Thursday, December 25, 2014

Peace on Earth

The Christmas creche is a long-standing tradition at this Oakland home. Tradition yes, but not very traditional. It's a bit multi-this and multi-that, and all of it has meaning. 

Yes, the "shepherd" watching his flock is actually a caveman from a set of Pleistocene Epoch toy figures. Sadly, the mastodon and saber-toothed tiger wandered off years ago, although the woolly mammoth is still around here somewhere.

This year's flock is composed of mostly white-coated figures - no, not medical professionals - but sheep, goats, rams and lambs, poodles, polar bears and pelicans. Owning four stomachs is not a requirement for membership.
Here it is considered an additional benefit to have any number of deities and other religious VIPs participate in the celebration.

The Laughing Buddha is always in attendance, as is the trio of Kitchen Gods (at least I think that they're Kitchen Gods). No one has yet put a name to the Old Guy God (on the left in the photo), but he sure looks prayerful, so he is welcome too.
Finally, as a bow to the original Nativity story, our creche includes the serpent from the Garden of Eden. And a fighter jet that was found in the yard serves as a token for the state of affairs in the Middle East today. 

Each year when I set up the creche, I hope that the jet will not have a place in the scene. This year, I arranged the creche to the sound of police helicopters - a loud and sad reminder of the police and demonstrators battling it out in Oakland and Berkeley.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Holiday Shopping Idea

Yup, just one. "Cause these days, I pretty much only remember one thing at a time. Really, it's one thing, period, and forget the "at a time" part. So what was I going to tell you, anyway?

Lava-lava Painter
One of my most favorite places to "shop" is the Kiva website. Kiva is a micro-lending program which connects people with money (you and me) to entrepreneurs from around the globe who need a little support to move ahead. Yes, sometimes the words "poverty" and "empowerment" are thrown around, but really, it's all about shopping.

Here's how it works: you commit to a minimum loan of $25 (remember, it is a loan, not a donation. So unless disaster strikes, it is your money and you can get it back once the loan has been repaid. Or if you are giving this as a gift, the happy recipient can get it back.)

Next you go scroll through all of the proposals from interesting people in far-away places and consider which one(s) you plan to support. Shall I invest in a lava-lava (think "sarong") painter in Samoa who needs new brushes and paints? A rice farmer in the Philippines who requires additional organic fertilizer? Or what about that knitter in Bolivia who needs extra materials to make ponchos?

Poncho Maker
As I mentioned, once the loan is paid back, you may pull out your cash. Better still is to go back to Kiva for another fun shopping experience. We started with Kiva in 2007 with a $100 commitment. Since then, we have participated in 45 loans for a total amount of $1,150 lent out. We've never lost a dime on a bad loan (yeah, I know, there's still time) and only one was slow in repaying.

So you guessed it, I went with the poncho maker. Partly because the loan term was much shorter (shorter term = help someone else out with a new loan more quickly). But also because anyone who washes sand to earn extra cash probably has the gumption to make her business a success. And really, who could resist that hat...


For a fun read about a Kiva lender:
The International Bank of Bob

Photos: Screenshot from Kiva website (bad, bad girl - didn't get around to asking permission, yet)

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Season of Giving and Giving and Giving

December 5, 2014

It's December, and the small tromboncino summer squash has decided to go big. Big time. Although it was planted in May, and had all the light and sun and water to grow up big and strong, it really didn't do poo-poo. Until October. And then, finally, we all had to jump back.

Last week
Starting in November, the plant has been pushing out new baby zucchinis for some very fine eating. I'm not exactly sure who has been doing the pollinating - the bees from the hive have long since gone to bed for the season, and I sure haven't been out there with my little Zucchini Sex Goddess Wand.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Just wondering though: where were you in July?

This week, so far

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Full of Beans

Yup, here we are in October, just full of beans. Totally full of beans. So full of beans our eyes were beginning to turn green. (Nah, somehow that doesn't have the same impact as the one about brown eyes...)

These beans are Fortex pole beans, and they were truly sweet and delicious, even when they grew really long. As in, ten to twelve inches long. And we estimated around sixty to seventy pounds of long beans, over a season of three months.

(Yes, that's correct. You can see in the photo that the beans were planted right along the front sidewalk. They caused a small sensation as they grew from seeds to over eight feet tall.)

Last year we got a lot of beans, but nothing quite like this. I'm not saying that the neighbors ran away when they saw me, but everyone did keep their car doors locked.

I will be growing more Fortex beans next year, but I plan on planting a much shorter row. That way I'll have room for a zucchini or two. It's good to keep your neighbors on their toes.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Breakfast of Champions?

We went to Spain last month. And most people agree that Spanish food is amazing. And it was, without a doubt. But for me, one of the most unexpected food items I encountered on that trip was at breakfast at El Jardín del Convento in Hervás.

El Jardin del Convento
On the table was this little dish of orange-gold nuggets. I did not recognize it as a food item, so I asked in my broken Spanish, and was answered in slightly less fractured English, "bee pullen."

OK, I gotta try this. Because of it's appearance - almost like fenugreek seeds - I was expecting something substantial. But, literally, it melted in my mouth. I just let it rest on my tongue and it was gone. With a somewhat sweet and floral flavor, but not at all overpowering.

There are many, many, many claims about the health and nutritional benefits of bee pollen. As yet, none has been scientifically verified. But for me, it really doesn't matter. Just that delicate flavor and texture are enough of an excuse to keep on sampling.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cram for the Exam

Yup, it's that time once again to pick your leadership. And goodness, but lots of people are using stacks and stacks of dead tree debris to help convince us how to do it.

Oakland has ranked-choice voting, which means that many of those lots of people are also trying to game the system. But with 15 mayoral candidates in the running, that may be difficult.

Got questions about ranked-choice voting? Who doesn't? Then read this from the Alameda Registrar of Voters, explaining how it works.

Me? Aside from those pesky state propositions, I have more questions about Measure BB which wants one full percentage point in sales tax revenues for thirty (yes, three-zero) years. Much of that dough goes to BART to expand further into the hinterlands. An East Bay Express article details the short-sighted ways of funding BART.

Only eight percent of Measure BB is dedicated to bicyclists and pedestrians. Meaning, if you have problems with bumpy streets and potholes large enough to host a flock of ducks, you are on your own. A good friend of me who is far more savvy about this kind of stuff claims that "they are truly reaching."

So start early - my ballot is three pages long, both sides - 'cause the deadline is Tuesday, Nov. 4th.

Oakland North

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mosaic Project #1

When people asked me what I was going to do once I retired, I said that I was going to "do" mosaics. Now, a little more than a year later, I have at least one thing to show that I am not a complete shiner-of-on, only a little slow.

I covered this terra-cotta planter (13" cube) with glass tiles in a very simple pattern. Yeah I know, it's really more of a tiling job than a mosaic. But at least it's done. And really, it's the cuphea that completes the effect. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

You Say Tomatoes, I Say...


You are looking at pretty much the entire haul of San Marzanos for the season. So sad. It seems barely worthwhile turning on the oven for that small amount of roasted tomatoes. 

Of course my sister had to call right then, allegedly asking for my Roasted Tomato recipe. But I'm pretty sure that she was gloating over her "bucket full of San Marzanos." And here I thought she liked me. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A New Garden Visitor

With a face only a mother could love. Or a father, in most cases. Because the belief that Mr. Mantis always loses his head when mating is apparently true less than thirty percent of the time. (Although, it also seems that he is a better lover without his head. Apparently, all his inhibitions go away.)

On the other hand, all those brothers and sisters better watch out - if there isn't enough food around, the new generation will begin to snack on each other.

Camouflaged Mantis
This praying mantis was discovered in the Aristea inaequalis, planted out in the parking strip (the purple flowers are from the adjacent verbena). The stupid Aristea is supposed to be "bloomiferous" but it hasn't done pooh-pooh). Completely camouflaged, the mantis must have been stalking its next meal.

There are a number of mantis species found in northern California. I confess that I didn't wait around for this one's eyes to change color or to examine its wing spots in order to identify it.

Until I spotted this one, I had never seen a mantis in this garden. Somehow I had imagined that sharing space with the local katydids just wasn't cool. Strange though, I haven't heard the katydids calling much since the mantis showed up....


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Updates: #5

Once again, holiday cheer arrived here in early September. Yup, the amaryllis decided to bloom. I'm happy, but I'm pretty sure that it's tired and cranky and ready for a good snooze in a dark corner somewhere. Next week I'll put it down for a quiet nap.

And if you're thinking of getting some holiday shopping in early, Kathy Kenny will be showing her collection of jewelry at Artistry in Fashion, Cañada College's annual fashion event. 

At home, my favorite watercolorist has been busy lately with painting and stuff. What stuff? Not shopping, but writing a book on how to watercolor, to be published by North Light Books in early 2016. (The only surprise would have been if it were a book on shopping, or at least how to remember to bring home all the items on the grocery list...)

The sunflowers out front were fabulous this year. They kept the bees - the new hive is next door and everyone is delighted - really busy.

And to protect those valuable seeds from the squirrelly predators? Nothing beats an old paper bag.

Monday, September 15, 2014

When Friends Give You...

Extra, unwanted tiles, make stepping stones.

And lucky me, the materials were all on hand, except for the pair of 98¢ cement squares. Yup, concrete sealer, thin-set, usable grout - I had it all. Perhaps I should open a little local building supply center in the garage? No doubt it would still take years to clean out this mess.

My benefactor? Jack Miller, architect, now engaged in re-doing his own home space (or so I assume, since I haven't seen him around much). Or perhaps he got a better idea and slipped off to Paris...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cat? What Cat? I Don't See Any Cat...#4

Ever feel like you're being watched? And you can't quite figure out exactly whose eyes are on you? And it's still early, so you're not really awake enough to bother with finding out?

But Princess the cat has already been up for hours and is dying for a game of purple sock...

So we play "Find the Cat" instead. Which involves a silly song whose lyrics consist mostly of the phrase "Where is Princess?" sung to the tune of Frère Jacques. Something that I can manage in bed while reading a book and drinking coffee. Sure my lips move while I read, but who's really listening, anyway?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Calendula Heals All, or At Least a Few Things

Resina Calendulas

The local, as in very local, pharmacy has been playing around with remedies for the type of super-dry skin that comes from playing in the dirt. Happily, the experiments have led to success. Success, by the way, which didn't require a lot of work or money.

Neal's Yard Remedies used to have this wonderful Elderflower Hand Softener which turned my lobster claws into tender baby toes overnight. But like so many other great products, it's no longer available.

I don't have space for an elderberry shrub, but I can easily grow calendulas. They are pretty, colorful, help keep the bad bugs away and make the bees happy, too. Historically, calendula flowers have been used to ease an impressive line-up of complaints. These days, its healing powers seem to be limited to external uses - even the medical profession gives calendula credit for skin healing properties.

I looked at various recipes for calendula creams, lotions, tinctures and finally settled on this one from NZ Eco Chick.* Except I'm really lousy at following instructions, so I do a few things differently:
  • Use fresh calendula flowers. Pick the flowers during the day and let them dry out overnight. That way, the oil is less likely to become rancid. 
  • Do not bother with that muslin cloth idea. Just pour the oil through a sieve and press down on the flowers with the back of a spoon. Way less mess.

And it was a nice thing to be able to re-use that old Neal's Yard jar.

* Around here, organic virgin coconut oil may be found at Trader Joe's.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Peace Lantern Ceremony

It was a lovely gathering last Saturday at Aquatic Park. All the expected "Berkeley types" were there, as well as everyone else you could imagine, human or otherwise. The music was perfect, even if the weather wasn't, and everyone did an excellent job of sharing the crayons.

The lanterns were all hand decorated by the people who came. Then they were gathered up and readied for launching.
Which proved to be a little harder than I would have guessed. The wind was not our friend that evening. But the organizers had it all under control -  adept helpers were ready to ensure that the lanterns made it safely into the water.
A few of the lanterns didn't mind going in alone, or only with a buddy or two. 
And most all made it to the other side. 

In Japan, lighted lanterns are part of the Buddhist Obon festival which traditionally takes place in August (July in eastern Japan, but that is a long story). The Obon festival honors the souls of one's ancestors who come and stay for three days. On the final day of the festival, paper lanterns are floated on waterways to help guide the spirits back to the world of the dead. 

Since the world's first atomic bombings in Japan in 1945, this Buddhist custom has gathered additional meaning. This was the thirteenth Peace Lantern Ceremony in Berkeley. Plan on attending next year - I am.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Oakland Tool Lending Library

Ever since the painter in the family moved his studio back home, we have been engaged in a Battle Against Too Much Stuff. 

On our side, we have craigslist, thrift stores, young friends starting new homes, the recycling bin and as a last resort, the little blue garbage can. Stuff has inertia - the resistance of a physical object to any change in its state of motion. As well, Stuff controls a small, well-equipped and coordinated roving herd of dust rhinos.

Clearly, we don't stand a chance. Stuff alwaaays wins.

One of my favorite Get Rid of Stuff sites is the Tool Lending Library (TLL) of the Oakland Public Library.  Not only can you donate usable tools there (I mean seriously, how did we end up with 26 screwdrivers, anyway?), but if you ever find that you need that exact tool again, you can just go borrow it back.

In May, 2012, Judith Doner Berne wrote all about the TLL for the Rockridge News (scroll down to page 8). More recently, plans are alive to make the TLL an even better space for us chimp-like tool users.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The (New & Temporary) Bridge to Nowhere

September, 2013

When we first took a hike on the new Bay Bridge bicycle and pedestrian path last September, the old Bay Bridge was completely intact. Empty, but whole.

Not any longer. This is how it looked last weekend. My, that demolition crew certainly has been busy.

It seems that the complete removal of the old structure will take somewhere between three and five years. We plan on watching it go, especially now that I have my new bike(!). Leaving from the house, the outing is about 15 miles round-trip, including the short detour to Arizmendi in Emeryville for pastries (ya pedal it all off, right?).

I wasn't aware that the new Bay Bridge troll (Yup, that's right. Troll. Not "toll". There is nothing new about the toll.) has now been placed in its permanent home on Pier E2 of the new bridge. It cannot be seen while driving, although according to a bridge spokesman, it is "somewhat visible from the bike path."

Hmmm, next time I'm on the path, I've gotta find that baby.

July, 2014

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Little Lettuce That Could

Bronze Arrow lettuce is the big hero of the salad bowl these days. No caterpillars, no bolting, and, unlike the English queens, if you chop off it's head, it simply grows a new one. I have to confess that it is not the most flavorful lettuce, but it tastes waaaay better than anything you can buy.

One seed must have slipped into a crack in the patio during planting and has now formed a lovely little head. A bit redder than most (must be the daily baking it receives), and certainly somewhat lonelier, but it never complains or whimpers.

I'm a bit torn, though. One the one hand, every time I see this little lettuce, I am impressed with its determination and valor. On the other hand, I wonder if it too would re-grow a new head...

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Best Cheap Cat Toys #2: Underwear

If the designated laundry folder at your house is as conscientious as the one here, he will keep folding those creaky old pairs of underwear without noticing just how unsuitable they are for wearing. So when you have underpants that really needs to be consigned to the Rag Bag (or the garbage can):

Turn the elastic at the top into a favorite cat toy.
Cut out the top elastic. Use the bottom portion to wash the car, re-stain an old piece of furniture, or simply throw that heroic article away.
Take that circular piece of elastic and cut through it to make one long piece.
So much the better if you have two dead pairs. That way the two pieces of elastic can be knotted together to form a longer cord: much less strain on your back at playtime.

You can stop at this point and have a great toy, or,
for even more enjoyment, dig out an old sock (purple or otherwise) and pin it to one end of the elastic cord.

(The optional black streamers on the end are narrow strips cut from an old sweatshirt. Cats get bored with toys, but a few small imaginative changes can bring back that old excitement.)
This toy is great for kittens because they can't swallow it, the way they can with string, yarn, rubber bands and all those other cute and dangerous play items.

Throw it in the washing machine when it gets grungy. It will last for years and years of safe fun.

Just ask Princess!