May 29, 2009

Garden Therapy

My apologies - I've been neglecting you... and myself. My writing has taken a back seat for the past couple of weeks to my 'other therapy' - garden therapy.

As I mentioned back in February, both MSB and I spend the winter devouring catalogs from our favorite plant places, and then we separately place our orders for new perennials to fill in the gaps in our existing gardens, or to populate the new beds we simply must have. Then, spring comes, the boxes start arriving (much to the chagrin of the UPS and FedEx drivers). Typically we get the plants either while we're on vacation, or just when we return, and we have a flurry of activity trying to get everything sorted, watered and reconditioned after shipping, and then in the ground as quickly as reasonably possible.

Both of us had new beds to put in this year. I started mine on our last day of vacation, when it ended up being 92 degrees. That is not the best weather to dig a new garden, trust me - especially a bed for sun-loving perennials, and one that required removing roots the size of my arm and as long as my leg. By the time it was all dug, turned, and ready for planting, I was still waiting for plants. For almost two weeks, the garden sat there in anticipation, waiting for something to happen other than a constant bombardment with maple tree 'helicopters'. Eventually, everything arrived; we made a few side trips to local plant shops, and I had enough little ones in the garden to feel comfortable. Down went the mulch. And out came the sun. And more sun, and more sun.

Evenings when I would have been writing, or at least thinking about writing, were spent watering - carefully and conservatively, of course - so that all my hard work wouldn't go to waste. Fortunately, my new mini roses, scabiosa, dwarf delphiniums, geraniums, verbascum, and all the rest, are doing well - and of course we've just had several days of rain, so they're actually coming along nicely.

So are the other gardens. The new daffs were great this year, all 300+ of them; the tulips were pretty good considering they're a few years old and not as prolific as when they're new; and now the roses and lavender have buds, the salvia is blooming, and of course, it's iris season too. Seemed like as soon as I changed from the tulip porch flag to the iris one, I triggered the blooms.

Even with all the rain we've had, they're holding up pretty well. Hopefully you'll understand where I've been, and I'll be able to get back on track with the pastiche.


May 12, 2009

Charitable Giving

I got mail today from our local United Way, letting me know I was now a ‘Diamond Donor’. Apparently, I’ve been donating to the United Way for over 25 years. I had no idea.

I’ll never forget my first United Way
campaign. I was a kid, home from college with my tail between my legs, living at home and grossing $140 a week working as a microfilmer at the headquarters of a local industrial laundry. The owner of the company, a self-made man, had a heart of gold from a charitable perspective, but lacked virtually all humanity as an employer. My favorite example was when he issued a memo to staff advising us that there were 168 hours in week (who knew?!) and frankly, if it took all of them for us to do our job, so be it – but we shouldn’t expect anything more in our paychecks. He once asked one of the VPs to fire an accountant because the accountant failed to deliver a necktie to the boss at his summer home in Massachusetts, causing the boss to have to wear for the second time a tie he’d already worn once to a charity event.

At the time, UW used to provide companies with a short movie that showed how our donations were used in the local community. As this was my first job, I didn’t know what to expect, but one of the accountants caught me beforehand and let me know that there was no talking during the movie, or there would be hell to pay. Well, sure enough – there was talking, and there was hell to pay. We had made it about half-way through, and someone in the back started talking, or snickering at something on the screen. A glare came from the front of the room, but the talking did not stop.

What did stop was the movie. So there we were -- us from the ‘upstairs office’, people from the plant office, and factory workers and truck drivers – standing in the dark, no one saying a word, afraid to move. We looked like a bunch of kids, waiting to get yelled at, staring at our toes. When it was completely quiet, somehow the old man gave the signal without saying a word, and the projector sprang to life. We were back at the beginning of the movie, and watched the entire thing through to the end without a peep.

The lights were turned on, the pledge cards distributed, and once we had marked our cards with our donation, we were allowed to go back to work. When it came to the United Way at that company, there was really no option other than giving. I know we had a choice – everyone has a choice – but at the time the choice wasn’t give or not, it was how much to give. I remember one woman did not want to donate (for valid personal reasons) and she had to meet with her boss, then his boss, then his boss and finally the executive vice president to explain herself. She didn’t stick with the company very long.

Donating has been significantly less memorable since way back in 1978 when I gave the first time. I’ve missed a few years in between – job changes and whatnot – but I’m still surprised that when it’s all added up, it’s over 25 years. Like gray hairs, I guess -- after the first memorable few, you just don’t pay as much attention to them anymore.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to make a hair appointment!


May 5, 2009

Blue Ridge Memories, Part 3

Our house in the Valley was built in about 1905. Biltmore opened in 1895. We have multiple gardens. Biltmore has multiple gardens. And that’s about where the similarities end.

Biltmore, one of the homes of George Washington Vanderbilt,
is a 250+ room mansion set on 8000 acres just outside the city of Asheville. According to the guide we had on our carriage ride, there were some 600 individual land purchases just in the Asheville area, and who knows how many others were required to amass the original 125,000 acres that made up the estate back in the day.

It’s hard to put the house into perspective; it’s so vast, and so imposing from the outside,
and yet inside some of the rooms actually seem to normal scale, if that’s possible. Some are ornate, some are simple; some clearly feel as if they were well-lived in, and others look like they’re only for show. There’s a huge triple fireplace in the dining room, with a small table (for ten or so) set up in front of the fireplace for intimate family dinners, and a huge dining room table that seats 66 people in the main part of the room, along with a multi-story pipe organ at the other end. By comparison, when we have both families over for Thanksgiving, we have to use two rooms and borrow chairs from Mare and John. And we listen to the stereo in the living room.

We have the plantatarium, a room with generally southern exposure that’s filled with rattan furniture, lots of plants, and a cool ceiling fan with wooden blades shaped like leaves. Biltmore has the Winter Garden, my favorite room in the house, a glorious sunken room with a glass-and-wood ceiling to die for, sculpture, and huge plants. The room overflows with warmth and happiness; I don’t know any other way to describe it.

The basement is another great part of the house – swimming pool, bowling alley, the kitchens and laundry rooms – pretty cool to see all of that. But for us, the piece de resistance was the roof tour. Four stories up, high above all of the visitors; patting gargoyles on the fanny for luck; looking down on the Winter Garden room; checking out the servant’s quarters and some of the unrefurbished rooms, and getting to check out all of the craftsmanship in the house was amazing. The view is indescribable.

More pictures. Sadly, we were not allowed to take any inside – and the bulk of my house and surrounds shots were on the 35 not the digital, so these are mostly from the roof tour. Enjoy!


May 3, 2009

Blue Ridge Memories, Part 2

I’ve never been one of those people who had to retire near the ocean. Don’t get me wrong, I love an ocean beach as much as anyone, primarily when it’s early in the morning, the sun just coming up and the sand littered with shells that washed in with the tide. My second most favorite time on the beach is at sunset, watching the day slide away beneath the water in the same way that I snuggle into the covers at night.

My Sweet Baboo feels the same as I do about that. Can’t decide if our similar thinking is simply good fortune, or by design, but if we were going to retire somewhere other than here in the Valley, it would more likely be near some mountains not a beach. And the Blue Ridge Mountains are simply breathtaking.

We spent a little time wandering around the mountains one day, including a stop to Chimney Rock Park (CRP), above Lake Lure. People have been able to get to the top of Chimney Rock since 1885, although things are much more modern now than they were then. For starters, there’s a 30-second elevator ride that takes you 28 stories up so you can get to the actual Chimney Rock, or you can hike and climb stairs to get there. There’s also a beautiful trail that leads to the 400+ foot Hickory Nut Falls. Interestingly, part of The Last of the Mohicans was filmed here, even though the action actually took place in New York. For some reason the movie folks thought the Blue Ridge Mountains most closely resembled the Adirondacks. Hmm…

After spending quite a bit of time at CRP, we headed north and ended up on Route 80. Let me tell you, when I said that I thought Alternate Route 74 into Lake Lure was like our Thirteen Curves on steroids, I hadn’t yet seen Route 80. To continue with the steroid analogy, think the difference between A-Rod (Alt 74) and Barry Bonds or Mark McGuire (Rte 80). My vertigo was working in overdrive on this trip. The photo at the beginning of this post shows just one of the switchbacks (look for the road signs on the left and right about a third of the way from the top of the picture) and it seemed like we were on over 100 of these things during the day, between Route 80 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

So where did we end up on this day? Well, we drove just about to the summit of Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain in NC and the highest peak in eastern North America, other than some islands. At 6643 feet it’s taller by quite a bit than NY’s Mt Marcy (5343 feet) but getting to the top is an easy drive. We would have gone all the way up, if we had wanted to, but I found a bathroom before we got to the summit. Besides, the clouds were so thick at the top that we could barely see more than a couple feet in front of us. Maybe next time we’ll get to the new observation deck.

Here are some shots from the mountains. Enjoy!


May 1, 2009

Blue Ridge Memories, Part 1

My Sweet Baboo and I just returned from a week in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, spending our nights at two very different (and wonderful) bed & breakfasts, and our days exploring the Asheville area.

We've been to the ocean part of North Carolina - that was our first vacation, the 'test', if you will, where he and I spent the week with most of his family in a rented house on Sunset Beach. Figured if we could make it through that without committing murder or mayhem, we'd probably be OK.

This trip marked our ninth out of state vacation, and we love getting away from work and stress and exploring places we've not been to before, or at least places we've not been to together. For me, this was my first visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains; MSB had been in the general neighborhood before. We had a full visit, and between us we took about 30 rolls of film and too many digital pictures to count. I'll be putting out some of the digital shots over the next couple of days.

Here's the first collection, taken in the Lake Lure NC area. You may have heard of Lake Lure -- it's the home of the 2006 HGTV Dream House (currently empty, we were told) and the site where the beach shots in the movie Dirty Dancing were filmed. The lake is beautiful, with around 2000 mostly seasonal homes surrounding it, including one where the owners allegedly bring in white sand from Florida for the beach in front of their estate. Two of the original camps are still on the lake, each of which is something in the neighborhood of about 600 square feet. The largest house (so far) on the lake is 12,000 square feet. Clearly, the definition of 'camp' has changed over the years!

One of the best parts of the side trip to Lake Lure is how we got there -- on Alternate Route 74, which is like our local Thirteen Curves on steroids -- there aren't thirteen curves, there are about one hundred thirty curves on the way into town. Rocking, rolling, greater than 90 degree curves, with drop offs or mountains about an inch off the road, or so it seemed to me. For My Sweet Baboo, this was a good thing - he was having a blast trying to keep it under 60 MPH (kidding) with a marked speed of 15 MPH (not kidding). For me, less of a good thing, as I have developed a bit of vertigo since I had LASIK surgery a couple years back. I think it's the enhanced peripheral vision or something, but I don't enjoy that kind of drive quite as much as I used to. Fortunately, we stopped in town so I could catch my breath, and that's how we discovered the tour boat, which led to a great interlude and a wonderful start to the vacation.

Enjoy the pictures!