whistlestop caboose

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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

Tulips 2006 for Gran ellengwallace's Tulips 2006 for Gran photoset

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Stepping stone recipes, part 5: mash, the recipe

  • Any quantity of good potatoes, boiled to just tender all the way through, 15-30 minutes depending on size and variety. Leave the skins on for the vitamins and the fun of it, or let them cool a few minutes so you can peel them (Grandma always peeled them)
  • Mashing implement or a fork
  • Quickly mash them hot until they are thoroughly broken up, but not smooth (you don't want too much heat to escape)
  • Salt and pepper them and when no one is looking dip your finger in to make sure they are salty enough
  • Slice off a tablespoon or so of butter and stir it in until it melts
  • Keep adding butter until the mash is fairly smooth
  • Add just enough milk - always less than you expect - to make the potatoes the right consistency for gravy-holding wells (see previous post). For 5-6 potatoes this is probably about 1/4 cup of milk.

Bring out gravy, sour cream or butter for the well in the middle or if you're an adult, you can eat them plain and feel proud of yourself.

Stepping stone recipes, part 5: mash!

A few years ago, when I lived in Paris, I bought a big fat French cookbook with lots of colored photographs. I thought it would unlock some of the mysteries of French cooking - not the fancy stuff, just the day to day basics in a French household kitchen. I tried to use it regularly for a while, but I stopped when I mastered purée de pommes and decided that this was one dish where I preferred the American version: mashed potatoes.

Go back a bit. It is the 1950s. A little girl visits her grandparents in Reinbeck, Iowa for Thanksgiving. She is small enough and shy enough to crawl under the round dining room table, which has fat carved wooden legs. She scoots up against the base and listens to the grownups talk about the couple across the street who didn't speak for 30 years but were buried side by side for eternity. They rake over who hasn't paid his bills to the store and why that might be. Who isn't long for this world.

The smells of pumpkin and apple pies drift down and curl under the tablecloth. If I, the little girl, try hard enough I can almost see them cooling on Grandma's very old iron stove as I peep through the holes in the lace tablecloth.

The meat is roasting, a warm, cajoling perfume that makes me very hungry. I crawl out long enough to sneak a few black olives, a luxury Grandpa insists on, that we never have at home. He grabs a fistful and without looking at me shoves a couple in my hot little fist. I duck back under the table. He talks loudly and listens only when he feels like it, the result of a hearing aid and a fierce sense of independence in old age.

Voices and noises buzz above and around me. It's possible I doze. And then suddenly I am sitting at the table and there is a beautiful brown drumstick with crispy skin in front of me ("yyyy," mutters my sister Tara in disgust at me as she slices her more elegant white meat). Next to the turkey leg are some of Grandma's bright green garden peas. And next to that is the most beautiful sight on earth to a hungry little person, a round and smooth lump of mashed potatoes. I hurry to make a well in the middle with my fork, making neat lines in two directions, a gravy-holding grid.

"Gravy?" asks Grandma, but she doesn't wait for an answer. The steaming meat juice is poured into my neat well. I pause to let it cool and observe Grandma's lovely long silver braid twisted into a thin knot at the back of her head. Someday, I think, I will have hair like Grandma and bake pies and. . .

But by then the gravy is just cool enough not to burn my mouth. I tuck in.

Purée de pommes is a watery substitute for all that. Apologies to the French, but I love my mash.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Internet and blog burnout: hold still

In the past few days I've seen messages from several people on flickr, the photo group, as well as on blogs, saying something to the effect of "Sorry, folks, I'm just burning out, have to take a break - I'll be back posting and looking at your stuff soon." Some of them mention extraordinary numbers of web sites and blogs and photos they look at on a daily basis. I'm not surprised they're crashing.

Last February I met Robert Scoble, who introduced himself as "Microsoft's most famous blogger," which was not boasting - it was accurate. He was speaking at a blogging conference. I started to read his blog and suddenly realized that my small foray into the blogging world, looking at a handful of blogs every day and writing one personal one, was pale stuff. There is a frenetic, frenzied world of people connecting to each other constantly. I soon learned why, as I learned more about blogging: the more people you link to and who link to you, the more visitors your blog has and the more quickly you become known in the blogging community. If you're trying to make money, you have a better chance because your traffic goes up.

At about the point I decided that I did not want to live like this and that my personal blog would be for my pleasure and, I hoped, the pleasure of as few or as many people who care to visit. I'd already spent too much time working in nutty situations that threatened to eat me alive. Basta! (translation: enuf, enuf).

I visited Robert Scoble's blog again after a lapse. Most of his readers, and there are thousands, are more technically-oriented than I am and only some of the discussions interested me. His mother was very ill, however, and I appreciated what he posted about that and dealing with it. Soon after, he decided to reduce the amount of time he was spending blogging. Even Scoble could get burnout, I saw. His co-author for Naked Conversations, a book about blogging, soon posted that he was trying to write for three blogs every day and it was too much. I just read Shel Israel's post from yesterday, which ties in with this. I also just read Robert Scoble's again, as long as I was adding a link here, and got pulled into visiting a site he mentions about school design in Livingston, Montana. Typical good blogging connecting!

So the warning signals are out there, but it is very easy to get pulled into doing too much and to panic because you know too little. Too much: on the Internet in general, and too much blogging or photo-posting. Too little: because not all of us who do this are techie whiz kids, or want to be if we think about it.

The problem lies in the very nature of the thing that makes it all work, which is connecting to other people. They visit you and you visit them and soon you're feeling obliged to visit 100 or 1,000 (hey, in some cases 10,000) sites and make comments so they know you've been there. It's easy to test the system: don't visit anyone for a week, then leave comments on 20 sites and you'll promptly see they have been to visit you, if you look at your site statistics.

People often ask me how I do so much. I manage a community service blog-based web site (minimum 6 hours a day), I write this blog (30-60 minutes, 3-7x a week), I write a blog called "Hats off!" for the Geneva, Switzerland newspaper Tribune de Geneve (30-60 minutes, 3-5x a week) and I write two blogs for GenevaLunch, one about gardening and the other whatever seems suitable (30 minutes, 2-4x a week). I post photos on flickr, and the time varies from an hour a week to a few hours, if I'm on a photo binge. I do other editorial, writing and lecturing jobs, but these are irregular. I have a family, with a son who just finished his final year of high school with a heavy exam schedule and who is now off to college in Canada. I have a very handicapped daughter, who is not at home during the week but she's non-stop work during the weekends.

Clearly, if you add up the time, I don't sleep or eat and I am totally unsociable. Add another detail - I make virtually no money at the moment.

The problem is, like most people who enjoy the sociable side of the Internet, I like to eat, sleep and socialize. So, how to do it all? How does one manage and remain a pleasant or better yet, a nice human being? What do you do about the niggling other problem, cash in pocket?

You can set up elaborate management programs for yourself, but I find that even a simple list takes time to calculate and, like diets, they last only a day or two. I prefer to set a couple priorities, make sure I manage those, and live with my inability to achieve everything else. If I cannot manage the priorities then I reassess, which I do about once a week. I try to find the problem and I try to be realistic. I remind myself that I'm supposed to go for a walk at noon, and that's a priority because it makes me more efficient and keeps me saner. I also often see interesting things.

The real key, though, is being kind to myself. Occasionally it is all just too much, usually when I haven't slept enough. I hit what I think of as black hole days, where I just can't find the enthusiasm for anything. Not really depression, just a black hole I step into. On these days, I suspend all priorities, almost all obligations, and I let myself drift. I don't chide myself or let guilt seep in anywhere. I'm on automatic pilot for some of my obligations. I go to bed early no matter what is on the books. The next day the black hole has disappeared - it almost always works. The more often I let myself do this, the fewer black holes there are.

If you're not enjoying posting and reading and blogging and all the rest of it, take a break. Make it as long as you need. Go sit on the end of a dock somewhere, swing your feet, eat a whatever (I was going to say a bagel), and just drift. The world won't fall apart while you're gone. Be nice to yourself.

Of course, money is another matter, and I will happily share my upbeat thoughts on this once I have some change in my pocket again. Don't hold your breath, though - I'm not holding mine. Hard to earn money when you're not breathing.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Saturday's pie

Mmmm, guests are a good excuse for pie. This one shows that the season is changing. Guess what kind it is.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Stepping stone recipes, part 4

I know that my mushroom soup recipe, in the previous post, was from the 1974-76 period because those recipes are all on index cards which each have two words printed on the back. I was on a self-improvement kick. I ran every day, I rode my bicycle as much as possible, I added to my recipe collection and learned to cook better - and I learned two words a day. That was the plan, but I remember that the word-learning did not last long. The idea was to write down two new words on the back of a recipe, flip it over a couple times while I was cooking and by the end of the meal I would have stretched my vocabulary.

Mushroom soup has on its back side "exemplars" and "ostentation."

My poor dinner guest, whoever he or she was.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Stepping stone recipes, part 3

Consommé. The day I wrote this on a recipe was the day I realized the world of food was far larger than Iowa and Wisconsin. I can still remember copying this recipe from the Minneapolis Star, the daily newspaper in my new city. I didn't cut newspapers then: I cannot say why. My mother used to cut out Dear Heloise housekeeping tips and scotchtape them around the house. I would find them stuck to cupboard doors or sticking out of books.

One of her favorites, and it's a trick I still use, was putting an apple slice in a tin of brown sugar to keep it moist. I did not follow her clipping example.

About the consommé. I loved, absolutely loved, Campbell's canned mushroom soup when I was little. It was right up there with chicken noodle, but that one was special, for days when I was sick, whereas mushroom, mmmm, I would eat it whenever allowed.

And there was my Minneapolis newspaper, suggesting there was a way to make mushroom soup from scratch! The real thing, the grandmother of the Campbell's tinned variety, and it called for something called consommé.

I can remember stirring it in the kitchen, but I have no memory at all of who ate it, besides me.

The soup had only four ingredients and the recipe said "serves 2" so it seemed within reach. It called or sherry, which I had to ask about at the liquor store. I was stumped by consommé until someone at Lund's supermarket enlightened me. Lund's was a new discovery, a beautiful supermarket with aisles filled with food I had never heard of.

It was beautiful, I remember, but it forced me to ask if I still preferred Campbell's because I was used to the taste, or because it was truly finer. At the time I didn't realize this is a critical step into adulthood - one some people never take, unfortunately - because it forces you to face the possibility that what you know seems right only because you know it.

What if there is a whole world out there that you don't yet know, and it is also "right"?

The result was that I made the soup again, most famously when I was trying to impress a new man in my life who said as I served it with finesse that he hated mushrooms. I also continued to eat the canned soup until it became too inconvenient because I lived in Europe.

And now, I'm afraid I've gone off both, but I still like mushroom soup.

Fresh mushroom soup, c. 1974 (recipe about to be discarded)
1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 can chicken consommé
1 cup skim milk
2 T sherry

Wash and thinly slice mushrooms. Cook in consommé until tender and consommé is reduced. Add sherry, bring to boil, lower heat. Add milk. Garnish with fresh mushrooms and watercress leaves (I had to ask about those, too).

Today I would note that this needs salt and I would not use skim milk, for I like creamy, not milky soup.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A sloppy season surprise

The garden is a bit neglected - not all of it, just the pockets that look like too much work. Either the slope seems too steep or the weeds too thick, or the deadheading too far gone.

This evening, taking stock, I had a lovely surprise: a lily I thought had not come up is not only up but flowering elegantly despite being completely overlooked.

There is hope for all of us, even if we think we are neglected! Concentrate on the job at hand and someone will notice, says my lily.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

uh-oh, next generation chicken recipes

Just as I think I'm catching up by throwing away my recipe cards and putting my personal food history on computer, Mary Tiegreen sends me this video link so I can watch a chicken being cooked. No room for error here.

Three things struck me, besides my own panic that now I should film my cooking for the next family generation: gee, they sure are careful never to touch the bird; the raw bird looks kind of greeny-blue so either video technology has to improve or I will film only my cookie and pie efforts. Lastly, the cooked chicken looks pretty good.


Monday, August 21, 2006

South Africa 2005, images from the south

I couldn't post this with the last post, so here they are separately: the South Africa I saw in January 2005 was very different from the one I visited in 1994. Nelson Mandela's prison cell, now a tourist spot, but one viewed with quiet respect by all. Scenes from Capetown follow.

At the heart of the world: stories and songs

I'm sitting in a quiet little room, with music in the background. It is music to die for, and some people did. My husband, who grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is sitting with his mother, an Englishwoman who went to Africa with her husband and four very young children. They are watching "Cry Freedom," the 1987 film about journalist Donald Woods and Steve Biko, black activist. Biko died in detention. Woods escaped to London, England and died there five years ago, August 19, 2001.

So much has changed. South Africa is a different country. The haunting music - including the South Africa national anthem, which is surely the best in the world - sends shivers through me, of a recent hell, but one experienced at a distance.

Nick, my husband, recalls one of those odd anecdotes that makes world history personal. He was a young student, a chess player, who went to South Africa to play chess. He stayed with Donald Wood, not knowing the man was a journalist just beginning to taunt the system.

Years later, young marrieds, we spent a lovely few days on vacation in Kruger Park, in the South Africa that still had apartheid. My husband's sister, who had become South African, was our hostess. She worried about her son, then 14, wondering if he would be drafted into a South African army she couldn't support. We had flown in from Europe. The time difference is minimal, although the flight was 14 hours. We had a very young son, and I was tired and off schedule.

I woke up well before dawn, thinnking it was jet lag. I wandered outside our round thatched park hut, one of several in a circle. Light was beginning to ease away the dark night. Wild bush animals were quiet, waiting for the hour when they would drink together at waterholes, with the first warm rays of day. Buck and lion and zebra and birds, small and large, would go to the water, warily or indifferently, depending on their place in the African scale of things.

The music was low and soft. The harmony was exquisite. Women with brooms swept in front of each of the huts, pushing back the dust from yesterday's bush winds. They never looked up, at each other or at me. They wore faded robes and head wraps in beautiful colors and patterns. They swept. They sang. They broke my heart for a country and a world beyond my understanding. Never before or since has dust tasted so sweet, yet so bitter.

I'd heard of Nelson Mandela. He was a prisoner, not more than that, or vaguely more.

Tonight, in Switzerland, my husband and my mother-in-law watch a fictionalized, but not very, moment of history in South Africa that belongs to them and to so many others.

I can only ache with and wonder at the music.

Another version of the music, lyrics, background.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

So I can eat in peace (why I blog)

Some of you ask why and how I find time to blog - I write 5-10,000 words most weeks. It's Sunday and the weather is fine, so please visit my Tribune de Geneve blog to find out why on earth anyone would do this!

Meanwhile, I'll go argue with weeds.

Stepping stone recipes, part 2

“Recipes” was an item I added to my to do list some time ago when I realized it would be easier to share chocolate chip cookies recipes if they were on the computer, rather than hand-written. I did about five key recipes, and then the task began to lurk on the list. There was never an urgent reason to finish the job.

The job jumped to the top of the list when our son sent an e-mail from China to say he needed a couple recipes, quickly, so he could prepare a Swiss meal in exchange for Chinese cooking lessons.

I began to look through my old recipe cards. What I saw was baffling: recipes I must once have decided sounded good, that I now can't imagine making. The orange and yellow plastic containers that once held the recipes on index cards are long gone as are the rubber bands that held the piles of cards together afterwards. The basket the recipes sat in for a while has been commandeered for some other purpose. My handwriting has changed – it is less upright, with fewer loops and lacey bits. It stared back at me, a sign of the past that rubs the present the wrong way.

The time had come to take action but I was stumped: why had I saved some of these recipes?

The first recipe I ever tried was one of my own invention. It was not saved. I’d watched my mother bake and cook and it seemed to me that the key to turning out lovely food was to dump many things into the mixing bowl. I told my parents I was preparing a meal for them. I had received red bowls, part of a set of modern plastic childsize dinnerware, for Christmas. I would serve the wonderful meal in these.

I pulled off the shelves everything I could reach: flour, sugar, cereal, raisins, oatmeal flakes, baking powder. I added several things from the fridge (the word refrigerator joined my vocabulary years later). Into the mixing bowl went margarine and milk, but not orange juice since we made this from frozen concentrate just before we drank it. I turned on the electric blender, spooned the mix into the cheerful red bowls, and with a flourish served my parents. My older sister Tara, who had come into the kitchen a couple times, refused to come out of her room and try it.

The recipe was never given a name and was never mentioned after that day, but it had one redeeming feature: it taught me to see the difference between adults praising you out of politeness and kindness and adults praising you because you deserve it. My parents were very kind and made sure my feelings were not hurt. They found something good in what I’d done: I’d been creative. They also made sure I did not think I should repeat the effort, or consider myself a budding gourmet chef.

Truth is not always easy to swallow.

Recipe rejected: Dr. Pepper pecans (no image available), c. 1975

1 cup pecans
1/2 can Dr. Pepper
1 T curry powder

Put the pecans in a skillet, pour the soft drink over them and shake over high heat until the liquid is evaporated. Take off the stove and sprinkle with curry powder. Serve as appetizers.

Truthfully, a recipe I thought sounded good in 1974, never made, that I don't think I would care to try today. This card was thrown out this week.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Stepping stone recipes

One project on my "to do" list has been there for years: "recipes." It never moved up or down the list much. This week it suddenly shot to the top of the list. It has turned out to be a very distracting project. The idea is to throw out all the old ones that are useless.

Instead, the cards, stretched out one after another, are like so many stones. The recipes have begun to look like a long rough road back into the past.

I have a thick stack of American index cards that once filled two plastic cases with flip-top lids. They were bright yellow and orange and I bought them the year I had my first real job, working in a children's publishing company. I had great plans for the future, and they included cooking, if only for myself. A friend of a friend named Mary Lu and I rented an apartment, second floor of a big old house in Minneapolis. It was too expensive so we found a third roommate who was studying opera in her spare time. She practiced the scales frequently and liked to do it walking around the apartment nude. Mary Lu and I had little in common but we became friends, clinging to shared notions of how roommates should and should not behave. We began to spend less time at home, and in particular we rarely invited boyfriends, especially new dates, back to the apartment.

The recipe box at first held only a couple recipes from my mother, but I had plans to expand. I was, at long last, on my own and independent and if I wanted to decorate my world with yellow and orange - my favorite colors at the time - I could.

The boxes had category cards with neat little orange pre-printed tabs for bread, soup, meat and so on. The first job paid so appallingly that I had to leave after three months. I started in the summer and rode my bicycle to work but soon realized that the bus fare I couldn't afford in July would be crucial in a Minnesota winter. The meat and fish tabs in the recipe box had nothing behind them. I began to hunt for a new job.

In the meantime, Mary Lu had a good casserole that she made on weekends and I often used the first recipe my mother gave me, for chili con carne, Iowa-style. I had just turned 14, was starting high school in a new city, Cedar Rapids, and I wanted to have a slumber party. We had to have food, I announced. That's what you did.

I cannot find the photo of that party, but the image is clear: a dozen girls sitting around in cute pajamas and large curlers in their hair, for the year was 1965. We listened to the Beatles and talked about the school football season that was about to start. Two of the girls in particular squealed a lot - one of them later went on to be the head cheerleader and homecoming queen. Soon after this school cliques were established and they became part of the popular crowd whereas two of the other girls, in the background of the party photo, became part of my little trio of pals and a slightly larger set of the smart girls. Cathy, Judie and I have become close lifelong friends.

I don't remember where all 15 girls slept that night, perhaps because we didn't. I vaguely remember being embarrassed that my father showed up several times to tell us to get to sleep and that some of the girls found him old-fashioned.

The large shiny pot filled with chili sent curls of kitchen perfume around every corner of the house. I'd spent the day preparing it, and there was none left when the girls went home.

We were at that critical point where each of us was deciding what path to take towards adulthood, in terms of friends and school and relationships to adults, as well as music and clothes and the other trappings in which we wrap our fragile teenage personalities. We were about to spill out of our childhood selves and run in several different directions. For one last brief evening, steaming bowls of chili with saltine crackers held us together.

Two tablespoons of mild chili powder were shockingly spicy in my circle. I had no idea where the powder came from or how it was made, and I doubt if my friends did. In the bottom of those bowls of chili lurked a hint of something exotic and sexy, vague images of Mexican men with long mustaches and come-hither dark eyes.

Florence Wallace's Iowa chili recipe for 15, c. 1965

1 T vegetable shortning (T. for tablespoon and tsp. for teaspoon, in our house)
1 onion, chopped small
2 # hamburger meat (my mother was a shorthand teacher and loved abbreviations such as # for pound)
4 cans tomatoes
2 cans red kidney beans
1 T salt
2 T mild chili powder

Melt the shortning over low heat. Add the onion and stir for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the hamburger and break it up with a fork. Stir until it is nicely browned.

Add the tomatoes. Stir until well mixed. Add the beans. Stir again. Add the salt and chili powder and stir.

Turn down the heat to low, cover the pot, and let cook for 6-8 hours. Stir every 15 minutes. Don't let it stick to the bottom of the pan!

Serve in bowls. Crumble saltine crackers over the top of each bowl.

Odd things I noticed Thursday

I had time to kill yesterday, unplanned. I noticed a few odd things. I took a bus in Lausanne and a musclebound young man with [tattoos] got on the bus with his docile, floppity-looking golden retriever. Several people slithered away and others looked at the dog a bit nervously. This is probably fallout from the incident last week where a pitbull puppy in a Geneva park attacked a toddler out walking with his mother. The child will live but he's needed a good deal of surgery, including having a nose built and stitched on, which they are not sure will hold. Dogs you don't know suddenly all look a little less certain than before.

I sat outside a building waiting to be picked up by my husband and noticed three different people, all relatively young, lighting cigarettes while talking on cell phones, which meant their necks were at a really odd and not normal angle. Wonder how long it will take before they get neck aches from this.

Children in the mountains started school yesterday. On the plains in Switzerland, where it is hotter, they start later. I had forgotten this but suddenly realized it because I saw three teenagers walking down the road at 6:45, a time when you only see them if school is in session. And there was another clue: their shoes were new. Clean, no holes, laces and velcro pads in place. You can tell they have not just gotten off airplanes: hair gel.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The lively world inside our guts

After writing about obesity in the world yesterday I came across this article in today's New York Times, about a possible link between obesity and microflora, the livey world inside our bodies' instestinal systems. Please note: you can read it in its entirety today, but after August 16 you have to have a (free) subscription.

It intrigued me not so much for the fat factors that the article focuses on but because the research here seems to give yet mroe evidence that our intestinal systems shift and change over time and are subject to many outside factors.

This interests me because our daughter Tara is autistic and, like many autistic children, she has had a lifetime of digestive problems. They shift and change over time and despite myriad tests no one has ever been able to explain the source or cause of the problems. For several years she had diarrhea, then she went the other direction and just as inexplicably the problems appeared to disappear. She doesn't speak, so the signs of distress are sometimes missed. Like many autistic children, she appears to have a high pain threshold, so she could be, or have been, tolerating stomach pain without anyone knowing it.

Tara is 14. When we first began to talk to doctors about intestinal problems, 13 years ago, everyone told us there was no link between autism and gut issues. As the years have gone by and families with autistic children have come together on the Internet it has become clearer that there is a link, for a very large percentage of the autistic population. The link may only be one of effect rather than cause, that if you are autistic you may have health problems and these may result in internal flora problems.

As always with our daughter, she lives with question marks over her, and the tummy troubles over the years are part of just one of these.

But I watch, intrigued, while someone looks at obesity and microflora, thinking these people might unwittingly provide some clues to autism and related disorders.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The wide and the narrow of it: on the world's underfed and overfed people

This has completely blown me away - I've been thinking about it all day. It put me right off baking a peach pie, which is probably not the right attitude, but see what you think.

The BBC reports that there are now more obese people in the world than undernourished, and the burden of being overweight is shifting from the relatively wealthy to the world's poor. To put some numbers on it (no, we're not going to add up the world's excess weight here): there are now more than one billion overweight people, compared to 800 million undernourished. The first group is growing more rapidly (apologies: it's a serious subject but inintended jokes are hard to keep out), while the second is falling slowly.

What gives me pause, though, is that obesity is occuring now in poor populations, as people's eating habits change. China is the example provided.

In 1985 I spent three months on a bicycle in China. One of the most striking aspects of China 21 years ago was the quality of the food even in remote country areas. People were thin but generally seemed healthy - a change from the years of famine not long before. We saw one fat person, a boy of 12 who was unpleasant, unhappy and doted on by his adoring and wealthy grandparents. Other people watched with envy: fat meant rich.

I've been back to China twice since then, travelling throughout the country, and I have noticed that not everyone is thin. Those who are thickening around the middle do not appear to be the newly rich, however.

Someone at the conference where this is being discussed has suggested a calorie tax on food. I can't support the idea but it is intriguing.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Snow in August!

I seem to be a bit fixated on the weather at the moment, but after an early June frost followed immediately by a drought, and now snow at 2200m in August, it's hard not to notice the weather.

We sat in a downpour most of yesterday, with bouts of occasional peasoup fog. At the end of the day the fog began to lift. Finally, blue sky - and snow just above us!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Moonrise, sunrise, out and over to Vancouver: Vancouver, are you there?

I have to laugh. I post a round moon. Then I shoot photos of the sunrise. I look at a blog, expatraveler, by one of the people I've met on the Internet, who used to live in Switzerland and misses it, who now lives in lovely Vancouver (and doesn't really complain about it). She has a moon photo dated August 9, the kind I would like to photograph, and then, presto! an August 10 sunrise (well, not exactly, but read it anyway)!

So here's to the moon and the sun, with 9 hours difference and people standing like so many little pinheads around the world, pointing their cameras at the wonders of the sky. This is one of the God's fingers shots I occasionally take, recalling the stories about those wonderful streams of light, when I was little. I'm not religious, but I still like all those tales.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Um, the moon is round

Sometimes in the face of too many obligations and too much work, I simply collapse into nonsense time. I can't decide if it's good for me or not: it just happens. Last night a spectacular moon rose, so I decided that I should go back to work on mastering full moon photography, and I lost myself in it for a while. Dishes remained unwashed, laundry unfolded.

Until last night most of my moons had come out lumpy or sort of square or completely out of focus. Who would have thought it could be so difficult to photograph a moon?

So last night as the moon rose, dipped into a cloud, tucked one edge behind a bit of mountain, rose from behind the mountain, I sat outside in the very cool air and just kept shooting.

The result is that my camera today is filled with dozens of shots of a yellow circle on a black background. Hmm. I can say, though, that I have learned to focus, learned what settings I need so the moon stays round.

Mostly, I just learned what I already knew, that the full moon is round and yellow and really lovely. Here is most of it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Those green guys and rosemary

(If you thought this was sexy science fiction, you're on the wrong blog.)

Okay, Christopher, I clearly need to reread your tips on uploading multiple photos to blogger. Here are two photos that go with the last post, the green bugs on the apple tree (aphids, I guess, but they are very dark green and smaller than ones on roses) and the rosemary, starting to bloom, with coriander in the foreground, some of which was great in rice and black beans, brought to us by friends from Florida, with hot hot peppers from the garden.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Ups and downs of the fruity life

I suspect few people garden when they are very young because they can't take the stress of it. You have to be prepared for emotional roller coaster rides.

Today the lilies smell heavenly but when I bent down close to them I spied a tall weed, or maybe it's not a weed, but it's a mystery visitor in my garden. I went from feeling like a Master Gardener to a worried uh-oh mentality. I found several baby versions of this in a flowerbox, looking as if I had planted them. So maybe it's not a weed. Hints appreciated, please!

I then checked on the new Braeburn apple tree, growing nicely, and its one wee apple looks healthy and lovely. It appears to have a future.

I checked on the new Fuji apple tree, a bit of an experiment in Switzerland. It's been doing fine - and now two leaves are covered with unpleasant little green fellows and ants. I don't want to use chemical sprays and I was taken aback to see this sudden attack. Anyone with bio treatment suggestions, please write! I found a ladybug and tried to place her on the leaf but she took one look at the ants and scooted away.

The potatoes are doing well but the rocket I planted didn't come up, even though it appears in all kinds of other corners of the garden - but by the time I notice it it's too big to use in salads.

My neighbors are constantly puzzled and entertained by my combinations of plants, not exactly classical. Mostly I think they work: in other words, I like the way the plant beds look. I plant rosemary all over the place, as a flower. For once, I have it next to other herbs. Tomorrow I will cut rosemary bunches before the flowers open fully, so they remain deep purple. I will then hang them upside down to dry. They make wonderful winter bouquets, keeping their scent and never losing their color.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Bookshelves, reordered

Our son is leaving home and among the many odd tasks the event sparks is reordering the bookshelves. In a liberating moment he decided that he should not hold onto much. Out go the comic books (well, some of them - his father wanted to keep a few), action stories he loved at age 10 and all the hieroglyphics information and books that were his passion from age 9-14. That gave way to Chinese, which he is now studying.

Boxes have been filled for his old school swap sale, with some special favorites in a bag for the boy down the street, much younger, who wants to follow in Liam's footsteps and study martial arts and Chinese. I won't say where the physics and math textbooks went, once Liam gleefully learned he will never have to study those subjects again.

We are now confronted by the disorganization of nearly 20 years of our own books that were pushed aside, shoved up a shelf or down a shelf or moved around the corner to another bookshelf, while a growing child's reading matter took precedence. When kids are growing up you put books where they can reach them. They come in tall, skinny shapes and short fat ones, so sometimes you redo the books to fit the shape.

All of a sudden we need to think again about our books. When we last did this, without Liam's, we each still had our own, so there were Ellen's books and Nick's. We still have those, but we have many more whose shelf allegiance is less clear. Yes, of course, we can organize all novels together, all travel books in one place and non-fiction elsewhere. I like to keep my writing books separate from his economics books, however. His shelves of chess books really don't mix well with my garden books.

I had thought I would make a cup of tea, let my eye drift along the titles and then start dusting and moving books. I now see that this requires at least a pot of tea, perhaps some discussion and the courage to pull everything off the shelves in the belief that they will all make it back up there, preferably before our daughter, sleeping late, joins us. She delights in disorder, and adding to it.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

keeping the balance while on a bike: Floyd Landis

I''m not a follower of cycling races, although it's a sport I could probably like a lot if I took the time. I don't have much in common with football and basketball players, but I've always liked the idea that cycing, like regular bicycle riding, is a matter of getting the balance just right. I can do that, some of the time.

So I cheered Floyd Landis on as the Tour de France cycling race drew to a close. It seemed like he wasn't one of the narrow-minded crazies who have had a negative impact on so many sports. My heart sank for him, when his first drug test came back positive but also for the rest of us who still want to believe in the kind of winning that comes from hard work and determination. I really wanted the second one to show the first was wrong. It didn't.

My heart has sunk again, for him because I would very much like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Some of this sympathy probably comes from a bit of awe that anyone needing a hip replacement would enter a bike race. I would like the sport to be cleaner - it certainly has not been in the last few years.

I would still like to believe that if I get on my bike and ride up the mountainside enough times I too will have a super-slim torso and amazing calves, and maybe next year I'll be asked to join the Tour de France. I think those snazzy biking outfits in astonishing modern materials are on sale now.

Meanwhile, there are brownies in the kitchen. I hope somebody is giving Floyd Landis a couple brownies today.

Dive bombers parked

Summer is a noisy affair in the Swiss Alps, especially near our lavendar plants, which thrum and hum with giant bumblebees on warm days. We've had so much hot weather than when the temperature suddenly dropped I noticed the quiet almost as soon as I noticed that I needed another layer of clothing.

The dive bombers - the bees hover and then suddenly zaaaap! they go for the flowers on hot days - were parked. They were neatly lined up on stalks of lavendar, peacefully drinking, hardly moving.

Here's one small group of them (you might need to enlarge it to see all the bees), in the lavendar parking lot, as well as a closeup. If you have ever tried drinking upside down you'll be impressed by their skill.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Weather vagaries, lily talk

It is snowing in Johannesburg today and the homeless are cold and without shelter. It is scorching hot in much of the U.S. In Lebanon the heat would be unpleasant enough without bombs adding to the heat in every sense. Southern China is preparing for another deadly typhoon.

Here in Switzerland, the rain has finally arrived, after too many dry weeks. I look at this lily, which has a wonderful perfume, and the magnificence of the raindrops on it, and I wish that all those people's lives will get back to normal soon, and that they will be able to stare at a flower with a happy sense of wonder at nature's bounty. Meanwhile, I think we have an obligation to do our best to help them reach that point. As someone I interviewed not long ago said about the aid work he does, "I often think, why them? Why not me?"

Fog and cat feet: can giants tiptoe?

Anyone who thinks fog really comes on little cat feet has never watched it from a safe distance. Those are gigantesque cat's feet. Pity the person who measures the paw.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Don't weed out the candleflower!

The first year I had a Swiss garden an extraordinary plant grew up. I had no idea if it was a weed or not. I rationalized that if it were it would spread. There was nothing else like it in the garden, and no imitators as summer wore on. On the other hand, I doubted I had planted it. I planted several things without noting them down and five years later I continue to find them here and there.

I left it alone, couldn't decide if I liked it or not, and the following summer it didn't return. The next summer it did, and grew to be about 8 feet tall. I looked it up: mullein, a member of the figwort family.

Last year it failed to grow, but this year, here it is, and it is thriving. I've decided to leave it in the middle of other tall flowers. And I've learned that it is also known as shepherd's staff and candleflower, that its yellow flowers are used in cough medicines and for sore throats.

The plants usually grow just one or two to a field, or at the sides of roads, singly. I was astonished a few weeks ago to see a small plantation of them outside a new and very expensive home on the outskirts of Geneva. Perhaps this is a pharmaceutical millionaire and this is his private crop?

Here is another view of my candleflower, for I think I prefer this name.