Do you appreciate the rare? The exotic? The exceedingly slow burn to coition?
Do you savor the anticipation an eighteen-year wait brings?
Then you may be ready for the giant phallus. The amorphophallus titanum to be precise.
If you happened to wander into Meijer Gardens this week, you may have stumbled across the shy and retiring Titan Arum–a bloom colloquially referred to as a Corpse Flower.*
I’ve been a long-time fan of the gardens, but even I was caught by surprise about the arrival of the local beauty–nicknamed Putricia for her odiferous nature. On impulse, I dashed to the gardens on Tuesday to get this shot of her before she made her full-blown debut. The garden staff estimated that she wouldn’t fully bloom until Friday…but they were to be caught off guard.
Wednesday night, the spathe–or giant solitary petal that goes around the spadix (the stabby, sword-like center spike) was still tightly closed.**
For a better description, you can go to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s website for a great breakdown of the particulars. The site was extremely helpful in providing the follow image to steal:
Rumors abound around this hard-to-get coquette. According to this chart, it may bloom every four to five years. I’ve read elsewhere, it can take much longer because it relies on perfect conditions being met in order to propagate. The flower is in danger of becoming extinct in nature because of habitat loss and other causes.
At the Meijer Gardens, Putricia took eighteen years before she was ready to blossom. But she is finally strutting her stuff. And perhaps because she was so slow in arriving, she hurried up her appearance in time for me to dash over to meet her on Thursday. And, I have to say, she put on quite a stately show.
I couldn’t say how many people came, but the lines curled throughout the building when I was there. If you are brave, you might get to see her yourself–at least, for the next 24 hours anyway.
If you want to save your feet (and nose) the effort, a link to video of the flower’s expansion, you can find it in this article located in the Detroit News.
Here’s the picture I snapped with my cell phone:
Personally, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the stench by the time I got to her. She’d already lost some of her bloom. (Probably being visited by thousands of people takes a toll on a girl.)
Whether standing in line for over two hours for a minute in the limelight with this sultry Sumatran Stinker is your idea of fun, only you can decide.
As for me, I am happy that I went and hope we can look forward to a bright future ahead.
And now, I have camping to get packed for. My son is totally puzzled as to why I would bother to stop and chat with you for this long anyway. For this reason, I’m attributing any typos to his impatience.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Strangely enough, no one requests a corpse flower for their bridal bouquet. Probably due to having to wait decades to ensure you’ll have one in time for the nuptials.
**Look, I’m not a botanist. There’s plenty of sites you can go to for actual plant terminology and description. But we both know you aren’t going there, are you?!
Warning: Graphic and disgusting subject matter. Not for the faint of heart. Reminiscent of my prior post on the topic: The Diarrhea Diaries. Which, as it turns out, was volume one of an unfortunate series.
The US Food and Drug administration recommends two to four servings of fruit per day.
If you visited the CNN article I referenced, you get why I fear produce. If you didn’t trip the above link, the 20-point, bold font title of the article pretty much says it all:
“Multistate salmonella outbreak linked to pre-cut melon”
Now the fact that pre-cut watermelon has been spreading salmonella throughout the midwest wouldn’t ordinarily concern me except for two things:
I ate some pre-cut watermelon Sunday.
Monday began a marathon that makes the prospect of running 26 some miles actually pleasant by comparison. This is not that kind of marathon.*
I did not buy my melon at any of the stores referenced in the CNN piece on salmonella contaminated fruits. This does not stop me from putting a very strong set of coincidences together and coming up with a likely culprit to my week spent regretting everything I’ve ever eaten that I did not personally sterilize in a 1400 degree Fahrenheit kiln.
I spent the last (gets calculator, does math) 168 hours visiting the powder room. HOURLY. Sometimes more frequently. A brief itinerary of my adventures can be summed up this way:
Day 1: 6:00 a.m. – stomach lets out initial howls of protest. By 4:00 p.m., I am so sick, I’m curled up on the floor of my son’s therapy office wishing I didn’t have to drive us back home.
“Can’t we just live here?”
Day 2: After waking all night long to tango with the toilet, fever strikes and I shake my digital read-out thermometer convinced it has to be wrong.
Day 3: Have decided that having a will to live kind of sucks. Scrounge through medicine cabinets to find decade’s old Tylenol and take it, hoping it will kill me.
Day 4: Fever finally breaks and I would celebrate, but I’m getting low on toilet paper and there seems to be no end in sight.
Day 5: Am now reconsidering my agnostic stance and will willingly convert to whatever religion will cure me.**
Day 6: There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but I suspect they are the tiny sparks as each of my brain cells implode from dehydration. I gird my loins and guzzle Kefir straight from the carton.***
I wipe curdled cream from my lips and scream:
“Take that, you plague-ridden, bacteria bastards!”
Today is Day 7. It has been a week and, slowly, I am feeling somewhat human. Though, of course, the diarrhea hasn’t given up trying to kill me. I counter its vicious attacks with a chemical carpet bombing of Gatorade and Live-Culture acidophilus pills.
I’d really like this to be the worst thing that will ever happen to me, but I known I am just not that lucky.
As for whether this was a case of Salmonella or not, who knows? If it wasn’t, I sincerely pity the people who’ve had it worse.
If anybody needs me, I’ll be in the bathroom…freshening up.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Hint: it was not a Law & Order Marathon either.
**I’m looking at you, Vishnu, you beautiful blue man. Although, Shiva the Destroyer makes more sense in the circumstances.
***Kefir – the sound you involuntarily make after tasting fermented yogurt drink. Which tastes just as bad as it sounds.
Feature image stolen from UK Pinterest site. Please forgive me, I have no energy or desire to get my own watermelon and recreate your excellent work. Although, Gallagher’s work on expressing rage by smashing fruit with a giant mallet is starting to make a great deal more sense to me now.
For anyone not neck-deep in the hat-phantasmic hoopla surrounding the royal wedding, allow me to present a less drama-soaked alternative: watching plants grow!
It occurs to me, that I have watched too many episodes of Midsomer Murders–a British television show on air since 1997 that refuses to die no matter how many casting changes occur.*
If you know the genre, there typically is a picturesque village holding a Medieval Faire with costumed residents oozing quaintness and exhibiting occasional homicidal tendencies.
If you are unfamiliar, I recommend a movie by Simon Pegg called “Hot Fuzz” that crystallizes the best and worst bits about the deceptively serene English countryside:
The thing that captures my attention more than the body count, is the number of community fêtes thrown. There’s like, what, one every episode? It makes me wonder if it is a national British pastime to dress in Ye Olde itchy togs and con people into playing cheesy parlor games for the sake of the church roof fund!
This brings me to today’s topic: American Block Parties.
Most block parties are an organized potluck gathering on barricaded side streets with no other function than to bring a community together to eat. Saturday gives me the opportunity to attend one that is equal parts British Fête Fundraiser and old-fashioned American street festival.
Wellhouse is a community program that buys local houses, renovates dilapidated neighborhoods, and provides housing and skills training for formerly homeless residents. They also promote a ‘growing’ community with an emphasis on sustainable practices and energy conservation along with farm gardening.**
Wellhouse hosts a plant sale each year. You go for the plants. You stay for that little something extra you won’t find at your local greenhouse: community!
At first, I beeline to pick up the greenery I want to fill out the barren landscape choked with crabgrass and despair that is my backyard.
Per usual, my teenage son has a trajectory of his own.
I keep dragging the man-child away from one table in particular. (I need to ogle flowers with exotic names like ‘Clemson’ and ‘Hyssop’, don’tcha know.)
I promise my child a specialty cupcake just so I can plant shop. (Twist my arm.)
I don’t know how good the chocolate cupcake with chocolate whipped frosting was, I just know it took my son less time to inhale said cupcake than it took to remove the wrapper.
I pick the one with the raspberry garnish.
I have no regrets.
If you want more rib-sticking eats, you might hit up the royalty-hued catering provided by Purple Blaze, a hybrid of Southern and Ethiopian cooking.
Sadly, I have no time to sample their fare, mostly because the boy-child is pushing me to go, however, even I as a non-meat eater have to say the wafting odor of barbecue is positively mouth watering.
You wouldn’t think there is be more in store at the festivities, but you’d be wrong. The gray, overcast sky can’t put a damper on the upbeat spirits.
There are white-tented tables with various arts for sale. My arms are mostly full of greenery, but I stop to admire the selections.
And fabulous arts of the crafted clay variety provided by WMCAT or the West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology.
Here’s CC showing off her colorful floral-designed Pot:
Before long, my son is dragging me toward our Prius in a desperate bid for freedom, but I chat and take pictures as if this isn’t killing him slowly.
Moving between lazy droplets of rain, it is possible to find your smile while listening to The Fabulous Vans.
As I am packing up my car to go, I chat with the guitarist who is setting up for a performance. We exchange brief biographies, the way strangers do.***
I point to my kid who is slumping, hang-dog, in the car since mommy isn’t hopping to like he hopes. Timmy points to his daughter, Sierra, still polishing off some ribs at a nearby picnic table. He brags about her musicality and involvement in local choirs.
“You wouldn’t be biased about her talents at AlL?”I joke.
Her dad laughs and denies partiality, “Of course not.”
We talk about kids and music for a bit.
I bemoan my teenager’s rebellion against piano and ask whether he has to badger her to follow in her father’s footsteps? He assures me that she’s the one who wants sing.
He can’t say enough great things about her. Apparently, she’s even influenced the music they play.
“We usually play classic rock covers–like Led Zepplin’s “A Whole Lot of Love” but Sierra sings from some of her favorites: Twenty-One Pilots or One Republic.”
“I’m sorry,” I interrupt him. “Did you say Twenty-one Republics?”
He corrects me without laughing, much. By now, the rest of the band has loped over, and agrees to stage a picture for me. I hear them play as I drive away. Their enthusiasm isn’t in the least dampened by the drizzly venue.
I spent the rest of the day trying to plant things while simultaneously killing as many weeds as I can.
In the spirit that embodies fine British murder mystery programming, there’s been a summer fête, someone has to die!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Regarding Midsomer’s Suspicious Death Rate: I do wonder how a fictional hamlet apparently no bigger than Rhode Island can survive quadruple homicides on a weekly basis without running out of people?
**I totally stole the Wellhouse information from a flyer available at the front table.
***Even though we all know about serial killers, no one expects them. They are like the Spanish Inquisition this way.
I celebrated a tipping point in my annual acknowledgement of inevitable mortality this week–for those of you who don’t speak thesaurus, I had a birthday–and, as a result, I have decided to adopt an eccentricity commensurate with my age. I shall forthwith be known as The Tea Lady.*
As a follow-up to my last post, I am happy to report my somewhat victorious hunt for a replacement to my Teavana / Earl Grey addiction. While I cannot claim to find the exact same tea elsewhere, I’ve found a tea I like. And I’m here to bore you to death with the details. You’ve been warned.
I made a point of ordering some teas to try to find the good twin to my long-lost love (formerly produced by the evil bastards at Teavana may they rot in a mildewy, milk-tea hell).
This is what I’ve discovered–not all tea companies approach sales the same way.
If I graded the companies on their packaging and delivery—the winners would be in this order:
First Place Packaging:
Adagio (HQ – New Jersey, US) – which sent a nicely crammed box filled with the $2.00– 0.8 oz loose-leaf sample of Earl Grey Moonlight which I asked for–along with several unsolicited samples and blandishments to purchase more. The fact that I ordered the week before my birthday might explain the ‘Birthday’ tea which I’ve yet to try and the ‘Pisces-Zodiac’ tea tin included gratis. I tried the latter. It smelled heavenly, but tasted bitter. I went on line to discover this tea has ‘lavender’ in it—which is a flower that makes me sneeze violently—so perhaps it was a subliminal allergic response as much as taste. For many reasons, this is not the tea for me. It will make a lovely sachet for my underwear drawer though.
Warning: print out your receipt–when I looked later in my emails, the details of the purchase were not included in the confirmation.
I was given a choice of one free sample; I picked the Earl Grey Bravo. If they hadn’t sent it, things might have turned out very differently. **
Second Place Packaging
The Art of Tea (HQ – Beverly Hills, CA) took almost a week to arrive. Going back, I re-reading their disclaimer on the invoice: “Art of Tea’s hand-crafted artisan teas take about 3-5 business days to create before they’re ready to ship.”
They sent their sample of loose-leaf Earl Grey Creme in a tin (5-7 servings for $5.00, plus shipping $5.97) along with two individual tea bag samples—one of the exact same tea, except bagged in an ‘eco pyramid’ filter, and one serving called Tali’s Masala Chai. It is hard to compare pricing, but the fact that the tea was boxed due to the metal container meant the shipping price was actually more expensive than the cost of the product itself. Although it is preferred to keep tea in a tin to preserve the contents, I don’t think it would hurt to send samples at a cheaper rate.
Third Place Packing
TeaLyra (HQ in New York and Canada) Was the fastest tea–I ordered from Amazon.com on March 5 and it arrived March 7. Self-described as the ‘Galaxy of Teas,’ the sample came wrapped in bulk packaging with a slapped-on label to identify the contents and a giant 25% off coupon good through July 30, 2018 for use by anyone.
GO AHEAD, here’s the code if you want to try: “Get-25-USA4”.
TeaLyra sent the biggest sample for the price ($14.99 for 3.5 ounces–which doesn’t sound like a lot but, man, the bag was huge next to the other samples.) There was some confusion though.
On the Amazon website the tea is called ‘Cream Earl Grey – Citrusy with Vannilla (sic) flavor’ but, if you go to the actual TeaLyra.com website, the name is Cream Earl Grey Moonlight. I wondered if Amazon was selling a knock-off, so I contacted TeaLyra. They explained that Amazon wouldn’t allow the full title for the tea so they omitted the word ‘Moonlight.’
Scooby Doo mystery solved, it was time for the battle to commence.
I set up my test kitchen.
I didn’t have three identical cups, and I really wanted to show off my teapot/cup combination. (Proving my tea-geek chic.) Otherwise, I tried to be scientific about it.
I did my best to put the same quantities of tea, sugar and cream into each glass. I’m a sweet, hot tea girl, so three level teaspoons of Demerara sugar and ½ a teaspoon of half-and-half went in.
After a three-minute steep, sugar, then cream, it was time to taste-test.
I sipped from left to right and it was a bit like the three bears, except that none of the three was ‘just right’ in terms of matching my memory of the Teavana profile.
How The Competition Measured Up…After a Slight Hiccup
Art of Tea – had strong floral notes wafting from the tin. It was self-described as ‘full body, citrus, silky’ and I would agree with the full and the silky part. I could not taste anything but vanilla in this particular tea.
In fact, the vanilla was so overpowering that I had to stop and look up “How To Cleanse Your Palate” and found this delightful site:
I did not have the recommended plain crackers but I decided white bread is pretty close and I sucked on pinches between sips in order to ‘zero’ my taste buds.
I also learned I had been drinking my tea all wrong.
The key to tea tasting is the etiquette-aghast SLURP method. To quote the Cup of Life doyenne: “While that may seem impolite, slurping is necessary to experience the full flavour of the tea on all parts of your palette.”
I slurped my way through the three choices. I made some observations which I will share with you:
Even after a palate cleanse and a slurp-tasting, I still couldn’t get past the vanilla in the Art of Tea – Earl Grey Creme. That said, the tea was the smoothest cup I tried. You could barely taste the bergamot and it had none of the bitterness usually associated with strong black teas. Slurping lowered the initial strength of the vanilla flavor but it hit the back of the throat after swallowing and filled the nose with the perfume.***
Conclusion: too sweet and flowery for my tastes but probably a really fine dessert tea for a vanilla lover.
Opening the bag, your nose gets a much more complex series of notes: bergamot, vanilla and what smells like a hot summer in Valencia Spain in the form of dried orange peels. I had my doubts initially; I tend to avoid orange flavoring as it can dominate. I am happy to admit, I was wrong.
This cup had the most pleasing color as a brewed tea, but then, it was in the cup with the widest diameter and that may have affected the light hitting it. It was also the tea that had the sweetest taste. I swear, I put the same amount of sugar in each cup, but, again, the dimensions of this cup may have played havoc with the scientific method.
One odd thing I noticed was the description of the tea’s label. The company did not describe the contents as ‘Bergamot Oil’ as did the competitors. Made me wonder what exactly they considered ‘natural earl grey’ to taste like?
Last, but not least, came the economically priced Amazon brew:
Earl Grey Crème ‘Moonlight’ Ingredients: organic black loose-leaf tea, cornflower, oil of bergamot, natural flavors.
TeaLyra had the lightest scent in dry form. There were hints of vanilla and bergamot. The odor reminded me of pressed flowers—a light, but ghostly, lingering scent.
The tea was also the most neutral flavor of the three. No one scent overpowered the other either in dry or brewed form. Admittedly, I drank this tea third of each round and it is entirely possible the first two samples killed any nuance detection. The flavor was not as ‘bright’ as the other teas. Overall, it was a more down-to-earth cup.
TeaLyra’s sample reminded me of a good English breakfast tea more than an Earl Grey Crème—with or without moonlight. It was a mellow, medium strength cup at 3 minutes. I think a longer steep might bring out the ‘hairy knuckles’ in the flavor. And of the three teas, it came closest in a visual comparison to the admittedly powdery dregs I have left of the original Teavana brand Earl Grey Crème sample. See for yourself:
A BRIEF TEA RE-CAP
ART OF TEA
PROS: Quality and luxury hand-crafted teas. Smooth, round and silky brew.
CONS: Expensive. Excessive Vanilla may be to mask bitterness of higher prices and slower products.
PROS: If you want a quick delivery that will make you feel pampered at a mid-ranged price, I recommend Adagio.
CONS: Demerits for the overly complicated discounts offered. The company promises future discounts after purchase but it requires you share a $5.00 gift certificate on social media.
Adagio also emailed to tell me of their ‘points’ system encouraging you to buy a lot of tea to earn any more freebies:
Your purchase has earned you 4 points in our “frequent cups” program. With 100 points or more, you’ll be saving $10+ on future orders.
Like most drugs, the first sample is free. The rest is going to cost you.
PROS: A likeable, affordable breakfast tea without an overly strong Bergamot or vanilla presence. If you like to be able to taste your tea, this is the companion for you. Plus, you know you aren’t paying higher prices for marketing or for frou-frou bells and whistles.
CONS: Weaker kissing-cousin to Teavana’s Earl Grey Crème. If you want to try a smaller sample, go directly to TeaLyra.com, Amazon only offers the larger 3.5 ounce packaging.
In the end, I am surprised to say I preferred Adagio’s Earl Grey Bravo best. It wasn’t the closest match to my beloved Teavana, I suspect the TeaLyra would make a fair substitute if it had a hint more vanilla in it…
With this in mind, I dump the overpowering vanilla of Art of Tea into the TeaLyra batch and discover I like the resultant concoction very much.
Whether anyone else would agree is for them to decide. Perhaps there is something of the Dr. Frankenstein in all of us—we can only love the monster we’ve created?
Memory is a funny thing. It is a place in which the pleasures of something increase exponentially for each day lost to the sands of time.
I had my heart set on finding my beloved Teavana twin only to end up falling for the fast and bold Adagio Bravo instead.
It has taken me over half-a-century, but I can finally say I’ve found my inner, fickle-hearted, fancy-free, femme fatale. And it didn’t take me fifty shades of Earl Grey to find her.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Note to self: get appropriately massive, flowery hat….or adopt a faux British accent.
**Insert appropriate “duh duh DUH!” sound effect for dramatic emphasis…or just mumble it to yourself.
***There were no instructions on how to clear a nose palate—and no, I did not stick bread up there to see if that would work
There was supposed to be a fourth ‘Cream Earl Grey’ sample from Beantown Tea & Spices. Despite the name, the company must be shipping its product by a slow-boat from China. I ordered it March 5th–the same day as the TeaLyra product.
At last check, delivery is expected March 13th.
Addendum: Beantown sample arrived Sunday, March 12, and was delicious. I would have tested it against the other three for a truly detailed comparison, but I have used up all my tea sachets and have to order more. Sigh.
Wanted: A naughty cup of tea with a bergamot bite.
I’m on my knees.
I’m begging for relief.
Aching for that particular and distinct pleasure that only a true acolyte of the libatious arts can attain. But alas…
My cup is empty.
I am truly lost without my Earl Grey Crème.
The week I learned that Teavana was going to close its doors, I went straight to the mall, plunked down a piece of plastic and ordered an obscene amount of tea–something near 7 pounds–because that was the minimum I could order to get 30% off the total price. I did not even look at the receipt when I signed it. No price was too high a cost to pay.*
You think 7 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot? Imagine the backpack sized tea parcels they gave me–I’m sure I looked like a tea mule smuggling fine grade, uncut pure leaf addiction–I’d show you…but I drank it all.
In less than a year, my precious was gone.
I swore I wouldn’t buy anymoretea until I have drunk some of the thousands of other teas in the many, many containers I already possess.
You think I’m kidding?
I’ve stuck by my resolution not to succumb to temptation. Not to bend. Not to splay myself prostrate crying
“Why have the tea gods abandoned me? WHY?”
I’ve been sucking down Twinnings Chai to sublimate my desires. I sugar it. I even use the latte foamer that makes me feel like a pampered princess…until I have to clean it.
IT’S ONLY DAY THREE!
I am now hunting for a replacement.
How hard can it be to find a fragrant facsimile?
A delicious doppleganger?
A tantalizing taste bud teaser to pleasure the palate? A tea that will make me whimper when it’s gone bottom’s up!**
I’m putting out an ad to the area tea purveyors:
“I’m a sweet young thing looking for the bad boy I’ve been missing…oh where, oh where is my Earl Grey Crème?
Fortunately, the internet is ready to cater to most discerning clientele.
*I lied. I did look at the receipt. The total was shocking, and this was after the discount. And, though I did not faint, it was only because I was afraid I would drop my complimentary cup of tea in the process.
**I want a tea that will own me, make me say “Thank you! May I have another!”
***This post may be a sign that I need an intervention…or a really dominant cup of tea.
I was reminded today that being human takes practice and it is, thankfully, not as hard as propagating orchids. I did not know, when I headed to the Meijer Gardens Orchid Show, that I would learn that flowers grow in forms of glass, peat moss dreams, and human bonding–both casual and eternal.
Sleepless after ill-conceived, late-night revels with the Princess Bride and Futurama, I staggered to Meijer Gardens Saturday towing a camera with a mostly-dead battery.*
Thank goodness for iPhones.**
My son dragged me to a corner and refused to budge while we both waited for salvation in the form of a fearless babysitter incentivized by college debt and the promise of at least a Benjamin to keep the orchid’s safe from harm.
The minute my child disappeared with his sitter, I was off. My goal—to photograph as many blooms as possible before my teenager got bored and came back. So, basically, like the count down timer on a nuclear device–I was set to go!
iPhone camera in hand, I stalked exotically named flora.
I hadn’t hit my stride when I ran into a mother and her 26-year-old son. We were fighting to capture the same bloom without flashing each other to blindness.
The mom struck up a conversation as I waited my turn at the luscious fuchsia petals that somehow managed to be the stealth bomber of the orchid enclave.
I was too focused on the flowers. I almost missed hearing that this well-spoken young man has Asperger’s. And like a flower turned to the sun, I lit up meeting him.
To his mom, I said, “My son has ‘classic autism’, he’s non-verbal.”
“I know. I saw you earlier with him.” She confided, nodding toward her son, “We reached him through his love of photography.”
Her son took a break from photographing the coveted blossom. We shook hands. He told me his name and then asked me for mine. I spelled my name out for the young man. He dutifully entered it into his phone—taking delight when I asked if he knew how to spell my last name—citing the Harry Potter – Salazar Slytherin reference. He showed me his phone and he had it letter perfect.
Unfortunately, in the hustle, I totally missed taking his name down. (The day was about photography not blogging, so my notes were whatever I could slap into my phone between pictures.) Looking later, high and low, I couldn’t find his name. If you know this young man, tell him I said ‘Hi’ and ask him to find me.
But, because I met him, my whole day changed. I wasn’t there just for the flowers, but to flower in the company of human experience.
And in writing about each person I met, I decided, I needed to invent an appropriate orchid name.
First, I met…
The Freckle-Dusted, Curly Charmer – a/k/a Rachel
In such a small space, it is not hard to run into people—several times even—at various stations.
I inadvertently stalked this couple throughout the gardens: Rachel and her very tall, camera-shy companion, Kyle—a smug owner of a Samsung Galaxy phone who taunted me periodically with the amazing shots he could take.
Not to be outdone–here’s one of the best I captured:
We exchanged observations while snapping pictures.
Almost every plant had a ribbon—though some of them could be the floral equivalent of an ‘Honorable Mention’ participant award as far as I knew. I have a policy of admitting my ignorance up front—it saves time and effort.
“They all look so beautiful,” I told her, “I really don’t know how the judges could evaluate the merits of any flower.”
That’s when Rachel dropped her orchid bomb!
“I’m sort of a cheater.” She confessed.
When pushed to explain, she said, “I was a biology major at Grand Valley [State University] and I had this professor who showed us how to propagate orchids using a method of injecting genes to create new flowers. So, I understand a bit more about this than most.” ***
This whole time I’d been standing next to an orchid whisperer and hadn’t known it!
Later, while trying to recapture what she told me, I tried to find an appropriate article on ‘gene splicing’ but failed. I did, however, stumble across an actual process to gene-test an orchid’s D.N.A. to discover its parentage: Orchid DNA
Basically, you can C.S.I. an orchid’s ass to find out ‘Whose your daddy?’ so to speak.
In our many encounters, I mentioned how rare it is for me to get out and interact with the world.
(True Confession Time: I was a bit giddy at the orchid extravaganza. I probably seemed a bit drunk with excitement—kind of like a deranged puppy with a floral fixation.)
I asked if I could take her picture for my blog—and tried to set a ‘privacy’ setting so her picture wouldn’t be plastered all over my feed. But the challenging wifi or vicious internet pixies played havoc with the Facebook options.
Rachel shrugged, saying she didn’t mind. This only encouraged me.
“It’s hard for me to go places sometimes.” I laughed and gave my iPhone a little shake. “So, I kind of live on Facebook. It’s weird, I can live so close to people I know but never get together with them. And yet, this summer, a friend from Japan is coming here and we’re going to meet at the nearby mall!”
Then Rachel said something profound.
“Facebook—it makes the far world closer and the close world farther away.”
It struck me as so true, I made her repeat herself so I could type it in my phone. Yes, I am that pushy.
Every time I ran into Rachel and Kyle, we’d fall into conversation. Well, I babbled at them and Rachel willingly exchanged floral witticisms that I could not possible recreate here. You’ll have to come up with your own horticultural insights, I’m afraid.
Except, I can share one universal truth: “Crab grass is the bitch bane of gardening.”
Everyone I met was friendly, tolerant of my intrusions, polite and sharing. None more so than my next flowery friend.
Gratia Umbra a/k/a Elizabeth N.
A slender blond with an elegance that matched the floral occasion, Elizabeth carried with her a functional camera and used it like she knew what she was doing. So, of course, I asked whether she was planning on posting them online and could I ‘friend’ her to see them.
She politely accepted.
If I were to name her using floral taxonomy, the Latin to describe Elizabeth would be A Shade of Grace or Gratia Umbra.
To Elizabeth, who got the shots I could not make. Thanks for sharing.
I could not conclude this story without letting you know of the absolute perfect ending that almost didn’t happen. A providential duo I would regret not knowing.
Defining them by a flower name that accurately tells you who they are is impossible. But I’ll try. For this couple, you absolutely have to use a crossbred variety. Match a shy, subtly engaging flower with a showy, over-the-top genus to create an utterly unique new combination. I give you:
Painted Hearts x Mirrored Souls
Sometimes, you just know. You look at a couple and know they are meant to go together So it was when I met Nick and Oberon.
I was done photographing the official orchid exhibit. But there is an arboretum that is part of the Meijer Gardens that is a glassed-in heaven in January.
I almost didn’t go. But, rare is my chance to visit the gardens and luxuriate in the peace it brings. And I’m so glad impulse led me to meeting a very special couple.
I wandered to the wall of orchids and sniffed to try and find the one that exuded a glorious, heavy smell that was sweet just to the point of being overpowering.
One of the garden volunteers—the human variety, not the plant kind—corrected me when I told her I loved a particular flower for its heavenly perfume.
“Smell this.” Is all she said.
She thrust a small pot under my nose–tiny fringy leaves with even smaller white flecks you could mistake as dots among all the greenery.
Those dots were actual orchid buds, so small, you had to pay attention to see them.
I did as instructed.
It was like being punched in the nose by the goddess of spring. This confirms a long-held suspicion and I told her so.
“I think the smaller the blossom, the stronger the smell.” I nod in satisfaction. “To make up for not being so showy and bright.”
Saying nothing, she put the pot back and I moved on my way.
Without knowing it, this was the perfect segue to my last encounter of the day.
Getting ready to depart, I was stopped by an incongruous sight.
Among the elderly wanderers, nodding white heads in appreciation of the wonderful view, the families with children, grandparents, and photo-happy parents, there sat a glaring anomaly—a tattooed duo dressed as if headed for a punk rave or a New York grunge art review. Ready for something, anything, more hip than an arboretum.
To Nick and Oberon—for the story about the beehive ink alone—I am indebted. The explanations of a clamshell with the number 13 drawn on your wrist. The laughter and the stories too personal to share here. The tattoo review was the most unique floral exhibit of the day. So if I had to pick flowers to represent you, it would have to be these two–so similar and yet so different, and perfectly matched.
You opened up to a stranger, one arguably stranger than most. You shared your origin stories like the super heroes you are. You let me take pictures that said a lot more about you than words could.
You let me remember what it was like to be young, in love, and filled with the adventure of it all. Thank you.
And yes, I will happily descend upon you the next time I’m in Chicago. I’m dying to color in all those black and white tattoos. Let’s find out if you are brave enough to hand me a needle to try.
And to my final floral tribute – the young man who made it all possible.
You invited me to be part of the human race instead of just an observer. At 26, you understand that connecting with people is more important that getting a perfect shot. I will remember you always and name you for your warm spirit as well as the small bits of fuzz that dotted your baby face.
My Velvet-Petaled / Open Invitation
You are not in my notes, my phone, my email.
I’ve looked for you everywhere.
You are the one who caused me to look up.
To put the camera down.
Hopefully this will find you, somehow.
To the autistic young man at the flower show.
You reminded me to be as well as see.
I dedicate this blog post to you, for without you it would not have happened.
You will forever be a gentle poem in my heart:
And for those curious as to the title of this post, it was the flower name I most identified with. We should all be opalescence on the edge!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*If you ever catch me with a fully-charged device, assume I’ve been kidnapped by aliens and that this is a clone doing research for the impending invasion of Earth. Act accordingly.
**Curse you, Kyle, and your fancy Samsung with those neato photo features. Smugness does not become you!
***This quote is from memory. So, take it with a large grain of salt that I got this at all right.
If my child remembers me for anything, let him remember me for this…
Friday is a dream day-come-true for my ‘little’ man. A half-day of school as a start to the mini-fall break weekend. Road trip, here we come!
We discovered “The Ledges” by joyous accident on a past excursion when we wandered east of our standard Exit 59 pitstop.
This time, we travel to Grand Ledge on purpose, hauling my Canon EOS Rebel XS with the intention of cataloging the experience.*
You can find a description of Fitzgerald Park at the park’s website. But understand, no words can convey the simple pleasure in tramping leaf-strewn, mud tracks that wend along a slow-moving river. This will not stop me from trying, however.
Posting this humble shot to Facebook, a friend introduced me to the true art of nature to be found in the ephemeral sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy.
The sluggish current is dotted with geese and ducks, fattening on late blooming bugs confused by the unseasonable warmth. Ignoring the catastrophic implications of global climate change, my son and I tramp the trail fantastic in search of adventure. Who knew it would end in the best darned French fries this side of Mackinac Island’s truffle fry extravaganza?
Between a rock…and a hard place…you will find a reluctantly posed teenager.
Walking leaf-scattered paths on a sundrenched day doesn’t present many dangers. One thing you can count on when charting a wooded trail is that generally nice people abound.
Everyone we meet is friendly, and after a moment, recognize my son’s quirky tendency to plop down in the middle of the trail to jot numbers as just another sight along the way.
Tree Swallows Rock – looking like the strangling coils of a wooden snake
Leaves crunch underfoot. My cane helps me balance across the footpaths where humus formed of decomposing plants and steep inclines make traversing the narrow passage challenging.
The slope gets gradually steeper until you begin to have sympathy with yaks in the Himalayas.
I am calm in my repose, whistling to my son periodically when his goat-like surefootedness keeps him yards ahead. He disappears around a bend and I hail him to halt. He waits impatiently for me to catch up. Aside from being short winded, I have nothing to fear. Or so I think!
There is no warning. No scary music. Though I sing a half-choked ululation when I am startled by the sudden appearance of a garter snake—or is it a ribbon snake?—dashing frantically away from clumsy feet stomping through its territory. I squawk like a demented chicken, hopping to avoid the tiny red, yellow, and green striped reptilian flag whipping past. Its curving body signals a fervent desire to have nothing to do with me.
I swear it looked like this–Northern Ribbon Snake by Nick Scobel. thank you for the loan. I was too busy shrieking to snap a pic.
A later search on the internet at The Michigan DNR website assures me that I was in no danger—but they fail to take into consideration the effect a small snake has on an unsuspecting woman, on a hill, with slippery, squishy, rotten leaves and rocks and roots to upset an already precarious balance. I’m lucky I didn’t fall into the river, is all I’m saying.
It was a truly idyllic while. We passed the trestle bridge (pictured above, on separate days) where we’d experienced the sound and fury of locomotion just weeks before. It is a quiet sentinel as we pass.
The famed ledges are rocky outcroppings where lichen and verdigris—the coppery extrusion that rusts to a gorgeous blue-green powder adorning many a Catholic cathedral—turn the mundane slabs of sedimentary strata into a magical realm.
Fairies and sprites no doubt whisper from moss-coated crevasses. And red and gold leaves mark a journey through streams of light, chariots with invisible riders steering the autumnal march.**
The trail ends for us at the juncture of West River and Harrison Streets in Grand Ledge and we face the choice of turning left, crossing the walking bridge to Island Park, or going right heading into town. I lure my son away from a moored pleasure boat with the promise of lemonade and a snack toward the option that would let me sit down for a while.
This is how we stumble onto the best d*mned French fries for a hundred miles, if not more.
The Crossroads Barbeque is a most serendipitous discovery. The unassuming block-front, dark glass exterior doesn’t inform the prospective customer what delights are in store. You have to be on the lookout for such a dining experience—it is not to be missed.
I am more thirsty than hungry, but travelling with a teenager means we stop for food on an almost hourly basis. I am so glad we did. And not just because we get to meet the nicest guys behind the glory: Lee Burmeister, co-owner, and Cam, “You can call me Hershel Frobisher,”*** who describes his managerial style as “Giving everyone a hard time.”
Inside Crossroads BBQ, a giant rectangle of space is marked along one side with tables and seating and an open, wood floor that almost has room for a small band and dancing. After meeting Lee Burmeister, co-owner, or as he referred to himself, “Pit Master” of the joint, I could imagine an after-hours crowd breaking out into impromptu two-stepping, or perhaps heavy metal thrash jams, filling the space with sound.
The walls are covered in my kind of kitsch, fire engine red walls interspersed with giant chalk boards scribbled with bright, handwritten menus make the space warm—no doubt an interior design nod to the spicy cuisine offered up.
A cast iron pig ‘oinks’ the daily special—which is what leads me to add an order of fried chicken to my son’s enormous French fry basket. I am not sorry.
My son graciously lets me try a wing as he inhales the rest of the golden-crispy half of chicken that comes out. We’d already been bestowed a platter from heaven—a wholly satisfying mound of fries that suggests the magic of the Ledges walk leads to this particular pot of gold.
I did not come to Grand Ledge to write a blog post, travelling with autism has its limits. But sometimes, the discovery of delicious splendor demands a little improvisational review. I beg a scrap of paper—and am given a hunk of butcher block from a roll—to make my notes. I pepper the crew with questions, while my son explores and attempts to move a piano to find the secret behind a blockaded door. The proprietor is an understanding guy—letting me know he has a nephew on the spectrum. He is un-phased by my questions or questionable parenting.
The secret to the fries is easy—a beer batter coating and a bath in scalding soy oil—they are presented towering high in a thick pile. If you don’t think too hard about it, you can tell yourself these are a healthy treat. The chicken is about as moist as a bird can get without feathers. The secret, I’m told, is “high humidity.” I immediately picture the chickens sitting in a sauna before heading to the fryer.
The fries edge out the chicken by a crispy, salty bite. Then again, I tasted them first. I think I’ll have to go back again and try them in the reverse order. It may take a few taste tests to narrow down a winner.
Lee is affable and proud to show off the winning trophies from regional and statewide chili championships—the latest being a sharp, neon glass sculpture—depicting a 2nd place victory at the BWL Chili Cook-Off in Lansing in September. It’s no surprise that they came a close runner up to “Hottest Chili” considering their claim-to-flameingredient.
The secret to the hottest chili? The pepper of course. Feast your gaze upon this innocuous looking baby:
The Carolina Reaper no doubt lives up to its name. A customer, curious about our conversation about the heat index of a chili so hot it comes with a disclaimer warning that the pregnant, nursing, or elderly might want to give it a pass.
The cook serves up a portion of the diluted sauce and the man eagerly accepts the viscous, volcano-red serving—but one taste and he passes on the offer to try the unadulterated chili by itself.
You could not pay me to try one though. No amount of money is worth taste bud annihilation.
Mid-conversation, my teenager loams large dragging me toward the exit, but I managed one last question. “Do you need to wear protective gear—like an industrial painter’s mask—when preparing the pepper?”
Both Lee and Cam, hold up black, rubber-coated digits.
“Rubber gloves are all we need.” Lee eyes his thick latex mitts for a second, and adds, “But a mask wouldn’t hurt.”
One quick group photo and we’re gone. With only a wafting odor of fries to remind us that Shangri La exists.
We scarper past the Masonic Lodge where a sandwich board outside informs us that pasties are the fundraiser of the day. It’s a shame we are too stuffed to take advantage.
For another hour, we cross the bridge we abjured earlier. We interrupt squirrels and Canadian geese, disturb a young lady fishing, and then my son tries–again–to break into the Grand Princess hitched alongside Island Park. It is time to leave.
We start the walk back and I am serenaded by demands for our next outing:
“Boat ride, boat ride, boat ride…”
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Intentions aside, I sadly neglected to recharge my batteries from the day before— where I photographed my son’s school field trip to Post Family Farm. Who would’ve thunk taking 205 pictures of pumpkins would drain a camera battery dead?
**You’d have to be soul dead not to find poetry in these woods.
***I’m not explaining this joke. I find it much funnier this way.
Some days, you just gotta get your funk on! So, of course, you go to your local specialty cheese store. If you are feeling blue, have they got the cheese for you!
I recently explored the highly-select, curdled delicacies of The Cheese Lady. This particular gouda merchant has been in business for over five years within walking distance of where I work. I have never been to such a specialized store since I visited the short-lived “Get Oiled” lubricant emporium at a nearby mall.*That establishment overestimated a beer-drinking town’s appetites for strictly olive-oil based tastes. Fortunately, cheese goes magnificently with beer. So, against the economic odds, The Cheese Lady is thriving.
You wouldn’t think you’d find someone willing to pay $28.00 per pound for a cheese.** But, if you casually drop into the conversation that you are a blogger, apparently they are willing to break out the 15-year-old, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, to dazzle your senses.
I was given several different samples to try–like many addictive substances, the first taste is free. My personal favorite was a strong cheddar with a soft name: Prairie Breeze Cheddar. If you go to their site, you can read the details–or misread them as I did–and learn that this cheese is made by milking the Mennonite Amish in Iowa. I hope it isn’t a painful process, but even if it is, it is certainly worth the price for the pleasure. (I’m sure there is a bondage joke somewhere straining to break free in that sentence.)
Prairie Breeze has the bite of a 10-year aging process and the crystallization that makes each nibble a squeaky pleasure against the back of the teeth and palate. It is also made of vegetarian rennet – in case you are squeamish about abusing animals for your taste buds but not enough to eschew cheese consumption entirely.
I’m a bit of a foodie, I know a hard Italian can be found beyond the covers of a romance novel.***But this place had names for cheese I’ve never heard of. I’m scanning the wall of exotica and I point to one that just screams to be tasted, which is how I ended up the victim of what has to be a practical joke cheese.
If you have a penchant for the pungent, you may want to give it a try. (Or, if you are a wicked prankster and have a cheese-loving victim in mind…) Sample the Red Witch. She’s to die for. Be warned, I had to spit the offending Wiccan out of my mouth because it went past my ‘blue cheese’ tolerance levels into a zone I gaspingly describe as “People Actually Eat This?” It is definitely an acquired taste. It was also created for a specific event so it’s a limited ‘pleasure’ to be had before it’s gone, gone, gone.****
You don’t need a special occasion to stop by. However, it’s a great location to throw together a one-of-a-kind gift. The store sells decorative baskets so you can pull together your sundry delights. There are cheeses galore and more–gourmet items you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. There were some gorgeous, if pricey, clay sculptures, cheese boards and other sundry specialties to round out your gift giving. Crackers, jams, and dried fruit combos abound. It is definitely a store for the upper market, but, even an everyday person like me can drop a few dollars or sample for free the forbidden fruits of years of cheese making tradition. I missed out on the dessert cheeses this time around. I plan next to hit the blueberry stilton and tantalizing-sounding cranberry wensleydale–in honor of my favorite British duo: Wallace and Gromit.
I may even beg a little mango ginger or lemon stilton while I’m at it. I am not above groveling. For cheese is a pleasure one should not deny oneself. It is a gift from the moldy gods! And there’s nothing funky about that!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Not the real name of the establishment, I’m saving their dignity. I entered “Get Oiled” in wonder a few years ago honestly expecting someone to jump out and yell, “Surprise!” revealing it to be a giant hoax. The next time I visited the mall, it was no longer there. Perhaps it was a Potemkin Olive Oil Village?
**You’d be wrong. *nibbles 1-ounce purchase*
***I’m looking at you, Fabio!
****While eating the Red Witch, I highly recommend you gasp, “I’m melting, I’m melting,” before sinking to the floor in a collapse, just to add authenticity to the experience.
On the heels of my last post “Tempest in a Teapot, ” today follows the story with an introductory Haiku—poorly crafted poetry that tries to sum up a day in seventeen syllables:
As tea steeps, rain weeps
Water fills both bowl and sky
Prepare to drink deep.
I leave the Japanese Tea House buoyed with happiness and a certain sense of rightness with the world. It doesn’t last long.*
I take my complimentary shocking-yellow umbrella from our Meijer Garden’s guide—I almost bow from recently-acquired habit—and pause to pose in front of a font for a photo. (Hit *like* if you love alliteration.)
As I am leaving, the guide casually mentions that a ‘storm’ is headed this way and I should make sure to head in by 2:00.
I scramble around the larger Japanese Garden to admire the lush-to-the-point-of- heaving-bosoms blooming flowers in the rain. I ‘Cecil B. DeMille’ a few of them with dew-laden close-ups. I might have asked a few of them to “Come on, show a little stamen and pistil.”**
I stalk the Bonsai garden—a human sequoia in a land of miniature conifers. I took several snaps of the plump, if bruised, pear growing on its tiny parent. It struck me funny that I was giving produce the paparazzi treatment when I pass it up with barely a blink at our local grocery store. (I am high on centuries of tradition, what can I say? I am a wild woman.)
The rain is steady–not too heavy but definitely a presence. My shadowy, wet companion. At one point, I am juggling the umbrella and trying to photograph the Korean Hornbeam*** when I drop my iPhone. Fortunately, it hits the rocks glass-side up, or I’d be crying in the rain.
I stop in the rock garden on my way out. The nearly invisible poetry etched into the massive boulders is made visible by the downpour.
RAIN FALLING IN SPRING
AND I AM SORRY
NOT TO BE ABLE TO WRITE
I’m eating lunch in the Meijer Gardens’ café, surrounded by raindrop streaked windows and Chihuly glass installment on the ceiling, when I turn my phone back on to check for messages. There is a mildly alarming inquiry about my son from the babysitter, so I call to check on him.
That’s when I get the news…they are in the basement…there is a tornado alert for the area. I should seek shelter.
We exchange a few frantic words before I head to the front desk.
“Uh, are you all aware that there is a tornado alert?” I whisper this as if I’d cause a stampede if overheard.
The huddle of women with grey-to-frosty-white hair helmets look up from an iPad and confirm they’re tracking its progress.
“Don’t worry. We’ll let everyone know if we need to move to the shelters in the basement.”
I shrug, I’ve done my part. But in my head, I’m thinking. “Don’t tornados move pretty fast?” I make my way to the basement to grab a seat before anyone else does. Because…priorities!
Pretty soon, everybody else with an iPhone or other device is making their way down there ahead of an official announcement. If there is ever another mass extinction it will be because someone decided to wait until they were sure disaster was heading in their direction before taking action.
It’s getting crowded and suddenly all of our phones are going off announcing the approach of the storm. The officials finally make it official and start herding people into the area that is the ‘actual’ storm shelter. (Apparently they don’t consider a need for access to plumbing with the same level of urgency I do.) A service door leads to an unfinished concrete cavern filled with twists and turns and lots of unused equipment and staging material. We are urged to move as far back in the space to make room for everybody. I’m surprised by how calmly everyone is taking this. Inside I wonder if we really ought to be more concerned.
I spy a few of the people I ran into while walking the garden. I’m glad they made it back—but I do wonder about the second tea ceremony that was supposed to start at 2:00. There is a really evil part of me that whispers “Aren’t you glad you signed up for the first showing at 11:30!”
I pass members of a wedding party, one of the women is still holding a glass/candle concoction which would be an excellent thing if anyone wanted a light. (I see a future market for wedding planners —decorative flourishes that function as emergency provisions in the event of a disaster.)
I finally choose a spot that circles back to a secondary exit. There is light spilling in from the corridor so it isn’t totally scary if it is a bit cold.
Across from me a family—two grandparents, a family friend, and two children—are trying to get comfortable on the floor. I look around. Nearby there are folded chairs and a huddle of employees who, by their uniforms, work in the kitchens upstairs.
“Would it be okay if we got out the chairs?” I ask one of them. I have to repeat myself because it appears the young man isn’t used to actually talking with the visitors to the Gardens.
Minutes later, our area is much cozier with scattered seating. I quash any guilt I might feel because the woman across says, “Oh, that’s so much better.”
We exchange a few pleasantries before settling into a tense wait-and-see. The children are scared. You can tell by the way they clutch the toys they’ve brought with them. I honestly don’t feel that much fear—probably because I have no clue what kind of damage a storm like this can do. You see…
I am a tornado virgin.
I have never lived through any major storm—beyond the huge snow storm of 78’ when I was a child. And all I remember from that week was the isolation—school was canceled and we were unable to leave because the roads couldn’t be plowed. (One of the joys of living rurally.) I do recall my brothers and I deciding that the four-foot drifts were an invitation to jumping off the roof and sinking over waist deep in snow. We had to swivel back and forth to worm our way out. Oh, I’ve had to hide in a few basements on occasion, but they had always turned out to be false prophecies. So, I had a cocky optimism that this time wouldn’t be any different.
Minutes creep past. The littlest girl across from me is crying with that suppressed sob-hiccup combination that can be so cute even when they are earnest tears. I can’t make out what she is upset about other than it involves someone or something called…Balthazar?
So, I ask. Partly to hopefully distract the child and, well, because I am curious.
“Who is Balthazar?”
The little girl blinks tear drenched lashes and utters a nearly incomprehensible string of words:
“I…I…he’s…I left him…and…he’s in danger. I…I…what will…I do…if…” She trails off with more tears and no doubt a snuffly nose.
Her grandmother brushes a strand of hair away from her flushed pink face and leans toward me.
“It’s her toy…I think it’s called Bulbasaur. Or something like that.”
“It’s Bulbazar, Grandma!” This comes from the second little girl ensconced on the other woman’s lap.
A discuss pops up about the pronunciation, but Grandma shakes her head.
“No, I think it has S.A.U.R. at the end—like a dinosaur.”
“What exactly is a Bulbasaur?” I ask.
If I had known the torrent of information that was about to rain down on me, I might have tried to save myself. But then, again, there was no Wi-Fi signal and there really wasn’t anything else to do. So, I took an unscheduled course in Pokémon 101. The little redhead across from me apparently had a masters if not a doctorate.
At one point, she tells me her name is “Kay”
(Names changed just because.)
I tell her, “My name starts with a ‘K’ too!” She beams at me; we are now friends for life.
She points to her sister, “That’s Dee.”
“I recognize that is Pokémon.” I say, pointing to the yellow pillow-type thing Dee is holding as if someone were threatening to take it from her. Then I point to whatever lump is in Kay’s hands. “But what is that?”
Kay giggles. She holds up a lumpy, terry-clothed thing.
“It’s a towel! ‘Cause I did a ‘Dee’!”
And then she plops the thing against the side of her head.
Of course. This make perfect sense. No doubt my expression says as much.
Her grandmother laughs and explains. “She bumped her head earlier and they got her a cloth with ice in it.”
Kay holds back her bangs to reveal nary a bruise. The ice must have done its job or the strawberry hair is hiding the evidence. Kay is now picking through the washcloth and slips a sliver of ice into her mouth with her grandma none the wiser.
Grandma smooths the bangs again, adding, “Anytime we bump our heads, we say we are doing a Dee because she used to run into all sorts of corners and things when she was little.”
Kay pipes up again and points to her sister. “Yeah she bumped her head a lot! So we say ‘We did a Dee.’”
Everyone is nodded and smiling. Then Kay adds, “And when we fart we say we did a ‘Kathy’. Because Grandma farts a lot!” And she points back at her grandmother, who is now laughing—though a tiny bit mortified by this announcement.
Grandma Kathy murmurs something about maybe sharing too much information but she isn’t really mad and her granddaughters know it because they are both laughing, snuggled safe in loving arms.
Kay pops back up from this to launch into a detailed explanation of Bulbasaur’s relationship to Pokémon.
I learn there is something called the Rocket Team—and they are definitely bad guys. And someone named Ash who spends a lot of time in the gym.
The grandma throws in a comment to clarify a point Kay is trying to make with hand gestures that look like something is exploding.
“The Pokémon can evolve.” She says.
But into what is never clearly explained. I picture something like a Transformer—which is my cultural experience with toys that are more than meets the eye—but rounder and cuter.
I learn that the Pokémon can fight. That Pikachu has a secret weapon—something called a ‘Thunder Shock.’ And here, Kay puffs out her cheeks and demonstrates:
“His cheeks blow out really loud and he says, ‘Pikachuuuuuu!”
Apparently this devastates his enemies.
The girls are laughing and chatting back and forth when all of our phones go off at once.
Some of the alerts are voiced announcements notifying us of a Tornado alert in our area and to seek shelter. There is something really unnerving about the shrill cacophony of notes chiming throughout the cement block room. No one is laughing now.
There is a human instinct to huddle. To crouch low as if to make a smaller target. I find myself looking at the little girls across from me shrinking back and arms that had been holding them loosely now tightened. Reassurances are whispered and Grandpa is a stoic figure who rarely says a word but is a calm presence in the face of the unseen.
I try to comfort them, knowing I am helpless to be there for my own son tucked in the basement with a babysitter who definitely deserves more than I pay her.
“So, the alarms are like the ‘Thunder Shock’ Pikachu makes. It’s just a reminder to be careful.”
Then a little girl in a frilly dress toddles past and loses a bow. The pink ribbon falls near my feet and I seize the opportunity.
“Look she lost her bow. That’s a bow alert!”
Kay is delighted by this idea. When an oblivious little boy in an adorable suit trundles through bumping into nearly everything in his path, she calls out, “Baby Alert.”
Soon Kay is reciting once again the episodes and even an entire theme about her favorite TV characters. She sings some sort of anthem—it went on for about seven verses—and it is too fast and her voice is too high for me to do more than pick out one word in ten.
I’m reminded of the scene in Finding Nemo where Nemo’s dad is listening to the baby sea turtle explain the way to get to the East Australian current. After the pipsqueak voice winds down, Marlin says:
“You know, you’re really cute, but I don’t know what you are saying! Say the first thing again.”
For whatever else I miss, I understand that this language is helping Kay and Dee to deal with a frightening situation. No one can call out. All attempts to text and get replies are blocked by the surrounding concrete cocoon that keeps us safe from tornados as well as causing wireless signal fatigue. So, while we sit and try not to worry about the ominous thumps we occasionally hear overhead—we share our stories to distract each other.
Instead of spending our moments anticipating whooshing air signifying imminent destruction, we find the strength to laugh, to find the humor and our humanity in the darkness.
Eventually, the crowds that had been loitering near raw plywood and collapsed tables usually only seen fully clothed with the ruched skirts to protect the legs’ modesty, start to part. People drift away and cheers go up as we realize the danger is past. With very little fanfare, the crisis is over.
I say goodbye to the girls and soon the crowd separates us. We are all ready to be done with the claustrophobic space.
The wedding party is making its way back to their celebration. I spot a woman who is still clutching her slice of wedding cake. I can’t help but comment on her foresight.
“Well, I didn’t want to miss out if it was gone when we got back!” she says with a smile.
“I am just surprised you didn’t eat it while waiting.”
“I didn’t have time to grab a fork,” she replies.
I laugh, “A little thing like that wouldn’t have stopped me!”
Before we part, we agree, this is a wedding no one is likely to forget!
Outside, there is little evidence that a major storm front has gone through.
“Another much ado about nothing!” I think.
It’s not until I am nearing home that I spot the devastation. Trees that had survived sixty to a hundred years of bad weather were torn and scattered on front yards and crushing cars and houses like giant match sticks dropped by a careless hand. I’m not even a mile away from home and it suddenly strikes me how close it came. How violent the winds had to have been to snap oaks and other hard wood like dry kindling. I later learn this was a weak system–only a category EF-0. I don’t want to ever see what something stronger could do.
My house and family are fine–two city blocks west of the path of destruction. I pay the sitter and she shrugs off the seven-hour ordeal caused by our separate vigils in the dark. Thankfully, my son was totally oblivious of any danger.
I didn’t really face the dragon—but I felt his breath on my neck. I survived his reign of terror and I can imagine how differently things could have turned out.
Thus ends my tale. The only thing left is an appreciation for Japanese culture which creates a tea to feed the soul and a Pokémon to calm the tempest in the pot.
I leave you with a final haiku:
Trees dance and bow low
Thunder applauds with fierce claps
Making dancers fall
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
* It never does
**Floral porn, take one—“Come on, you know you want to bee pollinated!”
***You were expecting a dragon ala Harry Potter, weren’t you?
Saturday, I fulfilled a long-awaited, death-defying pleasure—learning The Way of Tea (Chadō) at the Meijer Gardens’ Japanese Tea House in Grand Rapids, MI. Allow me to take you on the journey…
[Insert wavy time machine effect here.]
The day has a mugginess to it that only people of equatorial descent can appreciate. Occasional breezes cause drops in temperature that turn skin from sweaty to clammy in a soggy instant. The air practically vibrates with thermal shifts.
Ten or so participants mill around a bench at the matchiai—the waiting area outside the tea house. Fellow guests discuss the progress of the formation of the Japanese Garden—opened just last year—as well as the availability of tea houses in the surrounding area.*
The Meijer Gardens’ tea house is surrounded by lush greenery and the walkway leading to the building is paved with irregular stones. Discrete signs warn visitors to watch their step. A guide explains the unevenness of the path is intentional—so that you pay attention to where you walk in a thoughtful manner.** She also warns us to ‘bow low’ as we cross the threshold—both to humble ourselves in preparation and to prevent head injury in the taller guests.
Our hostess appears, a slender woman in a yellow kimono, beckoning us with a soft voice to follow her.
We duck under the low gate between the matchiai and the cha-shitsu—or tea house proper. Near the entrance, a wash basin gurgles. We are told it is intended for guests to purify and refresh themselves before entering—though we are asked to admire it from afar. We remove our shoes before slipping into the small building.
The tea house was built in Japan, disassembled, shipped here, and reassembled on site. It is modeled on Japanese specifications—with some allowances for Western comforts. The floor is not entirely made of tatami—and we are not required to scoot in on our knees as proper guests would expect to do. Once seated on square, silken cushions on benches along the wall, we meet our hostess, Yumiko Narita and her assistants: Tomoyo Koehler, who plays the role of ‘guest’ in the demonstration and Miyuki Muramoto, who afterward helps to serve the visitors.
Anita Savio, the Public Affairs Director from the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit, narrates for us throughout the chanoyu (tea service). She says that, typically, the exchange is presented in silence with rare scripted exchanges between the hostess and her primary guest.
Acceptable questions the guest may ask include the origin of the bowl that is central to the ceremony. The chawan at this service, we learn, comes from the Shiga Prefecture—which in Japan is the sister state to Michigan. The bowls and utensils were commissioned there specifically for this reason. Much admiring of the bowl is required before, during, and after the tea is presented and drunk. Additionally, the guest might comment on the weather…this would have been helpful in the hours to come…had we actually discussed this.
Names and steps for the tea service whip past in swift progression. I do my best to follow each detail, but at one point I decide it is easier—and more in keeping with the spirit—to witness rather than try to capture the experience in my cramped notes.
Anita Savio describes the honors of being a guest—approaching on one’s knees to kneel and offer respect to the scroll which has been chosen particularly for this occasion. Later, Miyuki copies the artistic Japanese swoops into my notes. She explains the sentiment “Ichi-go, Ichi-Ay means “One Time, One Meeting.” This seems like an appropriate statement for the rare pleasure of watching a centuries old art form. Or you could say:
“One only has the present moment—the future is not a promise.”
(How do you like that foreshadowing?)
We learn that the outside world rank does not signify—that all are equal inside the tea house. Thus it is very bad manners to wear jewelry or other signs of wealth. (I surreptitiously sneak my necklace into my bag upon hearing this.) No doubt we are breaking many rules but, as foreigners to the art, we are forgiven our ignorance.
A red silk cloth is used to purify already clean utensils. We learn that the scoop used for pouring the water is called a kagami—the same word the Japanese use for ‘mirror.’ The hostess holds the kagami up and looks into it before using it, as if to measure her soul for readiness for the ordeal ahead. (Although there may be poetic license in this interpretation—everywhere I have since looked online the scoop is called a hishaku—though there are various schools of chanoyu.)
About half-way through the ceremony, rain begins to fall. Each plink of water hitting the tile roof accompanies the delicacy of movement as first the bowl is tempered with hot water and the whisk is similarly primed to make it flexible.
I watch the graceful movements between the hostess and her guest—every bow, shuffle, gesture and placement of utensils marks appreciation for the craft and respect for all in attendance. The bowl for serving tea is rotated clockwise in several stages. It is like a ballet for a beverage. As you watch, you realize this is an act of love; for no other reason fully explains why anyone would devote this much time and effort to perfecting an ancient tradition.
We are given a round, pink sweet that is served before we drink. It is completely unforgivable to add sugar or honey to the tea, but the sweet—or wagashi—serves the function of balancing the bitter. Made of azuki bean paste, it is an unfamiliar taste though not entirely unpleasant and similar in texture to marzipan. It is beautifully shaped to mimic a ‘botan’ or peony flower.
Nature suffuses the tea service. There are special teas held at different times of the year. A garden surrounds the tea house where guests may take their repose before or sometimes during the services at a longer ceremony. It is carried into the space in the art of chabana—the flower arrangement that is crafted to complement this day. It is in the errant wind that blows through open windows.
After the ceremony, we visitors are given our own bowl with a unique design. Of note, the bowl is turned until the ‘best side’ faces the guest. Bows are exchanged and before the guest can taste the tea, the bowl must be admired. In the ceremony, there are multiple stages of sitting the bowl on the tatami and admiring it and asking questions of its heritage before the bowl could be returned—beautiful side facing out. Fortunately, as witnesses, we are not required to be so precise—a simple bow suffices both in receiving and returning the treasured tea bowl.***
As the tea ends we are free to ask questions.
We learn that both the hostess and first guest are wearing the kimono of married women—long sleeves are reserved for maidens for the length is better for flirting. The kimono has no buttons, zippers, or pockets. This raises the question ‘where do you put things?’
Tomoyo Koehler demonstrates the usefulness of sleeve folds where she stashes her fukusa—or silk napkin. For larger items, she shows us a rectangular fabric purse that she turns and slips into the drum-style obi she wears at her back. The greatest decoration can be found on the obi. Some ways of tying the material can be very elaborate in shapes like fans, bows, and butterflies.
The tea we attended is only the smallest portion of a full-length ceremony. A full-blown service might take four hours or longer and involve a first tea—a thicker Matcha tea—and a meal of sumptuous cuisine (Kaiseki-ryori) in bite-sized portions. We are offered the lighter, final tea. In truth, what we were given seems thick enough. I thought it looked a bit like blended wheat grass and tasted like an herbal remedy rather than the clear green tea I am familiar with.
We also learn that the fan that is brought by the guest is strictly ceremonial and is never opened. It represents the weapons that Samurai warriors would leave outside the tea house—eschewing violence in favor of humble accord with all guests. The small fan is presented on the tatami, the guest bows to the scroll and, once seated, the fan is placed behind the guest the entire time.
The chado—the art of tea—stems from a tradition brought back by a monk who visited China. At the time, tea was considered medicinal and served a holy function to help the monks stay awake during meditation. When the expensive habit was adopted by the aristocracy and then later was taken on by the Samurai class, the formality of tea preparation and service ascended to a cultural tradition which lasts to this day. It is an art which takes a lifetime to master.
“One must first study to be a guest before one can learn to serve.” Anita Savio.
There is no way to truly convey the gravity and generosity of these women in inviting us to this experience. Yes, we paid a fee to attend, but the intent when participating in the tea is that one is personally invited to a sacred space. And by the end of the chadoyu, you certainly feel honored.
My first epiphany of the day is—one can either experience or observe—you cannot do both.
My later epiphanies will blow you away. But that will have to wait for the next installment entitled “Tea with Tornados.”