Monday, August 31, 2009

The Three Sisters


One of my favorite aspects of Central Park is its use of place-names. As the medievalists out there know, place-names are par for the course in that period's literature; various chronicles, poems, and letters note "Godstow" or "God's place" for the large meadow north of Oxford, "Lund" or "grove" for the Swedish city, and "Mykines" (or "Muc-innis") meaning "pig island" in the Faroe Islands, among others. I find the nicknames by which cyclists and runners have dubbed various landmarks in Central Park, therefore, to be pleasantly familiar--"Cat's Paw" for the hill (topped by a perpetually crouching panther statue) where the Central Park Series races commence, "The Ramble" for the thickly wooded hill marked by twisty trails, and as I've noted previously, "Cedar Hill" for the line of red cedars that march above Fifth Avenue.

The name that continuously demands my attention, however, is that of "The Three Sisters", which graces a set of three rollers that extend from roughly 100th to 80th Streets on the West Side. Whether I'm running or cycling the big Central Park loop, I always find The Three Sisters to possess the toughest uphills, in particular the first sister. Why this remains the case is a bit of a mystery; the Great Hill, which is steeper and longer, does not challenge me in the same way, although I concede that having just sprinted up that hill I'm not as strong when I confront the Sisters a quarter of a mile later.

I did a nice six mile run after work today--i.e. the loop--and as I reached the first sister around 7:15, the sunset over the Hudson bathed the Park in gorgeous late summer light. My breath quickened and my legs started to feel a bit heavy; I was tired. But I was also excited. This was the first six mile run I had completed since my return to running in May, and I felt strong and even (relatively) swift after my recent backpacking trip. The Three Sisters were hard but they were also tangible, finite challenges--my favorite kind. They did not possess the nebulous timeline and even diagnosis of injury, and after "summiting" them, by which point I was almost home, I felt like my old running self. It's good to be back.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blues Versus Tabs: The North American Showdown

As I alluded yesterday, I awoke early this morning and caught the 8:07 am train from Grand Central to Westport, CT. The purpose of my trip? The fifth annual North American Oxford versus Cambridge Alumni Boat Race.  Now, I know that I've dedicated many lines on this blog to running, cycling, and swimming, but rowing remains my first athletic love. I began rowing at fourteen, competed all four years of high school, almost competed in college, then competed for a year and a half at Oxford--six months at Corpus and one year at Somerville--rowed occasionally on Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, and finally rowed for about six months on a master's team in Marin County right before I moved to New York last June. Whew! Since that transcontinental move, however, I have not sat in a boat once, and to say that I miss the sport would be a significant understatement.  As I've stated previously, while running and cycling I truly feel like myself, but to an even greater degree I feel like myself while pulling a blade through the water. 

I accepted that living in Manhattan would mean a definitive absence of rowing from my life, and running, cycling, swimming, and squash have more than adequately filled the void. That said, I still fantasize about one day owning a shell and skimming the water every morning as the sun rises; I also hope to join another master's sweep team in the future. One of the greatest gifts that rowing has given me is the opportunity to befriend people who I otherwise would not have met--not only to befriend them, but also to laugh, sweat, and suffer with them, day after day, in every kind of weather from freezing rain to oppressive heat.  I realize that the preceding sentence might make me sounds insane (why would suffering with someone be considered an opportunity?), and to that implicit question all I can answer is that some of the greatest friendships, and deepest self-knowledge, emerge from experiences like these. And that truly is a gift.

In the Spring of 2005 I was supposed to race in the first alumni Blues versus Tabs showdown, but at the last minute I had to stay in Ithaca; last year I was also supposed to row, but ended up having to travel to California for work. This year, come hell or high water (which nearly came to pass, thanks to Hurricane Danny), I was going to be in Westport for rower check-in at 9:00 am. I didn't know a single person--spectator or rower--and from the preliminary line-up, I appeared to be one of only a few women as well as one of only a few recent graduates.  I slept on the train and awoke to a grey and drizzly Connecticut morning. Fortunately, the Saugatuck Rowing Club possesses one of the most beautiful boathouses I've ever seen; I would have rowed through the hurricane itself for the opportunity to relax in the SRC's well-appointed abode or explore the river in one of its gorgeous Resolutes

Well into our 4000 meter warm-up on the Saugatuck I realized that I'd been rowing without consciousness, meaning that I'd settled into the boat, responded to the coxswain's commands, and been catching and swinging in sync with my seven boat mates without any awareness of these motions. MAR once told me that after something like 10,000 gear shifts, cyclists shift in response to the terrain without consciously needing to think or anticipate those shifts, and I wonder at what point I passed that consciousness benchmark in crew. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to be sitting in bow pair on a Saturday morning, my blade backsplashing onto the bow ball as we cut through the Saugatuck's glassy surface. 

We lost, just as Oxford has apparently lost each of the last four meets. Just as I didn't care when I failed to score points in ECCC bike races, I didn't care at all that we we lost both the 750 meter and the 500 meter sprint. I never used to line up on the water unless I was 100% confident in my ability to beat my opponents, and I usually did.  I think that, in the future, that will be the case again. But for now, what drives me and sustains me in these endeavors isn't winning; it's just being there. The experience of being on the water, of hearing the birds and the boats skim, the waves lapping the docks and the coxswain's echoing calls--it's enough.  It's more than I dreamed I would have for the life that I live here. 
Corpus Christi College First Women's VIII 
Oxford Summer Eights 2002

Somerville College Women's First VIII
Oxford Summer Eights 2004

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Miage Omelette

I anticipate thinking and writing about the Tour du Mont Blanc for months to come; indeed, my Ventoux cycling adventure two years ago has proven to be rich fodder for many entries on the Freckle. However, as I noted yesterday, the days since my return to New York have been very hectic, and as a result I haven't had the opportunity to reflect as consciously on the trip as I would have liked to.

Tomorrow morning I have to be up early to catch a train, and so today I left work at six and walked home through Central Park in the late August rain. Naturally, I wondered what I would have for dinner. A small container of Citarella pesto and several cups of hot French onion soup have dominated my meals this week--not that I'm complaining--and so as I walked under the plane trees I thought about the other wonderful meals I've recently had in the hopes of striking culinary gold. Within a minute, my mind settled on the Refuge du Miage.

Our first view of the Miage Valley, from the Col de Tricot
On our first day of backpacking, NCT and I took a gondola from Les Houches, just south of Chamonix, up the Mont Blanc massif to Bellevue, and then hiked past the nose of the Bionnassay Glacier and up the Col de Tricot. As we lunched on slices of dried sausage, crusty baguette, Pink Lady apples and blueberry yogurt--all of which were being eyed hungrily by a flock of vocal sheep--we looked down on the Miage Valley, where we would be spending our first night on the trail.

Miage Valley
After a hot, rocky, and relentless descent, we arrived in Miage and were greeted with a stunning view: the Dôme du Miage, complete with glacial waterfalls streaming down to the grassy valley floor. We dropped our packs in the trekkers' bunk room, hiked up the valley to see the waterfalls, then walked back past grazing horses and cows to our dinner, which was awaiting us on the Refuge terrace.

Les Chevaux et Les Vaches
Seated at the other tables were backpackers from Spain, France, and the Netherlands--all of whom were camping among the flowering rosebay willowherb--a Belgian who shared our sleeping quarters, and a raucous party of four French families (the very excited children slept in the bunk room above ours). When we sat on the wooden picnic benches, the hostess set an enormous yellow ceramic bowl filled with bright green lettuce leaves, juicy red tomato segments, and a mustard vinaigrette sprinkled with chives before us. The sun set behind the Col de Tricot and bathed the Dôme in a calming alpenglow; NCT and I ate the crisp delicious salad while the evening air cooled. Once finished, we watched in amusement as the children, who were all seated at the same long picnic table, fought over their salad bowl with slices of bread; they were each trying to scoop up the remaining vinaigrette!

Refuge du Miage
The hostess then presented us with a beautiful omelette of impressive height and width; when sliced open out spilled thin steaming slices of potato, each enveloped in a thin layer of cheese. NCT and I estimated that at least six eggs had gone into ours, and the Spaniards received one of even greater size. Our conversation ended as we each savored the dish--the eggs were of an airy yet filling consistency that I always try to achieve with my own omelettes, and they were perfectly seasoned. I ate about a third, and NCT devoured the rest; a few days later, after we had hiked into Italy, he commented that he had actually dreamed about the omelette. That's how good it was.

As we watched the children, who had finished their omelette and were now clasping giant ice cream cones topped with whipped cream, run around the field abutting the terrace, NCT and I partook of the cheese platter--NCT purloined my leftover fromage for our lunch the following day--and then tucked into an elegant blueberry tart, complete with its own ring of chantilly. I ordered a verbena tisane and warmed my hands on the hot china cup as dusk settled over the valley. We were both quiet; the combination of a delicious meal and a friendship comfortable with content silence let us each enjoy the alpine evening.

Over the next several days, NCT and I savored beef stew at a French farm on a cold wet night, cappuccinos on the mountainous Italian border, and Globus baguette sandwiches on the cathedral steps in Lausanne, but the Miage meal stands tall in both of our minds. It was on our first night after backpacking together, and the glacial valley provided a setting not only of unmatched beauty, but also of heightened anticipation. It promised many more incredible days to come.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

For The Union Dead

Although my absence from this blog these last several days may seem unnecessarily derelict, in reality I've been swamped by several unexpected events since I returned to New York early last week. I'll refrain from enumerating them here, except to say that their foci range from my brownstone to the arches of my feet (intrigued?), and culminated in a hasty trip to Washington, D.C. this past weekend. LRC and CSC joined me, and for the first time since last Christmas the three siblings slept under one roof. That experience alone made the trip worthwhile, despite the unfortunate event that resulted in our arrival. 

General George Thomas
When I was growing up, my family spent part of each summer in the swampy Potomac basin, and as a result my childhood memories are layered with images of trapping crabs near Bethany Beach, chasing fireflies in the Maryland twilight, picking blueberries on the Eastern Shore, and swimming for hours to escape the thick humidity. One particular Fourth of July celebration at the Chevy Chase Country Club stands out, if only because it displayed the most brilliant fireworks display I've ever seen, and also featured a Good Humor truck that distributed ice cream for free to all the children running around the gardens (myself and LRC included). And of course, the hiss of the cicadas woke us in the morning and lulled us to sleep at night.

General Philip Sheridan
A fair amount of our time on those Washington trips was spent at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and at the homes and memorials of other family members and friends who were affiliated with the Armed Forces. As a result, even now, when I arrive in DC via Union Station, the first thing I look for are the Generals of the Grand Army of the Republic lining Massachusetts Avenue, facing south with their stony steeds into perpetuity. 

General Winfield Scott
It seems to me that even though, over the summers, we visited the battlefield at Manassas and the gravestones at Arlington, saw the pictures of our fathers' first ships and held the tailhooks that caught their planes, that the dead among us were never dead. When LRC and I stepped off the train and breathed the thick swampy air, it was the same air that we breathed as children. William's portrait watched us with its level gaze as we made our hellos and goodbyes, and as the train later whisked us North, his eyes settled back over the steely Pacific waters.  

Robert Lowell, that New England poet who, for me, often evokes Washington, of course says it best:

Their square-riggers used to whiten /
the four corners of the globe, /
but it's no consolation to know /
the possessors seldom outlast the possessions, /
once warped and mothered by their touch. /
Shed skin will never fit another wearer. /

[...]

I think of you far off in Washington, /
breathing in the heat wave /
and air-conditioning, knowing /
each drug that numbs alerts another nerve to pain.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Quotes of the Week: Alpine Style

Bonjour! I returned from the alpine heart of Europe late last night (NCT jetted off to his next adventure in Africa), and am just beginning to delve into emails, snail mail, laundry, grocery-shopping, and all the other post-trip chores that await the weary traveler. Before I embark on those less-than-fun tasks, however, I thought I'd post the trip's quotes for your reading pleasure. As a result, voici mon Quotes Of The Week, à la les Alps! 
-----
On the predilection of French male hikers for wearing very short running shorts
CGC: "I guess they're the hiking equivalent of the speedo."
-----
In the communal male/female bathroom at the Refuge du Miage
French child: "[unintelligible]."
NCT: "Je ne comprende pas."
French child: "[unintelligible]."
NCT: "I don't understand what you're saying."
French child: "[unintelligible]."
NCT: "You want me to lift you up?"
-----
Two Dutch hikers discussing their ascent of the Col du Tricot
DH: "I was like, 'Beam me up, Scotty'."
-----
While eating lunch at the Col de Fours (2665 meters), and watching a comical parade of French teenagers ascend from the other side
CGC: "That guy looks miserable."
NCT: "You would too if you were wearing capris and a polo shirt."
-----
On catching the bus in Ferret, Switzerland
CGC to a waiting couple: "Where's the bus driver?"
WC: "He took his donkey for a walk."
-----
While riding up a bone-shattering rocky road in Switzerland in the aforementioned bus
NCT: "God bless the WPA and its god-honest roads."
-----
While hiking up the Fenêtre d'Arpette
CGC: "How would you define an android?"
NCT: "An artificial human."
CGC: "So it has to be intentionally human-like?"
NCT: "Have you seen I, Robot?"
CGC: "No."
NCT: "Blade Runner?"
CGC: "No."
NCT: "C3P0?"
CGC: "Okay."
[Two minutes of silence pass.]
NCT: "Well I guess you don't have as much cultural capital as you thought, Jane Austen."
-----
In a Trient dinnertime conversation with LR and MH, while discussing Chamonix
LR: "You've been there before?"
CGC: "No, but I know where the Patagonia store is."
-----
While hiking into Chamonix Valley on the last day
NCT: "I think I just accidentally blew a snot rocket."
CGC: "If it was accidental how was it a rocket?"
LR: "It was a snot propeller plane. It had two fat ends."
-----
After hearing the Anglo-Saxon riddle of the one-eyed garlic seller
NCT: "That is the worst riddle I have ever heard."
-----
In the Jardin Anglais in Geneva
NCT: "My favorite thing about France so far is that lunar forklift thing right there."
[Ten seconds pass.]
NCT: "Even though we're in Switzerland."
-----
NCT: "When someone asks me if I want something and I don't, I just say, 'C'est bonne.' It's like, 'Let it ride'."
-----
CGC: "I can't wait to get home and watch The Sound of Music."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Mont Blanc Bound

The jig is up. All my work projects are finished. The spare keys have been dropped off. Emails have been sent. The fleece is packed and the hiking boots are by the door. Nothing stands between me and the Alps except an Air France flight to Geneva.

Well, that's not entirely true. I still need to go to Fairway and H&H Bagels to buy food for the plane (notice how Fairway always insinuates itself into seemingly unrelated events in my life). And I'm going for a run in Central Park tomorrow morning, as a last ditch effort to pump some strength into my legs before NCT and I hike from France to Italy and then to Switzerland around Mt. Blanc.

I have to admit that my excitement about this adventure is tempered by some trepidation. For example, although we'll be sleeping at mountain refuges and farms, I can't deny one unassailable fact: I freeze when sleeping outside (and yes, sleeping in a lean-to counts as sleeping outside). It doesn't matter how many hundreds of dollars worth of Patagonia/North Face/Marmot/Arc Tery'x I've swaddled myself in--my body shivers and teeth clatter as if I were sleeping in a mountainous refrigerator. Which is why, if necessary, I will be sleeping in the hay above the alpine ibex on this trip (pictures potentially to follow).

This backpack is huge.
One other thing has been niggling at me in the last few days: my backpack is enormous. How an Ultralite 60 liter pack with only two changes of clothes, two fleeces, and three paperback books can appear to require a Sherpa is beyond me, but I'm disconcerted nonetheless. If I could jettison sunscreen, rain gear, socks, 2 liters of water, hiking poles, and a 12oz plastic jar of almond butter then I think I'd be set. But since that's not going to happen, I've accepted that I will look like a pack mule (while moving more slowly than said animal).

And on that note, we're off! Off to encounter chamois and wizened French shepherds, snowy cols and precarious looking gondolas, chocolate, marzipan, shriveled saucisson and deeply unsatisfying breakfasts of white bread and jam (hence the almond butter, for when we bonk twenty minutes out the door). At this time in two weeks I'll be pleasantly exhausted and my quads will be the size of tree trunks. Vive les alpes!

Mt. Blanc, a bientôt!

An Interview with Zel McCarthy

Zel is the only person on this earth who addresses me by the erstwhile nickname "Cato"--not because of the philosopher, mind you, but because of an esoteric Clueless Kato Kaelin reference--and for that reason alone he deserves an interview. However, Zel is also remarkable for the three following reasons: first, on Mother's Day he upstaged me and LRC by giving our mother a better gift; second, he likes to build bookshelves; and third, he's a Trojan who loves Hillary Clinton. He also founded and writes for Soundbleed, which is where I learn everything I don't know about the music world (try wrapping your head around that one). So without further ado, I present the one, the only, ZEL.

Cato and Kylie: the twain shall meet!
CGCWhy is Kylie the greatest female entertainer of the '90s and the oughts?

ZM: I could go on for a day about Kylie. Or write a treatise - my friend Bradford Nordeen has a chapter in his book about her and Kevin Killian wrote an entire book about her, but I can't bring myself to read it as I'm afraid it might be too objectifying or even analytical. I adore Kylie, wholehearted and unreservedly. What makes her so enduring and so loved the world over is that she is so many things to so many people - dynamo, coquette, chanteuse, sex kitten, style maven, survivor, showgirl. For me, what she is doesn't matter. Kylie is an endorphin for me. Listening to her, or sometimes watching one of her concerts or even looking at some of the books or other Kyliephenalia in my collection (yes, it's a whole collection) just makes me feel better. That's why she's the greatest - she makes me smile - always and forever!

CGC: True or false: Taschen is to Penguin as Silver Lake is to Brentwood.

ZM: OK, totally false! Let's say Penguin is Brentwood - traditional, a little uppity, and in so many ways generic. Silver Lake is either a refuge for hipsters and the fashionable nouveau riche or a home leftover hippies and working class families. That may be all well and good, but Taschen is edgier and more cohesive. It's more like Venice. There are some expensive (even overpriced) properties where some celebs even live, but there are also surf shacks that tell the story of the city and occasional gang violence. Plus, Venice is desirable, and Silver Lake just isn't. We could also say that Penguin is Orange County and Taschen is Hollywood. But it's better we not get involved with a publisher/New York neighborhood analogy. It could get political.

CGC: Envision the following scenario: you're nearing the end of a vigorous, 90 minute astanga yoga session, and as you rise into your last updog, you notice that the two individuals in front of you--who are a couple--have decided to enter savasana early, and are lying side by side on their mats while holding hands. Their eyes are closed, beatific smiles grace their faces, and the man, who has a smooth bald head and soul patch, is wearing tight capris and an o'neil surfing shirt while the woman is wearing lululemon hot pants and a tight Patagonia camisole, which barely covers the floral tattoo above her hipbone. What is your reaction to this couple?

ZM: Oh, this is such a shame, but just as this couple decided to get a little prematurely tantric, I was doing a headstand. Usually, I'm pretty good at balancing for a while, then lowering my legs halfway down, raising them back up, all that. But unfortunately today, I just lost my balance and have tumbled - crashed really - onto the yoga love birds disrupting their savasana and kneeing soul patch in the groin. Lululemon lady got off easy, but I hate that fucking store. Such a rip off. Did you know it was founded out of a Landmark Forum project? Talk about a pyramid scheme.

CGC: When will a contemporary Russian writer win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

ZM: I would have said within 5 years but after the tense Obama-Medvedev meeting in July, I don't know if it's in the cards. Those Nobel voters like to eschew contemporary political statements, don't they? That's not to say they don't recognize politically infused writing, but recent winners seem to be distinct from the politics of the moment. So, maybe after 2014. Wasn't the last American to win Toni Morrison? It's been a while for both super powers.

CGC: Do kittens cry?

ZM: They don't cry but they do weep; usually it's for show but it can be very affecting.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Trail of Books

This past Friday was as rainy and dismal as the day I baked the Tassajara loaves, and so I spent the evening meandering through one of the Upper West Side bookstores near my apartment. My meandering wasn't completely aimless, however; on Wednesday, NCT and I leave for ten days of hiking in the Alps, and I needed to decide what books I would be bringing with me. Lest you think this is an easy task, I feel obligated to point out the following impediments to what I like to call "book selection for travel in an isolated pocket of a non-English speaking country": 1) due to a lack of English language bookstores, you are truly committed to your biblio-choices; 2) your choices must cater to a range of potential moods and needs; 3) your choices must be relatively engrossing, and thus able to counter both abysmally long plane flights and cold nights in mountain huts with snoring, non-English speaking strangers. In fact, I think High Fidelity's Rob Gordon (aka John Cusack) explains the significance of this type of book selection best--his quote concerns making a mix tape, but it doesn't matter: "The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules."

Yes, there are a lot of rules. Which is why I ended up spending a couple of hours in this bookstore, wandering up and down the aisles, and revisiting many of the titles that have seen me through past summers. I know that I'm not the first or the last person to state this, but encountering much beloved books in a bookstore or a library is akin to encountering a much beloved memory; in fact, this encountering often re-awakens memories that have long lain dormant. And so this past Friday evening I re-visited many of my summers, which was bittersweet, yet left me smiling as I walked back in the humid rain to my apartment.

Michael Cunningham's
The Hours swept me back eight years ago to Carmel Valley, and to a conversation in the shade with JC about whether or not I was enjoying the book. Memories like that, in which I can actually hear her voice, make me think that she's not really gone forever, but has just gone away for awhile, and that I just need to find a bookstore to find her again. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle evoked reading with AAH on the cabin deck at Upper Angora Lake as we prepared for our junior year of high school, and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss conjured the flight to DC to see AFD five Augusts later. The Isabel Allende shelf reminded me of reading in Yosemite Valley in late May on middle school trips, Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries re-created the July bus rides home from the Mission to the Richmond District, and E. M. Forster's A Room with a View evoked a sunny August trip through Gloucestershire and Somerset with my father thirteen years ago. And Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice will forever be associated with waking up at sunrise and sneaking out onto my great-uncle's dock at Clear Lake, so that I could finish the book before breakfast and before everyone else woke up.

But mostly the books re-created Carmel Valley and San Francisco, the two places where I read the most in my summers.
Green Apple supplied most of my fodder, and Thunderbird Books in Carmel, which is now closed and where DHU, LRC and I would always pick out new books to read by the pool, provided the rest. I read Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls in the arms of a giant valley oak, and Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve while fighting the gloom of a foggy and cold San Francisco July. Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family and Richard Llewellyn's How Green was my Valley, two of my favorite books, are impossible to remember without also remembering the numerous swims, ping-pong games, and piano playing breaks I took between the chapters. For a rainy Upper West Side evening, it was a very rich and colorful few hours.

I did not forget the task at hand, however, despite the fact that the book I'm currently reading, Steinbeck's East of Eden, has made it very difficult to focus on new books to read. I've never been a big Steinbeck fan--I enjoyed Cannery Row, and tolerated The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men--but East of Eden grabbed me within the first few paragraphs, and I've found it difficult to put down in the last couple of weeks (having a job has been a major impediment to reading as much as I would like to!). Part of the attraction lies in the geographical context, which is the very same in which I spent part of my own childhood summers, where I could see "the Santa Lucias [standing] up against the sky", and the California poppies "of a burning color--not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies", and the "dusky and shady" valley oaks. Part of it lies in the Hamilton family, which Steinbeck describes very much like my own Irish family, which is "connected and related to very great people and very small people, so that one cousin might be a baronet and another cousin a beggar. And of course they were descended from the ancient kings of Ireland, as every Irishman is". And part of it lies in the inherent power of a story that chooses to depict people "who trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units--because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back".

Wonderful as it is, I will finish East of Eden before I leave for the Alps, and so I had to focus and to choose. Bearing in mind Rob Gordon's maxims, and my own knowledge of the pitfalls in selecting such texts, I chose three books. The first, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, I can read on the flight over and later trade with NCT. The second, Julia Child's My Life in France, will provide useful escapism when days on the trail see me growing a little tired of largely almond butter, chocolate, muesli, and baguettes for fuel (hard to imagine, but true). And the third, the most crucial of all, will bring me out of the mountains to Lake Geneva, and then back to the Upper West Side. It is the novel that ranks as one of my mother's favorites, and which she read many summers ago as a young adult, and it is the natural complement to Steinbeck's Northern Californian epic. It is Helen Hunt Jackson's much loved novel of early Southern California history, Ramona.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lavender and Lemon Verbena

After my encounter with Ratatouille Basil, I decided to turn my attention away from tasty leafy greens and back to herbs (for now). I've been meaning to grow lavender and verbena for the last few months, but time and lack of space prevented me from doing so. Of course, once all the herbs-that-may-have-been-touched-by-Ratatouille had been forcibly vacated from my container garden, I made a trip to my favorite herb purveyors, who have a stall at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers' Market in Brooklyn. As a result, I now have two fragrant but not yet flowering plants nestled between the mint and the olive: lavender and lemon verbena. 

Although I haven't yet discussed this habit here on The Freckle, I drink an almost obscene amount of tea; in fact, I really only ever drink tea and water, and the tea is always hot and never iced, even in the middle of a humid New York summer. (Jim Laakso once parodied my predilection for tea on a satirical and mildly offensive blog he used to maintain; his real blog can be found here). One of the motivations for cultivating lavender, lemon verbena, and mint all within my apartment is that I can brew my own tisanes, which, while inherently inferior to the bracing strength of a Yorkshire Gold or an Irish Breakfast, are the perfect accompaniment to an evening at home. 

I came to verbena late in life--like tilleul, or linden, it evokes memories of small ceramic teapots and brightly lit lanterns while drinking on outdoor terraces in the French countryside--but my love of lavender stems from my childhood in Northern California. As the New York Times recently reported, the quasi-Mediterranean climate of my native stomping grounds is well suited to lavender cultivation, and I can't help but think of the lavender growing in my grandmother's garden in Marin County; the blossoms were particularly fragrant on hot summer days, and fat bumblebees would hover over the purple flowers. An uncle and an aunt of mine recently moved to Sequim, WA, and I look forward to exploring the lavender fields there as well.

As far as I can tell, lavender doesn't flourish in New York City the way it does in France or in the West, but like my Meyer lemon tree, I hope my plant thrives in this little pocket of the Upper West Side. While I wait for it to burst with blossoms, I offer these pictures, from two summers ago, of lavender growing prolifically in la Drôme Provence; for you and for me, a memory of lavender stretching as far as the eye can see.  

Canasta, I salute you.


Because you make me feel like a frisky eighty year-old trapped in a twenty eight year-old body. Because you are equal parts strategy and luck, and because you bring new meaning to the terms "foot" and "going down". Because you let me maintain a conversation, calculate simple sums, and fire up my competitive spirit all at the same time. Because you once held me and five friends hostage for two days in upstate New York, and because we loved every minute of it. Because nothing beats a party held in your honor. Canasta, I salute you!