Thursday, January 31, 2008

My Hero: Rachel Norton

I know it's a little early to publish my endorsement of a candidate for the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education race. But I feel so strongly about this candidate, and know her abilities and accomplishments so well, that I can 't keep silent any longer. And I have a privileged perspective on her campaign, from even before she announced it officially. That's because Rachel Norton is my younger sister.

How far do I go back to illustrate the qualities that I know will enable her to not only gain a seat as a commissioner, but bring common sense, intelligence, and vision to the Board of Education? Rachel has never been afraid to ask the uncomfortable question--the one everyone wants to know--as when as a young child at the wedding of our parents' friends, she went around to every guest asking "What did you do BAD when you were a kid?" Asking the tough questions served her well when she became editor-in-chief of the newspaper at the women's college we both attended. She has always had an uncanny ability to zero in on where the power resides in a situation, and ascertain, sometimes before anyone else, who gets to make the decisions. This is probably why she is the one to initiate political discussions at our family gatherings. Knowing where the power lies also served her well as a journalist at Reuters News Service and the New York Times.

The quality that has fired Rachel to run for the Board of Ed, however, is a combination of fierce compassion and determination not to let those who are often dismissed or ignored be overlooked. I saw this quality begin to take hold in her struggles to identify and obtain the necessary special education services for her own child. As she evaluated therapies, navigated the special ed offerings, and networked with other parents of children with special needs, Rachel's focus widened. Her initial goal to find out everything she could about special education--not only in the SF school system but in the whole state of California--became a quest to educate other parents and advocate on behalf of all our children, not just special ed students, and not just her own children. This quest led her to volunteer and consult for Parents for Public Schools, and serve on the school district's Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. You can read about her other advocacy work, and her campaign platform, on her website.

Rachel began her advocacy work when my children had already been in public school in San Francisco for five years; my oldest was about to enter middle school. I was burned out from the hundreds of volunteer hours I had logged at their elementary school and couldn't bear to attend one more glum PTA meeting on "what to cut this year." But Rachel inspired me with her enthusiasm and connection with a fresh wave of parents dedicated to participating in and supporting public schools, many inspired by the work of PPS. I began to feel more hopeful, especially about the positive changes the school district had made in the enrollment process, and how newly empowered parents were transforming schools I had once written off. I joined PPS, and reengaged.

The first question people ask me when I tell them about my sister's campaign is, "WHY is she running?" but with an incredulous tone, as if they were asking why she would take up the notion to, say, stick her head in a lion's mouth. The words "crazy," "thankless," and "target of every nutcase in San Francisco," usually come up next. What I haven't heard much of, despite the whiff of Camelot in the air around Barack Obama these days, are the words "public service," "civic duty," or "moral responsibility." Are these words just too embarassingly idealistic to apply to our public school system with a straight face? For most of us, it's easier to get caught up in the ideals of democracy on a grand scale than it is to confront the needs of the public school down the block. Sadly, I feel it is a sign of how much people have given up on public education that is is assumed no sane person would run for the Board of Education.

I can vouch for Rachel's sanity, and I think she is brave to run for political office. She is sticking her neck out--not into the lion's mouth, I hope, but she is taking a risk. By running, she exposes herself and her family to scrutiny and possibly personal attack. Education is a lightning rod for society's discontents and she'll get an earful of those discontents. Over the next nine months, she will devoted hundreds of hours to getting elected, and if she is successful, she will devote hundreds more hours over the subsequent four years wrestling with some of the most tangled, controversial, and dispiriting issues our society faces. I feel incredibly proud of her and in awe of her conviction and courage. I plan to support her all I can, with whatever I can do as a fan and as her sister.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I have been experiencing anosmia for the past several days. It sounds like it could be the lack of a nose, but I still have my nose, just no sense of smell. I've had a bad cold that completely stuffed up my sinuses with the result that I can't smell anything, and can taste very little. It's happened before with colds for a night, or maybe even a whole day, but never for four days. I did a little reading about anosmia and found out that it does happen that someone loses their sense of smell during a cold and when the cold goes away, the sense of smell never comes back. That's when I stopped reading about it.
It's difficult to cook without my sense of smell. It never occurred to me that I rely on it not only for how to season things, but also how long to cook things. I made one of my most-often-cooked dinners, lentils and cornbread, and even so I forgot to put salt in, and didn't know if I had put enough balsamic vinegar in at the end. I can taste basic flavors on their own, like salt and sugar and vinegar, but detecting the right level of them in a lentil soup is too nuanced for just my tongue alone. I baked an apple galette over the weekend, and when my son came upstairs and breathed in and said,"Oh, that smells so good!" I wasn't sure what he was talking about for a moment. I overcooked the broccoli, since I couldn't smell that it was just passing the "done" stage, and luckily was reminded to take the cornbread out of the oven by my son, again responding to the smell.
Yesterday for lunch I microwaved a BBQ chipotle tamale with black beans and cheese, thinking that this would be sure to blast through. It tasted slightly sweet, that's all, although I could feel the spicy sensation in my mouth. All the various teas I've been drinking to "loosen things up" are just hot water. And take it from me, wine without its smell is just sour. Coffee without its smell is bitter. Eating and drinking turns into sort of a chore without the enticing smell of what I'm putting in my mouth.
So I turned to the laundry, but guess what! I sniff the clothes to see if they're dirty.
I'm left with the cliche from the Joni Mitchell song: You don't know what you've got till it's gone. Here's hoping for my sense of smell to return soon!

Friday, January 25, 2008


I baked these today in honor of my oldest son, who just finished his first semester finals for a very demanding course of study in high school. He worked hard all semester, and regardless of what his final grades end up to be, he deserves sweetness after all that labor. And he gave me the pan for Christmas.
The baking was also a kind of solace for me, since it has been raining all day and I have a cold, and I needed something to take me away from that. In the course of searching for a good recipe for madeleines, I discovered a new (to me) food blog called "101 Cookbooks."
I don't know where I was since it won a food blog award last year, but I just landed at it. There are lots of great recipes, and it's a fun site to browse.

Monday, January 21, 2008

January Garden

Isn't this cymbidium spectacular? My husband's parents gave it to us from their yard, like our other cymbidiums. I didn't know this one was going to be green with burgundy spotted beards until it opened.
Yesterday before it rained my husband went out and bought a whole tray of starts: poppies, rudbeckia, and some herbs for my new herb garden. What a sweetie. He has been working hard all weekend cleaning up, weeding, trimming. He put in the poppies and I planted the herbs: sweet marjoram, camomile, sorrel. We still have some parsley that reseeded, and some older oregano and thyme. I also planted chervil in the raised bed. Today it has been showering so between showers I went out to check on the starts. They looked refreshed, as if they had just drank up a tall glass of ice water. I guess they did.
We're collecting a family of succulents on the deck. The aeonium are from my mom (the big rosette in the front and the one in the black pot). The spiky one in back, and on the left, are climbing aloes cutting from a vacant house up the hill--they are about to flower. The victoria regina is from my in-laws' compost heap. Maybe this will be the beg, borrow and steal succulent collection. I'm about to go get more cuttings from the vacant house since its fence began to fall down in the storm and I'm afraid someone's going to come and clean up all the wonderful things growing through the fence.
Here is a quote from a lovely book I'm reading, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects On A Century In the Garden, by Stanley Kunitz.
In the beginning, a garden holds infinite possibilities. What sense of its nature, or its kingdom, is it going to convey? It represents a selection, not only of whatever individual plants we consider to be beautiful, but also a synthesis that creates a new kind of beauty, that of a complex and multiple world. What you plant in your garden reflects your own sensibility, your concept of beauty, your sense of form. Every true garden is an imaginative construct, after all.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Hole in the Forest

I finally got to my usual walk up to the top of Mt. Davidson this week, and was surprised to come upon this. One large tree had fallen in the storm ten days ago, and had taken out several more. They completely blocked the path, so I had to scramble up and over them to get to the mountain top. As I stopped, I noticed that the light was different, and the sound. Usually this stretch is dark and closed in, city noises are muffled and there is only birdsong and the creaking of tree limbs and rustling of leaves. Sometimes I'm even reluctant to walk this stretch during the middle of the day when there are no dog walkers or fellow strollers around. Someone could easily be hiding behind the vines. I always wonder if I'm being overly cautious or using common sense. But now there's a hole in the forest. This patch is wide open to the sky and I can hear the bus straining up the hill. It has lost its closed-in, hidden feeling.

Once when I was walking on this same stretch of path in the forest I came upon a man with a scope. He had it pointed up into a tree about 50 yards away.
"There was a northern pygmy owl up there, but he may not be there right now," he said excitedly. "I've been watching him the last few days."
I peered through the scope but couldn't see any owl. This man told me there were more bird species on Mt. Davidson than any other city park. He described how during and after storms, many birds settle on the trees up here to wait out the bad weather, especially during migrations. That week I made several trips up the mountain just to look for the norther pygmy owl with my binoculars, but I never saw it or the man again. I came to wonder if he had really seen it, but he seemed authentic enough with his scope and the bird species names he dropped.
Usually when I walk up here I'm moving, making my circuit in the hour I've allotted myself for my walk. I see birds, like I did today: a hummingbird, bushtits, black-eyed juncos, even a kestrel. But I would see even more if I sat silently for ten minutes. Then the birds would get used to me and come out. But the ten minutes stretches out my hour. Do I have ten minutes to sit and watch the world around me?
I'd like to say the downed trees made me stop for ten minutes. But I had my son to pick up. They did make me stop for about three minutes. I looked around and up at a place I usually hurry through on my way somewhere else. I noted how that place had changed. Maybe next time I'll stop a little longer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Technical Notes

I've made a few changes to my blog because I finally can use more functions in Blogspot, now that I downloaded Mozilla Firefox as my browser. I had been using Safari, which wouldn't allow me to do things like add a photo to my header. In Safari, I had to type in the HTML for any formatting, even italics and links. Now I can do these with a click of a button. Another change I made--unrelated to Firefox-- was to list my books read chronologically, rather than alphabetically. So now whatever's at the top of the list is what I read most recently. It's great to be able to make changes*--isn't that the appeal of blogging? I have to admit it was kind of fascinating to delve into HTML a bit, and I have a lot more to learn so I intend to keep exploring. Looking at the HTML coding is is like looking at the underlying structure of a building--and this is the only tenuous connection this post has to the photo of the Conservatory of Flowers above.
*My friend Marmee directed me to a whole new menu I can now access: Font!

When it was beginning to storm here, the first week of January, I tried to go for a walk on the beach, which I like to do once a week at least. But the sand was blowing horizontally and I couldn't take more than a few minutes of it. So I went for a stroll in the Conservatory of Flowers. This was where my husband and I were married nearly 17 years ago, when you could rent it out at night for events. At that time it was somewhat neglected, with lots of missing panes and leaks. My dad cracked, "It's a kind of seedy place to get married!" My grandma had to keep her fur coat on the whole time because it was so cold, even though we rented heaters (it was in March). But my husband and I found its decay romantic, and on a practical note, we didn't have to buy flowers. Our wedding was before the Conservatory was almost destroyed in the storm of 1995, after which a massive fundraising campaign made possible a complete renovation. No they no longer rent it out for weddings. Maybe the thought of that destructive storm brought me to it that blustery day. It was an island of stillness and enveloping warmth. I wandered through the ruffled orchids of the cloud forest and gazed into the lily pond. I took pictures and didn't talk to anyone. I felt like I had returned from somewhere far away when I emerged.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

At the Conservatory

Dive into my heart,
Rub your cheek on my velvet,
Dust your feet with my pollen.
If hibiscus calls to me this way
What does it say to the bee?

This is my 100th post, making my blog, for this day only, a century.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Haiku for Tree Fern Forest

Tree ferns' emerald fronds
Brush the sky--the soft crests of
Prehistoric birds.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Los Reyes

When we lived in Spain, we learned how to celebrate Dia de Los Reyes, also known as Epiphany, on January 6. In Spain, this is bigger than Christmas. Children write letters to Los Reyes asking for presents, and on the day before Epiphany the kings arrive and have a parade down the streets and the children go home and get their gifts. Like all Spanish holidays, there is a special food you eat on Los Reyes: a sticky round cake with glaceed fruit with something hidden inside. None of us liked the looks of the cake so we never bought it.
For our first Los Reyes, a Spanish family who we met through my husband's aunt took charge of us and told us where to meet them to see the parade. The streets were crowded with a huge crowd of families with strollers and kids sitting on shoulders. My sons elbowed their way to the front of the crowd, following their Spanish friends. Finally the floats with the kings arrived, Caspar (the white haired one), Melchior, and Balthazar (the dark-skinned and most beloved one). The kings and their attendants threw handfuls of hard candy at the crowd. Some of it hit me on the head, because I was one of the few remaining standing. Everyone else was on their knees picking up candy from the street. Afterwards, we went with our friends to our favorite cafe for little ham sandwiches on white bread and flaky pastries and milky horchata and tazas de chocolate. Our sons spoke only a little Spanish, and their daughters spoke only a little English, but they were all in the state of excitement that only children between the ages of five and ten can achieve, and words were not needed. Our table erupted with giggles and gestures and silliness that grew more and more boisterous. The Spanish father told his daughters to settle down quite a few times but they did not seem to notice. When we feared the four of them would topple from their chairs, we left the cafe, and said goodbye outside. The crowd had dispersed, and there was not one piece of candy remaining on the street.
The following year in early December, I went to the Santa Lucia market at the cathedral to buy a creche, or belen, in Spanish. The one I bought was made by Carme Ferrer, who sold them herself in a stall. She said she works all year making the figures and sells them during the week of the market. I bought hers after looking around at all the others for sale because I liked her kings and camels the best. I liked how they looked simple and handmade, and yet were carefully painted. She wrapped all the figures up for me carefully in scrap paper. I set out the belen every year and remember the market and Carme Ferrer and the Los Reyes parade and the tall glasses of horchata and our friends in Spain.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Our Backyard Bird Habitat

The ivy wall, post trimming.
I know this isn't the most interesting photo. But it's our backyard bird habitat--the only one we've got. This ivy wall, along with the manzanita bush (on the left) and the eucalyptus tree (on the right) harbor a lot of birds. Recently we had to get the ivy trimmed, mostly because of the ivy berry disaster of last year (described at the end of this post). It's tough to trim because the fence is so tall. Finally I found a tree-trimming service that would lower a man in a bucket up and over the fence from the parking lot on the other side, where the bucket truck was parked. He had a heavy duty hedge trimmer and skimmed off the extra ivy growth, including berries, as I watched. And not a moment too soon. We had already had a flock of starlings visit about a week ago to guzzle berries. They returned to guzzle again, but this time in our neighbors' stretch of the ivy wall. At least the birds did not gather to digest their berries on our deck this year, so I will cautiously rate our $375 trimming job a success.
I was worried, though, that the resident hummingbirds, not to mention all the other bird visitors, would abandon the cape honeysuckle if it got trimmed too much along with the ivy, and thus our backyard. Not a chance. The trimmer had barely glided back over the fence to his truck when a flock of bushtits descended on the cape honeysuckle, perhaps to glean newly revealed insects. Our hummingbirds continue to defend the territory as their own. After the trimming, a northern mockingbird--perhaps the one the hummingbirds terrorized-- has been lurking in the ivy, too. There's even a scrub jay that often visits our yard in the mornings to eat his peanut. Someone in the neighborhood is passing out peanuts. This morning we had a break in storms, and I watched as the bushtits explored the manazanita bush, then a pair of goldfinches, then the hummingbird, before the rain started again.
I think we have more birds in our backyard in the winter than in the summer. Maybe in the summer there are other spots with abundant food, so our yard is not as enticing. Not that our tiny urban yard is very enticing in the winter, either. But I'm not foolish enough to think that there's anything that special about our yard. Wherever there's food for them, there are birds, even in the city. Also, we have been moving toward more and more California native plants, many of which tend to bloom in the winter and spring (wet season), such as manazanita. The native plants seem to provide more food and habitat for birds (and butterflies) than naturalized plants, and they're easier to grow.

This is what I saw this morning: the hummingbird sipping nectar from the new manzanita berries (the photo is from Las Pilitas nursery website, which specializes in California native plants and can tell you which butterfly and bird species are attracted to which plants). It turns out that Anna's Hummingbirds adore manzanita. Maybe all this time they have been defending the manazanita bush, waiting for it to bloom. As I make my garden plan for the year and decide what to plant, I'm keeping in mind what bird and butterfly species I want to attract. Too bad I can't get rid of the ivy.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Haiku After Washing My Car

A string of starlings
Digesting ivy berries--
Don't park underneath!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Goodbye Old Year, Hello New Year

This photo is actually from sunset on the winter solstice this year, which to me seems more truly the end of one year and the beginning of another. This time of year is about rituals, especially family rituals, which I find myself seeking out and reflecting on. I see our kids doing this, too. I think we've pared it down to the ones that really matter to us. Our New Year's Eve ritual is to get together with one particular family we are close to--and we've been doing it since before our kids were born. Most often we end up at the beach, as we did yesterday. We tried once again this year to remember the first New Year's Eve we celebrated together, but it was undocumented and the date remains a mystery. One of the earliest New Year's Eves we spent with this couple was harvesting blue mussels at the beach and bringing them back to our apartment and cooking them. So our subsequent New Year's Eve feasts have usually included mussels, or seafood at least. We do stay up until midnight (this is getting harder for me and easier for my kids) and make noise outside on our front porch. When the kids were little we banged drums and pots and pans; now they play their saxophone and trumpet and the neighbors call out for more. This year all our noise woke our friends' baby, the newest addition to our yearly ritual, but he is about the most cheerful baby I've ever met: he just gurgled and smiled and then went back to sleep.
Yesterday when I was preparing to go shopping for our feast, I checked in with my husband about what to get.
"I was going to get mussels," I told him. "And we have the pot roast for that pot roast pasta everyone likes."
"Don't get mussels," he said. "Get something else. We always have mussels."
I was shocked. Wasn't that the point? We ran through all the other shellfish choices but nothing seemed right, or would please all of us, including the kids (now ranging in age from 7 months to 15 years). We know they like mussels (not the baby, yet), we love mussels, and we couldn't come up with anything else.
"Oh, all right," my husband said. "Just get whatever you want."
I bought mussels.
When it came time to cook them, he took charge (despite his earlier reluctance), and whipped up an incredibly delicious brand new recipe for 2008. It's called...

Mejillones Año Nuevo 2008 (New Year's 2008 Mussels)
8 appetizer-sized portions

1/4 cup olive oil
3 shallots, minced
5 medium garlic cloves, pressed in a garlic press
2 fennel stalks, chopped
1 pinch saffron
1 Tbsp. fennel seeds
1/2 tsp. peppercorns
2 oz. dried chorizo*
1 cup white wine
3 crosswise slices of lemon, including peel
2 lbs. mussels, cleaned thoroughly
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the shallots, garlic, fennel, and saffron and saute until soft, 15 minutes or more. Add fennel seeds, peppercorns, and chorizo and saute for another several minutes. Add the wine and lemon and cook for another several minutes, until the wine is simmering. Add the mussels and cover, then steam until the shells open. Remove mussels to a large bowl and taste the remaining broth. Discard the fennel stalks and lemon slices, and add a little water if there is not enough liquid. Divide up the broth into 8 bowls, making sure each bowl gets some bits of chorizo. Divide up the mussels between the 8 bowls. Serve with lots of crusty bread for dipping in the broth.
*The only chorizo I use is made in Spain--Palacios brand is available in our market. Don't bother with the Mexican chorizo.

Cries of pleasure accompanied the eating of these mussels. After that we had a salad of orange slices, avocado, watercress, and sliced fennel bulb, then pot roast pasta. For dessert, my son's speciality: flambeed bananas (flambeing done by my husband). I don't have any photos because I was enjoying the evening too much to take photos.