Friday, January 1, 2016

Ashland U-Haul: An Ode

The U-Haul office at the south end of Ashland has finally shut down. I’m surprised at how sad that makes me.

I only rented a truck there once, and to be honest, the place was perplexing and a little scary. For starters, I couldn’t tell how to get into it. Did you go through the auto-repair shop to the right? Its bays were stuffed with dismantled cars, and there didn’t seem to be a safe way to get in there. So maybe the entrance was that unmarked, dirty glass door on the left that led to some sort of bygone showroom, its plate-glass windows so silvered with grime that you could barely see through them. And what was going on with that asymmetrical overhang out front, the giant, uptilted, Jetsons-type wing that signified a gas station from the Eisenhower era, or maybe a car dealership? In its youth, it must have been so futuristic.

But I had a truck to rent, so I pushed through the heavy glass door that squealed on its hinges. I could see a counter at the far end of the showroom, but to get there I had to sidle past teetering piles of cardboard boxes, some assembled, some flat, and a few battered filing cabinets, and a wheelchair, and an old dining room table with two clear plastic cups standing on it, half-full of green liquid. I couldn’t help eyeing the ceiling that was spectacularly disintegrating overhead, long strips of vinyl hanging down, exposing dark recesses of wood beams and bent nails, lighting fixtures askew and dangling. It looked like some apocalyptic way station in The Stand or The Road Warrior, a place where the hero might find a life-saving, ancient jar of peanut butter.

At the counter stood Ron, a businesslike, elderly man whose hands shook a bit. But he still could walk, slowly, out to the parking lot to retrieve a truck for me. I watched him through the hazy windows as he climbed stiffly into the cab of a 17-footer and drove it a few yards to the front of the lot, checked the gas gauge and odometer, then climbed out just as slowly, clipboard in hand. When he came back in, I followed him through a door next to the counter and into his office, a cramped little room with a ceiling so high that it receded up into shadows. A second door on the other side of the room opened out onto the repair shop crowded with oily equipment, four or five mechanics busy in there with their hands in the engines and undersides of cars.

I sat in a plastic chair as Ron punched my info into his computer on a scratched, once-beautiful oak desk with nice dovetail construction on the drawers, most of which weren’t quite pushed in all the way. On the top of the desk was a large dark patch where Ron’s hands and those, no doubt, of countless mechanics had touched it over the years. All the way up to the ceiling, the walls were lined with shelf after shelf of parts manuals and auto-repair guides, mostly Chiltons, some of them looking as old as the shop itself. On the wall was a new calendar featuring splashy photos of racecars. On one dusty shelf, a bright turquoise Hot Wheels, a Vette or something, pulsed its little beacon of color.

It was almost too much to take in. I sat there, reeling with sensory overload, happy to my core that such a place existed, so alive and well used and smelling like my dad’s garage. He did all our family’s auto repairs; I never needed a mechanic until I was well into my 30s and Dad got too forgetful to trust himself with an arc welder or the critical steps of a brake job. He spent his life hanging out in places like this, buying parts and chatting with men whose names were embroidered on their blue shirts, at home with all those Chilton manuals and echoes of a distant conversation about a leaking clutch. When Ron handed me the keys to the truck, I walked out of there giddy, like I’d just stepped out of a time machine.

And now the place stands there empty, a new and hasty hurricane fence keeping out the curious. Whoever buys it will surely knock it down; maybe we’ll get a square new paint store or another gas station, this one shining yellow and red and selling Slim Jims and Cokes to tourists. Perhaps Ron still drives by, shaking his head at the complete irretrievability of the past. Or perhaps he’s joined my dad where all the old mechanics go, talking about bleeding lines and valve timing and metric versus English while here on Earth we go on inventing and repairing and building what, at the time, we think will be the future.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Drunk Martini Trials, Test #1:
The Esquire “Perfect Martini”

I remember exactly where I was when this all began: in a Thai restaurant in Palo Alto a few years back, having dinner with friends. Feeling adventurous, I ordered a drink from a little cocktail menu on the table, a house special called the “Bombay Sapphire Martini.” I’d only had maybe two martinis in my life, and I’d never heard of Bombay Sapphire gin. The drink came, I took a sip, and pow—that was it. Best. Drink. Ever.

For the next few years, martinis were my cocktail of choice. (How could they not be, after that perfect drink?) But, funny thing—I never found that perfect martini again. I found good ones, okay ones, dreadful ones that reeked of rubbing alcohol, but never that original martini’s piquant balance of tart and sweet, cold and tingly. Finally I decided the only way to get back to that perfect martini was to try making it at home—I’d try out different gins and vermouths, fiddle with the proportions, and stick with it until I figured out the right recipe.

One Friday night this past summer, I conducted the first Martini Trial. To avoid too much floundering around, I Googled “perfect martini” and found the recipe below on Esquire magazine’s site. And to make it more interesting, I decided to write down my impressions as I drank the martini. This is how I discovered one hazard of writing real-time drink reviews: You get…well…drunk, and you have to write at the same time. So if you don’t like reading drunk posts, avert your eyes. For the rest of you, join me while I take one for the team and try to make—and drink—the perfect martini.

Esquire Martini

                  4 ounces gin (I used Bombay Sapphire*)
                  1 ounce dry vermouth (I used Noilly Prat extra dry)
            cocktail glass
            cracked ice

Per EsquireFill a metal shaker with cracked ice. Pour in the vermouth, stir briefly, and strain out (this may be discarded). Add 4 ounces gin—you want it around 94-proof. Stir briskly for about 10 seconds, strain into chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with an olive.”

I used 4 shot glasses of gin (I have a small shot glass), and 1 shot glass of vermouth. Sadly, I had no olives. (How could I forget to buy olives?) I chilled a martini glass** in the freezer for 15 minutes beforehand. I can’t really say I used “cracked ice”; that would have involved a hammer, a Ziploc bag, and way too much noise for my cat. I opted for “fresh ice cubes,” which are rare enough in this house.

Real-time review
Right off the bat, from the first sip, I can say that this is too much. The drink is too big. And I do not find it “perfect.” It just tastes like a big, fancy glass o’gin. Straining out and discarding the vermouth seemed an awful waste.

More sips. Yes, it is a very big drink. And it tastes so…alcoholic. I’m immediately thinking a) I should not drink the whole thing, and b) this will kick my ass no matter how much I drink. It’s tasty, chilly, and very pretty. (Is it really silver, or is my imagination embellishing what essentially looks like a glass of water***?) But it needs something to temper the strong alcohol taste. This reminds me of a terrible martini I had at a holiday party in a restaurant a while back. It was so strong and crappy-tasting that after I finished it, I ordered a second martini, with better gin, to wash the terrible taste out of my mouth. Mistake. After the two martinis, I was too drunk to drive home and a co-worker had to sit with me and drink coffee for two hours****. Yeah, I was that lady at the Christmas party.

I already want to add a dash of vermouth to see if that’s what it’s missing. Can’t believe they tell you to pour the vermouth down the drain. I just cannot let go of that. 

OK, I just added 1/2 oz of vermouth (to my 1/3-consumed martini), and it’s much better. That’s what it needed—a hint of sweet, the warmth of grapes. It cuts the harshness of the gin and makes the drink complex. Actually, this may be a little too much vermouth now.

Next time, try 3 oz gin and 1/2 oz vermouth. Screw the “discard vermouth” part. Keep it. Mi amore.

Yes, yes, yes—kicking my ass. But a few more sips into it, it’s still not that good. Now it’s too sweet or something. Proportions? Brands? Oh boy, but it’s kicking my ass. Too much, too fast. Like a drug you take too much of, and then—too late! How do people drink these on a regular basis? Even my handwriting is drunk.

Hahahahaha…I had a terrible day at work. Actually thought of quitting. Hence the “alcoholic test trials.” Stairway to oblivion. Or elevator.

Oh my goodness. My whole face feels numb. I can’t even say “inebriated.” That’s a good test for inebriation. Oh my GOD, I’m so drunk. This martini is evil. Cut all the measurements in half.

Still laughing.

* One of the reasons I decided to try these martini trials was because I had a lot of Bombay Sapphire gin on hand. Earlier this year I took a day trip to Mount Shasta and decided to treat myself to a visit to All Star Liquors, a locally famous liquor warehouse just over the state line in California, where booze is significantly cheaper than in Oregon. I was walking to the cash register with a quart of Bombay Sapphire when a store salesman said I should really buy the bigger size, a much better deal at only $10 more. “But,” I protested, “I’ll never drink than much gin in my life!” “You could have a party,” he said, “with gin and tonics for everybody.” I must be impressionable; I could actually picture myself throwing that party. Only $10 more—what the hey, party on. The bottle I ended up with, 1.75 liters, is so big that whenever I hoist it out of the kitchen cabinet, I’m afraid I’ll drop it on my foot and break a toe.

** I’m embarrassed to say that I got my martini glasses at the dollar store. I had mixed feelings about that; while other shoppers were trawling the store for laundry detergent and school supplies, I was looking at cocktail glasses. They were much better martini glasses than I’d seen anywhere else, but I felt like I must have looked like either a really pathetic drunk or a wealthy housewife out slumming it between manicures and poodle-grooming appointments. 

*** Full disclosure: I didn’t think of taking pictures when I did this first trial, so the photo at the top is in fact a chilled martini glass filled with water.

**** Which was very nice of him. If he ever embarrasses himself in public, I will be the first to help him out.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Review: Tara Road

Tara Road
by Maeve Binchy
648 pages (1998)

Fun factor: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Trash factor: ★ ★ ★ ★
Feminist factor: [-★] [minus one star]

Oh, Maeve Binchy. How do you suck me in with these soap operas of modern women who inexplicably have their heads stuck in the 1950s?

I read another Binchy novel, Evening Class, about 15 years ago and remembered it as being sweet and surprisingly poignant. And a few weeks back, that was just what I needed. My brain was tired after having worked through a couple of National Book Award finalists, an award-winning sci-fi novel that was very tough sledding, and a couple other deadly serious books. I was ready for the literary equivalent of mac & cheese, comfort reading I could belly up to and binge on. So I sorted through the thrift-store books I keep hoarded for emergencies and came up with this Binchy book about two women, one in Ireland and one in Connecticut, who decide to swap houses for a few weeks.* Perfect, I thought—a romantic fantasy that won’t make me work too hard.

But it’s impossible to shut off my critical brain. Maybe I’m just 15 years more cynical now, but right away, Tara Road’s sweetness felt contrived. I mean, you know the hard-hearted woman will soften by the end, the smart-mouthed kids will turn into cherubs, at least briefly, and the bad guys will pay for their sleazeball ways. And the subplots are right out of a Peyton Place–era potboiler**—women striving to find husbands and have babies; men who turn out to be unworthy of those women; other women who pursue careers—the “slutty” route, in this book’s universe—and have animal sex with men who are not their own. When the book begins, the main character, Ria, leads a life so rosy that you know she’s about to get smacked down. For the first few chapters, I kept reading just to see how her life would blow apart, which it so obviously was going to do.

Then a strange thing happened: One night I found myself up way, way past my bedtime, turning and turning those pages. The damned thing had hooked me. I’m not sure how it happened, but now I needed to know when the shady businessman’s house of cards would fall in. Would Ria’s friend escape her (stereotypical) battering husband? Would her snarky, saucy friend—the only woman in the book who supports herself financially—find happiness, or would she just steal somebody’s husband? I felt keenly aware of the soap-opera manipulations, but man, that Binchy knew her plotting tricks: She’d introduce a question in the reader’s mind, then introduce another before answering the first, and so on, giving us a little more information than the characters had so we’d think we knew what would happen. Then she’d throw in a curve ball so it didn’t quite happen that way. All this sounds easy to do, but it’s not; keeping that tension up while not frustrating the reader is a fine balance to keep up for a whole book.

My hat’s off to Maeve Binchy. Ultimately, Tara Road did just what I wanted it to do: It entertained me for a couple of weeks. I don’t feel any better for it; all those women living their lives entirely in relation to the men around them doesn’t make me happy inside. But the book is eminently readable. I just feel a little guilty for liking it so much.

* One reason I figured this would be a lightweight read was because I thought it was the basis for the Kate Winslet/Cameron Diaz movie The Holiday. But it isn’t, really; the basic premise of the house-swapping is the same, but the two stories are very different. Sadly, Jude Law never shows up drunk on the doorstep in Dublin.

** Twice while reading this book, I checked the copyright page to see if it was actually written in the 1950s. I just could not believe it was a modern novel. Had I missed something? Was this a re-issue of a really old book? Nope—1998. Maybe Dublin was just way behind the times. Or Binchy was. Or the whole genre.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ghosts of Gardens Past, Part 2:
"Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun" (Saratoga, 1990–1994)

This was a Willy Wonka garden: It grew out of pure imagination. It had to, because at the start it was a big piece of nothing.
        It was early summer 1990, and I’d been house-hunting for weeks. Still smarting from the demolition of my sweet little cottage in Monte Sereno (see Ghosts of Gardens Past, Part 1), I’d been sharing an apartment with a roommate for a year and a half and it wasn’t going well. No one—not even our cats—was happy. I’d been itching to live by myself again, and I couldn’t wait to get back to gardening.
        One day I came across a little in-law cottage for rent that was still under construction. It had a funky triangular living room and wiring that wasn’t quite finished, so only half of the kitchen appliances worked. But the yard was interesting—a wide stretch of bare ground between the cottage and the main house. I asked the landlady what was going on with that big yard. “Oh,” she said, “we’ll put up a fence and divide it. You can have as much as you want.” I hastily signed a deposit check.

Pole beans in the ground—check.
Hurry-up summer
I moved in during a drought-baked June, and the bare ground in that yard was hard as an old bone. But I managed to dig out a bed and get pole beans in the ground by the 4th of July, and I kept going from there—marking off each bed with string and stakes, digging and planting one at a time. It was great having all that space, but it made for damned hard work—countless sweaty weekends wielding a pickaxe and shovel* in the hot sun, humming “I Fought the Law” (Clash version). I quickly got used to the labor (hey, I was 28) and spent a lot of happy days out there stubbled with dirt, prying rocks out of the ground and bending chicken wire into Quonset huts for the cucumbers to climb on. I draped floating row covers over the broccoli to keep out the aphids; I set up walls of tinfoil around the lettuce to keep the slugs off. The next spring, I planted peas early and got a bumper crop—way too many for weeks and weeks, a bounty I’ve never been able to repeat.

        The sheer size of the garden was wonderfully freeing—I could plant pretty much anything I wanted, including perennial space-hogs like artichokes and asparagus. But by the second year, I saw that all that feverish work had an unexpected drawback: In my drive to get all the beds planted, I hadn’t given much thought to the garden’s design. And now that it was all dug out, I realized that it had the unimaginative grid of a grocery store: one wide aisle down the middle, with perpendicular paths branching off from it. I tried to class it up with a Tuscan terra cotta birdbath in the middle, but that thing turned out to be impossible to keep clean and its conical base made a nice apartment building for black widows.

A more successful addition to the garden’s ambience was a tool shed, one of those metal kits from the hardware store. After I managed to get the enormous carton home in the back of my car, I was alarmed to see that the first step in the directions was “Build a foundation.” I had to think on that for a while, and ended up cobbling one together with bricks and scrap lumber. It never felt substantial enough to keep the little building from flying away in a windstorm, but luckily we had no hurricanes and it stayed on the ground. I loved that little shed. I felt a flush of pride every time I opened the door and saw my tools hanging neatly, the odd bags of potting soil and sand obediently waiting on the shelves. I can still hear the metal pop of the walls when I stepped onto that homemade plywood floor.

            As the beds filled in with plants, the yard’s severe face began to soften. An impromptu herb bed near the front door was one of the prettiest spots, with lacy blue and purple fronds waving drowsily along the brick walkway. Over time, a mix of vegetables, annuals, and perennials grew into their adult bodies and shaped a graceful, surprising landscape.

Living, in and out
In the four years I lived there, life marched on. A freak February cold spell froze the water pipes and forced me to leave the house and move in with a friend for a week. A relationship came and went; Bill Clinton became the only presidential candidate I’d ever voted for who’d actually won. My delicate, middle-aged cat Tara, never much of a wanderer, ran the house. The undisputed ruler of the yard was my much older, much tougher cat Salome, a fierce beauty who’d never lost her feral streak. During our third year living there, Salome began to struggle; arthritis made every step painful, and mysterious seizures left her disoriented and helpless. After a long battle, it was clearly time to put her down. Afterward, I had no doubt where she should be, so I dug a small, deep grave near the back fence, planted rosemary** over her, and set off her little memorial with white rocks. I spent a lot of time out there sitting next to her, weeding and thinking about her warm gray fur and uncompromising, hunting nature.

        And then, suddenly, I had to move. The company I worked for had decided to relocate their offices 30 miles north, making for an ugly commute, and noisy neighbors had taken the shine off my idyllic little house. I was also tired of the South Bay, with its traffic and hot summers. I was ready for some fog, some hills, some San Francisco. So I went house-hunting again and found a sweet little cabin in Woodside, a half-hour north, and started packing.

On the last day in the Saratoga house, I was cleaning the place out and checking every corner and cupboard, well past the point where I felt like I’d puke if I found one more stray umbrella or pillowcase or stack of papers that had to be dealt with. Loading the last armload of stuff into the car, I thought, Hooray—on to the new house. I went back to lock the door, turned around…and saw the garden, laid out in front of me like a small country of roses and herbs, the shed standing stoic and empty, all of it sort of looking at me, holding its breath. My garden! I hadn’t really thought about leaving it. It was a hot summer day, like the first time I’d seen the place, but now it was all filled in and full of personality, scent, and motion.

        I walked around the yard for a long time, touching the plants. We’d finally had a decent, rainy winter, and the artichokes were fat and happy, the dianthus blazing in pink and white, the climbing rose thriving at last. It was a good garden; I felt good about it. But the satisfaction was tinged with loss and worry about what the next tenants might do to it.

        Then I saw the little grave, and a bitter grief pulled at my throat. The yard had quietly become a sort of ancestral land, now that I’d buried someone I loved in it. How can you ever leave that? I sat with Salome one last time, brushing the fronds of rosemary and straightening the white rocks. I hoped against hope that whoever moved in here next would water and tend and hold the place kindly. It was terrible, that feeling, that leaving it up to whatever would come next. I’d felt it before, and here it was again. I suddenly cursed my luck to be a gardener, with our blind hopes and often-broken dreams.***

* One time I shoveled for so long that I threw my back out and couldn’t straighten up until the next day.

** According to folklore, if you tap a branch of rosemary on a lover’s hand, he or she will never forget you.

*** That day made me think a lot about the strange business of renting, gardening, and having to leave gardens behind over and over. Already I’d done it twice—the first time in Monte Sereno, the second in Saratoga. All that work and planning, all the seed catalogs and late-night winter visions, dashed and lost and mourned. After I got settled into the new house, I dumped some of those thoughts into a journal entry and eventually turned it into an essay called “A Trail of Rosemary,” which Fine Gardening magazine picked up a couple of years later. It was one of the first pieces of writing I ever had published, and the editor nominated it for a Gardens Writers Association award. That small success put gas in my writer’s tank for years.

The neighbor's cat. I called him Pumpkin,
but he was partial to corn.

Tara and Salome. Another hot day.