Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Making the Most of Valentine's Day

“They say” that Valentine's Day is a "made-up" holiday, created by Hallmark and other merchants to fill the gap between Christmas and Easter with things to buy (flowers, candy, cards). Maybe merchants do capitalize on Valentine's Day, but its origins don't support the cynicism.
There really was a St. Valentine, a Christian martyr of ancient Rome, who, romantically enough, conducted marriages for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. The tradition of courtly love took advantage of Valentine's Day in the 14th century, and even in 18th-century England, lovers were giving valentines and flowers. Many other places in the world besides our own country celebrate Valentine's Day. 
Some men (especially men, though some women, too) scoff at Valentine's Day as just a lot of sentimental hogwash. Apparently some men also take advantage of it to deflect discovery of the mistress by giving flowers to the wife. We can't prevent such hypocrisy, but we don't have to denigrate the holiday because of it. I read somewhere recently that some man has suggested that, in parallel with Black History Month and Women's History Month, there be a White Man's History Month. But all we've had for centuries is White Man's History! We use specific months or days to bring attention to what would otherwise be, or for centuries has been, buried beyond our consciousness. 
It is so easy to take our sweetheart (husband, wife, partner) for granted that it seems justifiable to set a day aside as an opportunity to say to one's beloved: you are special in my life; that's why I give you this chocolate – these flowers – this poem. We have Mother's Day and Father's Day so children can take a fresh and appreciative view of their parents. Christmas gift-giving is not specific to sweethearts but broadly applied, to family, friends, colleagues. We set aside a particular time for recognizing those fallen in war and those who have labored, another time to remember the founding of our country. Surely it's just as important to remember our sweethearts. 
In spite of grammar school valentine exchanges, Valentine's Day is for sweethearts, not for friends or other family. If you don't have a sweetheart, the day passes without notice. But if you do have a sweetheart, don't neglect, despise, or abuse the day. It's your opportunity to say, "I love you," and don’t you think we should take advantage of every possible opportunity to say that?
So that’s what I did with the Valentine’s Day poem below.

How Do I Know I Love You?
Diana Coogle, February 14, 2018

I'm not sure I know, any more,
what love is.

I don't think it is, any more, 
that wild passion
that rampages past
everything in its path,
though at one time
I thought it was.

I don't think it is, any more,
marriage as the point of love,
though at one time
I, too, wanted wedding bells
with my love.

Nor do I think it is
Madame Bovary's 
picture-painting sentimentality
romanticizing a sordid reality,
though at one time
I might have done the same.

I'm not sure I know what love is.
I call you "honey-bunny" only in jest,
perpetuating our private joke.
I don't say, "I love you" when we part at the door
or even when we're making love.
I didn't say, "I love you, too," the one time
you said those words to me.
I'm afraid of the words
when I don't know what they mean.

But there are two things I do know:
you are the best companion I've ever had
and when I think of your close call with cancer,
when I think of my life without you in it,
I feel how deep would flow
the well of sorrow. 

If any of that be love,
then I know one thing more:
I love you.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Spring Tirade

            As I walked into a shop in the valley yesterday, the saleswoman said to me, pleasantly, "Isn't it a beautiful day?"
            Uh-oh. Button-pusher.
        Outside the shop, the sky was a soaring ultramarine blue. The sun was gentle and pleasing, like the smile of a child. The temperature was shirt-sleeve warm. After days of fog in the valley, this kind of weather was enough to put a lilt in anyone's step, a song on anyone's lips, a smile on anyone's face.
            Except mine.
            "No, it's entirely too warm!" I exploded. "How can we enjoy spring when we haven't had winter? What's it doing being spring already, anyway? It's only the first week of February! We don't deserve the warmth of spring when we haven't had the cold of winter. I want cold weather. I want snow, rain, storms. I want a winter that is winter. I want ­– "
            Suddenly aware that the woman was looking shocked and confused, I tried to back-pedal. I conceded that it was a beautiful day and mumbled something about appreciating it, but once the bomb has been dropped, the damage has been done. I bought a pair of $12 earrings and slunk out of the shop into the beautiful outdoor weather that I am so sorry to see. I think I heard the woman say to her colleague behind the counter as I left, "What an unpleasant woman."
            This week's post on my sister Laura's blog ( caused another rant. She said she loves the flowers that bloom in winter, like mahonia and lenten roses, which, thank goodness (I say), are spring flowers in Oregon. I don't want to see flowers in winter. Spring owns the flowers. Winter owns the snow and rain. Primroses in bloom, daffodils breaking ground, crocuses that everyone is so cheerful about? – I want to shove them all back into the earth. Not yet, darn it. It's too early!! Give us a winter first, so we can rejoice to see the flowers.
            Laura wrote that on Groundhog Day, "I threw a party for all the groundhogs in my back yard, set up a tent and offered umbrellas so no one would be scared of a shadow and jump back in the ground again to prolong winter." It's true that she lives in Georgia and so had the kind of winter, this year, that makes a spring day most welcome. I, on the other hand and on the other side of the country, was glumly watching a cloud-pimpled sky that promised neither rain for me nor shadow for the groundhog, who would be cavorting in spring already when I don't want spring yet.
            It's not that I don't like spring. In my nature journal of 1998 I wrote, "Today was the day I've been waiting for – warm, sunny – blue sky. It was a delight, a truly glorious spring day. I planted my peonies at last, hauled dirt for the upper beds, fed roses, wisteria, apple tree –." 
           The date, however, was April 17, not February 7.
           Part of my grumpiness at the "beautiful" weather this month is that I like the cold. ("You can have it," my father once said in disgust.) Part of it is that I love cross-country skiing, and I've only been able to ski twice this winter. No snow, no skiing. But the bigger part is that a warm winter means summer drought, and even if I didn't like winter, I would put up with months of snowstorms and torrential rains in order not to endure the long, hot dryness of summer. If temperatures are in the fifties and even sixties in the winter, what will they be in the summer? My quarrel there, too, is more than that I hate such heat. Without snow in the mountains, our springs and creeks diminish and dry up. The mountain forests dry out like kindling set for summer lightning. Fires rage. My tirade in the shop yesterday was about more than not being able to ski.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Hiking the Burn on the Pacific Crest Trail

             The Applegate fires of last summer burned on some of my favorite trails. Remembering a hike through a burn in southern Oregon's Illinois Valley many years ago, I cringed at what I might find here. That hike had offered no solace for the soul, nor had the long hike through a scorching burn in Lassen Volcanic National Park a few years ago. But I also remembered the abundance of wildflowers on burned-over land in the Marbles and the rejuvenation of greenery on the Cook and Green Trail after a fire in the Applegate several years ago. I had learned, since that first hike in the Illinois Valley, that fire leaves a variously painted canvas. So, instead of shunning the trails that burned last August, I took an opportunity presented by this dreadfully warm and unsnowed winter to drive even as high as Cook and Green Pass, at the entrance to the Red Buttes Wilderness, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail where the fires had struck. Mike went with me.
            The first steps took us up a hill formerly covered with manzanita shrubs, now fire-scrubbed to bare ground, through which poked hundreds of manzanita antlers, ghostly white, like bones on a desert. The devegetated hillside exposed expansive views, onto the Red Buttes and Kangaroo Mountain to the west, out to the Marble Mountains, and down into the Klamath basin, where we could see the path of the fire as it leapt uphill. 

Whereas logging leaves checkerboard patterns – sharp delineations between patches of stumps and patches of live trees – fire burns in swirls: swaths of green, where the fire left trees untouched, reaching far into swirls of brown, where the fire had eaten voraciously
            From the manzanita-antlered hill we entered areas on the PCT where the fire had fed in that way, licking its way up sturdy trunks and snatching mouthfuls of the tree's life-giving greenery. Snags were bare-bone stark, but on some of the charred trunks, the bark had been torn off (I thought at first by bears, but more probably by gravity and the lack of tensile strength in the tree), exposing bright slashes of orange and red, like the imprint of flames on the trees. As though lit by shafts of light, these parts of the trees brought improbable color to the chiaroscuro landscape of blacks and browns. Rembrandt would have grabbed his paints.

            Elsewhere I could sense Picasso in his brown period (were he to have had a brown, in addition to a blue, period) – an abstraction of trees in skeletal form, arms hugging close to trunks, needles on the ground, everything in subtle variations of browns and blacks. As in a good painting, the color of the tree limbs echoed the color of the ground. The burned forest here was vertical-dominant and soft with subtle variations of color – the rich butterscotch of the ground textured with the rust-red of more recently fallen twigs, the ash grey of the trunks, and, overall, the burnt sienna color that occurred to me because fire was the painter – or sepia, maybe, like in old photographs. My bright clothes were like the color my mother painted into some black-and-white photographs I took many years ago, before color film was widely available.

            The needles on the ground were as thick as water,. Rocks and sticks among them interruptied the flow like islands in a stream. Altogether, the colors, the stillness, and the strangeness of the landscape had an eerily soothing effect.
            Reading the black scars on the trunks, we could see that in some places the fire was burning downhill. In other places we could see where firefighters had cut a fire break and how the fire had jumped it and slipped over the ridge. From time to time we stepped into and then shortly out of a green forest, intact, unchanged, as though the fire had been many miles away instead of just next door. I could see no reason for the fire not to have devoured these trees as well as the others, but there must have been reasons. If I were a pyrologist, I would spend hours on the PCT with my notebook.
            Mike and I hiked all day through land affected by fire. When we finally walked out of the burn, we had walked five and a quarter miles and it was time to return to the car. I didn't mind having spent the entire hike walking through the burn, though. It had been a day of color subtleties, fire education, and surprising solace for the soul.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Being (Imaginatively) on the Great British Baking Show

          Making a black-bottom banana cream pie for lunch with friends, I plunged head-first into imaginary participation in the Great British Baking Show.
            I was making a vanilla custard for the cream layer because that's what my recipe called for, but now I could hear Mary, one of the two judges on the show, saying to one of my imaginary fellow contestants, "Andy, tell us what you're doing for your banana cream pie," and he says, "I'm using a brandy and coffee custard over a maple-infused chocolate ganache." Another contestant says she is making a passion fruit and pineapple custard to continue the tropical theme suggested by the banana. I began to think my vanilla custard unimaginative. When Mary and Paul, the other judge, ask me about my pie, Paul says, "I love the banana flavor. Are you sure it'll compete well with the strong chocolate ganache of your filling?" challenging my judgement with steel-blue eyes.
            "It worked at home," I say, lamely, just like the bakers on the show, and he says, "Good luck."
             "What we're looking for," I heard Paul say as I crushed chocolate wafers with the rolling pin for my crust, "is a delicate crust, perfectly baked, without a hint of sogginess, and a cream filling of flavors that perfectly complement the bananas. Everything beautifully decorated."
            My crust, I thought, pressing its top evenly around the pie plate, looked good, and my bananas were at perfect ripeness, but I worried as I poured the custard over the banana-filled chocolate-black crust. "The custard is overcooked," I heard Paul say with his straightforward, pull-no-punches judgement.
            But then Mary steps in with her usual tact. "The taste is fantastic," she says, smiling at me apologetically. "But I'm afraid the custard is a bit overcooked."
            I looked briefly at the imaginary TV camera as I dribbled chocolate ganache lines over the custard and said, worriedly, "I think I got the ganache too thick. It's not flowing off the spoon very easily." I drew a toothpick through the lines of ganache, creating a marbleized pattern. Looking at it critically, I saw that the spacing between rows wasn't even. I had seen Great British Baking Show contestants covering mistakes (cracks in the cake, unevenly baked eclairs), so I laid a row of bananas in the too-big spaces between rows of ganache, turning the mistake into a design element.
            My ride to the luncheon would be here in twenty minutes. "Twenty minutes, bakers," I heard the show's host, Sue Perkins, calling. "You have twenty minutes before Paul and Mary go bananas." Like the TV bakers, I felt the tension.
            I filled my pastry bag with whipped cream and tried one cake-decorating tip after another, hearing Mary say, gently, to a contestant on one of the shows, "We asked for rosettes, and we got shells." I piped rosettes around the edge of my pie. Paul: "The rosettes are not perfect. Some are bigger than others," so I squeezed more whipped cream on top of too-small rosettes.
            The luncheon was a meeting of six friends who get together monthly to read poetry. This time we read and discussed Marge Piercy's poetry, then had lunch (homemade pizza and salad). Then we read some more of Piercy's poems. Then we went back to the table for dessert.
            "How beautiful!" my own judges (pie eaters) exclaimed as I carried the pie in. 

They admired its black marbled design and white rosette border on the cream-yellow, banana-slice-decorated filling.
            On the Great British Baking Show, contestants always look worried as Paul and Mary cut into their creations. Will it have turned out right? I had the same qualms. I sliced the pie – so far so good – but had a hard time working my spatula under the crust. I worried it had burned, but it hadn't. The custard, not being undercooked, stayed in place when I transferred a piece of pie to a plate. The pie looked as good on the plate as it did in the pie pan. ("Nice layers," Paul and Mary whispered in my ear.)

            "This is delicious," my judges said, biting into their pie.
            "Star baker!" someone pronounced.
            I'm not sure Paul and Mary would have agreed, but I also don't think I would have been told not to return. On the contrary, I was asked to bring dessert next month. "In fact," my friends and baking show judges said, "you can always bring the desserts."
            As far as I'm concerned, that's as good as star baker.