Friday, December 26, 2008

Mighty Oaks

"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow" goes the saying. This oak is indeed mighty. It is over 400 years old and resides on the campus of the California Institute of Technology. It is a very special species of quercus called engelmannii. Engelmann oaks are rare. They have a very limited range only growing along the foothills of southern California and down into Baja California. Plus, they like to grow on mesas which also make good home sites. Fortunately, CalTech is taking good care of its treasure. As you can see, the long winding limbs of this old tree have been supported by iron posts. The base of the tree is below the level of the lawn and there are stairs leading down to the bottom, but they are chained off.

When I was at Caltech this past November for another Coleman Concert, I arrived early to walk the grounds and also to have another look at this amazing tree. I admit was looking for acorns. I just thought it would be fun to try and grow one of these trees. The tree itself was bare of acorns and so was the ground. Not a single one could I find, until... crunch! Oh no! I actually stepped on one before I saw it. I picked it up and looked it over. It didn't seem to be too badly damaged. So I put it in my pocket and went into the auditorium to listen to a wonderful concert.

At home, I looked up these oaks on the Internet and found that they require planting in the ground very early because they send down a very long tap root. (Here is a guide for planting the Coast live oak which I used as a reference.) I planted the acorn in a tall pot filled with regular potting soil and promptly forgot about it. Then after the first real rains we had, I discovered that it was actually growing! I suddenly felt a huge responsibility to find a good home for this plant. I realized that my front yard was not nearly big enough to let the oak grow to its full glory and after dealing with sewer problems, I wasn't sure I wanted to take any chances with another large tree in any case, especially one that is known to like to spread its roots.

I emailed Tony Baker of Natural Landscapes and offered him the tree. He was delighted and since I wanted to talk with him anyway about transforming my yard into a native plant garden, he offered to come by to pick up the pot and also see what he could do for me. We had a nice long chat in the rain and he suggested that I get rid of my lawn and give him another call. I now have dreams of planting Oregon grape or one of its relatives, a Mexican elderberry, and of course, lots of sages. But I'm afraid there is more work that needs to be done on the house, like more plumbing and then painting, before I can get to work on the fun part. Meanwhile, my gardener, without asking me, has thrown down some rye grass seed so now my lawn is a fresh spring green again. I didn't have the heart to tell him to start ripping it out.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


My husband loved trains. He was given his first electric train set when he was one year old! Naturally, it was his father's hobby more than his for the first 8 years of his life, but every year his parents would set up a train under the Christmas tree. Christmas and trains became entwined for my husband as they did for many boys of his generation and we had a train layout under our tree every year while our kids were growing up, too. Christmas was always my husband's favorite holiday.

When he was older and able to operate the trains himself, his father created a huge permanent layout down in their basement that included buildings, roads, tunnels, mountains, and miles of track. My husband had great plans to re-create such a layout in our garage after he retired. He had bought the wood to build the table and it was all cut to size and had holes drilled for bolts. It was to be in sections so that it could be set up and taken down after the holidays. (My car was to be booted out onto the street for the duration.) He joined a local model railroad (toy train?) club and had two of his engines converted to operate by remote control so he could run them on the club's tracks. He bought himself a brand new engine which arrived just months before he died. He never got to enjoy it.

The last Christmas that we had together, I admit that we went overboard on the decorations. It was almost as if we knew. Until then, my interest in the trains was minimal. My brother had a layout in his bedroom when I was young and I still have a small scar on my chin where I fell on the wrong end of a piece of track. But I enjoyed watching them go round and round and certainly enjoyed watching my children enjoy them. That year we discovered Department 56. The train store where we went to buy accessories had an entire room devoted to Department 56 products. These houses and buildings are made of ceramic and don't necessarily have to accompany trains. Many people collect them. Naturally, I had to have the New England Village series of buildings and I also bought every little figurine they had that was related to music. If you take a close look at the figures in the photos, you will see that they are all playing a musical instrument.

My first Christmas alone, I set up all the decorations that my husband had so neatly stored away, everything being carefully labelled. But my son-in-law set up the train for me. I didn't have a clue how to do it myself. I took a lot of pictures of the trains and the village with the snow and the birch trees that reminded me of home, and cried buckets. For the next two years, I travelled to Arizona for the holidays and didn't put up any decorations except for a wreath on the door. But this year, I decided to have Christmas at my house again. It's time. I managed to get the tree set up (it's artificial) and after much searching found the lights. But I didn't know what to do about the train. I thought I could set it up, but didn't think I could get it running. After spending three days on this, I finally got the Blue Comet to move last night! I am not crying this time. I feel satisfied and content. I'm glad that I have all these treasures to pass on to my two grandsons.

Merry Christmas to you and your family. I know you probably have traditions of your own. Thank you for letting me share mine with you.

Monday, December 22, 2008

December Color

When we landscaped our yard for the first time, I told the designer that I was from New England and wanted fall color, hence the birch trees. This Nandina domestica, or Heavenly Bamboo, provides color in its leaves which can take on a reddish cast, but also in the berries which look very pretty at this time of year.

I have no idea what this plant is, it is a volunteer from my neighbor, but I have grown to like it. It is very drought tolerant and blooms every December with just the right color.

Even the Clivia miniata (pronounced with a long "i" since it was named for the Lady Clive) has red berries at this time of year. It took me a long time to convince my gardener to leave the flower stalks after the blooms had faded so that I can enjoy the berries. It takes two years for the red color to appear.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Happy Winter Solstice! Lately I have been feeling like hibernating. I get plenty of sleep at night but I'm still sleepy during the day and want to take naps. With the sun setting at about 5:00 pm and the rays of the sun low in the sky even at noon, the signals are pretty clear that it's time to slow down. I recently received a newsletter from Yoga Journal, which I subscribe to, giving the advice to resist the urge to hibernate and use vigorous Yoga to stay active in the winter months. While I enjoy Yoga and agree with most of the life-style ideas that go along with the physical practice, I strongly disagree with their vegetarian outlook and now also with this idea that we must resist our urges to rest more in the winter months. It's the way animals respond to the cold and less food being available and was probably the way humans behaved until they learned to control light by creating fire.

In her book, Lights Out, T.S. Wiley claims that hibernation studies have shown that learning and retention are enhanced in animals who are allowed to find respite from life and many studies have shown that sleep deprivation may lead to obesity. Just google "obesity sleep deprivation" for dozens of links to recent journal articles. This would corroborate Wiley's thesis that we are meant to crave carbs and get fat in the summer in preparation for winter, but then sleep it off bringing our bodies back to equilibrium.

Another good book on the subject of sleep is The Head Trip by Jeff Warren. I read this book last spring and meant to blog about it, but never got around to it. It's very thought-provoking. The book is actually about consciousness but for Warren sleep is a form of consciousness and not unconsciousness as we usually think of it. He has whole chapters on the various forms of sleep and semi-sleep situations. He considers it perfectly normal to have wakeful periods during the night and that is what hibernation must have been like for humans. They slept a lot, got up to eat now and then, went back to sleep, dozed, dreamt, and solved problems in their heads. Warren comments that in order to be truly awake, you have to have more natural sleep.

So it's almost 8:30 pm now. Time for me to start winding my day down, dim the lights, get into my jammies, turn the heat in the house down to 60 degrees, take my melatonin, turn off the lights, climb into my organic-cotton-knitted-sheeted bed with the down comforter, and hibernate for at least 9 hours. See ya!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Christmas Tradition

OK, now it feels like Christmas. This afternoon I played a rehearsal of Handel's Messiah and tonight is the performance. For me, nothing says Christmas more than this famous work.

I played my first Messiah my freshman year in college and continued to play it every year after that for a total of about 35 years, I think, until recently when the chain was broken. I have played both first and second violin, in large orchestras and small groups no bigger than a string quartet with a few winds. The choruses have ranged from the professional to the amateur church choir. The venues have ranged from concert halls, to churches, of course, and hospitals. I've toured northern Spain with it. I've played strict, light and crisp, Baroque-style versions and heavy, but glorious, Romantic versions. No matter, the spirit of the music always comes through. My cousin recently heard her first performance of this masterpiece and was not impressed. She said she found it boring and repetitive. What can I say? I love it. I love Handel. I love his simple melodies. The Hallelujah Chorus brings tears to my eyes every time. But I'll tell you it's a whole lot more fun playing it or singing it than just listening to it.

A couple of years ago, I attended the Messiah Sing-a-long with the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Disney Hall so now I can even say I have sung the Messiah in Disney Hall no less. My son-in-law, who has a great bass voice, sat next to me and someone who knew what she was doing sang soprano in front of me. I am an alto with a very limited range. It was great fun but harder than I expected.

Sorry, I have to run. Gotta change into my concert black and get back to the church.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

'Tis the Season

Last night's rehearsal was one of those kinds of rehearsals that I hate. We are preparing a holiday program with a mixed bag of music including a medley of this, a smidgen of that and encompassing a large chorus, a children's choir, dancers, two emcees, and of course, us, the orchestra.

Space on stage is very tight. Everything is miked so there are wires and boxes underfoot and microphone stands everywhere blocking your view of the conductor. We violins are squeezed in front of all the percussion and so close to each other that one false move sends your bow into your stand partner's face or causes the scroll of your neighbor's violin on the other side to smack you in the ribs. (It happened to me last night when my neighbor sneezed.) There is a blue line marked on the stage which we cannot cross because a scrim comes down at some point, a fence goes up at another, and after hours the fire screen comes down. Space backstage is equally tight with all the props and extra people hanging about.

Several players were late or borderline late because of miserable traffic on the freeways. Getting them to their seats required climbing over instrument cases and people's feet followed by all the readjusting as they claimed their space to play. Tension was high as we read through the mountain of material. The conductor's tempi were all too fast as he was under the gun to get everything done in the allotted time. No overtime for us. Bowings (the bane of my existence) were mostly marked but in a few pieces we had not done before, they were not marked at all. The section leaders are still working out what they want to do.

And the lights... Did I mention the lights? Stand lights wouldn't work or were too dim. My stand partner (bless her) brought an extra light from home for us to use. House and stage lights were erratic and the conductor was totally in the dark for most of the rehearsal (not a pun, he's a smart guy) as the stage crew practiced what they had to do.

We get one more rehearsal (for a grand total of two) before the first performance when suddenly it will all come together. The conductor will relax (somewhat). The singers will swell with pride and the dancers will give their all. Meanwhile, the orchestra musicians will bring their years of experience to focus on the job at hand and do things that were not possible in the rehearsals. And the audience will love it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pears and Pomegranates

I love this time of year for many reasons, of course, but one of the reasons is all the surprises I receive in the mail or by other delivery services. Yesterday, I was totally surprised by two packages. The first was a gift from my bank, one of the new institutions I have opened accounts with recently. I thought the days of giving out toasters with every new account were over, especially in this economy, so I was very pleasantly surprised to receive a box of Harry & David's famous Royal Riviera Pears courtesy of Farmers and Merchants Bank plus a gift card towards a future purchase.

Now pears are not a low-carb fruit. Each one of these beauties delivers 31g of carbs, so when you are trying to keep your daily total between 30 and 60g, just one pear will do it for you. So last night I treated myself to half a pear, and an under ripe one at that (apples and pears are lower in carbs when green or under ripe). Just by chance I had purchased some delicious raw milk Pt. Reyes blue cheese and a bottle of pomegranate wine earlier in the day. I had the makings of a fantastic dessert.

Pomegranates and especially wine made from pomegranates have been found to be very high in anti-oxidants, containing three times more than the same amount of red wine or green tea. I had purchased The Republic of Tea's Pomegranate Green Tea earlier this year when it was available. Apparently, it is a seasonal thing. But my favorite way to consume pomegranates is to buy the fresh fruit and dig out the arils myself. It is a tedious job and the red juice splatters everywhere, but the arils don't keep very long out of the fruit. My son told me that there used to be a pomegranate bush on his way to school and that he and his friends would pick the fruit and eat it like an apple while they walked. I asked didn't the juice go everywhere and turn their hands red? He said yes, but they didn't care.

The wine came from Armenia and it turned out to be a good dessert wine. It was very reminiscent of blackberries and cherries although not very sweet. It is 20% alcohol, and 10 to 15 fruit are needed to make a gallon of wine. Something different.

The other surprise was a package from my cousin who shares my genealogy passion. She inherited boxes of stuff from our great aunt who also was very interested in our family history. Until now my cousin has not had time to go through the boxes, but a recent move has forced her to take a peek. What she sent me was a photograph of my father taken at the time of his high school graduation. My father died ten years ago and I had never seen this photo before. Now I can clearly see the resemblance between my father and my younger brother and my son. They all even sport the same hairstyle! It brought tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart. What a treasure!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Tools of the Trade

My cousin says I don't talk about my music enough. This last photo is from a page of a Bach Solo Sonata, the Adagio from the first Sonata in g minor, and is a facsimile of the autograph manuscript. At the very bottom in the lower right corner are two 128th notes. Bach and Beethoven are the only two composers that I know of that actually wrote 128th notes. Of course, I am not familiar with all of the piano music.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Knitting Photos

From top to bottom, that's Sorrel, Glade yarn and Glade beginning (that's about as far as I have gotten with it; I really ought to finish it), Elodie, Anya (front is done, back not yet started; they are exactly the same), and bare wet yarn waiting to be dyed. My screen-saver cycles through My Pictures when I haven't used the computer for awhile and when these came up this morning, I thought, hmmm... some of these are pretty interesting. But I can't compare with this lady from Australia, Alison Brookbanks at six and a half stitches, for creativity and design.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Arizona Observing Session

We made two trips to the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert while I was in Arizona. The first trip was actually on Saturday evening, the night before the butterfly and bird photos were taken. We wanted to have a look at the small observatory set up on a slight rise in the middle of the park which houses a 16-inch Meade telescope. Called the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory, it is open free to the public every Friday and Saturday night, weather permitting. The East Valley Astronomy Club manages the observatory for the reserve and two volunteers were in attendance when we arrived and before the evening was over, about 60 people dropped by to have a look through the scope.

I had sent an email to the member of the club responsible for events, to ask him if we could join the club's Deep Sky Observing session which was scheduled for that evening. Thanksgiving night was a new moon and the skies should have been very dark. Unfortunately, I sent the email too late to receive a reply in time to make plans to drive out to the site the club uses for their dark sky viewing, but I did make the acquaintance of several members of the club who were very friendly and said they would be very happy to have me join them with my scope the next time I am in AZ.

In talking to both the volunteers at the observatory and the third club member that I contacted by email, it appears that they have the same problem in AZ that we do in LA, i.e., light pollution, although we have to drive further to escape the city lights than they do. The Riparian Preserve was a great place for birdwatching, but not so great for astronomy. I was surprised that the sky was not as dark as I was expecting and only part of the problem was glow from the city lights. The park itself had dozens of lamps lighting the paths, especially the path around the lake which was next to the observatory. These lamps were attractive but not the kind that aim the light down at the ground, but instead in all directions including up. The light in the photo above is not one of the more offensive ones. It has a shade which aims the light down.

The volunteers explained that they had the key to turn off these lights, but that they were afraid to do that due to safety concerns. I suggested that they plant some bushes on the hill on the lake side that would come up to the mid-point of the observatory. The scope could not look down in that direction anyway, and the bushes would block some of the light from human eyes. All the light prevents your eyes from becoming dark-adapted which allows you to see fainter and fainter objects. It takes half an hour for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark and any bright light you look at, like passing car headlights, starts the process over again.

The other problem was all the water surrounding the observatory. Water creates water vapor, especially in the desert, which reflects the light, which makes the sky a grayish color instead of a deep black. So while the scope was very capable of bringing in some fairly faint objects (the Andromeda galaxy, the Ring Nebula, the Orion Nebula and Trapezium, etc.), the background remained gray. This was most disappointing when we viewed M45, the Pleiades, which is stunning when the "Seven Sisters" and their companions shine like diamonds on a black velvet background. I was surprised to find that we actually have darker skies here in LA when looking out over the ocean. The volunteer commented that he thought the clear, clean, ocean air, free of particulates of all kinds, would offer a better background for the stars than AZ skies.

Meanwhile, back home, the guys in my own club (SBAS) had to cancel their dark sky observing session due to high Santa Ana winds. Sigh. It's a wonder that any astronomy ever gets done.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Of Birds and Butterflies

While I was in Arizona, my son took me to the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert. This mile-square park uses re-cycled waste water to create a wetland in the middle of the desert. There are seven pond areas that are flooded and drained on a rotational basis and one lake that is left wet all the time. It was a great place for birdwatching. They claim that over 150 species can be seen there throughout the year and we saw 35 species in one morning! This is fall migration season which helps. I didn't see any new species that I haven't seen before, but I did get reacquainted with a few Arizona species that I have not seen in a long time, like the Verdin.

I took lots of pictures, but not many came out that great. The birds were either too fast for me or too far away. Butterflies are much easier to photograph, especially when they stop to sun themselves like this pretty yellow butterfly that is either a Sleepy Orange or Boisduval's Yellow. Taking photos of butterflies may be easier than taking photos of birds, but identifying them is much harder. If indeed it is a Boisduval, it was a rare sighting for that part of Arizona. Their main range is in Mexico and the southern border of Arizona. Sleepy Oranges are more common throughout the southern US. This specimen never opened his (her?) wings wide enough for me to see the upper side which might have helped with the identification. But then again, it might not.

One bird that does stand and pose for you is the Great Blue Heron and other members of the Heron Family like egrets and bitterns. What they are doing is watching the water for fish. They can stand very still for long periods of time and then when a tasty morsel swims by, ZAP! Like lightning, they grab the fish and swallow it whole. You can see the bulge in their long necks after a meal and some herons have been known to choke to death because they couldn't completely swallow their prey. We saw one such bird in distress like that many years ago in Massachusetts. It was sad because there was nothing we could do to help the poor bird.

We also took a trip to the Phoenix Zoo where I captured this beautiful Queen Butterfly. The Queen is related to the Monarch and looks very similar. Both Queens and Monarchs like milkweed which contains a toxin that they can tolerate but the birds cannot. A bird who tries to eat one of these butterflies doesn't die, but gets sick enough to never try eating one again.

Besides the animals in the exhibits and cages at the zoo, there were plenty of wild birds to see that were attracted to the water and food! In the area with the Common Squirrel Monkeys were these Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. This is another species that is not usually found so far north. My husband and I travelled all the way down to the Mexican border one year in order to find one of these birds and here in with the monkeys were five or six of them! They are called ducks but they look more like geese and they get their name from the high-pitched whistling sound they make which is like neither a duck nor a goose. There are only two birds of this type on the North American list. The other is the Fulvous Whistling-Duck which I have never seen.