And the smallest. . . well, as you see.

Monday, November 23, 2015

My First Thanksgiving

This year I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the first time, and I'm having a mild nervous breakdown.  It's such an iconic meal, and there's a lot of pressure to get it right. Then, just to make sure I drive myself crazy, I asked extra people to join us, one of whom is a vegetarian.

But it's a family and friends kind of day, and I can't leave friends to celebrate alone. Besides, I see my family all the time, so the conversations will be more interesting if we add some new people to the mix. Possibly explosive if we let my liberal friend and my brother talk politics. Well, that's one way of making the holiday memorable.

On the plus side, the Thanksgiving menu is not terribly difficult, it's just large and dependent on good time management. (And mom is bringing the cranberries, so that's one less thing I have to make.) Since I'm having a vegetarian this year I've added my apple/leek casserole to the line up and I'm making the stuffing without chicken stock. Everybody should be happy with the food.

I've been thinking about serving dishes, what I have, what I can borrow. Will I bother with a center piece? (No.) Should I get some crystal to go with the china? (Probably, but this year the glasses are from IKEA.) How much food is enough? How much is too much?  I realize that I'm being ridiculous, that I will have eight (eight!) separate dishes (including pie) and that I've managed Christmas with half that. But I still find myself obsessing.

In addition to the meal, I'm looking at my house and wondering if there is some magic spell or something to keep pets from shedding, just for a couple of days. Why do I have such a ridiculously narrow table? (Seriously, I can't find tablecloths to fit it.) Why did I spend money on a vacation instead of window treatments for the living room?

Then there is animal management. My guest are bringing a dog, so the cats will have to be corralled and the house dog proofed. (Not that big a deal, I long ago put fragile things inside cabinets or up very high. Cats can be just as destructive to one's belongings.)  It's going to be chilly, should I put a blanket outside for the dog?

Deep breath. It's all going to be okay.

Do I have to make gravy?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Vacation Snaps

I spent the first two weeks of September in Vietnam. It was my first visit and I hope it will not be my last.
Morning on the Perfume River, Hue
I took a tour, 10 days travelling from Hanoi to Saigon, and it was wonderful.

I'd never been on a tour before, and while I didn't see as much of each individual site as I would have liked (simply not enough time) it was very relaxing to not have to deal with travel arrangements and hotels. All I had to do was show up. I can do that.
taken from the bus on our way to Hoi An
I tried my hand at landscape photography this time round. It's not my strength, but the countryside is beautiful, which helps a lot.

Destined to be dinner
The people are friendly, and the food is great. For those of you who are worried about food being too spicy, chilies tend to be on the side. And the beer is plentiful and good.

Roof detail
A gargoyle, I almost wish it had rained, so I could have seen it in action (Hue)
The tourism industry is in its infancy, so there are no pamphlets to pick up, no signs in English and very few maps. This can be great (less visual clutter and litter) and it can be disorienting (where am I?) They are fixing up the old palaces in Hue, but it's a constant fight against the climate.

And it's hot. There is no way around it, it's hot and humid and we blessed the men who invented air conditioning every time we got back to the hotel.
Saigon, the 70 was to celebrate Vietnam's 70th birthday as a modern nation 1945 - 2015
I arrived two days before national day, on the 70th anniversary of Vietnam becoming its own nation. So Hanoi, where we started, was packed, filled with people paying their respects at Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, all the government buildings had a fresh coat of paint and there were red flags everywhere.
Daoist temple - coils of incense, with prayers attached (Hoi An)
Ha Long Bay

If you ever get the chance to see Ha Long Bay, go. We felt so incredibly lucky to be there, it's an incredible spot. And I tried kayaking for the first time! I didn't turn the boat over, so I'm calling it a success.

Hoi An at night

Hoi An, in addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known for its lanterns. These ladies are selling paper lanterns that you float in the river and make a wish. Its a big spot for engagement photos.

Temple offering - Buddha's Hand (Hanoi)
Fishing - Ha Long Bay

I would like to go back and spend more time, about a month, and really get to explore. But for an introduction, my 10 day whirlwind trip was fascinating.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Round Robin: Is Beauty Necessary?

To love beauty is to see light.

YouTube is a fabulous resource, it really is. I stumbled on this old episode of Politically Incorrect and the issue at hand was that someone had set up an "egg bank" for infertile couples. Not all that controversial, you'd think, except that all the donor eggs were from actresses and models; the "bank" was trying to increase the odds that the resulting child would be good looking.

The entire panel agreed that it was a shallow concept and then went on to argue about the morality of doing so. But, if I may play devil's advocate here, why is wanting a good looking child shallow? Beauty is important. Studies have shown that good-looking people are paid more, are more likely to be liked and trusted, and are treated better in general. What parent wouldn't want to give their child an advantage like that if they could?

(I wouldn't watch the whole thing, it degenerates into a big 
argument about god and science, which doesn't get anywhere)

We are an intensely visual species, (the oldest art objects in the world are 75,000 year old etched snail shells) and we spend a lot of effort on making our surroundings and our selves attractive. We plant gardens, we paint walls, we tile our floors in patterns with pretty stones and bits of colored glass. We have based entire economies on gold, which is just a shiny metal with no practical purpose until electronics were invented. An appreciation of the aesthetic and a desire to decorate seem to be an innate characteristics of the species.

And beauty may not just be something we like (like sugar), but something we actually need. Studies have shown that people who live in unpleasant environments (crowding, high amounts of graffiti, urban decay, lack of plant life, etc.) have higher incidences of depression and anxiety. Office workers who have access to a window, report more job satisfaction than those who don't. Even mental patients react to the attractiveness of their surroundings. (The Effect of the Physical Environment on Mental Wellbeing)

Like all human impulses, there have been efforts to control it. Sumptuary laws have existed in multiple cultures. Many religions preach modesty and plainness in dress. But even those who consider "plainness" a virtue, (like the Amish and the Shakers) spend a lot of time on the visual. So much so that the "plain" boxes, buildings and quilts are considered works of art in their spare and severe perfection. 

The odd thing about beauty is that we simultaneously crave it and mistrust it. We tell our children "Don't judge a book by its cover", and that "real beauty comes from within", and then we invest in braces, lasik and acne medications.  We praise those with the visual sensitivity to decorate a house or compose a stunning floral arrangement and then denigrate them for choosing such a "shallow" specialty. 

Maybe it's because we know that beauty affects the way we think. Attractiveness has what is called a Halo Effect, where the person who is lucky enough to have a pretty face is also thought to be friendlier, smarter, and more trustworthy than those not as genetically blessed. Unfair, but true.

I have no answers. I think beauty is a need, not as critical as air, but still up there on my list of priorities. Perhaps the best we can do is try to be aware of the tendency to assign goodness to beauty, and to pay more attention to the contents than the label.

To read what other people are saying on this topic, check out their blogs.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Dealing with clutter

My first semester at university, I lost my student ID 6 times in two months. That got to be expensive, so I put a box near the door of my dorm room as a place to put my keys and ID when I walked in. I didn’t lose them again for the rest of the year. After a while, I realized that other stuff found its way into the box. Rarely anything important, just general stuff that you get from walking around: flyers, receipts, change, an acorn.

Then I realized that what I really had, was a clutter catcher. Clutter catchers act in two ways:
  1. They corral your stuff so you can find it, and
  2. They keep your house from looking like a landfill.
Clutter, is anything that is out with no specific purpose. So if you are in the kitchen, and there is a toaster on the counter, it’s there for a purpose. But the stack of mail on the counter next to the toaster? that’s clutter.

But what if it is your habit to look through your mail while standing at the kitchen counter? Put a basket/box on the kitchen counter to hold the mail. This will make it look intentional, stop the mail from mysteriously migrating to other parts of the house, and as a bonus, keep you from getting butter on the light bill.

I cleaned out my main clutter catcher this weekend. I found:
  • 2 spools of red grosgrain ribbon, leftover from Christmas
  • tape measure
  • pedometer
  • coupon for deodorant
  • 2 crumpled restaurant receipts
  • a fortune from a fortune cookie: “You are about to embark on a most delightful journey.”
  • 2 Jolly Rancher wrappers
  • a breath mint
  • an assortment of keys, metal and electronic
  • a pair of cracked sunglasses
  • 2 pads of sticky notes
  • A tire pressure gauge
  • small change
  • a pencil
  • a flash drive
  • assorted business cards
  • spare car key and the tag from the dealership
  • a large metal hook
  • metal doohickey for my garage door lock
  • a hair tie
  • 2 of those plastic rings you find around the necks of soda bottles 
  • a folding brush/comb
  • a thank you note from the Empty Bowls event
  • a washer
  • entrance ticket to a Monet exhibit
  • plastic pegs from a game of Battleship
  • and a bottlecap
All of this in a 9 inch basket. If it had been spread out on the counter, it would have been a mess. But neatly contained, no-body noticed that I had all this junk sitting in my living room.

Personally, I find going through the basket kind of fun. It’s like a mini-archeological dig into your own life. What have I been doing for the last few months? Art exhibits? Movies? Bad dates? Good intentions gone awry? It’s all in there.

Right now it just holds my car keys and the pedometer, but it will soon fill up again with the detritus of living, and wait for me to deal with it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What I'm reading now

A lot of people make resolutions about improving themselves at this time of year, and that usually includes a reading list. People will buy weighty tomes, books on self-improvement, or important and serious novels. I won’t be doing that.  

It’s not that I don’t appreciate serious literature, but it’s January. This is the month that I recuperate from the holidays, and I just can’t face Middlemarch right now. I'll come back to the serious reads, but for now, I want something light and funny. 

I haven't read science fiction in years. I burned my way through a lot of the genre in high school and sort of lost interest afterwards. It's not that I don't find speculating on the future interesting, but there are a fair number of sci-fi novelists who forget that the point of literature is to tell a story, not to numb me with detailed explanations of physics, number theory, or (yet another) dystopian future.  So it was complete chance that I stumbled on Agent to the Stars online, and after reading the synopsis I had to buy it. 

It’s about a junior Hollywood agent who has the ultimate PR problem: How do you go about introducing an alien race to the world? Without causing widespread panic and riots?

As an added complication, the aliens are really ugly and they smell. 

It also contains some sharp observations on the entertainment industry, and the negotiations are masterful. On one hand, he's a complete bastard, on the other, you can't help but admire how well he does it. It’s funny, intelligent, and I enjoyed it immensely. If you want a fun and satirical read, I recommend this one highly.

Bonus for the true sci-fi fan: the Audible version is read by Wil Wheaton!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Getting out of the House: Armand Bayou

I have two goals for this year:

1. Finish (or at least get some headway on) all the half-finished projects around the house.
2. Get out of the house on a regular basis, and work doesn't count.

Since I made some headway on goal one by framing my art prints, this week I focused on getting out of the house. I went hiking in Armand Bayou.

Armand Bayou is a nature preserve, close to Clear Lake and Pasadena. It is unique in that it was not set up by the state or federal government, but is actually a 501(c)3 charity. It is the largest urban nature preserve in the US.

This was probably not the best time for a visit;  it had rained only two days before, so there was a lot of mud, very slippery mud, around large puddles. A few in my group ended up falling into the puddles, because the trail was so slick. Still, no serious damage done, just a few bruised egos, and lot of wet sneakers.

Dampness aside, it was a beautiful day. That special kind of Texas winter day, when the sky is a cloudless bright blue, and the temperature is cool but not cold. I'd like to go back, when it's dryer, and see what it looks like when there are more leaves on the trees.

red tailed hawks (I think)

Turtles, enjoying the sun

Tree fungus

Purple fungus, but it looked burgundy with the sun shining through it

Tidal marsh, doesn't the tree stump look sculpted by the wind?

Red flower at the visitor's center

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Round Robin: Are we getting closer to racial equality?

If there was ever a topic I felt totally unqualified to answer, this would be it. But I agreed to write about whatever the group said. So here we go.

When I was a child, people of color (by which I mean Hispanic, African-American, Native American, Asian, basically anyone not Caucasian.) were only on television in bit parts, (think Al on “Happy Days”), or they were in a show about non-white people (“Sanford and Son”). If you saw an African-American in a commercial, that product was for African-Americans. If the advertisement was aimed at the American public at large, like Cheerios, the actors would be white.

Watching television this past month, I see a much more varied slice of humanity. The president of the US is African-American (and female!) on ”State of Affairs”; two popular shows on broadcast television (“Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder”) have African-American leads, and white significant others. My favorite canceled show of last season, "Selfie", was a retelling of Pygmalion - with a Korean-American as Higgins. And as far as the commercials go, the color barrier is long gone. I see African-Americans pitching everything from cholesterol-lowering drugs to banking services to milk. 

It may not seem like much, but the shift in casting shows that:
  • Hollywood doesn’t think it’s ridiculous to cast people of color in positions of authority. 
  • American business has realized that having non-white actors in their ads won’t alienate their audiences. 
That’s huge! It’s not peace, love and kumbayah, but it is money and power. And money and power are more effective.

That’s Hollywood, what about in the real world?

My little subdivision (120 houses total) has people of all races in it, and if there has been any protest, I haven’t heard it. I go to my local mall, and there are people of all colors (in fact, I sometimes feel a little outnumbered). And it’s just like every other mall: same bad pizza in the food court, same teenagers mooning over each other and wearing ridiculous clothing. My doctor is Vietnamese. I work with people of Vietnamese, Hispanic, African, Chinese, Cajun, and Croatian backgrounds – and I swear one of my biggest difficulties is getting input in atrocious handwriting.

And not to belabor the obvious, but the current President of the United States is definitely not white.

I’m not Pollyanna. I know that there are people (probably people I know) that harbor resentments, racist attitudes, stupid misconceptions, and the like. We do not live in a perfect world. But at the very least, being racist is no-longer socially acceptable. You’d get more positive feedback if you said you were in favor of corporal punishment. Improvement has been made.

Addressing the recent shootings:
  • It always takes conservative institutions the longest to adapt. Law enforcement is as conservative an institution as they come. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it may help explain some attitudes. 
  • Dead teenagers is a horrible way to bring issues up, but they are being addressed. The outrage is loud, vocal, from all parts of the country and all levels of society. These shootings aren’t being swept under the rug, or shrugged off with “that’s just the way things are.” Attention is being paid, and changes are being made to keep these scenarios from happening again. 
  • The shooters are not going to be able to go back to their lives as if nothing happened. They will be tarred for the rest of their lives for these actions. 
Change is happening, and change is good.

You can see other takes on this topic at: 
Joan Johnson: onefishtaco
William Pora:
Leslie Farnsworth: 
James McPherson:

Monday, January 12, 2015

Small accomplishments

Happy 2015. It's a new year. True, it's an arbitrary date, it doesn't really mean anything, but sometimes you just need a dividing line. Something that says "it ends here". And I really needed 2014 to end. 

I'm not going to go into detail, but 2014 was painful for me, and I need (even if it is just symbolic) to end it and start anew.

This year, I'm not making any grandiose plans. I just want to get my energy flowing again. So, in the spirit of clearing roadblocks, I present my first accomplishment of the year. The hidden art collection.

George appreciating art
I took all of these out of the various nooks and crannies where they have lain hidden and protected from curious cats, and framed them.  It was a two week process, because the larger ones had been rolled up for years, so I had to unroll them and weight them down for a week. They still roll a bit, but I'm hoping that now that they are framed, the paper will relax and become truly flat. 

In case you are inspired by my example, this is a great time of year to do this. All the art supply stores are having big sales, trying to get rid of last year's stock. The frames and mats were all 40% off. 

In my case, it helped my budget a lot that a few years ago, my mother took a course in framing art. Last weekend, when it was cold and rained all day, I took everything over to my parents' house where we measured, re-measured, remembered that it's been long time since any of us had to work with fractions, and finally got everything matted and in the frames. I've even hung them up.

As achievements go, it's not much, but you have to start somewhere.