Boat Beautiful

Rockin' the Boat
Rockin' the Boat

I’ve never been much of a sailor. A tendency to get queasy when the footing becomes unsteady has marked me as a landlubber most of my life. But in spite of this, I’ve always been drawn to the romance of boats. That whole John Masefield thing about “a tall ship and a star to steer her by” really sank in somewhere along the line.

In Seattle the tall ships and seas beckon in every direction. The newest place to get up close and personal with boat life is Seattle’s South Lake Union Park, located right next to the Center For Wooden Boats, where all manner of delightful crafts are on display.

Mighty Tug
Mighty Tug

There’s a lot to like at the new park. It opens up vistas previously out of bounds. More significantly, it represents an amazing turnaround of a marvelous site which for decades was contaminated with toxic waste from previous industrial uses. Now it’s a showpiece, with wonderful educational touches tucked into an artfully planned 12-acre site that includes a number of delightful artistic focal points, including a playful water-jet lined walkway, a wide basin for sailing toy boats, and “Blanche,” an unusual floating sound sculpture by San Francisco artists Peter and Sue Richards. img_42243

“Blanche”  was constructed using an actual Blanchard Junior Knockabout boat, donated and restored by the Center for Wooden Boats. The installation is particularly appropriate as a tribute to the Blanchard Boat Company, which operated on the shore of Lake Union from 1900 to 1963. The sculpture is designed to give visitors the feeling of being in a boat, without ever leaving the shore.

Close your eyes. Hear it? That’s the sound of one wave slapping.

Why Doth The Fruit Fly?

If angels are sent here to guide us, and devils to lead us into temptation, what, pray,  is the purpose of fruit flies?

Do they exist merely to drive us insane? To make us question the existence of an all-knowing beneficent deity? Or do they, like reality TV “stars,” exist simply because in a universe of infinite possibility a spontaneously generated vexation is inevitable?

These thoughts swarm in my head as I’m sopping up the wine sprayed across the tablecloth, dripping through it to the floor below, staining my pants on the way. The fruit fly whose antic aerial maneuvers drove me to yet another hasty and ill-considered slap at the empty air, thus leading to this lavish spill, has since flitted on to riper fields. And I just want to know why.

Are fruit flies symbolic of the pointlessness of trying to rid the world of problems, when, it seems clear from the bludgeoning headlines, no sooner do we clean up one gosh-awful mess, or “wind-down” some bloody war, than two more spring, hydra-like, from the event horizon?

I don’t know. Maybe fruit flies have some purpose which, for reasons best known to the aforementioned all powerful deity, remain obscure to those of us cleaning up the spills and spoils. I shouldn’t complain. At least I have wine to spill. Maybe I’ve had more than my share. Could that be what that fruit fly is suggesting? What a nerve! I’ve a good mind to slap the hell out of that little pest! Here he comes again!

Crap. Could you pass the paper towels?

Babble On

So, in today’s front page Yahoo news two seemingly unrelated items caught my eye. In England, the powers that be have declared Druidism an official religion. Meanwhile, in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation to change the category of possession of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction – something like a parking ticket.

Do these two disparate events signal a change in the cultural ethos? A revival of the misty 60s dreams of an Aquarian Age?

Probably not. But they got me thinking about how many little snowflakes it takes to make an avalanche. Effective social change is a process, and not a particularly graceful or painless one, as most of us learn eventually.

Take the Druids, for instance. For thousands of years they’ve existed, worshipping the sun, the moon and the stars, and, of course, trees. At some point society took a different path, and Druids were shoved off the A-list. Rumors spread of their supposedly dangerous rites. Since there’s no way to really know what they were doing in the woods back then, we can only speculate, our best thing.

Still, the Druids didn’t abandon their beliefs. Throughout the centuries they continued to gather at times of Solstice and Midsummer’s Eve to honor the Earth. Now that modern environmental science has spread a more enlightened view of the way the natural world works, it seems the Druids may finally be allowed to come out of the woods and into the light, should they so choose.

And perhaps the same thing will eventually happen for all the harmless potheads cowering in the dark in California and across the nation. Marijuana has been demonized since the 1940s in this country, but in Europe, where serious drug enforcement efforts are reserved for serious drugs like cocaine and heroin, the use of marijuana has long been tolerated. Of course, they have different ideas of what constitutes normal over there. But, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Who gets to decide what is “normal” and what is “right?” In the United States, supposedly, we the people are in charge. But it doesn’t feel that way, does it? More and more it feels as if some mad engineer is driving the train of society into some bizarre place where anyone can be “famous” for a few minutes if they’re willing to make a fool of themselves on the Internet or television. Violence spreads like measles, the contagion inflamed by media hype.

How do we wrest control from the crazies?

It would be nice to think that we could do it by following the path prescribed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If we simply refuse to participate in injustice and barbarity, will it stop? Maybe. Eventually. But the evidence seems to indicate that it takes a whole lot longer than a single lifetime. And I wonder, looking at the climate change models, if we have time.

It would be great if we could find some kind of miraculous way to bring peace and prosperity to all the people of the world. Some people think it could be achieved if we all applied our minds to it at the same time. I’m not so sure, but at this point, it might not hurt to try brain power. The brute force option seems to be getting us nowhere.

I’ve never been able to get excited about meditation as a discipline, although I spend a lot of time sitting around thinking. Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong. This Sunday, October 3, for the fifth year in a row, a worldwide group of concerned citizens will be united for three minutes of silent meditation. Three minutes doesn’t seem like much. But I guess the idea is that if several million people all do it together, the combined effect might actually have some sort of tangible result.

According to the Himalayan Institute, “The idea is that once you have a number of people coming together in a group you intensify the impact of changes in consciousness that happen during meditation. The body, brain, mind, and heart are all aligned. In that state we can also align much more readily with each other. And we align more with those close to us, and that amplifies the effect. With a large group you can have a constructive interference. It’s a common phenomenon in physics with waves of any type. A laser is a good example. If you have light wave emitting diodes emitting the same frequency, then they’ll all fall into synchrony with each other so you get a much more powerful wave. ”

Well, I expect the Druids will be doing it. Maybe even Governor Schwarzenegger. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Maybe it’s time to start thinking harder.

Paradise Found

Number four on my Go-To Author list: Stella Gibbons.

Even though only one of her books remains readily available in print, such is the charm of her writing that I sometimes forget that not everyone is a fan of witty parody. After all, the bestseller lists are crammed with works of dark and vicious crime stories, thrillers crafted to make you turn pages at breakneck speed, and twisted fantasies aimed to keep you from ever having another sweet dream.

But for those of us who read to escape the grim violence and numbing predictability of heartbreak inevitable in this fragile human sphere, there still are some writers who attempt to lighten the weight of it all with humor. Some people might consider this frivolous in view of the brevity of life and the gravity of the current world situation – some might say we were teetering on the brink of extinction, etc. However, be that as it may, we can all use a laugh from time to time. And when that time comes for me, I like to curl up with an author who shares my view that the world, while not perfect, still contains some amusing bits.

Stella Gibbons wrote “Cold Comfort Farm” in 1932, a time when the world was recovering from one World War and heading toward another, when the Great Depression cloaked American optimism in a cloud of Dust Bowl fallout, a time before modern technology had stripped the gears of civility and before capitalism had completed its slash and burn takeover of the world economy. It was, in other words, a more innocent time, in some ways.

“Cold Comfort Farm” is a delicious send-up of all the sappy literary conventions of that brief time, when the world still seemed on the verge of becoming a brave new one. The plot revolves around an orphaned young woman who goes to live with her rustic distant relatives in rural England and gradually solves all their problems in spite of their initial resistance.

This description, of course, falls far short of the brilliant triumph of style and characterization which give the novel its timeless charm. But to appreciate it, you must read it. Or, if you have lost the will to deal with printed pages, you could rent the 1995 film which offers a remarkably faithful version of the story. I must confess that I saw the film before I knew the book existed, and I adored the film so much that when I discovered the book I was almost afraid it wouldn’t live up to the screen version, in which Kate Beckinsale delights as the fearless heroine Flora Poste and Rufus Sewell is delicious as the barnyard Lothario Seth Starkadder.

I need not have worried. The book is all that the movie is and more. It entertains with style and wit, without sinking into vulgarity or cheap shots at easy targets.

You could probably get it out of the library if you live near a good library. But if you want to own a treasure, seek out the 2006 paperback version published by Penguin Classics which features an introduction by Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” Truss puts the “Cold Comfort” phenomenon in perspective, and her insights on the book and Gibbons are a pleasure to read.

So. There you have it. Another Book Which Is Not For Everyone. But, for those of you who like this sort of thing, and I trust you know who you are, I strongly recommend spending some time on “Cold Comfort Farm.” It’s more fun than it sounds.

Give Peas A Chance

Good Day, Sunshine
Good Day, Sunshine

With autumn nearly upon us, I find myself growing a bit wistful for the Summer That Wasn’t.

Some people, especially those back East who suffered through months of sweltering heat, might find it hard to relate to the longing for warm summer nights. But this year in Seattle the summer “heat” consisted of a couple of days when the temperatures flirted with the gay 90s, then slunk back into the cool 60s where they feel more at ease.

Flowers all over town thrived. Vegetables, not so much. But, even so, the intrepid Seattle gardeners found ways to coax wondrous results from city gardens. The proof can be found in Seattle’s thriving P-Patches, the community garden program administered by the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

Since its beginning in 1973 on two and a half acres at the Picardo Farm in Wedgwood, the program has grown to include 73 P-Patches all over town, 23 acres in all, planted and maintained by roughly 4,000 passionate gardeners. And more gardens are added each year.

Peace grows in garden rows.
Peace grows in garden rows.

Each is unique. Some are as beautifully laid out as formal gardens, others so densely crammed with vegetables and flowers that the walkways between the beds are hard to see. Every one is a treasure.

Yesterday, with thunderstorms forecast and a brisk breeze blowing, we set out to visit the Picardo Farm plot, to revel in its late summer glory before the rains smashed things too much. It was glorious. Cherry tomatoes, ruby red chard, towering beans, swelling pumpkins, dancing cosmos, dazzling dahlias, countless berries and squash and beets. Oh my.

By the grace of gardens I am fed, body and soul. Mine is the church of blue sky. Rain is the sacrament that keeps us all alive. Thanks be to God, or whoever is holding down the fort while he’s out minding other universes.

Mythed Opportunities

I’ve got nothing in particular against blockbuster movies. I appreciate the way they dazzle and explode and create jobs for a small army of artistic technical engineers. But the movies that truly thrill me tend to be the small quiet ones, the ones that dig down and grapple with the slippery business of being human, or not.

Last night I watched  “Pretty Bird,” a small independent film from 2008 about three men existing on the slim borderline between failure and mediocrity who catch fire when one of them, the dreamer/hustler Curtis, played brilliantly by Billy Crudup, inspires the other two to believe in his dream of building a rocket belt. Curtis, with his guileless smile and serene self-confidence, exemplifies the perfect huckster, one who believes so fiercely in his own impossible schemes that he projects an innocent aura which lulls even the hardened skeptic.

Paul Giamatti, as the skeptical rocket scientist, is terrific as always, portraying a bitter genius driven to the edge of madness by double dealing and corporate abuse. And as Kenny, the sweetly devoted friend who cheerfully sinks all his money into the project, David Hornby is achingly convincing.

The fictional movie is based on actual events, but it’s fueled by the deft character studies. There’s humor and intrigue and a certain amount of suspense, but what you come away with is a kind of modern version of Icarus. The dream of flight continues to lift men out of their ordinary lives, but coming back down remains a challenge.

“Pretty Bird” reminded me in some ways of another small independent film that blew me away back in the 90s. “Bottle Rocket,” the first film written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, is another story of three men, each a bit lost, each motivated by a different passion. The film, which really showcases the Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke, is funny and tender and understated, and, though the characters aspire to be successful thieves, it ends up making the same point as “Pretty Bird.”

You can fool yourself, and you may fool your friends for a while, but sooner or later, if you’re human, you have to come back to earth. All rockets fizzle eventually.

Yankee Go Home

(The following is an excerpt from my work in progress “Not From Around Here.”)

People who speak wistfully about the innocent pleasures of childhood give me a pain. Were these people never children? Did they never have to go out onto a public school playground during that hellish free-for-all called recess?

I have to assume that the law of averages applies to childhood experiences. Thus I can accept that for a certain percentage of the population the years between five and twelve offered carefree delights that vanished once the teen age began. But I never felt at ease in the company of other children. They’re so irrational. So unpredictable. So moody.

I certainly was anyway. I entered first grade in Falls Church, Virginia, shortly after we had moved from Pennsylvania, where we had been living for one year while my father tried to pass the bar there. When he failed, we returned to Virginia, where he went  to law school at UVA on the GI Bill. In Falls Church we lived in one of those “Wonder Years” kind of neighborhoods. Small one-story houses with three tiny bedrooms on small lots. Everyone had kids. The fathers went to work. The mothers stayed home and did laundry, cooked and, in some cases, counted the hours until cocktail time. The televisions were housed in cabinets and the screen was small and circular, and there wasn’t much on aside from the Walt Disney show and Ed Sullivan. At five o’clock every day all the kids whose families had TVs ran home to watch the Mickey Mouse Club. I envied Annette Funicello with her beautiful wavy hair and perfect smile.

By the time we moved there I had gained a couple more brothers, so we all shared rooms. But when my older brother and I started school, he quickly distanced himself from me; he could sense my nerd cooties emanating like some radioactive force field. I walked to school alone, whistling show tunes. In those days there were no ‘gifted and talented’ programs. If you were a kid who demonstrated skills beyond those of the rest of the class, they might suggest to your parents that you skip a grade. But the schools worried that children who moved away from their peers would fail to adjust socially. So they left me in first grade, where I had to steel myself to listen to dozens of my classmates stumbling courageously through sentences like: “See Jane run. Look at Dick. Jane knows Dick.” Yeah. If I hadn’t been a snide little bitch-in-training before public school first grade, I sure as hell soared to the head of that class.

As any geek who has survived public school can tell you, kids are savages, and the process of blunting their claws and muting their shrieks is not for the faint of heart. The teachers loved me, of course, at first. But that only made things worse for me with the squirming masses who saw in my innocent brown eyes and baby soft blonde hair a perfect target for ridicule. And, admittedly, I was, and for most of my life have been, gullible as hell. My brothers never tired of teasing me to the point of tears and beyond. Until the year when, in a flash of focused rage, I lashed out at one of my younger brothers and broke his arm with a single blow. I felt terrible about it immediately afterward, but the event did realign the course of our later friendship, as if I’d passed some unspoken test and proven myself not guilty of total wimpdom.

However, that watershed event hadn’t taken place yet when I first had to endure the rigors of recess in Virginia. At first, slinking out into the brisk sunshine of September on the bare asphalt playground, I looked around for some group of likely shields, a knot of girls perhaps, or, failing that, some chubby boy with glasses. The old safety in numbers concept is embedded deep in the human psyche; sheep gravitate to other sheep.

Unfortunately, the same group-think applies to the wolves. As I stood there trying to work up the nerve to approach a cluster of girls in poodle skirts and crinoline, a loud boy with the musculature of a future footballer and a glint in his eye that would make him a standout in any police line-up ran into me, and as I was regaining my balance he looked down at me as if just noticing I was there and said, “Are you a Rebel or a Yank?”

I stared at him. I had no idea what he was talking about. During my kindergarten year in Pennsylvania we had covered letters, numbers, primary colors and learned to sing “My Country T’is of Thee” but no mention of Rebels or Yanks had been made.

“What?” I responded.

The boy narrowed his eyes and looked me up and down, from saddle shoes to plaid skirt and white cotton shirt with suspenders. “Yer not from around here, are ya?” he said accusingly.

I told him we’d just moved to Virginia.

“Where you from?” he demanded.

“Erie,” I said, my lips barely moving.

“Where’s that?” he asked.

“Pennsylvania,” I said.

“Hah!” he barked. “I knew it. Yer a Yankee. A damn Yankee.” He reached out and shoved me, not hard, but enough to let me know that whatever a Yankee was, he wanted nothing to do with it. He ran back to his fellow hooligans, and I could see them hooting and pointing at me, as I stood alone, feeling, I imagine, as a gazelle on the African plains must feel when it notices the rest of the herd edging away and the jackals circling.

I waited until I got home that day to ask my father about the difference between Yankees and Rebels, and my father, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, told me that the Rebels wanted to keep slaves and the Yankees fought to free them. Simple as that. No gray areas, no muddling the debate with sophistry about state’s rights or Southern hospitality. Good old right and wrong, my Dad’s strong suit. He never wavered when it came to the fundamental divide. All his life he struggled with doubts about religion and politics and women, but he never doubted his instinctive grasp of justice. Whether or not he was actually right is, as they say, another story.

But as a child, up until the Nixon-Kennedy debates, I accepted my Dad’s views pretty much without a qualm. I loved my Dad. He was a good man. Ergo, what he said was true.

Armed with this conviction I returned to school and hoped that the issue would not come up again, but if it did, I was prepared to have a dialogue with my inquisitors and set them straight as to the error of their ways. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. What a ninny. Yet, you see, this is what I mean by the earlier assertion that I was never a whiz kid. People then, and now, assume that if you can read early, and you continue to read often, that you must, perforce, be acquiring some sort of smarts in the process. And, to a certain extent, this can be true, if you embark on a course of directed reading with someone knowledgeable, say, a college professor, or perhaps a talk show host – just kidding – guiding your analysis of the texts. However, mere reading alone is not a guaranteed path to wisdom, particularly if all you read is fiction.

Even as a child my passion for imaginary stories far surpassed any interest I had in history, math, geography, etc. However, that first year in public school in Virginia forced me to embrace a previously unknown field of writing. I became a philosopher. It may have been dormant in my crabby baby years, but it really got traction on the playgrounds of Westlawn Elementary, where for several years I endured hours of bullying torment and scathing social ostracism because I wouldn’t back down from my pride in being a Yankee.

This only got worse by the time I reached fourth grade and the school curriculum began to include months of indoctrination into the Southern view of what they like to call The War Between the States, which had, according to our textbooks, nothing to do with slavery, but revolved solely around issues of states’ right to do as they pleased without interference from some know-it-all federal government who only wanted to fund their own fancy lifestyle with taxes squeezed from honest Southern farmers.

In the first years of my schooling in Virginia, this view remained almost unchanged from textbook to textbook until in the early 1960s when the Civil Rights movement finally began to make some progress. When I started as a freshman in high school in Fairfax there were no black students in a school with three thousand students.  The next year we had half a dozen. They were from around there, but I suspect in that school they felt farther from home than I did.

Erie Kid

(The following is an excerpt from my work in progress, “Not From Around Here.”)

My first word was no.

I don’t recall the circumstances. Presumably I was wobbling uneasily in someone’s lap and some well-intentioned relative asked me the sort of stupid question that is always posed to the mute and helpless. I’ve seen  photographs of a scowling, not particularly adorable infant, and I’ve been told that this was me at the start. In many ways, it’s me now, apart from the infant classification. At this point in the arc of my existence I have passed the apex. While I am not yet hurtling toward the bumpy landing, my view from this moment suspended between the immutable past and the rapidly diminishing future has freed me in a way I never anticipated. I no longer feel the need to placate.

Clint Eastwood once famously said, in one of his laconic roles, “It’s a wise man that knows his limitations.” Though I do not qualify in terms of gender or intelligence, I have finally learned to embrace that line. Others may find ingenious solutions to humankind’s problems. I don’t expect to. I continue to support their efforts in my small way, but I’ve come to accept that the whiz kid dreams of my youth were doomed from the start. In order to be a whiz kid, one must first be a whiz. And, presumably, a kid. As a child, I was neither.

Although I eventually learned how to smile on command, as all good children must, I never lost my inner scowl. My older brother, in contrast, didn’t know the meaning of the word. The sunny first child, born long before my parents’ marriage had lost the blinding luster of romance and entered into the drab plateau of bitterness, brooding and discontent, my brother never once doubted that he was worthy of all the love and attention that was showered upon him. I think I was introduced into the scenario as a kind of bonus playmate for him. What a disappointment I must have been. My brother wanted worship. Yet you can see even in the tiny snapshots of our first encounters the measuring look in my infant eyes.  Long before I had the vocabulary to express my impression of this noisy group of cooing, grinning people constantly jostling me and urging me to smile, I can imagine my little brain muttering irritably, “Why should I?”

Of course, a few months later I was sitting up by myself, chewing on non-food items and generally finding some amusement in the family who seemed so intent on pleasing me. I had learned to smile by then, but I still didn’t understand why they all seemed so keen on seeing me do it. Nevertheless, I had become philosophic. I cost me nothing. It meant something to them. I had nothing better to do. I smiled for the camera. But inside, the little scowl was on standby.

It became easier for me as I fell in love with first my mother, then my father, and eventually even my goofy brother. My mother, whose pale blue eyes sparkled like the light on a clear mountain lake, had a dimple which accentuated her easy smile, and she had a voice like birdsong, lilting, melodic and enchanting. All of this would have been even more wonderful if I had not early on perceived that I had arrived on the scene too late, or possibly in the wrong gender, to win her unconditional affection. I think that possibly because I was a girl it made it almost impossible for her to sort out her feelings for me, because her feelings for her own mother and her only sister were such a complex amalgam of resentment, envy and confusion. Nevertheless, I think she did care for me, as much as she could. But it wasn’t like the delirious love that she felt for my older brother. I guess I can’t blame her. He was more lovable from the get-go.

I , on the other hand, was irritatingly intellectual even as a toddler. I taught myself to read before I was six and by the time I got to first grade in public school in Falls Church, Virginia, I was considered something of a freak by the school administrators after I was taken to the principal’s office to demonstrate my prowess and did so by reading the first few pages of “Black Beauty” flawlessly. They didn’t know what to do with me. They seemed to think my uncanny ability to translate symbols on a page into spoken words indicated some unusual intelligence. They didn’t seem to realize that I was not a whiz kid. I was just a kid who loved to read more than almost anything else. But I’m getting ahead if myself.

The point is, I was born with a certain, shall we say, analytical bent, which set me apart from my fellow toddlers. I tried to fit in. I tried to play games, to care about dolls, to giggle. I don’t think I fooled anyone, least of all my cousins who lived in Erie, PA, where I was born. We lived in Erie, too, for the first few years of my existence, but I remember so little of those days that whatever heritage I can claim of Erie comes from the many summer vacations and winter holidays spent there, when, for me, my grandmother’s musty, old house represented a Shangri-La of possibilities. I adored my grandparents, and their house, which was full of secret stairways, creaky sounds, wonderful porches. The room I stayed in had been the nursery, and still had the fading pale blue wallpaper with pink giraffes and elephants, and a window overlooking the giant catalpa tree in the back yard. The room also had a desk and typewriter, on which I composed my earliest journalistic works.

As an adult I have rarely encountered people who know anything about Erie. Once a chatty checkout clerk at some hardware store raised his eyebrows when I told him I’d been born there. “Dreary Erie,” he said, admitting that he had grown up there and couldn’t wait to escape. I wondered if the excitement of being a checkout clerk had satisfied his thirst for adventure.

Perhaps because I was most often only a visitor to Erie, my attitude was different. At night I would lie in bed and listen to the trains, their distant horns calling to each other like land whales, yearning for something always out of reach.  I had complete freedom at my grandmother’s. In those days no one worried about child abductions, or gangs or much of anything. The War was over, the Depression was history and everyone was glad to be alive, or so it seemed to me as an eight-year-old kid roller-skating alone on the brick sidewalks around my grandmother’s block. Sometimes friendly neighbors would talk to me as I rolled by. They’d ask who I was, and I was always surprised that they took an interest. And when I told them that I was Lyman Shreve’s grandchild they would smile and wish me well. I didn’t realize at the time that this type of encounter was the tip of the iceberg in my life.

Had I been someone familiar, someone who looked like she belonged there, like as not the neighbors wouldn’t have spoken, or if they had, it would have been to say something different. But they could tell I was not one of them. Only many years later did I begin to wonder why it was that no matter where I went, or how long I stayed anywhere, that sense of not belonging anyplace remained constant. Sooner or later, the question would be asked, always in that same slightly condescending tone: “You’re not from around here, are you?”

The Yearning Curve

Ripeness is all, the fellow said.

Tried Green Tomatoes
Tried Green Tomatoes

If that’s true, I got nothin’. Plenty o’.

This is the fifth summer I’ve been gardening in Seattle, and you might think I would have made the adjustment by now. You’d be wrong. The problem is, I’m still thinking in Virginia summer terms. As in: July means hot. August means “oh my freaking god thank you for air conditioning.”

Here in Seattle, of course, many residents eschew air conditioning altogether. The temperatures so rarely rise into the 80s, and the humidity, like the rain, vanishes after July fourth. Vegetables which thrive on heat tend to sulk in Seattle. I know the feeling.

In a Virginia summer there are things you can grow without even trying. Zucchini the size of kayaks. Peppers aplenty. And tomatoes. Aaah, tomatoes.

Every winter when the seed catalogues arrive I try to restrain myself. Remember last year? I say to myself. Remember those two scrawny tomato plants you started under lights in February? Remember the pathetic crop of puny rock hard tomato-shaped things that resulted? Yes, I reply, but this year will be different.

Suffice it to say, it never is. At least, not in a good way. This year we seem to be bypassing the summer season entirely. We had two or three days of 90 degree peaks, but my tomato plants weren’t fooled. They waited it out, and sure enough, the heat swept off to the East Coast, where people understand it.

So here it is, nearly the end of August, and my tomatoes are the size  and color of green olives. At this point, personally, I’d prefer the olives.

At the start of the season here in June, a gardening friend of mine gave me a fine big healthy tomato plant she’d nurtured in her garden shed. Ironically, it was an heirloom variety, a “Green Zebra,” and supposedly it would have eventually produced tasty, edible, green tomatoes. I’ll never know. The night temperatures are already getting down into the 50s. The days are rapidly getting shorter. There will be no ripe tomatoes, either green or red, from my garden.

Will I ever learn? Doubtful. It’s human nature to strive for that which is unobtainable, be it world peace, a publishing contract, or a ripe tomato. All things considered, I think my chances are best with the tomato quest.

Honk If You Love Books

Always pack a paperback.
Always pack a paperback.

Not everyone does, you know.

If you believe the statistics commonly tossed around on the Internet, 80 percent of Americans didn’t read or buy a book last year.

Yet at the same time, the statistic munchers also assert that 80 percent of Americans claim they’d like to write a book. Picture the Venn diagram.

Well, we all know numbers lie. And words can too. But for my money, words deceive with more grace and wit and style. Thus, I number myself among the 80 percent with authorial ambitions. I’m a consumer of books, a lifelong lover of libraries and a connoisseur of book stores.

If you like bookstores, you’ll love Powell’s.

We visited Portland for the first time this week. I had a number of touristic objectives. We strolled through the famous Japanese Garden, admired the amazing blooms at the International Rose Test Garden, and marveled at the elegant beauty of Lan Su Yuan, the classical Chinese garden in downtown Portland. We stood in line for Voodoo Doughnuts, savored Stumptown Coffee and took in a Bite of Oregon. We heard some blues, some cool jazz, and a lot of high energy street music.

But of all the pleasures of Portland, the only one that made my heart beat faster was the city within the city: Powell’s City of Books.

I’ve been to The Strand in New York City. I’ve been to Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. I had high hopes that Powell’s would be their equal. It’s more. Much more. It’s a world of wonders, staffed by acolytes of the written word who not only guide customers through the labyrinth of volumes, but also seem to care about books.

Strong free-spirited independent book stores are a dying breed in this country. Portland is blessed to have Powell’s. Visit if you can.