Friday, December 23, 2016

2016 In Reverse

I knew a guy that used to joke about the Christmas letters people write.  He found it funny that these letters were either chalk-full of the amazing things people did all year or it was a laundry list of their woes.  At the time, I laughed along and said to myself, “that’s so true.”

That was all way before Facebook where this sort of external showcasing of your life is now so commonplace.  But even after a decade of change spurred on by social media’s entrenchment in our lives, I remember the meaning behind his joke: our lives are more complex than our accomplishments and they can be more joyful than our woes might tell.  You don't just have a great year or a bad year - it's almost always a mixture of both.  

Even knowing that it’s impossible to capture the essence of an entire year in a single letter or blog post I find that here on the brink of Christmas, at the end of the year, I wanted to write something about 2016.  If I followed the Christmas letter theme, I’d start with January and work my way through the seasons.  But I think life is most often remembered in reverse, like a movie watched while the tape is rewound.

With that in mind, here's how I remember 2016.

December:  It’s been colder than normal.  We’ve had lots and lots of rain this year which is good.  We need it after years of drought.  I spent a lot of time on the couch, under heated blankets, falling asleep too early in the evening.  We didn’t drive around the neighborhood and look at Christmas lights as much as last year.  The season seemed to sneak up on me and I felt like I missed things that should have been important.  We did spend one magical weekend at Disneyland where I felt blessed to be able to afford a trip like that, blessed to have a daughter just the right age to love the trip.  Blessed to have a wife that knew I needed a little magic and happiness in my life.

Splash Mountain at Disneyland

November: Felt like a hard month for me in ways I wasn't quite prepared for or expecting.  It’s supposed to be a time of Thanksgiving but I felt cheated.  Looking back I can see that I let myself withdraw from life more than I should have.  I kind of closed up and went into hibernation.  

October: I can’t even tell you about this month.  Looking at my calendar I can see it was a busy month at work and I know we did the whole Halloween thing.  But the month, in general, is just a blur.  

September: Just a few months after celebrating his graduation from the Royal Canadian Mounties program, my nephew sent us a picture of himself and his girlfriend on the top of a mountain and she was wearing a huge diamond ring on her finger.  The whole family was thrilled and we can't wait to get back together and celebrate something so joyful as a wedding.  

The happily engaged couple

August: Hot and miserable in Northern California as per normal.  August is also the time when our kids head back to school.  My daughter started 3rd grade this August.  As with most milestones in her life, I found myself dwelling on the swift passage of time with a mix of nostalgia and excitement for the future.  We picked her up from school and went out for ice cream that afternoon.  I remember wanting to share pictures from that day with my mom who felt so far away to me.

A beautiful night in Boston's Fenway Park

July: At the end of July we took a long-planned-for trip to Boston to see the Red Sox play a couple games and do the touristy things.  It was a welcome distraction for me and I loved getting to show the ladies in my life the city on the other coast that I love so much.  

Earlier in July, we flew back to my home state of Washington and met the rest of my family for the funeral.

June: On a night at the end of June I left work and saw that I had two missed phone calls on my cell.  One was from my brother-in-law and one was from my step-dad.  I instinctively knew why they were calling so I didn’t want to call them back.  Not yet.  The longer I waited, the longer I could ignore what they had to tell me.  

A little while later we sat close together on the couch and told Bailey that her Grandma had died. 

May: We took a quick trip to Portland, Oregon.  I managed to blog about it and post some pictures well after the fact.  My daughter got her ears pierced on this trip.  We were trying to carry on with life and do normal things.

April: I finished building a raised-bed vegetable garden I had wanted to build for months.  April in Sacramento is beautiful.  I proudly sent my mom photos of my garden’s progress.  She loved to garden and loved that I loved to garden.  Every time she came to visit, she’d spend time reading a book in a chair in my garden.  I felt a surge of pride whenever I thought she was enjoying herself in the gardens I worked so hard to create.  

March: Mom called and told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer but not to worry because they caught it early and her prognosis was good.  I cried that night.  I’m not used to good outcomes when it comes to cancer.  I sat down that night and wrote her a long text message and told her that I was sad but also thankful for her and for the things she taught me, did for me, sacrificed for me, and cultivated in me.  She wrote back and I saved a screen shot of what she sent because I knew I would want to remember her words.  

February: We went to Hawaii for the first time ever and had a wonderful trip.  Life was beautiful and good and we felt so lucky to be alive and to see such a different and beautiful part of the world.  We went to a luau one night and watched the sun set into the Pacific ocean while someone nearby blew into a Pu shell to signify the end of the day.  It was glorious. 

One of my life's best moments

Maui sunset

January: It was a new year and we had lots to look forward to.  It feels like such a long time ago now.  When January of 2017 comes, I hope that there are things to look forward to again.  

Thursday, June 30, 2016

When It All Comes Together

One of the best books I've read about garden design, The Inward Journey, talks about creating your garden in a way that reflects your oldest desires.  For me, that meant creating a cove.

I attempted to do that in the far corner of my backyard by sectioning it off from the rest of the yard with a boxwood hedge and a simple iron arbor.  There was an existing mature apple tree that gave me a good start on the feeling of being closed in.  I added several Japanese maples and a chair and after just a couple years it really is starting to feel like a cove.

Japanese maples - Seiryu (in the foreground) and Iniba Shidare in the background

My satisfaction peaked the other day when my daughter came out to read while I worked in the yard.  I wasn't paying much attention while I worked but when I looked up and saw that she had chosen to sit in this uncomfortable chair and read a book I was thrilled.  Thrilled that she loves to read so much and thrilled that something in her was drawn to spend time in this part of the yard.

I could stand to learn a few things from her example.

After she caught me taking this picture she started hamming it up for the camera.  Here's a better view of the way the "cove" is coming together:

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Chinese Garden in Portland

Too much has gone on in my life recently for me to devote much free time to blogging.  And as previous posts have mentioned, the drought has put a damper on things for me . . . even if it hasn't dampened anything else.

Not too long ago we had a chance to tag along with my wife on a work trip to Portland, Oregon.  When she wasn't working we had a chance to explore one of our favorite cities and this time I convinced them to tour the Chinese Garden.  They were not thrilled.  But they were good sports.

That quickly changed though.  Almost immediately after entering the gardens we saw that they were giving a demonstration on how to make Hawaiian leis.

The pond was a big hit too even though the koi had been transported to another facility while they rehabilitated the habitat for some reason.  

I found the stone work in the pathways to be remarkable and enviable.  How long would it take to do something like this?

There was a lot of variety in the patterns throughout the different parts of the garden.

I don't know what these are called, but I thought this was a cool way to border a tree with stone.

This was a look I'd definitely like to mimic in the right situation.  I believe that's Japanese forest grass and black Mondo grass which I already grow.

Intricate, beautiful, and amazing.

Who hasn't wanted a moon gate of their own?

 One of the most charming aspects of the garden is that it is literally surrounded by downtown buildings.  But you quickly forget about them.  When I left the garden I found myself envious of the people whose office windows look down upon this garden.

They had a small selection of bonsai on display.  And by that I mean they had just a few - not that the bonsai was small.  But it was small.  The bonsai was I mean.

 My wife photo bombing skills were on point.

I will be writing more often I hope.  If you've given up on checking in on me, I don't blame you at all.  I hope to give you a reason to stop by and say hello once in a while though.  

Friday, January 8, 2016

El Nino es Muy Bueno

I carried this text around like a cross to bear.
For most of my life I have been tormented by an inability to speak, read, write, memorize vocab words, and order food in Spanish.  It started in high school when I made the absurd choice to use "Cristobal" as my Spanish name in class.  You can imagine all the crystal ball and Christ ball jokes tossed my way.  I spent way too much time trying to think of witty comebacks and much too little time actually listening to Senorita Whateverhernamewas teach.

My torment continued in college where I continued to lag behind once I got beyond the ease of learning the alphabet and how to count to a hundred in Spanish 101.  I dropped out of Spanish 101 several times before I finally completed it.  By the third or fourth time around I was quite fluent and could sing the ABCs and tell how old I was just like any two-year-old can.

A small part of the problem was that Spanish classes started at the unseemly hour of 9:00 a.m.  Maybe mine was the only college to do this, but each discipline seemed to have their own time of day for classes.  Science, math, Spanish, and history were in the morning.  English, Philosophy, Volleyball (my kind of classes) were in the afternoon or, even better, at night. So waking up for a 9:00 class just wasn't in the cards for a night owl like me; not on a regular basis anyway.  I know, I know, "es no bueno" to have treated my education with such flippancy.

Those poor choices and inability to comprehend the more elementary aspects of learning a foreign language (and I do mean elementary school level) led to summer school and taking Spanish for 3 hours a day five days a week starting at 8:00 a.m. before my chosen institution of higher learning would allow me to move forward in life with a few extra initials on my resume.  It was only through sheer willpower that I finally passed Spanish 102 with a resounding D+ and by God I earned my bachelor of arts degree in English.  The irony of excelling in the study of one language and drowning in the study of another was not lost on me or my advisor.  My advisor posited one afternoon (because that's when we English types were awake) that perhaps it was the love of my native language that created a mental barrier to learning a different language.  I wore that comment like a badge of honor.

Before I had graduated, I briefly toyed with the idea of applying to an MFA program in Creative Writing as a next step.  I say "briefly" because, for reasons unknown to me, every MFA program I looked into required fluency in at least one foreign language.  I just Googled how to express my reaction in Spanish to that discovery: "Lo Siento".  That means "I'm sorry".  I'm sorry, it just wasn't going to happen unless I was willing to lie on my application.  But what if they greeted me on the first day in Spanish?  [Hola, Cristobal!] What if they taught Early Shakespeare in Spanish?  What if all my papers had to be translated?  I'd be found out and then turned out!  No, it was time to enter the world and forge my own way.  Which is scary.

And so, because of Spanish, I was forced to embark upon an odyssey of existential wandering.  What does an English major that's petrified of public speaking do for a living if they can't teach and if they know they can't make a living writing?  

So, you see, me and Spanish have had our differences and I'm not quite ready to forget all that history.  But this new year, this blessed New Year, is starting to soften my stance a teensy bit.  And I owe the metaphorical olive branch to that kind Latino kid they call El Nino.  Which, in English means "The Nine" or "the Nest" I think.  Something like that anyway.

After several years of drought and strictly enforced water restrictions pitting neighbor against neighbor, there has been very little motivation to add anything to my garden.  Every plant I can imagine planting requires consistent watering in order to become established in my region and most plants need continued irrigation at least semi-regularly because we simply don't get rain for months on end in our hot summers.  So when you're only allowed to irrigate on a Saturday before 6:00 a.m. (please see earlier when I mention not being awake before 9:00 a.m.) it's unlikely that new plants will be happy.

But El Nino!  El Nino might change some of that.  See, an average January in Sacramento has 3.97 inches of rain.  It is the rainiest month of the year.  However, when you look at recent rain fall totals, you can start to see how it might create a problem for a region when your rainiest month is this dry for this long:

January Rain Fall
2015 0.00
2014 0.12
2013 0.90
2012 1.22
2011 1.55
2010 4.82

What's left of Shasta Lake in Northern California
Photo credit: National Geographic  
At some point yesterday, January 7th, we crossed the 2 inch level for the month thanks to a series of El Nino inspired storms.  It's not enough to fill the reservoirs, to water all the crops, to replenish the ground water supply that's depleted to the point of causing the earth to cave in (oh mi Cielos, right?), and it's not enough to get Governor Jerry Brown to lift water restrictions.  It's a mere drop in an empty bucket really.  But it is enough for me to smile, for a change, when someone talks to me about the weather in Spanish.

And for the first time in a long time, I find myself pausing at the window to daydream about what could come next.  I just might get to plant something this spring when El Nino is finished making it all up to me.