Look Up


“A garden should make you feel you’ve entered privileged space — a place not just set apart but reverberant — and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.” ― Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

You may recall that last year around this time I lost myself in the tiny little community garden where my mother lives. I fully intended to volunteer there in the Spring but they wouldn’t have me. Not because I wouldn’t work hard or didn’t know what I was doing but because it was theirs. They needed to get dirty and dig and ache the next day all on their own. To feel alive, to feel productive, to sense accomplishment and to make days pass pleasurably.

Today was a perfect day to return to that garden and capture its beauty and the progress of the gardeners.  I thought I was alone but a few minutes in there was a man standing next to me pointing and escorting me around his plots of land. He is Korean, he didn’t speak much English, we understood each other perfectly.


Michael Pollan believes the gardener cultivates wildness, but he does so carefully and respectfully, in full recognition of its mystery.” And so my new friend started me at the hedge of Cosmos. These can be invasive plants the kind I used to find everywhere in my garden, volunteers they are called. But here they are a carefully tended hedge, my friend showed me the exact start and end and how he uses them to protect his plants from the wind. He knelt down to blow on the baby lettuce beside the hedge.


Come, he said. We worked our way through peppers, and tomatoes, and as we went along he showed me all the little curly tendrons that make for plants mobility. They wrap themselves around anything that will propel them and anchor them in place at the same time. I find I’m in love with these little squiggles and kept snapping away. He was delighted with everything he showed me pointing and clapping.


He has even taken over the back end of the school next door’s lot on the other side of the fence. So he became very excited as he pointed through the fence and said, in English, Pumpkin. I was overjoyed at this hidden treasure and clapped with him. He couldn’t help but laugh, it’s ok, I’m used to it.


Then he said, look up. And there in the trees were eggplants, hanging from the vines that had worked their way up the tree trunk and branches. The tree hadn’t flourished in years but was now lending itself to these vines. I must have lit up, he clapped and I snapped.


That was the end of the tour it seemed as he walked away, he must have tired and laid down on a grassy spot near the Cosmos for a few minutes while I continued on to look at some of the other plots. I poked around the other well-tended plots and had a conversation with a little boy and lost track of time. When I turned back my friend had gone inside. You know I had to see what it looked like from that point of view too…looking up from that grassy spot.


“As I leave the garden I take with me a renewed view, And a quiet soul.” ― Jessica Coupe

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Mise En Place

kitchen closed 2

The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.

That quote is from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.  A self-proclaimed rant fully intended for people in the business, they call it the culinary world now, not so much as an expose’ but as an affirmation for Chefs.  Written around the time the celebrity chef phenomenon was coming to life he truly believed it was a book for the real people in the kitchen.  He wanted to uphold what every chef knows, cooking is hard.  You try putting out meal after meal exactly the same way at the same quality.  You try doing anything over and over with perfection, it’s hard.

There have been a few articles lately on the subject of mise en place.  Pronounced meez ahn plass, literal translation, set in place.  NPR’s: The Salt did one titled:  For a More Ordered Life, Organize Like A Chef.  Their premise was if Americans were going to spend almost $10 billion dollars on personal organizing products they might want to adopt a mise en place mentality for a hell of a lot less.  They did allude to the deeper meaning to the Chef by saying: “Some cooks call it their religion. It helps them coordinate vast amounts of labor and material, and transforms the lives of its practitioners through focus and self-discipline.”  They went on to quote a senior at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) “It really is a way of life…it’s a way of concentrating your mind to only focus on the aspects that you need to be working on at that moment, to kind of rid yourself of distractions”

Ron Friedman recently wrote about “How to Spend the First 10 Minutes of Your Day for the Harvard Business Review.   Quoting none other than Anthony Bourdain, “Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system… He left out some of the more floral language, obviously he hasn’t worked in the business.

There are productivity companies out there with mise en place in their name.  They handle workflow management, paper management, email management, and e-document management.

With all these people talking about mise en place as basic organization I take exception.  I haven’t been in food service in over twenty years (slowly but surely I’m being dragged back in, in a good way this time) but I still live in mise en place.  Good life management is mise en place.   Again, Anthony Bourdain, “If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.”

I can’t begin to tell you what the inside of my head looked like; I wasn’t paying attention to my mise en place.  I forgot to gather my ingredients, sharpen my knife, keep my board clean, I lived in Plan B.  Plan B is NOT mise en place.   If you look around my home now I am surrounded by quality ingredients, not high end pricey “stuff”.  I’m surrounded by simple and meaningful.  You could spend days walking around my tiny home with me and learning the stories of each of my possessions.

A place for everything and everything in its place, thanks Ben Franklin.  It makes life easy, every day is the same but different.  It’s the same in its simplicity, its creativity, and its ease.  I can sit at my desk and reach for anything I need.  My tiny kitchen is perfect in its easy reach, organization, clean board, knives ready, fridge stocked.  My poor Sister might never live down the day she inadvertently (or maybe not) rearranged the contents of my fridge, and took the bag that I keep my apples in…I know how that sounds and I hope someday you’ll be there with me. Just sayin.

I have a list each day, it usually starts with an adjective, there’s a goal and prioritizing exactly as Ron Friedman suggests.  The list, or becoming one with the list as Wylie Dufresne, James Beard award winning chef and restaurant owner claims, is the basis for all good mise en place.  It cements your creativity and makes it attainable in a clean and precise manner.   The New Professional Chef puts it this way:  “mise en place means far more than simple assembling all the ingredients, pots and pans, plates and serving pieces needed for a particular period. Mise en place is also a state of mind. Someone who has truly grasped the concept is able to keep many tasks in mind simultaneously, weighing and assigning each is proper value and priority. This assures that the chef has anticipated and prepared for every situation.

Any good chef knows that prep is key.  There is more time spent on prep than anything else.  Menu development, recipe building, mise en place (prep) and the rest is production.  If all goes well in the first two, production is instinctive and the benefits are delicious.  Call it what you like but find some new religion people.  And, if you can, thank a chef.

If This Then That


If your dog is fat, then you’re not getting enough exercise. ~Author Unknown

If you build it, he will come. Field of Dreams

I had the good fortune to lunch with a new colleague this week.  A lovely woman with a story, as we all are, who was overwhelmed with questions about how to go about her job, about what she should know, about her instincts, about her place in the department, about, about, about.  I found myself giving advice.  I didn’t think I gave advice but the words that came out of my mouth had come out before.  If this, then that.  What?  It’s a formula I use for too many things coming at me at once.  If this, then that.

I found this formula many years ago when I was learning Excel.  It truly is a formula, based in logic. Yes simple logic, conditional logic.  With an implication.  It’s just a compound sentence that can sort out what seems like insurmountable data.  Just basic programing that contains a trigger and an action.

But I find myself using it for everything.  I don’t even realize it sometimes.  Standing in front of the fridge I find myself saying:  If I eat that, then I’ll beat myself up all night, get adgita, weigh more tomorrow….Driving in the car: If I flip this guy the bird for thinking that he can cut me off then I’ll definitely chip away at my Karmic equity.  If I smile at this crabby barista then my coffee will be amazing and maybe their day will be better too.

I don’t add any words like: What if I?  No no no, that makes it an entirely different question and anything “what if” will definitely send you into an abyss.  That’s part of the coulda, shoulda, woulda family for sure.

And the “then” part should never be: and then I’ll be happy…oh no don’t do that.  If I lose weight, if I get a new job, if I find a new partner, if I dye my hair, if I wear these clothes…then I’ll be happy.  Stop that right now…If you want to be happy just make the choice.

This is a life formula but of course there are other if-this-then-that formulas.  IFTTT.com gives you recipes for anything from:  If the temperature in the house goes to 75⁰ then turn on the air conditioning. Prevents you from heat stroking the cat as I read recently on mashable.com.  IFTTT.com is pronounced “gift” without the G.  You can join the service for free and set up any number of trigger/action recipes. And yes, there’s an app for that.

Then there’s something called if/then planning.  You can use it for almost anything too.  For example: If it’s 2pm I’ll have a coffee.  If someone stays too long at my desk I’ll set a timer for five minutes and sound a reminder alarm for a “conference call”.  See ya yackity yack.  Or if it’s 3pm I finish answering my emails.  Many people find this if/then planning helpful by preventing aimless wandering through tasks that wind up taking longer than they should.

There are if/then charts for kids now too. If there is too much arguing then you will have additional chores.  It’s got a list of the most common infractions and consequences and can be purchased through doorposts.net.

Long before it was a service or a planning tool or a parental control is was simply a logical way to sort things out.  A beautiful formula to live by, one that you could call upon at any time, in any situation.

If you click here then you’ll get more good advice.




The Art of Puttering


This seemed to be the week of people getting organized, finally overcoming the overwhelming bedlam they call their homes, or their closets, or their minds, or their life.  Organization is a wonderful thing but I prefer puttering. Puttering seems to prevent any overwhelming anything.

The earliest meaning of puttering was the action of poking or prodding something repeatedly or to do something idly to pass the time.  I don’t use puttering to pass the time; I live in a constant state of puttering.  To me it’s not about being lazy but to move through my day at a slower pace, change direction on a whim, zero in on a nagging bit of something or just catch up to myself.  I could do this for a few minutes during my work week, or for a few hours when I get home from somewhere, or for an entire weekend.

Some people are deliberate in their puttering setting aside a certain amount of time or relishing specific days to putter like Monday holidays.  Some formal putterers wear particular “puttering” outfits or eat specific puttering food, never a full meal but something a step above snacks.   Others have rules for puttering.  I even read about someone finding themselves in a period of “puttering prayer”.  Not fully engaged but turning their attention to God in the moment and then carrying on with their day.  I kinda love that, just sayin.

For those people in full on chaos puttering will have to come later, although my Sister has a method that is working for her.  What bothers you the most, do that.  Repeat as necessary. I’m an organized person and a world class putterer, kind of the Martha Stewart of puttering.  When I’m in putter mode I have no set goals, no specific rules, no deadlines I simply relish the act of puttering.  The only thing I might turn to during a languid  turned energetic act of puttering is a good play list; The Big Chill soundtrack comes to mind.

Here’s how it might look.  Early mornings on Stowe Lane look the same every day, dog walking, dog feeding, nutriblast (or I might not see a vegetable all day) and latte.  Every day, no deviation it just works.  As I’m drinking my coffee something might catch my eye, like the spice and stuff corner of the kitchen.  Maybe they need topping off, maybe they need rearranging, maybe I might want to clean the canisters.  You see what I mean.


That done, relax with a book for a while or catch up on TiVo.  Perhaps start the wash and then decide to change the sheets.  With a little help from Toto that might take a bit more time, so why not make another cup of coffee and take it to the deck.  Lina and Toto enjoy the deck too, coffee finished and I can continue on with the sheets.  It’s carefree, it gets done, everyone is happy.


So while the laundry is going I’ll go back to the deck and catch up on some work.  I could work all day everyday but in these fits and starts I can pace myself and not even notice how much I’m working.  After a certain amount of time or the completion of a specific task I feel free to daydream a bit. The imagination needs moodling, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering said Brenda Ueland.  I couldn’t agree more, as I’m moving through some of the puttering I do feel like I’m dawdling but things are getting done, things I didn’t realize needed doing until just moments before. It’s quite efficient in its inefficiency.


And one’s imagination does get rolling, so much so that I have to jot things down periodically so they’re not lost.  Little tidbits of this and that for a post or didn’t I have a picture that might work for something?  You see there is truth in imagination being unleashed in a clear mind. All of that done, sometimes I just sit.  And think.  Or doze.


Or pop up and take a photo walk.  Why not?  There’s always something interesting happening nearby on my beloved Stowe Lane, or the farmer’s market, or a fair, or someone’s garden.  You never really have to walk far but somehow I don’t even notice I’m walking when I’ve got my camera with me.


In the end there are many upsides to puttering.  There is a relaxation that comes over you, then a sense of accomplishment even if it is just rearranging the spices or one shelf in a closet or making a grocery list or throwing out all the expired medicines or discovering a new color, or talking with everyone in the neighborhood.  Because there’s no pressure to do any of it.

Everyone should learn the art of puttering.  If you don’t think you’re capable, find someone who can teach you.  I read somewhere that every neighborhood has a world class putterer with too much time on their hands that will gladly  join you under the guise of teaching.  We can never get enough.


Father’s Navy Hammock

reading in the hammock

Imagine, if you will, growing up in an old-fashioned sort of family, in an old-fashioned sort of family`s back yard, with trees and grass and flower beds and a hammock strung between two maple trees in a far, shady corner. Imagine you and your friends, when no one else is around, swinging each other as high and as hard as you can, stopping only when one of you swings all the way around and ends up lying in a heap on the grass. – July 28, 1985|By Elizabeth Maupin, Orlando Sentinel

It wasn’t exactly like that but damn close.  My friends weren’t really interested in my Father’s old Navy hammock but I was.  In the dog days of summer it was heaven on earth lying in the shade of the two maples with a book.  Summers back then didn’t seem nearly as hot.  Our backyard had a lot of shade, a constant breeze and the old maple was always in motion, rustling, reaching for the sky.  I could stay there for hours; my Mother always knew where I was and never bothered me.  If I fell asleep in it, so be it.

back yard

I’ve been hearing lots of irritable remarks about the summer doldrums lately.  I admit I’m not a summer person but this summer seems more manageable to me somehow.  We’ve had a lot of rain and my garden isn’t complaining a bit.  We’ve had cool mornings that are conducive to coffee on the deck, especially with the overhead fan whirring, which has been practically unheard of in summers past.


I’ve become nostalgic for that hammock several times in my life.  My first apartment (a hundred years ago) was a third floor walkup with no air conditioning. The coolest part of the place was my tiny guest bedroom, or as I called it my sewing room. I often fantasized about hanging the old hammock in that room, coming home from work, taking a cool shower and crawling into it with a book. If I fell asleep in it, so be it.

Another time was in my first house.  We had a hammock but it was woven rope and it never seemed as comfortable to me as the old canvas one I knew as a kid.  It was a shame to have lost that poor thing to old age and rot.  If I recall correctly it was my Grandfather who was the one who wound up falling through it.

hooks overgrown

By the time our family no longer had any ties to the old house the maples had grown over the hooks that held up the hammock and only the memories of it remained.  There are days when the heat is high and the breeze is just enough that I would love to crawl back into that hammock and lose myself in a book.  That’s no longer an option but the memory of it serves as a reminder that summer is for using less energy, catching up on the slow things and enjoying obligatory lazing.