Sonoma's Lavender Farms

Although I am perfectly happy to be living in Brooklyn most of the time, once in a while the thought of California tugs gently at my heart. In the "Escape" section of the New York Times this morning is an article on the lavender farms in Sonoma. The pictures above are from the Matanzas Creek Winery which has a large lavender garden. I felt an overwhelming desire to be there. Suddenly I had visions of walking among the lavender fields, of waking up in the warm sunshine and not the sticky, humid and unrelenting grey mush that greeted me this morning. I recently came across the term "urban refugee" and I can picture myself as one, with my constant dreams of sylvan escape. But like the poet W. S. Merwin, I "love the city, but I also love the country and I realize that when I'm in the city I miss the country all the time, and when I am in the country, I miss the city some of the time."



Aung San Suu Kyi in her yard, 1995. 
Photo by Steve McCurry, Magnum

Tomorrow the judge will deliver the verdict on the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is accused of violating the terms of her house arrest by harboring an American who had swum to her house. She had pleaded with him to leave, but he claimed to have been too ill to swim back. Ironically, the trial comes just as her house arrest was about to end. I admire the woman tremendously. I cannot fathom the sacrifices she has had to endure, giving up her own family to stand for justice and freedom. She seems to draw from some super natural inner strength to have lived in isolation all these years. This picture only gives a tiny glimpse of her life. I think about her often, and I hope for the best for her tomorrow. However, I fear it will mean more years of house arrest, if not worse. 



A picture of happiness

The Sea

I was born in a small town by the Pacific Ocean, where I spent much of my early childhood. I remember long days at the beach, swimming in the water and playing on the sand under a vast blue sky and a brilliant sun. This is the landscape that defines me. Part of what I love about the summer is the chance to recapture this lost eden, the chance to immerse myself in the sea, to feel its regenerative force, even just for a tiny moment. We had a perfect day at the beach this Saturday. It was the first time we had gone back to Bellport since we sold the house two years ago. Lily was deliriously happy, diving gleefully into the water every chance she had. Watching her, I saw myself decades ago, in another continent, in a different ocean, but with the same happiness and joy filling up our lungs.


Blue hydrangea

Once upon a time I was seduced by the sheer monumental scale of these mophead hydrangeas on an estate in Portugal. I think I liked them also for their combination of blue and green, my two favorite colors. I read today that both humans and animals are most sensitive to the blue-green region of the visible spectrum. Before the depletion of the ozone layer, most radiation entering the Earth's atmosphere was in the blue-green range, ie, 500 milicrons. Incidentally, it is this range of the spectrum that is most conducive to life. I have always had a preference for the colors blue and green best because to me, they are the colors of what I see and love most in nature–plants, sky, and water. I didn't realize that there was a scientific explanation for my predilection.

Hydrangea Redux

I know that summer is passing with lightning speed when I look at these hydrangea blooms. Much as I hate the thought of the summer getting away, I do like hydrangeas best when they start to fade, turning into dusty shades of blues and pinks. The oakleaf hydrangea flowers make the most dramatic changes, turning from pale chartreuse to mottled delicate pink. In the wild, hydrangea flowers were originally like lacecap species. They have an outer ring of sterile large florets attracting insects to do their pollinating work on the central bouquet of fertile tiny florets. It is this structural contrast of the flower–the large florets being strictly for show, acting as decoy for the miniscule and delicate fertile florets in the center–that I find so lovely and interesting. Yet, years of cultivation have brought us the big mop head with only large florets found in most common hydrangeas. The name hydrangea comes from the Greek words for water and vessel, describing the vase-shaped seed pods of the flowers.

New York Store Fronts

James & Karla Murray

These elegant and vivid photographs of New York store fronts, a project spanning 10 years, are a treasure trove of bygone and soon-to-disappear signage, typography and streetscape. The pictures are on view at Clic Gallery until August 30, 2009.


Julius Shulman

Julius Shulman photographing Case Study House #22

Julius Shulman, the greatest architectural photographer, whose name is synonymous with Modernist architecture on the West Coast, died this week at age 98. He was an inspiring photographer who left an impressive archive documenting an important era in the history of architecture. His iconic images of these modernist gems, rising out of the sun drenched canyons and desert of Southern California, so memorable and timeless, are as coveted today as the houses they represent. The Getty now owns 260,000 prints, negatives and transparencies of his work.

TS Eliot Marina

Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?

What seas what shore what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning 
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

Are become unsubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger–
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye

Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

In Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote that death was not an event in life, yet he failed to mention that dying is an event in life. This poem by TS Eliot about Pericles, from Shakepeare's play Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, is one of the most moving descriptions of dying ever written. During the last days of my father's life, my sisters and I took turns watching him through the night. As he lay there sleeping, his body a ravaged vessel – "the rigging weak and the canvas rotten" – he would often become animated, holding out his hand as if to greet someone. We wondered whom and what he was seeing in his dreams – "what seas what shore what grey rocks what islands what water lapping the bow." Still in his sleep, he would mumble words, sometimes in Vietnamese, sometimes in French. It is said that a dying person would often relive the past – "What images return." In Eliot's poem, the image that returns for Pericles is that of his daughter Marina, from whom he had been separated for years and whom he believed to be dead. I wonder if in his meetings with the past my father ever glimpsed his first-born son, who had died while still a young boy. Two days before he passed away, my father called all of us to his bedside and lucidly articulated his readiness to depart, just like Pericles in Eliot's poem:
 "This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships."
There is so much that I will never know. What final calling through the fog did he hear? What images returned? All I have is this poem to ensure that I will never forget those final days.

Polaroid Pos/Neg

                                                                                                 Alan Bennett
                                                                                           Miranda Brooks
                                                                                                 Susan Minot
                                                                                                  Vince Gallo
                                                                                                   Julie Delpy
                                                                                           George Skelcher

Back in 1994, when I was an aspiring but strictly amateur photographer, I discovered Polaroid's wonderful pos/neg film. It gives you the usual instant polaroid with a negative that can be fixed in a sodium sulfite solution. It was the best of both worlds. I used it mostly to take portraits of friends. These are some of my favorites, most of which were taken in my tiny studio apartment on Mulberry Street. I wish I had photographed everyone I knew then with this film, which sadly does not exist anymore.


Another muggy day

It's another muggy day and I had yet more computer troubles. Luckily, my friend Dan, the tech extraordinaire, sorted everything out for me. Lily and I had a lovely lunch by the pond, along with the turtles and the dragonflies. We watched a bird swoop down onto the water to snatch the insects and felt like we were watching a live David Attenborough nature documentary. On the way home, I picked up a wonderful book on patterns out of a box on the street (it's a custom around here to leave books and other things out in front of your place for others to pick up–a rather friendly and efficient system of exchange). My neighbor Benny, a sixty-something Napolitano  who's been here for decades and still speaks with a thick accent, gave me a bag full of basil plants from his garden. We have that wonderful relationship that gardeners often have with one another, always ready for any exchange of knowledge or bounty. Over the last couple of months, Benny has offered me great advice, the use of his electric saw to trim the holly, and sapling of his wisteria which he had brought back from Napoli years ago. These are some of the reasons I love where I live.


A life unplugged

It's a real New York summer day – hot and muggy on the crowded streets where half naked buffed young men stand as sentinels outside the newly open Hollister store in SoHo – and my computer monitor decided not to work anymore, which prompted maddening hours on the phone to tech support. In the end, I had to go the Apple store to use their computers and buy an expensive adapter in order to use an old monitor that I had dug out of storage.  For a tantalizing five minutes, I contemplated the possibility of an unplugged life, but here I am again, like a true addict. As if to reassure me on my decision to get plugged in again, an email came in to announce that my interview with a design studio in Charleston is up on their blog.



The Palinist “real America” is demographically doomed to keep shrinking. But the emotion it represents is disproportionately powerful for its numbers. It’s an anger that Palin enjoyed stoking during her “palling around with terrorists” crusade against Obama on the campaign trail. It’s an anger that’s curdled into self-martyrdom since Inauguration Day.
Its voice can be found in the postings at a Web site maintained by the fans of Mark Levin, the Obama hater who is, at this writing, the No.2 best-selling hardcover nonfiction writer in America. (Glenn Beck is No.1 in paperback nonfiction.) Politico surveyed them last week. “Bottomline, do you know of any way we can remove these idiots before this country goes down the crapper?” wrote one Levin fan. “I WILL HELP!!! Should I buy a gun?” Another called for a new American revolution, promising “there will be blood.”
These are the cries of a constituency that feels disenfranchised — by the powerful and the well-educated who gamed the housing bubble, by a news media it keeps being told is hateful, by the immigrants who have taken some of their jobs, by the African-American who has ended a white monopoly on the White House. Palin is their born avatar. She puts a happy, sexy face on ugly emotions, and she can solidify her followers’ hold on a G.O.P. that has no leaders with the guts or alternative vision to stand up to them or to her.

This article by Frank Rich in the New York Times articulates just exactly what I find so frightening about Sarah Palin and all that she represents. I get completely stressed out every time I think about it. As Rich points out, she is the face and voice of the "dwindling white non-urban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind." This same condition also describes the motivating force behind Osama bin Laden's call for jihad against the West.


New York

Bookends of my day yesterday. I love seeing the city skyline. It's always slightly intoxicating even if I've seen it countless times before, in movies as well as in real life.



The Brooklyn Botanic Garden today

The summer is rushing by at breakneck speed. After being drowned by all the rain, the roses have begun to fade. Their bedraggled petals have lost their colors and hang forlornly on the branches. Elsewhere flowers are turning into seed heads and fruit. The persimmons have already formed on the tree, reminding me that I will never again have the pleasure of tasting the persimmons from my father's tree. There is still much I haven't been able to do this summer.  I console myself with the thought that there is still the whole month of august. There is still time for picnics by the river, a swim in the ocean, sultry evenings outside, and late summer flowers.


More hydrangeas

Just when I thought I was immune to the charms of Hydrangea macrophylla, I was struck by the colors of this specimen. The flowers start out as green buds and become increasingly pink , turning a deep magenta in full bloom. I wouldn't want a lot of them in one place–it would be too much pink, but as a single shrub, as I found this one, it made me think twice about hydrangea.


"Hydrangea hortensia" watercolor, A. Power (active late 18th and early 19th century, possibly a pupil of Goerg Dionysus Ehret)

I have always felt ambivalent about hydrangeas. Their extravagant mophead blooms seem at times almost too obvious, too showy, lacking in any subtlety. The horticulturalist Dan Hinkley once said that ornamental horticulture is a refinement of the raw data found in nature and likens cultivated garden flowers to highly refined sugar. Such is the way I sometimes view hydrangeas. Their enduring popularity has made them a common garden fixture, and it's hard to escape their presence. 
The genus includes around 70-75 species that are natives to southern and eastern Asia, notably China, Korea and Japan as well as north and south America. In Japan, leaves from Hydrangea serrata are used to make a sweet tea called ama-cha that is used in a Buddha bathing ceremony on Buddha's birthday. My preference is for the oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), whose white panicles of flowers turn a beguiling dusty pink in the autumn. 



I went to Chinatown on Sunday and discovered to my delight that lychees are in season! I love practically all fruits, but these, along with longans, mangosteen, and jack fruit, bring back such wonderful memories of my childhood in Vietnam. For the first ten years of my life in America I dreamed but could never hope of tasting these fruits again. They were the symbols of the things I lost, the things I had to leave behind, my childhood. To find them displayed in abundance at the fruit vendors on the streets of Chinatown is nothing short of a miracle for me. 

Summer Fun

We're finally in full summer mode now that the rain has stopped. It's lovely to be woken up in the morning by the sun filtering through the curtain rather than by the persistent sound of rain. In the evening, we like to sit in the garden while Lily chases fireflies. In between playdates, Lily has been reading up a storm. She finished Inkheart in three days and proclaimed it the best book she's read so far. She and I are reading Ernst Gombrich's  A Little History of the World to each other. We are also giving ourselves art lessons. I learned how to work with oil pastel for the first time today. At her request, I am also giving her French lessons, which involves a lot of singing. Today, she also started her camp at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, learning to be an urban farmer. 


Please do it at home

Tokyo Subway Manner Poster
"Please refrain from putting on make-up in the trains"
I wish they had this poster here in New York. It never ceases to amaze me how many women don't think twice about putting on make-up in the subway trains. I have watched women go through elaborate routines with foundation, layers of eye shadow and blush, eyelash curlers, the whole nine yards in a crowded train at rush hour.
Another pet peeve of mine is people taking up more than one seat on a crowded train...


Nicolette Owen

I got to spend the day with Nicolette and observe her at work. When I was in college I fantasized about being a florist. Now I wonder what my life would have been like had I pursued it. Being around flowers all the time is not a bad way to live. Nicolette surrounds herself with beautiful flowers at all times and her tenement apartment in Williamsburg is a wondrous botanical haven.