Friday, December 20, 2013

Allez, pou-pou!

In the cult classic, The Rider, by Tim Krabbe´, the author describes spectators along the side of the road, shouting encouragement to the cyclists in a race. "Allez, pou-pou!" they say as the riders pass by.

Pou-pou is a nickname for Raymond Poulidor, a French cyclist in the 1960s who perpetually came in second in the Tour de France to an unpopular Jacques Anquetil. I suppose the spectators were calling out the name of any cyclist they knew, and Poulidor was one of the famous ones of the day. Or maybe Krabbe´ was dreaming what they said. He dreamed up a lot of things on that ride. The whole book, beautiful as it might be, is something of a hallucination, since it is the closest thing I've ever read that describes what goes on inside a racer's head in the middle of a long competition. In any case, I like the way the exhortation sounds. So...French. Fancy scarves and skinny baguettes, all wrapped up in the sort of funny, lilting endearment you might say to a child.

Allez, pou-pou!

Krabbe´ also recounts this story, during one of the moments when he isn't dreaming: The 1956 Giro d'Italia was so cold that rider Wout Wagtmans climbed off his bike in the middle of the race, went into a cafe´ and stuck his feet, shoes and all, into a bucket of hot water.

I thought about both of these things while I was out riding today, bundled up against the cold and damp. I wore toe warmers on my Sidis, but even so, I could imagine myself finding a warm cafe´ and asking for a bucket of hot water.

I could have stayed inside, I suppose, and ridden on the trainer. But besides finding the trainer mostly a bore, I felt I needed to test myself against the elements. In part, I'm preparing for doing another Bike Garden Challenge in 2014. No trainer miles will count, so I might as well start toughening up right now. Foul weather shall not stay my rounds.

The temperature today was in the mid-thirties, the wind a gentle, but chilling 10 miles per hour from the north. My feet were numb under the toe covers.

"Allez, pou-pou!" I whispered behind my balaclava, because on my bicycle, I am still a child. "Allez."

The Bike Garden Challenge is just around the corner. Get your checkbooks ready.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Don't get too comfortable, 2014, 'cuz I'm coming for you

I rode a lot of miles in 2011 as part of the Bike Garden Challenge to raise money for the South Plains Food Bank's Grub Farm. I got pretty fit as a result of all those miles, but I didn't get fast. They were slow miles, all year, mainly because I didn't know for sure I was going to be able to complete the challenge, having never done anything like that before. I've been a distance runner since...well, since for most of my life, and if there is anything distance runners know about, it is that you have to pace yourself. Don't head out in a sprint--save it so you can finish the race.

Well, that is all well and good, but too much slow never makes you fast.

At the end of 2011, I entered a local bike "race," the PT Classic. It is twenty-some odd miles and includes a couple of the only true hills we have here on the plains, Horseshoe Bend and the Spiral Staircase. I figured, "Hey, I've been riding all these miles. I've got this."

I came in dead last. As in, they had already packed up all the registration tables and left the parking lot by the time I rolled up to the finish line. Admittedly, it was partly because I got lost on the course, for when I got dropped by the pack, my map of the route rode away from me. Here's the kicker: I lost the pack more or less in the first two miles of the race--because they were fast and I was slow.

I wasn't last only because I was lost, however. I was also slow. What is worse, I was exhausted at the end of the race, which shouldn't have been, given that I'd ridden all those miles in the previous months. If not speed, I at least should have had some endurance.

I am haunted by this race. I don't mind so much that I was last--after all, someone has to be that person, and fortunately, my self-esteem isn't tied up in where I cross the finish line relative to the rest of the pack. I'm tickled when I do well, but if everyone else finishes ahead of me, well, good for them, because we all had fun.

But my results in this race bothered me then and bother me still. I think it is because it was so different from what I expected. I believed I was in spectacular shape, having ridden all those miles. And I probably was in pretty good shape, just not race shape. That is, I was fit relative to being a regular person, but not a racer-person.

My friends, being a racer-person is tied to my self-esteem. This is something I have admitted to myself. I'm not making a judgment about it one way or another; it is just who I am. I love being in a race. I love the nerves and butterflies. I love the pageantry and dressing up in the race kit, as if I am putting on a suit of armor. I love the training and the tweaking things so that I can get the most out of my performance. I love dreaming about the race beforehand, and sidling up to the edge of suffering during it. I love going over it in my mind afterward, and planning how I can do better next time. But when I toe up to the line, I am almost never racing against anyone but myself and my own expectations. In the PT Classic, I lost, terribly, against those expectations.

I could leave it there, I suppose. Life is full of moments in which we disappoint ourselves, after all. But the thing is, in the case of this particular disappointment, I know I can do better. Besides, dammit, just because I am in the waning moon of middle-age, it does not mean it is time to stop having fun, give up on the pageantry and suffering, and lie down on the side of the road. So when picking out mile-markers for my long-term fitness and health goals for the upcoming year, you-know-what kept shooting to the top of the list.

So yes, Year 2014. Here you are, just around the corner, looking smug and self-satisfied up there on Horseshoe Bend, wearing your house slippers and eating your bon bons, all because you think grown up means the same thing as complacent.

Well, you know what? I'm sending you notice: The PT Classic, next September. Bring it. I've been studying and analyzing, and cogitating and planning. I think I've figured out why I was slow. I think I know why I was exhausted in spite of logging all the previous mileage. And I think I can fix both of those things.

I am in training and I am coming for you, 2014. We'll see who is the boss.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


I put limits on myself all the time. There is a little voice in my head that says things like: I can't ride fast, I can't ride far, I can't climb hills, I'll never write a mystery novel.

The limits come when I listen to the voice. They give me permission not to try those things.

The voice speaks out of fear--of failure, mostly, which sounds like it should be easy to overcome, but it is not. Maybe the fear never goes away. I have no real control over it, after all.

I can control the limits.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hearts: a race report

On Saturday morning I pinned on a race number for the first time in three or four years. Maybe it's been  even longer, given that people in the running club kept coming up and introducing themselves as if they'd never met me before.

I almost didn't run. I'd tweaked one of my knees a couple of days before and on Friday I woke up hobbling. It was an old injury and I knew that if I just rested it a couple of days, it would get better on its own and I could go on as if nothing had ever happened at all. But I didn't have a couple of days, as the race was the next day. If I went ahead, I ran the risk of sidelining my return to fitness for more than just a couple of days, and the event on Saturday was not really one I was planning to "race" anyway. Racing--actually running hard to beat a clock or an opponent or some kind of inner demon--is hard on the body. It takes time to build the strength of your muscles to support all those inelastic bits and pieces that hold us together. No, I didn't plan to try racing for another few months or more. This was just supposed to be a fun, festive day of running--just another day in the training calendar.

In the long view, the event on Saturday hardly mattered at all. It is the race I'm planning to run much farther down the road that counts. This is not about this weekend, or the next, or even next year. This is about getting fit and healthy and staying that way for as long as my luck and grit hold out. It is about the race I plan to run when I'm in my eighties, the one that will keep me out of the wheelchair, out of the nursing home, in the garden, on the bike. That race has priority over all the others. That is the race I am training for.

So I made a plan to see how the knee felt when I woke up on Saturday. If it was even a little bit tweaky, I'd skip the run and look forward to the next one.

And it was fine. I rose, ate my breakfast, dithered over what to wear: Would shorts be warm enough, or did I need tights? I settled on shorts, and pulled a pair of old track pants over them as a back up. And then I pinned on my number. As soon as I did, I started to get the old butterflies.

I ran varsity track and cross country in college, and though it has been many years since then, I still get nervous watching track meets on television. I used to get nervous, too, before the local club races, though the pressure to succeed was not at all the same. In college, I feared letting my teammates and coach down. As a Masters runner, I only had to fear letting myself down.

Plus, I am a hypochondriac. Runners--all athletes, really--are hyper-tuned to their bodies. And when your performance depends on how that body is working, every little tick and tremble becomes amplified. And, in the manner of all committed hypochondriacs, I can take the smallest thing and swiftly take the shortest possible conjectural distance to the worst possible scenario: Is that twinge behind the knee something serious? Will running on it make it worse? Will I need surgery? What if something happens during surgery (as happened to someone I knew)? What if I die?

There you have it. Twinge behind the knee (which I happen to know is a torn meniscus) to death in five steps. It sounds funny, but I don't really mean it to be so. Fear and worry are not really funny matters. In fact, if I had the power to change only one thing about myself, it would be to make myself less fearful.

Driving to the race course, I kept having to talk myself out of turning around. In fact, I even started to turn off on a side street, but swerved back into the main lane, talking out loud to myself the whole time. My heart was pounding. Silly, I know.

And then, naturally, my imagination went from pounding heart straight to heart attack on the race course. That's just two steps. Count them.

It has always been a particular fear of mine, heart attacks. I don't know why. I've never had any reason to think I'll drop dead exercising. I don't smoke, I exercise more or less regularly, I've had stress tests and echocardiograms, and etc., etc. But even when I was young and running track, I had this phobia. I think I'd read one too many well-meaning-but-ultimately-not-helpful tales about runners dropping dead suddenly and inexplicably, and given my hypochondriacal tendencies, they stuck like burs in my mind.

I started thinking, though, about this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal, about the body's reaction to stress. McGonigal says that the reaction--pounding heart, sweat breaking out, rapid breathing--are actually good things, and should be viewed as the body enabling you to meet the challenge ahead. Moreover, if we recognize them as such, embrace them, if you will, that we will come to see the reactions as positive and (here is the big kicker) they actually make us healthier.

I thought about this all the way to the park, and was still thinking about it as I walked from my car to the place where the race would start. In fact, I was embracing my stress reaction so hard that at one point I thought that the leftover chicken quesadilla I had for breakfast might make a comeback. Gradually, though, all that subsided. I saw a friend and we chatted. Then I saw some more friends and I chatted with them, too. I found a place to stash my track pants and jacket, and then stood around rubbing my arms against the cold. By and by, the race announcer called for us to toe the line, and then, the gun.

I started the race by walking at the very back of the pack. As I said, I had planned for it to be just another training run. I know myself pretty well, after all these years of toeing up at the line, and I anticipated that my adrenaline would be high and the urge to race difficult to fight. By walking and letting everyone get well ahead, I hoped to run within myself--calm and steady, without regard to where I was in the pack. And it worked out that way, mostly. I walked with a friend to the edge of the parking lot, said I'd catch him later, and then began a slow jog.

The morning was cold, as the best mornings for racing always are. The air was clear and still. There were hills on the course, but they were familiar, since they are part of my regular bike route. I knew the relative steepness of this one, a curve, followed by a false top and another curve, then a slight dip, then the sharp, short climb of my favorite hill in all of Lubbock because I can feel it in my glutes. Beyond that, a drop, and then a slow climb that doesn't look like a hill but you feel it in your thighs, so you know something is there. And so on.

My breathing was steady, my legs were loose and strong. And my heart, well, it was pumping along calmly and smoothly, just below the surface, hardly noticeable even on cresting the hills--not pounding any more, but quiet and sure, like the rustling of leaves on an autumn morning, because this is what hearts are made for.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reprise: Joy is a kind of courage

I cleaned up my office door today--you know, took down some old posters, photographs, and bits of things I had taped to it. One of those bits was a quotation I mention in this old post of mine. Since I was feeling a little discouraged tonight, I thought I'd pull it up and look at it again. It's worth a revisit once in a while, I think.

Joy is a Kind of Courage

And so it came to pass that I was driving to the nursery to pick up some more flagstone for the wine patio, when a song came on the radio. It was “Mercy Mercy Me,” originally written and sung by Marvin Gaye, only Marvin wasn’t singing it this time. Instead, it was an artist I’d never heard before, Eleanor McEvoy (not surprising, since I am probably the only person on the planet who doesn’t really “get” music. But that’s a story for another time).

Maybe it was because it was being sung by someone else, maybe it was because it was this particular someone else, maybe it was some combination of the two—whatever the reason, though I'd grown up with the song, I heard the words, really heard them, for the first time and I was filled with a powerful sorrow from it.

If you need a memory nudge, here are the lyrics. I’m not going to reprint them, owing to copyright issues, but the gist of the song is that things aren’t what they used to be because we’ve gone and poisoned the Earth.

McEvoy’s rendition is slow and haunting, and utterly without hope. And it struck me as I listened to it that this is exactly how I feel, deep down inside, close to that place where the spirit resides. I feel that the situation is truly hopeless. That this song has been around for nearly forty years and it is still relevant made me even sadder. Nothing has really changed. We have made no progress in our understanding. We are always fighting the same old fights.

I feel that way most of the time about all of it—not just the environment, but wars, and health care for people who can’t afford it, and folks being unable to get along with one another without all the meanness and anger.

And yet.

We are complex organisms, are we humans not? Because in that moment, at the same time I knew that I was utterly without hope, I felt…hopeful. That two opposing conditions can exist simultaneously in our hearts is not news to any one of you, I’m sure, for isn’t this the very thing that makes us who we are?

As I said, I was going to pick up some more flagstone for the wine patio when I heard “Mercy Mercy Me.” The patio is in the front yard, which is slowly being converted from boring, unsustainable, water-sucking lawn to a garden that pays homage to its home landscape. It’s going to be beautiful, and it is my desire that it will inspire others to convert their lawns, too. It’s a small thing in a bigger, very troubling picture, but it’s something I can do about the situation. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Thinking about my small thing, in fact, filled me with a quiet joy, and for an instant, I felt a little guilty about that. Wasn’t I realizing the direness of the situation, just a scant moment before ? Should we feel this way when all about us darkness is falling? Shouldn’t we be feeling, well, joyless?

Then I remembered this quotation from Andre Gide that I have taped to my office door:
"Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation."

A moral obligation. It is what you do in spite of the situation, not as a luxury, but as an imperfect duty. Joy, then, is a kind of courage. Joy is the squaring of our shoulders in the face of hopelessness.

So get on out there and be joyful today. Maybe a lot of small joys can add up to make a difference.

And if you haven’t heard Eleanor McEvoy’s rendition of “Mercy Mercy Me,” wander on over to iTunes and download it. It’s worth the 99 cents. But think about joy when you listen to it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ten Thousand Days

There is a book by Jane Brox--Five Thousand Days like This One--that has languished unread on my bookshelf for a couple of years now. I originally bought it on the recommendation of a good friend--it promises all the elements of stuff that interests me, like farming, family, landscape, etc.--but whenever I start to read it, I don't make it very far before I put the book down and go bake a pie, or dig up a flower bed, or build a bike from scratch. This is not the book's fault that I can tell. I think it just has come along in my life when I'm feeling a bit burned out on memoir in general, and when I sit down to read one, I soon start thinking of all the action adventure I am missing. I keep the book around (as opposed to sending it to the Friends of the Library Box during my now-annual stuff purges), because I expect that one day I will come back to it and, much as anyone does when an appetite returns, enjoy it in its fullest flavor.

Even so, though I've never read the book, I think about it a lot. Actually, to be precise, I think about the title, with which I am rather taken. I understand it comes from a toast her grandfather made at a family reunion--as in, "May you have five thousand days like this one."

Some eleven years ago, at the end of July, Walt and I were in a car accident that nearly killed both of us. He broke his back and was in a body cast for three months. I was better off, but even so, I wandered around for nearly a year in something of a daze as a brain injury healed. It took a long time for us to get better.

I bring the accident up in this context because it was a kind of gift. All that following autumn, you see, as I healed I would notice moments of beauty that I might have otherwise missed. Leaves skittering across pavement in the wind. A tree that had reached a peak of fall color. The sound of children at a nearby playground. These moments of beauty were intense--so much so, I would often literally be stopped in my tracks by them.

It was as if someone opened a curtain, let me peer through to the other side, and said to me, "This."


Maybe it was just an effect of the brain injury. Maybe it was because at some cellular level my body knew how close it had come to dying and thus something chemical happened to make me hyper-aware of my surroundings. Whatever the reason, it was as if I was looking through the curtain and seeing what life was really supposed to be about.

This autumn breeze. This blue sky. This smell of piñon woodsmoke. This day.

It lasted for several months, and then the curtain closed.

I have never forgotten, though sometimes I get busy and distracted, and then I stop paying attention. It would be difficult, anyway, to live always in such a heightened state of awareness. Maybe it is even unwise.

But autumn rolls around each year, and on certain days, when the breeze is just so, or the sound of leaves rustling stirs a memory, or...something, I can hear a whisper: This.

So when I first heard Jane Brox's title, I was reminded of that window. Five thousand days like this one. Remember this day. Pay attention to this day. Do not let this day pass without notice.

There are never enough of these days in a lifetime. Five thousand is not enough.

I've been thinking about the title again, in part because it is autumn, but also for another reason. I've been working really hard for the past couple of months, trying to get back into shape and clean up my diet. For too long, I've been skating along on junk food and couch sitting, and it was starting to catch up with me in a serious way. After looking at the results of some tests, my doctor told me I needed to lose weight, start eating right, and begin exercising again. This is not a question of vanity, but of health. As in, do this, or I am going to get Type 2 Diabetes. Soon. Like maybe next week.

Diabetes runs in my family, so I was inclined to believe her. I started making lifestyle adjustments that very day.

To help me track my eating and exercise habits, I've been using a computer application she recommended called "My Fitness Pal." Probably the whole world knows about "My Fitness Pal," but in case you don't, here is a short synopsis: You put in some data (current weight, age, gender), set a weight loss goal (e.g., one pound a week), and it calculates a daily calorie limit for you. Once you've done this, you track everything you eat in a day, then you put in how much you've exercised, and it calculates how well you've met that daily limit.

Here is an important point: It is really, really hard to meet that daily limit.

I've used programs like this before without a lot of success. Because it is hard to meet that limit, I find myself getting discouraged and giving up on the food tracking pretty quickly. After a while I quit paying attention not just to how much I'm putting in, but I quit caring about the quality of what I'm putting in as well. I guess that subconsciously I figure I screwed up yesterday, so what difference does it make if I do the same today? I'm clearly already failing at this anyway.

This program has a little feature, however, that has made all the difference in the world for me. At the bottom of the page is a button that you push at the end of the day. It says, "Complete this entry."

Then--and this is the part that makes a difference--it says, "If every day were just like today, in five weeks you would weigh XXX"

And you know what? Even when I go a little over my limit, if every day were just like that day, I would still lose weight. In other words, even when I don't hit my goal, I am not losing ground. Maybe I'm not advancing as fast as I'd like, but I am still making headway. I have to trust the process.

The amount of headway I make in my nutrition is often determined--no, mostly determined--by small choices I make all day long. I can eat a Snickers bar, or an orange. I can use mustard or mayonnaise. I can eat a sweet potato, or a white one. The small choices add up. What I have found is that physically I feel better when I make better choices. For example, I no longer have the swings in blood sugar I used to have. I still get hungry, but I don't crash mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

So, armed with this encouragement, I'm making progress. Good progress. I'm not going to use numbers because it isn't about numbers, it's about health. I'm exercising, I'm eating healthy stuff, and slowly the dangerous fat I carry around my middle is beginning to diminish. I have every reason to believe that when my next checkup rolls around, I'm going find out I've turned things around.

But we all know that that is only half the story. The other half is staying healthy, with decent nutrition and exercise--not for just this year, but for a lifetime. I have a tendency to get hyper-focused about something, and then, just like that, it's over and I've moved onto to something else. I'm worried that I'll reach my goal, and then lose my initiative. And a few smothered baked potatoes and peach pies later...

I thought about setting some goals, but I reach the goal, and then what? I have to pick another goal. Pretty soon, I've run out of goals that interest me. I've been athletic most of my life, so fitness-wise, there isn't much I have to prove to myself, at least where short distances are concerned. Sure, I've never run a marathon, or biked a century, or participated in an Ironman, but frankly, I think I'd rather poke a stick in my eye than do all that training. Besides, goals are short-lived. I need a strategy that keeps it fun and is about the long term.

Then one day last week I hit the button on My Fitness Pal, and that phrase popped up: "If every day were like today..."

It reminded me suddenly of the Jane Brox title, and it struck me that this was the mindset I needed to pursue in order to keep this up for a lifetime. It isn't about today, or five weeks from today. It isn't even about next year, or the year after that.  Leaving it in that perspective--to say something vague, like "I want to do this for a lifetime"--makes the road I have to travel to health seem too long and too aimless. No, it is about five thousand days like this one. Or rather, since that is only about 16-17 years, and I plan to live much longer than that, it is about ten thousand days like this one. They can be ten thousand days of good choices, or ten thousand days of bad ones. The journey is about the balance of individual days.

So now, when I've had a pretty good day of making choices, I hit that button and say a prayer of sorts: Ten thousand days like this one.

And when I slip up a little, I remind myself that it is the balance of ten thousand days that counts. It is the balance that matters in the end.

I was talking to my friend Nancy about this the other day, and she likened it to practice. Nancy has a background in music, so it makes sense that she immediately picked up on this. Then, since we've both dealt with elderly parents--and seen the effects of lifetimes of good and bad practices--it was natural for her to make that connection, too.

"In the end, you become what you practice," she said.

You become what you practice. I mulled that over a while. Trust the process.

This could be true of all the choices you make in your life--whether you are choosing to eat French fries or choosing to stop and listen to leaves blowing across the pavement in autumn. It is this day to which you must attend, this day with all of its big and small choices. You become what you practice.

So now, finally, we have arrived at the real question and the point of all this meandering: If I could have ten thousand days like this one, what choices would I make?

You become what you practice. Make good choices. Smell the woodsmoke. Listen to the leaves. Look up at the sky. Enjoy a bike ride. Trust the process.

Ten thousand days.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The tinker's bicycle

You may remember that a couple of autumns ago I was working on building this bicycle frame from scratch:

I was having an incredibly fun time of it, but then, you know, life intervened. First it got too cold to work in the shop. Then we started a big house remodel and the workers took over my workspace. Then I had to bring my garden back to life. It's an old story.

But fall is in the air. Okay, I know the temperatures are still in the 90s here, but that autumnal frisson is wafting about, nontheless. So lately I've been thinking about that unfinished project, and how much I enjoy going out to the shop in the evenings, and working with the windows wide open to all the possibilities in the Universe...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A change in direction

I recently had a routine checkup and one of my numbers came up in the red zone. The A1C tests the average levels of glucose in the blood over a three month period. A value between 5.7 and 6.4 is considered pre-diabetic. Above 6.4 is diagnosed as diabetic. I am at 6.2.

Diabetes runs in my family, so this number has my attention.

I am not obese. According to the notoriously inaccurate BMI, I am not even overweight, but I carry all of my fat around my stomach, which is the worst place to have it. And though people generally think of me as fit and healthy, the truth is, I have the diet from hell and I haven't done much exercising beyond gardening for about two years now. It think this has finally caught up with me.

My doctor is fond of saying that our genetics do not have to be our destiny, and this is what she told me when we discussed this during my office visit. She thinks that if I lose 10 pounds and start exercising again I can turn it around. So about four weeks ago I changed directions. I re-booted the running and got back on the road bike--both things that I enjoy and that, except for occasional timeouts (that admittedly last longer than they should), are things I've done all of my life.

What I haven't done all of my life is eat a healthy diet, so this has been a radical change for me. I know what a healthy diet is, for the most part, I just haven't been eating one. Even so, as I started to do some research and looking for recipes that would compete with the appeal of bad food, I learned a few surprising things. The most important thing I discovered was that there is an awful lot of really good food out there that is perfectly okay to eat. True, I'm going to have to give up some things and alter the timing of when I eat others, but on the whole, this is not a deprivation diet. I can still have pizza; it just has to be loaded with things that will slow down the digestion of the crust, such as veggies and lean meats.

My doctor said something else to me during that office visit. She said that society generally doesn't offer us much support for changing our diets, but I actually think we have lots of it. We just have to ask.

It is true that everywhere we go in America, there are pies and cookies and cakes being thrust at us. It is awfully hard to say "no" to these things, not just because they are tasty, but because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings. But I believe that if we are up front and say, "Thanks for the offering, but I'm a pre-diabetic (or diabetic)," people will generally understand and not feel slighted if we don't accept the offering. We don't have to make a big deal about it; we just have to be open and gracious.

So I'm off on a new journey. It will be interesting to see where it takes me. It has already started to shake up the recipe box a little.

And now I'm off for my Saturday morning ride. Ciao, bella.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Backyard before and after: 1994-2013

Someone from the National Realtors Association contacted me today because because they want to use a couple of before and after photos of the front of our house for an article on their website, HouseLogic. It reminded me that I also have a photo of what the backyard looked like when we first moved in:

And of course, here are some shots of what it looks like today, some twenty years later:

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Before and after: garden utility area

There is a spot in the back garden that has always been rather awkward. It is a clear space that sits behind a a large stand of mahonia and in front of the woodshop. For years it has looked like this:

I put that portal there some time ago, always intending to do...I dunno, something. (I really have no idea what I was thinking.) And so it has stood, odd and mysterious, a gateway to nowhere. Unfortunately, this area is the first thing you see when you come out of the back door. So this summer I decided to do something about it, making it an attractive garden utility space, with a place to store all my most commonly used tools.

I put two small sheds back there, one with shelves for hand tools, organic fertilizer, drip irrigation supplies, and so on, and the other without shelves so that I could stack all my long handled tools inside, out of the weather. I spread some gravel and made a path to keep the mud at bay (not that we actually have many days in which there is enough rain for mud):

Then I used some redwood I had from an old deck we tore down last year and built a fence to hide the ladders, wheelbarrows, and etc.:

I also used the same wood to make a new gate, and sent the old one to live here, where it keeps the dogs out of their favorite area to pick fence fights with the old dog next door:

 The new gate was made to match this decorative panel, which is just across the way from the utility area:

Behind the fence is a new compost bin. The old compost bins are still working fine, but this one is even closer to the kitchen door, which makes it more likely that I'll use it when the weather or mosquitoes are at their worst:

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Random garden resurrection photos, 2013

Try as I might, I can't make a case that heat and drought are good things, but it is true that when they combined to kill most of the back garden a couple of years ago, I was left with more or less a blank canvas. I tried replanting last summer, but the heat simply overpowered everything and it was a struggle to get things established. Nevertheless, a few things made it, and I used them as a base on which to build. I also added most of the hardscape last year, but a few things were finished off this summer. For all practical purposes, this is a two year old garden. Here are the results of the garden's resurrection, in no particular order:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Espalier madness and one proto-topiary

It all started with this fig, which I thought might be fun to try to espalier:

I planted it last year and then watched it die back to the ground during some hard frosts this winter. In spring it came back, but I put off constructing a trellis until I figured out how the espalier thing worked. In the meantime, I have a Bartlett pear that has not borne fruit in the two years it's been planted in the farmlet. It's probably the late hard freezes we've had, but I also have been wondering if I needed a second tree to act as a pollinator. The trouble was, I had no room for another tree. But wait! What if I espaliered another pear in the farmlet?

I planted it (more on that story here; it involves explosives, just like a summer movie) and pruned it according to some instructions I found on the interwebs, and it doesn't seem to have killed it. This makes me the most knowledgeable and experienced espalierer I personally know in the Hub City, and so when I ran across an already-started espaliered Fuji apple tree at a local nursery, I decided I had to have it. I've always wanted an espaliered something-or-other to line the fences of our bicycle allée.

The trouble is, as I found in the research I did after purchasing the tree, apple trees not only are not self-pollinating, they won't even pollinate with another of their variety. Worse, they won't even pollinate with just any old apple of another variety, it has to be specific varieties matched with specific varieties. For goodness sake. So I bought a Gala, which gets along with a Fuji, only I couldn't find a Gala already espaliered, so I bought a sapling, which, come winter dormancy, I will chop off mercilessly at the trunk to start the process. Because, as you know, I am now an expert at this (see above).

Mind you, I don't even like apples.  This is all about the espalier. Plus, I figure I can trade whatever apples Walu doesn't eat for some neighborhood chicken eggs.

All this training limbs to wires has been rather thrilling, so I decided the that next logical step was topiary. I've never been a fan of shrubs pruned to look like meatballs* before, so I have no idea were this is coming from.

Well, maybe I do. I've been reading about Nicole de Vésian's garden in France in Louisa Jones' book, Modern Design in Provence, and she was big into doing that. For her, it worked beautifully. I don't recommend that any of the rest of this try it at home...unless you find out that there is a lime tree for sale at a local hardware store and you start thinking, "Wouldn't it be really, really cool to grow your own limes for summer margaritas?" but the only problem is, as I've said before, there is no more room for trees. Good news! You can plant a lime tree in a container (which you should do anywhere beside s Zones 9 or 10 anyway, since lime trees don't like the cold and you will be bringing that little maragrita-maker inside come winter), and then you can prune it into a topiary shape! I am so excited to try this now. Nicole de Vesian's got nothing on me.

Ironically, the fig tree has yet to be espaliered.

*I'm sure I'm not the first person to point out the resemblance between meatballs and topiary.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Wherefore the Fling: In which I don't talk about a single garden

I've been putting off writing about this year's Fling, partly because I've been busy, but also because every time I sat down to say something, I had a hard time trying to fit it all into one post. There were simply too many things I came home thinking about. So I'm throwing that plan out the window and I'm going to take it one idea at a time. To start, though, I want to talk about something besides specific gardens.

I'm sure that six years ago, when all those Austin garden bloggers got it into their heads to invite a few fellow bloggers to come on down for a visit, they never dreamed it would turn into this. What this is, of course, is approximately one hundred garden bloggers/designers/writers descending on a different city each year for a few hectic days of fellowship and garden touring. There are buses, and sponsors, and lots of schwag, and a fancy dinner, and a swishy hotel, and catered lunches...

And of course, there are the gardens, which are the lodestones around which we revolve for three or four days. They are glorious and inspirational, and because the Fling is in a different part of the country each year, they are wide-ranging in their styles and plant palettes. Most of the time they are gardens I can't re-create here on the Southern High Plains, but that's okay, because above all, a garden is about place. When I first started going to the Fling, this frustrated me a little, since I was hoping to get ideas for my own garden. Now I understand that my landscape is unique and challenging--just as all landscapes are--and my garden will necessarily reflect that. We have triple digit summers, winter temperatures that are frequently in the teens, and rainfall that in the past few years struggles to top 10 inches in a year. So, yes, challenging, and I would argue that it is also difficult. But isn't that the best thing? Don't challenge and difficulty push us toward originality? Of course my garden will not look like one in Asheville, or Buffalo, or Seattle. But is looks pretty damn good, and more than that, it looks like it belongs here. It is odd and quirky, and the beauty of it kind of sneaks up on you; it is found in the soft breezes, the wide skies, the spare and gritty plant life, and the balmy summer evenings. Just like the Llano.

You have to sit in my garden for a while on one of those lazy summer evenings, a cool iced tea or Shiner in hand, talking to neighbors, or listening to the fountain, or maybe watching the grasses drift in the wind, to really get it. But isn't it that way with all gardens? That is also one of the things that frustrates me about garden tours--that I don't have the opportunity to sit a while and feel the essence of the garden soak into my bones. It is impossible, of course, to do this; the gardens are often private and small, with few places to seat fifty or so people at a time. And besides, there are more gardens to see! But the miracle of it is that the Fling organizers are very good at picking out the gardens for the tour, and even without some quiet, measured time in them, they linger with me. I am still thinking about gardens I saw this year--they are fresh in my mind, and keep popping up in my thoughts as I work in my own. Two in particular do so, and I'll write about them in a future post. But I also find images from the gardens of previous Flings showing up in my thoughts, too, so the impact of these is immediate and profound--there was apparently no need to sit a spell in order to "get" them. Could I say the same for my own? Is it necessary for a garden to do this in order to be great? Or, like my landscape, can it be subtle and unknown to the casual observer, and be sublime because of it? I don't know, and I'm left to ponder that question.

That the Fling stirs up these questions for me is, to my thinking, its greatest value. It doesn't happen in a vacuum, though. Supposing that I had the wherewithal to see each of the Fling gardens on my own, sans all those other Flingers, would I have come away with as many things to think about? I don't believe so. The real work of the Fling occurs between gardens, on the buses and in the restaurants, and waiting with fellow Flingers in the hotel lobbies. Sometimes, of course, we are discussing the gardens we have just seen, but more often we are talking about life--our families, our jobs, our illnesses, our triumphs. In mixing our conversation with everyday matters and gardens, we are affirming what they are really all about, which is, of course, life and all that goes with it. They are not separable. So when I come back to my own place in the world, I understand, in a way I did not before I started attending the Flings, that my garden matters. I knew this on some level, naturally; it is hard to work in a garden and not understand some big things about the Universe. Gardens teach us humility, impermanence, and hope. But, at least for me, it takes being with other garden people to know that my garden matters because the act of gardening itself matters. It is impossible to be around so many thoughtful people, talking about life and gardens, and not come away with that feeling. I haven't quite got the why of it figured out yet--that is one of the questions that lingers for me.

Perhaps this is part of the answer: When you toil in your garden alone, it is easy to start thinking that it is a selfish folly. Oh sure, maybe a spouse says he or she likes it, or perhaps a neighbor expresses a friendly envy. But all too often, one is left thinking, "It is silly to spend this much time, energy, and money on something that, really, only I can see and appreciate."

When you meet up with others who are as moved by gardens as you are, though--when you find your tribe--you realize that yours is not a solitary endeavor at all. Indeed, it isn't even a solitary garden. It is part of a vast, ever-ranging landscape, and because of the interconnectedness of the tribe, in that vast landscape are all of the elements of life.

I thank the Fling organizers for bringing us together. It takes countless hours of hard work to find gardens, bring together sponsors, arrange for buses and catered lunches, put together packets of info--all of it done for non-profit. We participants recognize just how monumental and meaningful your efforts are. I hope that you know how valuable it is to us.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Some before and after of the outdoor kitchen (and the Troy Bilt giveaway result)

I've been busy, busy, busy, what with school, the Fling, and finishing up our outdoor kitchen so that it would be ready for a Fourth of July cookout. The result is that I haven't been posting my progress on the backyard as much as I should, but all that is about to change. First, however, I need to announce the winner of the Troy Bilt string trimmer giveaway. I put all the names in a hat and let Walu draw one out, and the winner was Zoe Ann Stinchcomb. If you don't know Zoe Ann, you should, as she is a lovely, lovely human being, and, among other things, winner of the 2008 Wildlife Forever Educator of the Year. All of you who entered were deserving of the trimmer, but you can be pleased that someone as fine as Zoe Ann won it.

And now, for some before and after photos of the outdoor kitchen.

Here is the area in 2012, when we were starting some house renovation:

Here it is again a couple of months later, when I improvised an outdoor kitchen that we used during our complete kitchen remodel. I added an umbrella for shade, and a temporary sink so we could have a place to wash our dishes:

I enjoyed cooking outside so much that I vowed to build a more permanent structure this year.  All of the wooden structures (including the sink) are made of redwood recycled from an old deck we tore down as part of the renovation. Click to enbiggen:

 I'll do a more detailed post later about the construction of the sink, but for now, here is a closer view. (The granite slab on top is for rolling out pizza dough):

The grill is enclosed by a redwood screen. I dithered for a long time before deciding on this approach, rather than a fully enclosed counter, which I felt would be too "heavy" for the space:

Instead of an umbrella (which kept getting in the way), I have hung shade sails:

The deck has been recycled in other ways, too, and I'll post some before and after pics of those in the future. I'll also post something about the Fling, which I am still busy processing. It was powerful and has given me a lot to think about. It was also inspirational, since it was seeing Rebecca Sweet's most excellent garden that motivated me to come home and finish the outdoor kitchen. I'll have photos of Rebecca's garden and more coming up in a few days.