May 30, 2013

Out of place and context

Binjal, not eggplant.
I was shopping for dinner at the Indian grocery store last Saturday . The vivid greens of the corrugated bitter melons contrasted so sharply with the purple tones of smooth, sinuous eggplant, that it was like they were in a yelling match with each other. Or at me.

May 22, 2013

A red and white walking stick

He's always on my morning train to Boston: elderly, slim, suited, blind. Most days our arrival at the Waltham station times such that I board a few paces behind him. His wife (presumably) is younger and guides him to the steps by his elbow, always taking her leave with an affectionate kiss and cheerful wish that he has a great day. 

May 16, 2013

Dandelion: rites or rights?

'Spring' must be named for the way new vegetation jumps out of the cold, hard ground in the blink of an eye. Cue - my annual awe at the signs of life, hope and the delightful sensory overload it brings with it. From the eye-popping yellow of Daffodil heads to the muted rusts of the American Robin breasts, there's a glut of color everywhere. The limited palette of our barely departed Winter becomes a rapidly fading memory.
These are times to be mindful, to soak up and wallow in the details....listen, feel, gaze, breathe. When you're not sneezing from all the pollen, that is. I'm glad to see signs of self-propagation, to anticipate more future greenery but why, I ask, this botanical machismo in broadcasting such excessive proof of virility?! My heart is glad but oh, my sinuses!

My place in the sun?
Seasonal allergies aside, examining the yard closely for hidden delights this time of year also brings with it the dreaded encounter with newly emerged Dandelions, serrated leaves fanning out to nestle comfortably amongst tufts of young grass. Suddenly I no longer notice the fresh, green tinge to the yard nor the surprise purple Crocuses (Crocii?) dotting it. Just that it's going to be a long, hot summer of first fighting weeds, then feeling ineffectual, defeated as they outpace my paltry efforts.

Yesterday, as this annual ritual unfolded, it transported me back 3 years to a spring Saturday morning a few months after we'd moved to our new home in Waltham. As I kneeled on the edge of our lawn and start tearing into the clumps closest to me, then-3-year old Oyon piped up from behind, "Here Mummum, I got a flower" (though his lisp at the time turned it into 'fwawah'). He proudly offered me something green and crushed, opening his little fist to reveal - not a crisp little bloom - but a ball-like Dandelion seed-head.

Oyon, 3 yrs - trying to smell Spring
Noting that I was busy eviscerating a clump just like the one he'd just beheaded, he sank into a squat and demanded to know what I was doing. I started on a spiel about 'bad flowers' but was soon interrupted with 'Why they bad? The seeds can fly! I LOVE this flower!'. I rapidly ran out of both conviction and words at this point. Also, I ran out of an audience: Oyon was now blowing the seeds into the air and running after them, giggling like a maniac.

But not before he had started me on my other seasonal struggle:
weed rites or weed rights?
Weeding has always left me feeling faintly guilty about just the sort of botanical Eugenics that the 3 year old honed in on. I don't seem to have any compunctions about the selective breeding inherent in agriculture. For instance I'm happy enough to consume the Brown Basmati that is a staple in our home, that I know to have been deliberately cultivated at the expense of other native flora on large tracts of farmland. It's the only way to sustain life outside of an agrarian community. My unease also doesn't seem to extend to say, the furniture industry. I'm aware of the systematic replacement of primary forests all over the US with hardwoods stands best suited to furniture making. I don't feel particularly happy about it but have yet to eat dinner sitting on the floor (as I suppose I very well could) because I'm morally troubled by furniture. I've made Peace with the necessity of commercial agriculture and forestry or the sake of leading our modern lives. Can't very well do my nifty little GIS analyses to help save said forests if I'm out  at sunrise to milk the cows and till the soil. And no - I don't dwell on the logical fallacy and the self-fulfilling prophecies in the above statement. Leave me alone, would you?! I do just fine confusing myself all on my own.

I suppose I'm stating the obvious fact that admirable moral stands are difficult to fully abide by when they drastically redefine basic standards of living. Far easier to rationalize away any unease with theses on top-of-the-food-chain rights or the mitigating effect of consuming sustainably developed products. I decided long ago to not look too closely the moral compromises we make for a basic quality of life. Doesn't deter me from occasionally proselytising but I'm a 'work in progress' so it's alright. I'll get there.

What I can't rationalise away to myself quite as easily is selective breeding for the sake of societally defined aesthetics. That someone, somewhere in time decided that Kentucky Bluegrass and Fescues made for the ideal, attractive lawn and so Crabgrass should be deemed persona non-grata and Dandelions, conniving intruders. That clover blooms are not as worthy of ground space as say Phlox or creeping Thyme. So spray the one and tend the other.
If there were ever reasonable grounds for these decisions, they've probably outlived their usefulness by now. For instance, K. Bluegrass probably makes for great fodder but since the typical suburban lawn no longer supports grazing cattle or horse, the point is largely moot. But it does resist cold weather and drought equally well and will spread to fill in bare spots and Scotts' sells it at discount in economically fulfilling large bags. Also, some trend setting home owner one day sowed the seeds and started a standard that the Jonesing neighbors then stepped up and embraced. So we go with the flow. 

So my self-flagellating, rhetorical, annual question is: who defined these aesthetics and why are we tied to them? Is it true personal choice or unwillingness to buck a system. Or like most things in life, is it just plain old inertia?

Personally, I love the clover patch spread all over our front yard. The blooms smell wonderful throughout the summer and the bees it attracts would probably serve all our home-garden pollination needs (if we had any). They are nitrogen fixing plants that don't need extra watering or fertilizers to go forth and multiply.....all the way to the neighbors carefully weeded, manicured, fence less front yard. The crabgrass and dandelion join the party too, appearing on the other side of the property line, in abundance and with easily traceable ancestry.

Therein lies the proverbial rub.

Any fleeting fondness I might hold for the redoubtable clover is easily overshadowed by an unwillingness to displease neighbors, with their more exacting standards of neatness. Do I carry out MY moral imperatives at the cost of THEIR aesthetics? The answer's not as obvious as when I was arguing this just inside my head and without friendly interactions with said neighbors.

3 yrs ago we were new to the neighborhood and felt the need to solidify our 'good neighbor' creds.

I have diligently dug up/sprayed the dandelion for the past 3 years now.  Being held accountable by my young son who shared my very same moral quandary seemed like the worst sort of karmic retribution but I tell myself (and him) it's a good example of being a responsive community member.

Oyon, 6 - still broadcasting seed heads
Back then, I still couldn't help adding a moral 'out' (for both our sakes) by justifying that dandelion stole food from flowers that now can't grow big enough to give bees their nectar to make honey. I remember clearly that Oyon reacted by yelling 'Don't worry Mammam, I'll help!', ripped out the first few Crocuses of the season and commenced chasing a few buzzing yellow jackets yelling 'Come drink your connector, bee!'.

More recently, at a more coherent 5 years of age,  he had me transplant a clump of dandelion and clover to a planter for his room because he felt sad about killing them in the yard 'for the enighbors'. Yes, he'd drunk the Cool Aid by then. He wanted to 'save' some from some sense of fair play.

Didn't last a week in his care and I no longer have a 3 foot high conscience tickler around when I'm Dandelion-freeing our yard.

Good for me. 

I think.

May 10, 2013

I looked around and I saw.

200 yr old Charlestown Bridge. 10 yr old Zakim Bridge behind, TD Bankorth Gardens on the left, Charles River Locks, under.

Having unshackled myself from Facebook - and thus my iPhone- for a day-long Sabbatical, I went for a walk at lunch time.

I earn my bread in a venerable old building right by Boston's historic North End, within stone's throw of Charlestown and on the banks of the Charles River. Plenty of places that could let in some light.

A spot I knew by the river's edge called to me and I answered. I rested my elbows on the sun-warmed rails, felt the breeze play with my hair, allowed my shoulders to drop a bit and let my eyes wander.  Without any purpose whatsoever.

The USS Constitution in the Navy Yard, Charlestown
The masts on Old Ironsides across the water bristled as they have done for 200 odd years. Young women sunned their winter-bleached bodies gratefully on the slim green strips of grass. A man in black paddleboarded up against the current.  And I heard the quiet in my mind. At last.

Not really though. The Charlestown bridge rumbled un-rythmically from passing traffic. The river went about it's business with occasional swishes and gurgles. And a few distinct splashes that tugged at my now-adrift consciousness. I looked around for the source. Down by my feet, the water was it's usual murky green but punctuated by unusually large, bulls eye ripples. They dotted the water as far as I could see, timed to those sharp little splashes. Then something silver flashed just under the surface. A short distance away, another silvery flash. These too lined up with the splashes.

Of course. Fish.

I tried to collect more flashes that timed with the tinkling splashing, delighted at this novel symphony.

And so I looked. Really looked - at the murky depths. What was merely the motion of wave-creased water and the play of light a moment ago, transformed suddenly into a procession of striped little bodies, moving with astounding speed and determination. Each flash was a silver scaled body twisting up to the surface, catching and throwing back the light in its leap. Each splash marked its re-entry.

  And the more I looked, the more I saw.

The choreography that was only just revealed to my utter delight was a matter of routine for the tiny lives involved. While i focussed so intently on this amazing stream of life within the river, the traffic continued to rumble over the bridge. They silently rushed by for the 5 minutes I watched with my newly opened, awestruck eyes.

Charles River Locks
The Charles River locks were just a few hundred yards away and I remembered the fish ladders there, for young Shad, Alewife, Smelt and Herring to run.

A motorized boat with 3 young men drifted up and cast their fishing lines. They must have been watching their boat radars. By the time I'd turned my gaze down again to soak up more of the quiet but incredible energy roiling sub-surface, they were gone. I inadvertently froze, hoping someone would hit the 'play' button again.

They were gone.

I hung around as long as my conscience would let me: my work wasn't going to do itself. My increasingly desperate scanning of the murky depths for any darting colors or flashes of light revealed nothing.

I gathered together my disappointment and headed back to cubicle-land. I let go of the sun and air and mentally prepared to give myself up again to the stifling, controlled environment that would numb my senses while somehow opening up those mental facilities that let me be professionally effective.

Only a few paces before I would leave water and grass behind for the asphalt that led to my building, I caught sight of a newly sprouted Boston ivy creeper.

It had twined up an ugly chicken wire fence, spreading out it's finely veined, impossibly glossy new baby leaves to the light and burgeoning heat.

I thought of that faraway stream of young fish, swimming from their spawning grounds to their Lives out in the big, wide bay. The urban, resilient invasive ivy shoots forcing up from sidewalk cracks and around wire frames to claim their place.

So much life teeming around me, where I can't see or even guess at it.

My cubicle doesn't feel so stifling anymore.