Tuesday, February 27, 2007

secret art

Graffiti is the secret art of our time. Tucked away on back walls or appearing suddenly in plain sight, it is part of the unexpected. There used to be a huge long graffiti wall in our town next to the train tracks, out of the sight of most citizens unless you happened along that out-of-the-way street off Lakeville, and then, what an amazing surprise. One kid procured permission to paint there and then it became a mecca for artists from all over the Bay Area, who painted hundreds of layers over the years. A few years ago, anti-graffiti people painted over it and created an explosion of tagging throughout the town that hasn't stopped yet. Here are some photos taken by Scott of what the wall used to look like. wall photos

A subculture taking over public space, the dominant culture reacts. Creativity always prevails. It's a complex subject, not really as cut-and-dry as it seems. Some of it is obviously art, some seems to be almost art, some is tagging (its own strange art), but it is all linked. Piece by Piece, a doc by filmmaker Nic Hill, explains the history of SF graffiti and some of the underlying motives. We showed the film to a packed house last spring at the local weekly film series. Adults and kids alike were captivated.

I've seen two little works in particular around town that I liked, one was a stencil of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the ballet studio door, the other was a tag in pink paint pen on the outdoor phone booth at pinky's pizza that had a nice swirl at the bottom. It looked like the person had a natural affinity with the pen. I've seen that one other places and appreciated it but I really liked that it was at pinky's in pink.

On the top of the Phoenix Theater is a huge beautiful mural painted by two of the town's preeminent graffiti artists. It is a sort-of secret because you can't really see it up there unless you get on top of the hill or climb up to the roof. You can see a corner of it when you walk by if you are looking up at the sky instead of at the ground. If you are driving, (unless you are driving down keller street and look up) you will probably never see it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

yes to turnips

The other day our vegetable box from Laguna Farm arrived and there were turnips in it. "Yes, turnips!" I shouted to Scott. I never would have expected to get so excited over turnips, but when you are subscribed to a farm and are eating seasonally, you only have turnips at certain times of the year, and they are fresh out of the ground and flavorful, and I have a really good turnip soup recipe.

For those who don't know, when you subscribe to a CSA like Laguna Farm in nearby Sebastopol, you are helping a local farmer to grow vegetables without the normal risk of "growing them and just hoping people buy them". It's about $15 a week, which is pretty much what I would normally pay for vegetables per week. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and is the answer to the corporate food problem. It is also so much better tasting to eat food right out of the ground from right here, than to eat food shipped long distances in dirty trucks from who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long. When the "spinach scare" happened last year, we didn't need to worry, because we knew exactly where our spinach was coming from and knew that it was fine. We can go out to the farm anytime to check it out, or help out, or pick up a few extra things at the little farm store. They are solar powered, use tractors that run on veggie oil and everything is beyond organic.

I have always hated turnips but it could be because when I was a kid with a different palette they were always in stew and looked like potatoes so you would expect a potato and then, oh no it's a turnip! So I have avoided them until they arrived in the box for the first time. I thought oh-no turnips as a knee-jerk reaction. There was an accompanying recipe for turnip soup, so I tried it. Now I can't wait for the turnips to arrive. These turnips are different. They are absolutely delicious.

We also left some salad greens as a thank you at our friend's house in SF when we were vacationing there for her to find when she returned the next day and she called us up and said "they were not like the usual bags of greens, they were so delicious!" She seemed a little puzzled that we would leave them there for her instead of gobbling them up--but we had another bag at home...

Of course the summer season for produce is wonderful in the summer but the fall and winter food--the squashes, bok choi and fennel bulbs all coordinate with the weather outside and make you feel all cozy when you cook them. It is a seasonal wonder.

And for those souls who are wondering...

turnip soup
Melt some butter in a dutch oven, add a bunch of diced turnips (like those pictured here) and saute 5 minutes. Add a cup of diced potatoes, add some chives, cook one minute. Add 2 1/2 cups of stock and boil, then lower heat and simmer for 25 minutes. Puree in a blender with 1 1/4 cup of milk (preferably local organic milk) reheat and add a little lemon juice from a nearby lemon tree. Of course the key to this is using the good turnips.

Friday, February 23, 2007

pique nique

Yesterday, in French class, we learned that the English word picnic is from the word pique-nique in French, meaning "pick a trifle" or basically, eat appetizers. Somehow the meaning expanded over time to mean doing this outdoors. We also discovered that its root is in an old Etruscan word. What a surprise, because most of the time, when we look up words to see when they came into use and from where, there are startlingly recent dates, like 1750 or even 1825. It makes me wonder what people said before that. Even the actual word piquenique only came into use in France in the 1700s. Hmmm.

One of our teacher's (and my) favorite things is seeing where words come from and when. It expands the meaning of what you are saying to know the origins of your words. And to know that you can say certain things in one language and not another. Or that certain relationships between things occur only because of how a particular language relates them and those relationships do not occur in a language that doesn't relate them. It explains the reality of the senses and how, oftentimes, words aren't sufficient.

I love my French class. I can walk to it from my house and it is held in a cafe of course. It is meandering and connected, and while we learn French, we don't have to study for tests or arrive with homework in hand. It is much more French than that; it is more about camaraderie. We can even skip a class or come late and no one minds, in fact we say "bonjour!" when someone arrives an hour late as if it were normal. Therefore, we are actually learning French and we are also learning a lot more than that.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

two authors I thought I'd never read...

Somehow I found dailylit.com, where they have online versions of many of the classics, and when you sign up, they will send you, via email, a 5 or 10 minute piece of the book every day to read. Out of curiosity, I browsed the list which went from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, (13 emails total) all the way to Les Miserables which will top your email box off at 679 emails (about two years of daily reading!) In a way, that is how Les Mis should be read, since it was originally a serial published in a newspaper...

I subscribed to two books I knew I would never read normally so as not to ruin any ones I though I might really read if it turned out to be a strange way of reading books. They were Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Call of the Wild by Jack London, which, inexplicably, I have tried reading numerous times but have never been able to get into, not being much for dog stories.

What happened next is facsinating. I realized that Call of the Wild was actually interesting and even transcendent. Somehow, this email format got me into the book and once I was into it, I couldn't stop. Luckily you can click to receive the next fragment immediately, so I did that over and over again and promptly finished the book. I was a Jack London junkie. I am still thinking about it and it was a great way to read it. I went out and picked up an actual Jack London book to read in real life and now that I know his style of writing I can completely enjoy his work. I don't feel any worse for having read Call of the Wild on a computer either.

As far as Notes from the Underground, a different thing happened. I realized right away that this was a book that I could only take in five minute increments. I couldn't stand to read it on the computer so I found the book itself, which came with another of his stories, The Double. Then, I began to read it in increments of much more than five minutes and I loved reading it on paper (maybe because he talks about the paper in the book). I also felt like I needed to know a little more about someone who would write this crazy book so I researched his life history and studied the history of Russia so I would know where he was coming from. I found it totally fabulous! I am really into the book, freaky as it is, and am looking forward to reading The Double. In fact, I have high aspirations to read Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov, and then move on to Tolstoy. We'll see what really happens.

Another thing I realized from this strange episode, is that I have read so many women authors in my life, and I really ignored many of the men authors since I wasn't interested in them, and now I need to go back and check them out more in depth.

These two men are a weird contrast and I think reading their work together is intriguing. Both struggled in life mentally and describe the inner world in their own very different ways. Both are very place-based. They write about what they know intensely and only that. Of course, London was based right here so his life echos are layered in with mine in the landscape. Dostoevsky lived during turbulent times, and his work reflects a broken culture, but nevertheless, he too is still very grounded in his landscape. He was pro-Russia, defending it often, in times when the "cultured" were pro-Europe and disdainful of Russia.

At any rate, I think dailylit.com is a (somewhat strange) success and recommend it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

rex rising

I live in a place where the local downtown hardware store burns down, and they just go ahead and build it again as if it were the most normal thing in the world, which of course, it really is.

When REX hardware burned, everyone gathered. Teenagers wrote RIP REX on the sidewalk and cried. Signs went up with affectionate words, flowers, notes and artifacts were posted on the fence. The owners told everyone they would rebuild it the way it was and they actually are. "Hurry Jeff I need a new plunger" one person wrote on a piece of paper and posted on the fence. Long Live REX.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

small house soliloquy

Living in a small house, I know the beauties of a small house. Cleaning takes a shorter time. Most things are within arms' reach. We only need one phone instead of four or five scattered throughout the house. I see neighbor kids who live in small houses too playing outside with each other, no play date scheduling required. I often wondered why there aren't more small houses being built today with really good indoor-outdoor floor plans based on contemporary life instead of life in 1900. That is the only real limitation of the small house; the old floor plans don't usually make the best use of the space.

I later discovered that the reason few small houses are being constructed today is because houses made today are either built by people for themselves (and then they are going to build one that has everything they can think of that they might want over their whole lives because they aren't going to do it again) or else built by a huge development company that wants to make as much money as possible off the sales and the fact is that four 2 million dollar houses on 20 acres (5 acres each fenced in from each other) equals 8 million dollars while ten small $250,000 houses on ten acres with the other 10 used for community agriculture for the ten families only equals 2.5 million dollars and more than twice the hassle of sales plus the inevitable arguement over "density" that can be neatly sidestepped when there are "only" four houses or "homes" as they like to call them.

The larger picture is always lost, the community loses and the developer wins an extra 5.5 million dollars for a lot less work than they would have had to do if there had been some kind of requirement that housing in our town be built according to what we actually need. Of course there is a need for the larger houses too. But, we really already have plenty of those. Just look around if there is any doubt. What about houses for people who are single? Or couples? Or a single person with one or more kids? Or couples with one child? Or retired couples? Or gay couples? Or people who just want a smaller house or neighbors they can see once in a while? This kind of housing is severely lacking in every community. And it perpetuates feelings of inadequacy in people. We are still living with this crazy mindset that everyone should plan to have a full nuclear family and if they aren't in one now, then they should expect to eventually work up to that exalted goal by buying a four bedroom house now just in case and to give the appearance now that maybe they are living like that. A mother living in a studio apartment with her child sometimes feels like maybe there is something wrong. If housing were specifically designed for single mothers maybe they wouldn't feel like there was something wrong because if there is housing designed just for that situation then maybe it is a "normal" situation. When you have to hunt high and low for it, maybe it feels like you are not on the right track.

I think it's not a matter of what people want or what people need or even what people find acceptable, it is merely a matter of what a the house-building companies are doing in order to generate maximum profits. And you can't blame them. It's what the economy and country is set up to do and it couldn't be any other way. You just start to wonder how effective that system is when it doesn't actually serve the people living within that structure and we have to create laws and codes to restrict what is coming naturally from the structure that is in place.

I know some people who live in big houses with one or two children and they feel isolated and lonely and have to schedule everything for their kids and themselves since there is no opportunity for random interaction. They spend time cleaning, they spend money trying to furnish all the rooms. They don't always use all the rooms. They are wonderful people, but they are often unhappy for reasons that could be remedied by a different living situation.

I don't know what the solution is. I don't think we are going to convince companies to make less money because they want people to be happier. I think it's hard for elected officials to mandate laws and restrictions against the natural order of making the most money possible. The idea of that upsets chambers of commerce and business in general because they worry that the natural order of their structure is being disrupted--and they will launch convincing campaigns to keep the order of things. (Although I'm not sure why in this day and age, the threat of a development company not building a subdivision in our town is such a threatening thing) Of course there are some elected officials who place the good of the community first and try to balance keeping the economy flowing along and providing for the community's needs. These officials will not approve projects that are more of what we don't need because of the constant refrain of "we need sales tax dollars". But even they can't approve projects that aren't there and small house projects are not there.

It is harder and harder to create housing that is appropriate to actual needs. The increasing rules to keep developers in line also keep the local group that wants to build their own community in check. Land in places like Sonoma County is expensive. There is already so much development, that mindful people are hesitant to add to it with new building. There are zoning laws that prevent density. Neighbors fear density--developers conjure up visions of ghettos and traffic. These days it really means more land can be left undeveloped and that quality of life is higher for the residents in a planned community of small houses who will see each other, and have access to bike paths and community amenities. Neighbors benefit from density because they have increased community and even increased neighborhood amenities like bike paths or a neighbor with a rototiller instead of four new mcmansions on the acreage next door. Its a shift but a much needed one. I like seeing the neighbor kids play outside and I know they like being out there.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

the tea room is the breakfast nook

The Tea Room is like the breakfast nook of the town if the town were a house and different places were the rooms as Kelly and I used to say. Sunny, happy and good food there, just like a breakfast nook. Tea Room greens are the best and the tea of course.

Indigenous people live(d) out in their communities and any 'houses" were for sleeping. That is sort-of how I see our town. Our house is small by American standards—850 square feet. Two of us live here and work here and sometimes we have Scott's son here too since it is downtown and it is convenient for him to sleep here after hanging out with his friends all evening. Often, I'll meet my clients downtown in my other offices, namely cafes. The rent is cheap, just $3-$15 per hour or two and coffee or lunch is included! I do a lot of strolling downtown during the day and at night also--good excercise and fun. If we need something at the store we can walk. When I am working at home, I leave the door open for the sun and the neighborhood sounds to come in.

The town is our larger living space—the longer I live here the more little places there seem to be, the more little routes are discovered to walk or bike. You can't see anything in a car though. Those routes are fine for efficiency but you can't really see where you are at. You can't see the orange tree in the vacant lot bursting with fruit on the way to the Tea Room in a car. And if you see someone you know in a car, you whiz on by and maybe don't even wave if you aren't quick enough, if you are biking you can say hello and keep going or you can stop. If you are walking, you generally stop. Then you can talk, even if it is a short time and that small but vital connection has been made.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

nowhere to roam

One day a friend phoned us to ask where they could go hiking east of Petaluma on Sonoma Mountain. We calmly informed them that besides a docent-led tour of Fairfield-Osborne Preserve, (a fabulous place but not exactly near Petaluma, it is accessed by going through Penngrove, then almost to Rohnert Park) the entire west slope of Sonoma Mountain is off-limits to the public.

They kept asking, sure that there was a place that might have a waterfall, or some small hiking trail at least—it was a big mountain range after all—the views must be great, the trails must be fabulous. No, we said, no public access exists anywhere on the entire mountain range that watches over our town. Indeed, that is what the fuss has been about over Lafferty Park for the past fifteen years. Though the city of Petaluma owns 270 acres on Sonoma Mountain, with a gate to it right off Sonoma Mountain Road, and it has been designated to be a park in the city’s General Plans since the 1960’s, and it is the only publicly owned land on our side of the mountain, we, as citizens, are not allowed there.

The headwaters of Adobe Creek (formerly the city’s drinking water source) are on this city-owned mountaintop acreage and there are plenty of waterfalls in the spring. There are spectacular views of Petaluma, even all the way to San Francisco on a clear day. The trees, animals, flowers and the land itself are vibrating with energy and beauty. So what is the problem?

Many excuses have been brought up over the years. 1) The roads: some say Sonoma Mountain Road is too dangerous for the public. But there are roads far more dangerous and un-maintained leading to Santa Rosa Parks. 2) Partying on the road. As far as I can tell, there is already partying on that road and others in the Petaluma environs and a more regular presence may even prevent partying there. 3) The hill is too steep to hike on. All I can say to this is: Mount Tam is steeper and that doesn’t seem to be a problem. 4) The fragile land and bird life. It is no more fragile than anywhere else, including the floodplain and oak woodlands in the valley that are currently being built on. A ranger and a trail building program, making Lafferty a wilderness park (as opposed to creating paved trails throughout it) and posting information about the flora and fauna, would take care of this. There are plenty of wild places in Marin and Santa Rosa that have trails where people can co-exist with nature. And people want and need to experience wild places.

On the other side of the moutain, in the Sonoma Valley, Jack London State Park beckons the visitor, and if Lafferty is made a park, (as it was designated to be in past City General plans) it can connect to Jack London State Park and hikers could actually walk all the way over the mountain.

So what to tell our friends about where to hike on Sonoma Mountain? Unfortunately, we had to tell them that there is no public land on our side of the Mountain, that they would have to go south to Olompali State Park or Marin where many public parks exist for people to walk in and immerse themselves in nature for a few hours.

I had the feeling our friends didn’t quite believe us; that there must be some little place we just don’t know about, but they will find that there is not, and when they realize what has happened with Lafferty Park, Petaluma’s mountaintop cathedral, I wonder what they will do?

For more information on the story of Lafferty Park, and how you can help to open it, go to:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

the place where I live

I live in the town I grew up in, which has its challenges, but also some interesting benefits. The longer I live here, the more layered it becomes, like an intricate personal sculpture. As I traverse the landscape of the town and its environs, memories are embedded from different times of my life, some lying dormant, others springing to life. Others fold over or cross new ones in strange ways. My stepson had the same French teacher I had, for example, and she is the same, only more so and wow I related to her from a new angle when he was in her class and not me but with the old angle intact underneath.

And while it’s also wonderful to go to Paris or Bobenheim-Roxheim, the beauty of what we call the “bio-regional” vacation is not to be underestimated. A bioregional vacation can really get you into the mode of place appreciation because you are stopped from the day-to-day routine, there are no obligations and it’s kind-of a challenge and very good practice to have no obligations close to home. (It’s also cheaper than far away, you contribute to your local economy and it’s nice to only have a 20-minute drive to get home again) People come here to the San Francisco North Bay to vacation all the time, so why not us?

It is hard to do a real vacation at home at first because your obligations will draw on you, so we usually go somewhere close to home but not in our town. Our last one was over the past weekend. We went to San Francisco. (San Francisco is 40 miles away) We stayed in a beautiful little apartment within walking distance of the deYoung museum, where our friend (who was vacationing herself somewhere else) lives. We fed her cats in return for vacationing there. She left us recommendations for restaurants and bike routes, bikes, guidebooks and elaborate hand-drawn maps of her neighborhood. We walked to the deYoung Museum, where we spent an entire day checking out New Guinea art, the painting galleries, went on the Valentine’s themed tour of particular love and scandal related artworks, took in Ruth Asawa’s mysterious hanging twisted wire sculptures and hung out in the tower with its 360 degree view of the city.

I don’t feel like a tourist when we go on these little trips, but more of a curious observer who isn’t obligated to be “going” the whole time. Since we are close by, we can take our time and not do some things because we know we can come back anytime and the mad rush to see everything just doesn’t exist. We stayed at “home” reading with the two cats and playing games, we walked around a beautiful little Korean neighborhood and saw stores selling tapioca drinks and fish, we browsed at Green Apple books and ate delicious pizza. It was raining and we walked in the rain. I made French toast in the mornings in a normal kitchen. It felt relaxing, we learned new things and had open eyes to the little neighborhood we were living in, we were inspired creatively and when I was sick the last day we just went home and I went to bed to recover without too much of a feeling of “ruining the vacation”. More layers of place grow and stretch out within the distance of a day’s walk from the place where I live—in the place where I live. The place where I live.