Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Great Spring Awakening has been put on hold.

Forsythia, not yet fully out

Since 1996 I have been keeping careful gardening records, noting the exact date each year when a plant blooms. There's about a 2-3 week range depending on how hard the winter, how cold the spring. The first species crocus can come as early as the second week of February or the first week of March.

In February and the first 3 weeks of March it’s easy to keep up with the record keeping. Then sometime in the last week of March or the first or second week of April there is a great explosion of bloom and I have trouble recording it all.

I thought we were on track for a late March awakening but for the past week we’ve had unseasonably cold weather and even a light dusting of snow.

The forsythia which is usually fully out by the last week of March isn’t quite there yet. And daffodils have been in a state of suspended animation, on the brink of opening for about a week.

I’m more impatient than ever this year—probably one consequence of retirement. When I was working, I was so burdened with grading student papers that I didn’t have time to obsess about my tardy spring bulbs.

Unfortunately, Spring comes a little later to my Mt. Airy neighborhood than to other parts of Philly. We are about 400 feet above sea level (or so an insurance adjuster once told us); in colonial times Mt. Airy was where folks built their summer homes to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of the Delaware Valley. When I get off the train at Mt. Airy Station in the dog days of August, it can feel as much as ten degrees cooler than in Center City. So our microclimate has its advantages.

But now when we drive downtown and see the River Drive carpeted with daffodils and the magnolias almost fully out--they're only in bud in Mt. Airy--I get a little envious.
Quince on the brink of bloom

Looks like I’ll probably have to make do with buds for another week.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The gardening season has begun!

The show has begun! My old friends are coming back: first the snow drops which have been blooming since late January, then the crocus which have been blooming for 2 weeks now. The little blue scilla have started and the first early season daffodil has finally appeared. I’ve always planted a lot of early season bulbs and early flowering shrubs. Late Winter/early Spring is when I really need it.

My Witch Hazel—a beautiful pale very fragrant variety, Arnold's Promise-- has been blooming for about a month now, the Winter Jasmine (Jasmine Nudiflorum) almost as long. My winter honeysuckle, an ungainly shrub, but worth a place in an out of the way part of the garden, has been pouring forth its astonishing fragrance for about a week now. Witch hazel--on its way out but still wonderfully fragrant.

Jasmine nudiflorum

We’ve had a few days of sunny, unseasonably warm weather and I am finally out there working in the garden! For me it’s the best therapy in the world: when I am in the garden I think of nothing else but the work at hand—-all negative, obsessive thoughts disappear.

Maybe this is the year I'll get it right. During my working years, I never had time to really get the garden in shape until the semester was over in early May.

My first year of retirement was going to be the year I would hit the ground running as soon as the soil could be worked. We planned our trip to Peru in late February and I expected to be home in time for the great Spring Awakening. Thanks to mudslides and avalanches our trip was postponed until the busiest time for a gardener: mid-April. I really didn’t want to get on that plane to Lima.

This year no trips will get in the way of the Spring gardening season. Just maybe I’ll manage to get it all done—-the clean-up, the fertilizing, the pruning.

And very soon my garden will be filled with daffodils, hyacinth, and early tulips!

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Month of Awesome Women: Eleanor Smeal

I was syndicated on
BlogHer is a running a series, “A Month of Awesome Women:” From the BlogHer editors: “Every day in March 2011, we'll be talking about one awesome woman and why she's so interesting. Some will be famous; some may be new to you -- but they're all inspirational.”

One of the most inspirational women I’ve ever met is Eleanor Smeal. She has arguably done more to advance the status of women in the United States than any other single individual in the last 50 years. The former president of the National Organization for Women and the founder of The Feminist Majority Smeal has never received nearly as much credit as she deserves.

Outside of feminist circles, Smeal does not have the name recognition, the iconic status of some other more famous leaders of second wave feminism—e.g., Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan. The Nation recently had a cover story, “That Seventies Show” on the recent spate of books on the 1970’s with 9 photos of those they considered the major newsmakers of the 70’s; only one (!!) was a woman, Gloria Steinem . The article doesn’t even mention feminism—the really big story of the 70’s.

I have tremendous respect for Gloria Steinem. Both she and Friedan were talented media strategists who had much to do with feminist ideas breaking into the mainstream media and changing hearts and minds. But the major legislative victories of the 60’s and 70’s would not have happened without the organizational skills and the brilliant strategic thinking of women like Eleanor Smeal.

Smeal’s organizational savvy was always in the service of her vision of gender justice. As she puts it in “The Art of Building Feminist Institutions to Last” in Sisterhood is Forever:

The generation of ideas and consciousness are central to guiding a movement. More than money and resources, more than marching millions, first must come an understanding of what’s wrong—better yet, a sense of outrage—and ideas for creating change. Then come resources: people skills, in-kind services, materials, faxes, postage, phones and now computers—and the money to make it happen.

A prodigious fundraiser, Smeal understood the importance of raising money for the movement. Again from “The Art of Building Feminist Institutions to Last”:
Under-funded work is too frequently falsely valued as “noble work,” and fundraising thought of as “dirty.” Let’s face it: under-funded work can’t get the job done.

I’ve been doing archival research for a book Feminism in Philly: The Glory Years, 1967-1982 and it's become clear what a major impact Smeal had on NOW in particular and the feminist movement more generally. What emerges is how NOW under her leadership began to take on race/class issues and develop a much more inclusive form of feminism.

Smeal understood the importance of addressing issues of women of color and the need for a coalition with organized labor. With Smeal’s presidency a dramatic change in coverage of the labor movement was evident in NOW publications. From the Sept./ Oct. 1977 issue of the national NOW newsletter Do it NOW:

NOW President Eleanor Smeal testified in support of the Labor Law Reform Act of 1977 before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations on September 8, 1977...

President Smeal made the observation that ". . .women, concentrated in the lowest paying, unorganized occupations, have the most to gain through the collective bargaining process...

President Smeal concluded with an expression of NOW's unity with other organizations backing Labor Law Reform stating, "The struggle for women's rights is really a struggle for human rights and dignity, which these reforms will help to insure."

Smeal undestood the importance of a labor/feminist alliance, now more urgent than ever. Her support for the goals of organized labor was much appreciated by the labor movement. From the June 1978 National NOW Times:

"The women's movement and labor also have common opponents," she said. "While the right wing is busily defeating the Equal Rights Amendment, it has also been busy defeating common site picketing and promoting 'right to work' laws. It is no coincidence that of the fifteen states against the ERA, the bulk of them are also 'right to work' states."

Sadly, the feminist movement under Smeal’s leadership lost the battle for the ERA, but the involvement in that struggle taught a whole generation of feminists a range of political skills which led to the entrance of more and more women into political life in the 80’s and 90’s. Smeal coined the term gender gap and was the first to note, track, and analyze the divergent political preferences of men and women.

When Smeal left the presidency of NOW she once again took the feminist movement to a new level by founding the Feminist Majority. She focused on creating an intergenerational feminist movement and broadened U.S. feminism to include issues of women around the globe. She’s always been one step ahead of everyone else in her strategic thinking and she's not done yet. From a recent message from Eleanor Smeal:

March 8th is the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day. To commemorate this historic event, join with the Feminist Majority Foundation in Standing with Our Sisters Worldwide Week of Action from March 8 to 15.

Help us deliver thousands of emails to the Senate to stop the House's inhumane budget cuts for international family planning and reproductive health. The U.S. must change its foreign policies that deny women in poverty stricken countries real choice.

We are determined to bring into focus the 500,000 women and girls needlessly dying from pregnancy related illnesses every year -- one woman every minute -- because of inadequate reproductive funding and contraceptive supplies. Over 70,000 women are dying yearly from botched, unsafe, and illegal abortions alone.

The House recently passed budget cuts that drastically reduce (by 43% from 2010) all international family planning aid and forbids not only all funding for Planned Parenthood, but also funding of the United Nations Population Fund, the agency promotes reproductive healthcare and gender equality to reduce maternal deaths in some 150 nations, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Tell your Senators to reject these inhumane policies and restore family planning domestic and international funding and funding for PPFA and UNFPA.

No U.S. funds are being used for abortions - this is just an excuse. This is a horrific attack on poor women. It must stop.

The international movement for women’s rights is the major struggle of the 21st century and Eleanor Smeal is in the forefront of that struggle.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The historic towns of Portugal--Coimbra, Tomar, Evora: The Portugal Diaries, Part Four

The Library at the University of Coimbra.

Our next stop was Coimbra to see the famous library at the University of Coimbra. I’m not a fan of the hyper-baroque style but the library was definitely worth a stop. It was as ornate and covered with gold as any Baroque church.

In a time when books are increasingly becoming electronic downloads on Kindle, it was wonderful to glimpse a time when the book was a treasured work of art. (Of course, a lot of folks get to download books on Kindle; very few had access to those gorgeous books in the Library of Coimbra.) I suppose we didn’t do Coimbra justice but then in two weeks not every town we wanted to see could be an overnight stop.

Although the University complex was an architectural treasure, much of Coimbra looked a little down at heels and I’m glad that Rick, who did the hotel research, booked Bussaco Palace Hotel , a real historical/sociological curiosity in nearby Bucaco Forest. The hotel was built in the 19th century as a residence for Portuguese royalty, in that crazy mish-mash of styles the Portuguese specialize in.

Bussaco Palace Hotel

When Portugal became a Republic, the king’s chief cook convinced the Portuguese government to let him open Bussaco Palace as a hotel and it’s been one ever since. It’s now a little shabby and clearly no longer frequented by the Portuguese elite who were once the regular customers. It’s now a hotel for middle class tourists who want a trip back in time. The wealthy people who stayed at the hotel in the early twentieth century must have come with lots of suitcases because the large rooms contain the biggest hotel closets I’ve ever seen. Every item Rick and I own could have fit into that enormous closet with plenty of space left over. Bussaco Palace was definitely worth an overnight stop and the hotel restaurant was seriously good.

We saved the best for last—-Tomar and Evora. The historic towns of Portugal are as magical as those of Italy, although not as incredibly rich in artistic treasures as the Italian hill towns. Nothing comes close to Italy in that regard but the towns themselves are every bit as beautiful. And in one respect they are even more beautiful than Italian hill towns-—they are spotlessly clean which is generally not the case in Italy. (I love Italy so much, I can easily put up with a little dirt and untidiness.) And something of great importance to me, there is an abundance of squeaky clean public bathrooms. Portugal is almost like a Latin Switzerland in that regard.

Our next stop, Tomar, is one of the great travel bargains of Portugal—or at least it turned out that way for us. Rick managed to find a really charming little hotel, Estalagem de Santa Iria for 58 Euros a night. Since we hadn’t been to Europe since the rise of the Euro, we were experiencing some real sticker shock and were very happy to find a very affordable hotel with a good inexpensive restaurant, a comfortable bar, and very helpful hotel staff.
The town square at Tomar

Despite being incredibly picturesque, Tomar felt very much like a real town. The shops were clearly intended for the people who lived there—not for the tourists. The monastery just outside of Tomar is one of the major historic sites of Portugal.

The Monastery at Tomar

The cloisters at Tomar

After Tomar, magical Evora. The entire town is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site and with good reason. Evora is an old Roman Town and has the remains of a Roman Temple. Like Italy there are all those layers of civilization with ancient Roman Temples and medieval monasteries sharing the same space. Roman Temple at Evora

Street scene, Evora

We had been avoiding the Portuguese pousadas( upscale hotels located in historic buildings) because they are expensive but we indulged in one in Evora, Pousada de Evora, Loios, a converted 15tth century monastery. Another benefit of traveling off-season, the pousadas are much less expensive than in high season. I don’t think I would want to pay their summer prices but if we make it back to Portugal again off season, I think I want to stay in more of those converted monasteries.

I’ve been checking my guidebook for historic towns and wondrous pousadas in Northern Portugal. Maybe next year we’ll do the North.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Pleasures of Off-season Travel; No Crowds, No Traffic Jams: The Portugal Diaries, Part Three (Sintra, Mafra, Alcobaca, Batalha)

Praca da Republica, Sintra

During our trips to Mexico and South America we never rented a car. My husband’s general rule of thumb: don’t rent a car in a country where you don’t trust the legal system. This was our first car rental outside the U.S. since a 2002 trip to Holland. The expressways were sometimes practically empty—-no doubt a consequence of the recession as well as the season. When we used to travel to Europe in the summer there were always traffic jams and it seemed as if all Europe was on vacation and every European family on the road.

I love the freedom a car brings, but I worry about an accident in a foreign country. It happened to us once in Sicily when a crazy driver careening down a hill at break neck speed ran into us and almost knocked us off a very steep cliff. It took awhile to get over that near brush with death.

We go about our daily lives repressing thoughts of all the horrible things which could happen to us. But when a scary accident occurs all those potential vulnerabilities rise to the surface and it takes awhile to get back to normal.

So despite my worries (Rick unlike me is no worrywart), I was eager to rent a car—-the only way to see some of the magical small towns of Portugal. There are some towns which can easily be seen by bus/ train as day trips from Lisbon—e.g. Sintra and the Palacio National da Pena The castles at Sintra and Pena are examples of those wild amalgams of styles the Portuguese specialize in—-usually referred to as Manueline style after that manic builder King Manuel I. We spent many hours taking in the delights of Sintra.

The downside of our “slow tour” style is that we arrived at the Palacio National da Pena a half hour before closing time and barely had time to take in the astonishing views from the terraces. Trade-offs. Trade-offs.
Palacio National da Pena

Although Sintra and the Palacio National da Pena can be easily reached by bus/train, for most of the magical small towns of Portugal you need a car. We left Lisbon with a plan to stop at must-see Mafra, Olbidos, and then Alcobaca. Unfortunately, we forgot to check the possibility of a mid day closing at Mafra. (always a must do in Southern Europe,) and we arrived right at mid-day closing time. So we hung out in cafe for awhile and began our very slow tour of the amazing palace and monastery of Mafra.

The towers of Mafra

Again we paid the price of our slow tour and had less than hour for the beautiful walled town of Olbidos. And then the fun began. We had planned to get to Alcobaca before dark. It’s not so easy to find a hotel in European old towns with their maze of narrow, winding (and often unmarked) streets.

Rick had refused to rent a GPS. He prides himself on his seriously good sense of direction and views reliance on a GPS as something for the spatially impaired. Unfortunately, finding our charming little B&B in Alcobaca proved to be a challenge even Rick was not up to. I bought a 25.99 data plan for Portugal and I tried using my iphone GPS. I learned that using a phone as a GPS uses up many megabytes and I went way over my plan, ending up with a colossal phone bill.

The iphone GPS didn’t do the job, so in desperation, we drove into a police station to ask for help. Incredibly the police officers offered us a police escort to our hotel. The Portuguese kept living up to their reputation for being among the nicest people in Europe.

The hotel in Alcobaca, Challet da Fonte Nova, was delightful and we had one of our best--and least expensive--meals at Restaurante Antonio Padiero, a small restaurant near the gorgeous town square. Alcobaca is definitely worth an overnight stay to see the the 12th century monastery and square illuminated at night.

The Monastery at Alcobaca

Rick and I share a passion for the architecture of medieval /Renaissance Europe and can spend hours wandering around a complex like the Monastery at Alcobaca. I especially love cloisters and the ones at Alcobaca and nearby Batalha are two of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

One of the great advantages of off-season travel is that we had the cloisters pretty much to ourselves without the high season crush of people and cacophony of tour guides marring the tranquility of the cloisters.

The Cloisters at the Monastery at Batalha

Next installment: Coimbra, Tomar Evora