Friday, July 30, 2010

The Mind behind the Book

I've always been of the opinion that reading foreign literature (especially in the original, but even in a reasonable translation) was not only a cheap and safe form of world travel, but an opportunity to get a glimpse of what I like to call "national character" for want of a better phrase. I'm talking about something that is more personal, more linked to the nature of an individual -- and in this case to a nation -- than the term "culture" usually represents. So it is that the Bryson memoir of the fifties (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) is quintessentially American, compared, say, to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

I've also always been of the opinion that something of the writer's mind is revealed by his or her writing, maybe particularly but not exclusively in the case of fiction. I enjoy discovering an excellent writer and then going through all of that writer's previous works and emerging with a bit of a sense of the writer's mind, his or her interests and insights, themes and techniques, and perhaps a quick peek at the writer's "worldview" and stance in the face of the big issues: life, death, love, loss, grief, sin, redemption, war, politics, relationships, ambition, greed, lust, etc.

I don't tend to read much nonfiction other than some of the books we choose for our twice-weekly discussion group, the books that I copyedit, the articles I read in the New York Times every day, and the occasional magazine article. Last Saturday, I was in the library browsing through my favorite section, "New Fiction," and I noticed the woman next to me picking up and looking over a number of novels I'd recently read and liked. I made a comment and suggestion and we got to talking. It was great fun. We seemed to have so many authors, themes, and so on in common. But she mentioned a nonfiction book at one point and said, "It read just like fiction. I couldn't put it down."

Thinking back on this, I realized that it's a rare thing for me to find nonfiction that reads like that, and I remembered the last time I had that experience. Some time ago, in our group, we read Barack Obama's early book, Dreams of My Father. It had been written a number of years before I had even heard of the man, but we were reading it after he had become the president. It read like fiction. I was totally engaged as a reader. I couldn't put it down. And I was thoroughly impressed with the mind behind the book: the personal honesty and straightforwardness, the sincerity, the intelligence, the depth of psychological insight, the sense of history and community, and the essential American character.

Not long ago, we read his second book (written before he ran for president) called The Audacity of Hope. It doesn't really read like fiction for the most part. It's less personal and more political, most certainly. But, again, it was tremendously impressive in terms of the writing itself and in terms of the mind behind the book. The section on the history of U.S. foreign policy is better than many of the political science textbooks I edited when I worked at the university. His assessment of the changes this nation went through in the sixties aptly matches so much of my own experience. His analysis of the challenges we face as a people, as a nation, and as a planet is outstandingly comprehensive, far-sighted, and right on target in my personal opinion.

Of course, that doesn't not mean that he will be able to do what he proposes -- for myriad reasons. But the breadth and depth of his vision as revealed over the pair of books is enough for me to take heart and hope for the best. And this is coming from a person who pretty much lost interest in politics after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

I have, however, voted in every presidential election and some regional ones for the past four decades since I turned 21 years of age. But I only got interested in politics again, to tell the truth, because the George W. Bush administration was creating so much damage to international affairs, domestic policies, the governmental system, the environment, and the balance of power between the corporate elite plutocracy and the people of the United States that I couldn't ignore politics any longer. I didn't campaign for Obama, but I voted for him. I don't watch television, but I watched the inauguration and I watch the YouTube versions of his weekly address every single Sunday and I read the papers.

I have mostly steered away from political views on Susan's Blog, preferring to offer garden photos, fiction reviews, links to my articles on beaded jewelry, and cat photos, but these two books and the mind behind them were exceptional, and I wanted to pass that on to any who were interested. Comments?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Appreciation

A quick glance at the current news articles confirms anyone's guess that there are people in this world whose greed for money and power and special interest is making other people miserable in uncountable ways. But what about the everyday kindnesses of ordinary people to one another? That doesn't make the headlines nor, perhaps, does it change history. But maybe the overall effects afforded by those smallest acts serves as a balance to all the rest, one that has prevented civilization from totally collasping, so far anyway.

About ten years ago, I started needing to walk with a cane (just one, then!) and I was concerned about other people's reactions: would strangers stare at me with curiosity or pity? would I get pushed down the stairs as abler others hurried past? As it turned out, other people, "perfect strangers," as the saying goes, have been extremely kind to me. People don't stare, but they often notice and then offer to hold doors, carry packages, step wide to make room, and so on. I have been both amazed and gratified by the ordinary acts of everyday people.

Let me offer an illustration. In the last six months or so, grocery shopping has become something of a challenge to David and me. We go once a week because we have done it that way for a long time: it's efficient in terms of time spent, meal planning, and gasoline usage. But even for only two people,and the occasional dinner guest, a week's worth can be a fair amount of groceries, and some of the items are heavy or awkward. I use one of those electric carts and David pushes a regular shopping cart. It holds more than the basket in the cart and gives him some stability to help with the out-of-balance and motor coordination problems of Parkinson's Disease. When we get to the checkout, he goes first and I am right behind with a few things in my basket as well. Sometimes, he forgets to go ahead of the cart for unloading. Then he's trapped because the aisle is too narrow, and maybe I can't back up to give him more room because there are other shoppers behind me.

So here comes the young bagger guy, probably half a century younger than David. He actually looks up and sees the problem. He sees us as people, not just old people, or just as more customers to wade through until his shift is up -- but as real people. And he comes over immediately and starts to unload the cart for us. He asks if we'd like help loading into the car. He waits until I get from the cart into the driver's seat and returns the cart for us. We exchange a little small talk about the weather and thank him. Both sides wish the other a good evening. It seems small perhaps, as an effort on his part, but it's an enormous help and relief to both of us.

And so I offer an appreciation, to all the everyday people whose names I don't know, who may not remember me or my circumstances, tthose who provide other such kindnesses to people other than myself, in lots of different places far and wide -- but to all of whom I am grateful. And I think it must really represent a great mass of kindness over all, over all the world, and its importance should not be discounted for a moment. Thanks!

New Article on Spark!

Hey! My new article "What's Design Got to Do with It?" just published:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Container Plantings

I've always liked container plantings. They allow you to place sunny or shady annuals right where you want them to complement whatever is blooming in nearby beds. They are also nice along walks, next to bird baths and seating areas, and just here and there as well.
Garden centers are starting to sell already made-up pots of mixed annuals, which are handy for people who don't have the time or inclination to make their own combinations or those who want a single pot of mixed color for a balcony, patio, or condo area. But I think it's fun to make up containers full of annuals each year.
To save on effort and cost, I prefer those fairly good-sized containers made of some sort of fiberglass or polystyrene material that can stay outdoors all winter with the soil still in them. They are not so heavy if they need to be moved and don't fall apart from frost compared to terra cotta. The plain plastic ones don't last very well, get brittle in winter, and are ugly from the beginning anyway. The downside of these containers if that they need to be watered more often during dry or hot periods than raised beds or regular flower beds. I always add some fresh sterile container potting soil to the top level each spring along with a few of those polymer crystals that hold water in the soil and a time-release fertilizer. That -- and my husband David's faithful watering -- lasts the season.
I usually stick to traditional annuals (or herbs in one container this year) rather than a lot of the dramatic (and expensive!) tropicals that container gardening books and magazines always rave about. Mostly, I include a mix of four or five plants of different kinds in the large containers, matching the two sides of those along the walk. But sometimes, I just put in a lot of one plant for a really bright spot of color.
These vinca did really well this year and are sooo brilliant!

Almost every year, some of the annual dianthus in containers lives over the winter. I always try not to disturb it when I re-do the surface soil and I usually add new dianthus to that same pot for a mix of frilly pinks.
Gazanias are an attractive container annual because of their sunshine colors and striking markings. I try to pair them with something blue, but this time the blue plant hasn't bloomed much so far.

All of the annual salvias are good for containers: the firetruck reds, the deep purples, and the tall blue Victoria types as well.
I guess I'm not afraid to mix bright colors. I'll tuck in red salvia with other reds, pinks, and fuschias fearlessly!

For a long time, I resisted petunias because they were sticky and floppy and reminded me of Ronald Reagan. But the new breed of wave petunias and supertunias are wonderful. They last into the heat very well and just keep right on blooming their heads off!
Just as the supertunias are an improvement over the old petunias, the superbenas are a better verbena that is more heat tolerant than the others.

The brightest annuals show off best when there are also some light-colored or white flowers in the neighborhood as well.

Red supertunias pair nicely with my blue-and-black salvia, the hummingbird attracter.

For red annuals, though, I always have to include at least a few of the old classics: red geraniums (actually, the annual ones are called pelargoniums and they hail from South Africa).

Years ago, I remember huge lantanas growing like weeds in my mother's Tampa Bay garden. Now they are available in wonderful colors for container growing in the summer here in the Midwest. There's even a terrific planting of purple angelonias and yellow and pink lantanas in a long bed in front of the grocery store!
In shadier areas, the plants change and sometimes so do the types of containers. Although many of them have fallen apart over the years, I still have a few of those wooden half-barrells (which have now become prohibitively expensive).

 The barrells are nice for various small plants and double impatiens.
The barrells are quite wide and can accomodate a small perennial as well as annuals if I'm careful not to disturb the surface too much. One of them holds crested iris and the others hold dwarf hostas and a dwarf goatsbeard.
Most of the color in the garden right now is in containers, in fact, although there are some bright spots outside the pots, such as the bee balm (Monarda).
There's the vining perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus) too. It's not fragrant like the annual English kinds that die in Illinois as soon as the summer hits, but it is easy and colorful.
The shrubs that are blooming now are primarily the hydrangeas, and they are beauties. Here's a new one just planted this spring called "Incrediball."

One of my favorites is the easy to grow and long-lasting Oak Leaf Hydrangea (quercifolia). The leaves are pretty enough on their own, but the bonus is huge cone-shaped white flowers that turn a soft dusty antique rose pink later on. (And the leaves turn red and rust in the fall as well.)
Small clay pots of houseplants are containers of a sort too. Every year, we take our houseplants outside and let them enjoy the fresh air and rain on a wooden plant table my husband built. They are easy to water with the hose too. The Clivia (a South African plant in the lily family) almost always graces us with clusters of bright orange blooms.
Raised beds aren't exactly containers, but we are continuing the work of re-doing them. You can see the difference easily between one that hasn't been re-done yet and one that was just weeded and had the soil topped up ready for mulching.
I've been using surveyor flags to mark plants that stay as we work on re-doing the beds, removing weeds, adding soil, and planting new plants to fill gaps.
Well, that's it for now for container ... plants. But the cat patio and run that my husband built 15 years ago is still a source of fun, fresh air, and exercise for "containing" some frisky felines.

Friday, July 2, 2010


After a long period of heat indexes over 100, the weather turned wonderful here in east central Illinois. We've had sunny days with gentle breezes and cool nights without thunderstorms. Yeah! So it was time again to go out in the garden take some photos.

This is the peak time for daylilies to be in bloom, and they are glorious. Daylilies (Hemerocallis, from the Greek words for "day" and "beautiful") are one of the most popular perennials available. They are generally easy to grow and easy to hybridize. There are more than 6,000 cultivars and many specialty daylily societies. Daylily hybridizers experiment with color, texture, bloom size, and many other factors.
When I was a kid, the daylilies I was familiar with were the tall orange naturalized kind that you sometimes see on roadsides in the country. Even though some people consider them weeds (and they can indeed get out of hand), there are some of those in my north yard. But for many years, I have been interesting in acquiring a range of hybrid hemerocallis in a variety of colors.

One of the neat innovations that the hybridizers (and the daylilies themselves, of course) have come up with is a contrasting color at the center of the bloom that is different from the throat color or the color of the rest of the petals. I especially like the purple and white ones.

As the name suggests, each individual flower blooms for only one day. But during the blooming season there are lots of flowers coming on each day and mature plants can have plenty of blooms still open while others have already closed. Sometimes I go around and pick off the finished blooms (it's neater and maybe is better for the plants?), but you can always see a few.

Some hybrids have ruffled edges, like fancy pie pastry. The foliage is full and makes a good covering to discourage weeds from growing in a line of daylilies. They are often planted with daffodils so that the daylily foliage is starting up just when the daffodil foliage has flopped over and isn't so attractive. We have done this along our east and south fences. So we have blooms there in April and May from the daffs and in July and August from the daylilies.

Some daylilies are fragrant, but others are not. It depends on the hybrid. There are very tall ones too, ones that do well in hot weather in the South, and miniatures (the flowers are smaller and more delicate, but the plants aren't miniature). The "tet hems" (tetrapoloid versus diploid) have an extra chromosome; many of those kinds have very large flowers with thick petals. There are some that bloom earlier in the season and some that are quite late. A well-known cultivar called "Stella d'Oro," a short yellow daylily, is often used in public places for its reliability, easy care, and long period of bloom.

Although collecting new hybrids and prize-winning named cultivars of daylilies can be an expensive (but popular) hobby, many lovely daylilies are available at garden centers for reasonable prices. Also, there are gardeners who actually do what the books suggest -- divide their perennials periodically. So I have bought daylily divisions at private plant sales. One year a very kind woman with a great many beautiful daylilies gave me starts from a half dozen of her plants.

Along the outside of the fence on the east side of our house, we have a line of herbaceous peonies with daylilies just in front of them. The foliage of the now-finished peonies makes a nice backdrop for this charming lemon yellow hemerocallis.

For a number of years when my husband and I were able to garden actively by ourselves, we were adding new flower beds each spring, and we would take a trip up to a place just south of Madison, Wisconsin, called The Flower Factory. They have a wonderful range of interesting perennials and the plants were always in beautiful condition and reasonably priced. We'd fill our van and go back home and plant them. One year when we unloaded the van, we discovered half a dozen pots of this bright yellow and red so-called "spider" daylily that we hadn't purchased. It turned out to be a very nice gift or accident -- we don't know which :)

There are zillions of fantastic photos of hemerocallis on the Internet. They are very photogenic plants! If you haven't ever grown any, don't waste another moment. Try them now. You won't be sorry.