Monday, March 30, 2009


This year I've got it bad: a virulent spring fever for planting seeds and gardening in general. I spent most of the weekend in the yard. It was time to use up seeds I'd stashed in the fridge, even those oddball exotic seeds from China (they have a climate much like ours here on the Gulf coast). Also, I bought a few more packets of seeds: two kinds of squash, zinnias, marigolds and green beans.

From the picked-over looks of the seed displays at Lowe's, plenty of other people had the same idea. After all, our First Lady Michelle Obama recently began a kitchen garden on the White House lawn. And on NPR's Splendid Table ("the show about life's appetites") this weekend (my favorite podcast subscription), I heard Lynne Rossetto Kasper commenting on growing lettuce or herbs as a way of economizing. I've always loved growing edibles. The yard is now crammed with small raised beds and containers of herbs and vegetables. The tomato plants I put in four weeks ago are blooming nicely, but I meant to get in a few more varieties and now the space is gone, used for peppers, basil and squash. I have not gone so far as to do away with the lawn entirely; psychologically I need that open green expanse. But I do feel frustrated by a lack of space for more edibles. Corn, for instance! That would be fun, but requires serious acreage.

As I planted a few oriental "yard long" bean seeds along the chain fence between us and a neighbor, an area I'd never tried using before (there may not be enough sun), I had a brainstorm. Our neighbor does not use his yard much except to give his dogs a place to run. He's got plenty of sunny open land, however weedy. Perhaps he would let me sharecrop! And then I had to laugh at myself, getting so carried away with spring fever. Probably the better answer would be to get involved with Urban Harvest. They have some large, wonderful garden plots around town.

Every spring, my gardening hopes get up and do their eternal dance. Then when it gets really, really hot at the start of the very long summer season here, I look back in consternation at my spring delusions. Especially when there isn't enough rain, you end up with a large water bill and some very expensive homegrown vegetables. But I wouldn't trade this spring frenzy for anything. If you've got any kind of green thumb, it's just too much fun not to try making new things grow. I often feel like I have a bunch of science experiments going on, especially growing things from seed. Half the time nothing much comes of it, but it's still fun.

This year may be different; for one thing, I'll have more time. I am retiring from the library in May. One of the the things I love about gardening is how it takes me off the clock. I get so involved, the hours just melt away. There is always something to do, and the necessary actions feel intuitive. Not a lot of brain work is necessary. And oh, how the the body, spirit and soul engage! A friend at church who has been "retired" for two years uses a different word than "retirement". She recommends "re-engagement" instead, which sounds great to me. One of the things I will be amping up my engagement with is gardening. Maybe I'll finally get the hang of this gardening-in-the-Gulf-Coast thing!

Spring comes: the flowers learn their colored shapes.
- Maria Konopnicka (1842 - 1910), Polish poet

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Coney, Coney, Coney!

Coney Island has always been a fascination of mine. My mother grew up in Brooklyn, and her mother loved to ride the roller coaster at Coney. Mom was so young, she didn't really enjoy it, but she got dragged onto the roller coaster many times, and even remembers almost falling out under the seating bar once. This would have been in the 1920s. But Coney Island was to her a magical place where the whole world went to jump into the Atlantic Ocean and generally make merry.

The postcard above shows Luna Park at night circa 1906. I love old postcards with messages like this one: "Dear Friend, I am enjoying myself at Coney to-day." New Yorkers often call it just "Coney", not Coney Island. On a future trip to New York, my husband and I hope to make a pilgrimage out there. He remembers going to Coney many times as a child. I think I went once or twice, but I was so young, the memory is hazy. We more often visited relatives in Flatbush. Yet my heart yearns for Coney. I guess it is the amusement park archetype of my psyche. What poetry there is in its nomenclature: Dreamland, Luna Park, Surf Avenue. I'd like to ride the Wonder Wheel there, the landmark ferris wheel that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Clara Bow tours Coney Island in a silent film, It, released in 1927. I'd love to see the film. True Coney hot dogs are spicy, and are also known as "white hots. In fact, some say hot dogs were born at Coney Island. The meaning of the word, coney, is much debated but the most popular derivation relates it to rabbits. Old French for rabbit was conil, and in Latin, cuniculus. They also say that Coney Island was once overridden with rabbits. Coney Island has had it own museum since 1980; admission is only 99 cents! Ten Speed Press published Coney Island: Lost and Found by Charles Denson in 2002. It gets rave reviews on Amazon (all 16 customer reviews give the book 5 stars), so I just had to add it to my wish list. As for Ferlinghetti's most famous book of poems created for jazz accompaniment, A Coney Island of the Mind, in the book's preface he explains his choice of title: that it was taken from Henry Miller's Into the Night Life; expressing the way Ferlinghetti felt about the poems when he wrote them, "as if they were, taken together, a kind of Coney Island of the mind, a circus of the soul."

photo: Luna Park postcard, from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, a great source for historic photos.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Reading The Daily Coyote

I recently spent a few days in the wilds of Wyoming with an orphaned and adopted coyote named Charlie. How so? Reading The Daily Coyote: A Story of Love, Survuval, and Trust in the Wilds of Wyoming by Shreve Stockton. She also writes a blog of the same name. Stockton was a city girl who took a road trip on her Vespa and quite spontaneously fell into love with the wide open spaces of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. When her boyfriend, a government trapper, brings her a baby coyote, before long she and the pup are bonded for life. Gifted at writing and photography, Shreve began emailing friends and family photos of her adopted coyote. This practice grew into a photos by subscription service which helped the author support herself, and eventually she was offered a book contract. She also taught school and did ranch work, living rough in a small 12' x 12' cabin. So the book is as much about her new lifestyle as it is the coyote.

Quite often Ms. Stockton has to turn off the Comments capability on her blog, because of the snark factor. So many visitors want to pass judgement on her adoption of a wild animal. I have sympathy for her because of that. The situation is what it is; Charlie is neither wild nor completely domesticated. Because she took immediate care of him, gave him flea treatment, bottle-fed him goat's milk, and gave him a home in the world, Charlie survived. It took some time, but he became pals with Eli, the author's cat. Charlie's habitat is a large rural area enclosed with an tall electric fence. Shreve also takes him for lots of long hikes.

Most of us are lucky if we get to know a few cats and dogs during our lifetimes. Right now I have one beloved polydactyl cat, Bowie. My sister-in-law keeps two miniature horses which I adore. Years ago, when I lived in upstate New York, I had an Alpine goat and kept rabbits. Big city life doesn't allow me these indulgences. Just a few days ago, we went to the Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show and much enjoyed seeing various farm animals.

In the case of coyote, I'm sure very few people have lived this close to one. So I was absolutely fascinated by this book. Getting to know playful, intelligent Charlie is a privilege. The author's photographs give me chills (or maybe its thrills); it's just like being there right next to this gorgeous animal. Shreve Stockton writes of their bond with candor and much soul searching. It isn't all hugs, licks and tail waggings. She had to learn how to be the alpha animal in their pack of two. On her website, she speaks of Charlie as her co-pilot. Her dedication to doing the right thing for the animal is humbling. I think we humans have much to learn from the animal world. See!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life

I've never met Kathy L. Patrick, also known as "Queen Kathy". But I feel like I know her after reading her fabulous memoir, a bibliomaniac's dream: The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life. Ms. Patrick originally hails from Kansas, but has become a well known Texan due not only to her beauty-salon-cum-bookstore in historic Jefferson, Texas called Beauty and the Book, but also because of her popular book clubs. Let's see if I can get them all listed correctly. Biggest bunch: hundreds of chapters of the Pulpwood Queens all over the country (tiara mandatory). Also for the younger generations: the Splinters. And for men: the Timber Guys. (For any non-Texans reading, Jefferson is in east Texas, near the pulpwood industry; pulp gets turned into paper and then into books.)

Queen Kathy must have a secret twin, for she seems to be everywhere at once, now as author, and also as a speaker at countless book and literacy functions. What an extrovert! I wonder how she finds time to read, as well as raise a family. She also blogs a lot and organizes massive annual Girlfriends' Weekends in Jefferson where book club members get to meet and greet their favorite authors, whip up fantastic hairdos and dress outrageously with lots of bling and color. Formerly a book publisher's rep, Queen Kathy got to know many authors and independent bookstore owners. Also possessing a background in hair styling, it was a major epiphany when in 2000, she decided to integrate beauty and books into her own small business.

With the publication of this guide, Kathy Patrick makes her life an open book. She tells her story of how books saved her and why she is on a mission to get the world reading. Every chapter in her life is sprinkled with quotations and appended with annotated (the mark of a real bookwoman or librarian) reading lists. Among her favorite authors are Patrick Conroy, Harper Lee, Willie Morris, Rebecca Wells, Rick Bragg and Kaye Gibbons. Yes, she's very into southern authors. Bonus content: the Pulpwood Queens ' Favorite recipes. Her down home style and bubbling-over love of books is infectious. Try it. Y'all will like it!

The Tenth Annual Girlfriend's Weekend is planned for January 11 - 17, 2010 (expanded to a week's length). The theme is "Over the Rainbow", and already Queen Kathy has announced that author Elizabeth Berg will grace the gathering with her presence. One of the seniors in the library's book discussion group is seriously considering going and has begun shopping for her tiara. Who knows, we may have a new chapter of the Pulpwood Queens coming to our neighborhood. How about the rest of y'all?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Twice-read Tales

I had a week off and spent some of it rereading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, because we will be discussing it at the library's Book Discussion Group this week. (I blogged about this book in August of 2008.) Sometimes having to reread a book is one of the down sides of being a book group facilitator. But more often than not, the second read turns up all sorts of things you find yourself taking in on a new level or with a new eye. In Guernsey..., for me, besides absolutely adoring the main character Juliet Ashton and her island pen pals who later become what we might call her "tribe", I realized how much historical detail about World War II I was absorbing, much of it the Nazi atrocities, some of it simply how the war affected the lives of ordinary people in London and on the Channel Islands. Although I was delighted when one of the book group members suggested this title, I admit I sort of moped around about having to ignore newer books and reread this one. Yet within moments of opening it up, I was swept away again by its charm and uniqueness.

I got to thinking about other books I've read more than once. Perhaps this habit started when I was young. Among the books I recall reading over and over are: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and Cress Delahanty by Jessamyn West. All of these beloved books helped to show me what it was like for other young women growing up. I identified with Jo in Little Women because she was so bookish. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn resonated because my mother grew up in Brooklyn, and I had relatives there. To be honest, I don't really remember what it was about Cress Delahanty that delighted me, other than her name. Perhaps I need to read it again. At one time I remember I owned it in hardback and had much pride in ownership. Most of the hardbacks I owned were bought at the local public library book sales. I was a loyal book shopper at such sales, having saved up my allowance and babysitting money so I could really stock up on bargains. The wealth of books that could be acquired that way astounded me.

When I moved to Houston after graduate school, I reread the Larry McMurtry books that were set here: Moving On, Terms of Endearment, etc. Once I lived in Houston, I wanted to see if his descriptions rang true. They did. I also reread Leaving Cheyenne (his second book, set in the Texas Panhandle, published in 1963) several times and I'd like to read it yet again some day. It is the classic story of a love triangle, suffused with innocence and regret.

I look forward to rereading Anne Tyler, one of my all-time favorite American writers. Also on the reread list: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I went through a stage in high school where I read all of Buck's novels I could find. Some of the magical realists call me back, especially Eva Luna and/or The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende and One Thousand Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I've read The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow more than once, and still might again. I am thinking of it since I just recommended it to a customer today. It is the tale of a poverty-stricken Kentucky woman whittler who is uprooted and forced to move to Detroit during World War II.

Occasionally, I reread a book and don't find it as spellbinding as I once did (those titles shall go unnamed). I really do not have the desire to reread most books. Life is too short. "So many books, so little time", as the librarians' t-shirt slogan goes. Perhaps the desire to reread is the ultimate compliment for an author. Don't "classics" become so because people want to keep reading and recommending them? If I had more time, I would create an even longer list of books to reread. But I'll save that task for retirement, a word that is beginning to seem not so foreign to my lips.

One more for the list: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee That title will be the Big Read @ HCPL and other local libraries this Spring. I look forward to reading it again, supplemented by the recent biography of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shield, Mockingbird. Join us at the West University Senior Services Building (6104 Auden St. , Houston, TX 77005) on May 13 @ 11 AM to discuss the biography of this much loved author.