Bob wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses when he promised me a rose garden. Moreover, we were determined to grow hybrid teas, the most finicky of blooms, without chemical pesticides. No scentless knock-out roses for us, we wanted the sweetest of the sweet, Fragrant Cloud and others of her ilk. Yet, although our goal appeared Utopian, our approach was cautious and methodical. At this point we weren’t sure whether to take an optimistic or pessimistic view. We needed more facts.
Optimism – a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome
Pessimism – the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.
It may have seemed Bob was peering through mud-smeared glasses as he perused the internets for everything that could go wrong with organically grown roses. He soon concluded that our chances were slender but not impossible. Meanwhile, I searched for fragrant varieties renowned for their hardiness in our area. We were being realists, setting ourselves up for success by arming ourselves with information. Refusing to consider possible pitfalls would have been foolish.
Realism – interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, speculative, etc., the tendency to view or represent things as they really are
Pragmatism – character or conduct that emphasizes practicality
We settled on a pragmatic approach, starting small and counting on Bob’s years of organic gardening to help even the odds. He followed all the rules, digging the bed to suggested specifications, applying recommended soil amendments, and buying our plants from a reputable nursery. We chose Fragrant Cloud, Double Delight, Chrysler Imperial, and Stainless Steel – coral, pink and cream, deep red, and lavender-white, all praised for their scent. Bob planted them in a high-profile place where we can keep an eye on them and installed an automatic watering system.
Bob and I believe in following rules, a dirty word in idealistic circles. Yet, the natural world is riddled with rules; leaves drop after the first freeze, warm soil encourages green shoots, rain breeds weeds. Rules are a fact of life and all rules involve consequences. If you hope you can get away with putting diesel in your gas car, you will find yourself stranded. Eat too much and your jeans grow tighter. Buy a load of gravel if you don’t want to get stuck in the mud. Our respect for rules effectively makes us pragmatists.
The first sign of trouble flies in on iridescent wings but we know what to do. We pick off the Japanese beetles one by one and toss them into a jar of soapy water. Crisis averted. Roses flourish. The second year Chrysler Imperial inexplicably dies. We were prepared for this, and aren’t too disappointed. A year later, our project appears to be a success.
Every time I stand at the kitchen sink, I see our beautiful rose bushes, bright and happy against the yellow south-facing wall of our garage. On my way to visit friends, I snip off blooms before climbing into the car. I pick flowers to grace our home when I walk in from the garage. They fill the yard and house with unforgettable fragrance. My rose garden is a constant reminder that I married a genius who knows how to walk the line between optimism and pessimism. I married a realist, a pragmatist who only promises what he can deliver.
“An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.” – H.L. Mencken, A Book of Burlesques
The plastic shutters riveted onto our house catch my eye as I walk across our front yard. Some are still green. Others have turned brown. They were put there purely for looks. Flimsy window-dressing on the faded yellow siding of a thirty-year-old manufactured house, the shutters are a sad testament to the folly of “form over function.”
To qualify for a loan, we paid someone to bolt the house to the ground so it wouldn’t blow away in a tornado. In order to get an appraisal, we tore out carpet, installed kitchen cabinets, and repainted half the rooms. We worked like dogs on the grounds, chopping through layers of weeds to unearth long lost gardens. The swimming pool was toast so Lyle suggested we fill it in and grow vegetables.
We celebrated our closing with champagne. The next day we bought a life-sized zebra made of Mexican milk cans, named him Spot and stood him between two clumps of Pampas grass in the front yard. We slept in the house for the first time the day after Christmas, and threw a big party a week later on the first day of 2010.
The photo album on the table inside the front door features pictures of our friends from that first New Year’s Day party. Neighbor Joe quipped that we were making it easy for the FBI. Since then, we’ve thrown countless parties and potlucks. Each time someone new shows up, we take their picture with Spot and paste it in the album. The most recent photo brought the tally to 199.
Over the years, we’ve planted fruit trees, peonies, and roses, plugged mushroom logs, put in a fig and some scuppernongs, cut down the poplars, clawed the honeysuckle from the fence, and repainted the zebra. Inside, the new floors are already showing wear. The kitchen linoleum wears a scar from the day they installed the new gas stove, and a tiny cut for every time we’ve dropped a knife. The cupboards are well stocked, there’s home baked bread on the counter, and the smell of fried okra and cut roses mingle in the air.
Objectively this is not a pretty house, and the furnishings aren’t anything to write home about. Neither Bob nor I are very interested in home decorating beyond framed art, fresh flowers, and curtains to soften the light as it enters the house. Nearly everything here is second hand. Dana gave us her comfy couch and chair, Matt gave Bob his father’s big desk, and we bought mine at a thrift store. Scott left us tables and chairs and I found my bedroom dresser and mirror for free at the recycle center.
It keeps us cool and dry in the summer, warm in the winter, and gives us somewhere to entertain. This is where we come for a cold drink and a shower, for a lay in the hammock on the back porch. It’s where we store our clothes, where we read and write, where we come to get away from the world. Under this roof, we’ve made tough decisions and comforted each other after apocalyptic nightmares. It feels like home.
This house is not our home because we fell in love with it, or because it’s what we’ve been looking for all our lives, or because it was in the family for a generation or two. I rarely notice the shutters. I’m usually looking for flowers, or weeds, or branches to trim. Inside, I see the yard from behind windows; vinca and roses from the kitchen sink, sunsets and figs from the bedroom, the front yard with the zebra from my desk. It’s our home because of the work we’ve put into it, the meals we’ve eaten here, and the laughter and tears we’ve shared with friends. It’s our home because it’s where we sleep and dream.
“Wow!” I think, walking to the back of the line, “I’m doing that again.” My sinuses are infused with rosemary and roasted red pepper. A flake of pastry lingers on my lips. I snag it with my tongue and savor the perfect blend of shortening and flour. The aftertaste eludes me. Is it garlic, nutmeg, cardamom perhaps?
Fingering my Pepper Fest fork, I scan the scene. A child clutches her mother’s hand, a butterfly painted on her cheek. They are walking towards a man blowing giant soap bubbles on the lawn. It’s a splendid fall day at Briar Chapel, a beautifully landscaped community between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill. I’m surrounded by familiar faces. I start waving at friends, many of them licking their fingers. It seems practically everyone I’ve ever met has come out for this event. After all, Abundance NC’s Pepper Fest only comes around once a year.
Months ago, when the peppers were still green, the folks at Abundance NC started pulling together lists of activities, sponsors, volunteers, restaurants and farms. They met with their friends at Briar Chapel and laid out a plan. Weeks later, the ripening peppers were hanging plump, and thirty-some chefs were dreaming of special ways to feature them. The orders went out to the farmers, peppers were harvested and delivered. All had come to fruition with a thousand people getting a taste of real local food imaginatively presented by the best chefs in the area.
Tami and Camille weathering Pepper Fest #2 – October 18, 2009
The very first Pepper Fest was no more than a variety tasting of Doug Jones’ hybrid peppers. Tami Schwerin, Abundance NC’s executive director asked her father to put up a tent and she invited some friends out to The Plant, Pittsboro’s Eco-Industrial park. Out-of-town guests from Seeds of Change were here to tour Piedmont Biofarm and see Doug Jones’ pepper breeding research. Tami saw an opportunity to welcome them, support the farm, and spread awareness about the often-overlooked sweet pepper. It seemed like a good excuse for a party. My immediate neighbors, a dozen friends who called ourselves Oilseed Community were having a potluck dinner that night so we brought our food and joined the fun.
Doug’s interns chopped peppers all afternoon and set out dozens of paper plates piled with bite-sized pieces on the tables under the tent. They came in colors; green, yellow, orange, red and chocolate. Tami and I had printed up score cards with qualities such as color, flavor, sweetness, and heat level. Each variety was assigned a number and we walked around the tables sampling peppers. The folks at Seeds of Change said a few words, and Doug spoke about the evolution of his cherished peppers. Farmer Doug had spent years developing varieties that grow well in North Carolina’s changing climate. Many of us were betting that Doug’s Sweet Jemison, the consummate yellow pepper, would merit a high score.
The next year Tami involved local chefs, booked a band, commissioned a poster, and printed tee shirts and tickets. She commissioned custom-made King and Queen crowns to honor the man and woman who sold the most tickets. The festival doubled in size every year, and by year four had outgrown the venue at The Plant and moved to Briar Chapel.
Pepper Fest has come to embody Abundance NC’s mission. They seek to “cultivate and celebrate community resilience,” a deceptively simple objective involving lofty goals. A fun, playful approach is Abundance’s secret ingredient for achieving this and Pepper Fest is the perfect recipe. It’s the consummate fall festival, designed to build awareness while supporting local economy. Pepper Fest, cleverly disguised as one glorious party, boldly asserts our independence from Big Ag while celebrating our interdependence on local community.
This week, Abundance NC and Briar Chapel are galloping down the home stretch towards Pepper Fest number nine, Sunday October 2nd. We’re looking forward to bluegrass by Front Country, and the magical transformation of eight hundred pounds of Chatham County farm-grown peppers into an unimaginable menu of chef creations. New this year, there will be a Food and Fiber Fashion Show, and as per usual, there will be the unveiling of this year’s original art crown creations and coronation of the Pepper King and Queen.
I’ve reached the counter where those incredible pastries are lined up. The band is playing a funky tune. The aroma from Chili John’s roasting drum at Angelina’s Kitchen is irresistible. I spot my husband and next door neighbors sampling the Anaheim Octoberfest at Yesteryear’s Brewery. Drooling, I choose my prize and dance on over. Another best day ever, thanks to Abundance NC.
More information and Pepper Fest tickets at: http://pepperfestnc.org/
Emily is getting married this afternoon I think, slowly shrugging off a night’s sleep. The train whistle sounds like church bells to me this morning. I’ve never heard them this way before.
We don’t hear the train so much from our place in North Carolina, but here in Colorado their calls surround us like jays. I’ve lived in a few places where the tracks are so close it feels like they will burst through the bedroom wall. Like the drone of a propeller plane, a receding train is melancholy. Both bathe me in nostalgia, a tinge of regret as if life is passing me by. I’m often stationary when I hear them, while they move on without me, above and beyond.
Bob and I are staying in an airy room over the bustle of Rob and Sharyl’s busy home. We’ve come to regard this space as ours, we’ve stayed here so often. It’s an hour after dawn, the kids are tumbling towards the exits, headed to school. Traffic streams outside.
Bob’s three daughters, Emily, Amy, and Molly were lovely in their dresses at the rehearsal dinner last night. As the evening progressed, they became inseparable. Fifty of us mingled on a spacious deck at Mariana Butte’s Golf Course overlooking a craggy outcropping referred to locally as Devil’s Backbone. Tyler’s parents were hosting a five-course meal with designer beer pairings. Family had flown in from everywhere, more coming today for Emily and Tyler’s wedding.
I marveled at the magnificent young people, all so well put together. I might have been walking through a glam magazine. Colorado ranks high on fitness rankings so everyone was beaming with health, tanned and toned in their summer outfits. Jewelry sparkled in the evening sun, and many balanced babies on their hips, miniature manifestations of the good life. Em and Tyler’s baby Nolan was passed around, the Where’s Waldo of the evening. The older folks were aglow. Everyone loves a wedding.
I gazed into the fading sun at the sandstone cresting a ripple of geologic time. Emily would have been six years old the last time I rode my horse along the Devil’s Backbone. Now she’s a grown woman, and the horse has been dead a year.
Molly, Amy, Emily, three angels and a Devil’s Backbone.
We arrived at Lone Hawk Farm before noon on Wedding Day and stayed until after sunset. There were little jobs for family to get involved in, nothing too demanding. We ran out of work hours before the wedding. I began to suspect Em’s good friend and wedding planner Jamie had contrived this languorous, pastoral day as opportunity for family bonding.
There was an enormous red barn, and a spacious cabin between barn and orchard where the bride and her maids were taking turns getting their hair and makeup done. A cooler of champagne slowly turned into empty bottles. We nibbled on dipped strawberries. The mood was contagiously frivolous and gay. Baby Nolan played on the carpet, attended by a bevy of love-struck maids. This room was the heart of the day.
I pick a bright, red apple and walk to the end of the driveway to prop a hand-painted sign against the rock wall at the entrance to the farm. It says, “Welcome to the wedding of Emily and Tyler.”
I hear the engine of a small plane, only this time it seems to be standing still as I stride towards the defining moment of the day. In an hour or so, everything will be a little different. This day will forever be “the day Em and Tyler got married,” and everything else either before or after. My mind begins to whirl with memories of the girls growing up, our summers abroad, painting their finger nails, teaching them to ride on Jesse the Wonder Horse.
I put the sign in place and wander back towards the rest of the family. I bite into the crispy fruit, savoring this point in time and my solitary thoughts.
Emily and Tyler tying the knot on a perfect Colorado day. September 2, 2016
Emergency Room #10 Central Carolina Hospital
Seven miles out I congratulated myself for keeping cool and making good time. My hastily scribbled Google Map notes said the hospital exit in Sanford was 12.7 miles south on Hwy 1. Which is where the ambulance was headed with Bob. The odometer said I was getting close. Under the circumstances, staying cool was a tall order. Not to mention the weather, which has been stupid hot. Driving without A/C is an exercise in sweat management.
It was when I saw New Hill (a.k.a “middle of nowhere”) up ahead that I realized I was traveling north. I wiped my forehead with a handkerchief, exited and turned around, trying not to think about the extra twenty minutes this blunder would cost. Bob was in good hands, I told myself. He’ll think I found one last thing to do at home, the dishes perhaps, rather than worry I’d gotten into a car wreck as frantic wives often do when chasing ambulances.
An hour earlier, Bob was drinking coffee at his desk when he noticed an odd sensation on the right side of his tongue. It felt like Novocaine. Moments later, the numbness spread to his right eye. He considered going out to get me.
I was speed-hanging laundry, wondering how I was going to process twenty-four pounds of pickles, bake a cake, and clean the house for Jason’s birthday potluck. Most of the time, pickles just sit. Until day fifteen when you slice the brined cucumbers, soak them in alum for six hours, then replace the liquid with heated vinegar. Today was pickle day.
Back inside, Bob swiveled towards me and announced, “Somethings not right.” He told me about the Novocaine. He felt dizzy. We had a short discussion. The expense was giving us pause. I phoned urgent care. They recommended I call 911, so I did.
Bob put on clean underwear like his mother taught him. While shaving he realized he’d lost the ability to puff out the left side of his face. His lips were leaking air. He positioned himself in the rosewood chair on the front porch and waited for sirens. We laughed to see the ambulance and fire truck pull into Evelyn and Jimmy’s across the street. I ran onto the lawn barefoot and waved until they saw me, got back into their vehicles and came over to our place.
Cracking jokes, a woman in navy blue EMT garb pulled out a razor and began carving a smiley face into Bob’s chest hair. The Emergency Medical Services team attached wires to Bob’s chest and asked him questions while the fire fighters looked on. They, took his blood pressure, saw it was 199 over 110 and wheeled out the gurney. “Wait!” Bob said and they paused so I could give him a kiss.
Three Musketeers to the rescue
The hospital staff was real kind, trying to procure meatless meals for Bob, and failing twice. I spent the rest of Saturday driving back and forth from home, bringing sandwiches to Sanford, and dealing with those pickles. I called upon the Three Musketeers, Buffy, Zoila, and Doug to help me get the pickles sliced and Haruka and Jason showed at 10pm to do the vinegar thing so I could spend the night on a fold-out chair by Bob’s side.
We canceled Jason’s birthday potluck. A disturbing trend, the last three birthdays were overshadowed by catastrophe. We learned of Zafer’s death on Haruka’s birthday, Chris died on mine, and we were crossing our fingers that Bob made it through Jason’s. Buffy’s promised to break the cycle with her birthday August 4th.
Towards dinner time the next day, Bob was released with a clean bill of health. He’d had a CAT scan, an MRI, ultrasounds, and blood tests. When the doctor announced that Bob had not had a stroke, our relief was audible. How lucky for us to have dodged that bullet! Even better, the doctor pronounced Bob’s heart and carotid artery fully-functional. The likelihood of stroke or heart attack was slim, he said and even allowed that Bob’s unresponsive eyelid and Dick Cheney smile could be Bell’s Palsy as Bob suspected. His blood pressure was back to normal. He’d had a shot of B-12, something to lower cholesterol and with the help of our neighbors, we’d saved the pickles.
“What’s a menu?” someone playfully asked after I mentioned our potato-heavy menu. Oh! I thought to myself, It is so, so many things – shopping list, anticipation catalyst, and money-saver. It’s our road map to an inexpensive local food diet. Nothing ever goes to waste,” I like to say prompting Bob to quip, “Only to our waists.”
We didn’t always have a menu. Like many, Bob and I used to get home hungry after an eight or nine hour day and start thinking about dinner. We’d look in the refrigerator, hoping to come up with something we could make in a hurry without having to run to the store. Or we’d order a pizza. Or open a can of soup and make some sandwiches.
But that was years ago. Now, we always know what we’re having for dinner, sometimes several days in advance, and we can have it ready to eat half an hour after we get home.
It started with a few favorites. We love Italian food so Friday night became Itey Nite, eagerly anticipated vanguard of the weekend. Mexican and Asian soon became standard weekly fare. For as long as I can remember, the Sunday night meal involved potatoes and some chicken-like “meat.” These days we celebrate Sunday night with KFT (Kentucky Fried Tofu).
Bob has always grown food and after all that work it would be a crying shame to waste any of it, so I developed a robust kitchen habit. Nothing makes dinner easier than rinsed lettuce, chopped onions, roasted garlic, pre-cooked beets, and so on. I’d make salads and bake bread, too. After we stopped eating animals, I started making vegan “meat”.
A few years ago I doubled efficiency when I found a magnetic dry erase calendar. I stuck it on the side of the refrigerator next to our prep counter. I plan the menu in black and the prep list in orange. I use an adjacent white board for a shopping list. It is ridiculously easy to stay on track.
Nothing is written in stone. That’s why we use a white board. Whatever comes in the door is what we eat. The menu lets us make the best use of perishable food, helps us meet our goals of eating local, sustainably-grown food, and gives us something to anticipate at the end of the day.
What’s a menu? It’s a guide to delicious, healthy food every night of the week!
I’ve lived with Bob long enough to value the importance of good questions. They can make or break any deal, they steer conversations off-course or into fertile waters. Yet, as long as I’ve watched Bob hit the target with artfully-posed questions, the right questions do not naturally compose themselves in my brain.
As the baby in the family, Bob learned to ask questions in the same way I, the oldest became good at making assertions. In order to lead the pack, I needed to speak in certainties. “Not always right, but never in doubt,” we joke. My questions sound like statements and Bob’s statements sound like questions. Bob is also never in doubt, but with a subtle twist. He usually knows the answer to the questions he’s posing, or at least his version of the answer. I’ll say, “That’s a boat-tailed grackle” as opposed to Bob’s “Is that a boat-tailed grackle?”
Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before and The Happiness Project devised a neat quiz to help determine our behavioral tendencies:
Upholders – people who get up in the morning and ask themselves “What’s on my list for today?” They are motivated by internal and external expectations.
Questioners, who ask, “Is there anything I really have to do today?” They require good reasons for a particular course of action.
Rebels wonder “What do I want to do today?” They respond to internal expectations and are motivated by a sense of freedom.
Obligers ask “What must I do today?” They are motivated by accountability to others.
I’m an Upholder if you haven’t already guessed, and Bob is a questioner. Here’s a typical exchange: “What are you up to today?” “I’m doing this and that, and need to do such and such.” “Can’t you put that off until tomorrow?” “Yes, but…” I’ve set my mind on what all I need to do, and Bob tries to help me by talking me out of some of it.
Last year I decided to seek help for pain in my left foot that I first noticed in 2013. I suspected a stone bruise, but after weeks without respite I linked it to my growing collection of varicose veins. I had been spending six hours a day doing housework and preparing meals barefoot on concrete terrazzo in Africa. A cursory examination by a visiting medical student supported my theory.
Two years later, I worked up the courage to visit a vascular surgeon. In hindsight, I should have brought Bob with me. I filled out a questionnaire, and spoke with the examiner at length, beginning with the story about my foot. I told her that I began wearing compression stockings at that time and they alleviated the pain, supporting my suspicion that veins were the underlying problem.
“We can fix your veins,” was the prognosis. For a $5,000 co-pay. Bob and I decided to liquidate my IRA to pay for the procedure. I never asked anyone if closing the four exterior veins in my legs would address the pain in my foot. I assumed fixing my veins would do the trick, that the veins in my leg were letting pressure accumulate in my foot, and that the examiner had heard me when I described my problem. You know what they saw about assuming. “Never assume anything. It makes an ass out of u and me.”
It took months of healing before I stopped wearing the surgical stockings and a week later the pain in my foot reappeared. “What the…?!” I went back to wearing knee highs, unable to face the awful truth. Finally I mustered the courage to meet with the physician. He examined my foot and said, “This is not a vascular issue.” He read the notes on my chart from the initial consultation. There were my answers to the questionnaire with some notes from the consultation. No mention of my foot. He suggested I see a podiatrist.
The good news? My legs look great, right down to my ankles. And the dull ache in my foot is a constant reminder of the importance of asking the right question.