Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Black Thumb

Sometime in the early nineties, my parents left for England for three weeks. My sister was in Atlanta I think, or somewhere, and I was still in high school. I had the house to myself - just me, a big house, cable, and - LOTS of plants.

Mom had left me some instructions, but let's just say I wasn't the poster child for responsible teen. After about a week, all these plants started looking a little wilty and dry, so I decided I should act soon. Rather than reading the instructions, I just watered the hell out of them. My rule of thumb was to hold the hose in the pot until water ran out of the bottom. After half an hour of finding all the plants and watering them, I felt that I had accomplished something and likely returned to reading a book or playing video games.

A week later they were looking wilty again. So I repeated. And repeated just about every day until about five days before my parents returned to England. During that five days, about half the plants died.

After my parents somewhat recovered from the deaths of so many of their green pets, I decided I would learn to take care of a few. I really have no idea why I wanted to, I just did. So Mom got me a cactus and a few jade plants. I killed them. Then I decided I would try to take care of just one, and got a Venus Flytrap - I managed to kill it in less than three weeks. Then I tried spider plants. And I tried more Jade plants. And I got a Money Tree. Dead, dead, and dead. At this point I pretty much resigned to the fact that I am Grim Reaper of all Flora. I tried, really tried to take care of them, but it never ended well. With each one it was either too much water, too little water, not the right light...maybe it was moved too much, or it got some kind of fungus, or maybe it just caught a glimpse of me and lost the will to go on - I don't know. I just know that I kill plants, whether I want to or not.

Fast forward to 2000, and I'm working at Middleton Inn, a small hotel adjacent to Middleton Plantation. Among my other duties as a "concierge" (there is no other word - this was kind of the catch-all guest services position) was the responsibility of the plants in the lodge and lake house, and 55 Philodendrons - one in each guest room.

Fortunately the housekeeper took over plant duties, since she was probably concerned that they were losing their color and slooping in their pots. Apparently I was giving them too much water, though a measurement was given to me. I followed directions to the letter. I'm telling you, I am Death Of Plants.

Fast forward to last weekend. I'm house sitting for my Mom while she's in Australia and I look for a permanent place in Charleston. It had been two days since she left. I had just closed the door to the washer and stepped on something crispy and flaky. It was a leaf. I looked up and saw a dry, decaying greenish-brown thing that used to be a thriving plant hanging from the bay window in the kitchen. Then I noticed another plant on the breakfast table. And a cluster of them by the back door. As I scanned the room around me, I kept finding more plants. And you know, I think they saw me too. I could hear the theme to Psycho and the room seemed to turn red around me.

I was determined not to commit mass murder this time, so I began watering them. A few were already getting wrinkly at the edges of their leaves. The one in the window couldn't be rescued, but I think one of them is now beginning to bloom. Don't ask me what they are, if I learn their names it just hurts worse when they die. They're green. Sometimes they get bigger of you get them wet - that's my horticultural knowledge base in a nutshell.

Anyway, a few days later I was leaving for work. There's some clutter in the garage, and I generally don't pay much attention to what I'm walking around. I also have the habit of "zoning out" when I'm doing mundane things, especially if there are other things weighing on me - so I didn't notice I was walking past two hulky plants in the garage the whole time. These guys are huge. And they were dying. So I ran back into the house and filled up a pitcher of water. I've been watering them and watering them, but the soil feels dry as a bone even now. They're like two "Audrey-2's" (from Little Shop of Horrors) and they're not going to get better until I give them a sacrifice. I can almost hear them growling in the garage now as I type. Is it possible they want one of the other plants? Maybe that's why Mom has so many. Hmmm...

So the other plants are looking a little greener, and as I said, one is blooming. Maybe I've broken the curse of my black thumb. Or maybe it's just Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, wish me (and them) luck.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sweetgrass Baskets and Ancient Piazzas

I have a tattoo on my right arm. It's the Chinese character representing "change" placed in the center of a chaos rose. It has always stood for everything I believe, to my core - change for the sake of change, a reminder that nothing grows without changing.

So I moved from place to place, met new people, held new positions, and each time the last place I lived kind of faded into the backdrop. It was like when a baby, who has yet to master object permanence finds something new to distract her, and she forgets about the last object in question. It never occurs to her that the thing still continues somewhere without her attention. I can't tell you how appropriate this is in my situation. Charleston is still here. It moved on while I was moving on, in its own way. It's changed, it's changed dramatically in many ways, but its soul is static.

I've never moved to another city to get there. I've always moved to get away from something else, whatever it may be - more often than not, I realize in retrospect, that thing was usually me. It was always this change I was seeking, real change, always at the tips of my fingers. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was a merciless, trickster-shapeshifter. I've never found what I was looking for, because I've never known what it was. So I settled for change, pure and refreshing, and purely escapist, as I spoke of in another entry.

So after coming South from New England, why did I want to stay? Why come back permanently? I didn't grow up in Charleston, I grew up in West Columbia. I only came here after I returned from England, and spent the first six months trying to find a way back to the River Thames and my Brit friends. Fast forward to the past nine months, and I was in Greenville waiting for a means to come back to Charleston. The means materialized, and here I am. I'm in the only place that has ever felt like home, but asking myself why. Why do I love it so much here? Why, of all the places I've seen and in which I've lived, all the places to which I've had the opportunity to move, did I want to come back here, almost desperately?

I'm not sure it's any one thing. It's so many thousands of little things. It's the strobing of the sun through Spanish Moss that hangs from the live oak tunnel as I drive down highway 61 past the plantations. It's the smell of low tide on the wind, and the hazy silhouette of the Cooper River Bridge as seen over the marshes of West Ashley. It's the cheap-production cheese of Lowcountry Live in the morning. It's the black water threatening to retake the roads down dark highways. It's the scars of earthquakes, fires and plagues, the very old fighting the very new with its last breath, and the refusal of a city twice-burned, leveled by hurricanes and twice under siege to simply fade away. It's a solid place, fortified by time and war, a city that refuses to change, but somehow embraces it at the same time.

I love walking along the battery with sweat stinging my eyes, the pavement hot enough to warm my feet through rubber soles threatening to melt. I live the shade of trees used to hang pirates in White Point Gardens. I love the market, that while never a slave market (that was located blocks away), serves as a gentle reminder, dotted by African-American women weaving Sweetgrass baskets, that Charleston is not and never will be Disney perfection. But it is perfection.

I love that the shrink-wrapping of tourism is a barely discernible taint on the character of a city molded by war and Malaria-ridden summers. I love lazy wide ceiling fans that beat blase' against the oppressive humidity on ancient piazzas. Yes, I even love August here.

There is something about this city that grabs you and doesn't let go, an undercurrent of spiritual bliss and harshness of reality, woven together like those Sweetgrass baskets in the market.

So maybe this is why I'm here. It never let me go. And maybe this is what I was looking for all those years of my *Detour. I think it doesn't matter why. What matters is that I'm home, and for the first time in my life I know that.

Monday, February 1, 2010

*Soup Recipe For The Stranded

Okay, so I was lame this weekend. As compulsory as blogging may be for me some days, there are the occasional days when I'm not able to dedicate time to the blog. I do have a few somewhat legitimate excuses.

On Saturday I was at my sister's house for most of the afternoon celebrating my niece's third birthday. Having gotten into Summerville somewhat late on Friday and not being able to sleep, I was very tired, and had a nap after I left my sister's.

After my nap I went out to meet an old friend for drinks, and of course didn't sleep well, and got up on Sunday to run some errands - which took far longer than expected. Shortly after I was finished with those, it was almost time to go out to play some trivia. Lame or not, those are my excuses.

So, I missed out on Saturday's recipe and Sunday's * - and am going to attempt to combine them today.

I'll begin with the *story of the week.

Passengers were left stranded at a Greyhound bus station this week in Memphis, TN during the Winter storm. While some buses were running on schedule, a few others were delayed for as much as two days. Few to no updates were given to the stranded, and one woman was quoted by WMC-TV Memphis as saying: "They won't even talk to you in here. You ask them something and they're real snappy with you."

The icing on the cake however, was when Greyhound Security forced a woman to sit out in the cold to wait for her bus, as punishment for speaking negatively to reporters about the incident. The guard is quoted as saying that Greyhound "has that right."

So much for workforce Darwinism.

I cannot fathom the idea of requiring someone to wait out in the cold for an issue to be resolved - an issue that is the responsibility of the company's to resolve - for informing media about the situation. This baffles me. It speaks against every ounce of customer service I've ever learned.

While I understand that this individual is going to be disciplined, and that one might think it unfair to judge an entire operation based on the poor judgment of an individual - it was the company who placed the name tag on that individual. In a sluggish economy such as this one, you would think that the drawers of Greyhound's HR offices would be jammed with resumes. There is likely a waiting list full of patient, understanding, competent, customer-driven candidates. (Ironically, many of these candidates are likely taking the Greyhound instead of flying if they're between jobs). In this case, I believe it may not be unfair at all for blaming the operation. If someone is demonstrating this behavior now, as extreme as it is, I doubt it's a fluke, a bad day for the security guard affecting his or her behavior. It may be the homeless individual sleeping in the snow behind the station would have turned the negative situation into an opportunity rather than make it worse. I mean come on - she was speaking to a reporter. Hopefully there's a security position open in Memphis right now. It may be harsh, but I believe it's the security guard in question who should be out in the cold.

So, to the poor woman who had to wait for untold hours for a bus or a ride, out in the Winter storm, I dedicate this week's recipe.

Leek and Potato Soup

You'll need:

2 Paula Deans (one Paula Deen = 1/2 cup butter)
2 leeks, sliced
1 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Tablespoon Black Pepper
1.2 Teaspoon Paprika
1 quart chicken stock
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon cold water
4 cups russet potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups whole milk

Melt the butter in a large pot and saute the leeks until they're tender, usually about ten minutes or so. Pour in the stock. While it's coming to a boil, dissolve the corn starch into the water and then stir it into the stock.

Add the potatoes and boil until they're tender. Stir in the milk, salt, pepper and paprika, and let it simmer for about 45 minutes. You want the potatoes to be pretty much falling apart.

Enjoy with Vengeance (aka Vendange) Chardonnay and hot blueberry cobbler for dessert. (Blueberry cobbler recipe coming next week!)

There is little in the world better than a stodgy soup and a hot dessert during an ice storm! You can work it off tomorrow shoveling the driveway.

Or pacing back and forth in a Greyhound station.