One place, two ideas

I went to a cliff over the sea and considered the Monterey cypresses standing in attitudes. Here are the two oil paintings that came of it.

number one cypresses


number two cypresses

For my part I find it fascinating what shapes my brain seized upon in each of these, what’s missing, what’s not. One is brutally simple, almost like a wood block, the other fretted and trammeled with the little urgencies of branches and twigs as they trap the negative spaces like prey. I also see some darkness in the eye on the second one, the true brilliance of the day didn’t make it through, though I can argue that’s not important– both are interpretations, my own translations of the place and time.


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The hope of rain

Today they promised rain; they sent warnings of flooding and potential mudslides. I look to heavy clouds upon the mountains over the city with anticipation. We have been so dry, for years now, counting each drop. Might this year restore some balance to our water supply?

How often they say rain will come— several inches, beware of flooding! Then the storm shifts away and we are left without even a tenth of an inch to savor.

I walk through the orchard. Yesterday we planted three new bare root fruit trees, two apples: a Sundowner and a Gordon, plus a Babcock peach. That brought home to me how dry the earth under its mulch actually was, a sobering realization.

Our neighbor Jaime has been hauling manure from the stables to our property for some weeks now— it saves the stables haulage fees, and I know how to value such largesse. But I’ve had so many other ideas and plots and plans over Christmas and New Years, that now I see the promise in the sky and realize I have a lot of work to do. You can’t just dump mounds of manure and stable sweepings all over your orchard, because it mats and repels the water falling from the sky. So I determine that I’ll do my best to move the majority of the manure sweepings under the canopy of certain trees. Not under the bare-branched fruit trees like the peaches and apples and plums, but under the citrus who are green all year and shelter the ground with their leaves anyway. The sweepings can be tucked under and no harm done, so long as you keep the base of each trunk free.

The rest of the best manure, with the least of shavings and the most of ‘horse buns’ need to be shoveled into my wheelbarrow, then taken and scattered over the main garden bed. I have visions of broccoli, escarole, summer eggplants and tomatoes, string beans and fava beans, all sorts of happy plants reaching green in my imagination.

I know most gardeners don’t work in skirts these days, but I much prefer it. Superior freedom of movement, and even though sometimes my skirts are moving in one direction and I in another, that’s just because I don’t like to move slowly. Skirts don’t bind in such circumstances. So I do the dance of the manure this afternoon, shoveling and raking at the fastest pace I can to clear the way for the rain. 

A hot shower later, here I sit in a glow of accomplishment, listening hopefully to the soft shift and whisper of raindrops through the leaves outside. May it be a long rain and a deep one.


Filed under blog, food, gardening

Home Candied Citrus Peels

Why,‘ you say, ‘when I can just go to that display in the grocery store where I can buy the already candied, immortal, deep-dyed red, pale yellow (we won’t talk about what that color might resemble) or poison-green kind?

Because,’ I say, ‘you heard yourself.’

drained peels

Besides, the commercial chunks of citron are thick, with a taste of medicine, and they cost a vast deal for something that comes from a part of the fruit you normally discard. If you make your own peels at home, all you need are a batch of scrubbed oranges or grapefruit or lemons, (best of all a combination of all three,) plus sugar, water and the time to do it. The last often sets people aback, but remember that if you need to, you can set the partially processed peels aside in the fridge at any stage in this process except for the candying stage. Once you combine sugar syrup and peels you should complete that particular task without trying to take a break.

But don’t imagine that you need to hover! While the peels simmer you can be doing any sort of other job the holidays require, from writing holiday cards to playing Sudoku. Just use a timer and it’s all good. The house will smell amazing, too.

Home candied peels are the reason some traditional desserts used to be popular and are no more. Or worse, they’ve become jokes. Wasn’t it Elizabeth Moon who used a fruitcake trope in one of her science fiction novels–I shall have to search my shelves to check that, but I believe I’m right. Classics like fruitcake and plum pudding made with real home candied citrus reveal a fragrant, sharp citrus brilliance that isn’t even on the horizon for a dessert made with store-bought citron.

So, how do you start? Peel your citrus, trying to leave the majority of the white under-peel behind. Don’t get obsessive, you want some white, so a vegetable peeler will not work here; simply remember that the main bitterness lies in the white part, and that its texture is stodgy. Then cross cut your peels into reasonable bits– maybe one and a half inches by under a half inch. Again, not too small. You want to be able to recognize what you’re eating! Measure your amount, because this will determine later how much syrup to make. (I normally don’t bother to make less than four cups at a go.) Then bring the peels to a boil in a pot of cold water, with enough water to cover the peels by about an inch.

simmering peels

As soon as a boil is achieved, turn down for a five minute simmer. After that, drain, rinse and repeat the simmering process two more times. If you want less bitter you can repeat two more times for a total of five simmers, but the peels are fairly soft, so don’t overdo this part of the process. 

Make up a syrup of 1/2 cup white granulated sugar to 1/4 cup of water for each cup of peel, bring up to heat to dissolve the granules, then add the peels. Cook together at medium heat, stirring gently at intervals, until the syrup has almost vanished. This is the slow part of the job. Don’t let them burn, but in the early part you can leave them on a low simmer for five minutes or more at a time, between stirs. I use wooden chopsticks to lessen the risk of any metallic taste, and because it is the gentlest stir I can accomplish.

The photo below shows how the syrup is vanishing into the peels and the moisture into the air.

peels in syrup getting dryer

Turn out on to a pan lined with aluminium and oiled with a tasteless vegetable oil such as grape seed oil. Let cool and dry. You can leave this overnight or longer, but do not be surprised if the human residents of your household make inroads on the peels. The candy tastes rather nice, and the citrus bitter against sweet is distinctive. The product will be reasonably soft and gooey, full of flavor as you can see below. A bit mixed into the stuffing for a goose or chicken will be a good reward. Now you can use them in any cooking project that asks for candied peels or citron, or crystallized fruit.

peels done

Some folk like to try and separate out the peel pieces and dry them until they are leathery and can be dipped into chocolate. I can’t stand that much sweetness in one mouthful, but I pass on the idea in case it delights you.

If you end up on the Great British Baking Show, bring some home-candied peels along to surprise the judges, and you might actually win a round on this transformative flavor alone!


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Robin’s chip cookies

chip cookies

I promised a friend that I would post my recipe for the so often requested chocolate chip cookies that I bring to the College. One comment— note my reasons for using an egg substitute, and also note that I have optional additives to increase the fiber content. I do not find that either of these make the cookies taste burdensomely ‘good for you’ and indeed with all that butter and the masses of sugar, they aren’t! But I find that no one seems to notice these extras in consuming the squashy comforting sweet cookies, so if you want, try them and let me know what your response is….

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES—Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit

1 cup butter at room temperature

1 1/4 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup white sugar

2 large eggs (I use an egg substitute from Trader Joe’s)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream butter and sugars together. beat in eggs until well mixed and mix in vanilla extract


Sift together:

2 3/4 cups regular flour

1 1/2  teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

If you like you can use half whole wheat flour, and possibly add a tablespoon of psyllium husk.


Add the flour mixture by spoonfuls to the butter and egg mixture, until well-combined.

Mix in 2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips. or you can divide the dough and make one half the recipe with butterscotch chips or white chocolate chips. White ones do best with the addition of toasted macadamia nuts as well.


Place spoonfuls of dough in a baking tray, about 2 Tablespoons each.  Bake for about ten minutes and check. If you want soft squashy cookies, wait until edges are browned and middle top has darkened and dried. If you want squashy cookies, experiment— it may take as little as 8 minutes. If using real eggs, do not try to undercook the cookies for the squashy kind because there’s danger of bacterial illness resulting from the undercooked egg.

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Reluctant Landlord

Ha ha!

What is this? It’s a shot I didn’t mean to take in my work storage. You know there’s this thing my camera does of taking a photo if I touch the screen? I often forget that exists, and so we get great fuzzy shots like this one…

What am I doing? It’s a sad story. I have rats in my shop storage area. I have way too many little nooks and corners and stacks of work and boxes of paint and jugs of brushes. Bottles of solutions and glazing and painting medium…and then there are the books.

So it’s like the perfect protected abode of rats. Apartments, rent free. No predators. Maybe a draft or two, but all a rat needs to do is chew up a little canvas or some of those handy books and make a nest. I don’t know how familiar you may or may not be with rats, but the fellows who live here in Southern California and inhabit places like my studio are not the invasive European breeds, but a local, Neotoma macrotis, the big-eared woodrat, Trade Rat, Roof Rat, or Pack Rat.

Why, you ask, “Trade Rat“? This is a rat that collects things. She likes bright and shiny, or odd and glittery, unusual items. One time I cleaned out a nest that contained a cheap gold-colored wrist watch, a handful of plastic beads, some pebbles and over forty clear plastic headed push pins. Made me wince to think about how the rat must have carried them in her mouth with faithful fascination for this delightful new gem. I’ve heard stories about how a Trade Rat will drop one desirable item for another, like a shopper running out of hands. This has led to people feeling that the rat is trying to trade one thing for another– and you should hear the Gold Rush tales of Trade Rats who left gold nuggets in exchange for some trinket or even a coin.

He’s handsome, personable, diurnal when it suits his plans, vegetarian– in fact frugivorous. You think of a rat as a heavy headed, mean-eyed sneak, but our Trade Rat is often light brown or deep blonde with soft thick fur, often has some fur on his long tail, possesses huge meltingly dark eyes and big ears. This makes him look like a magnified slightly plump mouse, rather than a rat. Plus he’s curious. See below for a fast sketch:



So I have a fondness for this creature, but it doesn’t extend to what she does to my garden. Oranges, feijoas, apples, persimmons, kumquats, even oh horrors, my beloved tomatoes– Neotoma eats them all. You who have followed this blog over the years, will have seen my posts on how these rats have decimated my Concord grapes and all my peculiar efforts to keep their depredations in check.

As for the storage– well, I have torn everything out of place, disinfected and deodorized (I swear by SCOE 10X as a deodorant of real use that truly disassembles these odors,) washed, dried out and washed and dried again, and established a factory grade electronic squealer on a timer that makes the air hideous in the room from about nine thirty PM to six AM. I also tossed a huge number of items, because, alas, Neotoma cements his nest with feces and urine. You may ask, did I seal up all points of ingress, and to that my answer is are you kidding? This place used to be a greenhouse before it got moved to be part of our house in years long before our residence here, and there are more entries than exits…! At the end of these ten days of labor, I have a refreshed storage– almost a new room. Not only that but I set to and photographed every painting with its master RMG number to enter images in my computer files. I already keep an Excel file of all the paintings I deem worthy to be in my permanent records. Now I have the numbers properly tied to images.

In good time I shall report on that squealer to you all, and let you know if I think it works. But now it’s time to make paintings. I have a one-woman show coming up in March under my painting name of Robin Gowen, at Sullivan Goss in downtown Santa Barbara. See you there?








Filed under natural history, painting, rats

Not the sort to carry on

Porthos copy

After it ended, I saw the tragedy. It isn’t death, it’s loss. So let me tell you this story.

I had a marvelous round soft black cat that understood me, as is given to few, especially cross-species between human and feline. When my mother entered the mean stage of Hospice, when things come from a beloved mouth that were never meant to, I passed across the yard from her bedroom in the next house, into our place, and blind to all details, I walked one foot at a time into the bedroom. There on the bed a small black blot of a cat rolled over, fixed me with his pure green eyes and said “Oh, wow!”

It broke me out of a bad place. I bent over his black fur self and knew I had my ‘oh wow’ cat.

That was Porthos. He saw me through fraught times, miseries, nightmares of legal complications (that actually never matured, thank God,) family misunderstandings,  parent troubles, coping, coping, coping, and somehow I could whisper all into his dense plush and feel he absorbed how I felt. Understood, and cared that I cared. Feral from the start, he would let me hold him until it became too much, and with an apologetic purr he’d walk away,  look back, smiling a cat smile, torn by the demands of instinct and affection.

In a year of tending both parents, mother in Hospice at home, and father with multiple brain hemorrhages, I damaged my back catching my father or trying to, whenever he fell, (and he fell a lot.) When my back was hurting I’d get up five times in the night to go to the bathroom or walk about the house, trying to ease the pain with motion. There Porthos would be, my tugboat, bumping my ankle with his round black head in the dark, making sure I’d not get lost, that I’d find my way back to a bed that some nights felt more like a rack than comfort. 

Porthos never took time off. I couldn’t ease my way from under the covers without hearing the solid plop of his strong little body hitting the floor so he could guide me yet again between the bathroom and the bed, or from the main rooms for a limping walk, back to the bed again. I could slip out without my husband knowing, but Porthos, no.

He loved me and I, him, of that I have no doubt. But he also loved Daft Wee Willie Wilberforce. 


A little orange tabby with golden eyes, WWW had more health problems than he had limbs. But from the first week, Porthos adored him. He would sit and look over little Willy with his features softened into adoration, a besotted lover gazing at his own golden kitten. However sick WWW might be, Porthos forgave the snarls and hisses, the siren growls and swats, the smell, and simply stepped aside so that Willy could eat the food from Porthos’ bowl, bent his black head to wash Willy’s defiant neck. They wrestled and chased and tussled over the years, and Porthos never hurt Willy, however hard Willie hit or bit him. I’d pass by their shared chair with a pause to stroke the smooth conmingled furs, gold and coal black. I found the thought passing in my head that if Willie died from one of his elaborate genetic complications, what would we do to comfort Porthos? But I had the wrong end of the problem.


One shocking week one summer, and Porthos was gone, from a polycystic liver disorder, genetic in origin, previously undiagnosed. Some of us had called him fat— but I always corrected it to ‘burly’.  The night before he died, he surprised me by coming far up the bed and taking my hand in both his paws. We slept like that several hours, or at least I did, until my back made me get up and walk around. Porthos returned to a pile of soft things we’d arranged on the floor for him, but he didn’t guide me to and fro. When I settled  down again, it was on the floor by him, with my hand close to him, but he didn’t hold my hand again. I think he was too uncomfortable, though he purred a little. Those black morning hours passed slowly. 

When we came back from the vet’s  I curled up my ten-year-old black cat in a soft-lined basket and placed him on the bed for hours, so Willie could see and smell and understand that Porthos was dead. Willie came and washed Porthos’ ears. Then I buried my black blot cat by the studio door and splashed some champagne on the grave. Porthos loved champagne every time I’d given him a drop off the tip of my finger, pink tongue flicking avidly, his eyes slitted in pleasure at the taste.

About this same time our daughter headed off to grad school in Arizona. This may seem unconnected, but I’ll connect it later.

Willie seemed lost, disordered, after Porthos went. He purred anxiously, followed us about. We decided —a new cat. Kitsune, an older flame and snow shelter cat came to us. Then two kittens. None of them were the cat Willie wanted. Not acceptable housemates, much less anything more intimate. 

At Christmas our daughter returned. Willie greeted her with astonishing clear pleasure, his head lifted, his face happy as only cats’ faces can express happiness. You know how when you smile, your eyes narrow and uplift at the outside corners? Cats do that also. Willie moved with light anticipation, joy, his orange striped body eager. We hadn’t realized how depressed he was until we watched him dance about and jump blithely up into her lap, looking about as though expecting something. 

Perhaps three hours later, Willie crashed into a deeper despondency than ever. All we can imagine, and we admit it’s imagination, was that he associated our daughter’s departure with Porthos going, and thought her return meant Porthos’ return. When he found it wasn’t so, he fell back into his depression. However you look at it, whatever your interpretation, Willie-cat never rose again to that level of happiness, no matter what attentions we might provide.

Yesterday, September 20th, 2018, we had to let Willie go. The best guess is he had a cancer, causing cachexia and a myriad of other symptoms. The vet came to the house and Willie went to his final sleep upon my lap. We buried him by Porthos near the studio and I poured a salute of champagne to them both. 

I realized a few hours after the last shovelful of dirt, the full sense of tragedy. It isn’t that Willie died, it’s that he never recovered from his loss. Three years and a month after losing Porthos, now he’s gone. My dream is that he’s back with his gentle black beloved again, loved as no one but his Porthos ever could love him, tangling in wrestling joy with his black best beloved friend. Batting and rolling about in mock combat.

 Animals. Where after all, do we come from? What does it tell us that they may share with us deep strains of what we humans name as most noble and high? Affection, selflessness, love, loyalty. I keep hearing Phillip Phillips  singing “Gone, Gone, Gone…” I heard it when I was losing Porthos, and how clearly I heard it yesterday.    Not my usual music, but it fits these cat friends.                     

 Where do you suppose we should go from here, to become our best selves under this night sky? In a time of stress, public disloyalty and strife, of threat and domination praised as though it were righteousness, can we back off from our food bowls to let a younger weaker friend eat? Can we tend to a sick friend, even when he’s dirty and rude and stinks? Can we wait and love, even in absence being faithful? Give me reason to believe.

Porthos and www copy


Filed under blog, cats, experiences, family history, friends

Traveling Memories

It appears that my high school class will have an unofficial meeting at a venue in Florida this fall. I ended up being involved with parts of the planning, so that does seem to obligate me to actually show up.

I’ve already booked myself a room, which if you knew how many oddities I indulge in about travel, would profoundly impress you. Funny for someone who grew up traveling! But planning makes me anxious. I find it easiest to plunge off on a whim– it used to always be a big question if I would get a visa to go to Nigeria to visit my parents, and often I would buy a ticket and go within forty eight hours of receiving my passport back from the Embassy. Stuffing my cheap new-bought luggage with basic supplies like bottles of peanut butter and plastic-bagged toothpaste, seed packets, colored chalk, dried Chinese mushrooms for my mother, and BOOKS, I’d make every square inch count.

I particularly remember a night in the Lagos airport back in the days when it had open walls to the outdoors. Geckos and major cockroaches with dancing troupes of moths passed through, and military with Schmeissers and riding crops coming in every two or three hours to beat sleeping ‘vagrants’ out of the place. Never bothered the whites or the people in good clothing, I think that was how they decided if you were a legitimate traveller or not. But I recall having John McPhee’s Oranges, and a fat new biography of Samuel Johnson to keep me awake for the night. Rarely have I been so thirsty, before or since.

The next morning the airport woke up around four or five AM, small birds opening a seething noisy chorus in the trees around the building. I found a man who knew where he could get me a soda, and I found an unofficial porter to help lug my suitcase over to the domestic flights section. I said the suitcase was cheap, didn’t I. Well, the handle tore off. No options for fixing it, so he loaded it onto his head and we marched on.

I had a ticket, but because of a late arrival the night before, had missed my flight from Lagos to Enugu. So I got in line with my ticket and waited in what shortly became a seething throng. I was denied every flight through the day, despite my best manners and firmest insistence on my right to be seated. I think they may have realized that I was not going to give a bribe, and was possibly becoming an embarrassment, so they finally gave me a boarding ticket for the last flight, after the dark had come down with the early suddenness it does on the Equator. It’s interesting that I have no recollection of managing to get any meals in that long day, but I did get a few sodas.

Such a relief to be seated on that flight– I didn’t believe it until I fastened the belt. Another forty miles of driving lay ahead to reach my parents’ home in Nsukka after I would land. By this point, since none of my efforts to telegram ahead seemed to have worked, and I was a day and more late, I knew no one would be waiting for me in Enugu.  When our little Fokker began an abrupt descent to Enugu, the gentleman ahead of me down the aisle on the window seat began to chant “Pray God, a safe landing, pray God a safe landing,” which he kept up until our plane touched down in the darkness. It was a safe landing and we all cheered, probably inspired by the man up the aisle.

I walked off the plane down the roll-up steps with the Nigerian night holding me in its heavy warm fist, and all I felt was triumph. Of course, that soon shifted to the tension of the assault of taxi drivers and a bidding war to get a ride. That I didn’t have enough money in my pocket, cast no shadow on my bargaining. I had no conscience left about such details, and knew that my parents, if I reached them, would be happy to pay.  Soon we were lurching through the night traffic of Enugu. I made a little conversation, but the driving was challenging, involving goats and pedestrians and other vehicles, so I soon subsided, figuring it prudent. Once out on the highway, we sped along pretty well, but it seemed an interminable ride. I’m guessing now it wasn’t much over an hour and a quarter. I recall talking a lot with the driver about times over ten years ago in Nigeria and my wonder at being back now, in 1976.

I didn’t have a street address for my parents’ house, but my driver knew a solution.  He could go to the University of Nigeria at Nsukka postal center, because they would know.

I went in with him to the green-white lit building. I was shocked to see  the white metal clock on the wall said it was no later than five minutes of nine– we’d barely made it before closing.  I felt like it must be midnight. The neatly dressed man at the counter made me feel my messiness, my unbrushed hair, my rumpled days’ old clothing, the coating of dried sweat. At first all I saw was his shaking head, but he went to consult with an associate, coming back at a trot. Yes, now he had the name right, he could give us the address.

We circled around in the taxi and back a part of the way we had come, before we drove up into a little driveway.

“We are here,” my taxi driver said.

“Wait. I need money to pay you.”

Was it truly the right place? I went to the front door. I knocked, looking and seeing no one through the glass panes,  I opened the door. There was my mother seated at the dining room table under the big paper moon lantern that held the electric bulb, working on a pile of papers. A small vase of roses and gardenia stood near. She looked up.

“Hi, Robin,” she said. “I thought you might be coming, one of these days soon.”


Filed under blog, family history