The Bastard Bush of Snob Hill

"Furled" by CB Adams

"Furled" by CB Adams

Is there such a thing as a bastard in the plant world? We don’t really know.

There is, of course, the Bastard Cabbage, the Bastard Toadflax, and the Bastard Mustard Plant, but these are only common, vulgar names.

We know that in the human kingdom that bastard is an old term to signify a son who could not inherit (ala Prince Herbert’s “What, the curtains?”) because he was not born out of his father’s (ala, the King of Swamp Castle’s) marriage even though he was the proverbial fruit of his father’s loins, even though such fruits can be of either sex. 

This, compared to illegitimate daughters who were still eligible be married off, or sent to a convent, or employed as a servant, or dreamed Cinderella dreams. How perfectly medieval.

We have pondered the etymology and gender of bastard all summer (leading to an unproductive sidetrack of reading-up-on William the Bastard) as the bush established itself in the yard. And even if bastard today tends to be gender specific (even though history says not), we might still feel free to apply it to the bush, to which we have (rightly or wrongly) assigned a femininity.

After all, we regularly hear young women refer to each other as dude, dick, and son of a bitch (which is doubly perplexing to us), so why not bastard? Especially given that the root of bastard is thought to be from the Latin, bastardus, or perhaps bastum, which is the same as “pack saddle,” which may stem from the idea being of a child produced from a relationship with a traveler.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with a bush because if it is just a question of genetic lineage, then bastardism need not apply. Let us quote one of our favorite Tricky Dick Nixonisms: “Let me say this about that.”

We have adopted a bastard bush.  Or more appropriately, we rescued this bastard bush from landscaping euthanasia. For more than 20 years, this bush thrived at the edge of a Mother’s deck. It was not indigenous to this property, having been transplanted from its original home at our Parent’s former domicile, where it had thrived for at least a previous 20 years. 

 It is a common bush with common name, Rose of Sharon, but to Mother, it is a vulgar name, a name not to be spoken because Sharon is the name of the woman a former brother-in-law married after divorcing our Sister. Mother had enjoyed, maybe even loved, this bush for 30 years, but through no fault of its own, she condemned it now because its moniker was a too-painful reminder of one our family’s great trials (to say nothing of the damage to our Sister and Nephews).

And now we understand from whom we inherited our tangled associative tendencies, including the list we compiled of all the names we would never name either of our sons, drawn from all the people who had offended, bullied, us sometimes in our lives.

So Mother had decided (now ten years post-divorce) that she could no longer endure the bush’s presence. She summed up her animosity by way of a phrase from Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Shortley: “That bush is an abomination!” (Rose of Shortley, perhaps?)

And like a medieval king, it was off-with-its-head, except it was off-at-the-roots.

Mother had mentioned off-handedly that she was going to have her gardener remove the offensive shrub along with some invasive bamboo, a sap-drooling Mimosa tree, and some clumps of decorative grass that no longer interested her. Always on the lookout for free plant material, we asked if we could have it. This pleased Mother because she was glad for it to live, just not within her line of sight.

So that is how the bush came to Snob Hill. And with it we felt it required a new name. If Mother inquired about the health of the bush, we wanted a name that would not conjure unpleasantness. We tried:   

  • M-m-m My Rose of Sharona, by way of The Knack
  • Rose of BetterNotPickIt, with thanks to Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt
  • Rose HasItsThorn, from GNR
  • Nat King Cole’s Ramblin’ Rose, or was it the Grateful Dead?
  • Neil Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rosie
  • And even Rose of Shawan, after a family surname and a great-grandmother who grew them

But none of them stuck. As didn’t Rose of WhatsHerName (too polysyllabic). And neither did Rose of Slut nor Rose of Crotch Jockey, keying off Mother’s preferred nicknames for that person. “It’s not fair to the plant,” she said.

For a bit, we promoted a sex change and referred to it as Rose of Sharon, but pronouncing it like Ariel Sharon, with a long o and emphasis on the second syllable. This proved unsuccessful. Not many got the joke. And most importantly, Mother was not a fan. It may of failed for her because this alias still reminded her of you-know-who, in the same way that gosh-darn-it is only a mask for the real intent of god-damn-it.

Mother didn’t say why, but we suspect it may be that she leans less toward the Judeo and more toward the Christian tradition. There is a certain form of irony in this because 1) Rose of Sharon is mentioned in the Bible, 2) said plant is not a true rose, and 3) is not the same plant as the bush we know today. If only flora confusion were the root of unrest in the Middle East…

One half of Us took a cue from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath suggested Rose a Sharn, as a tip of the hat to this bush’s hardy and resilient character. But the Other Half quickly dismissed this as: Too Joad family. Too Beverly Hillbillies. Too Gomer Pyle.

Besides, the Other Half of Us said, “That whole titty thing at the end is indelible in all the wrong ways, and I’m not talking about breastfeeding in public.”

In the end, we chose Rose of Snob Hill. It’s safe. It’s appropriate. And it’s accurate. Rose is happy on the hill and is thriving, especially with the mild and wet summer. His/her roots are going deep. And we can all live with that.       

The Editorial We: Because, Living On Snob Hill, We Are Amused

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There is a tale of the unfortunate equery who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. "We are not amused," said the Queen when he had finished.-- Caroline Holland, courtier to Queen Victoria, in her Notebooks of a Spinster Lady, published in 1919

The impetus for this blog is simple: Stories from our lives on Snob Hill, especially those with the whiff of spice, scandal, and/or impropriety, are indeed amusing to us, and to you as well, we hope. We have always been guided by the words of the esteemed Southern social philosopher Claire Belcher, who said, " If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me," in Steel Magnolias.  Such people have been sitting next to us, sometimes invited, sometimes not, for 20 years now, and we thought it was high time we sat next to you, dear readers, and spread that spice and scandal, those vanities and humanities, and boners and bon mots, collected here, among 12 humble households, on a private private drive somewhere in Middle America.

Freaks and Beeks - The Art of Warre, A Beekeeper's Journey

I came out last Sunday…to my neighbors.

That is, I revealed that my backyard is now a bee yard, home to two beehives and the possibility of a third. This was big news to those at our annual summer picnic. We are a small neighborhood of twelve homes on a private drive, and there isn’t usually much that occurs without someone noticing something at least some of the time. We window monitors.

But I managed to buy 200 pieces of Western red cedar board ends, unload and stack them on the driveway, store them for a couple of weeks, reload about half of them to take to my father's workshop, and return a few weeks later with the components for three Warre hives, store them on my porch, treat them with ECO Wash in the front yard, install them in the backyard, and finally introduce two packages of bees to their new homes without so much as a “Whatcha doin’ there neighbor?” So much for all those Crime Stoppers stickers in our windows.

Oh, and I had even paraded around in my bonnet, pants, and long white goatskin gloves that make me feel like a cross-dressing Jackie O or Audrey H impersonator. Maybe this says more about what my neighbors expect from me than I realized.

And, that do-it-yourself cloaking device kit wasn’t a waste of money after all, honey.

So when, between bites of fried chicken and seven layer dip, I happened to mention something about “my bees,” well….let’s just say, heads did turn. I watched as this conclave of homeowners, which demographically skews more Downton Abbey than How I Met Your Mother, began an impromptu game of telephone as the news of my bees worked along the line of lawn chairs. I was surprised that by the time it reached the end someone hadn't blurted “What? He watches Glee?”

But the news made it intact. And, as I have come to expect, the first question is almost always “Why did you get into beekeeping?” or “What made you get into beekeeping.” Fair questions both, but, as with so many things bee-wise, it elicits something unique because no one ever asks, “Why did you get a dog?” or “What made you get into cats?”

No, beekeeping is its own brand of endeavor and people react correspondingly. Though most people are wary of an encounter with a bee or bees, they nonetheless overwhelmingly have a positive curiosity about them. And news accounts in recent years about their potentially imminent demise brings forth their protective instinct that is more save-the-baby-seal than get-off-my-lawn. Bees are like Sally Fields, people really, really like them.

In the hypothetical sense, anyway, because the people who congratulate my beekeeping endeavors are often the same ones who also say that bees freak them out with thoughts of anaphylactic shock, stingers, and B-movie swarms of killer bees (not with the fondness of those old Saturday Night Live skits).

For this reason and a few others, including my latent orneriness, I did not take the proactive approach promulgated by the fine folks in my beekeeping club and leaders of the beginning beekeeping course I attended. No, I did not “reach out,” nor soften the opposition, nor build an approval rating. Instead, I extended to my beekeeping the same bug-off attitude that I have carefully nurtured during my twenty years in this neighborhood known as Snob Hill. I’m actively seeking a Beware of Bees sign to post on my gate. I do not recommend my approach for everyone.

I was prepared for whatever backward backlash that my neighbors might launch. I even memorizing the number of the city ordinances allowing for bees, but they surprised me. They were pleasant and supportive. They told me about neighbors from years ago who raised bees. They wanted to know how long I’d been a beek. They wanted a tour of the hives. They wanted to know, of course, when they could expect some honey.

My beekeeping journey has just begun. Out of all us world citizens, those of us who also serve as bee stewards are a special sort of minority. And among those of us who are in that minority, I have down-selected myself into an even smaller minority. That is, I have chosen the Warre approach to beekeeping. It's philosophy appeals to me. More on that decision in my next posting.

Stay tuned. Don’t worry. Bee happy.

Bedding Down on Snob Hill

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The irony did not escape us recently when Parents phoned to inquire whether we had any interest in accepting the offer of their king-sized, extra-long (Dad has long legs), four-poster bed. We said we needed to think about it, which is to say, with more than a little artistic license, that we needed to “sleep on it,” which is often a euphemism for something along the lines of, “No, but we don’t want to hurt your feelings.” We should be clear also – by bed they meant bed frame, not the bedding, mattress, and box springs.

While we were sleeping on it that night, we realized something: So much history from one little fact. We have never purchased a bed – either had to, wanted to, or otherwise. Not for ourselves individually. Not for ourselves as a couple. Not for either son (cribs not included). And neither new nor used. We have bought mattresses, box springs, sheets fitted and flat, and egg crate and memory foam toppers, but never the bed. How’s that for intelligent design?

Childhood beds do not count because our wonder years were featured like apartments with furniture included, so starting in college, we slept in the dorm bunk, imported a bed from home, or slept on a life raft mattress on the floor (aka the faux-futon). Our first apartment as a couple was furnished with her childhood bed because it was a double, compared to his frameless single life raft, but the name-brand solid cherry bed did not survive more than a few years of service, no doubt because it was neither purchased or designed for the vaults, tumbles, and hard athleticism of early married life.

Fortuitously, yet sadly, around the time that we could no longer tighten the bolts and screws of the old cherry bed, a cherished grandmother died and left to Her the antique that was – and still is – known as The Lincoln Bed. It’s the kind of bed that inspired us to imagine donning bed clothes, night caps, and curly toed slippers (shades not of grey but, “And Ma in her kerchief. And I in my cap”).

This was, to borrow a phrase from tea time, a proppa bedda, befitting our then new-found status of first time homeowners. It anchored the euphemistically referenced Master Suite in our new ranch-style starter home, described by an inebriated father on his first visit as “Nice and new and all, though it does resemble a double-wide from the front and the butt (he said ‘rear’). In retrospect, we wish we could take back our needlessly apologetic reply, “Well, we had to start somewhere. But home alone, to be as honest as Abe, we had fun referring to it as The Lincoln Bedroom – Missouri Annex.

Eight years on, and we were planning on taking The Lincoln Bed here to Snob Hill. We were trying to negotiate that rare occurrence, the door-to-door move, and we were being batted about by the mortgage company like a shuttlecock during a game of drunken badminton. Before the closing, we secured an additional private visit. We measured and diagrammed (oh, the joys of graph paper) the placement of our bedroom furniture, including The Lincoln Bed.

We still appreciated the walnut behemoth, Boyone was five and Boytwo was due in a few months, and this patch of double bed real estate was beginning to experience, not quite border wars, but certainly lines of scrimmage. Into this moving mix, a Mother unexpectedly offered to give us her nearly new, recently acquired king-sized four-poster bed with what seemed to us to be fancy, almost high-tech mattress composed of a series of water tubes. After months of visiting bedroom stores and mattress retailers, Mother had chosen this bed as the cure for her sleeplessness and fibro myalgia. Six months after delivery, neither condition had improved – plus she didn’t like using a small step stool to ascend/access the bed. To borrow an analogy that could not have been made at that time – getting into this bed felt to her like assailing The Wall in Game of Thrones (nor was she a fan of Pink Floyd).

So we inherited the four-poster. Boytwo would graduate to the Lincoln Bed in a few years after he graduated from his crib. We learned to love spreading out. Besides many good nights of sleep, there is really only one story related to this bed. While hosting the annual Snob Hill Christmas Party a few years after we moved in, our neighbor the Death Star heaved herself upstairs rather than send her obedient lackey and sycophant husband, Sam, just to nose around the second floor of the house, ostensibly to retrieve her coat.

Her husband was code named (by us, anyway) Sam for Secret Agent Man because he had “retired” from some sort of other job while in his 50s to become a real estate agent for the company co-owned by our next-door neighbor. He never seemed to sell anything. We think he just liked to see his name planted on signs throughout town like toadstools after a heavy rain. Still, he seems to still have captured the soon-to-be deceased widow market—those little old ladies to shed their mortal coils as well as their earthly abodes—an always diminishing but ever sustaining segment of the local housing economy.

The coats were piled on our four-poster. And, yes, we did—and still do—have a brass chandelier above the bed, a perhaps extravagant touch, except we had acquired it during a silly bitof aggressive bidding – fueled by the double trouble of competitive bidding and an open bar at our sons’ school’s annual dinner auction. It was for a good cause we told ourselves, but the truth lay elsewhere, hung-over. The morning after (there’s got to be one and there’s no pill for it), as the boozy fog lifted, we stared at it – the chandelier – wondering what we were ever going to do with an extra chandelier (and reciting the morning-after mantra “What were we thinking. What WERE we thinking?”) an answer appeared – the bedroom.

Out of breath, and thinking they were unobserved, the Death Star said to Sam, the almost code-like, “To the manor born.” They nodded to each other, as long-established married persons often do in the nearly silent, private language, created during their years together. We could only ponder her assessment of our boudoir and recall the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail when King of Swamp Castle says, “One day, lad, this will all be yours.” To which his son Prince Herbert replies, “What, the curtains?”

The next bed we did not purchase sits now in pieces in the living room. The four poster this spring let us down finally – and literally. The footboard suddenly split one night when we were sleeping, no athleticism required.  The jokes have abounded about whose side was the one that collapsed. Thanks to the dust ruffle, the temporary repair we made with lag bolts and sistering boards, we were able to make the repair, but it bothered us knowing it was there and not knowing when next it would fail. Then a Father called the offer of his four-poster king-sized bed. He was reluctantly downgrading to a single bed so a Mother could continue to make it for him. The king-sized bed had become for her a painful, herculean task to change the sheeting.

And so, almost 20 years from the receipt of our last gifted place of repose, we have avoided again the opportunity to buy a bed. Yet, there are still consequences. The bed has been sitting in pieces in the living room for more than two months with a deadline of Thanksgiving to install it in our upstairs master bedroom. It’s not as easy as it may seem, but that, as they say, is another story.

For now, we will ponder all of this history from just unpurchased beds. We’ll sleep on that...for a bit longer.

Fare Thee Well, FUBAR Gardens

And really, we don’t know what Paul Simon meant when he sang about the “sounds of silence” because life on Snob Hill is usually peaceful and relatively quiet, but never silent.

People speak about the chirping of birds as the harbinger of spring (but honestly, don’t birds sing year round?) (on the other hand, tulips announce themselves with color rather than sound) (though maybe, like dog whistles, our ears don't hear them)).

We know summer by the sound of the lawn mower and leaf blower operated by our imposing neighbor Mr. Vonk across the street. Mr. Vonk lets us know when the grass is dry enough to be cut (at least twice a week or more, it seems), when our leaves have invaded his expansive personal air space, and when all weeds need whacking. We look forward to the day when, like one of those hurdy-gurdy one-man-bands, Mr. Vonk will don all his mechanized equipment and mow and blow and whack simultaneously. If this occurs, we promise to provide some proof, like one of those herky jerky films of Sasquatch (apparently only the palsied camera-challenged are eligible for an audience with Pope Gigantopithecus) .

We know that autumn is upon us by the sound of acorns falling on the plastic (call it “composite material” all you want, but it’s still plastic) carport that our neighbors attached to their house like a piece of mismatched Lego. To gank a phrase from an old commercial, we wish they would “leggo that Lego.” Such a structure is unbecoming of Snob Hill.

As autumn approaches, we lie in bed, especially in the morning, and listen as the accords begin to drop – propelled at first slowly, prompted by slight winds, and then building into a crescendo as the temperatures cool and they are stripped by gusts from the North. It is as if the Mother Oak finally decides the time has come for her acorn children to go out a play…permanently. And try to not to get under foot!

All of this is leads us to our current feelings of good riddance toward our gardens, especially the vegetable garden. Sadly, our mantra, as we stand before them, surrounded by the plunk of freedom-seeking, plummeting acorns, the steroidal whine of Mr. Vonk’s leaf disturber, and the obnoxious natterings of the amateur announcer from the nearby stadium that describes the silly scurryings of third-tier college athletes, is simply, “Just die already.”

We have been known to be autumnally melancholic, morose even, as we contemplate the gathering gloom, the abbreviation of daylight (and increasing Vitamin D deficiency) and the inexorable slide into winter. We are reputed to be Fall People, fixated on the strip search and confiscation of the other three seasons of flora. This year, all of that flailing has been replaced with an overwhelming  “Oh, Get on with it!”

In the spring, we began with such high hopes. We moved what seemed like a ton of pavers from the back yard  to the front of the yard as we lined our new vegetable garden. We hired Rototiller Man (an archaeological descendant to Piltdown Man?) to break the earth and outdo Mr. Vonk’s landscaping motor madness, at least for an hour and a half. Then we furtively pored through seed catalogs like plant porn addicts, amended soil, fertilized, cold composted, and visited nurseries and Home Depot’s garden center.

We were inspired by a passage from Gary Paulsen’s Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass, describing some uncles during planting season:

Pick up the dirt and smile and say:

“Drop a seed in this drop a goddam seed in this, and you won’t make the edge of field before it’s up to your knee tripping you.”

Pick up the soil and taste it, taste a piece of it and smell it and throw it down and smile and say, “Clabbered dirt, sweet grass,” even though dirt doesn’t clabber and sour, but sill, still there is a thing to taste there that tells things.

Oh, such was our springtime Pollyanna hopes for the garden. Now, these several months later, we have devolved. We began like Big Edie in Grey Gardens when she said, “I love the smell [of Grey Gardens]. I thrive on it. It makes me feel good.”

Now we are like Little Edie when she said, “I can't stand being in this house. In the first place, it makes me terribly nervous. I'm scared to death of doors, locks, people roaming around in the background, under the trees, in the bushes, I'm absolutely terrified.” (Is it no wonder that The Grey Gardens: The Musical CD had sold approximately 30,000 copies as of November 2007?)

So we are terrified of our gardens. We could list the many reasons why we have allowed them to fall into their current state of disrepair, but, really, are minor foot surgery and two months in a “cam boot,” poorly staked tomato plants, two gusty, bamboo-trellis-destroying rain storms, preparations to send our youngest child off to college, general professional obligations, aggressive avoidance of OODW, Lady Macbeth Syndrome (Out Out Damnned Weed), and the threat of West Nile really enough to offset and properly explain our failures as stewards of the soil? We think not.

Our gardens are FUBAR. If you don’t know this military acronym for utter failure please Google it. Propriety prevents us from such potty mouthings at present. Best now to metaphorically plow them under. Learn from our mistakes – apply a dab of disambiguation.  And spend the winter listening to the wailing soundtrack of Mr. Vonk’s snow blower. And preparing to do it all again next spring.

Such is the nature of gardening.

The Family Sedums

We received the call a few weeks ago.

Well, not that call, but an important call nonetheless. We are referring of course to the call from Mother, who wanted to know if we would like the family sedums.

Some receive the family jewels, others, apparently, the family sedums. They were currently in pots on her deck and, despite her best efforts, something insisted on eating them, “to the quick,” as Mother put it. Every morning she would look outside to find another sedum reduced to a sad stub. She had moved the pots all year, from driveway to walkway to deck, trying to make them inaccessible, in successive order, to the deer, the squirrels, the chipmunks, groundhogs, beavers, slugs, and gypsies, tramps, and orchid thieves.

To no avail.

The solution, Mother had concluded, was total exile, to secret them from her house in another county to ours … if we wanted them. We did, but this begs the question, “What if we said no?” The answer is, of course, “Not an option,” which sounds like the catchphrase from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that is our life. We are the inheritors of the family jewels and the family sedums.

Her offer came with some precedent. We already have the reputation as the repository of the family flora. Already rooted are the Hen and Chicks we were given in childhood by a great-grandmother who gave us “starters” from hers that she grew in strawberry pots, and Old Bastard, the maple tree flourishing in the backyard that is the progeny of the magnificent specimen a grandfather (the eponymous Old Bastard) had in his front yard before the Missouri Highway Department cut it down to widen the road.

There are no plant import regulations between St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. The sedums arrived in pots so large and heavy Father had brought along a ramp to slide them into the child-sized red Flexible Flyer wagon, the only wheeled conveyance we had since the red wheelbarrow’s tire went flat and we felt too cheap to spend $32 for a new one.  Who knew so much would have depended upon it?

Any of our looky-loo Snob Hill neighbors were rewarded with the sight of two 75-year-olds and two 53-year-olds (one limping along in a cam boot) guiding the sedums down the uneven stone walkway the way those people in the Macy’s Day Parade handle the giant Snoopy balloon on a windy Thanksgiving day. After safely seated on the front patio, our neighbors no doubt continued to be entertained as we stood, gesticulating over the pots, which Mother was quick inform that she wanted back.

There were three varieties of sedums, each with its own history and all of which are botanically unexceptional. They are just garden variety sedums. Mother pointed. Father pointed. We stood with hands on hips, trying to follow their disagreement about which sedum came from which side of the family. We can only be certain now of this: there is one from each side of the family and one that was purchased years ago by our parents. With a knowing glance, we acknowledged to each other that in a few seasons, after the sedums became established and spread in their new home, the confusion would only grow.

What our neighbors could not hear next was the story Mother told of the sedums from her own mother’s garden. This grandmother was a wonderful and giving woman with a tragic taste in men. She married twice after divorcing mother’s father (the only good one of the bunch). The third was a carpenter named Raymond (forever ruining that trade and name). Our grandmother was no gardener, but she liked to have a few flowers to brighten the yard that overlooked an interchange on Highway 55. She could never get anything to grow because Raymond delighted in running over with his riding lawnmower whatever she had planted. Tulips, marigolds, and Black-eyed Susans – all succumbed as he rode over them, laughing.

The only plants he could not kill were the sedums that she protected in beds, built of unattractive concrete blocks that lay along the basement foundation. During the last year before she died, Mother dug up some of the sedums and took them home. She nurtured them for more than 20 years and when she moved to two new houses.

Now this sedum legacy continues on Snob Hill. Family folklore blends with family plantlore – proof that love has the capacity to outlive cruelty for as long as we care to tend it and pass it on.

And Mother has her pots back.

--CB Adams

Embracing My Inner Jew

Like many Americans, my heritage is a hodge-podge of ethnicities. Genetically I am a Heinz 57 – related to both John Adams and Pope John Paul II as well as a host of nefarious characters I can only imagine. Culturally, I am equally diverse – according to my DNA, my ancestor was an African man by way of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and England, Ireland, and Wales. Harry Potterally, I am Muggle.

In a culture that encourages us to embrace our inner child, inner femininity, and inner peace, today I embraced my inner Jew. The details are sketchy, but I have Jewish ancestry on both sides of my family. On my father’s side, there is a murky story about a Jewish boy from Germany who was adopted (or kidnapped, depending on who told the story) in the early days of World War II and became part of my lineage.

I credit my love for a good bagel to my Jewish ancestors, whoever they were. I am constantly disappointed by what passes for a “bagel” these days. They are too soft, bready and lack any satisfying texture. So, as with many things in life, if you want something done right, do it yourself. I stumbled upon a traditional bagel recipe last week and it has haunted me. I make a mean challah, so I thought I would give bagels a try.

As I walked through the aisles of Whole Foods, past all the faddish “gluten free” items, I was actually searching for wheat gluten. I found it, as well as another new ingredient – barley malt.

I mixed. I kneaded. I rolled. I boiled. I baked. The results were not as pretty as those in a good New York bagelry, but the taste, texture, and chewiness were right on. I will work on my technique of shaping them better. But I may never enter a Panera again.

Life On Snob Hill: Strangers on the Hill

One of our favorite authors is Lewis “Buddy” Nordan. A few weeks ago, we were reminded of his short story “The Sears and Roebuck Catalog Game” from his collection Sugar Among the Freaks. We were reminded because a For Sale sign has sprouted like an alien toadstool on the lawn of a Snob Hill property.

We were reminded of Nordan’s story because, as he wrote in the second paragraph, “My favorite game was to open a Sears and Roebuck catalog and sit with my mother on the floor or on her lap in a chair and to point to each model on the page and to say, What does this one do” – where does this one live? – which one is her boyfriend?”

We were reminded of this because we have for years played a similar game we call Who’s Next?, as in, who’s leaving the Hill next. This is a game that is both simple and quite complex. Cold War strategy has nothing on this exercise. There are only 12 homes on Snob Hill, but the houses and families who live in them are as intricately entwined as players embroiled in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

We admit that Who’s Next evolved from our early days on the Hill as we plotted to dismantle what came to be known as the Axis of Evil (this term was promptly appropriated by the second Busch administration). Very few properties on the Hill come to market, and this was even more true 18 years ago when we acquired our homestead. As the newcomers then, we quickly intuited the power structure, which was an oligarchy consisting of C, M, and J – or the CMJ Corporation, as we called it.

These three women had, without contest, ruled Snob Hill for years, due to the low turnover of properties. C was a woman who owned the world's largest collection of jean culotte skirts and favored short-cropped butchy haircuts. M was the widow of a local doctor infamous for wearing silk robes at his dinner parties, cross-stitching Christmas decorations, and being caught in flagrante with a male patient. J did not just hen peck her husband, she bludgeoned him. She was a heavy, round woman whom we nicknamed The Death Star. We are still sure she generated her own gravity.

These Supremes passed judgment on a panopoly of issues – judgments that they did not keep to themselves. Boys: too noisy. Dogs: too yappy. New house paint: too yellow. Trash: set out too early. Grass: not cut often enough. Fire pits: illegal. Today: not as great as yesterday.

We, and a select few of our other neighbors, tried for regime change to no avail. We dreamed of a coup d'état, or a putsch, or an overthrow, or some other sort of sudden deposition. Yet still they reigned. The best we could do was wish for the dismantling of the CMJ Corporation. It was a war to be won through attrition. We assured ourselves that time would be our best defense. “At least,” we reasoned, “If we can’t unseat them, we can outlive them.”

And Who’s Next? was born. Actually, in its original form, it was Who’s First?. Who would be the first to leave the Hill? This topic provided hours of enjoyment as we contemplated who would lead the exodus. We became, for all intents and purposes, the Snob Hill Actuarials – masters at weighing age, health, income, family pressures, the local real estate market, home and property maintenance, and overall openness to change, among other variables. And each time we played, the outcome was different. We became fond of a line from a Lucinda Williams song, “If wishes were horses, I’d have a ranch.” We were living on The High Chaparral.

It took several years, but M was the first to relent. She had been a widow for at least 20 years and did not work, but when she announced her departure, she said she was “retiring” to Arizona. We could only suppose that dictatorship had taken its toll. Several years after that, C and her husband downsized to a local condo development. J is still holding on, in a way. She and her husband, Chicken D, moved out of their house and into one they inherited close by, but their Snob Hill house remains empty and un-for-sale, sort of like one of Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palaces.

We continued to play Who’s Next?. At least two years ago, we correctly identified the current household in the Dutch Colonial as next. We liked the widow who lived there. It took us a while to get to know her because we had been warned by the CMJ Corporation to avoid here because “she drinks.” This was conveyed in the same whispery, gossipy way that cancer was mentioned 50 years ago.

The For Sale sign appeared without warning. We had hoped for some advance notice. The agent’s name on the sign was Cookie Rottermich. We wondered who would want to say, “Cookie is selling my house”? The image of a passel of Keebler Elves scampering about the place, tjuzing and prepping and staging was disturbing, to say the least. And even though our computer cannot access Google translator, we are sure Rottermich can be loosely translated from the German as Rotten Milk. Not a good sign.

A week later the open house was announced. The Dutch Colonial was the only house we had not yet seen inside in the 18 years we have lived on the Hill. Apparently this was the case with most of our neighbors because as we entered, the house was crawling with them. It seemed there were more neighbors than potential buyers. We are a nosy lot.

We toured the house, then met some Snob Hillers and discussed, in the kitchen, the inadequate size of the kitchen, the general condition of the house, and the recent sewer issues that had been mitigated. In the living room we met some other Hillers and discussed the owner’s desire to move to a retirement community and whether she was asking an appropriate price. We fell into two camps on this issue: those of us who thought it was correctly “priced to sell” and those of us who thought she should have set the price higher. We have our own property values to consider, after all. With other neighbors, we compared who had been in what houses and who had made significant home improvements over the years. Between ourselves, we proposed some light to moderate demolition and the benefit of turning the screened porch into a four season room.

We admit we dished about living on the Hill. And some of the outsiders kept an ear cocked to our conversation. Especially someone we nicknamed Blue Notebook Man. He practically followed us around. We swear he even took some notes. We noticed he had two young sons (oh, and a wife). This interested us because of the three families with children, there are four girls and two boys. Two additional boys would help equal out the hormonal balance of the neighborhood.

A few days later, we thought we spied Blue Notebook Man assessing the house with a home inspector. A few days after that, some surveyors were taking measurements. Yet, still no Sold sign. We had to remind ourselves that some agents wait until the deal is done before announcing it.

A week or so later, the news was official. But no Sold sign. Instead, it said “Too Late!”. Too late for what? Was this a message to us? Was it too late for us to vet the potential new neighbors? Was it too late for us to sell first? Was it too late for the sellers to back out? Or was this an agent/conspiracy theorist with a new spin on The End is Near! sign? A simple, unambiguous, easy-to-understand Sold sign would have caused much less anxiety.

Now we wait. Will they move in before the Snob Hill annual Christmas party? Or will the current owner insist on one last holiday before moving to the next phase of her life? Will there be boys? We don’t know.

But we can say this: Welcome Strangers!

And ask: Who’s Next?

 

 

Snob Hill In French Is Still Snob Hill

The Yard Awaits

The Yard Awaits

It's Springtime for Snob Hill -- Spring is a bit late this year, at least by the calendar. It's hard to believe that just two weeks ago our area had approximately 14 inches of snow. The local weather dolts have been calling it a 100-year snow storm. That may be, but we wonder what happens when it snows 15 inches same time next year. Will they call it a 1-year snow?

As we stroll around our God's half acre on what we vaingloriously call the Flora Tour, we were drawn to a corner of the yard that has undergone significant changes in the 17 years we have lived here. When we moved in, this corner was home to a dilapidated, rusting shed that resembled something out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Right next to it was what the real estate agent called a Water Feature Koi Pond. All in one phrase. We came to know it as a mosquito incubator and drowning pool for baby bunnies who didn't know any better.

So, we Sawzalled the shed and filled in the pond hole. We repurposed the flat stones that lined the pond. We also installed a stone bench, but that's another story. For a number of years, we concentrated on other parts of the yard. We are not too proud to admit we invested in the so-called curb appeal of this place, and to hell with that forlorn corner that no one besides us could see.

Last year, we discovered the potential of this corner. We are a frugal couple, so we waited until the last of the planting season and snapped up some discounted plants in need of some TLC. One was a pussy willow from Costco. The tag said, "French Pussy Willow." We are not too proud to admit that in addition to the low price, we were also drawn to the term French. This is Snob Hill, after all.

We nurtured it without knowing what to expect. There is always a bit of the Forrest Gump Factor when purchasing plants; one never knows what one is going to get. What we got was a thriving bush with riotous catkins. The French, apparently, know their pussy willows, Like some of our other favorite plants, we have a nickname. We dub this Pussy Galore in homage to the 50 years of James Bond movies.

French Pussy Willow, Salix Discolor

French Pussy Willow, Salix Discolor

Tonight, we are grilling skinless/boneless chicken breasts and filleted chicken thighs. Due to time constraints, we are using one of our favorite bottled marinades by Stubb's. Then we doctor it up with some olive oil, orange and lemon juices, and a dash of Kickin' Chicken season from Weber. Still in our French mode, we are preparing Dauphinois Potatoes, ala Julia Childs. It is dishes like these that we most appreciate our, ahem, French mandoline for those paper-thin of slices of Yukon Gold pomme de terre.

The Difference Between Snow and Leaves

Snow Bench.jpg

We are digging out from yesterday's 14-inch spring snow storm. The weather people were right for a change; it arrived on time and in the predicted amounts. After a few years of paltry snowfall, this one is spectacular, even if a little late. We were inspired at first to offer our paean to snow. But from our perch in the kitchen, watching shovels, snow blowers, and helpful grandchildren materialize, something else seemed worth mentioning.

Most of us on Snob Hill emerged about the same time this morning, intent on clearing paths for our selves and the mailman. The municipality will not plow our street because we live on a what the others call a private drive. We do not, as a neighborhood, think of ourselves as private drive people. That's a slippery slope. Next we may become a gated community. So we pay a man and his truck and his plow to clear the street.

What struck us this morning is how we all helped one another. Mr. W from two houses down, brought out a snowblower that looked like he needed a license to operate it. He cleared his next door neighbor's circle drive, and the driveway of the two younger families across the street. One of us helped an elderly woman from across the street, and she reciprocated with some kitty litter to help us extricate the Jeep from a snow bank. We all made sure to place snow piles in convenient places.

Snow, in other words, is a unifying event. Not so with leaves.

Snob Hill is filled with mature trees whose leaves fall throughout the hill at the whim of each prevailing wind. The leaves are like one of nature's united nations, all mixed together. Yet, it is hard not to be resentful raking large sycamore leaves when one does not "own" a sycamore. We should only be responsible for the leaves that are indigenous to our own property. The operators of leaf blowers have been known to "return" leaves to their rightful owners when the rightful owners aren't home. Others have the philosophy that if they ignore the piles of leaves long enough, eventually they will blow next door or across the street.

Snob Hill leaves, in other words, are not unifying. They bring out our lesser angels.

Our Life on Snob Hill, The Beginning

Statue I.jpg

Many towns and cities have Snob Hills. When we moved to our own private Snob Hill 17 1/2 years ago, we were the youngest family on this twelve-household incorporated subdivision. We had one five-year-old son and one on the way in a few months. We were living in a newly built suburban ranch-style house that my father in law called a glorified double-wide. We had been looking to move into an older, more traditional home for a few years. We wanted a house to go along with our antiques. We found several homes, but they either needed too much remodeling to live in during renovation or they had already remodeled and were beyond our means. We were mildly complaining about our situation one Sunday after Mass when an elderly parishioner urged us keep driving around town and sooner or later something would turn up.  We took her advice and drove home on a street unfamiliar to us.

And there it was: an Open House Today sign planted haphazardly on a brushy hill. The house was obscured by a tall wooden fence. A peek through the gate and we resolved to return at the advertised time. Call it kismet or call it serendipity, but the only thing keeping the divorcing owners (both anesthesiologists) legally together was this house. Due to this  "divorce situation," as the agent put it, the owners had just reduced the asking price by 30 grand -- just barely within our range.

We came. We stayed all day. We made an offer. We made a door-to-door move about a month later. Our life on Snob Hill had begun.