Fiddling In The Garden & Remembering Donald Hodgson
Saturday, May 17, 2014
My North Vancouver friend Donald Hodgson (now
deceased) used to call me every May. We would discuss our mutual like for that
shade-tolerant perennial, the hosta. He would always say, “God, hostas look so
fresh and new when they emerge in May. When there are no slug holes. They are
pristine. There is nothing better.” And he was right.
The garden is looking pretty good right now
as Rosemary and I work on it. We are opening our garden, mid June for the
Vancouver Rose Society. All this work for one day seems almost laughable. But
it isn’t. At one time it was a lot worse.
I have psoriatic arthritis. A couple of
years ago after a day of heavy work I could not move in bed in the evening and I
would groan all night. Now with my heavy duty medicine Humira I can move in bed
but I still groan. There are things I used to take for granted like snipping
and pruning with my Felco secateurs or lopping thicker branches with the
lopper. Now I almost cannot do this.
After a few hours of snipping it somehow
affects my right elbow and the pain is intense to the point that I am unable to
switch on the ignition of our Malibu.
But I have to admit that if I pace myself (just a bit) I can somehow work in
the garden every day.
|Hosta 'Blue Whirls' left & right Hosta 'Yellow River' , fern Onoclea sensibilis|
I miss Donald Hodgson right now. The hostas
are beautiful and as he would say, they are pristine. But in my now-decade-interest
in roses, these plants beckon, too. They have buds. One day there is a bud. The
next day, you just might miss that the bud is now open and the rose is
But best of all is that most of the heavy
work is done and now I can fiddle in the garden. I can sit with Casi-Casi on
the bench. I can listen to the rustle of the leaves and smell the Rhododendron
luteum’s yellow flowers. I can water which is awfully relaxing. And sometimes,
if I am lucky, I can even persuade my Rosemary to relax and sit with me.
As I Saw Them
Friday, May 16, 2014
In 1979 Rosemary and I had taken our two
daughters, Hilary Anne and Alexandra Elizabeth for a ride in the Royal Hudson. This
wonderful train that used to run from North
Vancouver (only for tourists) to Squamish had a
special rail car with multi-coloured wooden bench seats. At the time Rosemary
had shown interest in sharing my own, on photography, and requested I buy her a
camera. I gave her a Pentax ME which worked just fine on its automatic mode,
particularly when mated to that ever-forgiving Kodak colour negative film.
As our daughters sat down I saw something
in my head. With no explanation I asked Rosemary for her camera and snapped
this picture. A few months later I printed it in my darkroom (I was a competent
colour printer) and went to a New Westminster U-Frame-It. The man who owned the
place catered to my silly desire to find coloured mats that somehow went with
the colours of the print.
For many years that framed photograph has
been hanging on the wall going up the stairs to our second floor. Recently I
took it down and placed it in our guest bathroom where I have a whole wall
dedicated to mostly family pictures. Today as I sat down (where the king goes
alone) I looked at the picture. I noted how I would have never chopped their hands.
I noted that Ale’s hat is cropped. And yet… There is a light that is shining on
Hilary’s face that is just right. Everything in the picture seems to be just
right on a moment that will never return.
Last night I read the introduction to Frank
Langella’s Dropped Names - Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them and a little
paragraph somehow not quite fits here but somehow it does.
Like elusive fireflies, they flickered for
a time, shone brightly, dimmed, and ultimately disappeared. Separate and
diverse individuals as they may be, my subjects have in common the inevitable
outcome awaiting us all: to live on only in memories. In this case mine.
A photograph revisited
Vicodins and Percocets -The Goldfinch & War Cries Over Avenue C
Thursday, May 15, 2014
Two weeks ago, on Monday May 5 I took out
from the Oakridge branch of the Vancouver Public Library, Donna Tart’s Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. It was a fast read which meant that in
order not to pay the one dollar a day late fee (a fast read cannot be extended)
I would have to read 100 pages per day as this novel is 771 pages long.
I must confess that I finished The
Goldfinch on Friday the 16th but I have kept it for a few extra days
so I can write this blog.
The book had two NY Times reviews. One on
the front page of the Sunday Book Review Magazine was written by the likes of
Stephen King. The second review was by the Times’ Michiko Kakutani who wrote
Ms. Tartt has made Fabritius’s bird the
MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls
together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic
whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of
My guess is that Kakutani must have been
out to lunch (at Carnegie Deli, perhaps) when she wrote that. I was never
really able to read those 100 pages per day because I felt the same way about
this novel as watching horror movies as a boy.
I remember my father taking me to see Abbot
and Costello Meet Frankenstein. When one of the hapless guys (I do not remember
which one) approaches the coffin in which Bela Lugosi is about to wake I placed
my hands in front of my face. I did not want to see what was going to happen. In
the same way the intensity of The Goldfinch forced me to close it every night.
The only other novel in my memory in which
the protagonists seem to inhabit a world or stupor and unreality is Jerome
Charyn’s 1985 novel War Cries Over Avenue C. When I read it I felt as if the characters were all hallucinating as Martin Sheen did in his hotel room in Apocalypse Now.
Avenues A, B, C, and D form a dirty
appendage to Manhattan’s Lower
East Side: These Alphabet Blocks have become Indian country, the
land of murder and cocaine. Though there are still pockets of Ukrainians, Russians,
Poles, Italians and, Germans on and around Avenue A, such pockets have little
bearing on the internal affairs of the new Indian country. The population is
still overwhelmingly Catholic but even the faithful at Mary Help of Christians,
when asked about their own Alphabetville, will answer that Christ stopped at
War Cries Over Avenue C - Jerome Charyn
An every-other-day habit was still a habit,
as Jerome had often reminded me, particularly when I didn’t stick too faithfully
to the every-other-day part. New York was full of all kinds of daily
subway-and-crowd horror; the suddenness of the explosion had never left me, I
was always looking for something to happen, always expecting it just out of the
corner of my eye, certain configurations of people in public places could
trigger it, a wartime urgency, someone cutting in front of me the wrong way or
walking too fast at a particular angle was enough to throw me into tachycardia
and trip-hammer panic, the kind that made me stumble for the nearest park
bench; and my dad’s painkillers, which had started as relief for my nigh-on
uncontrollable anxiety, provided such a rapturous escape that soon I’d started
taking them as a treat: first and only-on-weekends, then an after-school treat,
then the purring aetherous bliss that welcomed me whenever I was unhappy or
bored (which was, unfortunately, quite a lot); at which time I made the
earth-shaking discovery that the tiny pills I had ignored because they were so
insignificant and weak-looking were literally ten times as strong as the
Vicodins and Percocets I’d been downing by the handful – Oxycontins, 80s,
strong enough to kill someone without tolerance, which person by that point was definitely not me; and when
at last my endless-seeming trove of oral narcotics ran out, shortly before my eighteenth
birthday, I’d been forced to start buying on the street. Even dealers were
censorious of the sums I spent, thousands of dollars every few weeks; Jack
(Jerome’s predecessor) had scolded me about it repeatedly even as he sat on a
filthy beanbag chair from which he conducted his business, counting my hundreds
fresh from the teller’s window. “Might as well light it on fire, brah.” Heroin
was cheaper – fifteen bucks a bag. Even if I didn’t bang it – Jack had laboriously
done the math for me on the inside of a Quarter Pounder wrapper – I would be
looking at a much more reasonable expenditure, something in the neighborhood of
four hundred a fifty dollars a month.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
They called her tiger lady. No one knew why
she’d come to these badlands, this villa of analfabeticos. She didn’t sell coca
leaves to the turistas. She carried a pair of .45s under her heart. At first
they thought she was with the federales, a spy in God’s little house. But El
Presidente Reagan wasn’t smart enough to rent a Talmud torah. No, she was a
fugitive, one of their own kind. She’d gathered a little army around her,
fugitives like herself. A twitching maniac and a Russian bear. And this
grab-bag army chased gypsy thieves out of the projects and obliged the Medicaid
mills to lower their price. She was the little Hebrew godmother with cacarañas in her face, memories of smallpox. She
stole nothing from shopkeepers. Her cacarañas kept the peace.
War Cries Over Avenue
C – Jerome Charyn
Both novels scared the
hell out of me. The Goldfinch because its main protagonist pops pills with what
seems a logical purpose. War Cries Over Avenue C, filled with images of a place
that resembled a magic realism gone bad convinced me that its author, Charyn,
must have been consuming drugs in huge quantities.
When I asked Charyn
directly, a man who sops his plate of finished spaghetti with a piece of bread
like an educated Frenchman, he simply told me that the novel represented the
reality of his life.
Both Tartt and Charyn
(many more than Tartt’s three) have written in these two novels about a New York that goes beyond Times
Square and the Met. Worse (or is it better?) Tartt removes her shell-shocked
Theo Decker as thirteen-year-old to an unreal (to me for its perverse authentic-sounding
reality) suburb of Las Vegas
where every drug I have not taken is consumed and smoked with chips, beer and
vodka by two precocious and scary teenagers-from-hell.
Without going into too
many details I am living in proximity to a similar teenager-from-hell. One more
reason why I could not read Tartt’s The Goldfinch with the rapidity that NY
Times’s Kakutani mentioned.
Looking at my
teenager-from-hell I remember the first time I was asked about my stance on
drugs around 1973 when I was teaching high school in Mexico City. I was aware even then that there
were questions that could never be answered as black or white without
considering the consequences that such an answer would concur. Politicians of
Republican-type do not seem to know about his and they pontificate on abortion,
God, guns, global warming and Darwinian fossils to their peril.
My answer was as
follows: There are two ways to enjoy a tomato. You can buy one at a
supermarket. You take it home and you slice it. You sprinkle a liberal amount
of MSG and black pepper and you enjoy it. Or you pick a ripe tomato from the
vine, with a salt-shaker in hand and you take a big bite and splatter stuff all
over your shirt.
My class seemed to
understand my drift and I was never asked again. But my friends were constantly
trying to get me drunk or high. It all made me think of my grandmother’s
Selecciones del Reader’s Digest (she read it in Spanish) in that section called
The Power of Positive Thinking. It made me think of the opposite and how I have
an extremely powerful version of negative thinking. I have popped sleeping
pills a few times to sleep only to tell myself that because I had taken these
pills I would not sleep.
Some 34 years ago
while baking in the sun at Wreck
Beach my friend Maurice
D. urged me most strongly to put some really good hash into my Petersen’s pipe
(I was smoking Three Nuns – None Nicer at the time). I did and after a while I
asked Maurice to hand me my water bottle. He brusquely asked me, “Why don’t you
get it yourself?” I told him (it came out as a stutter), “Because I can’t.” Those
opiates make me stutter and I hate losing control of my speech. I cannot stand
the smell of pot. Tobacco (I have not smoked for 20 years) is unique in that it
smells differently to all other lit weeds.
It was 20 years ago
while sitting on a stool listening to a Vancouver
alternative scene band at Gary Taylor’s Rock Room that I was approached by a friendly
and chubby woman, “Are you Alex?” I answered in the affirmative so she asked me
to place my hand in front of her. She deposited a largish pile of white powder.
I did not want to do. She gesticulated her instructions. I snorted the stuff up
my nose. Later she returned and asked me, “What was it like for you?” My
answer, “It was like going up the stairs from the NY City subway up to the
street. I was hit by a barrage of fresh cold air.” My answer did not seem to
have been the right one. I never saw her again.
To make this longish
blog short I can only state that I am a person with a phobia of addictions of
any type and that my knowledge of opiates and their kind is limited.
I have no memory if War Cries Over Avenue C
ended well and I am not about to tell you that The Goldfinch ends well or not. I
just defy you to get the novel and see if you can read 100 pages per day.
My hope is that my teenager-from-hell does
see the light. Meanwhile I will just put my hands up to cover my face and try not to look through my fingers.
Carmelo Sortino - The Man Who Cooks With His Hands
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Last Monday my friend Tim Turner invited me
to go to a cooking class at IlCentro, the Italian Cultural Centre.
|Carmelo Sortino & Roberta Baseggio|
This centre, Slocan at Grandview Avenue, of almost constant
activity is not to be confused with that other centre of constant activity the Istituto Italiano di Cultura on West Hastings.
It is in the latter that in a series of evenings I watched the projection of Montalbano, a magnificent Italian TV series about a police inspector in Sicily. The series is most respectful to the novels of Sicilian Andrea Camilleri.
Through the years I have marveled at how a
country like Italy (the Germans and the Americans have lots more money) can
have such a large cultural presence in Vancouver where not only are cooking
classes offered, but lessons in Italian, baroque concerts and lectures on opera
and the navy of the ancient Romans.
If I understand correctly, the Istituto
will be closing its doors in September because of severe budget cuts. This will
mean that it will be on the shoulders of IlCentro to parade to our benefit all
that is good and wonderful about Italy. Few might now that there is
a museum at IlCentro where you can explore the contributions of Italians to our
But back to the cooking classes.
There were 18 of us in one of the ballrooms
of IlCentro. We faced chef (and artist) Carmelo Sortino. Many who live in West Vancouver might
remember his restaurant there, Carmelo’s. Working with Sortino was a delightful
young woman with a black Prince Valiant haircut, a lithe body and who with her
demeanor reminded me of Audrey Hepburn steering a Vespa around Rome with Gregory Peck in tow. Alas! Roberta
Bassegio is not Roman, (better still!) she is Venetian. With Sortino born in Sicily, the team we faced pretty well represented two
aspects in opposite ends of Italy.
Chef Sortino, a low key chef was hands on
from the beginning. While I consider myself a pretty good cook I learned lots,
from how to cut with a knife, how not to (never cut basil or sage) do things to
learning, finally that making ravioli from scratch is something I want to
He cooked our three course meal:
1. Chef’s Choice of Assorted Bruschetta
2. Spinach and Cheese Ravioli with Butter
and Sage Sauce
3.Filet Mignon with Porcini Mushroom Sauce,
Roasted Small Potatoes and Asparagus
4. Dessert –Sicilian Cannoli
With breaks between, we ate the dish and a
man, Donne DiPasquale, who looked exactly like American actor William Bendix
poured us wines from the firm he represents, Stile Brands. Imagine my delight
when the DiPasquale asked me to choose from two different white wines, as his
voice was just like William Bendix’s!
With DiPaquale I met IlCentro Cultural
Coordinator, Giulio Recchioni, who with his dark eyes and little beard looked
like he could easily have been haunting the ancient alleyways of Mantua with doublet and rapier.
This group of Italians made this Argentine
(me) feel at home. The food was terrific and simple to make. Of course it was
made simpler by the fact that Miss Baseggio represents the German made
Thermomix and with that machine (it is compact) you can do anything except,
perhaps clean the kitchen sink. It can steam, grate, mix, make pasta, make
pizza dough, butter and incredibly when you add the ingredients the machine has
a built-in scale.
I have since then found out that Carmelo
Sortino is an artist, a painter who specializes in fruit and landscapes. This
troubles me as I would be truly undecided if I were to be invited up to his
flat in West Vancouver
to see his etchings or invited to check out Miss Baseggio’s Thermomixes, and
her ballerina slippers at her place.
As we were about to leave I pointed out
Turner’s socks to Sortino who commented, “Just like the logo for Juventus.”
What would be my wish list now? I would
like to attend a class with Sortino cooking the recipes that his fellow Sicilian, Salvo Montalbano loves. Eggplant
would certainly be in that menu.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
I married Rosemary in 1968 and after all
these years there are many times when we need not communicate what we are
thinking. We know. As sometimes described as a peculiarity of identical twins,
Rosemary can start a sentence and I will finish it as if our brains were joined
somewhere above (or perhaps below) our medullas oblongata (or that could be
Today I picked our new Craftsman mower at
Sears in Richmond.
At this stage of my gardening career I never thought I would need to buy a new
mower. I think only newly married couples can get excited about jointly
shopping for a new fridge. But now if Rosemary and I were to do such a task I
would be as limp as a defective crisper.
When I went to the see the grand old man of
things Craftsman at Sears (I call him the old man because I have never asked
for his name even though he has now sold me three lawnmowers) I said, “My mower
works just fine but I need a new one. This one is 7 years old.” He looked at me
and said, “It has rusted out.” He knew!
Until today, and even today I was careful
to wear my glasses. Since the upper part of my mower has gaping holes from the
rusted out top, when it mows the clippings, dust, dirt, dangerous, little
pebbles and I have a most intimate relationship.
I am putting the mower in the back lane
with a sign that will read “It still works if you patch up holes.” To make sure
that if someone wants to take it home and might put it into a car trunk I decided to mow until the gas ran out. In
fact I was able to mow the entire boulevard and the front lawn before it did. I
then place it by the new mower and took these two pictures with my Fuji X-E1.
I went into the kitchen and told Rosemary, “I
almost finished the whole garden before the gas ran out.” And thinking exactly what
I was thinking she answered, “It is kind of sad.” To which I added, “It is only
a lawnmower but you are right. It is sad.”
The old mower has been faithful even though
I have tempted that terrible mechanical reprisal of all things mechanical, resistentialism, by never having changed the air filter or the oil. I just kept
adding oil every year. This mower would have out-competed my former
mother-in-law for resilience under pressure. I am sad to see her (mowers must
be of the female kind I believe) go. She looks so forlorn in my back lane
waiting for some poor soul to take her away to what could be a new life in those
Elysian Fields-of-the-sky (not the one in Hoboken, site of the first organized
baseball game and birth place of Frank Sinatra). She (my mower) would mow forever
on a perfect lawn and would never need gas, oil or blade sharpening. And the
sweet smell of the cut grass would not be polluted by that of weeds of any kind.
Perhaps gardeners and their mowers do
eventually meet again. Will that happen to me?
Utilis - Not
Monday, May 12, 2014
Insomnia provides me with plenty of time to
reflect on things in the solitude of my bed as my wife Rosemary sleeps beside
me. Last night I was doing what I have been doing for some years. This is to
compare words in the two languages I speak, English and Spanish; and how their
definitions, while the same,can still have a meaning that affects me
differently if I think of it in one or the other language.
In English we have useful, of use, and
useless. Connected to it is a similar word utility which comes from the Latin
It seems that in English utility is a word
used for things. We have those necessary utilities, gas, electricity and water.
And we might ask, “What is the utility of that object?”
In Spanish the separation between those two
words is almost nonexistent even though we can use usar (to use) and utilizar
(to use) with no difference.
A person can be útil or inútil and so can animals, plants and
And útil also defines
school supplies. Before your first day of school you must gather or buy your
útiles. Kitchen appliances are
utilidades de cocina.
As I thought about
this last night it occurred to me that the idea that a person can be useful or
not is much more shocking and damning in Spanish. I am an inútil. Age makes us
all, little by little be pushed to the edge of the circle and at some point we
fall off into the abyss very much as those who warned Columbus not to go West
in his three caravels.
A camera of old, those
that I own have a connection called a PC connection. This outlet in most non
digital cameras (and in high end digital ones) allows the photographer to
connect a wire (which usually has on the other end a two prong connection
similar to the one which you use to mate a lamp, or radio to the wall. These PC
chords were notoriously unreliable and I always carried more than one with my
equipment. Sooner or later the chord’s tip would wear out (deform) and when you
connected it to the camera, somehow the flash would not be triggered.
In my scan here you
will note the curious brass device on the top left. This handy tool makes the
tip of the PC chord round and tight. It is a useful tool that would be useless
to the new generation of photographers. I am a walking example, an inútil. Soy un inútil
That last sentence is shocking because of its brevity. In English it would be I am a useless person.
That Goldfinch On Hold
Sunday, May 11, 2014
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is available at
the Vancouver Public Library. They have 63 copies and 521 holds on it. Consider
that this Pulitzer Prize winning novel packs 771 pages. I wonder how long I
would have to wait if I put a hold on it now.
The fact is that last Monday when I went to
my Oakridge branch there was The Goldfinch as a one-week-fast-reed staring at
me and daring me to take her out. I did. The young librarian said to me (with a perverse sort of smile), “As
I see it you will have to read 100 pages per day. If you return it late Monday
night after we are closed it will still be seen as returned on time.
It is Sunday night and it is 10:55. I am on
page 400. I believe I might read 100 more pages tonight.
My scenario, my logical scenario is that I
will finish it by Wednesday and will owe just a couple of bucks.
This novel is very good (that sounds lame so
I will then just say that it is very, very good). It is the perfect book to be
reading close to and on Mother’s Day because the protagonist, when the novel
begins, is 13 years old and he has an especially close relationship with his
mother. To escape a rainstorm they go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY
City. There is a terrorist bomb that explodes inside and our protagonist’s
mother dies. The novel is really about how this boy handles his loss.
I was very close to my mother because like
Theo Decker my father left the house when I was almost (younger in fact) Decker’s
age. On most days I remember my mother
especially when I look at my youngest daughter Hilary or her youngest daughter
Lauren. Both resemble my mother. On a day like today I always feel that guilt
that every son from time immemorial must feel about not having told one’s
mother, “I love you,” enough times. Or worse still to remember situations when
I had been unkind. I want to shower my mother’s two doppelgängers with as much kindness as I can muster for my past
I have a feeling that I am not alone in
this but that I am lucky to have that pair to keep the memory of my mother