Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Great Pumpkin Carved by Woodchucks

Every year when I realize it’s really Fall, I head over to Houlden Farms on Old Westboro Road in North Grafton to get an assortment of pumpkins, gourds,  squashes and mums to decorate our front yard.

They always have a variety of colors and shapes that would make Martha Stewart swoon.  

One year I scored a pair of “Swan” squashes that were  joined at the stem, so they looked like two birds kissing.  Houlden Farms had white pumpkins before they became fashionable with great names like “Cinderella” and “Gray Ghost.”

But this year, as I came around the farm stand, headed for the greenhouse in back, this is what I saw in a place of honor:
It was a frowning Jack’o’Lantern carved, as Ruth Houlden told me, by a “very artistic” woodchuck.  She said the talented  groundhog nibbled on the pumpkin when it was green and it healed over and grew into a good-sized orange pumpkin with a ready-made face.
This struck me as a bit of a miracle, sort of on a par with the proverbial infinite number of monkeys tapping away on typewriters until one of them writes the complete works of Shakespeare.

After admiring the work of the groundhog (and another pumpkin which he had decorated with “maple leaves”) I headed into the greenhouse to pick out my prizes for this year’s display.

Ruth told me the names of each one—there was a “Fairytale Pumpkin” (the green one) and the flat peach-colored  “Cheese Squash”, which she said is the tastiest squash of all. “Just cook it like a baked potato”.  I also got one Swan Squash this year and a purple Kale.

My orange pumpkin weighed nearly 35 pounds. Ruth’s grandson Nicholas helped me carry the heavy load to the car, towing it on  a dolly.   

By Halloween I’m going to carve the biggest pumpkin in a design incorporating our family name—I got the idea in a pattern that came with my new pumpkin-carving kit.  Then we’ll toast the pumpkin seeds and eat them, and maybe I’ll bake the Cheese Squash to see how it tastes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

South Beach—We’re Not in Kansas any More

I’ve now been living in South Beach, Miami, for over a month and I think it’s time to go home.  The other day I was walking on Lincoln Road behind a six-foot-tall curvaceous female wearing only a tiny black string bikini and very tall spike heels, and I took a good second look to decide whether she was a man or a woman. 

This is not such a strange reaction on my part, since nearby Ocean Drive swarms with gay bars and drag brunches in its elegant Art Deco hotels.   Absolutely no extreme or peculiar dress gets a second look on Lincoln Road, while back home in Worcester, MA, the bikini-wearing vision in front of me might get arrested, if she was walking on Main Street.
Lincoln Road, the heart of South Beach, was re-designed around 1960, by Miami Beach architect Morris Lapidus.  His design for Lincoln Road, with exotic gardens, bubbling fountains, raised “grassy knolls” for kids to play on and an amphitheater, reflected the Miami Modern Architecture, or "MiMo", style. The road was closed to traffic and became one of the nation's first pedestrian malls—stretching for eight blocks from Alton Road to Washington Avenue.

I’ve been since Aug. 12,  renting an apartment in the same Art-deco building where daughter Eleni, her husband Emilio and my first grandchild, two-week-old Amalía, live.  (For an account of Eleni’s trials, tribulations and triumphs mastering the art of breast feeding, check out her blog post, “Say Yes to the Breast.”)
Every morning I set out to the nearest Starbucks, half a block away, past the optimistically waiting pigeons, to get my coffee and newspaper and then I walk up and down Lincoln Road, marveling at the rare and amazing  species of people, animals, flowers and birds.  This is surely the most exotic, bizarre and just plain weird street I’ve ever seen, and this is coming from someone who lived on Manhattan’s 14th street in the 1960’s and is familiar with Venice Beach in LA and Haight Ashbury back in the day. Skate-board champs, shirtless and covered with tattoos, somehow avoid running down Hasidic Jews and  bikinied beauties.
Every day you see the regulars—panhandlers and people who earn money as living statues (this one is Ghost Elvis)
or weaving palm fronds into baskets,
juggling or letting  people admire his pet ferret  (or whatever this is.)
There are a plethora of design stores and art galleries.  I loved this piece of art work—a dog excreting a long length of pink fabric—juxtaposed with the nearby Dog-pot.
If you are a seasoned Lincoln Road pedestrian, your accessory of choice is a small dog or a baby in a stroller, and your vehicle is a Segway, or a skateboard, a rented bicycle or a motorized wheel chair.
I think no street anywhere has the caliber of restaurants, food stores and cafes as those found on Lincoln Road. I’m trying to taste every one of the tartes at Paul’s, which is so French that both staff and clientele seem to speak French most of the time. 
I’ve already discovered my favorite flavor of ice cream at Kilwins.  (It’s Kilwin’s Tracks—they throw in bits of all their hand-made candies.)   
The Ice Box, which serves indescribable brunches, makes, according to Oprah, “the best cake in the United States”.  Good thing there’s no scale in this rented apartment.
All the restaurants lining Lincoln Road have tables indoors and outside, and most people sit outside, despite the sweltering heat.  Cooling fans and misting machines make it bearable.

Overhead are towering palm trees chock full of parrots and parakeets which squawk non-stop and sometimes come down to be hand-fed morsels 
Orchids  grow parasitically on many trees but the most famous tree on Lincoln Road is this “Orchid Tree” dripping with  blooms that look like orchids but bloom only at night.  Its proper name is Bauhinia Varigata.
Lincoln Road turns into an outdoor market every Sunday, selling every exotic type of fruit or flower or spice or Latin food that you can think of.

An atmosphere of sin hangs heavy over the street, especially at night.  There are party busses with smoked glass windows and advertisements for “No-Tell Hotels”. 

Every time I walk by the  “Vice Lounge” I wonder what goes on inside.  This is what the outside looks like.
 When you have exhausted all the pleasures and vices of Lincoln Road, you can continue to the end, where the Ritz Hotel offers the best Happy Hour food and drink around.  (Every single restaurant and bar has a happy hour every day, sometimes starting at noon.)  Or you can hitch a parachute right on the beach.
No wonder every time I walk down Lincoln Road I feel like Alice falling through the rabbit hole or Dorothy landing in Oz.   But like those two ladies, I’ll have to return home in the end.  Sadly I’m leaving South Beach and my new granddaughter in four days.  Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home”, but I’m here to tell you, home is no place like Lincoln Road.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Grandparenting 101

“When you become a grandparent, everything changes,” a woman who works in the bank said to me.  All my friends with grandchildren seem to be at a loss for words to describe how wonderful it is.  “You can’t possibly understand until it happens.”   “I can’t explain it—you’ll see.”  “There are no words.”

Well, now I’ve been a grandparent for ten days.  Amalía was born at 4:42 p.m. on August 26—and after nagging for all those years about how much I wanted to have grandchildren, I’m truly at a loss for words when I try to write about it.  I think I’m still too new at this grandparenting thing.
Amalía does things her own way.  She was a week late, bursting into the world wailing with incredible voice and strength.  She was not the Leo we’d expected (because of her Aug. 19 due date) but a Virgo.  She has a birthmark on her belly like a Nike swoosh--the symbol of the goddess of victory.   As you can see, she’s bright-eyed and precocious and has lots of adorable expressions.
She weighed seven pounds (length 19.75 inches) and is gaining daily thanks to Eleni’s patient round-the-clock breastfeeding. (No bottles allowed—even pumped milk—for four weeks.)  She’s beautiful and happy and does nothing but eat and sleep and poop, but we would happily stand over her all day, just staring at her as she sleeps and her face goes through a repertoire of emotions, from despair to grins, yawns, hiccups, sneezes, pursed lips, the occasional squeak.  It’s lots more entertaining than TV.
Everyone said to me – “It’s even better than having kids.  It’s more fun.  You can play with them and then go home.  Leave the hard stuff to their parents.”  But the minute I saw Amalía wailing lustily, flailing arms and legs--this tiny, tiny person who is completely filling our days and nights-- I remembered the terror of  having a new baby. It’s painful to be so in love with such a tiny, fragile-looking, vulnerable little person. After 30-plus years, it came rushing back-- when my own  tiny babies had earaches and colic and  would scream for hours and you couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
 Nowadays parents are so much better educated, with things like  “lactation advisors” to help them over the first obstacles in breastfeeding.  They know the tricks of the  “Happiest Baby On the Block” book to calm colicky newborns. (Wish I had known about swaddling, shushing, etc. thirty years ago!) When some scary symptom comes up, they check the index of “What to Expect in the First Year” and are re-assured.
Eleni and Emilio have had classes in hypno-birthing and infant CPR and breast feeding, and diapering (with cloth, not disposables.) But still, with all the classes and preparation, modern parents also know a lot more things to worry about than we did. I don’t know any new mother who doesn’t have moments of complete panic in those first three months.
Last night Eleni and Emilio went out to a movie for the first time, leaving the baby with us, along with lots of advice.  It was raining hard as they headed to the theater. Evidently the previews of coming attractions were all thrillers, involving child murderers and haunted houses. 

Soon I got a text from Eleni: “My phone is on vibrate; call if you have any problems. If there's an emergency and you need to call 911, use our landline so your call can be traced.
I had to smile because I knew just what she was going through.   Being a new grandparent can be just as scary as being a new parent.  It always reminds me of a quotation that I think started with Frances Bacon and was paraphrased by John F. Kennedy: “Having children is giving hostages to fate.”