Monday, April 12, 2010

Settling In

After a dinner of Animal Crackers and wine on the porch swing, I've settled in. Back in October we left everything in the Emma House impossibly clean, thinking how fine it would be to come back and gradually clutter it again. So far there haven't been any surprises except one. The ivy that grows around the back porch has worked its way under the house, up through the bathroom floor, inside the door facing, and out into the bathroom. And yes, I'm going to leave it here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Weigh Day, Weigh Day

Every couple of months we have to return to the scales, take a deep breath, look down, and get real.  It's time to cut back the two treats we love most in San Francisco: crusty artisan bread and Napa Valley wine.  Besides the scales, there are other reminders. Like the full length mirrors in yoga class, or the jeans that, after all this time, must have been dried too hot.  

Our neighborhood is full of ethnic and eclectic treats. John Campbell's Irish Bakery has hot cross buns during Lent, and Irish brown bread and blueberry scones all year round.  Across the street is the Russian Bakery, with huge anise-flavored cookies and mounded meringues in pastel colors, so large they look like a pink, yellow, and white mountain range in the window.  The folded meat pies are hamburger-onion delicious in the same way as White Castles. Enjoy now, be sorry later.

There's Starbuck's banana bread, and Pete's coffee with biscotto for the dipping.  Royal Ground boasts a glass case with full-blown desserts: chocolate cheesecake, red velvet layers, and pumpkin pie with a whipped cream option. The only guilt-free treat is at Java Beach, an internet coffee-shop where Judah St. meets the sea.  Their grainy bran muffins are the size of a cantaloupe and the perfect accompaniment is a steaming cup of chai. Calories, yes. But to deserve this snack you must hike down through the park to 49th Avenue,  along Speedway Meadow, past the buffalo range,  Spreckles Lake, and the Angler's Lodge.  Then skirt the ocean for a couple of blocks to the outdoor tables at Java Beach.  You'll burn off the calories on the walk back home. Or at least that's what you say.
photo: panini and tomato bisque soup from a restaurant in the Marina

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mixed Metaphors

With houseguests we travel the city, coast, and outlying areas as if we're seeing San Francisco for the first time, and that's how it feels.  Last week I toured Alcatraz with Mason. As we followed a circular path to the top of the rock, I remembered Mont-Saint-Michel  in Normandy--its wind-battered arches and  sharply ascending pathways.

Any joy I felt on this small island was erased at the sight of the cell blocks, two tiers of cages hardly large enough to hold the regulation cot, toilet, and bowl-sized sink.

The next day's journey was a hike through Muir Woods. If the cell blocks of Alcatraz suggested ultimate confinement, then this grand canyon of sequoias stood for unbridled freedom.  At every side, lush ferns and mosses  presided over rocky creeks.  Above us, arms of the sequoias soared to touch a white-paper sky, barely acknowledging that they, like us, were rooted in the soil.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kohala Photo Ops

The upper point of the Big Island is called Kohala. It's a region we haven't seen at all, so on this last day in Hawai'i, we once again lace on the hiking sandals and head north.  I've adjusted to the fact that The Big Island isn't all that big; the trip will take a few hours but not the entire day.

Kohala is the oldest part of the island, and upturned a'a has changed into something resembling soil.  The ocean is to our left and washboard roads lead to the water. Finally the highway  dead-ends at a small settlement called Hawi.  There's an ice cream shop and a dozen or so Galleries, or upscale muu muu shops. We have an expensive single dip of coffee ice cream with chocolate chips, sit in the shade and get one of the locals to snap our photo. 

The road east from Hawi goes only one place, and that's to the Pululu overlook.  The guide book said for the best photos, take the trail.  There was no trail in sight, only many tourists who, like us, had inched their cars off the road for a better view. 

We shot way too many frames of this and even so didn't get a shot that does it justice. What's missing is a brooding sky to the east, a strong wind off the ocean, and the glaring face of the farmer whose fence row we were crowding. 

After a salad and more last minute shopping back in Hawi, we headed down the center of the region, traveling the length of a volcanic spine that must have been slightly to the windward side.  The hills were so lush we could have been in Ireland.


There are little altars, memorials, and offering bundles everywhere.  In the black a'a fields, white pebbles trace out a cross and a name.

Stones are aligned on an ancient heiau with such focus on balance and rhythm that they almost speak. I try to listen, but it is a lost language.

Past the coffee plantations, a tree is festooned with orchid leis, sparkles, and yellow hibiscus.  My eyes say, "It's a celebration," but my heart knows otherwise.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Birthday, Snorkel Day, Whale Day

We set the alarm this morning and rushed through breakfast buffet to make it to the snorkeling excursion on time. The boat was small and the two girls piloting it were college students. Maybe. But we hopped on anyway, all slicked down with 80 proof sunscreen and carrying the waterproof camera we got yesterday at Hilo Walmart.

Ira seemed tentative about the whole excursion.  I was most worried about cold water.  The Big Island Revealed says water temp in Hawai'i is consistent year-round, but it IS February.

We took the long route to Captain Cook Beach and saw a sea cave and some lava flows that can't be accessed except by boat. We learned once more about a'a and pahoehoe, the two types of lava. Then we each received a pair of flippers in our own size, along with a snorkeling mask and tube.  In time we got our gear on the right way and slid over the side for some serious snorkeling. The water was warm. We could see a large coral reef about 15 feet below us, and schools of Needle-Nose fish and orange Tang fish, no doubt named for the breakfast drink.  Periodically we all had to paddle around, cough, and clear the salt water out of our masks.

We each had a snack of Fritos and papaya while the girl-pilots dropped a hydrophone into the water so we could listen to the singing of the Humpback Whales.  Their calls echo, and are like a cross between mooing and howling.  Whales from each region have one common song and that song becomes more elaborate each time the whales return to their breeding ground.  According to the guides, the song of the whale is not just noise but indeed a melody, with a beginning, guitar break, and end. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Day of the Unexpected

Today we drove through the saddle-shaped valley from Kona to Hilo on the other side of the island.  I was expecting it to be bumpy, long, and barren but most was red-ochre hills against the green-violet shapes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  We dodged potholes and wild turkeys for the first ten miles or so, but otherwise it wasn't bad at all.

Hilo was all bright sunlight, another thing we hadn't counted on, though there were puddles everywhere and evidence of bountiful rain in the lush vegitation.  The storefronts along Hilo Bay had a well-worn small town feel, as Ira said, "like tropical Scottsville in its heyday." More quality, for sure, than muu muu and shell stretch in Kona. We felt at home in Hilo (maybe because it was Phil and Chris's home for a few years), liked our lamb pita  at the Puka Puka, and really liked our Kosmic Cone dipped in chocolate.  (We also liked Banyan St., which is pretty hard to explain, except maybe as driving through a lot of old lady's legs.)

Puna is the volcanic triangle on the coast south of Hilo, described in Doughty's Big Island Tour Book as a real outlaw land, where people don't mind setting up housekeeping in the path of an active lava flow. We did see some evidence of that as we drove south from Hilo: there was a white clapboard island house with "Merry Christmas" spray painted in black across the front.  And as we neared the coast we saw a wild child --shirtless, shoeless, and with untamed island locks--running toward us in the road.  As we neared, he ducked into the most tall and dense vegetation I have ever seen.  There was no sign of an opening, but he knew where he was going.

We came upon a painted church  and wondered if this might indeed be the last sign of civilization we would encounter. (This is a topic for another day, but the painted churches in Hawai'i are pure magic. )We took photos, put a few dollars in the "Thank you" box, and moved on.  At this point we could hear the ocean.

Around the curve the narrow road was barricaded and then barricaded again.  There were signs(and more signs)  that told us not to drive our (rental) car over the heaping, loopy, jagged, sinister looking mounds of petrified black lava that had engulfed the road. OK, we were really thinking about putting it in gear and climbing over this hellish heap, but maybe we'll reconsider.

A quick left and we were on what (we thought) would be the totally wild and untamed Puna costal ride. Not quite what we had imagined....both more and less wild than we'd envisioned.  Straight ahead--total rain forest with trees bending to touch over the road, just flora on steroids, little shop of horrors, what next around the curve??

In answer to that....ocean meets rocky lava like you wouldn't believe.  There must be a name for this, mega-spumoni?? No, too many letters for Hawai'in, but the intersection of black stone and sea was quite an opera.

The biggest shock: here were a lot of ritzy houses tucked behind the ferns of Puna, probably owned by people who paid the guidebook man to throw us off the trail.   On the left, a hidden design by Frank Gehry?  Then a few miles on the right, a shack selling holistic medicines and that green leaf that is not fully legal in the other fourty-nine. And so forth, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Finally we headed back through Hilo, back through Banyan Street and the bay, and up toward Honoka'a, where it did finally rain.  In a few minutes the sky cleared and we had a lavender sunset all the way back to Kona, not too shabby a day.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Crackers and Cheese Day

Here we are on the Kona Coast and I have to admit it: the highlight of my day was when The University of Louisville Men's Basketball Team upset Syracuse, Beyond that, though, it was a laid-back day that included some early morning pool time  and then a walk through Kona's muu muu, shell necklace, and beef jerky district along the sea wall.

Between shops we did notice a few things that mentally, if not physically, took us off the strip: a young boy steering his board around the bay; graceful banyan trees and chattering mynah birds, and the first church of the island (1820s) where someone had obviously found sanctuary--he was stretched out and snoring loudly on the back pew.

Before leaving Kona and driving the six miles back to our hotel on Keauhou Bay we stopped at Safeway for bottle of wine and multiple varieties of cheese and crackers...otherwise known as dining in.

From our deck we could still see a few fish swimming in the still water of the tidal pools. And soon, just the sound of the waves.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Just Venting

Kilauea Caldera was a real showboat today, belching out snowy steam and so much sulphurious smoke that the pregnant, aged, or infirm were not allowed to play on the rim. After some thought we decided we didn't fit into any of those categories so we hung out around the Jaggar Museum and took photos with the rest of the kids.

Every museum has its hairball and the Jaggar Museum is no exception.  Enshrined in a glass case are the clothes Dr. Thomas Jaggar, volcanologist, was wearing when he first set foot into the red hot lava flow in the early 1900s. The shoes are warped and melted, his bush-style slacks are in charred fringes, and his small pick hammer is completely encased in the black stuff.  Apparently Dr. Jaggar was doing a close inspection of his special lava, perhaps deciding if it was (1) a'a, rough and porous lava or (2) pahoehoe, which is smooth and ropey. There are no actual photographs of Dr. Jaggar after the incident.

While on Hwy. 11 we stopped at Punalu'u beach, and experienced the black volcanic sand first-hand.

After leaving Caldera we drove a few miles toward Hilo, and discovered that we had been misled all these years.  At least in Hawaii, the grass really IS greener on the other side.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lunch at the Hana Hou and Other Stories

In our quest to be non-touristos, we headed into Naalehu for some local food. Our tour book recommended Hana Hou, which was one of maybe two restaurants in Naalehu. Besides a turkey burger and Asian slaw, we got Garth Brooks, Chinese lanterns, ceramic red peppers nailed on the wall, a row of white dishrags hanging on a line stretched between back porch posts, and a really good Rocky Road Brownie, my favorite part.

Backing up just a bit, we spent this whole day driving a long loop from our hotel below Kona through coffee plantation country and down to South Point, the southernmost point of Hawaii and the USA.  To get there, we hung a right off the main road and traveled a bumpy 12 miles past scattered farm houses, wind turbines, and grazing cows.   When we arrived (the end of the road), here's what there was: a huge panorama of cerulean ocean on all sides; a dozen jeep-like cars parked in the dust; five or six macho-sized fishing rods wedged into lava rock ledge, their lines trailing out into the sea; and wow---right in front of us two black humpback whales, breaching, diving, slip-sliding all over the horizon. It was amazing.

Soooo-- after discovering the beautiful blue at South Point, we headed a little further out toward Naalehu for burgers and the Rocky Road Brownie. Which was, now that I think of it, my second-favorite part of the day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

And what she wore

It’s just a dark brown shawl, not that old, but when I wrap it about me I settle into history and become my great-great grandmother. 

The only full length photograph I have of Martha Elizabeth Johnson Spillman Watson is one composed in her middle-age. She’s standing on the steps of the tidy, white frame, gingerbread-trim house that is now the Hickman County Museum.

Nunny--as they called her-- endured the Civil War, a first husband who didn’t come home, a second marriage pierced by deaths of two small sons, and years of widowhood beginning in her forties.Yet on a snowy day during the Great Depression, she chose her attire, walked to her front steps, and regally posed for a picture postcard.

She still had her spirit. She cared what she wore.

Clothes delight me--for this reason and a hundred more. As a five-year-old I’d snuggle against my own grandmother and interrupt her stories to say, “and what she wore was...” I was the costume designer to her tales of young Tina and wild carpet rides . A few years older I scratched out pencil drawings--sophisticates in flaring shirtwaists, cinched belts, and sling-back heels.  I was a grown up woman with freedom to design and choose.

The only woman in my family to openly celebrate her wardrobe was my great Aunt Sadie, who fed my growing addiction. From the Hudson’s a few blocks from her Detroit balcony came a scarlet bathing suit edged with a running trim of tiny white balls, a Spanish skirt and peasant blouse, the cowboy boots I'd broadly hinted for.  She loved red and I'm sure that's what she was wearing in this photo as she sailed across Lake Michigan. But I remember her best--the age I am now--in a creamy white wool suit, beige stilettos, dark hair caught in a French roll.  Sadie understood understatement.

My first wearable design was a skirt stitched from one of my brother’s cloth diapers. It fit  like an bandage. More attempts would follow, with quiet encouragement and tutoring from Frances who lived up the hill, and unsupressed eye-rolling from Mom. In my teens I sewed sleeveless summer pants-dress that flared from the waist into rippling sail-like legs. The project worked, but my plan for a debut at church was blocked. “No,” my mother said. “No. Period.”

Taboos of the early sixties became the norm in no time. I wore gypsy pairings like a peacock's plume-- navy with avocado, purple paisley with ruffles, fringe and macrame all floating on a bare and over-tanned midriff.  I sailed toward college in a sea of beaded bracelets, frayed jeans, and undulating tie dyes.  My hair grew past my shoulders, fragile and stick straight, but still I ironed it. Near high school graduation my friend Cherry pierced my ears against an ice cube and I wore delicate silver hoops in full view of my father, knowing it would be far easier to receive forgiveness than permission.

As a college student and young wife my standards matured. Instead of memorizing French (a move I would regret) I once again took up sewing. In September I  sashayed to class in orange: flared slacks and a floor-length vest of double-knit, worn over a matching Cossack shirt. In January, The French Lieutenant’s Woman billowed forth in an indigo cape, down 3rd Street in Louisville and across campus for classes in design. A happy time, me and my creations.

After college, a turning point. Newly degreed, we U-hauled  to a town perfect for raising two sons, perfect for Garden Club, Country Club. Perfect for wealthy farmers' wives feasting on barbecue.  Perfect for library cards and church choir. A tacit dress code reigned for young wives, and I complied with a silent submission reserved for Southern girls. I stirred up corn pudding, dopped off Matt and Kent at school,  accepted a part-time writing job, endured.

Deliverance came in the form of a neighbor. Mary Parker –older than my mother–-served me tea and spoke of Europe. She showed me hidden seams of her Chanel-style coat, read with me the silky Braille of an oriental rug, the draping hand of a length of foulard, the hand-tied fagoting of a linen napkin.  Her kitchen curtains were a tailor’s dream--stripes joined invisibly, windowpane plaids in architectural alignment. And all so crisply  pressed to looked like origami.

She talked with me, and her four-room cottage sang with joie de vivre

And so my sense of self emerged,  its organdy presence unfolding and tentatively taking flight: the day we wore the hats to Keeneland, the floral gardening jacket, tea stained into antiquity at the kitchen sink. A disastrous black-tie dinner, bearable then and  in retrospect thanks to a photograph of what I wore: vintage black lace with butterfly sleeves, found in a box in Mom's attic..

Days brightened more with the next relocation A waving line of laundry  welcomed me from across the yard, and soon the laundress followed.  Barb appeared in my kitchen for coffee, sympathy, and instant bonding in the form of what she wore, what she sewed, and what she dared to hang on the line outdoors. Outlasting subsequent moves and marriages, Barb keeps the taupe silk we bought in Montmartre, shopkeeper muttering and fuming as he converted sixteen yards to meters. Like us,  it's undivided,  the bold yardage of life. 

Lately I’ve culled.  Out, out, damn spots, damned prints and animal skins. Out candy pinks, unruly reds. Out, trendy things, spied on a rainy day. But boots can stay until they fall apart. The black skirts stay, and all things taupe, the jeans that fit, ascending stack of black t-shirts. The bracelets, one for every day. And one last remnant of my hippie stage–I’m sorry, Dad-- I've kept my silver loops.

Mary Parker, long dead, still lingers in my wardrobe: a crisp white shirt, purchased for the feel of the fabric alone; a camel-tan coat found at the consignment shop.  Not my hue, but so perfectly detailed that I returned twice to look and finally brought it home. My Sadie-shoes, unwearable. Red leather clutch, Key West.

Some pieces should be discarded but I just don't have the heart. Others give me a nameless sense of security. One or two are gloriously impractical, and,  like the silk Barb keeps in storage, trail with me from house to house-- the fabric of our  halcyon days, our hearts. And what we wore.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The hot and the sour

This morning our house was power-washed by the most intense rainstorm of the season. First vertical, then horizontal, the downpour came at our sunspace windows with enough roar and force to send us running to see how much damage was being done. Everything was intact, and soon after the worst of the storm the skies cleared for a few minutes before storm two (of three in the forecast) came barreling in.

With a window of an hour at best, Ira and I layered up and charged down the front stairs to embark on day two of our hot and sour soup taste test competition.

Hot and sour soup is, in Asian homes, the catch-all for leftovers.  It's chicken soup with vinegar for sour and white pepper for hot.  Straw mushrooms and tofu are often added, along with soy sauce, tiger lily buds and thinly sliced pork.  Fresh cilantro and pineapple chunks are a bonus.  This combination is the perfect cure for the rainy season, a cold, or a generic case of the blues.

If the hot and sour soup in a Chinese restaurant is wonderful, it's a sure thing that the rest of the meal will be even better.  With that in mind we've made 2010 the Year of the Soup, a time to review all the eateries in our hood, and to answer the question once and for all:  where can perfection be found?

Melisa's (that's with one s) restaurant on Balboa has been named by friends as the best soup in the hood and we began our quest there last week.  We were underwhelmed.  Melisa's was charming, but the hot and sour we brought home was flat in color and low on ingredients.  What was there (tofu, sprouts, mushrooms) was fine but the broth was missing the luscious translucent red-brown color of soy sauce and hot chili sauce. The egg-drop component was a bit heavy for soup. Like scrambled eggs Kentucky-style.

Today's taste test at Tom Kiang on Geary was more successful.  We're getting organized and now we have a mental scorecard in place.  First, the visuals.  Tom Kiang's hot and sour was beautiful, a deep, transparent red-brown.  The aroma was perfect.  The taste test?  TK's soup was full of all the standard ingredients except pork slivers, which we didn't miss.  The broth was just the right consistency, not too much cornstarch.  But  hot overpowered sour by just a bit, adding up to a little white pepper overkill.

We didn't find perfection today, but Tom Kiang did give us a terrific floor show.  A Dim Sum restaurant, Tom Kiang specializes in small plates. (You might say Dim Sum is to Chinese as tapas is to Spanish.) So a big meal at Tom Kiang is made of many small appetizers.

We stuck to the plan of having hot and sour soup only, except for one digression--we couldn't resist a plate of four small dumplings stuffed with shrimp and greens.  Otherwise our eyes got the feast as waiters and waitresses tempted diners with  a non-stop parade of puffy brown pork rolls, glistening pot stickers with sauce,  stir-fried greens, shumai (steamed dumplings), and crispy tempura shrimp with beady black eyes and fins intact.

Next week we may try Golden Chopstick on Balboa, or one of the restaurants on Clement.  As rough as it is, our search must go on.  The perfect hot and sour is hiding out there somewhere, and we'll just have to find it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

And you're beyond

Today someone took my bike. I left it on the sidewalk by the trash cans with a sign taped on that said, free. And someone took it.

A dark red bike, a coaster, a straw basket wired on back--I bought it on a sunny Saturday when I lived in Lexington, newly single, unattached. A day for a solitary ride.

That day the bike man hauled his twenty or so reconditioned rides to a grassy median in the neighborhood, set up shop as he did every weekend during the summer, and sold each one for whatever he could get. I saw the bike, walked around it, squeezed the tires, hopped on and took a ride down Walton thinking to make the purchase there and then. The pedals worked; the brakes worked; and the size suited me fine.

I liked many things about my coaster: its rich and tasteful color, its tires with crack-crazed and ageing tea-patina’d walls. Most of all I liked the speed with which I could ease to the left out my short driveway, peddle down Cramer, around the playground, and up Bassett toward Kent and Minda’s house. I could pump up their hill, park by the porch, and settle into the swing for a glass of wine. In a world full of complexities, the bike could ease me to my destination with simplicity and efficiency.

When Ira and I moved to San Francisco the bike came with us. We forced it, wheels akimbo, into the already-overloaded van. It was the first item out as well. Here in the avenues and car-less much of the time, I’ve used it to coast down to the post office at Geary and 21st.; I’ve felt very European hopping off at the Richmond Market, filling my wicker basket with red and yellow peppers, beets, fresh dill.

On bright weekends Ira and I would take his bike and mine to the path that follows Ocean Beach. We'd ride against the wind, with the cracker-box houses of Sunset to our left and the misting and glimmering span of the Pacific to our right. Worries about parking and fueling were lost on those rides. I ignored the failing brakes and disengaging gears. For a mere 50 dollars, I had purchased freedom and brought it West with me.

On my first bike getaway, I rode with the Casparian sibs, Pete and Donna, on the winding, road from Clinton to Columbus, bumping over concrete bridges and swerving by stripped tires and aromatic roadkill. We stood and pumped up hills, and coasted between the lower fields. Dad picked us up at the park and documented our journey in snapshots. He treated us to frozen custards before heaping bikes and friends into the back of the farm truck and delivering us safely home.

On a grownup journey years later, my friend Barbara and I crisscrossed the flat streets of Key West on our rented bikes. We dodged roosters in Little Bahama and eased down Duvall and Southard, rolled through the stop sign on Angela and skidded on gravel as we cut around the sweltering cemetery. I can’t recall where we were going on those days, but I remember how we got there, cooled through time and space by the journey itself.

On a bolder expedition we left Gare St. Lazare in Paris, stepped off our train in Vernon and rented bikes to ride the 4 kilometers to Giverny. Already heady with bike-bought freedom we celebrated with an outdoor lunch of roasted vegetables. By the second glass of wine I was sobbing enthusiastically, caught in a circle of emotions brought on by wine and my all-too-recent divorce. I couldn’t finish my meal, and before getting back on our bikes we asked the waiter to package our leftovers for a later dejuner.

He emerged from the kitchen and in his hand was a small white plastic box containing my mushrooms and couscous. This carrier was, he said, a container detached from his own refrigerator. In French the shaken waiter explained to the still-crying me that he since had no carry out boxes, a part of his refrigerator would simply have to do. So–-still tipsy and now laughing--Barb and I hopped back on our wheels and headed to the gardens of Monet.  We left sorrow at the table. On a bike it’s just that easy–-get on and you’re beyond.

The childhood bikes, the rental bikes, the breezy San Francisco bikes-- they’re all a blur now, each one in a sequence of photo frames that signal, take me, rent me or to give away. An ending? No. Those frames click toward the next ride, the simple spinning wheels, cool air passing, and carefree moving forward once again.
photographs: Barbara Talan