Wednesday, February 22, 2006


In searching for a gardening essay I'd written a couple years ago, I ran across a piece about family communications that I'd written a long time ago. It was funny then, and it's still funny now.

Donna said she'd heard about The Fainting from her sister, Rose, who'd heard about from their brother, Dan, who'd heard about it from their father, Dominic. News gets around like that in that family. The source of family information is always several people back. No one ever seems to remember exactly who the original source is, and I doubt anyone really cares. The most important thing just seems to be the news.

There was the time their mother, Virginia, moved back into the house on Peters Square with Dominic. I think that news came from Rose, who'd heard it from Virginia, who'd actually been invited by Dominic. Donna was surprised by that one. After all, only twelve years had passed since Virginia and Dominic's divorce--and Dominic holds a grudge. His most recent outburst had been the threat of police action if Virginia ever stepped foot on his property. But, maybe twelve years is, after all, long enough to erase--or at least to dull--the sharpness of bitter memory. Donna said maybe it was loneliness. Or old age. But most probably, it had something to do with eating habits.

Virginia liked to test already-proven formulas, and the Greenway housing coop experience was no exception. She left Omaha in a hurry, speeding back to Minneapolis, her mother's old black Buick crammed full of belongings, the typing table and captain's chair firmly strapped to the top. Rose went with her for the ride. Donna says it was for the money--Virginia paid Rose to miss work at the library.

Rose didn't stay in Minneapolis for long, but Virginia did. She moved into the Greenway coop, into the room where Fran had lived when Rose was there. Actually, Rose moved in after Fran did. Fran had greeted Rose at the front door in her dirty long johns and ill-fitting robe. Fran's mother had given the robe to her at Christmas. Fran wore it out of guilt, or perhaps in the false belief that love had guided her mother's choice.

Shortly after the move, Donna went to visit Virginia in her new room at the Greenway. All the treasures that had been stuffed and wedged into the old black Buick were there, neatly arranged around the room. A few new postcards were tacked up onto the freshly painted walls, and handstitched quilts had been rolled onto wooden dowels to serve as curtains. Donna said Virginia could turn a storm sewer into a home.

Donna and Virginia ate breakfast out near the high school that morning. Virginia picked at an omelette--she always had a nervous stomach--and Donna slammed her thumb in the doorjam of the stall in the women's bathroom. She lost part of her nail, but Virginia still made her pay for the meal.

Donna says that Virginia's parting gesture after breakfast was a finger up the nose. Typical, and mostly in fun, but partly serious. Donna and Dan and Dominic had plans for dinner together that evening, and Virginia--as always--felt left out. Dan said she'd been talking a lot about marriage recently, mostly because she wanted a color television. And a good meal or two, which is how it all started, really.

A few months later, Donna called Dominic, who told her that Dan had told him that Virginia had reported that she'd fainted at work. The doctor attributed the fainting to poor eating habits. Dominic and Dan swore it was the strictly enforced vegetarian menu at the Greenway coop. Donna said it was more like a lifetime of cigarettes, coffee, Coca-Cola, and a five-pound bag of sugar every week. No one could agree on the cause exactly, but four weeks after The Fainting, Virginia showed up at Dominic's door, was invited in, fell asleep on the couch, and hasn't left yet. At least that's what Donna says she heard from Rose, who heard it from Dan, who heard it from Dominic. And he should know.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

(flowering cattleya, left)
My cattleya is in bloom. It hasn't produced flowers since I bought it several years ago, inspired by a visit SJG and I took to an orchid garden on a wintertime trip to Key West. When I bought the cattleya, the plant was in full bloom. But after the flowers faded and dropped off about a month later, it didn't produce a single bud or bloom again. I followed all the greenhouse directions--occasional on-schedule feedings, regular waterings and spraying with distilled water, perfect placement in an east-facing window with sheer curtains to filter the morning light during winter, and an under-the-trees outdoor life during the summer when natural rains could feed it. With no results.
I seriously thought about throwing it out. My mother, who had a magical green thumb, grew orchids with my father when I was young. They built a basement greenhouse, where they kept many different orchid varieties, bringing them into the dining room as they came into bloom at different times. When a plant gave up its annual blooming life after several years, they threw it out and replaced it with another orchid. But I couldn't bring myself to throw out my cattleya. Even though it wasn't producing flowers, it was still alive, and I couldn't bear the vision of trash can suffocation. Instead I moved it all over the house, including into the basement for a couple of winters, where even there it refused to give up.
Earlier this month, my sister casually mentioned a Swedish friend's wife, who grows orchids--in Sweden of all places. It's cold and dark there, yet this woman's orchids are blooming profusely now under what is described to me as neglectful care. I decided to try a version of managed neglect. I brought my cattleya from the basement and into the bathroom, where I placed it on the floor near the radiator and away from the windows. I figured the room's humidity and indirect light would bring miracles. If my approach didn't work, I promised myself, I would finally throw out the orchid.
But it did work, and the cattleya has been in bloom for about a week, with another four or five weeks to go. I think I'll bring the cymbidium into the bathroom tomorrow.

Friday, February 17, 2006


(Photo at left of the Roman pool at the Parc Monceau in Paris, courtesy of my father)

In the winter months, after it's become too cold and icy to ride my bicycle to work every day, I change my routine of exercise to include weekly swimming sessions at the downtown pool. I usually go in the midafternoon, when the pool is quiet, and there's only me and the Eastern European ladies in their swim caps and giant floral-patterned swimsuits. One time, in the steam bath after my swim, I ran into one of the ladies drinking a clear liquid from her flask. "That's a great idea, to drink water in here," I said to her. "I'm drinking vodka," she replied, and we both chuckled.

Although swimming is an exercise for the body, I find that, for me, it's primarily an excercise in meditation. Energy slows with each exhalation into the water, moving inward with each stroke. The exterior world begins to fall away, and I listen to my breathing as the water streams past my body and flows out through my nose and mouth with each forced out-breath. I imagine it must have been like this in utero.

I've never been a fast, powerful body in the water. In fact, years ago when in graduate school, I took a thrice-weekly swimming class at the university's Olympic-sized pool. One of the surprise! goals of the class was to increase speed and power, so at the beginning of the first week of class, we buddied up and counted the number of laps we each could swim in a five-minute period. I swam 18 laps. At the end of the semester, we again buddied up and counted laps for the same amount of time. Every one else in class had increased their capabilities by a lap or two. I again swam 18 laps.

I think this means that my potential as a swimmer is what it is, and that there's something in me that doesn't want to swim fast and hard. What I do want is to hit my stride, whatever that may be on any particular day, and to view life from a water creature's perspective--with that funny feeling of solitude and extreme insularity, even with other bodies in the water. One afternoon at the university all those years ago, swimming laps in the slow lane, I rotated onto my side for an inhalation and made contact with a woman swimming over and on top of me. As I held my breath to wait for her to clear my body, I wondered why she hadn't chosen one of the fast lanes. Swimming, of course, does have a competitive side, but drowning your fellow swimmers in the slow lane seems to go beyond the pale. Feeling the power swimmer had violated some common code of water life--whereby all swimmers respect solitude and insularity--I felt frightened that day, unable to regain my meditative rhythm, and got out of the pool at the far end of my lane. I like to tell this story to the lifeguards at the downtown pool. That way, I figure they'll remember me and look out for me in case anyone else tries to overpower me in the slow lane. But no one ever has and my pool-life serenity has only that one blemish.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Humans, as social creatures living in community, shape the lives of those around them. I know that in principle I've influenced the lives of people around me, loved ones and strangers alike. But it's hard to see that influence, and it's a rare event when any one of these people has actually confirmed or described to me the impressions I've made on them. If they've done so, it's usually been under unusual circumstances or in a moment of emotional fervor. I view these confirmations of human impact on other lives as a sort of footprint, proving that we have passed this way and have left certain recognizable signs in our wake.

Just this weekend, my young neighbor friend Gracie, who's almost nine, unwittingly showed me one of my footprints. SJG and I had invited Gracie, her mother and father, Gay and Peter, and her little sister, Bronte, to our house for a rib feast to celebrate Gay's birthday. We prepared the ribs the two-day way, marinating them overnight in spices, grilling them briefly the next afternoon, and finishing them in a two-hour steam bath in the oven. To please Gracie and Bronte's palate, we also made our favorite macaroni and cheese recipe; cole slaw rounded out the meal. We left the choice of dessert to Gay, and she opted for chocolate mousse. I made the mousse well in advance, to give it time to chill and set in individual glasses, with plans to serve each glass with a dollop of whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

After we'd finished the main meal, I called Gracie into the kitchen. "I need your help with the whipped cream for the mousse," I told her conspiratorially. She raced into the kitchen after me, and I handed her an old-fashioned set of beaters, the kind that you turn by hand. They fit neatly into a cylindrical ceramic container and work perfectly to beat small amounts of whipping cream and egg whites.

Gracie looked puzzled. "What are we going to do with these?" she asked.

"We'll beat the whipping cream with them and put a little spoonful on top of each person's mousse," I explained as I pointed to the small glasses of mousse in the refrigerator.

"Oh," Gracie replied. "I thought we were going to squirt the cream out of a can!"

"Nope," I replied. "We're doing the real thing." I poured the whipping cream into the ceramic container, placed the beaters on top, and told Gracie to start turning. "You can switch hands if you get tired," I explained.

Gracie dutifully began to crank the beaters, and within seconds wondered if her work was done. I showed her how to lift the beaters to check the consistency of the cream, and she went back to her work, checking frequently and switching hands as her eight-year-old arms tired. In due time, she exclaimed, "I think it must be done. It's getting really hard to turn this thing."

And indeed the cream was ready to spoon onto the mousse, after which Gracie sprinkled each one with chocolate shavings. She carefully placed the glasses of mousse onto a serving tray, carried it with great delicacy into the dining room, and placed it before her mother. "Mom, I beat the cream!" she cried with girlish pride. In a flash, I saw my footprint, saw through Gracie's excitement and pride that I had offered her a way to use her human powers to transform something ordinary into loveliness.