Thursday, April 26, 2007

A preliminary peek at the "after" view

Oh YES! Today was a solid-gray day in the Great Northwest. Thick layers of silver shrouded the sky from daybreak through dusk as if wrapped in a dull pashmina.

But today was one of the brightest I can remember. Mt. Rainier remained in the dressing room, changing to her most hopeful apparel for when that curtain is drawn and she can step forward, proud in her new garments.

Actually, Lady Rainier might be a tad embarrassed, because now she has nothing to hide behind. Today, the enormous Douglas Fir separating her from me was TOPPED. That word is anathema to serious tree people, and though that word sings for me today, I do consider myself a Friend of Tree. Just not a particular tree that lives to tell the tale, wide branches reaching out from its still living decapitated trunk.

Lake Washington, I'm watching YOUUUUU! And jumping all around my house, singing and whooping and screeching my joy for now, now, the panorama is back! The view is wide, the sun beckons, the Mountain, clever to spring a most anticipated surprise ppearance, blushes in her gray cloud robe until...when?....Soon, oh please be soon! But until then, I'm waiting for you!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Opening Up my View

Yes, it's springtime here in the glorious Great Northwest, and though the sky still remains gray most of the time, the chickadees are making a nest in the hanging birdhouse with the Tlingit Indian design on it that hangs from the Ornamental Cherry tree over our patio. The lilac are blooming on the side of our house, and I watch the purple, frilly bunches form, reminding myself to run out and clip some to perfume my bedroom at night. The days are blissfully long, and it's even light when we arise now, a major treat after the slap an extended daylight savings time dealt us early this year. Unless you live in the northerly regions, you don't realize how daunting hearing your clock-radio click on in pitch darkness can be.

But I have an additional reason for my mirth--my view is opening up before my eyes. No, I didn't get new contact lenses, though every morning when I put my lenses on, my gratitude in seeing the world is born anew--"Blessed are you our God...who gives sight to the blind!" I always say this blessing, "pokayach ivrim" when I have finally gotten in both lenses, and look up to have the world in focus. What a joy. That's when the day begins.

Instead, my view expands because of a peculiar fellow named James.

James walked into my life this morning wearing scruffy jeans, a sweatshirt, and thick canvas cinches around his waist. Hanging from rings on the cinches were heavy metal connecting rings, dangling like a prisoner's chains. James came into my home, walked through my house to the backyard and the deck, came into my house again and mounted the stairs to my office, where he went out on my balcony. "Yep, I see what you mean," he said in the drawl of one who might have inhaled too many marijuana joints. "Those have really got to go."

Anyone who knows me understands how my heart leapt at those words. He was pointing to the fir trees that in the ten years we've lived in this house have grown up to crowd out our once panoramic view of Lake Washington and Mt. Rainier. James is a tree man.

He loves to climb trees, and he doesn't mind cutting them, either. His card says he's an arborist, a specialist in ornamental trees, but he just loves being in them. It didn't daunt him that these trees had grown to easily more than 100 feet tall, and their spindly branches, having been chopped off probably the year before we moved in to increase the property value, now jutted in pairs and trios, growing up from the original trunk. James is awed by our view potential, and he even seems to enjoy it when I pluck my stack of photos from the drawer and show him, "This was our view in 1998...see, there's no tree there!" and "this is our view in 2006...see, the mountain's almost gone!" Yes, yes, he completely sympathizes. A man after my own heart.

Then there's the REAL man who's GOT my tree-hugging husband, the villain of the story. He has planted, oh fifty trees between us and our view. If he sees a wee patch of dirt, he is sure it's perfect for what will too-soon be a ten-story-tall Douglas fir. When we moved in, he went to a tree nursery with the horrid question, "what evergreens grow the fastest?" He just couldn't wait to jam our view-space with conifers. Well, now those Leland Cyprus require merciless chopping and they pushed a retaining wall down the ravine. Still, my tree-hugger would pay more to live enclosed in a forest than to see Mt. Rainier. And some people have deigned to publicly call this man a "right winger." Then he's likely to be the only one of his ilk sitting in a tree with Julia Butterfly to protect it. I love this man, and so, despite my irresistible inclination to tell James, "Go for it!" I told him my husband's one requirement: No killing any trees.

The good news is, James merely said "OK" and then swaggered his way down the ravine to do his work, with a hand saw, not a chain saw, throwing ropes up into the thickly needled treetops, clicking them onto his harness, and digging his spurs into the bark to shimmy so high, I'd have gotten vertigo.

A few hours later, there are lovely naked poles allowing me to see the shore on the other side of the lake, crowned by cute little toppers of branches, like a neat poodle after its show-cut. James got halfway done with the view, inspiring my great ecstasy that at this time tomorrow, I'll be able to sit in this very seat and see the vast expanse of fresh water that flows from the Cascades, and, as the backdrop, majestic Mt. Rainier. They're a major reason why I love this house. The reason I feel privileged to wake up every morning in my own personalized "resort."

Shortly after we moved here, my dear tree-hugger wrote an article comparing Mt. Rainier to God. Sounds a bit grandiose, but he suggested that just as we know that Mt. Rainier is there, looming large at more than 14,000 feet, even when we can't see it in the shroud of gray clouds that often blanket our horizon, we trust that God is continuing to propel our world, even when the evidence might cause us to doubt. Now that I'll have my view of the mountain again, I'll thank my husband for increasing my faith--for seeing it is not only is a reminder of God's continuing presence, but that we are in every way so richly blessed, in this greatest nation on God's green earth.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Tiptoe thru the Skagit Valley Tulips with me

It's tulip time in the Great Northwest, and those of you in other parts of the world--unless it's Holland--probably don't know exactly what that means. Visitors come from all over the globe to see the Skagit Valley's fields of brilliant blooms, in colors so shockingly vibrant that your immediate reaction is to thank Hashem for the ability to see them. For our family, a trek to The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival (April 1-30) is an annual event. Over the years, the children have perhaps had more than their fill of their mother's insistence that they squat down level with the blooms in the bouncy clay unique to the fields for my incessant photos. They used to enjoy this family outing, picking up the stray decapitated tulip to make bouquets, running down the lanes between the brilliant stripes of color, and cheerfully poking their heads through the plywood stand-ups of dutch maidens, with tulips behind, stretching in eye-popping rows to the horizon. As they got older, they'd temper their grousing if they could bring a friend, and lately, they grumble and consider the opportunity to view this most beautiful and miraculous demonstration of Hashem's generosity as merely my cruel need for them to pose for photos. (Happily, my eldest daughter has gained renewed enthusiasm for the tulips, since living in New York, where the most picturesque sights in her Midtown neighborhood are the mobs of women snatching up dresses at H & M to sell later on EBay.)

Last Sunday, my husband cajoled our son to accompany us and some family friends on our 2007 Tulip Trek. The hour ride from our home northward is spectacular, with stands of majestic firs, winding rivers, fields, mountains and even a pocket where you can count on freakishly horrid weather before emerging on the other side to sunshine. Once at tulip headquarters in Mt. Vernon, picked a couple years ago by Rand McNalley as "the most liveable town in America," we followed the eager hoardes beyond the modest city limits--
its 1920s fading storefronts only half-Yuppified--to the wide open fields. Straight, two-lane roads criss-cross the terrain, which is hospitable to tulips as it is low-lying and often floods in the winter, leaving fertile beige mud with huge air bubbles trapped just beneath the surface. Walking on this earth is springy, in the most peculiar way, with each step giving and then popping you up.

Our first stop was Tulip Town, which, when we began our tulip mania a decade ago, was open fields with free entry, a few porta-potties and a food trailer near the parking aisles just off the road. It was a spectacular day, temperatures near 60, with the sun strong through fluffy white puff-clouds. They say that photographing the tulips is better in overcast, as the bright sun makes harsh shadows, but the happiness of the light made the day all the more festive. Tulip Town is now an "attraction," with three-dollar admission, all sorts of confections and fair-food, vendors of artwork and kites and crafts, and the centerpiece--a long building with huge sprays of each type of tulip, which may be purchased for delivery in September as bulbs to plant in your garden.
Tulip Town is the business of Dutch immigrants, the DeGoede family, passed down through generations now. ( At the very entrance to the fields, prominent from the first time we visited, is a mural on the side of a building of the fields in bloom, with a banner proclaiming, "To God Goes the Glory." The present DeGoedes running the farm, Anthony and Jeannete, were featured in a big article in the Seattle Times because they have created an official International Tulip Peace Garden. Jeannete explained that they are simple people who don't really understand politics but disdain war, and they felt that a garden flying 16 flags and displaying 60 varieties of tulips could be their statement along the lines of motorist Rodney King's, "Can't we all just get along?" In the garden is a replica of DeGoede Village Windmill, and a mini Statue of Liberty. The Peace Garden is too hokey to express, but in its noble purpose, sweet as the wholesome families who come to pose their children amongst the flowers.

Then there are the tulip fields...the most magnificent flowers with their variety of shapes, richness of colors and vast stripes of hue splashing across the landscape. With the sunshine illuminating them, the petals glisten, becoming translucent, softly bobbing in the crisp breeze. But the sun is so warm, no one needs a coat. The rows of red flowers (inside each a pattern of bright yellow and black, unseen) give way to canary yellow, then pink, then dark purple, nearly black. Tulips' petals can be fringed, as if clipped with nail scissors into short tines. They can have pointy petals, striped, or two or three-toned. The magnificence of each flower is only enhanced when you peek inside to discover its uniquely patterned secret.

After a walk around the fields--perhaps a mile--and a spin around the displays, we get in the car again to visit Roozengarde, the second major tulip destination in the Skagit Valley. Roozengarde is famed for its beautifully planted display gardens, where the bulbs they sell are arranged so that they continuously bloom during the festival (there are early, mid and late-blooming varieties). Amongst the tulips are planted hyacinths, whose heady fragrances are so thick you gasp. And daffodils, in startlingly delicate and happy configurations (double, triple, oranges, creams, two-toned, whites--and traditional yellows of all sorts). Roozengarde also has a windmill, and lovely old rail-fencing that provides a beautiful backdrop. They have the concessions too--kettle corn, hot dogs, and of course their own area for selling tulip bulbs. My husband picks out and purchases them--250 bulbs this year--and then takes me through the gardens showing me his selections. He knows my favorites are the parrot tulips--with their twisted shapes and wild marbled colors that have been induced by giving the plants an actual virus.

As you can see, I'm wild about tulips. And nothing brings me so close to ecstacy as a sunny day with my family and good friends walking the tulip fields and snapping photos. I know that the breathtaking pictures I take are interchangeable, year-to-year--you've seen one amazingly gorgeous flower, you've seen 'em all. But I can't stop taking pictures because I just want to capture the beauty, capture the moment--I don't want to ever lose the exhilaration of spring in full flower, of life in full-bloom.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Pesach at a Kosher Hotel: Aren't you hungry yet?

Passover's past, and we have returned from our blissful escape from reality into Endless Foodland, aka, one of the explosively popular Passover Hotel retreats. Nine days of bounteous meals, each beckoning largely because they would be too expensive to cook at home. Every day, toque'd servers sliced huge hunks of meat...all sorts of meat. Turkey carcasses, briskets the size of a buffalo head, prime rib slabs comparable in girth to a microwave oven, veal roasts. Followed the next day with new jumbo chunks and yesterday's showpieces now cleverly cut into Chinese dishes, meat salads and skewer'd kabobs.
Breakfasts....the omelet bar, chefs sprinkling mushrooms, peppers, and cheddar; the smoothie bar, where blenders whirl fruit with yoghurt and honey to order; tables of cheeses and puffy brown inventions, in wild imagination the shape of bagels and croissants, but in texture and taste--matza.
Soups and salads and theme meals--the ubiquitous Western Barbeque, with huge grills wheeled outside to sear steaks, burgers, chicken, hot dogs. Checked tablecloths, free ten-gallon hats, fake Sheriff stars to clip to your chest pocket. The amounts of food are obscene, the calorie consumption astronomical.

And ME? Well, I don't bother with breakfast. I like to mix lettuce with Israeli salad, egg salad and guacamole for a big lunch treat. I eat what I like of the dinners. I admit to liberally sampling the chocolate-covered almonds in the Tea Room.
Ahhh yes, the Tea Room, the piece de resistance of Passover retreats. When comparing Pesach locales, one gains prestige if there's a "24-Hour Tea Room," which means that if you haven't had enough at the six meals of the day (breakfast, kiddush, lunch, kids' dinner [aka hot dogs for old and young], dinner, night buffet), you can come to the Tea Room at, say 3 am, to grab some potato chips, cellophane-bagged cotton candy, matza-meal-based cake or any of the fifteen kinds of sweets laid out in multi-level'd platters and bowls. Mmmm-mmmh! Mix with a Sprite chaser, and you have....digestive difficulties.
Let's face it, Pesach has its own digestive challenges from the get-go. The first seder features cardboardy flats of shmura matza, punctuated by quickly gulped goblets of red wine. A cube of potato, a leaf of romaine, a little sweet charoses....and more of that dry, tasteless cardboard. I personally know celebrants who spent more than the usual time in the, uh, lavatory over the next several days. Hard-boiled egg, anyone?

Aside from the gastronomic extravaganza, Passover retreats offer their own entertainment. When our family partakes in these events (every year for the past 17), the entertainment consists largely Lecturing. Few surprises there. But there's always a comedian (this time an oversized African-American named Saleem who had converted to Islam--a joke in itself with our humorless Pesach crowd). We had a Jewish rapper (not joking) whose unintelligible lyrics were made all the more engrossing by the corn-row'd black gentlemen on either side of him seemingly making Kohain finger splits in weird directions while jerkily spasming. There was Casino night, where the game tending staff exceeded the number of patrons, and the ever-popular Jeopardy rounds. Karaoke was fun to watch, but in a frum crowd, the ladies abandoned the scene to the teens, one or two of whom could stay on key.

And yet, and yet, Pesach at a kosher hotel is a wondrous thing. As they celebrate the release from slavery, people bond. They make friends, thrown as they are into a type of shared isolation. They have time to talk, waiting for the doors of the dining room to open...relaxing, allowing themselves to open up. And they learn and daven and have the time to give some thought to the meaning of being born--or choosing to be--a Jew. The rabbis who lectured at our retreat were excellent. Intriguing topics, discussed by inspiring people. Most important to me was time together as a family, reaffirming the centrality of our connections. A daughter from New York with her charming friend, now also a member of our clan. Zayde from Erez Yisroyal; a brother and family who live locally but chose to stay in the hotel for the shared experience. And we enjoyed visits by friends, in leisurely conversations that renewed closeness. The regular world was left at home--this was an eight-day excursion for refurbishing the heart. I hated to see it end, when, at 4 am, we boarded our cab for the airport.

Then, at home, I remembered where we'd left off: The world had stood still--or at least the mess left behind. I was immeditely confronted by
the SUITCASE JUNGLE--and I needed a machete. Our guestroom was strewn with all sizes of old backpacks, souvenir canvas bags from conferences, broken-zipper duffels, ripped side-compartment carry-ons, first-grade name it, if it was a rejected valise, it was on our guest room floor. And the suitcases we'd actually used weren't even unpacked. I first hacked my way through the Target bags, tugged-off tags, new-shirt cardboards, and sticky-edged cellophane... The detritis of packing. Then I stacked all the canvas totes and, like Russian nesting dolls, folded them inside each other to form a big surprise roll with new joys to be discovered with its unwrapping.

The other delight: Nine days' worth of everyone's laundry, which was enhanced by the discovery of FOURTEEN TOWELS still damp on the floor of teens' rooms and bathrooms. Did you know that an eel can live in a damp towel for SIX MONTHS? I was truly tempted to start my very own eel farm.
But now that I've been home 30 hours, I'm downloading my photos, and about to re-hang all the wrinkled skirts from my suitcase-- and feeling nostalgic about the days just passed. They zipped by, and as we count the Omer toward Shavuos, there's a warm-fuzzy feeling as I think of those luxurious meals, the endearing and funny people, and the intense hours in shul. The world around me is blooming, and as the sun charms the earth, I continue to be warmed by Chag Aviv.