Friday, July 25, 2014

Zen Gardening

This summer the owners of our apartment complex have decided to embark on an ambitious project of landscaping “improvements.” This translates to ripping up all the walkways, grass, and vegetation and installing new curbs, sidewalks, sprinkler systems, new sod and new plants around the buildings. I’m sure it will look beautiful one day in the future when they finally finish, but in the meantime we are living in an arid dustbowl.

The view looking down from my balcony at our former front lawn.
When I was whining to Stretch the other morning about the bleakness of our vista this summer, he scolded me for my lack of insight. He said as a fan of Eckhart Tolle who talks a lot about Zen, I should be reminded of the Zen gardening philosophy where nature is reduced to its simplest and most abstract forms in order to stimulate meditation and encourage profound thoughts.

I didn’t want to admit my ignorance of Zen gardens to the little fellow and inflate his ego even more over his superior knowledge, so I did some research on them and discovered that the most famous of all Zen gardens is Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, Japan. This garden dates from the 15th century and was the first purely abstract Zen garden.
As Wikipedia describes it: “The garden is a rectangle of 340 square meters. Placed within it are fifteen stones of different sizes. . . The stones are surrounded by white gravel which is carefully raked each day by the monks. The only vegetation is some moss around the stones. The garden is meant to be viewed from a seated position on the veranda of the hojo, the residence of the abbot of the monastery.”

Well, this does put a whole new spin on my situation. So until they get around to replacing the grass and plants in front of my building, I think I will go out and rake the dirt and stones each morning and then sit back on my balcony and see if I’m stimulated to profound thoughts. Anyone who feels like trying a little Zen meditation is welcome to join me.

And I can report that on my very first try, I did have an insight that, if not profound, was at least correct. I asked Stretch if he and Tiny would like to join me on the balcony and he said they would be along later after they finished some work in their own garden.  As I sat there gazing at the abstract landscape, a little voice inside me said, “Stretch is up to something in his garden and it probably involves your charge card.”

The most famous miniature Zen garden—Stretch-ji.

 (With special thanks to Stretch’s new friend Carolyn for this idea and the garden to go with the idea!)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sunday in the Park with Stretch

As we wrote in our last post, we had good news to celebrate this weekend after my oncologist told me that the latest scans I had last week were really encouraging, showing very little active cancer right now. So it seemed a good time to get outside in the beautiful summer weather and enjoy feeling good and being alive! And what better way to celebrate than spending a “Sunday in the Park with Stretch!” The park we chose was the New York Botanical Garden.  I’ll let Stretch give you a review of the highlights of our outing:

I wonder how you get to be the “Tree of the Week?”

What’s so funny?

“Moonshine.” Now that’s a perfect plant for today, the anniversary of the Moon Landing.

“Avante Garde.” I think I should get some of these plants for my garden, very appropriate, don’t you think?

Okay, how many of you can say you sat on a 500-million-year-old rock?

(This 500-million-year-old outcrop of gneiss and schist was formed from layers of sediment that settled on the floor of an ancient tropical sea. Since 2004, nearly 80,000 crocus, iris, squill and other early spring flowering bulbs have been planted in the soil around this venerable rock.)

I don’t know what plant this is, but I’m not getting closer to find out!

Can you find the camouflaged frog in this pond?

This is another old rock, even older than my so-last-century human sidekick.
(This large boulder is a glacial erratic. The last ice sheet began to melt back from the New York City region about 14,000 years ago, leaving behind a layer of clay, sand and pebbles, as well as boulders known as glacial erratics. Glacial erratics are made up of rock materials not generally found in their immediate surroundings. The split in this rock was likely caused by an ancient freezing and thawing cycle thousands of years ago.)

There’s nothing like a romp in some beautiful gardens among these ancient rocks to remind us how awesome the universe is, and how small we appear in the whole scheme of things. Yet each of us is unique with a special role to play. I thought this sign we came across in the last garden area we visited pretty much sums it up—and could also refer to a certain little mascot!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Moon Day

Tomorrow marks a milestone in space exploration—it’s the 45th anniversary of man’s landing on the moon.  This comes at a particularly opportune time for me because after a great report from my doctor on my latest series of scans/tests, I feel like dancing on the moon.

So to celebrate this special anniversary and my good news, I decided to take Stretch to the Cradle of Aviation museum. The lunar landing modules were built at the Grumman Factory here on Long Island and this museum dedicated to the history of Long Island’s role in aviation and space exploration houses an actual working lunar module that was built for the last moon mission that never took place.

Stretch was fascinated by the rocket ship and had a fun time imagining what it would have been like to be in that lunar module as it descended to the surface of the moon. There was a video running showing the original grainy black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder to step foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” I tried to describe to Stretch how exciting it was back in 1969 to sit around our relatively small television screens and watch these images of man actually walking on the moon!

He wanted to know how many types of cheese the  astronauts brought back and when I told him the only souvenirs they returned with were a bunch of rocks he gave me another of those “I’ll never understand humans” looks. “Everyone knows the moon is made of cheese,” he said, “Why not get some good samples instead of filling their pockets with rocks?”

Just then a museum guide appeared, a man who had actually worked at Grumman during the construction of the lunar modules. He gave us a fascinating tour of the exhibits on moon exploration and told interesting stories of times when astronauts came to train at the Grumman facility.  When I glanced at Stretch during our tour, however, he had a faraway look in his eye as if he was somewhere else. . .

Maybe we should all follow Stretch’s example and celebrate this milestone anniversary with some cheese and a favorite beverage tomorrow!

Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars. Les Brown

Monday, July 14, 2014

Spiders Alive!

The hot humid summer weather we're accustomed to on Long Island has descended the past several days. It swept in a construction crew who are uprooting curbs, walkways and shrubbery and creating an abominable mess around my apartment complex and specifically around our building this week. And of course, this week just happens to be the week I have my quarterly medical tests scheduled and would have liked a bit of peace and quiet.

What better time than this to go "Goth" and take refuge in a really amazing spider exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The title even sounds like an appropriate curse for this week--Spiders Alive!

The welcoming sign to the exhibit announces: In the trees. In the grass. In the attic. Spiders are all around us.

I hope I don't find one like this in my attic!

Look behind me where?

Do you think this spider sees a T-bone steak when he looks at me?

Scorpions glow in the dark. Can we ask them to turn out the lights so we can see if this guy glows?

Now this is an interesting spider--the Giant Vinegaroon. His description reads: "Like a skunk, disturb it and a foul-smelling spray may shoot from its abdomen. The spray is mainly acetic acid, the chemical that gives vinegar its tang. In other words, approach a Giant Vinegaroon very carefully."

They can't figure out why this guy puts an "X" in his web? Well, duh--it's got to be the target spot for his prey.

This is cool how they discovered a new spider. But why do they always give them such crazy names? Who's going to remember "Trogloraptor marchingtoni?”    Why don't they just call him Harold or Paul?

If they ever have a spider rodeo, I am so ready!
(See that little bear riding on this giant spider?)

Where did we get what? Spiders? I don't see any spiders. . .

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Gillette's Castle

Whoever said you’re never too old to learn something new was right. I’ve spent my life thinking that the one, true representation of the character of Sherlock Holmes was and always would be Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of the great detective. Last weekend I learned that the real Sherlock Holmes was William Gillette.

In searching for new adventures to amuse Stretch, I found Gillette Castle in East Haddam, Connecticut. I had no idea until I researched this landmark that it belonged to the man who created our image of Sherlock Holmes. William Gillette was the first to portray Sherlock Holmes on stage (from 1899 into the 1930s) and he introduced the deerstalker cap, the pipe and the houndstooth cape. In addition, he was the one (not Conan Doyle) who came up with the phrase, “Elementary my dear fellow” which morphed eventually into “Elementary my dear Watson.”
Apparently Gillette also took on the persona of Holmes in real life in many respects, including building a home in a location which matched the description Holmes gives of his retirement home in The Lion’s Mane: “My villa is situated on the southernmost slope of the downs, commanding a great view of the channel.” Gillette’s castle is built on the lowest of the Seven Sisters hills overlooking the Connecticut River.
Supposedly he didn’t intend to build something resembling a castle, but simply wanted a home that would be fireproof.

A balcony and mirrors surround his spacious living room, allowing Gillette to surreptitiously watch his guests assemble and then make a grand entrance down the staircase. And he followed the English custom of taking tea in the afternoon, sometimes attired in the dressing gown “Sherlock Holmes” wore at home during a play.
I should have something like this staircase to make a grand entrance when we have visitors.

The day we were at the castle they were staging a recreation of the first radio version of Sherlock Holmes. The play The Adventure of the Speckled Band was transmitted by WEAF-NBC in New York on October 20, 1930 with Gillette in the starring role.

Stretch soon grew bored with this “so last century” performance and wandered off to see if he could get a ride around the grounds on Gillette’s small railroad (yes, the rich certainly are different than you and me).  Unfortunately, he found that the railroad had to be taken out of service for safety reasons.

But he did get a good nap on one of the railroad cars on display in the Visitor Center while we watched the play.

After this outing I’m afraid I’ll never look at Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of Holmes with the same enthusiasm again.  But any sadness over that is tempered by my new admiration for Gillette and the comforting fact that more than 75 years after his death, his final amusing wish in his Will has been fulfilled: "I would consider it more than unfortunate for me—should I find myself doomed, after death, to a continued consciousness of the behavior of man on this planet—to discover that the stone walls and towers and fireplaces of my home should reveal themselves to me as in the possession of some blithering saphead who had no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.”  

Gillete’s home is still preserved intact as part of a huge state park complex, and as Stretch pointed out, this past weekend Gillette's Castle had quite a distinguished little visitor. So Gillette can rest in peace.