to wrack and ruin

Today’s findings on a short stretch of beach, in a small town, in Southern California.        Plus bonus material–a tarp!–that I dragged out of the water.

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let’s talk trash

we can do better . . . right?

From one small cove, on one (relatively) small island, off the coast of Maine, in October 2014, the day’s catch.

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venissimo cheese shop gets it right

Venissimo, 754 W. Washington Street, San Diego,
(with other locations in downtown, North Park and Del Mar)

Venissimo, a small, friendly cheese shop in Mission Hills, San Diego, is doing a lot right. First there are the samples. Tasty bits of appetite-whetting cheese handed to you on a sampling spoon when you come in. An amuse-bouche, if you will. Then, as you’re savoring your sample, you notice that each cheese in the case has its pronunciation written on the name card to give those of us who missed how to pronounce Morbier in French class a leg up when ordering. And this I found brilliant: your receipt comes printed with the name and description of the cheeses you bought, where they come from, and suggestions for accompanying libations. Perfect for keeping a journal of new-to-you cheeses or for just learning a little about the differences between what you like and what you love. They also offer to keep your name and cheese purchases on file, providing a quick answer to that age-old, mildly annoying question, “What was that amazing cheese we had last time?”

But maybe you don’t feel like trying something new and don’t want to buy a whole wedge of cheese, you just need to satisfy a craving for a creamy Brie or a solid sharp cheddar. Well you’re in luck because Venissimo makes sandwiches to order. We opted for variations on the special—a double cream with fig jam on a ciabatta roll warmed panini-style for my mom, and the same for me, but with the addition of a velvety speck and served cold on a baguette. Delicious. Your choice of fruit comes with it, and on our midday, midweek visit in August, the options were grapes or pear. My mom was given a whole, juicy ripe pear, not an easy thing to come by, and my grapes were sweet. The fruit was a thoughtful, refreshing substitute for the usual sandwich sidekicks.

And as you would expect, there is a good selection of crackers, bread, jam and the like to round out your picnic fare or cocktail-hour spread. The knowledgeable Venissimo staff can also help you design meat and cheese trays and baskets for special occasions.

There was only one flaw: our sandwich brown bags came sans napkins. It was OK, though–my mom didn’t seem to mind too much licking the melted double cream off her fingers.

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Growing on Plum Island

Wood sage,
Black cherry,

Trembling aspen,
Sea purslane,
Seaside plantain.

Wild radish,
Sea rocket,
Dusty miller,
Yellow-eyed grass.

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i thought cactuses were easy

This gallery contains 2 photos.

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mon petit chou (my little cabbage)

The light has grown dim, making it difficult to read, and I’m developing a hunchback from leaning over the dictionary for the last two hours. But none of it matters—nothing matters!—for I am in love. In love, completely, with French.

It was not always this way. Early in our relationship, French let me down. The language’s reputation for romance faded a bit at the doctor’s office in Marrakesh where I learned that, outside of movies of spies and lovers, mysterious words like dossier and rendez-vous actually have mundane meanings like “medical file” and “appointment” for, say, a colonoscopy. And then, as in all relationships, there is the work involved: learning how to say an, en and un in just the right nasal tone, and trying to understand French’s frequent refusal to pronounce much of the alphabet.

But no language is perfect, and somewhere between French’s mildly annoying penchant for excessive lettering and my fear of commitment to learning tenses is pure rapture: French can do no wrong; she is a language-lover’s dream. There are, for example, the words and expressions that, by resembling English, give clues to their meaning. C’est grave means “this is serious.” (Anything with the word “grave” can’t be good.) Plein de sentiment, literally “full of sentiment,” is soulful. Excursionniste means “day-tripper.” And an auto-stoppeur—can you guess? (See answer below.)

I love French’s logic in words like vâche pie. Vâche is cow, and pie is magpie, a black and white bird. So, clearly, vâche pie is black and white cow. Chauve-souris translates as “bald mouse,” meaning “bat.” Have you ever almost lost a hand to a window slamming shut? That was likely a brush with a sash window, or a fenêtre à guillotine. And I love when French is illogical, too. Mon petit chou, literally “my little cabbage,” is an endearment that means “my sweetheart.”

Then there is the just plain lovely. Imagine a language that names its in-laws with the words “beautiful” and “handsome.” In French, daughter-in-law is belle-fille (beautiful daughter), and father-in-law, beau-père (handsome father). All the in-laws, or belles-familles, are denoted by either belle or beau. What could “path of iron” be? A railroad, of course, chemin de fer. I will never look at train tracks in the same way again. As my walk continues through the enchanted forest that is the French dictionary, I find there is a word for a chair by the fire: chauffeuse. I say that’s très civilized. But perhaps my favorite is “to be overjoyed,” which is najer dans le bonheur and literally means “to swim in happiness.”

While the meanings of French words are a joy to discover, it is the way French sounds that makes you stick it out when the going gets tough. The most delicious words start with “ch,” pronounced “sh.” In an effort to simultaneously savor as many of these words as possible, I have composed the following sentence:

En ma chemise de nuit, je chemine le chemin et chante de chantilly, chandelles et chapelures aux chanterelles, chardons et chênes chantoyants.

Which, in my fledgling French, might mean “In my nightdress, I walk along the path and sing of cream, candles and breadcrumbs to the shimmering mushrooms, thistles and oaks.”

I know. But everything makes sense when you’re in love.

(answer: hitchhiker)

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balsamic vinaigrette

Tonight while I was making a salad with balsamic vinaigrette, I remembered a date I went on almost 20 years ago and it made me laugh. But, it wasn’t the memory of a really fun date during which I busted a gut that made me chuckle: it was the sudden realization that the date itself was funny in a way I hadn’t noticed before.

The setting is Bay Area, circa 1993. I am 24 years old. I had just moved up from San Diego, where I’d worked as a file clerk in a law office. Before that I worked as an au pair for an Austrian family in Vienna. Before that I finished college, barely. By the time of the Bay Area—the time of the date—I probably felt a little worldly-wise, like I knew a few things.

In truth, I knew nothing.

My date was a hunky blond Berkeley senior who played water polo. We were put in touch by the woman I was staying with, a friend of his mother. We first met briefly at a party at his fraternity, where I said something sexy and brilliant like,

“So, playing water polo, you must have an amazing lumbar region.”

He looked puzzled and said something like, “Isn’t that part of your spine?”

No…I don’t think so…it’s not your spine I want to see. I told him I thought it referred to stomach muscles. He was pretty sure it didn’t, but he showed me his stomach anyway. Let me tell you, it was one hell of a lumbar region.

For some reason—perhaps because I seemed forward and mysterious, having inquired about his spine (clearly my true fetish) until I saw he thought that was weird, leading me to feign interest in his six-pack—he called me for a date. We went out for dinner, then stopped at a grocery store on the way back to his place. In the checkout line, there was a big friendly-looking dog. (I don’t think I’ve seen a dog in a grocery store before or since. It was late, it was the weekend, it was Berkeley.) I reached down and gave him a couple of good pats, and with each pat a cloud of dust rose off his coat as though he were the canine version of Pigpen. My date laughed—it was funny!—but I didn’t, couldn’t. My hand and arm were covered in dog dust, and I was embarrassed. Along with feeling worldly-wise, it seems I took myself rather seriously.

About being at his apartment, I remember two things. One is that he lay down on the couch with his head facing away from where I sat in a chair, and the other is that he said he liked to make balsamic vinaigrette for salad, and did I like it, too? I don’t know what I said; it’s possible I didn’t know what balsamic vinaigrette was. (Back then balsamic vinegar was still relatively new in the US, like lumbar regions.) He and I were young, and these were grown-up words of our time: balsamic vinaigrette. Just knowing about it was a sign of sophistication, never mind actually making it. I definitely wasn’t making it.

This reminds me of when I was a senior in college and a friend was interning at an office in Washington, D.C. She talked a lot about faxing, clearly proud of her use of this technology. And I was impressed. At that time my knowledge of fax machines came from the fact that, during Christmas vacation, my mother used one at her office to instantly send my late term papers to my professors, making them a little less late than they otherwise would have been.

In a similar vein, if you have two books on your nightstand, one the latest bodice-ripper by Danielle Steel, the other Guns, Germs and Steel, which do you tell your friends you’re reading?

But back to my date. Was his lying down a signal for me to come join him on the couch, or was it a signal that he was tired or bored and wanted me to go home? Was he trying to impress me with that vinaigrette business? At the time, I felt he wasn’t interested in me—he seemed a little aloof—and I soon said good night. (Afterward I learned he thought I wasn’t interested in him.) But twenty years later, in my kitchen, far away from Berkeley, I felt the answer to the latter question was “yes,” he had been trying to impress me, and in looking at it through older eyes, I found his attempt endearing, and I laughed at all the youthful posing that had taken place between us, the desire to appear a little more adult than we were, each of us with our own visions of what that should look like.

So, is he more sophisticated now? Am I? I’ll never know about him, though of course it’s possible he was, in fact, sophisticated back then. As for me, I no longer think that asking to see a man’s stomach at a party constitutes mature conversation, and I know about and use balsamic vinegar. Heck, I’ve even heard of argan oil. But a few years ago, at an elegant seaside restaurant, I used a fish knife to spread butter on my bread, which, when I learned of my error, made me feel a bit like Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman when she mishandles her tongs and shoots an escargot across the room of a fancy restaurant.

Well, at least now I can laugh when my snail hits the wall.

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