Saturday, August 15, 2009

Beyond Bottom Rot

We are hardly horticultural masters. Most plantings we have attempted through the years have either fallen prey to predators -- sometimes deer, sometimes rabbits or squirrels, sometimes aphids or fungus -- or the elements. That latter category is, more often than not, usually defined as "operator error", as in too much or too little water. We travel, after all, and rain doesn't always fill the gaps of our absences.

But this year we have been resolute. Tomatoes (seven plants worth) and peppers (at least as many as tomatoes) and herbs. Three kinds of mint, two kinds of basil and rosemary. The tomatoes, however, have been the focus. Beginning with tiny, fragile seedlings, we have nurtured them along, framing with wire cages, regularly feeding, threatening predators, and waiting. Sure enough, a few blossoms emerged, and ultimately fruit -- green marbles that have gradually and ever-so-slowly swollen into the physical anticipation of supper.

We noticed, however, that the early ripening ones had a peculiar malady. The bottoms looked like they had sat too long on a hot board and fried. "Bottom rot" we determined through the wonderful diagnostic tool that is Google. We read, we learned, we confessed, we corrected, we resumed our anticipation.

But don't think for a minute that we discarded those flawed examples. Sure, the bottoms were problematic, so we cut them off and proceeded to consume the remainder. It wasn't always much, but we had been waiting, after all, for months -- Since May 14 to be exact -- and we were hungry. And we were not disappointed. The excised portions were exquisite; we moaned as the meaty juice flooded our mouths and disappeared down our throats. Everything is a package, after all. Nothing is flawless. If some mysterious residue of the bottom rot poisons us and we die tomorrow, we will at least die happy, satisfied and smiling, happily dreaming of the homemade marinara sauces and BLT's and caprese salads still ripening on the vine.

But I'm not worried. We spend lifetimes cutting the flaws off of blessings otherwise delicious -- jobs, marriages, friendships, avocations -- enjoying, forgiving, moaning and giggling and living to tell the tale, rotted parts notwithstanding. Who knows? Maybe the good parts are sweeter because of the bad.

Besides, we are learning. Who can imagine how good they are bound to taste next year?

More than a Keychain or Snapshot

I'm trying to pull the stake out of my heart. Hopefully I'll recover. The wound? A story headlined on Yahoo naming the Alamo one of the most over-rated tourist "traps" in the country. Isn't that some egregious form of treason -- if not outright mortal sin? Where is John Wayne when you need him?

It's true, the Alamo is unbecoming -- small and crude and unadorned. It's true, the shrine has been crowded in by banks and hotels and the hustle and bustle of urban commerce. Within stone-throwing distance of the Disney-esque Riverwalk, and across the street from a "Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not" attraction, the Alamo can, I suppose, come off like a kind of local "kitsch." But if you are in San Antonio looking for titillation go to Sea World or Fiesta Texas -- Six Flags' local theme park. The Alamo isn't about roller coasters or trained seals. It isn't about breathtaking architecture or holographic documentaries.

It's about a story. It's about oppression. It's about a moment in history colored by character, shared passion, integrity, a desire for freedom -- OK, and a rather foolish display of machismo. It's about the sometimes necessary sequence of losing a battle to win a war. It's about martyrdom in service to a cause greater than oneself.

Which is to say the Alamo is less about the place and the setting and the unimpressive little mission building preserved there than it is about the values and convictions recalled and commemorated there. It's hard, I'll admit, to capture all that in a tourist guide book or a souvenir shop, but some things just don't translate well. It isn't enough to physically be there.

In ways far transcending GPS coordinates and dots on a Grayline tour map, you have to really be there to understand.

Which is to say that maybe the writer is absolutely correct. The Alamo isn't a place for tourists. It's a place for students interested not so much in Texas history, but in living life on deeper, more grounded and substantial terms.

Very few souvenirs manage to capture that.

Nourishment among the quieter blossoms

The lantana must be especially sweet this time of year -- or perhaps the sweeter alternatives have, by this time, wilted or grown tiresome; the hummingbirds have been dabbling among them all day. The airy, seemingly weightless thimbles of feathers manifest as if conjured by a wand, hover, and then nose their way into each of the clusters of yellow and red and purple growing in window boxes on the deck, and beneath the dining room window out front. Satisfied, each one takes its turn and then vacates its position so another can take its place. Thinking they have finished for the day, I look away, only to glimpse yet another lithesome whir out of the corner of my eye. Dusk, now, and still they visit -- always the lantana; only the lantana.

There are, of course, other options. It is no monoculture we are nurturing in the soils behind us or in front. The hibiscus, for example, look to me a more desirable candidate, but the hummingbirds seem never to notice -- or noticing, turn their attentions to their preferred targets. I am not arguing; simply noting my surprise. The smaller, spindlier lantana advertise little. Hardly shouting from their soils, their neat and less obtrusive clusters rather quietly hum. Who knows if that's the connection; but I've had some similar experience -- quite recently, in fact. Those in my hearing who tend to speak the loudest -- who strut and peacock the most dramatically -- typically have the least of interest or substance to say.

Which is to say that the hummingbirds, I think, are on to something. If you are bored, look for the big and showy blossoms. But if you are hungry...

It's getting dark now, but still I see a flutter feeding. All is quiet around the hibiscus -- the big yellow one, and also the platter-sized red. The lantana, however, are busy -- a horticultural Sonic Drive-in -- quietly, simply offering the considerable gifts they have to share.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Yet One More Dinner -- and More

Maxwell bought my dinner tonight.
It's not the first time. For more years than I can easily remember, he has been looking out for me -- at least since the time in college when he saved me from the hostile aggression of a drunken cowboy at a Waylon Jennings concert at the Northside Coliseum. It's a long story. Suffice it to say that he has for decades now felt a sort of fraternal obligation.

There were those times when he decided I wasn't"interesting" enough girls and so took it upon himself to -- how shall I say this with dignity -- "set me up." There was the time, years later, when I was diagnosed with cancer and he showed up in my hospital room almost before I knew about the diagnosis myself, with plans to fly me across the country to an international specialist. There was the time, years later, when he, himself, flew across the country to console me at a time when I was inconsolable.

More times than not, his ministrations have involved food -- always at his expense: steak, more times than one; tamales, barbecue, fried catfish, jalapeno hushpuppies, chicken, and tonight fish. We are, after all, getting older.

Food, that is, and friendship. Always, devoted friendship.

It's funny. Tonight we were once again reminiscing and taking stock. We met in high school and lived together most of the way through college, and still we seem like yin and yang. No one who knows us can figure out our connection. We have, by all observation, virtually nothing in common, save abiding affection. I won't belabor the comparisons. Let's just say we are different; a cursory glance would conclude that we live very different lives.

And yet our lives have almost eerily paralleled. We know each other at the core, even if our surfaces bear little resemblance. I, just to say it succinctly, have always been more appropriate; Max has always been more interesting. I don't know what else to say.

And tonight, once again, he bought my dinner. And said grace at the table. Grace, indeed, and blessing. My beloved friend. With whom I have nothing in common...

...except almost everything.
And in ways that have only peripherally to do with the meal, I came home very, very full.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dry Land Still Emerging

Recently we were asked, "So have you been having a good summer?" It was an innocent, genuine -- and simple-- question. We had to think, however, how to answer. To be sure, it hasn't been the summer we expected to have. Months before we had made plans for these warmer weeks, and while they weren't in and of themselves the sort of plans that make hearts go "pitter patter", they were...well...plans. They had embedded themselves into our collective imagination. We had made reservations. We had bought tickets. We had drafted anticipatory mental pictures of the sights, the smells, the tastes. And to date, I can't think of a single plan that has unfolded exactly as conceived. And along the potholes and bumps in this road, we have, I'll be honest, felt some disappointments.

That said, the honest answer to the question is "yes," we have been having a good summer. No, it hasn't been what we had expected, but I would hate to the think that my expectations and anticipations would ever be the measure of possibilities. I have long since learned -- though routinely forget -- that God is still pushing aside chaotic waters to reveal more dry lands than I could ever fathom. And this summer's new lands have been filled with deep goodness. Both of us have gotten to spend sacred and privileged time with our parents, accompanying them through some deep woods that have come their way; gifts of presence we have been grateful to both give and receive. And, in so doing, we have discovered surprising way-spaces along the way in which we could spend equally holy time with each other in concentrations too rarely afforded.

We have been nudged into new learnings, drawn toward healthier lifestyles, and grounded by new disciplines. We have gardened, we have put away harvest for the winter, we have bought books -- and even read a few of them; we have spent hours in the kitchen experimenting, tasting, blanching, chopping, baking, sharing. We added a new freezer. Along the way we have thought about grandparents who must be smiling from their graves at the way we are freshly honoring their example.

No, there hasn't been much "flame and fizz and sizzle and spark." Anyone glancing at this site from time to time has surely noticed that I haven't seemed to have much worth writing about. Words have been few and far between. From the outside, it surely looks like a dull and disappointing summer.

But on the inside, we are...
...deeply grateful...

...making fresh plans, and...

...wondering what alternatives will ultimately take their place.