Seasonal Confusion Disorder

The holidays are officially over, so life should be getting back to “normal.”  But, what is normal?  (Has there ever been a normal? Or, do things just seem less normal right now?)  We finally used up the last of the fresh garden tomatoes, which we picked as late as November and wrapped in newspapers to ripen.  This is not normal, but it is pretty impressive.

The earlier portion of this week, it was frigid, in the low double digits with wind chill even lower.  Then, it zoomed to almost 70 degrees for a couple of days and we all peeled off our winter coats and frolicked.


There’s no snow, but I did find some snowdrops blooming in the Haupt garden behind the Smithsonian Castle.  These little beauties must be as confused as we are.

Perhaps confusion is the new normal.

Tea for a New World

Tea is too often taken for granted.  Unless you are a tea aficionado, you don’t think twice about a simple cup of Lipton or Tetley, you just dunk a tea bag in the cup of hot water and have at it.   Where does tea come from, and how is it processed?  What’s the difference between black, green and white tea?  Is herbal tea really “tea”?

Most tea we drink here in America comes from afar – China, India, Indonesia.  But, there is one (and only one) tea plantation in the U.S.  A visit to the Charleston Tea Plantation will “steep” you in the history of tea and how it is brought from leaf to table.  I pun…but our own visit there was really very enlightening.

A stroll through the factory tour revealed that black, green and even white tea leaves all come from the same type of plants.  It’s all in the processing, a complicated combination of withering, oxidizing, and other stuff I can’t remember now but I recommend reading about it if you are really interested.

Boarding a trolley with a knowledgable guide/driver, you are shuttled through the plantation to see acres and acres of tea plants and learn even more.  At the greenhouse, you get up close to the propagation process, and learn things like the tea plant’s relation to the camellia, how an adapted farm machine cuts only the most tender offshoots, and how a tea tree can grow for hundreds of years if well-tended.

This visit, coupled with the book I am reading about a Japanese family entrusted with the art of the tea ceremony in mid-late 1800s Japan, and one of the winners of the Global Folklorist Challenge focusing on a tea master in Taiwan (see the entry “From Green Leaves to Green Tea”) has caused me to see tea in whole new ways.  And, no, herbal “tea” is not really tea at all in case you wonder.

Happy tea drinking in 2017!

Suspended Santamation


It’s that time of year.
The Holiday Season, which starts roughly after Thanksgiving (earlier if you are in retail) and extends into the first full week of January. I would argue with the song that claims it as “the most wonderful time of the year” for some obvious reasons: in northern climes such as ours, it is cold and dark, and of course there are those long shopping lines, the stress of holiday preparations, and various reasons why people just are in a celebratory mood and don’t need some sappy song implying there is something wrong if they aren’t feeling wonderful.  But, it can be nice nevertheless, in a multi-sensory kind of way. Colored lights illuminating the darkness, warm smells of cookies baking, Handel’s Messiah, Tchaikofsky’s Nutcracker or other favorite holiday music soothing in the background while you trim the tree and wrap presents, or do whatever else you do if you do it at all.

Okay, nothing new there, just setting the mood. What I do find curious this time of year is my own attitude toward time. I suspend my usual proclivity to planning ahead and projecting my activities into the future, and have a hard time thinking past the weeks framing Christmas. Mid-January seems like a century away (especially, this year, the date of January 20 and what comes afterwards…way too scary to think about now while in a holiday mode).

I feel as though I am living in a bubble of buoyant holiday spirit, with permission to sport tacky holiday earrings, socks, and sweaters, devour things that are sugar and cholesterol laden, and procrastinate real life matters. I tell people I should be interacting with at work, “I know this is a busy time of year, so let’s meet/talk After the Holidays.” This is holiday code for, “My brain is on leave. Blame it on the gingerbread men.” At home, I spend hours doing holiday decorating, wrapping, baking, fussing, and use this as an excuse to neglect anything non-holiday-related, like cooking healthy meals, cleaning the house, or reading edifying journals instead of the Family Circle holiday issue.

Seriously, my retired husband (who is a  bit of a grinch) does most of the cooking, cleaning the house is never a big priority for me year round, and, well, I find it hard to get myself to read edifying journals the rest of the year too…but you catch my drift. This is your brain on holiday, right? Give into it, I say, don’t feel too guilty. Deal with things post-Epiphany. Clear out the left over mini candy canes (wait – they do make good breath mints year-round, no?) and face the New Year with resolve and renewed vigor.

We’ll talk After the Holidays and see how that went.

A Web(by) of Obscure Disney Ducks

[Please note, I am not adding photos related to this post, which might have impinged on Disney Copyright.  As for the City of the Future, it may be best left up to your imagination.]

My husband and I were doing a Sporcle the other day on cartoon characters whose names started with the letter “W” and one of them bore more than a passing resemblance to a young Daisy, as in Donald Duck’s “girlfriend.”  Who was this mystery duck?  By the time the quiz time ran out, we still had no clue.  Turns out her name is Webbigail “Webby” Vanderquack, which I thought was such a silly name, I just had to find out what her character was all about.  This led me to a tangled web of all sorts of obscure (to me at least) Disney characters with equally silly names, and even sillier backstories.  Webbigail, for instance, is apparently the granddaughter of Betina Beakley, who became Scrooge McDuck’s housekeeper at some point…but enough of this nonsense.

This research led me to another character, who first made his appearance in the Disney pantheon in 1952, called Gyro Gearloose.   Among other feats, eccentric genius Gyro (is it pronounced like the Greek sandwich or the scientific instrument – I would guess the latter) at one point achieved the following (which I quote from Wikipedia, though it sounds like it might have been translated from Japanese):

“…He actually persuaded Duckburg citizens to rebuild it into a climate controlled City of the Future! Unfortunately for Gyro, his ideas worked too well-Donald Duck only worked 1 hour a day and spent 23 hours sleeping which left him more grouchy than normal, while Uncle Scrooge McDuck robot made him so much money that it actually filled up his money bin to the point where McDuck could not even burrow into his money! The final straw came when Gyro Robot helper makes a robot to replace Gyro as an inventor! Realizing Duckburg isn’t ready for the future, Gyro turns Duckburg back to its old self.”

Which leads me to the conclusion of this post, namely, are we ready for the City of the Future yet?  When I did a web search for “City of the Future” I found the City of the Future‘s official web site, which is right now in “maintenance mode.”  The following error message appears on the home page:  “Sorry for the inconvenience. Our website is currently undergoing scheduled maintenance.  Thank you for your understanding.”

Ah, what a tangled web(by) has led us here!  Clearly, the City of the Future is not ready for us.  Though Webby Vanderquack, as well as all the other Disney characters popular and obscure, will always be there to cheer us up in our darkest hours.  As long as we don’t infringe on their copyrights.

Thanksgiving Word Play

Thanksgiving comes with lots of food, family and friends – and some fun words.  My 20161124_142636favorite this year is spatchcock, which apparently means partially deconstructing your turkey before you roast it.  (Martha Stewart can explain to you why this is a good idea, I won’t bother.)  It’s a fun word to say — and if one did not know what it meant, you could make up all sorts of interesting fake definitions!  Another item which traditionally graced the Belanus holiday table is rutabagas.  (Though the Belanus-Francis holiday table rarely goes through the trouble – this hard version of a turnip, or swede, is rather a pain to peel as it usually comes covered in some waxy substance, and takes forever to cook to be soft enough to eat.)  Rutabaga, another fun word to say for sure, with roots (so to speak) in a Swedish dialect.  Not to digress, though I will anyway, I recall when our food coordinator for the 1987 Smithsonian Folklife Festival had to try to find a rutabaga totally out of season, in July, for something a cook from Michigan was cooking – I think it was pasties, which has a whole other fun etymology and double meaning…  Hmm.  Then, there are the regional terms for foodstuffs.  Take “stuffing” for instead.  Or, do you call it “dressing”?  Well, in Western Pennsylvania, they call it “filling.”  All making perfect sense, of course.

Happy Thanksgiving weekend to everyone, enjoy some leftover turkey and pie if you have any, and while you are rolling it around your tongue try out some of these Thanksgiving vocabulary words as well.

San Francisco Solace

If your only kid moves across the country, the hope is that it’s to a place you might like to visit frequently.  The San Francisco Bay area is, thankfully, such a place.  (Fog and possible earthquakes aside.)  During a week’s visit there, you barely scratch the surface of things to see and do within the city and relatively short drives around it.  A couple of highlights, besides attending a professional presentation our daughter gave at her workplace (wait – when did she become a fully grown up person?!) were Muir Woods and the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens, maybe because the weather was deliciously warm and mostly sunny, and these two places offer walks that are both beautiful and educational.  What’s the difference between a giant sequoia and a redwood?  Now I know.  How, and why, do carnivorous plants lure their prey?  Much more well informed about that and other plant information now, too.

A walk through Muir Woods is really a spiritual experience.
20161110_115746Despite the many other people visiting there any given day, there is a sense of wonder and awe to see giant trees that have survived for millennia.  While the human world bumbles along, occasionally creating great art but just as often producing chemical run-off and Kentucky Fried Chicken, they just grow.  Sometimes being struck by lightning and then regenerating from their roots.  Sometimes being cut down by those bumbling humans.  But, still there, preserved by some forward-looking conservationists and maintained by the National Park Service for us to marvel at.  It offers some hope for humanity, despite everything and anything that might happen.  (And has in the past couple of weeks.)

Berkeley Botanical Garden offers a more curated nature experience, tastefully arranged and more or less well interpreted.  20161114_150704Climbing up and down hills and past water features, you can take a trip around the world:  native California, the Mexican desert, Australia, the Mediterranean, various parts of Asia and Southern Africa.  The Chinese Medicinal Garden groups plants by the types of illnesses they traditionally treat – and judging by the fact that there is a brochure in Chinese translating the English descriptions around the garden, it must attract many Chinese visitors.   We practically had the place to ourselves the day we were there, which was glorious, though the fog had set in and the promised view across the bay from the highest point was not to be fulfilled.

Thanks, San Francisco Bay area, for offering the peaceful refuge of ancient trees and artful landscapes in a often scary world that changes daily, not always for the better.

 

 

Miami’s World of Water


Miami
– the very name conjures pastel colors, heat, and water, water everywhere. Many people (I would say “many Americans,” but since American popular culture has permeated the globe, it is safe to keep it general) who have not been to Miami in person have a vision of it through TV shows. For me, this was the classic, Miami Vice, which aired during my graduate school years. (It was one of the reasons one of my best friends in grad school, Hanna, convinced me to invest in a VCR, then a new concept in delayed TV viewing.) Exotic, stylish, and wet were the impressions I took away from my media encounters.

A recent trip to Miami for the annual American Folklore Society meetings did not disappoint, especially in the water department. During a pre-conference stay in Miami Beach, I explored the Art Deco area of South Beach, a series of sherbert toned, wedding cake tiered confections with a slightly seedy side, still emerging from a somewhat shady past, now a tourist magnet. The beach beckons, peeking around a string of ocean-side hotels, accessible by skirting a gift shop offering Art Deco themed paraphernalia. When I encountered the beach itself in the morning after a hard rain, it was strewn with dark seaweed and devoid of beachcombers. Ocean Boulevard, one block up, was the home of the morning action – breakfast-munching, coffee-drinking and watching the world go by in open cafes.

20161019_111301The day before the conference started in earnest, a large group of us went on a tour to the Everglades. About a half hour west, the city is left behind and you enter another world, a flat infinite vista of what looks like prairie but is actually, more or less, just a thin veneer of vegetation growing over a vast wetland, punctuated by the occasional limestone hillock. We climbed aboard airboats and donned noise blocking headphones, and set off into this realm with some guides from the Miccosukee Indian tribe, whose home this has been for centuries. Cozy in speeding suspension over the liquid landscape, we admired the water lilies, dragonflies and blue expanses of water in between, but we were also warned that this is the realm of some nasty creatures: alligators, snapping turtles, and disease-bearing mosquitoes to name a few.


Finally, the conference started
, but the contact to water did not end. Our hotel backed up to the Miami River, the shortest navigable river in the U.S., which empties into the Everglades.  Although we were mostly entombed in conference rooms, the river was not be to denied. Coffee, lunch, and happy hour breaks were taken in the hotel’s back patio by the riverside, and if your head just became too full of information, you could zone out on the steps, watch pleasure boats slide by, and dream of joining them to points unknown up the river. The last day of the conference, our conference artist in residence, Losang Samten, a Philadelphia-based Tibetan mandala maker, dismantled his colorful creation and we joined him in offering it to the river. A fit ending to a week spent exploring, and being surrounded by, the many waters of Miami.

Tracking a Ghostly Trail

The paths of old railroad tracks trace history, and since some of them have now been turned into walking tracks like the Lower (rhymes with “flower”) Trail in central Pennsylvania, you can take a stroll through the past.  The interpretation is spotty (there are a few signs, and a sort of helpful brochure), so much is left to the imagination. Industry and settlements once thrived along here — now there is just an overgrown ditch where  the canal preceded the railroad, and the graceful arches of the stone bridge are mossy and almost obscured.  It is hard to believe that this track once carried countless people and tons of goods aboard panting steam trains.  On a Tuesday early afternoon, it is so quiet that you can almost hear the ghosts whispering, until a distant chainsaw growls or a lone cycler whizzes by.  We walked part of the trail along which “the remains” of a stone company town were supposed to be evident.  As you can see by the photo above, “evident” is a relative term.  We wanted there to be more than one blank-eyed roofless grey building blending in with the forest so badly that we thought we saw several, only to discover from another angle that it was just more trees and gray underbrush playing with our fantasy.  (Mood music from Twin Peaks rose in my mind.)  Despite the  occasional creepiness, the Lower Trail is a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours.  To catch the mood, I am going to attempt my very first audio clip of one of the babbling brooks along the trail, under the stone bridge.  Close your eyes and think calm, if slightly disturbing, thoughts of the spirits that must inhabit these woods, and of structures that have melted into the forest so completely that only their shadows remain.

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Lake Effects 3: Borderlands

When I was nearing the end of my freshman year in college, I started looking around for a summer job.  By a sheer miracle, and some stretching of the truth about my prior experience, I parlayed my Ecole Champlain kitchen girl experience into a job as a cook at a summer camp of another ilk – where a bunch of well-to-do families preoccupied with other important matters (drinking gin and tonics, playing tennis) hired a cook for the summer and ate three meals a day, six days a week in a central dining hall.  20160909_171401

Camp Randolph (which I have just noticed has its own jokey Facebook page so I assume still exists) is a necklace of family-owned cottages on two levels overlooking Lake Champlain in Highgate Springs, Vermont.  The lake widens here into a huge, beautiful bay bordering Canada.

As the first week of the camp cooking experience approached, I was totally terrified, though armed with recipes feeding a crowd, thanks to the kind cooks at my college dining room, who shared the secrets of Brownie Pudding for 50 and other delights.  What were these people thinking, hiring an 19-year-old to cook for them all summer, were they crazy?

My only help was three high school aged “waitresses,” local girls who, like me in the past couple of summers, were reveling in living (just slightly) away from home, in the quarters above the dining room.  But, after a few missteps in quantities and varieties of foods that this crowd – ranging from babies through senior citizens – would all eat, I settled into the job, made great friends with the waitresses, and even got invited to some of the cocktail parties thrown by the residents.  We had private jokes about the various residents, including Mr. Dunham, who kept a garden and supplied us with way too many zucchinis, and one who always declared the food “Marvy!”

It was a great adventure the first summer, heartbreaking the second when I fell hard for the son of one of the camp families and got dumped, and definitely a drag the third year, when the “been there, done that” settled in.   The consolation was, as usual, the Lake.  In between meal preparations, grocery orders, and clean up, the waitresses and I spent as much time on or in the lake as possible, all three of those summers.  Canoeing around Bandstand Island, swimming at the little public beach, getting a thrill ride on someone’s power boat, or just sitting on a dock watching its many moods, as I had so many years before much further south, the connection to the lake made it all worthwhile.

So there you have it, my formative summers on the lake, spanning the borders between being a kid and becoming a semi-grownup.  Although I still try to get in or around water as often as possible, I have never been closer to a body of water, in proximity or spirit, since those summers.  I probably swallowed enough of Lake Champlain for a lifetime in those years, though, so maybe that is why it still seems to run in my blood.

 

 

Lake Effects 2: French Lessons

Lake Champlain view from Kingsland Bay State Park by Julia Parent.  The park was created after Ecole Champlain met its demise.

Summer is, for all intents and purposes, over.  But as the temperature still soars to near 100 here in Washington, DC, I will transport myself to the lake of my childhood for a couple more summery memories.  Fast forward from my earliest recollections of Lake Champlain in my last post to my teen years, as a “kitchen girl” at Camp Ecole Champlain, where wealthy sunburned girls learned French at the feet of instructors with sexy accents cutting across the Francophone world.

Alas, I have no extant photos from my two years slaving away in the Ecole Champlain kitchen, but believe me it was a thrilling time, living away from home above the kitchen in a vast rustic attic divided (just barely) between male and female dorm spaces.  My fellow kitchen girl, Rose from Montreal, supplemented my high school French with peppery phrases like “Ferme ta gueule!” (an unsavory way of saying “Shut up”).  My boyfriend du jour, a nice farm boy from nearby, brought me a pet rabbit, dubbed Little Bunny Foo-Foo, who never did master the litter box.

Even as lowly kitchen staff, we were allowed in our off-hours to partake in classes, all taught in French.  I don’t recall any judo instructions in French, but I do remember at least one horseback riding command: “Deposez vous etrier!” (drop your stirrups).  I didn’t last long at horseback riding, falling unceremoniously off one day and pulling a huge muscle at the top of my leg, my agony garnering no sympathy from the imposing instructor.

One night stands out in my memory, and not in a good way: the night I learned never to mix your liquors.  Starting out with a concoction of kalhua and milk (which the older but dubiously wiser cook called “a milkshake except crunchy!”), then progressing to a couple of beers, and finishing off with straight Scotch.  I don’t recall how I made it upstairs to my bed, but I do recall waking up in the middle of the night throwing up. Several times.  And the misery of having to help serve breakfast the next morning. Warning:  do not try tomato juice as a hangover treatment.  It burns all the way down.

The lake was ever-present during the Ecole Champlain summers, as its shore wrapped around the grounds like a cool and inviting compress on a hungover brow.  The swimming beach and watercraft were accessible for us laborers, and we availed ourselves of their use frequently.  But it was more of a scenic backdrop to the Upstairs, Downstairs antics of the camp than the main attraction.  Just as to this day I cannot stomach the smell of Scotch, the Ecole years are buried in my psyche and resurface at a turn of certain French phrases, or Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album which we often played while mopping the dining room floor.  Where to now, St. Peter?