Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

La Pluie des Champignons?

Mushrooms after fall rain

more post-rain mushrooms

I’m pretty sure the earth’s climate is changing, and that human activity is a major cause. I’m not sure of everything I can or should be doing to reduce my personal impact, and/or to pressure relevant public and private officials to reduce our collective human impact. My direct observations of climate include having lived in many different parts of the globe.  

The weather and climate of southern California, where I recently moved, are still pretty much a mystery to me. Longer-term locals have told me, “it never rains between May and November.” Since I moved here in May 2021, we’ve had thunderstorms in July and two substantial rainfalls in October. It IS a lot drier than where I previously lived on the U.S. East Coast, but not as dry as the year I lived in far northwestern China. 

That year, there was a total of less than an inch of precipitation, including a smallish dusting of snow in late November that lingered well into February. I was teaching oral English to students at a “desert reclamation university.” In early spring, a team of agricultural experts from  the Texas A&M system in the U.S. came for a week to both teach and observe. At one of their feature presentations, held in lieu of regular classes, I sat at the back of the auditorium to watch. A professor of soil science was giving an illustrated talk about the use of native grasses in his part of Texas to reduce erosion during “extreme rain events.” I could tell that some of the students I taught were having difficulty with the English. Mostly they were having difficulty with the concept of extreme rain events. Finally, one student gathered his courage and raised his hand. The professor called on him. I don’t remember the student’s exact English, which was probably somewhat basic, but he got the point across: 

“Your slides and information are quite impressive,” the student began. “But they do not fit our situation here very well,” he continued. “You see, we do not have extreme rain events in this part of Xinjiang.” 

Perhaps the climate where I lived previously that most closely matched what I’ve experienced here so far was in a small city on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in east central Africa. The climate there was tropical, but with a “long dry season” that typically extended from early May until late September or October. By the time the “short rainy season” was about to begin, the ground had gotten parched. In some years, before the full set of rains began, there were a couple of intervals when we had brief showers—enough to get wet under the trees, but not enough to run off. Locals called these showers “la pluie des vaches” (“cow rains”). Historically, the majority of the population had been pastoralists. These early rains were just enough to begin greening up the pastures. The cattle would finally get some fresh grass, rather than the dry rations they’d been on before any rains. 

Our first October rain was sort of like a cow rain, though there are not any cows anywhere near the suburban enclave where I live. The following morning, I noticed land snails on the wettish sidewalks—a “pluie des escargots”? After a few hours, the sidewalks dried and the snails disappeared. A few days later, the nearby canyons did sport a stubble of greenery, maybe enough for a snack for the area’s wild deer.  

The second rain was more extensive, creating small gullies on some of the canyon trails, soaking into grassy street verges in ways that our paltry irrigation systems do not match.  This time, the deer-food stubble was somewhat more extensive, plus some of the street edges began showing a good growth of mushrooms, which lingered. I’ve christened this year’s second storm a mushroom rain, a southern California “pluie des champignons.” 

The Person in the Next Chair

Yesterday I decided it had been too long since my previous pedicure. My skills at trimming and polishing my toenails, never very good to begin with, have deteriorated as I age. The corns and bunions on my feet have gotten worse; some of my nails are often slightly ingrown. My feet really needed a good soak and trim. I decided to try a new-to-me nail salon, near the grocery store where I do most of my food shopping. 

On this late Friday morning, the place was not very busy. One of the pedicurists quickly got me into a chair and started the back massage with a few clicks of buttons that usually befuddle me. She had me sit comfortably side saddle at first, before testing the temperature in the basin of water with my toes—nicely warm, not too hot. She then started in, first on the more-distorted toes, working gently but firmly, readying me for the eventual application of the bright orange polish I’d picked out as this season’s color. I’m not good at small talk, so I mostly sat quiet. 

I heard the person in the next chair before I took a good look—a booming somewhat older-sounding voice, joking and flirting with the pedicurist who was working on his toes. His toes. In my prior experience, guys in nail salons are rare. Even rarer are guys with booming bass voices. And black guys with booming bass voices? No way. 

Because I never engaged him directly, I’ll never be sure whether his near-continual line of patter was partly from nervousness.  It seemed to me that he was a repeat customer—he knew the entire staff and, if I understood correctly, had a standing appointment about once every two weeks. 

When I briefly glanced his direction, I noticed that his ankles seemed a little swollen and discolored. I wondered whether he had circulatory problems, perhaps partly related to a diabetic condition? Whatever, he was enjoying his pedicure, and the pedicurist seemed to be enjoying his line of patter. Once his nails were trimmed and cleaned, I thought he’d be ready to leave. Instead, he asked that they be polished with bright pink polish. This seemed to be a first for him. 

“My daughter will fall out when she sees,” he chuckled. “She just started a new job, with the sheriff’s department. I’ll send her a picture on my phone, and she’ll probably respond right away, especially if she’s on her lunch hour.” 

“You’ll need to sit here for about 10 minutes to let the polish dry,” the nail tech told him. 

By that time, I’d finished. The jack-o-lantern colored polish on my toes was dry.

It wasn’t until I was leaving that I ventured another glance at the guy in the next chair, who could well have been a football linebacker in a prior career. 

Into the polish on each big toe, the guy had gotten the pedicurist to inscribe a small loop in a different shade of pink. Suddenly I remembered it was October 1, the beginning of breast cancer awareness month.Because I didn’t engage him directly, I can’t be sure, but my guess is that his daughter is a breast cancer survivor. If so, I hope she can feel the love emanating from her daddy’s bright pink toenails. 

Dragonfruit


A welcoming presence in this new locale—
A community garden an easy walk away.
Most mornings, a garden elder greets me,
Shares stories of other gardeners and of
The plants growing under her watchful eye.

Along a trellis just outside the garden
Gate sprawls a droopy set of greenery—
Half cactus, half vine, it shades the
Garden’s tool shed behind it.

droopy cactus?



“What’s that?” I ask the first time
I see this mystery plant, splaying pale
Cream-colored blossoms along
Its width. “A dragonfruit,”
Explains the elder. “It’s not officially
Part of the garden, but one of
Our gardeners asked to put it there.”

Most of the time, the blossoms are
Already spent by morning. The plant,
I learn online, usually blooms at night.
Bats and nocturnal insects pollinate it.

On subsequent visits, I find that spent
Blooms have fallen off, replaced by growing
Orbs, at first pale green, then pinkish,
Then red. As they get bigger, they
Sprout what look a bit like scales—
Hence the popular name.

My most recent trip reveals a new sign—
“Large fruit, $3; small $1; proceeds to
Help buy supplies for next spring’s planting.”
I remember having eaten some once in a fruit salad:
White inside, with black seeds and a mild flavor.

I think I’ll buy some and try to find creative
Uses for them. If nothing else, they can remind
Me, in this pivotal time, when so many
Preconceptions have been turned
Inside out, to nudge my inner dragons
Away from seedy black and white,
Toward a more scaled and colorful reality.

halved dragon fruit

pink-red dragon fruit

A Time to Gather Stones Together?

rocks for drainage control

rocks and shrubs for landscaping

rocks, gravel, mementos and cacti

Earlier this year, I moved from an area that gets about a meter of rain per year to a locale that rarely gets as much as a quarter of that. Per local weather data, this past year has been drier still, with only about 13 centimeters of rain during the most recent dozen months. Water rationing has not yet been fully imposed, but residents are required by local ordnance to limit any landscape watering to the periods of early morning, late evening, or nighttime. More and more areas that previously tried to be “lawns” have been converted to less water-thirsty designs. 

Because of pandemic restrictions, some of the in-person resources that had been available for teaching “water wisdom” have been curtailed. Still, there are online resources, such as https://www.watersmartsd.org/residential/landscape-resources/, and some visiting allowed at an area “water conservation garden (https://thegarden.org).”

While on neighborhood walks, I’ve also been surveying our vicinity for inspiration before making any further changes to our small yard. It’s pretty amazing what can be accomplished using varieties of mulch, stone, and other pavers, sometimes with a dollop of desert plants, sometimes using a broader set of shrubs and grasses. My guess is that “xeriscaping,” also know as “drought-tolerant landscaping” is also more erosion-resistant if and when the rains do come. A time for this newly minted southern Californian to gather more stones together?

Our Avocado Kitchen

 

The house where we mostly raised our children was an older two-story dwelling that had likely had several owners before us. We’d bought it pre-children, thrilled by its roominess and by its relatively low price. Its exterior stucco was a light green, with darker green trim on its porches and windows. The colors fit well with the shade trees lining our narrow, one-way street. What was less thrilling was the color of its interior paint. Nearly every room was a dull, sickly looking green. Perhaps that shade of paint had been on sale when the prior owners were preparing the house to sell, or maybe they had some leftover mixture after the exterior was painted? We never got to ask. 

We quickly set about redecorating to colors we found more pleasing. By the time our older child was born, we’d stripped both the paint and the wallpaper under it from most rooms in the house. The dining room became a shade of light blue, the living room even paler. A couple of the bedrooms got “photo walls” of spectacular scenery. The nursery had kid-themed wallpaper. I sewed curtains. 

The room we left most nearly “as is” was the kitchen, where counters, sink, moldings, and a walk-in pantry broke the lines of the drab green. Our refrigerator, though, was the “avocado green”  shade popular during the 1970’s and 80’s. I don’t remember whether the fridge had come with the house, or if we purchased it at an appliance store. Over time, it developed a slight list, so that to close its door securely you had to kick the bottom. (A habit we had to break when we eventually moved to a different house and bought a non-tilting fridge.)  

The children have long since grown and set up housekeeping on their own. Their decorating tastes differ from ours, but to my knowledge, neither has ever painted a room avocado green. In retirement, we live in a townhouse with muted colors inside and out. An older friend who’s lived in this area most of his life characterizes our suburban milieu as “beigeville.” 

Then, a few years ago, we succumbed to the dietary craze for avocados—on salads, on toast, as garnishes. The pits were nearly indestructible, as I found after they’d aged for months in our backyard compost bins. Curious for alternatives, I checked online for how to sprout an avocado pit. After several tries, I got one to put down a smallish root, then planted it in a ceramic pot, where it spent warm weather on our back deck, getting lots of sun, and enough water to keep it happy. We’d bring it indoors in cold weather, since our winter climate so far freezes too hard and too often for avocados. It was happiest in our south-facing kitchen window. By its third autumn, the avocado looked more like a small tree. It had grown so tall that we trimmed its main stem before bringing it indoors. We added a stake to its now-larger pot to encourage it to grow straight. Like the fridge we used to have, though, it too has developed a slight list. 

This winter, our avocado tree has sprouted lots of auxiliary branches, with a spread that is encroaching ever more severely into our person-and-a-half kitchen. We’re not sure how much longer we can keep it. Do any of you in central North Carolina hanker for your very own kitchen avocado, with the transport to move it and enough indoor space to keep it happy for cold seasons to come?

avocado reaching for the sun

Our crowded kitchen

Wear a Mask (to the tune of “Silver Bells”)

(can be sung to the tune of “Silver Bells,” perhaps a fitting tribute, or lament, for the year 2020) 

(Chorus 1): Wear a mask! Why, you ask?
It’s COVID time in our country.
Cases spike,
And though we’d like,
We can’t wish this virus away.

City sidewalks, parks and greenways
Offer welcome respite.
In the air there’s a chill now it’s winter.
Shuttered venues, take-out menus,
At the food banks long lines,
And until vaccinations are here…

(Repeat Chorus 1)

Pharma’s Pfizer and Moderna
Make vaccines at warp speed.
Health care workers get first dibs on doses.
Testing sites fill, more relief bills,
As the POTUS still fumes,
And in virtual choirs you’ll hear:

(Repeat Chorus 1)

(Chorus 2): Wear a mask! Must we ask?
It’s COVID time in our country.
Spring will come,
Outdoor fun–
Soon will be vaccination day!

 

Senior Crafting

some senior crafts old and new

 

more senior crafts

One Christmas when I was in elementary school, I was among many girls my age to get a potholder loom kit as a gift, probably from a non-resident aunt.  I spent part of that winter crafting multi-colored potholders from the loops provided with the square-shaped miniature loom. My mother graciously consented to use the somewhat lumpy things in her kitchen. (Mom was not especially fussy about equipment and accessories.) As I recall, the potholders were washable. They shrank only marginally once run through our wringer washing machine. Though the one I had in childhood has long since made it to the dump, such looms are still available for purchase. The next generations of potholder-makers may be getting some as holiday gifts.  

As I grew older, I learned to sew.  As a teen, I made some of my own outfits, stretching my limited clothing allowance. My grandmother taught me to knit, though I don’t remember knitting much except for an impatiently completed sweater for my then-boyfriend-now-husband that came only partway down his midriff. 

This holiday season, hubby and I are retired, locked down, with too much time on our hands and little social life. We’ve each discovered a craft outlet that fulfills some of our need to feel connected and useful: Jim decorates sets of garden pebbles, distributing them in area tree wells and along park paths; I make small “quilt-lets” and decorative fabric face masks. 

Previous generations of our families had different craft outlets. While doing this year’s minimal straightening and decorating for Christmas, I uncovered a few “potholders” from our elders—a crocheted afghan, some wooden candlesticks that my post-retirement dad turned on a lathe in his backyard wood shop, decorative tissue holders and toilet paper holders that my mother-in-law produced as part of a yarn crafts class. Perhaps “craftiness” is a skill set that lies dormant during the busiest parts of our lives, resurfacing once we have more leisure (certainly abundant in 2020!)

We may eventually need to downsize further, discarding or recycling yesteryear’s  “potholders.” For now, their quirks provoke curiosity: the uneven dimensions of the candle holders, the “squiggly thing” atop one of the toilet paper holders. I wonder if Dad got tired, after raising twins, of “matched sets” of anything, or if it was just difficult to get his raw materials to lathe into uniform shapes.  I wonder if Mom B., somewhat bored as she completed yet another tubular shape, decided to include on the top of a bird-sided holder, a sinuous brown and orange shape that doesn’t look part of the original pattern of concentric rings—maybe the worm that got away? 

The coldest days of the year lie ahead. We’re in for a few more challenging months while we await widespread vaccinations and the end to this pandemic. Perhaps our elders were wiser and craftier than we realized at the time—when times got tough, they got creative. Whimsy matters!      

Gratitude for Late-Life Friendships

My heart goes out to the many families who will be missing a member at this year’s holiday celebrations because of a covid-induced death. I have yet to lose a family member or very close friend directly from the pandemic, though the final year of our close late-life friend, Phyllis, was impacted. She had to journey through end-stage cancer with limits on visits from loved ones, limits to her travels beyond what her illness proscribed. 

We’d known Phyllis for about a decade before her death. She was among the first non-family members to welcome us to North Carolina when we arrived here. More recently, she and her husband had finalized plans to relocate to their “retirement haven” in rural Virginia just before her diagnosis. We were very lucky that there was a summer lull in the pandemic while Phyllis was still ambulatory. She and her family visited friends in North Carolina one more time, a sort of chance to say good-bye.  

As I grieve Phyllis’s absence, I’m comforted by the example she set of dying well and of leaving a nourishing legacy. She spent as much of her final months as her energy allowed painting nature scenes, a gift she had put on hold for much of an active life. Her son just posted an image of art created by a young artist at a school to which Phyllis had bequeathed her unused paints and drawing supplies.  

At this Thanksgiving, made virtual for so many by the pandemic’s continuing spikes, I need to be especially grateful for late-life friendships like ours with Phyllis and her family. Many of our friends from earlier life stages have been work colleagues, or family members of our children’s friends, or affiliates in non-profit groups. Though genuine, these friendships were somewhat opportunistic and sometimes withered as our locations and life stages changed. By now, we’ve retired, our children are grown and establishing their own friendship networks, and more and more non-profits are conducted virtually even when there’s not a pandemic. 

This year’s limitations on in-person holiday gatherings have highlighted what connections we still can have. Not long after we’d gotten up this morning, we got a surprise phone call from a different late-life friend, a former next-door neighbor, recently retired and living across town. A confirmed “foodie,” Greg wished us a happy holiday and shared a story of a memorable Thanksgiving feast when he was living in Germany and tasked with contributing a pumpkin pie to a community celebration with his graduate student colleagues. Turns out, fresh or canned pumpkin were rarities in the part of Germany where he studied. The only variant he was able to find were jars of pickled pumpkin. Numerous iterations of rinsing the jars’ contents before cooking didn’t entirely restore the taste of a traditional pumpkin pie. 

Another set of late-life friends that I cherish are members of a pre-covid walking group, now on temporary hiatus. All of us are retired. Many of us have lost spouses. Most of us have health conditions that slow our steps and make uphills more challenging than earlier. Still, whenever I go for a walk outdoors, either with my husband or alone, I mentally have the “Tuesday morning walkers” with me. 

Even once the covid pandemic subsides, through vaccination and/or better public health preventative measures, I will remain at the stage of life when more of my contemporaries will die off. It’s important, then, to cherish them while we still can. As my husband explained on a down day for both of us, “We’re likely to spend an increasing proportion of our time mourning deaths of friends and loved ones, until it’s our turn to be mourned.”  

So let us give thanks for life, thanks for the capacity to share our stories, whatever the medium, thanks for friendships, especially those late-life friends who can help make this trying time more bearable. Happy Thanksgiving and a big set of virtual hugs!      

Fallow

Fallow   –by Jinny Batterson

Farmhouse in November snow, 2018

My sister’s farm lies fallow,
After an unseasonable frost
Killed off much of the late-
Season garden.

My sister’s body lies fallow
Beneath the rose bushes
She planted when she gave
The farm its name–
“White Rose”–in memory of
The father whose memory fogged
Before he could return to farming.

A fallow North Carolina morning. Foggy.
A looming work assignment
Helped chase me outdoors to unfog
My thoughts before confinement.

As the fog lifted, it gently coaxed out
Memories of a sister
Who tirelessly worked to
Improve the soil and to create
A community that, in due season,
Will birth something new.

Goodwill

Goodwill    —by Jinny Batterson

In business dealings,
Intangible assets in excess of
The value of bricks and mortar,
In Christmas carols,
What the angels sing of
At the birth of Jesus.

In this conflicted age,
An improbable hope that
Something good will emerge
From this global pandemic:
Our acknowledgment that
Human life is uncertain
And that all life is connected.