Monday, September 30, 2013

Deer watch

The deer-hunting season has officially opened. For the past several weeks, I have been hearing shots in the distance, which most likely are coming from hunters practicing with targets. I have imposed a "not in my backyard" hunting and slaughter rule, meaning that even if I respect the traditions of hunting for food and am a consumer of meat myself, I don't want the carnage occurring in an area where I'll have to see it.

Hunters or not, the deer have been more and more active as fall approaches. Which means we are testing the strength of the solar fence that surrounds our gardens regularly.

About ten days ago, a fawn and a doe began visiting our neighbor Tom's yard every evening. Fruit growers have been telling us that the weather this year has been especially good for apples, and our neighbor's crab apple tree is prime evidence of that. The deer have been grazing on the fallen fruit in his yard, which doesn't bother Tom in the least since he doesn't care for the fruit. We're also glad to see the deer in his yard but keep worrying that they'll start to meander over to ours.

As a result, a new morning ritual has begun. My husband Jim and I go into the gardens first thing each day, heading first for the shell beans that the deer decimated last year. We then give the brussels sprouts, collards, kale, bok choy, and Swiss chard a quick look before heading to the outer side of the fence to search for hoof prints. So far, so good. Jim swears that he sees deer tracks, and was convinced that a bit of animal scat right up against the fence near the beans belonged to the fawn, though it was so tiny that I thought it might have come from a rabbit. Still, we can't help worrying how long our luck will hold out.

We were a bit late getting the shell beans in the ground this year. The rule of thumb is to plant beans after June 1, but the shell beans -- black turtle beans, white beans, and red beans -- ideally should dry in their pods on the vine, which takes up to 105 days from germination. That long wait wouldn't be an issue if beans also were not sensitive to frost and, of course, if the deer were not present.

We have had three light frosts since September 16, but the weather forecast for the next two weeks shows highs in the 70s, lots of sunshine, and overnight lows in the 40s. Perfect weather for beans to slowly mature and dry in their pods. I have read that you can cut the bean vines if it becomes unusually rainy or if you have a hard frost (which generally occurs when the nighttime temperatures get down into the low twenties and teens) and that the pods will continue to ripen on the cut vines. I have thought about taking this step simply because I also am worrying that our luck will run out with the deer. But this morning I did a little bit of date-counting, and figured that if the vines could last ten more days, the time between October 10 and 12 would be optimal for harvesting. So we're watching and waiting.

The solar fence, by the way, is effective. It is not painful, but it does generate a current that will shock you if you brush up against the wires. I had a nerve test done on my wrists and arms about two and a half months ago, in which an electric current caused me to jump. It didn't hurt, but it is a feeling that I won't forget easily. The solar fence works in a similar fashion.

I am glad that we had a good amount of rain this year because it does mean that not only are the wild apples growing but so are a plethora of wild sources of plant protein. Those fruits and vegetables provide a veritable feast for deer and other herbivores that I can't help believing are more healthful and nourishing for wild animals than domestically raised crops. One of the joys of living in a rural area, after all, is communing with wildlife, and this summer I've seen numerous deer, turkeys, rabbits, and badgers while running and driving. I hear owls hooting at night, and occasionally the howl of coyotes. These sounds relax me and help me feel close to nature. They make me feel hopeful that our human tendencies to settle on land that technically belongs first to the animals and to cultivate soil can find a happy balance with the wildlife around us. For that reason, as deer hunting season gets under way, my "not in my back yard" policy goes into full force.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Glorious garlic

The fall equinox occurred yesterday at 4:44 p.m. in my time zone, according to the Time and website. I was relaxing in the Saratoga Springs YMCA hot tub as the sun shined directly on the equator, savoring the successful finish of a marathon.

This morning, fall cleaning began and with it, the bringing in of the fall harvest. My husband Jim and I began the day with a walk through the gardens, gathering heaps of still-ripening Brandywine and New Girl tomatoes, and winter squash. We also walked the perimeter of the solar fence, checking for deer prints. A couple of the innocent-eyed garden raiders were spotted Saturday night in our neighbor Tom's back yard, grazing on the fallen crab apples. Jim spent the night worrying that the solar fence wouldn't hurt, but so far, the deer seem to be sensing the presence of a fence and steering clear.

In the afternoon, when my marathon-recovering legs couldn't really take much more movement, I sat down on the deck with our huge tub of cured garlic heads, and began snipping stalks, preparing to store the heads for winter. We harvested the garlic in late July, and have been enjoying it fresh from the stalk since then as it dried out slowly in the barn. Jim has been helping himself to the stash liberally as he's cooked up and canned jars and jars of salsa, tomato sauce, and paste. And about a week ago, I added about a dozen bulbs to the stash of sixty or so that I had set aside for next year's crop. Even so, we still had plenty. By the time I was finished, the bulbs had filled two shoeboxes, a five-inch diameter planter, and two of the quart-size green felt paper boxes typically used for selling fruits.

As I snipped, I found myself pulling out some of the smaller heads, figuring that we could dry them to make garlic powder. I also discovered that some flowers that had formed on the garlic scapes in early summer hadn't been snipped off in time, and had dried on the stalks. I picked up one of the flowers in my hand and to my surprise, a couple hundred tiny seeds -- each just slightly larger than a grain of arborio rice -- fell out as I crumpled the flower in my hand. I had saved another quart-load of flowers from the scape-snipping and decided to see if they had dried, as well.

By the time I was done, I had filled half a sixteen ounce Ball jar with these little garlic seeds.

I popped a couple in my mouth. They tasted like small shots of garlic -- strong, savory, and pungent. I began to wonder what it might be like to cook with these little granules, and how they would do if I planted them, as well.

Some work with the Internet and a brief e-mail consultation with my former Seattle Times colleague and longtime farming friend Ivan suggested that growing garlic from these seeds was possible but not often done. Using the seeds -- which are known as bulbis -- also was possible but not often done.
All these additional possibilities surrounding garlic started to make my heart pump with excitement. I will give them a try!

Garlic grows fairly easily from cloves. Most people who live in areas with colder winters plant the garlic in the fall -- the last week of October is our target date, weather permitting -- after everything else has been harvested and put away for the winter. I've heard that it's possible to plant garlic in the spring, if cloves are kept in the freezer for a spell. The cloves go dormant in frozen soil, and after the snow melts, the green shoots are typically one of the first appearances of spring.

It's possible to harvest what's called green garlic in the late spring. These plants are typically eaten stalk and all, and are stronger than even the strongest bulbs. Scapes form in June and July, and should be cut off so that the plant directs its growing energy into the bulb beneath the soil. When the stalks begin to wither, you know it's time for the first garlic harvests. The first bulbs pulled from soil have a strong, heavenly flavor ... too much for eating raw, unless you're really a person who likes strong flavors, but delicious roasted or lightly sauteed.

The difficulty with the bulbis, from what I understand, is that they take much longer to grow. My friend Ivan recommended planting them in a seed tray and eating the sprouts, which sounds quite appealing, and Ted Jordan, a dedicated seed saver who has apparently written the best book on garlic growing available, outlines an intricate method of propagating garlic from seed at the following site: He advocates the start of true-seed garlic as a way of saving species and ensuring long-term planetary sustainability. While I support the goal, much of the method is beyond my comprehension.

Other gardening web sites suggest planting the bulbis as you would cloves. Cut the scapes when they form and then save what are called "rounds" (and look to be either clusters of small cloves or single cloves) for another round of planting in the fall. Like asparagus, garlic grown in this way is slower to yield results but considerably outpaces clove-grown garlic over time. The logic behind this approach is fairly obvious: one garlic bulb produces about four to eight cloves, each of which will produce a new bulb if planted and cared for properly. One flower, however, produces hundreds of bulbis, each of which will initially yield a clove and ultimately a bulb. So from one plant comes ultimately a couple hundred more.

The logic seems to work perfectly for crops like garlic, which one can never plant too much of.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Counting beans

The forecasted frost materialized. We woke up Tuesday morning to find our garden glistening in the sun. But a bright sun and clear skies soon warmed up the home, and after my husband Jim and I fueled ourselves with coffee and a warm breakfast, we headed out to the garden the survey the results.

There was virtually no damage. The basil plants did look limp and weak, which made me doubly glad that I cut them back the night before and that Jim -- unlike I, who crashed on the sofa around 11 p.m. -- was willing to stay up past midnight (after the salsa canning was complete) to turn the basil leaves into pesto. But by mid-morning tomatoes, beans, eggplants, and summer squash were still ripening on the vines, and the kale, collard greens, swiss chard, and baby bok choy that we've been eating for the past several nights did indeed seem crisper and sweeter as a result of the frost.

Another frost was expected that night so I decided that it was time to harvest the rest of our fresh beans. Some Internet research suggested that beans don't tolerate frosts well, and that whatever was still on the plants probably would be lost for the year. A quick survey and taste test, however, showed that the two kinds of fresh beans and the "shelling bean" that we had planted were still crisp and fresh. I decided to clip all the vines, and sort the beans into those that could be eaten fresh or frozen, and those that could be dried or salvaged for seeds for next year.
We had planted one seed packet of Provider green beans, Royal Burgundy purple beans, and a shelling bean known as Tongue of Fire. For the uninitiated, which included me until I recognized the Tongue of Fire pods as similar to the dry pods that I had picked up from local farmers last fall, shelling beans are a variety of bean with exceptionally large seeds. You can eat the seeds either fresh, semi-dry as "soup beans" or dry them for use in chilis or stews through the winter.)

It took me a good two hours to clip the bean vines, and I discovered in the process that the Tongue of Fire beans were still ripening on the vine. I clipped some but left many in the fields, figuring that the beans inside the pods would be just as good dry as they were fresh. The vines filled a large plastic bin as well as two laundry baskets and a wooden crate. It took me two additional stints stretched over two extra days to clip off the beans and bean pods from the vines, and sort them into categories of "eat or freeze" and "use as dry beans or seed". I was delighted to discover that the beans that still looked good enough to eat or freeze could fill one of the vegetable crisper bins in my refrigerator.

The abundance of beans feels like a lesson in life, delineating perhaps the hard-to-grasp difference between scarcity consciousness and abundance. I've been trying to understand which is which for several years, as I've struggled through times of feeling generous and feeling miserly, of trying to practice unconditional giving but ending up feeling somewhat used, and of trying to make sense of the discomfort I feel when an artist or writer tells me that I need to be supporting the arts by buying their work even if I don't really feel like buying (or feel like I can afford) their work. The dilemmas have put me in many awkward positions that I'm not sure I've been able to resolve, as yet.

The beans offer a way of understanding scarcity and abundance in different ways.

Last year, our fresh beans grew thick and fast on the vines. We couldn't eat them fast enough, or pick them in a way that would encourage the bean vines to produce even more. We also didn't understand that fresh beans don't always dry well, and we didn't think that we liked fresh beans enough to want to capture their flavor in freezer bags for use through the winter. Our sights were set on the drying beans that we also were growing -- the black turtle beans, the Vermont red cranberry beans, and the red kidney beans.

Just as those dry beans began to mature, deer discovered them. They stormed through the protective netting we had set up around them and munched to their hearts' content. Since we had not shown a whole lot of interest in the green Provider beans and purple Royal Burgundy beans that we also were growing, the deer devoured them, too. After the damage was done, I salvaged whatever I could. And, in the process I discovered that the Royal Burgundy beans that didn't seem to have a whole lot of flavor fresh off the vine improved markedly after being chilled in the refrigerator for a few days. I also discovered that they last in freezer bags and in refrigerator bins fresh for several weeks, and have almost as much plant-based protein content as their dry-bean compatriots.

I promised myself last fall that I would treat the fresh beans with the same respect I normally give drying beans.

Through the summer, we watched all of the bean plants carefully. As the harvest time neared, we picked and enjoyed beans fresh off the vine, and packaged a good number in freezer bags. The purple beans were planted a couple of weeks after the green beans, and were just on the peak of maturity when our early frost hit. Looking at them in our refrigerator bin makes me realize that even if we were to freeze enough beans for 50 meals for October through July, we still had more than we needed. As a result, I have something else I can share with the Franklin Center Community Center's food pantry and other organizations in need. Even as I am at times cash-poor, the abundance of beans makes me feel quite rich. Even as I look forward to harvesting our drying beans (and keep hoping that the solar fence we have installed around our gardens will continue to keep the deer happy munching on the apples and berries that proliferate the area), I also am relishing a winter of meals that include green and purple beans frozen fresh from our garden.

Bean counting gets a negative connotation. It signifies cheapness, a placement of value on quantity of a commodity, rather than a quality of life. But perhaps counting one's blessings through beans might change the equation somewhat, offering a first step in moving from scarcity to abundance.

Monday, September 16, 2013

First frost

The rumors began late Saturday. Weather forecasters were predicting frost in the Capitol Region of New York state, particularly in the northern regions at the higher elevations. Those who live in my part of the region often are referred to as flat landers. But our elevation is a bit higher than downtown Albany and Saratoga Springs, and starting in late August, the air around us often carries a sharp, brisk chill that makes huddling in a blanket by a smoldering outdoor fire feel particularly nice.

I was in denial about the rumors. Next week -- the recovery week following the September 22 Adirondack Marathon -- was slated as fall cleaning week. I figured that that would be the week that we would scrub the house clean, organize the crazy piles of papers, and retake control of our kitchen and mudroom for the winter. Next week would be the week to bring in the final bins of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and fresh green and purple beans. Next week would be the week to harvest squash. Next week would be the week to dig up potatoes and start figuring out the root cellar.

A crisp gust of wind that left me shivering in my cotton slacks and thin sweatshirt this afternoon convinced me otherwise.

Just a few hours earlier, I had been in the garden picking up red tomatoes for a big batch of salsa that my husband Jim planned to make that afternoon. I noticed a few brown spots on my basil leaves, and decided that tonight also would be a good night to make pesto. So I gave our basil plants a good "haircut," trimming them down to about one-third their size. Basil, like many herbs, benefits from such trimmings and will produce better if cut back from time to time.

I worked in the garden from about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., picking tomatoes, winter squash, basil, cilantro, bok choy, and a couple of big bunches of kale and collard greens to deliver to the Franklin Street Community Center's food pantry with a dozen eggs. I worked under a pleasant sun and thought about how our tomato plants could very well keep fruiting through mid-October.

Then, the chill wind came.

Driving into town, I listened to public radio. Their weather forecaster said the scary words: Frost warning. Lows near or below freezing.

"I just turned my garden over last weekend," a worker at the Franklin Community Center said. "I'm ready for the winter."

Her words -- coupled with the forecast -- sent me to the Internet, so I could gauge what kind of damage a frost might do.

Most of our crops will be fine, I learned to my relief: greens benefit from a bit of frost as do celery, peas, and brussel sprouts. Carrots, turnips, radishes, beets, leeks, shallots, potatoes, and drying beans also will be fine, as well. But you might as well kiss tomatoes, basil, peppers, eggplants, and fresh beans good-bye.

I wasn't ready to do that.

I got home with about an hour of daylight to spare. I grabbed a bin and my kitchen shears and went into the summer gardens. I clipped hundreds of peppers, picked up another pile of tomatoes, and cut all of the basil plants down to their skeletal core. I snipped off an eggplant, two stray summer squash I had noticed growing, and a couple of handfuls of beans. As I worked, I found myself remembering the first year we lived on Squashville Road and the first fall frost we endured. We had come out in a damp, drizzly twilight with garbage bags, hoping to protect our pepper, eggplant and basil plants. The effort was almost for naught. The basil turned limp and brown, its once stalwart perked up leaves clung downward to the stems. The peppers stopped growing but seemed otherwise okay. I think the eggplant might have frozen; it tasted delicious once it thawed. But it was the basil that stood out in my mind. I couldn't bear to see its leafy foliage go so limp. I was going to cut it, no matter what.

       And so, our kitchen overflows with partially red tomatoes, beans, peppers, and basil. It looks and smells like incredible abundance. Yet, I keep feeling like the season went so fast. Wasn't it just last week that we were waiting for the ground to thaw so we could plant tomatoes? Wasn't it just yesterday that I put a stevia plant into the ground, near the basil? Did we just split the lemon grass that we have kept alive for two full summers now? How could it possibly be time to bring it all indoors?

Our growing season for the sun-loving solanaceous crops was short this year: the last frost date, normally May 9, was May 31. The first frost date, normally September 30, might be tonight (September 16) if the forecasts hold. But, of course, frosts don't end the food-growing season. We still have beans to pick, root veggies to pull and store, and scores and scores of herbs to re-pot or to bring indoors.

And, garlic planting begins in about six weeks.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11 tale

They say the world changed on 9/11.
It may have changed only because we said it did.
The terror, the terrible act, the tragedy tainted the date forever.
But violence against others ... in our society,
such feelings are not new.
Yet, it seems that 9/11 is our new Friday the 13th.

Today I had an appointment with United Airlines
to fly out of Indianapolis,
with a transfer in Cleveland
before arriving in Albany.
The fares were lower on Sept. 11 and my husband insisted that I not be superstitious.
Still, it seemed odd to be flying on this day.

"Go right through," the security guards proclaimed.
"Don't remove your shoes, don't get out your laptop, just go right through."
Travelers looked confused.
"Expedited security today," the voice boomed.
In honor of the day?
A reminder of a life before?
No, a sniffing dog was on the premises.
His wet nose, soft yelps, and wagging tail had done the work of infrared, x-rays, and body pats.
"He's really good," the matronly security guard told me. "He doesn't miss a thing."
He missed my bags of spices and home-cooked meals, stuffed into ziplock bags.

En route to Albany, I got hungry.
But the bags were double-zipped.
Opening one would create a mess.
I convinced myself that I could wait.

Up in the air, the clouds parted.
Bolts of lightning split the clouds.
Rain pelted the earth below
Our plane trundled on,
rocking gently with the winds billowing above the clouds.

We landed, and the door locks froze.
Thunder and nearby lightning strikes
made it too dangerous to go outdoors.
We waited in the baggage claim for bags
gate-checked by those who refuse to pay
$25 luggage fees, another aspect of life
since 9/11.

We stopped for pizza and got home late.
At home, we found a hen had died.
She was lying on her back, moving from one world to the next,
reminding us of how her clattering clucks and chicken antics
had lent farm life a chaotic beauty.
She started life in a closed-in space,
until an unwillingness to lay eggs for sale
resulted in her being kicked outside to wildlife.
She survived foxes, fishers, and hawks
as well as a virile infection.
Life was easier on the farm,
where she had a safer run space
and a large coop where she could retreat at night.
But life is about death.
That's how it was before 9/11.
That's how it is today.
How can the world have changed?
We merely convinced ourselves it did.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Our lives, our books

A lot of people think of their personal book collections as expressing a sense of self. I have had friends reject gifts of books or turn down offers to join book clubs because they have wanted to select what they wished to read themselves. I have had other friends who only buy books in hard cover because that's how they show what they treasure. And increasingly with the advents of ebooks and kindles, I have had friends bemoan the erosion of value that our society places on the printed page.

I share all of these sentiments to some degree. But as someone who has moved too many times in her life, I have a rather odd relationship with books. They're heavy and boxes of them can throw out a back, so over the course of my life I probably have given away a thousand books for every year that I have lived. I like books but do not love them. If I had to choose between spending an afternoon working in my garden or reading a book, I'd probably choose the garden. That's not to say that I am a non-reader. I definitely read. But I read for work, for projects, for ideas -- not for mere pleasure. For that reason, I value books less for what they represent and more for what they can do. I prefer paperbacks because they weigh less and seem more malleable. I can write in paperbacks, take notes on them, and then pass them along. As is the case with music, I don't really have favorites. I tend to like what is resonating with my interests at the moment.

Lately, life on a shoestring has curtailed my book buying budget considerably. I have not minded this in the least. In fact, I have gained a newer and deeper appreciation for libraries because they facilitate my ability to read books and then move on. I feel less and less burdened by the weight of what I have not read than I did in the past when titles that looked so enticing and irresistible in bookstores start to carry the taint of guilt as weeks, months, years go by without me acknowledging them.

However, I always have admired my parents' book collection. For as long as I can remember, they have maintained a study, and the shelves of that study always were filled with books. As a child, I questioned their tastes somewhat because they had so many books with titles that I had never heard of, and seemed overly fond of collections with similarly embossed covers. But I do remember visiting the study almost every day as an adolescent and young adult, sometimes just to stare at the books on the shelves, sometimes to pull them off and thumb through them.

They are now moving from a large, four-bedroom, three-level house whose den is probably almost as large as the barn at my upstate New York home into a smaller, one-story, two-bedroom house in a retirement community on the north edge of town. I have spent the bulk of the past week helping them prepare for the move by working with them to "de-possess." We've trimmed down collections of furniture, towels, bedsheets, handicrafts, and cookbooks. Today was the day dedicated to the study and their collection of books.

Knowing that their collection probably comprised a few thousand titles, some of which had been with them for a half-century or more, I suspected that the process of deciding what to keep and what to surrender to children, friends, or an upcoming holiday church sale might be chaotic at best and emotionally painful at worst. Hoping to ease the process, I decided to try and catalog all of the books so that at least the immediate family would know what all made up my parents' collection.

The cataloguing took about six hours of typing, categorizing, and sorting. It was one of the most pleasurable things I had done in awhile because it helped me, perhaps for the first time in my life, understand how the books that a person acquired represented their sense of themselves.

In the beginning, my mother told me what books were definitely staying: a vast collection of texts on Hindu and other religious philosophies; numerous coffee table type books about art and artists; hard-cover biographies of American presidents; poetry collections ranging from Urdu couplets to modern free verse; and several shelves of books by Indiana writers. In addition to these, the atlas that holds our Cleveland, Ohio, home address on its inner cover; dictionaries and a thesaurus; and primers on learning Hindi and Sanskrit. I found myself feeling somewhat excited as located books that I had looked at but never been quite brave enough to open as a child such as T.E. Laurence's thick tome The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I also found myself learning new things about my parents as I discovered that my father had accumulated dozens of classic mysteries by Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others; that there was a Pearl S. Buck novel in the collection autographed by the author during a visit to Muncie in 1966; and that my mother had kept a book by Sammy Davis Jr on her shelves for many years simply because his words inspired her. She hadn't opened the book in decades, but looking at it kept her connected.

The instructions for sorting were fairly simple: Anything that my sisters or I particularly wanted we were welcome to take. Otherwise, I could remove anything that my mother described as "light."

I gathered up several classics, some "light" novels and short story collections that featured South Asian Americans, and some books written by former Seattle Times colleagues that I had given my parents as gifts. I also found myself drawn toward the numerous collections published by the Great Books Foundation that my parents had amassed in the forty or so years that they participated in these clubs. Great Books had always been a mystery moniker to me as a child, much like the Masonic Lodge or Elks, it seemed to require some sort of secret password for admission. Finally, about ten years ago, my parents dispelled the mystique by allowing me to accompany them to one of their Great Books gatherings. I discovered that their group included several longtime friends they had met through Ball State University and that the participants had long ceased reading the series texts and were focusing more and more on collections of best short stories and essays published in yearly compilations. The meetings included a potluck, with the host always ensuring a vegetarian dish would be available for my parents.

As I was sorting and sifting, my dad came in. He's a bit taller so I enlisted his help in reaching some books on higher shelves. He revealed that his opinion of "light" differed somewhat from my mother's. She wanted me to keep the John Grisham novels for him. He said he had lost interest in those books but didn't want to part with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. He also gestured toward the Great Books collections.

"We won't be taking these, of course," he said.

I verified his statement with my mother.

And, I chose them for myself. I'm not quite sure when (or if) I'll read them, but I do like the idea of having that piece of their past brought into my present.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

On moving things

Ever since the age of eighteen, packing and moving, settling in and unpacking has been a regular ritual of my life. In 1981, my first significant pack-and-move involved an accumulation of new stuff: a dormitory refrigerator, a desk shelf, and most importantly several long sleeve, 100 percent wool sweaters in varying hues to worn over the cotton turtleneck and cowl-neck jerseys that were all in the vogue. There also were new shoes, new socks, sweats, posters, and the requisite hot pot that every college freshman seemed to possess for instant coffee, tea, and cup-a-soups.

And, of course, there was the stereo: speakers, cassette tape deck, receiver, and turntable. And, later on, the dorm room TV. And, still later, the answering machine. It was the 1980s, the era of greed, but I also was eighteen to twenty-two years old and finding myself in the form of the things I owned.

From college, I embarked on a series of newspaper internship ventures, where I would move from one furnished apartment to another in different parts of the country every four months. I kept up this ritual for sixteen months, accumulating a Honda Civic Hatchback in the process (graduation gift from my parents), more clothes, books, and a steadily growing box of clips -- stories published in the newspaper bearing my byline. Oh, and yes, my first cat -- the first cat that was not the much loved cat Fritzie from childhood but a stray picked up by my co-intern and still-friend Laura.

The internship ventures landed me my first job and first unfurnished apartment. For the first time in my life, I began buying furniture. An antique wardrobe from a shop in Peculiar, Mo., where the husband and wife who owned the shop expressed excitement over the fact that I had "begun to set up housekeeping". An older antique-like bookshelf, and the prized possession of most bohemian twenty-somethings back then: a futon sofa that could fold out into a bed. I also picked up a gray sofa and chair, and two more cats.

From that job, I went to another, and for the first time, experienced the thrill of the moving truck. The movers arrived, spent what seemed like an entire afternoon loading my belongings into their truck and then told me they couldn't promise me when the goods would arrive in Seattle since I possessed such a small load. I felt indignant. I had so much stuff. How could it be regarded as a small load?

From an apartment in Seattle -- located on the third floor of a brick building built in the 1920s with no buzzer or elevator -- I moved into my first house. Feeling sure that my boyfriend and I had accumulated virtually nothing of merit, we dispensed with the formalities of movers and with the help of our young generous crowd of early thirties friends proceeded to move ourselves. The move lasted about three days and involved at least fifty trips back and forth. How could we have accumulated so many things? We lived in a place with virtually no space.

A couple of years later, I moved -- very lightly -- to Honolulu, intending to stay there only a year. (I stayed for 11.) I brought some clothes (nothing wintry), my prized set of Henkels kitchen knives, a laptop computer, some books and virtually nothing else. I left behind three-quarters of my possessions in boxes in the home's basement and supplemented my household in Honolulu with new goods purchased at rummage sales or gifted to me by friends exiting the islands.

I left Honolulu in 2006. By then, I was forty-three and married. We came back with four bicycles, several boxes of books, three cats, household appliances, jewelry, a piano, and virtually no furniture. We came back to a house that had been occupied by a renter for nine years. It was still packed to the brim with her stuff and its appearance put me in shock. "Welcome back to your house, Himanee" a sign hung gaily from masking tape in the front room proclaimed.

As I got over my shock, I took stock of what had occurred. The short end of the story was that the stuff that I had left behind had stayed behind and aged. I discovered the wardrobe from Peculiar, Mo., with sagging doors, the antique bookshelf from the shop in Westport in Kansas City, and Ikea shelves and pillows from a long-vanished sofa set all over the place. It took a year for us to summon the courage to do it, but finally the boyfriend with whom I had bought the house and I -- with the support of my husband -- ventured into the basement to unearth what had been left behind. Much of it went to Goodwill; some of it went to the dump. A few prized items were recovered, including a stuffed toy lamb that had been given to me at birth. The entire basement was emptied ultimately in 2010 in the last few days that I lived in the house before moving east to New York. We moved much as I had moved to Seattle twenty-two years earlier, with a moving truck. The movers took a mere forty-five minutes to load our belongings onto their truck and nearly six weeks to deliver. Our load was that small.

My husband and I made one more move a year later, from an apartment in Saratoga Springs to our country farmhouse eight miles away. The most difficult possession to move was a king-sized mattress and box spring my husband had finally coaxed me into buying. It had to be rolled like a sausage in order to fit up the narrow staircase to the second floor and twisted like a pretzel to get around the 90-degree bend at the midpoint. We agreed not to hold the movers responsible for damage to the mattress, and to our relief, none seemed to occur. But as we looked at the mattress and narrow staircase it had ascended and the tiny 1840s style windows and low overhanging eaves, we realized that even if we made another move, the mattress was probably going to stay in its current locale for the rest of its life.

I am now helping my parents make what they think will be their final move -- from a big empty-nester home that was built to accommodate their seventy-something desires a decade and a half ago but is now too large and too difficult for them to manage singlehandedly. I am working with my mom to sort through her decades of accumulated stuff. She is decisive and indecisive simultaneously. Every item in question seems to have a story, and that story is linked genealogically to the history of her life, my father's life, as well as my own. My parents are not pack-rats. They are practical and level-headed. So the move will probably be relatively easy for them. But still there are things, things that have acquired life and personality, even as they are inanimate: the wool blanket purchased in the 1950s in Kashmir by my father in his young adult days when he gazed at the breathtaking beauty and captured it in Urdu verse; the tablecloths and napkins embroidered by my mother, the linoleum block print tablecloth she created in Iowa City when I was a baby that was inspired, she told me for the first time today, by the many faces of mood that I, at age one, showed. And more. The stories that reside in these things seem larger than life. They cannot be shed. They keep our past alive in our present. But can they remain live if they become stockpiles, accumulated junk that we forget we ever owned but cannot bear to dis-possess?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cultural Legacies

My father outside his alma mater in Iowa City.

There are a million things wrong with higher education in contemporary society: the cost of tuition, the inaccessibility of information about the geographic layout of campuses, the seeming incapability of either high schools or freshman year courses to prepare incoming students for what they will face as they work toward bachelor's degrees, and an ongoing issue of elitism in some faculty and/or administrative ranks All of these factors seem to contribute to a high rate of attrition among college enrollees, perpetuating a system of social and economic inequality that underlies American society. These criticisms aside, I found myself feeling immensely grateful for the cultural legacy that some college and university campuses have managed to establish as I spent the past few days in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids touring campuses that my parents in the early 1960s attended.

Back story: My father was a teacher in Bhiwani, a town north of New Delhi, when he and my mother married. An opportunity arose for him in 1961 to pursue a master's degree and a doctorate in the United States, and my parents decided to seize it. They arrived in Cedar Falls, Iowa, around Labor Day after traveling by train from Delhi to Bombay, by ship to London, by plane to New York City, and then bus to first Chicago and then Cedar Falls, losing a blue vinyl suitcase en route. (The suitcase is a different story, told and re-told in a variety of ways.) They both studied at what was then the State College of Iowa from 1961-62, and lived in a rooming house at 22nd and College Street, about a block's walk from the campus. They moved to Iowa City in 1962, a few months before I was born, and my father began his doctorate at the College of Education at the University of Iowa. He completed his PhD in 1965, when I was about two and a half years old, and we moved first to Cleveland, Ohio, and a year later to Muncie, Indiana, where my parents still live today. We returned as a family to Iowa City once in 1973 and I participated in the Iowa Summer Writers Festival there in 2003, but beyond these visits, both Cedar Falls and Iowa City existed largely as products of our memory-crafted imaginaries.

Our imaginaries received an update this summer when my father decided he wanted to combine a trip to Chicago for my cousin Shikha's wedding with a "reunion trip" to Cedar Falls and Iowa City. My mother was initially tentative about the idea, worrying that driving some 1,000 miles total would be too hard on her and would overly tire my mother. I, however, inflicted a rather infectious enthusiasm into my father's quiet desire when I insisted that the trip was important, not too difficult, and that I would go along to help out with the driving and anything else that my parents (who are 77 and 81) might need. And when the trip almost got canceled because of my mother's fears, I inflicted a heavy dose of guilt to make it happen, noting that I had taken two weeks out of a busy writing and harvesting schedule to travel the Midwest with them.

So, off we went. At first, it felt like a mistake. Four days of family wedding festivities had tired us out, and the prospect of returning to visit a place we had virtually no contemporary relationship with seemed, well, alienating and difficult, at best.

We pulled into Iowa City at about 4 p.m. on Labor Day. I was excited, but my parents felt bewildered. The city had changed. The hotel where we had booked a room was located on what had evolved into a suburban-esque commercial strip with fast food restaurants, car dealerships, and other hotels lining a four-lane highway. The University of Iowa campus also had grown into a sort of mega-university with what seemed for two individuals who are healthy for their ages but unable to walk more than a quarter-mile without getting tired limited access. New construction had replaced old buildings and landmarks. Nothing -- including the extremely spacious College of Education that had been named after E.F. Lindquist, my father's mentor in his doctoral program -- looked familiar at all.

The same sense of isolation permeated the University of Northern Iowa, which had become the name of the State College of Iowa in 1967. My parents recognized a "campanile" (or clock tower) and a commons building but little else. It seemed perhaps that they had forgotten -- as all of us are prone to do -- that places, like people, do not remain frozen in time. They grow, undergo reconstructions, and change.

What had not changed was the ethic of the people. We were in Iowa for a little more than 24 hours, and during that time, met the hotel front desk attendant, a man who lived across the street from their former home at 420 Davenport in Iowa City, a waitress at an Olive Garden restaurant, a gas station attendant in Cedar Falls, an information desk helper at the University of Northern Iowa, and the deans and associate deans of the Colleges of Education at both institutions that my parents attended in the early 1960s. They had no idea who my parents were, but when they learned why we were in Iowa, they immediately became part of my parent's story. They helped us with maps, driving directions, stories, and memories of the universities of their own.

I served as unofficial chauffeur to my parents, dropping them off at buildings they wanted to visit and then driving to guest parking areas located as much as a half-mile away. I would then rush over to where I had dropped them and find them chatting with the present-day deans of the colleges my father attended, telling stories about the past and the present. Several individuals at the University of Iowa remembered work that my father had done under the tutelage of Dr. Lindquist (who retired from teaching two years after my father completed his doctorate and passed away in the 1970s), and noted that some of his contemporaries were continuing to work in the department in emeritus roles. I felt especially touched because no one knew that we were coming, but everyone was willing to drop whatever they were doing to welcome us back "home" and to spend some time conversing with us. We left with e-mail addresses, photographs, business cards, and coffee mugs.

I would have liked to have stayed in Iowa City longer, and already am plotting schemes to spend a few weeks again with the Iowa Summer Writers Festival. But, as we pulled out of Iowa City, I felt a sense of deep gratitude that this was the place where my parents had landed in America 51 years ago. Behind the bewildering array of strip malls, state-of-the-art buildings, and hard-to-find on-campus parking spots lay traces of the imaginary of Iowa that my parents have constructed over the decades: farmers and friends who hadn't perhaps traveled outside of Iowa but welcomed and helped them along. There were no stares at our odd, still somewhat foreign appearance. There was no rudeness or unwillingness to help, no traces of veiled racism that I could discern. There was simply a desire to welcome, to answer questions, to help, and to talk story. In that warmth was embedded a sense that we all had some sort of a shared history that had marked our present. I felt like perhaps the colleges that my father attended had something to do with this. They created a sense of place that one could revisit, and find a sense of the past even as it appeared lost to the present.

After we stopped for the night in Peoria, Illinois, en route to Muncie, I did a Google search on Dr. Lindquist, using the name by which my father and the colleagues who remembered him at the University of Iowa had referred to him, which was Reese. Nothing came up, until I discovered that he was known officially as E.F. Lindquist. A little more searching revealed that E.F. Lindquist was not his birth name, either. Born in 1901 to parents of German Jewish immigrants, he was known originally as Ezra Felvel Levinsky. He ended up Americanizing his name (Everett Franklin Lindquist) when he joined the University of Iowa as a research assistant in 1925, a time when Nativist hostilities and Ku Klux Klan activities made life extremely difficult for those who were regarded as non-white and/or non-Christian. Changing a name was one way that some people coped during those violent times.

It dawned on me that we spend a lot of our working lives going in and out of buildings that are named after people who made some sort of mark on someone's history, or did something significant. Most of the time we don't have a clue who the person was or the mark they made. But when we do have an opportunity to get to know the name behind the building our perspectives change. Perhaps that is one way that some of the millions of lost histories of people and places continue to live. And perhaps it is the spirit of those people who define the ethics and values of those who walk the campuses and building corridors named after them that live on today.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Of purple cows

Source: a blog by Seth Godin, author of a book The
Purple Cow,

I'm not sure how else to begin this reflection on visiting Iowa City with my parents any other way than this. Iowa City is probably not a town that many people visit unless they're considering college at the University of Iowa. My parents themselves have not been back here since 1973, and although I spent two weeks in 2003, attending workshops through the Iowa Summer Writers Festival, I, too, have only the tiniest thread of connectivity to this Midwestern city.

But the tiniest threads can be the most tenuous. For that reason, when my mother mentioned -- with a tone of mock exasperation in her voice -- that my father wanted to combine a trip to Chicago with a reunion visit to Cedar Falls and Iowa City, I immediately insisted that we do the trip and that I tag along.

Cedar Falls was the American hamlet that my parents first settled in when they emigrated from India fifty-one years ago. Iowa City was the nearby town where my father completed his doctorate and where I was born. They were foreign students living in a financially tight situation and  in an area that was almost the complete cultural antithesis to their own. They left in 1965 after my father completed his doctorate, settling eventually in Muncie, Indiana, the place that for most of their lives they have called home.

But fond memories of Cedar Falls and Iowa City linger, and many of the friends they made in their brief years there remained good friends throughout their lives. My first stuffed toys -- a brown bear and tiny lamb -- were given as birth gifts by these friends, and have traveled with me from Iowa, to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Washington, Hawai'i, and now New York. They smell musty, are tinged slightly green with mold, and have lost much of their manufactured fuzz. But they remain with me, alongside whatever shards of memory of my birthplace I have managed to recoup.

So does the Purple Cow, a place I sort of think I remember but am not really sure if my memories are based on my personal experience or my parents recountings.

It is, or was, a real place. It was an ice cream place in Coralville, which was then a rural town abutting Iowa City. It sported a park full of life-size stone painted animals that kids could climb on. I'm not sure whether a purple cow was among the animals, but it was something -- my parents told me -- that always brought a shine into my eyes and a smile to my face. As cash strapped foreign students, there was little available for treats. But once in awhile a trip to Coralville to the Purple Cow was possible.

As a result, we began talking about the Purple Cow soon after crossing the border in Iowa, and decided that we would try and find it, and have dinner there. I had been told when I was in Iowa City in 2003 that it still existed, that it was more than an ice cream place and actually was a full-fledged restaurant. An Iowa City born participant in the summer writers festival described a purple Barney-like dinosaur as being among the attractions. Unfortunately, it required a car to get there, and I was in Iowa City for two weeks without one.

We asked at the front desk of the hotel where we were staying. The attendant -- like virtually everyone else we have encountered since we pulled into the city earlier this afternoon -- was extremely helpful and very friendly. He knew the area quite well but had not heard of the Purple Cow. I jumped on the Internet, and found Purple Cows in Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Arkansas. I also e-mailed a Facebook friend who lives in Iowa and asked if he knew anything of the restaurant's whereabouts. He got to work researching, and discovered at about the same time that I did, that the restaurant closed in 2008, the same year that floods devastated the University of Iowa campus, creating damage that we learned today is still being dealt with and forcing art students to relocate their classroom and studio space to an old Menard's store.

I don't think my parents or I felt the loss too keenly. How could we when it existed mainly in our memories? I did, however, enjoy the things that I learned about the Purple Cow in the course of searching for its whereabouts: an onion rings recipe bequeathed to a former employee who for years created purple candies in the shape of cows to adorn the restaurant's fountain drinks; a reminisce about the spot as a rural Iowan dairy treat; and a poem by Gelett Burgess entitled "The Purple Cow." Because it's widely Google-able, I will quote it here:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one,
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one!

A discussion of the poem on a Yahoo web site describes the purple cow as a metaphor for the un-ordinary, the remarkable, and proposes that a societal urge to conform to the status quo makes most shy away from being one.

I am happy to trust my parents' memories of how I reacted as a toddler to the Purple Cow, and perhaps in holding the memory alongside other shards of childhood in my heart, I can continue to become one.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Connecting more dots

I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. Because my mother was using the hotel room coffeemaker to boil water for tea, I headed out into the lobby to get a cup of coffee. En route, I passed an elderly Indian gentleman who was wearing exercise clothes and also looked to be heading for the coffee. When he saw me, his face broke into a smile and he said in a loud booming voice that felt oddly familiar, "Good morning, Aiyeee, aiyee" which I think translates to "Come and get it," as in the coffee.

I kept wondering who the gentleman was, and over breakfast a couple of hours later, I pointed him out to my parents. They filled in the gaps, and in doing so, reminded me of a story of a childhood mis-remembered experience, for lack of a better word.

First, the gaps. The man was actually a second cousin to me. He was the son of my mother's eldest sister's husband's brother, and we had visited him in Los Angeles in 1969 on a family trip that had included visits to Disneyland and Universal Studios. He had come to the United States in 1968, shortly after the first trip we had taken back to India during the December break a year earlier.

As they filled the gaps, I exclaimed, "Oh, I've got to go talk to him. I have a story I need to tell him."

Excitedly, I spilled out the story to my parents. I know I've probably told it to them before, but they don't always remember this one.

I had just turned seven during that trip to Los Angeles in 1969. Like most seven-year-olds, I have my fretful moments and I was acting out of them while we were in my second cousin's apartment. I remember my dad saying that if I didn't behave myself, he would put me out on the freeway. That shut me up good, and scared me for many years after. As I grew older, however, I often wondered what I had done that was so terrible that my father would say something like that. He is a quiet, soft-spoken, gentle man who occasionally gets angry. But statements like "putting you out on the freeway" are not in his nature.

More years passed, and at age 40, in 2003, I was at the Iowa Summer Writer's Festival, taking workshops in fiction and poetry. One day, I was attending a reading in which the workshop teachers were sharing their work in progress. One read from a piece in which she quoted American cultural commentator Joan Didion describing a dehumanizing incident in Los Angeles in which a child was left out on the freeway. When police found the child, the skin of her palms had stuck to the wire fencing around the on-ramps that she had clung to in terror. News reports, according to the Didion piece cited by the reader, had said that the child's parents had put her out on the freeway because she had misbehaved.

I remember that during the reading I sat bolt upright in my chair, and felt my chest start to pound. Tears came to my eyes, as I realized that I probably had not heard my father talking but that news report. In a small apartment and in the mind of a small child, voices can easily mingle. I felt a huge load of accumulated shame and fear slide off me as I realized that I had mis-remembered my memory.

That was ten years ago. I wrote the story out once during a Write O Rama workshop at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle and shared it via an open mic, but I've never done more than that. Neither one of my parents know who Joan Didion is, or remember the newscast.

As I re-told my parents the story this morning, my mother intervened gently. "He is a practical man," she said, "so be careful in how you present the story."

I cornered my second cousin at the end of the Hindu ceremony that was part of my cousin Shikha's wedding. My dad was standing nearby and so was his wife, so they all got to hear the story. He also didn't know who Joan Didion was and didn't remember the incident. But he did remember the trip to Los Angeles and burst into laughter as I brought up other scraps of memory from the vacation such as going to Disneyland, staying in his apartment, and eating cotton candy. Then, he asked me: "Do you know how we are related?"

He explained the family connection, much as my parents had earlier that day. He also laughed as he told me that at age 70 he was older than most of my mother's surviving siblings, even though in the genealogical line, he was technically their nephew. He also noted that my Hema Auntie (who is just four years younger than my mother, who is 77) had married a cousin of his father.

"I didn't know that connection," I said with a laugh.

"It's hard to keep track," he said, "especially when we disperse. We might know the relatives of three or four of our family members, but then  we just drift apart."

In the meantime, his wife asked me how old I was. When I responded that I was fifty, she stared in disbelief. "Fifty? You can't be. You were born here (referring to the United States)?"

I explained that my parents had emigrated in 1961 and that I had been born a year later. I also pointed out my two younger sisters and my nieces who were milling about.

My mother's oldest sister was 13 years older than she was. If she had not passed away in 1986, she would be 90 years old today. My mother's youngest sister is 58, just eight years older than I am. I talked over these details with two of my younger cousins during the reception when one of them expressed surprised that I was just ten years younger than her mother.

"The family was so big," I said.

"And our Nanaji married twice," one of them added.

As we spoke, I recalled that the voice of my second cousin had sounded somewhat familiar when he greeted me in the morning. It dawned on me that the tone was very much like the tone of that oldest sister's husband. When we lived in India in 1973-74, we stayed in their house for quite awhile and I had remembered "Masaji" as a good-humored man who spoke a bit loudly in a jovial way. That was the tone that my second cousin emitted.