Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas, Comrade Teacher!

In the old communist Yugoslavia there was no Christmas, only New Year but in Kosovo strings of light bulbs were twinkling round the balconies of the minarets in mid-December, for Ramazan. It was my first Christmas teaching there and the head of the English department apologized when Christmas day came around because he'd forgotten. Milovan told me to take the day off.

But it was more fun to be in the English department where every day was Christmassy, with its early morning trip to the buffet in the basement for Turkish coffee and brandy. And then there was 'elevenses' when we slid down the snowy slope across Marshal Tito street to The Three Hats opposite the Faculty of Philosphy for more coffee and brandy "to keep out the cold."

Pristina, capital of Kosovo, already looked like a Christmas card, the sky a brilliant blue with the sun shining on the snow. And sometimes it seemed the whole point of being there, ("A missionary!" as my Belgrade friends said,) was that the only sound on Marshall Tito Street, apart from the occasional truck or Party car, was the hissing of sledges gliding over snow and the jingle of harness and sleigh bells as the peasants drove through town.

It was not until after Christmas that the shops started to look festive. For the poorest province of Yugoslavia that meant the arrival of oranges, lemons and bananas and the placing of white cotton wool snow along the tops of the framed portraits of Tito and Lenin that had been moved down in front of the school books, the canned meats and bottles of brandy. Fir trees were dragged home from the market on toboggans, like the pigs, but the small black or pink ones were carried like chickens, by the legs, squealing as they twirled first one way then the other. It ws New Year and anyone with a pig was Serbian, or at least Christian. The raising of pigs was a tactic of survival under Moslem rule: an unclean pig would not be stolen.

There were Catholic Albanians in Kosovo as well as Moslem but Serbians were Orthodox which meant their Christmas would have been in January. With older Yugoslavs the first question was always: "What is your religion?" "Protestant" meant nothing so the second, puzzled question was: "When do you celebrate Christmas?" And then came the triumphant:"But that's the Catholic Christmas!" and I was classified with the Catholics.
It was a little complicated for Oral Exercises in English, even with the fourth year but all the students had fun that first Christmas morning with their greetings and variations on "Merry Christmas, Comrade Miss Mary!" "Merry Christmas, Comrade Teacher!"

Sunday, December 6, 2009

'Tis the Season

Apart from my bit on Motes Orchids and Face Book, it has been twelve days since my last blog... Sounds as if I'm writing this with a quill pen, in my cabin, as the ship drifts becalmed, sails torn, food running low...

In fact, it IS a bit like that, becalmed by such modest thoughts as: Who do I think I am? And buffeted by the question: Isn't this always about me? (Cheering quote from Oscar Wilde, who enjoyed talking about nothing: -"... it's the only thing I know anything about.")

But now is the season for deep thoughts about Giving and Society and Commercialism and Stuff- (as in having too much.)
Once more, I didn't purchase the UNICEF Christmas cards - always leave it too late - but did get two lovely boxes of elegant little cards with colored envelopes, (no less) - 20 for 3.99 at T J Maxx - and have promised myself will donate the extra to a Charity of My Choice.

That would be Oxfam, though there are so many good ones now. Oxfam started as a reaction by a bunch of professors at Oxford, if I remember rightly, incensed that out of every pound sterling raised for charity, about eighty percent was spent raising money for charity.

Now, of course, Oxfam and my other glam charity, Doctors without Borders, in response to my modest contribution, send me enough paper work to feed a goat for a month.

How far away are we from the Victorians? How many generations? In the nineteenth century London was like Calcutta: Oliver Twist and Slumdog Millionaire. A question of skirting the overwhelming poverty and averting the eyes. I wonder if our great grand children will look back and ask How could you? How could you walk past your television screens, on your way to the fridge, or feeding the dog, saying the problem is just too big. And we will answer: it seemed OK and quite normal at the time.

Motes Orchids on Facebook!

Motes Orchids is on Facebook !

By the way, a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement states that exclamation marks are absolutely OK on the internet, in fact, required! They add emotion and life. This is a great relief as in paper letters exclamation marks come across as hyper teenage tics. So - Who Knew!!!!

Right- so here's a shout out to Motes Orchids on Face book which looks so pretty and bright - pixs of beautiful orchids - many of which are ours - (just saying!) And lively comment. We should have done this years ago!!! But better late than never !!!

Note: Now need justification for the use of the dash - I do love it. !!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving from Scratch

We all know America is the greatest melting pot of all and everyone is of equal value and if you say they're not then you have to apologize but I can't help feeling that being Anglo-Saxon definitely gives one a leg up in the melting pot.

I felt this especially because I met Dr. Motes, Martin, teaching in Kosovo, southern Serbia, where three languages were spoken: Serbian, Turkish and Albanian,-none of them anywhere close to English. (Locals grumbling about learning Spanish - you have no idea!)

So, anyway, it was obvious that coming from southern Serbia to South Florida would be a piece of cake. And for a 'native speaker' as the English teachers call us, minor facts - such as "vest" and "knickers" in American English having nothing to do with underwear, or that "washing up" means cleaning your face rather than doing the dishes- were not things likely to throw me or make me have to stop what I was doing and call my mother.

But having finally arrived in Florida in October, almost the first thing I was told by Martin, not known as a family man, was that we would be on the road again, for Thanksgiving: to be with the parents. "Thanksgiving is more important for Americans than Christmas."

More important than ...More important than Christmas? It was then I realized I was in a foreign country, that I had married a stranger from a strange land and the child I was bearing would grow up with almost as lopsided an idea of the calendar as the children of my Yugoslav friends, who had their big day in November too, the Day of the Republic. But for them, that was understandable. They were not Anglo-saxon and all the more fun for that, but Americans had no excuse.

All that was a long time ago and as Lord Chesterton said about something entirely different: "The agony has abated." I have since learned the customs of this strange new land and now am proud to announce that when it comes to the turkey for Thanksgiving I yield to noone in my ability to serve up a tender, golden bird. I have become a champion baster. And I do stuffing - from scratch- (I like that American expression) even if it takes for ever. My secret? you ask. One just keeps on adding: the half jar of mango chutney, the last dollop of mustard, whatever's in all those little pots hiding at the back of the fridge, the last few crackers that got put in the freezer. Say what you like about my stuffing - it's definitely from scratch.
And I do cranberry sauce from scratch. In that, I may be being too American. I don't know if our family and friends are different or more lazy than most, but I discovered that making real cranberry sauce did not seem to be traditional. The first year at home, I bought a bag of cranberries, (a new fruit to someone from England) - read the directions, slid the berries into boiling water with a cup of sugar- simmered them till they popped, cooled them and put them in a pretty bowl. And this brought forth exclamations of surprise. Apparently the real American thing is to have some kind of a roll of coagulated berries that slide out of a can.

Now I am an American, finally, but only just. When asked, I didn't know how many stripes were on the flag and I had no idea which president was on what dollar bill. But if they had asked me about basting a turkey or making cranberry sauce from scratch - I would have aced it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Do's and Don'ts of Orchid Selling

When I think of the Do's and Don'ts of Orchid Selling I realize that with Motes Orchids it's the Don'ts that stand out, that define us best.

1. Don't mix politics and religion with business!

Where's the fun in that? Our philosophy at Motes Orchids is: if you are going to be open to the public and selling things what better time than to talk about Darwin, politics and anything else that stirs us up? Otherwise, with all due respect, we might as well be bank tellers or greeters at Walmart.

2. Don't kid around too much especially with new people.

I once told a gentleman from Chicago, visiting with friends, "Yes, we have a Porta Potty but Martin always says for guys: "Why waste the nitrates! Just go into the grove!"
He was a tall, imposing man and I still remember the look on his face as he gazed down at me.

3. Don't kid around Part II

When people very nicely ask if they may just look around? Do not answer: "Of course! Just remember there are electronic devices at all exits! Ha ha!"
This actually is a visual joke and may be lost on those unfamiliar with the appearance of Motes Orchids. Those who are, always get the joke.

4. Don't hover. (Around a customer).

Actually, we don't. (Usually too busy talking and, or, arguing - see above.)
Whatever is said about personal service and attention to customers being the most important thing for small businesses competing with the likes of Walmart or Home Depot- don't ever hover-hovering is so out. If you stand around at a customer's elbow, with or without helpful suggestions, and follow them from plant to plant, you will not encourage them to prefer you to the impersonal garden center at Target- you will merely look like you're keeping an eye on them because you think they might be trying to pinch something.

5. Don't turn off the radio if only one person has ventured into the nursery early on, especially someone new. Leave the radio on, otherwise an ominous silence will develop and scare them away.

6. BUT Don't bully customers to listen to Car Talk just because you think it's the best thing on Saturday morning.

7. Don't immediately try out your elementary or quite good Spanish when you hear a Spanish accent.

It is tempting to practice or show off and often your attempts will be met with exclamations of surprise and delight and appreciation and Motes Orchids will triumph once again but sometimes not. And it is well to remember that this individual who does not appreciate your helping out, may well have been in South Florida far longer than the average English speaker, and may well have a richer vocabulary than you do -given the latinate nature of so much Spanish vocabulary- (ie: long words).

8. SO Don't hand out orchid culture sheets in Spanish when you hear an accent unless you hand out the English one as you do so, saying: "Well, probably grandmother will be looking after the orchids too!Ha ha!"

9. Don't make too many suggestions and give too many options to customers who have a hard job making up their minds.

You know you've lost a sale when the comments slide from: "Oh! They're both so lovely I can't decide!" to-"Oh, heavens - what do you think of this one too?" To-"Oh, I really just can't decide. They're ALL so lovely!" and off they drift.

And 10 Don't start a long gloomy economic history of the pricing of orchids.

People have come for the flowers and (if they know us) bracing argument and conversation. Though I do think it is TOTALLY legitimate to point out why vandas should be more expensive than cute little commercial phalaenopsis and oncidiums and dendrobiums- those little Barbie doll orchids. Because vandas and often ascocendas too, are older and often have gone through a lot. Our orchids are more like parrots - they can outlive you if treated right. And a slightly battered appearance merely means these are five, six, seven years old (and on you can go-) Some of these orchids remember Andrew(1992.) If they could speak what a tale they could tell! Whereas your little phals- under two years old! Theyre like little Miss Worlds with their pretty, empty little heads! I'm sure they're all for World Peace and recycling but that's about it.

BUT PSSST! If it weren't for being Mrs motesiana and married to vandas and ascocendas- if I were fresh into orchids, with my frugal Clearance Rail First! philosophy, my Goodwill or Goodbye! I'd be the first one there, dumpster diving on rescue missions for little orphaned, fading Phalaenopsis round the back of Home Depot.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Do's and Don'ts of Orchid Buying

Actually Do's are pretty simple -Do buy orchids! Do pay the price stated including sales tax- which brings us to our first Don't:

Don't ask: "Why are you the only people charging sales tax?"
Because I want libraries to stay open, students to have music classes, pot holes to be filled! -And I don't want to get in trouble. Who are you? A sharp customer or a sharp customer from the IRS?

Don't ask: "This orchid doesn't have a price on it-so it's free isn't it? Ha Ha!"
And ha ha to you, too.

Don't ask: "How do I grow them?"
Orchids are the largest and most diverse family of flowering plants in the world. This is like going up to someone selling cakes and asking: "How do I cook?"

Don't ask "How do I grow them?" (Part 11)
If you live in Alaska, on a yacht, down a well, are allergic to plants or just waiting around for a friend, do not ask this question so eagerly and intently that the average orchid vendor becomes convinced that with a little encouragement and explanation, some of your disposable income will soon be his.

Don't ask: "I kill orchids! Now tell me what am I doing wrong?"
You are obviously an evil person and you are proving it by standing squarely in front of me and losing me a sale- Did you see that old hand at orchid shows, that lady who actually had picked up an orchid and was advancing, purse at the ready? Did you see her drifting off when she heard your opening line?

Don't ask: "Could you put this in a basket for me?"
No. The whole point is this orchid is sold as is, it's cheaper, a bargain, "bare-root" because it is Not In A Basket. This question works only too well if you are a drop dead gorgeous female addressing a male employee who has trouble getting dates and knows where the good baskets are kept.

Don't ask: "Do you have another orchid like that one last week- the one that woman got?"
You are distraught - it is the only one you ever really wanted and there must be another one somewhere in the nursery just as perfect and beautiful -but the funny thing is when we ask sympathetically, "What was the name? What size basket was it in? What color was it?" you often can't remember.
You just remember it was the most beautiful orchid and that woman swiped it. Here we need Dr. Motes (Literature and Philosophy)to fill us in on this phenomenon. If you cut out references to Plato etc., it boils down to the fact that reality can never live up to things remembered and dreamed of.
In the orchid world this means that however much the orchid house is scoured, however many other orchids are brought forward, even when we remember exactly the color and size of the lost one mourned over, the reaction is always the same: "Oh no, the one I mean, the one that woman got was darker, fuller, just more beautifuller!"
Well,if it were that much darker, fuller, more beautifuller, then it would not have been for sale in the first place.

Don't ask: "Do you have a smaller one of that?"
Because mostly you don't mean smaller, you mean cheaper.
And after having rummaged around in the back, emerging triumphantly, with a keiki or an offshoot:("I know the big one is 75.00 but this is only twenty!") one is almost always met with:
"Oh, um... no thanks."
Because when you've taken the trouble to make a special request, when you've waited patiently for someone to go back and hunt for this specific orchid, and your friends or maybe your Mum and Aunt are waiting too, and the children are starting to have fights with hand-fulls of gravel, then somehow it's not supposed to be smaller and cost all of twenty dollars when it arrives, why would anyone wait around for that? -It's supposed to be the same but cheaper.

This has been written while Dr. Motes is away talking to orchid societies in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware - so while the President is away I was having some fun. In fact, as everyone knows, we answer all the questions above (and more!) with the patience, wit and wisdom for which Motes Orchids is justly famous.
But the little question I like best, the sweet little question that always makes me smile, is the one that often pops up as someone rounds the corner and catches sight of our orchid houses for the first time: vandas, hanging up, row upon row, sitting on benches, in baskets, on S hooks -as far as the eye can see- and they will turn to us and ask shyly:
"So - do you grow vandas?"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Aunt Charlotte and Miss Piggy

Aunt Charlotte has a fan club. The sharp-tongued English Great Aunt, the weather-beaten old orchid grower who does not suffer fools gladly and prefers wasps to butterflies in nature's scheme of things, has turned out to be a real character. Though, given her pedigree, she should. Right at the start of Orchid Territory I state that Aunt Charlotte is based on Dame Judi Dench playing Queen Elizabeth the First and my grandmother "playing herself."

When I hear authors talking about their plots and how they had NO idea where their characters will lead them and how they just take over the story... I've always been right there with the millions who just roll their eyes and switch back to Power 96.

But somehow Aunt Charlotte is out there now, like Norm in Cheers or Miss Piggy. We all know that Miss Piggy, though she does have a great set of pearls, is basically half a yard of felt and a swish of taffeta (I hear a snort) and yet, she is also definitely there. And no-one would be surprised to hear it had been Miss Piggy up on Capitol Hill, lobbying for swine flu to be called something else.

Aunt Charlotte certainly has the swoopy, commanding voice of a Miss Piggy, hers the old upper class English version that has all but died out. Even the royal family now talk "common" as we used to say. For a while I played with the idea of having Aunt Charlotte be a bit of a con artist- claiming her father had been an eminent orchid collector in the far flung corners of the British Empire - rather than a cockney working in the flower market in the old Covent Garden.
In the end, though he didn't appear, I thought of him as a middle-class banker, anxious and orthodox behind his quiet privet hedge, trying to keep a veil of respectability over Charlotte till she'd finished school.

Some of my friends have said to my face that I am Aunt Charlotte which bewilders me. I am, of course, the timid young English teacher. I am Mark, the Hugh Grant of Orchid Territory, who can hardly start a sentence without "..Um..." Although in the presence of Aunt Charlotte, who, indeed, would not stumble, or preface any sentence with a worried or tentative "...Um?" What a fascinating world this world of the imagination is! Back to Power 96.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Orchids and Sweet Tea

So we were on the road to Gulfport, Mississippi, then a night on the beautiful Back Bay of Biloxi and on to New Orleans. I noted down the usual things: how many great white herons we saw, and a fawn that luckily jumped back the right way, across the ditch into the wood. And the wayside signs: Big Daddy's Pawn Shop, Miss Molly's Mobile Home Park, Crawfish Burgers, Fatty's Restaurant, Free Pit Bull. But the states come so thick and fast, it's hard to remember if the signs were in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana. It's all a little overwhelming after Florida, where you're just either in the state or in the water.There is Alabama bearing down on the Florida panhandle, squeezing in next to Mississippi- staking out those miles of seafront (like rival old Great Powers- Russia, advancing south, hungry for a warm water port; landlocked Austro-Hungary, searching for an outlet to the sea.) But of course, when hurricanes strike, waterfront real estate doesn't look like such a good idea anymore.

Saturday night we stayed in a big house in the middle of a hay field near Gulfport or rather, thirty miles away. Thirty miles inland because as our hostess, whose whole solid house washed away in Gulfport, explained: "That's how far we were told we needed to be." She had a greenhouse up and full of great-looking orchids, especially her vandas, so we knew we were in the right place, but almost no trees yet.

That evening as the email had promised: "We will have gumbo and visit." There was a lot of laughter and good company and it was all done on sweet tea. Like many of my moslem friends, the members of the Gulf Coast Orchid Society did not need alcohol to get a good time going. And when I asked if there might be a glass of wine to go with my gumbo, there was that same moment of puzzlement and then a homemade bottle of cherry wine was located in a cupboard. But there was also a big cache of liquor too; wood floated away on the water while bottles sank, we were told, also guns and coins, left like seaweed at low tide.

We were the first to bring up Katrina, eager to show sympathy and understanding yet somehow it kept ending up everywhere with a lot of shaking of heads and sympathy for us and Andrew. But it was on the way to the meeting Sunday afternoon, along the seafront of Gulfport and Biloxi, that Katrina was inescapable. Among the spreading live oaks facing the beach, For Sale signs stuck in the grass, every few yards, like gravestones, mile after mile, marking where one big beautiful home after another had been swept away. But interestingly, the live oaks all were still there. Martin said it showed the contrast to Andrew, a hard, dry storm that took the trees; here the surge of Katrina had sucked away the houses.

After a night on the water of Back Bay, Biloxi, (We choose our orchid trips well!)where I learned the origin of the American pit bull ( brave and courageous cattle dogs) and was glad to hear someone else agree that the only bible to read was the King James version, we took off Monday to savor Louisiana and ended up spending the night at a beautiful turn of the century house at a small town called Hammond. Antique furniture, lamps and pictures, a great live oak, its branches reaching out to us, a fountain playing down below in the dark as we sat out on the broad veranda behind the pillars, with our chips and cheese.

We were proud of having discovered Hammond, and visiting tiny places north of New Orleans, places, unlike the city, that were something new and unexpected and showed that we were not tourists of disaster. We didn't arrive till mid afternoon - too late for our guided tour -driving into a New Orleans of leafy suburbs and botanical gardens the sort of area where orchid societies like to meet.

Taken out for another great seafood dinner before Martin's talk, I felt we were undeserving. Usually orchid people like it when we explore their back roads, not just zoom in for a talk, sell a few orchids and clear out. But this was New Orleans. Everyone had wanted us to see not how bad things were but how well New Orleans was surviving and coming back.

In fact, the great news to report is, if the New Orleans Orchid Society is anything to go by, New Orleans is doing more than just fine. We have been to many orchid societies from Southern California to New England and one of the usual problems you see is the age factor - too many old folk - and the feeling that quite a few of the older members are there primarily for the cookies and the raffle. Not so in New Orleans. The only addition to sweet tea was decaf coffee but the place was humming like a cocktail party. It was dark outside and inside there was a large cake with strawberries on top that said: WELCOME MOTES and nowhere could I see more than one or two who looked ready for Medicare. Since Katrina there's always been talk of people leaving New Orleans; well, certainly not the orchid society and for anyone wanting to join a young society this is the one- I'd even suggest moving in. And not just for the orchids.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Andrew and Katrina: Hurricane Talk

This Friday we're leaving for Mississsippi. Martin, Dr. Motes, is speaking to the Gulf Port Orchid Society on Sunday afternoon, New Orleans on Tuesday night and in between we've been invited to spend a night in a lovely home in Biloxi. Those three names immediately conjure up a fourth, Katrina. Here, just north of Homestead, it was Andrew. For the longest time "Andrew" bore no relationship to the naming of male children and over half the sentences in South Dade began with either: "Before Andrew" or "After Andrew." And many times they still do: "Wasn't Turkish Ambassador hit on the road before Andrew?" (one of our dogs) or "Didn't Carlos start just after Andrew?" Or "Hasn't this mango chutney, old shirt, been around since before Andrew?

Andrew came through on August 22, 1992. Martin, that old South Florida hand, (together with all the other experts,) said it would never hit: "Too early, too fast, too straight. They always slow, they always turn." But it didn't. The big new houses round us popped open, the old ones crumbled like sand castles and you could see to US 1 and for miles around; any tree left standing was stripped bare, a broken stick. We were in our old house that hunkered down like an old turtle behind the trees Martin had planted to the north-a wind break, indeed. Those big gumbo limbos were torn in two and lay like fallen soldiers alongside the walls. They did, in fact, die protecting the house: seeing them lying there made me cry.

So, my children, trees are GOOD. Don't ever let anyone convince you otherwise! Don't listen to your parents, the cops, the insurance peddlers or FP and L. You are more likely to die from a falling beer bottle in a bar than a falling tree! (That is, when you get older.) Remember: Trees Are Your Friends!

This is what can start when you just say "Andrew" to a long term South Dader- I resolve not to mention hurricanes in New Orleans, Gulf Port or poor Biloxi- (Like Fawlty Towers- "Don't mention the war!') They've all had enough. We will resist trading war stories or, heaven forbid, give into hurricane-envy. Because our hurricane, until Katrina, was the biggest and the best.

But this will be difficult because we are going to be staying with orchid people who sound absolutely delightful but I know that even in non-hurricane areas, orchid people, however delightful, have a tendency to stand around contemplating trees and bushes in their yards, often until it is almost too dark to see. And this is even if there are no orchids on them, even if no devastating storm has come through in the last year or two or there is no Dr. Motes standing there to be asked where would be a perfect spot for a vanda or an ailing cattleya.

If there is a yard, there will be new trees to discuss and bare spaces to mourn where once a great family tree stood and it will be hard not to trade so many great stories about trees. Our old mulberry tree got such a shock to its system after Andrew that it fruited the very next month, in September. Our big beautiful sapodilla finally keeled over in Andrew- I watched it go, watching the storm through the gap between the planks we'd put up over the french doors in the kitchen. It fell slowly against the bamboo and the bamboo fell against the kitchen wall on the north side and the two of them we are sure helped hold the roof down. And, with great difficulty, (it was a big tree,) soon after, we propped it up again. It survived Katrina (minimal) and Rita (nothing at all) but when Wilma arrived the old sapodilla had had enough. I saw it once again from my spot, as I looked through the gap in the planks- (Martin, the old hurricane hand, asleep- saving his energy for the next morning.) It swayed to and fro while I called out "No! Hold on!" and it keeled over gently down towards the kitchen again, like an elephant sinking to its knees.
-(Note: We've, trimmed it back, propped it up again and it's fine. Children! Never give up on a tree! Especially in Florida!)
Probably no-one in Mississippi even remembers Andrew, the hurricane that made Homestead famous: the hurricane that destroyed the little town. For several years we enjoyed instant recognition and respect when showing our driver's licenses.( "From...? Isn't that where....? And how are you doing?") We were on the national news every night for a month or so but of course no-one had power and few had generators back then, so we never saw our brief moment in the spotlight. But if Andrew made Homestead famous, with Katrina it's the other way around. It is New Orleans that has made Katrina famous and infamous forever, the hurricane that destroyed so much and almost destroyed the fabled city of New Orleans.

-Of course we'll be talking about Katrina -who am I kidding?

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Woman's Page

I was thinking a quick way to do a blog was the list - Ten Favorite Dogs, Ten Favorite Books -but on books I got stuck. I can dredge up thousands, looking back - all the way to Five Go Adventuring - but I'm not reading books any more. It's not a short attention span. I can spend hours with The Times Literary Supplement, re-examining the origins of the First World War, checking out "Tupai - A field study of Bornean tree shrews" or "Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? How the British invented Sports" and, by the way, the best review of one of the greatest Westerns ever: Kevin Costner's Open Range.

But thinking of favorite reading right now, People magazine comes to mind, the movie reviews, the fashion, the gossip. I only buy it once a year, after the Academy Awards ("Hits and Misses on the Red Carpet!") not because I'm a snob but because it costs too much. Standing in the grocery line and comparison shopping - it just can't compete. A slim People magazine, even full of George Clooney kidding around with Brad Pitt, is not worth three pounds of oranges or four heads of lettuce or almost five cans of sardines. In fact, three People magazines would pay for a year of The New Yorker, introductory offer.

But I think something about the layout, the nice slightness of it, fills in for something missing since my youth, the Woman's Page. Not a Women's Magazine, that's too much and gets stuffed with filler like Getting ready for Spring! and What to do with left over potatoes. Too much of anything doesn't work - it's like three pages of the Automotive News, and you're ready to move on.

I know women escaped and stayed wary; it was the Women's Cage. And I should know. When asked what did I want to do, to be, ("Back in the day,"indeed!) my answer was "journalist" - even, in my wildest dreams, "foreign correspondent!" Answer came from all the battle-scarred and weary teachers (all women) at my all-girls' school: "Oh, Mary, they'll just put you on the women's page."

Unless you wanted to fight the whole world you could be a teacher or librarian, a secretary or a nurse. And if you were very pretty you'd be one of those snapped up first, to be a housewife.

So I should be the last one to hanker after the old days but I miss not so much just what the Italians are doing for spring but the inside stuff, the fun stuff - like the beauty tip from Princess Di's godmother's daughter. Boot polish, she confided, was better than mascara. Black boot polish. "Stays on forever- doesn't run! Waterproof!" Or the comment from one of the grand dames of Palm Beach on finding bargains. She had just scored with some great socks she'd bought at K Mart. "I don't shop. I hunt."

I would like A Page of One's Own again- We are now lawyers and judges and astronauts and we should be frivolous too and lighten the mood especially for poor expectant mums who need to forget the solemn mother load: playing Mozart to your belly button because unborn babies need to sharpen their mathematical skills.

Not many of us are going to change course because the dominant color for Fall is mustard or one of those colors with names that only Home Depot seems to have heard of in their paint department but it's fun to relish, for example, the ongoing saga of Michelle Obama and the Humble Cardigan. Dear Michelle Obama - who singlehandedly, in spite of the whole arms thing, has brought back the cardigan. Together with the raincoat, the cardigan has been England's traditional dreary, droopy national costume -the American Express card of our national wardrobe- don't leave home without it. But Michelle has shown us the way. In fact, wasn't she wearing a good old cardy when she met the Queen? And they got on so well, that if she wasn't, I bet the Queen said as she left, like all English Mums do, "It's going to be cold, dear, so don't forget your cardy!"

And as the man says, reading about things like that -"I don't care where you're from- that's just fun!"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Vanda motesiana - Who's your Daddy?

The bright colored flags are up at Motes Orchids, like a car dealership. Martin, Dr. Martin R Motes, has just received- no, earned- the ultimate honor for an orchid breeder, or any orchid nut: he has a new species named for him- Vanda motesiana - the plant long inaccurately known as Vanda stangeana.

He's right up there now with Mr. Sanders, Mr. Schiller (Phal Schilleriana, etc) the two Dr.Hookers- father and son. All nineteenth century gentlemen, their names somehow right for long black coats and top hats, gas light and cobblestones, alongside Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Whereas twenty-first century Motesiana has a lightness to it; it sounds like a music festival.

So in the wake of this great event I set out to interview Dr. Motes on this honor and found a happy man.
First question of course, is: "Why the name change?""
"Well," said Dr. Motes, "the species formerly known in horticulture as Vanda stangeana was NOT the plant described by Reichenbach."
Oh. "How could that be?"
"Ignorance! Everyone thought they knew what V. stangeana Reich. f. was but the plant in cultivation had never been described! And now this young graduate student in botany from Pennsylvania, has discovered that the plant in cultivation was not that described by Reichenbach."

Pennsylvania? Vandas are warm-loving orchids-you would think it should be Manila, or Bangkok or Hawaii.. In the same odd way it happens that the revised rules for fertilizing vandas have come from research at the University of Michigan, that hot house of a state.
"So how did the lad in Pennsylvania..?"
"He went to the old plates and pictures, examined them." Played, in fact, the botanical Sherlock Holmes. "And when he pointed out these discrepancies to me and Dr. Eric Christenson" (the two top hats)-"we agreed."
"-That that was not the orchid described by Reichenbach?"

For those for whom this explanation seems a little thin and lacking in detail I refer them to the September edition of The Orchid Review, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society: page 147: "A new species of Vanda." "Timothy Choltco describes and illustrates Vanda motesiana Choltco, a new species and the correct name for plants in cultivation hiding as Vanda stangeana hort."

"And why did you get the name?"
"I've done more breeding with Vanda motesiana than anyone else- as with many vanda species- It was just that no-one else was very interested." Dr Motes here exhibits a pleasing modesty.

I know the aforenamed "V stangeana"- a not very brilliant yellow vanda but with interesting tessellations-that was why Dr.Motes used it in breeding. (When you live with someone who breeds orchids you learn there are often odd reasons why they like a certain plant: -Me-"What's so special about that one?"- Dr. Motes: "It's the length of the stem!" Me: "Oh."

And of course Dr. Motes helped Timothy Choltco and provided the type specimen of the vanda that was "hiding" under a false identity so the young botanist offered the name to Martin and Dr. Motes is now proposing to name our best "stangeana"- now motesiana- cross after the sharp-eyed young botanist.

So I asked Dr. Motes what did this mean for him, the family, society at large and civilization in general?
Dr. Motes modestly drew attention back to the domestic scene, as well he should: "I will no longer be known as the man married to the woman who has more orchids named after her than anyone else."
Oh. OK. So from now on I'll be the woman married to.. . I'll be Mrs. Motesiana.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Play it again, Sam!

We won last night! The Canes are back. The University of Miami, our Miami Hurricanes, beat Georgia Tech 33-17. Yeah! Except when our household raised a cheer it was after the event. Together with our new, enormous flat screen TV with HD, we have the record-and-watch-when-you-want miracle feature; the ability to play with time.

Now we can start watching later, skip the commercials, replay the God. Be king of all we survey, emperor of the remote, thumbs up, thumb down - Caesar surveying the arena. But ...well, for one thing, I rather like the commercials. Football tends to bring out the fun in advertisers. Not like the ones who turn the old-fashioned nightly news broadcasts into a doctor's waiting room.

I know it's a great advance in technology to be able to play with time but if I can't be there in person I'd like to be there in time, when it's all happening - when the Canes come surging out of the smoke on to the field, I want to be cheering with everyone else. When they score a touch down I want to feel I'm yelling with the whole of South Florida, with the nutty students stripped to the waist and painted orange, the tail-gaters waving beer cans and hot dogs, the crowds in bars.. a collective moment.

We are already removed physically from the action -miles away from the stadium. One perched on the rocking chair bought new from Hialeah, one on the futon, one on the old rocking chair from a Salvation Army store in North Carolina: comfortable, not far from the fridge, but isolated in our Florida room, by ourselves. But at least, till now, when we yelled Yes! or howled No! it was with everyone else.

I suppose the argument is soon everyone will have this feature because nothing can stop progress! We'll all be working the remote: fast forwarding, pausing, stopping, twirling time around. And everyone outside of the stadium will be cheering a little later, after it's all happened, and then playing the good moments of course, again and again.

I must admit I planned if Georgia Tech buried us, I'd insist we just go back and replay our first victory of the season over Florida State which we recorded on Labor Day. Again and again till the pain of defeat had subsided. So there would be some basic gut level consolation in high tech progress- Play it again, Sam!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Orchid Territory -New! Improved!

I had been bemoaning the fact that Martin has sold thousands of his book- Florida Orchid Growing Month by Month - while I toil along - six here, two there - with "Orchid Territory: A Comic Novel." (Will make you laugh, actually! It’s funny about orchids, the business of orchids- You know the English- got to see the funny side!)

People, especially Americans, want to be informed, not laugh. And to say “a novel’ unless you’re Stephen King or those horribly successful women who write about vampires and teenagers...then that’s the kiss of death. Or maybe I should have been inspirational: Chicken Soup for the Orchid Soul..or maybe Cooking with Orchids...

But Orchid Territory, of course, is full of orchid stuff and Aunt Charlotte, the central character, is channeling Dr. Martin Motes, author of the bible for orchid growers: Florida Orchid Growing Month by Month.

Martin wants to add that despite my complaints Orchid Territory has sold 2000 copies and is going to a second edition - which is where the Insider’s Guide comes in: (see below) Each chapter of the second edition will now begin with a little nugget of information. Mary Motes is out to capture some of the How To public. So here goes:

Orchid Territory
An Insider’s Guide

Chapter I Fetching the Pig
If you are serious about Christmas in South Florida you buy a pig. If you are serious about the pig you buy a live one.

Chapter 2 Christmas Eve: Preparations for the Party
“Remember: If a Cattleya looks like it needs watering water it tomorrow. If a Vanda looks like it needs watering water it today, if a Phalaenopsis or a Paphiopedilum looks like it needs watering, you should have watered it YESTERDAY.”
Aunt Charlotte’s famous advice on watering orchids.

Chapter 3 The Party
“You don’t have to know a thing, dear boy! A lot of orchid judges haven’t grown a damn orchid in years! All you need to remember for judging is that you’ve always seen a better one of whatever it is, last year or in another region.”
Aunt Charlotte’s helpful advice to Mark on impersonating an orchid expert from Kew.

Chapter 4 Christmas Day
“Orchids that need moths for pollination are fragrant after dark and tend to be lighter in color– the white or yellows! There’s the hallmark of your orchid– adaptation and intelligence!”
Charlotte (“I do not suffer fools gladly!”) would not have grown orchids if they were stupid.

Chapter 5 New Year’s Eve Party
“I’ve always said Christmas is a tricky market.”
“No-one wants to commit till Christmas Eve. ..You can’t wrap up a plant in November and put it in the closet.”
It may be a party but, if you’re selling orchids for a living, it’s always a good time to complain.

Chapter 6 Cold Front
“Every farmer and nursery-man had the water on. All the way home to Orchid Empire the whole of Redland humming with water: a warm sixty-three degrees out of the ground.”
When there’s a cold front, let alone a freeze, turn on the sprinklers: water can save your orchids.

Chapter 7 New Year’s Night
“Mark had done all he could do. The plastic was tight, the water was on. Nature was on the rampage out there just taking her course, clumping down the peninsular: Termi-nature! And in an hour or two, with the dawn, they’d all see how merciless she’d been.”
Mark facing the freeze New Year’s night.

Chapter 8 New Year’s Day
“The orchids along the front of the greenhouses, the landscape orchids, their actual flowers were frozen under the sprinklers. Charlotte says a coating of ice protects; calls it ‘relatively benign.’”
Mark trying to make conversation New Year’s morning.

Chapter 9 New Year’s Week
“You’ve got your blood lines and your winners. Horses can have four words, orchids only three. Make a new cross, a hybrid, or win an award, you can put any name on it. Register with the Royal Horticultural Society and you’re part of orchid history!”
Charlotte on the naming of orchids.

Chapter 10 A Visit to Orchid Magic
“Apparently for industrial espionage among the orchids all that was needed was a toothpick to lift the pollen from the flower...An awarded orchid of course, was like a prize racehorse. “But a damn sight easier to breed with!” Charlotte had chortled. “All you need is the toothpick!”

Chapter 11 Las Olas Show: Preparation
“Always a litany of disaster! Cold damage, bud drop from high temps, flowers fading, flowers not open–It’s show time!”
Charlotte on the standard nightmares for orchid exhibitors.

Chapter 12 Las Olas: Putting in the Show
“For just the Oncidium Alliance alone there were twenty classes: Oncidium equitant hybrids, pink and lavender predominating, then yellow, orange, red predominating, then ‘other colors.’ Then after having covered more variations than anyone in his right mind could even think or imagine, the list ended with: Oncidium genera, species and hybrids“other than above.”
Mark on just one corner of orchid judging.
“But...when someone’s got a plant, a pet they want to exhibit and there’s not a division for it to be entered, they’ll scream bloody murder.”
Charlotte explaining.

Chapter 13 Selling at the Las Olas Show
“..treat Phaleanopsis like an African violet, great for beginners or those with low light; but you can’t flower a Vanda just on a window sill even in South Florida.”
Mark, discovering to his surprise he has learned a few general rules about orchids.

Chapter 14 Visiting Rachel and Jen
“You need a cat in South Florida to grow catts. They should be able to walk along a bench without knocking the plants over. Then you have them spaced properly....till the seventies orchids here always meant cattleyas.”
Mark, making conversation; facts courtesy of Charlotte.
Chapter 15 Preparations for the Orchid Talk
“Don’t these societies always have an endless agenda, anyway?...Rachel was complaining, remember, Rachel? They got you all the way up to Central Florida to talk micro-propagation and then what with the minutes and the discussions and the treasurer’s report you had about twenty minutes at the end.”
Larry persuading Mark he’ll be able to survive having to give a talk to an orchid society.

Chapter 16 Orchid Talk: Part 1
“...orchids that looked fairly ordinary and those were the most treacherous of all, the orchids with a totally obscure reason for being special: ‘It’s the breadth of the side lobes!’‘It’s the fact that this is a pink one and coming from the south side of the those mountains in East Java that species should be yellow!’
Mark panicking at being asked, as guest speaker, to identify and assess the orchids brought in by society members.

Chapter 17 Orchid Talk: Part 2
“There were references to the new temperature tolerant Oncidinae, the breeding of short day plants to long day, the fact that cattleyas were still judged as corsages, and the need to work on the strengthening of their stems; the beauty of odontoglossums, so big in England and what a joy that the intergeneric breeding was creating temperature tolerant varieties for Florida.”
Charlotte taking over orchid duties from Mark at the meeting, triumphantly.

Chapter 18 Valentine’s Day at the Mall
“Watch people. You take a flower. You say ‘How beautiful.’ You bring it forward to the face, your nose. Quite instinctive. A painting? A necklace? You say ‘How beautiful,’ and you hold it away to view.’
Cooper on his quest to breed fragrant Vandas.

Chapter 19 The Beginning of the End
“...Mark and Carlos had been ‘consistently over-watering’ but that was a common mistake, one she was sometimes guilty of herself. And Mark knew that was as close as Charlotte would ever get of saying Thank-you, thank-you for keeping Orchid Empire going.’”

Chapter 20 Preparations for the Miami Expo
“Who cares? Two garden chairs and a bird bath...It’s only two hundred square feet, for God’s sake! It’s not the bloody cricket ground at Lords! I tell you, you put in what you’ve got. No soul searching required.”
Charlotte on not getting carried away when setting up an orchid exhibit.

Chapter 21 Monday: The Sand
“Monday was finding the exhibit spot and the allocation of sand; Tuesday allocation of palms and greenery and Wednesday ’You trundle in the plants and get cracking.’ Wednesday was Putting in the Exhibit, the day Rachel would rent the U haul.”
Why orchids cost more at traditional orchid shows.

Chapter 22 Tuesday: The Palms
“All around people were landscaping their chalked out squares: trundling in their rationed allocation of palms and greenery, the background for their Orchid Fantasies.”
Why orchids cost more at traditional orchid shows.

Chapter 23 Wednesday: Putting in the Exhibit**
“The whole essence of being epiphytes – air growing plants- is to escape from the enemy -fungus. Fungus likes to be moist. So orchids have learned how to be dry. Dryness is the important factor in growing all orchids: not what moisture your plant needs but how much dry it can tolerate!”
Charlotte again.
**Why orchids cost more at traditional orchid shows.

Chapter 24 Thursday: Judgement Day
“Most exhibits seemed to have at least one big old specimen plant eating up space.’You can’t blame the big commercial people for going with the quick and easy stuff but who is going to keep these sacrificial wonders in their greenhouses?’” -Charlotte.
“It was Bert who had lamented the fact that when the old firms died out, with them went so many of the great orchids, the perennial one of a kind stars and ‘pets’...”

Chapter 25 The End
“Friday was the day for the botanicals, for the orchid society people and the best and cleanest of the commercial plants so the orchidists won’t decide the nursery’s going downhill and the spray program a total disaster. Saturday always mainstream but wait till Sunday to bring in the scratch and dents and the fully open, even fading so the Sunday afternoon bargain hunters can be allowed to beat you down, you with heart-rending reluctance, on price.”

Mark, on his second orchid show, already an old hand.

Chapter 26 The Last Party
“...I have learned much from living among you, no, not just the quaint customs of orchid vending. Though I must say, I have discovered you could sell an old boot if it has buds on it.”
Mark saying farewell.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mirror Image

I could never go past a mirror without glancing in it. In fact, any reflective surface - shop windows, car windows, shiny fridge doors- Yes, it's me. It's still me.

I know it's always called vanity but I think for a lot of us it's more like the opposite. We don't think we look so good: we're just hoping somehow this time, at this angle, in this light, we won't look so bad. Even beautiful young things do it and most for the same reason. It doesn't matter how young or beautiful you are you will find something wrong. All those gorgeous teenagers scowling along a line of parked cars, checking themselves in the succession of car windows.

Or they used to. Now they're all talking or texting and they hold these iPods like young women used to hold compacts, looking in that little round mirror and touching up the face. Interesting! One thing these miracles of technology lack, apparently, is a mirror.

When you're young, of course, it's no good being reassured how nice you look. Perhaps that's why my grandmother never bothered. If I grumbled about my legs, she would announce that I was lucky to have two because some people only had one. She was one of the models for Aunt Charlotte in Orchid Territory but I missed out one of her classic lines. If anyone asked what time it was, she would answer, for example: "Two o clock! You be lucky you've lived so long. Some people die at one!"

Mr. Wilson had the same no nonsense approach. If I ever start a wellness center I will replicate Mr. Wilson's. He rented rooms in a small house on a beach in Jamaica, a stretch of beach with evidence of past hurricane damage -maybe that's why it was so nicely underdeveloped. We stayed there a few years ago and I remember it with much affection because at Mr Wilson's you just got out of bed in the morning and went down to the beach.

Mr Wilson did not have mirrors in his rooms. I think I remember one narrow oblong high up in the bathroom. Short, anxious females had to stand on tiptoe and still not see much below their ear lobes. He had no new shiny appliances either or cars parked outside and the beach shack where we got breakfast had no walls to hang a mirror on. It was worth any amount of massages and treatment with hot pebbles and aromatic candles. Nothing could beat not looking at yourself for a few days. It was a real holiday.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Darwin at Venice

Martin, Dr, Motes, will be speaking to the Venice Orchid Society on Wednesday evening, September 2nd, and the subject is Darwin and Orchids. Of course, just the phrase “Darwin at Venice” has a fine ring to it, as though some scholarly botanist has discovered a forgotten trip the great man took, a Victorian Mediterranean voyage. One sees him gliding along in a gondola, maybe checking for molluscs or whatever there might be clinging to the mossy walls of the palaces lining the canals.

Of course, Darwin and orchids are indelibly bound together and a perfect subject for an orchid society talk. I am very pleased we have a new topic because though Martin is a great speaker, when the subject is orchid culture there are really very few variations on presenting the rules for watering, tackling mites or repotting cattleyas. And as a loyal wife and partner accompanying Martin on many of these trips I’ve heard them all.

I’m lucky, of course, because at these meetings I have a chance to steal five minutes from the potting and the insect warfare, and introduce my popular, comic novel Orchid Territory. This is what every struggling author dreams of: a captive audience interested in their subject. And I also slide in and speak at the very start, when the audience is at its most captive.

I’ll have something new to introduce now - this blog. And for Wednesday evening at Venice, I’ve just discovered a lovely fact about Darwin. In his later years he confessed that what he really liked to read were “popular novels” though "...only if they do not end unhappily - against which a law should be passed."

Orchid Territory passes the test! Darwin - a great man indeed!

Mickey Mouse Ears

Orchid Territory is dedicated to Martin, of course, and also Bart and Alice “who were never taken to Disney-world because there was always too much to do in the orchid house.”

I have had many hardened orchidists nod sagely- of course! - and tenderhearted mothers sigh over these few words. But the truth is, this is a family joke.

I had announced from the very start that I would never take any child of mine to Disney World. I saw it as my one claim to being a Good Mother (most of the other criteria being hopelessly out of my reach). There was a good dollop of English snobbery involved, but mostly the despair of the Eng. Lit graduate who sees the end of civilization at every turn. This even though I’d grown up with Snow White, and the seven dwarfs are more a part of my internal landscape than most of my relatives.

The more Bart and Alice argued the more resolved I became. First, of course, I was informed that they were the only children in their school who had not been to Disney World, which - hallo! was just a little north of us, just up the road in Orlando. Then it became the whole of South Dade, had gone, then the whole of Florida and, as their horizons broadened, the US, and of course, living in Miami, the whole of the Spanish-speaking world. Then we heard about the influx of cheap flights straight to Orlando, from Western Europe and beyond and then the Emperor of Japan had to announce that he loved Disney World too.

I didn’t know about the Emperor but I had to admit that whenever I went back to the UK, the plane filled up with families coming or going to Orlando, and coloring books and crayons were being given out to at least half the passengers.

So the funniest thing happened last year when Martin was invited to speak to several orchid societies in the Los Angeles area and one day our hosts arranged for us to have a free trip to Disney Land. We were picked up and deposited at the gates for the day. So it came to pass that in our family it’s the parents who have been to Disney Land. We called Bart and Alice from outside one of the sunny palaces and I think they were old enough to have a good laugh. We mostly people-watched and Martin made sage comments about the landscaping and I really got into the spirit of it all. I discovered how delicious the chocolate-vanilla Mickey Mouse ice-creams were and all day whenever I felt hungry I got a Mickey Mouse ice-cream and ate it, starting with the ears.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Kennedy Boys

Tonight we've been watching tributes to Ted Kennedy, much about his reputation in the senate, his sterling work as a senator. And talk of his brothers who died so early. As they say one never forgets where one was.

I was in Yugoslavia - the old Peoples' Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia - in November, 1963. I had just got back to Belgrade from a long trip, on the 22nd. My friend Nada and her family lived right in the center. Their flat was very cosy; the big tiled stove had been lit and Nada was hemming a skirt, ready for a party on Saturday. But in a few hours we heard that Kennedy had been shot and everything came to a halt.

Saturday was a national day of mourning. All entertainment was banned: only solemn music on the television and radio. The mother of Nada's friend cancelled the party. The American reading room was not far away and we saw people gathering in silence outside in the cold, some in tears, some taking flowers inside. In the trams that passed we saw Belgraders sitting stone faced and silent. People were crying in the street. And Nada cried. Nada who had survived the German occupation of Belgrade, everything, who always vowed she would never cry. But she said, chin up, she was crying because she was angry. And she said what many Yugoslavs were saying then: "There is too much violence in America!"

I was in Yugoslavia five years later, this time teaching down in Kosovo, southern Serbia, much to the dismay of my Belgrade friends for whom Kosovo was the wild west. A wild west full of Albanian moslems. I was in my little lector's flat, getting ready for class when three of my fourth year students came to the door. One of them, Mark, was crying. This was something I'd never seen. Kosovo was called the wild west for a reason. This was where the blood feud still existed, where every self-respecting Albanian male was supposed to own a gun or at least a knife. The other two students asked if they could all come in for a moment, apologising. Mark, they explained, just wanted to pay his respects. They were both moslem but Mark was from a catholic Albanian tribe; you could tell that from his name. And Mark, they told me, had just heard that Robert Kennedy had been killed.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Health USA: No country for young men

I am from England.

Until I came to America I didn't know what a financial burden the body could be.

Now I'm much older I can relax. Contrary to the idea that America is a land dedicated to youth is the fact that it looks after the old. Reach the gently sloping uplands of Medicare and you can quietly graze away.

I used to joke that one should spend one's youth in the West, specifically the States and then go East, to Turkey, to China - where reverence for youth gives way to reverence for age. But increasingly, as we are told, more money is spent on the last six months of life in the States, than any other time. Reverence indeed.

It seems America is obsessed with the first six months of life in the womb, and the last six months in bed. The first six months of life coming from zero to the last six months, going to zero.

In between, it's business as usual because your body is big business.

Ask your doctor. Tell your doctor. Ask your doctor. Tell your doctor.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why Don't We Do It In The Road?

My Woodstock moment came on Easter Saturday 1958. I'd heard about the "Ban the Bomb"march on the BBC. Organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it had started from Trafalgar Square on Good Friday and was headed for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment outside Aldermaston, a village on the other side of Reading, my home town.

I had come out to see it go by, standing in the cold by our bus stop on the London Road. A few neighbors had come out too. It was late afternoon, already getting on for dusk. And then we saw them coming down the hill, not many, a few hundred, their flags and banners drooping in the rain. The snow that had fallen on Good Friday had turned to classic, cold, English rain. It was the coldest Easter in living memory.

My heart was thumping hard, not just because of the banners, the raised voices and ragged chanting but the fact that they were all walking in the road. I was thinking what will happen when a bus comes down the hill, behind them, one of the big double decker Thames Valley buses. As we so often say now: it was a simpler time. People did not walk in the road. On Friday and Saturday nights when the pubs closed at ten thirty then a few unruly, lower-class citizens might lurch along the gutters but that was it. The first march for nuclear disarmament in 1958 was the first time the British had taken to the streets since the hunger marches of the thirties, when the starving Welsh miners marched on London.

As the marchers got closer we could see their banners said all kinds of things: Unite Ireland! Independence for Cyprus! There were elaborate Trade Union banners, embroidered like something from a church among the anti-bomb and peace signs. Our little group by the bus stop were the only bystanders in sight so we got the full force of the column starting to chant: "Come and join us!"
And I did, the only one, heart thumping harder, like a village boy swept up by the soldiers to go fight for the King. Though afterwards I always liked to say modestly, yes, indeed, I had been on the first Aldermaston march, one of the pioneers, first of the few.. I usually didn't add that it was basically because we lived just round the corner from the London Road and I was home from college, on Easter break.

The reasons why I wanted to ban the bomb, fight the cold war and work for world peace were quite personal, even selfish. Some of my best friends were young Communist Party members. In 1956 I'd gone to Yugoslavia, just shy of eighteen and spent the summer in the Peoples' Socialist Republic with two pen pals, two school girls from Belgrade. I came back, glowing with the discovery that many young American students were to make when they volunteered to help harvest the sugar cane in revolutionary Cuba: sunburnt, handsome young party members made one think twice about the evils of communism.

Then almost before my summer Adriatic tan had faded, Russian tanks were grinding into Hungary to put down the Hungarian revolution and any idea of a warm and friendly communist was dead.

But here on the march a few months later, were people who I felt for the first time understood how complex things were and yet how full of possibilties life was. All you had to do was not bother what people thought, not care about being respectable. I'd been swept into a group of marchers who didn't care: a young doctor from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Behind us an older couple, Quakers. Two dark young men with the "Independence for Cyprus!" banner. A very serious man with a beard and maybe his students. They were all incredibly friendly and, even the English, totally uninhibited. We chanted Ban the Bomb! And Come and Join Us! all the way into Reading in the twilight facing the same little knots of dazed and disbelieving people watching us go by, that I'd just left.

Sunday morning I didn't wait for a bus; I walked into Reading and found the marchers, found my group, my Singhalese doctor, outside St Lawrence parish hall. We started off for Aldermaston, the village in the Thames Valley with its Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Word came down the line when we reached the tall wire fences: march in silence. The place seemed huge. There were clusters of men in uniform behind the wire, with dogs and guns. It was the first time I'd seen guns in England.

And when I got home for the first time when I listened to the BBC, I knew things they did not or refused to acknowledge. We were not a few rowdy students, a group of naive housewives pushing prams fifty-two miles through the good old English rain. The next year the BBC could not dismiss the march. We were sixty-thousand leaving Trafalgar Square. There were bigger and better banners and ones proclaiming all the towns and cities represented and bigger and shinier badges with the CND logo.

But I wore my little one given to me on that first Easter Saturday, the international symbol of peace, the semaphore for N and D, which began life on drenched and drooping banners coming from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston on that first Easter march against the bomb.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Florida City Swap Meet

The Florida City Swap Meet is featured quite a bit in Orchid Territory. Aunt Charlotte's Extra Large mens' shirts come from there, second hand -a dollar a piece. And the dignified old Mexican ladies in charge of the Christmas Eve dinner make their appearance in a motley array of old T shirts that Aunt Charlotte always looks forward to. "It's something of a Christmas Eve tradition wondering what will turn up on their fronts." She was hoping for another Only-in-America zinger like the one a few years earlier: 'Coon Hunters For Christ.' But this time the swap meet sample was disappointing. There was a RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE on the lady who'd stayed up all night with the roasting pig but the other two doling out the rice and beans could only offer an almost brand new MIAMI DADE PARKS DEPARTMENT and a fading TOMMY HILFIGER. Nothing even from Harley Davidson or the military.

"Over the years," Charlotte says, "judging from the T shirts, a surprising number (of these ladies) seem to have served in the Marines."

The Florida City Swap Meet featured a lot in my life too. and T shirts were only the tip of the iceberg. When Martin and I came back from teaching in Yugoslavia, he was unemployed and I was pregnant. He'd warned me he'd rather starve in South Florida than go back to his college job in Ohio. (Note: It was the winters, Ohio! He's a Miami boy!)

We didn't starve, but for many years the Sunday morning Florida City Swap Meet was just about my sole resource, for clothes, furniture, plates, jewelry, knives, forks and spoons, beautiful bowls, often a little cracked, and things I hadn't realized I'd always wanted until I saw them sitting there in the early morning sun for not more than a dollar or two.

I still remember what I paid for almost everything - if I can't, then the vase, silk shirt, side table, and anything else, belong to a later time when our economic situation lacked the drama of the early years. At the start my budget ranged from 25 cents for T shirts to two or three dollars for something like a chair. Yes, it was that great a swap meet. (Though it was too good. It got to the point where I would show off my latest prize: "It only cost fifty cents!" and Martin, surrounded by teapots, old atlases, irresistably pretty plates in blue and white, sterling silver bowls only slightly tarnished, would plead: "I'll pay you a dollar to take it back!")

For twenty-five cents (we're talking the eighties here) I harvested all the T shirts, blouses, scarves I could ever need. And the best guy we regulars went to was Carlos. We called his spot Carlos's Boutique. Carlos was a shy young man who parked his old green van in the same place every week, putting down a plastic sheet and spilling out black trash bags of treasures. I got my first Ralph Lauren shirt there, an Hermes silk scarf - someone, the maid probably, had put it in a hot washing machine and the colors had run a bit. We all just got down and dug. But then one Sunday morning everything changed. Carlos had brought along some kind of a stand and a load of coat hangers and everything was hung up and 50 cents. In one awful moment he'd doubled his prices and a lot of the fun had gone out of it.

It was probably at Carlos's Boutique where I got my 'Alabama' T shirt. It was white and green and unlike most T shirts, fitted perfectly. I wore it till it died and from time to time, someone, usually a youngish woman, would stop me and say- "Hey! Wasn't that a great concert!" I had no idea about a concert but it was certainly a great shirt. And for a moment I'd be lost, oblivious as the old Mexican ladies as to what was written on my front.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Saying it with flowers

Motes Orchids has been awash in flowers, all our vandas and ascocendas that we're so proud to say bloom all the year round. But the problem is we've been closed for the summer and we wanted them to take the summer off too. But of course, they've been blooming their little hearts out.

We should have started to cut the buds off round about the end of June, but I only did just a few. It seems a little too coldblooded, murderous, like deliberately taking eggs out of a bird's nest, like Herod slaughtering the first born. And what if someone close to us- let alone one of the children (Ha!)- suddenly decided to get married? Flowers are what we have -beautiful, unique vandas and ascocendas, though we say so ourselves - born and bred on the property. That's what we would bring to a family wedding, not fine linen or rich relatives or distinguished grandparents.

But we would never ever want to get into the wedding business. It's fine to give flowers to friends for their weddings or hot dates ("No, not that big pink - she'll think I'm proposing!") as long as no rules are involved. Yes, we have orchids in many lovely colors but they are not coordinated with Macys or J C Penneys or bridal books. I list florists who do weddings right up there with elementary school teachers and emergency room nurses. I admire them from afar and wish them luck.

Only once did we get sucked into promising orchids for a wedding without our golden rule. I knew we were sunk when the bride's mother sent me a little square of taffeta with a note: "This is the color for the bridesmaids' dresses. For the bride two shades lighter. And there'll be twenty tables."

We prefer to keep our flower presentations casual. The new FPL guy usually gets a flower especially if the dogs have been extra noisy. The two from Best Buy who put in the new stove. If we didn't have at least one of the big purple sprays or a fragrant yellow to hand, the family would feel uneasy. Motes Orchids with no flowers? That's like a pub with no beer.

Judging the judge

I didn't get too excited or teary-eyed about Judge Sotomayor's ascendancy to the Supreme Court. It was the compelling, historic moment for all the older, white men of substance and power in the Senate, something to tell their grandchildren. That was the fun part. Sonya with her sexy, humorous, lived-in face, warm but quzzical, sitting there observing a gang of important men in a muddle. It was like watching the workers drive the bosses out and locking the gates- but ever so politely. For a woman of a certain age it was especially sweet. And now on to Danica winning the Five Hundred, a filly winning the Preakness with a female jockey and Mr. Florida going on to win Mr. America.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hurricane Season

Motes Orchids has closed for the summer but we're not going anywhere. We have orchids -a lot of them. Too many to be left with a neighbor. And hurricane season has been starting earlier each year.

So Martin scheduled his last speaking engagement out of state for the middle of June with the Tulsa Orchid Society. A great time was had by all and then as usual we took off in a rental car for a few days and discovered how wonderfully friendly Oklahomans are, and so worried for us, from Miami.

"Hurricanes!" The waitress in the diner in a little town had gasped, "I'd be so scared!" And she'd just been telling us about the couple of tornadoes that had hit just the last week, two roads over. No big deal. This lady had the big trees fall in her yard and then two days later-on the Thursday- another tornado came through and that was when the other tree hit the house.

We are used to hurricanes being plannned for, like finding a cheap fare on Orbitz. You tune in with the first announcement, a slight dust cloud forming off the coast of Africa. If you're really eager, you look for your hurricane chart conveniently provided by the local Walgreens and while you're still hunting round the TV for where you put it, those folk in Oklahoma, if they had managed to hear a tornado warning at that same time, would already have raced for the basement, clung to a tree, or crawled into a ditch.

And while we are being shown charts of the Caribbean and kept informed on the status of this cloud of dust far off in the Atlantic, surprised once more by how close Trinidad is to Venezuela, and what a long trip your neighbors from Trinidad have to take each time, and wow how close Cuba really is, so no wonder ...a day or two goes by. Meanwhile, often before your tropical depression even becomes a storm, let alone a future hurricane with a name, the poor people in tornado alley have already salvaged their remaining possessions and hopefully found the cat and are being looked after by the Red Cross.

If the tropical storm finally makes it to hurricane strength- seventy miles an hour - then, unlike us with our Orbitz travel plans, the itinerary can change. And every one can join in and play. OK, maybe headed straight over Cuba - once more, poor Cuba - but lucky for us. Or straight past and into the Gulf- Watch out Mexico! No, wait, maybe turning north, maybe us, this time -South Florida. Time to go for the baked beans, the batteries and the Chlorox! No, no -Now they're saying more east and north. Oh, Oh, North Carolina, your turn again!

Floridians can spend a whole night at a bar discussing this. Indeed, this can all go on for days. It's all very gentlemanly and leisurely. Does anyone ever have time even to name a tornado?

Maybe we just all get hardened to whatever happens in our own state. Most Californians I've met accept earthquakes but like the sturdy Oklahomans make faces over hurricanes. I hate the idea of earthquakes. Unless you live near a zoo and hear all the animals making a commotion- how do you know? And all my favorite plates are just propped up on my shelves. They get knocked off just by lizards. Californians must keep all their best stuff in a box.

Whenever there's an earthquake there's always a mellow, cool Californian on TV standing stoically in front of the sliding grocery shelves, amid the cans and packets, or crunching cheerfully through their living room over their broken plates and glasses:"Yeah! The bed shook. I just woke up- hey just a small tremor! No big deal!"

But I'd be wailing at the camera: "No warning! All my lovely stuff from the Florida City Swap Meet! Gone! We were never told!"

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

First Post by Internet Immigrant

There was a cyclamen in a pot, a vase of yellow roses, seven cards and then suddenly about fifty emails zoomed in to our Motes Orchids email account when I broke my hip in March. That's when I finally had to admit the internet is where it's at, even for Get Well messages. And at some point I had to come out from behind the orchids and face the computer and stop writing orchid names out by hand because I'm scared of the labelling machine.

The great divide now, I heard on the radio, is between technological inhabitants and technological immigrants. Between those younger among us and any random three year old, and those who've arrived late on the scene, coming down the gangplank, clutching their homespun bundles of pens and papers, folders and dictionaries, blinking at the shiny new world.

Actually, when it comes to computers, I've not even arrived at Ellis Island; I'm still well out at sea. But, like a classic immigrant Mum I rely on my son to translate. He speaks the language. Not only that, he excels-Bart writes for the Huffington Post-and with him holding my hand and only occasionally rolling his eyes, I am advancing into this wild and unknown territory like I did into the Balkans (Kosova Kosovo) and later, into the South Florida world of orchids. (Orchid Territory)