Tuesday, October 22, 2013


This is the year I simultaneously embraced frugality and middle-aged pastimes: I planted a vegetable garden. Also numerous pots of flowers, but 'tis the tale of the vegetable garden that I wish to tell.

Our rental house is on a bit of an incline and has a couple of terraces: one adjacent to the bedroom and one by the living room. I planted my tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, herbs and eggplant in pots on the bedroom balcony, a full story above the backyard where anything you put in gets instantly devoured  by deer.  With a second story deck-top garden  I could avoid both the deer issue and the slug situation.

I was a dedicated plant mother. Every day, I threaded the hose through the bathroom window across the bedroom to the balcony so I could water everybody. I praised my babies for their progress and fed them organic fertilizer once a month. First thing in the morning, before even visiting the bathroom,  I would jump out of bed and visit the vegetables to see how much they had grown overnight.

It was  fun while it lasted. I tossed lettuce from the garden with home-grown tarragon and chives, and dry-rubbed chickens with fresh-picked thyme and rosemary. My plants were exploding with teeny tomatoes, prickly purple eggplant blossoms, mini green peppers and wee jalapeƱos. I don't think we bought lettuce in three months. I felt like Mother Nature incarnate. Or maybe Martha Stewart. (Okay, not Martha. She has a clean house. And servants.)

Then I started noticing gashes in the ripening fruit. Squirrels? Birds? Raccoons? When I consulted my gardening friends on Facebook, the locals suggested roof rats, nasty little creatures that carry bubonic plague. Not to be confused with the VW beetle-sized Norwegian rats I used to encounter on the streets of DC, roof rats are a different species. (Like it matters. A rat is a rat is a god damned rat. Why else would the scientists have named the thing rattus rattus?)

Roof rats came to our shores as stowaways on tall ships and have been scampering around the California underbrush ever since. They may not be natives, but they've made themselves at home. The critters like to nest in high places. They gallop across roofs, break in to attics, and set up camp in trees. The English Ivy on the side of our house has leaves as big as saucers and climbs all the way to the roof. A veritable stairway to heaven for rattus rattus. (In its own way, English Ivy is a pest too - it  pulls the mortar out of bricks, destroys paint jobs, takes over gardens and creates a perfect breeding ground for rattus rattus. In Oregon, you can buy a joint at your local dispensary, but it is illegal to purchase or plant English Ivy, standard ground cover in the Oakland Hills).

I was still pondering the rat hypothesis the night I had my first sighting.  I turned on the outdoor light to inspect my plants and stepped out onto the balcony, startling the ugly beige rat noshing on my tomatoes. I screamed, leaped back inside, slammed the door shut, screamed some more and jumped up and down maybe six times. Standard female rat-spotting behavior.

The next day, I moved all the plants from the bedroom balcony to the one in the living room. I hoped this would be a safety zone as there were no trees or ivy to worry about. It was a haul. The tomato plants were busting through their 6 foot cages like B movie Giant Octopi. I trailed dirt across the house, earning myself a trip to the chiropractor in the process. But it was worth it. My plants recovered peacefully from their trauma, at least for a few days. Then I trotted out for morning inspection and discovered the Great Red Hope of the slow-growing beefsteaks, gnawed to a nub.

I asked around for advice. One friend said to sprinkle red pepper around the base of the plants. I did, and woke to 6 slashed, half eaten habanero peppers, their sticky little seeds strewn all over the deck. I was starting to feel like Bill Murray in Caddyshack.

I googled ways to protect the fruit. The one I went with involved cutting up four runny pairs of stockings  and making little wraps for the tomatoes.Trussed and dressed in see-through black, my poor tomatoes looked like the chorus line from Chicago. For a couple of days, the rats were put off, or confused, or maybe too busy filing their teeth in preparation for the final onslaught. Next thing I knew, they were baaaaaack and eating through the nylons.  So I hired someone to take down the ivy and cut away any branches close to the balcony, and that worked too, until the morning I found a fat red tomato on the deck, gored like a fallen matador.

The crisis escalated. We bought glue traps.  I felt guilty, thinking about those poor creatures trying to pull free. I made my husband swear he would deal with any rodents we caught. (Thank God for traditional sex roles. I once asked a lesbian friend how she and her partner negotiate rat-trapping, spider-squashing and the like. Her answer? "We fight.") Anyway, I arranged some apple chunks around the traps and went to bed. The next day, the bait was gone and the traps, unoccupied. Apparently, the fruit was only an appetizer because I discovered two eviscerated tomatoes in one of the pots. That night, it rained, and the traps got too wet to salvage. I put them in the garbage.

So I threw in the proverbial towel. (The word "proverbial" is a writer's cheap device to let you know I realize I'm using a cliche). Following the advice of my informal gardening advisory, I harvested anything bigger and less green than a pea. Then, I took down the plants. I stuck the tomatoes and peppers in a paper bag with a banana peel to hasten the ripening process. The cherry tomatoes, delicious when vine-ripened, turned out tasteless when bagged, but the other varieties are sweet with a concentrated tomato taste – probably perfect for making sauce.

The day after I bagged the harvest and tossed out my plants, I found this handout in my mailbox. A day late and a bushel of tomatoes short. Oh well. Next year, I'll try again. It's Fall anyway. Maybe I'll go buy a pumpkin... Do rats eat pumpkins?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On Beauty and Ugliness

This was originally going to be a post about World's Ugliest Dog Contest at the Petaluma County Fair. It was a fun time. Just the right size fair on a perfect Spring day. Cerulean skies, funnel cake with strawberries, young parents pushing strollers and strapping wee ones in for the kiddy rides. Barns full of prize cows, horses, sheep, pigs, chickens and goats.  Of course the ugly dog contest was a hoot. There were some truly hideous canines, most of them hairless Chinese cresteds. These poor pups are bred to encourage the genetic defects that cause their strange appearance. (Why Gomez and Morticia Addams did not have one is beyond me).

The unfortunate critters  are hairless, brittle boned, weak toothed and subject to vision loss. Here's a foxy one. Kind of the My Little Pony of Chinese Cresteds.

And here is a sad, tragic, inbred Chinese crested. Now, that is one fearsome shade of ugly. Somewhere between Yoda and a shrunken head.

Indeed, the breed has a  history of winning the ugly dog contest, as you can see if you click on this link. Don't know whether the trophy is compensation enough for tooth loss, drooping tongue, osteoporosis, blindness, skin cancer and other fun side effects of being a Chinese Crested. Anyway, this year,  despite the many gnarly looking Cresteds in the competition, a mutt broke the ugly lock: This guy.

Walle, the Hunchback of Notre Dog. Yes, he's a healthy weight, but his bones look like they're too big for his skin, as though he were about to molt. Walle doesn't walk, he waddles on stunted legs and huge duck feet. He has a camel hump and a couple of bumps on his face. Still, it's a nice, noble, trusty canine face. When Walle, who has to sit on his butt to beg, looks up at you with those gentle eyes, you can't help but like him.

Three expert judges, including adult Timmy from Lassie, had 50% of the vote. The other 50% was up to the audience, and tallied based on the amount of clapping and cheering for each dog. I was yelling my head off for Walle, which offended my husband's sense of fair play. "Don't cheer for him, he's not ugly," he complained.

That's right, he's not. People just loved Walle because he is a dignified, handsome kind of homely. Truth is, they picked the least ugly dog.

Now I am going to be Debby Downer, and talk about this:

Ain't he purty. Don't he look like the boy next door. From the second photo (first one was from the profile and accented his large nose), people started speculating. Must have been his evil brother's fault. Poor boy, his father in another land, led astray by his religious fanatic, bitter older sibling. We really wanted that to be the scenario. Look at his tousled hair. Look at his girlish complexion. Just a touch of the exotic, not enough to register as a foreigner.  He's on the cover of Rolling Stone. If you didn't know better, he could be the next big thing, casually styled, innocent yet knowing. (Probably unwashed).  People wanted to come up with an excuse for him. Why? Because of his beauty. Rolling Stone demonstrated bad taste, sure, but we, and our zeit-geist snorting media, set ourselves up for this.

OK, Debbie Downer again. Are you bummed out yet? Yes, we're a long way from ugly dogs and it gets worse. Through social media, I recently became aware of the organization Stop Acid Attacks. Acid attacks are a life-destroying phenomenon in India. It can happen because a young woman turns down a marriage proposal, or a wife gets too darn uppity, or a daughter-in-law with an insufficient dowry doesn't excel at housework. In addition to running a shelter for the invariably female victims, Stop Acid Attacks is trying to raise awareness, and change India's laws to put this vicious crime in a special category, to be punished by life imprisonment. The women that have come together to form the organization look like this:

The men who burned them thought beauty was their only value. Yet not only are these women smiling through their scar tissue, they emanate genuine kindness and hope. In a profoundly human way, they are beautiful. 

Now, I'm not corny and I don't intend to speechify about inner beauty and gloss over horrible crimes.  I just think we need to be aware of the pull beauty has on us. It can prejudice us for or against people. It can ruin relationships. It can set an impossible standard. It can make us covetous and greedy. Or it can inspire. Uplift. Serve as a quiet reward for a stressful day. 

Looks can be deceiving if one wants to be deceived. As my dependably offensive late father-in-law used to say about female employees, "It's just as easy to hire a good looking one." How many men would hire the single babe over the single mom with three kids? How many women would make a point of NOT hiring the hottie, even if she's obviously qualified?  Why do we look at the doe eyed Boston Bomber boy and think "there must be an explanation" while dispensing no such empathy to the orange haired, bug-eyed Aurora movie theater shooter? Why do parents pay less attention to homely children? Why do good looking people earn more money?

Beauty is all around us. It is a comfort and a pleasure that enriches our days. But we should never let it stop us from seeing.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Proustian Plumber

The garbage disposal goes out at least once a month, filling the sink with vegetable fragments and microbial soup. Our rental has a decent view of the San Francisco bay, but the toilets are lousy, and the finicky disposal goes on strike when things like dimes and champagne wire get stuck in its gullet. Sometimes, my husband manages to fix it, but this time, we had to call the plumber.

He showed up at 9 a.m. as promised, Miguel, a short, trim El Salvadoran in his early thirties with a smile that challenged the morning fog. He got right down to work while I started a pot of coffee.  French Roast, fresh ground. A rich java aroma permeated the room.  I offered him a cup – black, three spoons of sugar. 
“The smell of this coffee," the plumber said, "it reminds me of my grandmother’s house, in El Salvador.”  I took a sip of my coffee and leaned back against the kitchen counter. I sensed a story coming on.

Miguel put down his wrench and picked up his cup. He looked just past me, and I could feel the landscape of his childhood materialize around us. The coffee plantation in El Salvador where he was born, he explained, is the most beautiful place on Earth. He should know, he grew up there. His parents used to work the fields for the plantation owner.  Some members of Miguel's extended family still tend those same fields. The rows of coffee plants stretch all the way to the foot of the mountain and when they flower, their small white blooms dust the tropical landscape like a miraculous snowfall. The earth is rich and the people are poor, but they live in the protective shadow of an extinct volcano and wake to bird song and balmy weather.

"My grandmother, she would make us coffee with sugar and ground corn. Thick, like oatmeal. You eat it with a spoon. The smell would wake us up in the morning. "

Despite his caffeinated diet, Miguel grew, and his father watched him closely. Several of the boy's friends drifted into gangs. MS13 is a strong draw for teenagers whose only prospects are field work.  Four childhood playmates hardened into criminals and met violent, early deaths. Miguel's father moved the family to El Norte, specifically, San Francisco. There, Miguel and his siblings managed to stay out of trouble. It's been twenty years since they last saw their grandmother.

Long grown, with two kids and a wife, Miguel is glad to be making a decent living and living an honest life. He loves Northern California and takes his children fishing in the San Francisco Bay. Still, the bracing smell of strong coffee caused an aftershock of longing. His memories flowed freely, like water down my newly unclogged drain.

"My kids, they are Americans. They work hard in school. I work hard for them. But some day, I am going to retire in El Salvador. I'll buy some land in the valley where I'm from. My kids can come visit."