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Go beyond the market for a minute. That fruit you’re holding has a story, about work and care, sun and water. It’s also about the harvest, a dance of exploration, partnering, and purpose that changes and delights both parties.

First, as for any dance, you need the proper costume–here, that’s long sleeved shirt, long pants, and sun hat. Gloves are optional; I mostly go without unless I’m picking berries. Also, tools–not many, just a sturdy picking box or bag, and a light but trusted ladder.

Next, survey the scene and plot your choreography: what is the angle of the sun, and the set of the branches? Where is the fruit sparse or heavy, inviting or still green, smooth-skinned or bird-bit? Where will the ladder best be placed to reach this one, and then that? Where will the tree accept embrace, and where will it refuse? Once sure of your partner, set the ladder firmly and begin.

Every sense will guide you–sight for judging blush or hue, smell to catch a sudden waft of nectar, hearing for the creak and rustle of the tree echoing your movement, taste to spot check as the impulse strikes you. And touch–the last, but the most critical. Take the fruit in your hand and hold it, gently. Feel its heft, the firmness or slight give against your grasp, and ask the tree if it is ready. As you tug ever so slightly, she will tell you: ripeness falls to you like water into sand–softly, smoothly, silently. Resistance says perhaps tomorrow, but not now.

When the picking’s done, climb down and thank the tree. Is that her sighing, free now to begin another season’s work? No telling, but perhaps you’ll hear it as you bite into that peach.

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This pieced aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 8/4/14. Listen here.

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This piece aired on KQED FM last November (11/8/13; listen here) but it seems apt to post it now as I prepare for a new tomato season. Yes, there will be Brandywines!

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It bleeds onto my plate, red rivulets of summer at once sweet and sad, prideful and forlorn, beloved and feared. I felt it as the long knife, serrated and aware, met tender sleeping flesh, and had to stop myself from crying out–wait, it isn’t time to go, not yet!

The last Brandywine is always thus, met with longing and with dread in equal parts. When I walk among the vines in late October, I never want to see the truth I know is lurking there, between the pungent, furry leaves: this one is the last, the last until another turn around the sun goes by, the last until another crop of fawns has lost their spots, the last until the bees awake and swarm and swoon with all the songs of summer.

The last one, despite the heavy freight it bears, is somehow always the best–perhaps the tinge of melancholy fills a secret void between the taste buds, or sends a signal to a hidden cell folded deep within the frontal cortex. Perhaps its alchemy is yet more basic, and more powerful: it turns sunshine into joy, soil into spirit, and water into life.

Each fall, as I slice and savor the last Brandywine, I wish for never ending summer–that this one would be not the last, but one of many more divine epiphanies to come. Yet no sooner has the wish been sent into the world than I recall it, mindful of the need for seasons and their special gifts. Fall brings focus after summer’s breathless bounty, and winter rains demand a turning inward that makes room for reflection. Spring is for awakening, shaking off the mud, and roughing out the course of madcap summer. And just around the corner will be Brandywines, back before you know it.

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Abuzz

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I didn’t expect the smell. Putting my nose next to the mesh window, I could hear the bees inside the box buzzing faintly, sleepy but on guard. The sound was reassuring, and satisfied the universal expectation of a buzzing, busy bee. More than that, it served as proof of life–my new associates had traveled safely, and were no doubt eager to exchange the transfer box for a real home. But the smell–a warm and pleasing mix of honey, nutmeg, and vanilla–had never crossed my mind. There was no honey in the box, just a tiny bit of comb they’d started building, so it must have emanated from the bees themselves. How strange, and wonderful, I thought: how much I have to learn about these wild, fuzzy dynamos.

I love honey–and who doesn’t? Honey has been valued for its taste, and healing properties, since ancient times. But the real reason I was standing in my yard wearing a goofy head-net and long protective gloves was food: fruit trees and vegetable beds dot the landscape, and I wanted bees to pollinate them. You’ve probably heard that one of every three bites of food we eat owes its existence to bees and other pollinators–here in California that means almonds, berries, stone fruit, and much, much more.

There’s something larger too, drawing me to keeping bees. Honeybees are amazing, industrious, and magically transformative. A bee’s touch turns flower into fruit, nectar into honey, and honey into wax. But they’re critically endangered, for reasons not yet fully understood, and a world hangs in the balance. One hive, and one small organic orchard, won’t fix the problem, or even solve the mystery. But it might help–and I’m sure I’ll get some great peaches in the process.

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This pieced aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 5/24/13. Listen here.

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Wild goose chase

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It’s 14 degrees. The tires crunch in protest as we crawl along the frozen lane, windows down, heads hanging out like dogs on a much anticipated joy ride. The air is beyond crisp, and the sun won’t make its entrance for another hour, so there isn’t much to see besides our frozen breath. No matter–this moment is for one sense only: we are listening.

We’ve been driving these back roads for what seems like days, or nights, without success. The usual spots have come up empty, every one, and our fingers, ears, and cheeks are blue and sharp with cold. As a last resort, we turn down one more pitch-black byway, hoping this is where they’ve hidden.

Soon enough we hear it–an odd, low rumble, mysterious and unique, that tells us we’ve finally found them. Punctuated with bright squawks, muffled honks, and sudden wing flaps, it is the telltale heart of this wild place, beating steadily despite the frigid dark. We stop, confirm our find, and ease out of the car with our cameras and recorders.

They are floating, faint white blobs against still, black water, numberless and crowded, waiting with us for dawn to dress the sky in party clothes. As black fades to blue, and blue to gold, the hum becomes a thunder: they are debating when to rise and start their day, and it seems it’s not an easy call. Suddenly, a leader flaps once, twice, and flies up. Milliseconds after, ten thousand snow geese lift off in unison. This is the moment, brief and clamorous and beyond fantastic, that we were chasing. This is the moment, wild and unpredictable and beyond price, that our fragile world offers, open to us if we will only listen. It’s well worth a few cold fingers.

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This piece aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 2/4/14. Listen here.

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Read to me

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Oh, I say, Maurice Sendak died. Remember when you took me to his book signing, those many decades gone? I still have the book, dedication scrawled across the title page, and of course the memory. The rumpus was wild that afternoon, indeed. She does not, cannot, reply.

From Goodnight Moon to Murakami, Tom Kitten to Tom Sawyer, and countless more between, books were a world to us, a window, and a wonder. I remember when she told the school librarian to let me have as many as I wanted, never mind the limit. She knew what they meant to me, and she understood my hunger for the treasures they contained.

Her eyelids flutter so, so softly, and she murmurs as the morphine drips its slow, slow magic. This bed, this hospital, are no fictions, and we are no characters with finely scripted parts. This death is all too real, too sudden, and too soon. We sit, restless against unkind plastic chairs, and keep awkward vigil.

An eon or an instant passes, and there is no fluttering. I touch two fingers to her neck, and feel only skin–soft, warm, motionless. This gesture harkens back to internship, made always and only for the same sad reason–pronouncing death. What a phrase, I think–how is death pronounced, exactly? What sound can any other words receive once that one has been uttered? It hovers, thickening the air in the silent room the slightest hint, and she is free.

It’s been two years this spring, but I still feel her, like a secret character the author hadn’t met, as I turn the pages of a novel or a history. I still want to share my finds with her, and greet her new discoveries. I’m starting a new book tomorrow, Mom, I say. I’m sure you’ll like it.

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This piece aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 4/10/14; you can hear the audio here.

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Because

Too much Facebook, Twitter, Insta, Outlook, webmail, gmail, HuffPo, IM and txt; too much Netflix, laundry, errands, cleaning, gardening, farming, and work; too much of everything but time.

Something had to give, and after my mother’s death two years ago I wasn’t in the mood for blogging for some months. Then I began to feel guilty about not posting, and every few weeks I’d resolve to post again…and not do it. Always a good reason, but what it boiled down to was a lack of time and energy, a sense that no one really reads it anyway, and the added pressure I’d put on myself by adding photos to my most recent posts. That may not sound like a big deal, but it meant a lot of time and energy selecting the right images, editing and sizing them, and deciding where they fit best in a given post. Blogging shouldn’t feel like a duty or a chore; don’t we all have enough of those already?

So for a while I think I’ll ease back into things, just words with nothing fancy, and see how it goes. To start off, I’ll catch up with some of my radio commentaries that haven’t been posted here. Feedback greatly appreciated.

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They sit on the shelf, soft, fluffy, and reproachful as kittens whose dinner is unaccountably delayed. They are colorful, rich, and neatly folded, just like their cousins in my mother’s linen closet. Like her, I’ve been saving them–for what, exactly, I’ve lately begun to wonder.

The good towels–the ones reserved for guests–are kept out of circulation to stay fresh and new, unsullied and unworn. They’re plusher than the daily ones, more expensive too. The idea, I think, is twofold: to impress visitors with this subtle signal of prosperity, and to treat them better than we treat ourselves. Look, the good towels say, we’ve saved the best for you, our most honored special guest.

It may sound odd, but I’d never before considered this practice, though it’s been decades since I left my parents’ home to make my own. It was just one of those things we take for granted, received wisdom translated into practice without question. I was happy to let sleeping towels lie–that is, till recently.

I’m a radiologist, which means I interpret x-rays, CT scans, and more. Every day I sit before a bank of monitors and study images, puzzling out the meaning in the many shades of grey. Sometimes it’s a broken bone, or pneumonia, or appendicitis. Sometimes it’s a cancer in retreat, white flag waving from the screen. But every day, it seems, there’s at least one patient for whom my report will bring devastation. It’s the most timeworn cliche, but life really is short sometimes–as, too often, is the notice that we get.

I go to the linen closet, and pull out a neatly folded, pristine whisper. I hold it to my face and take a slow, deep breath of summer, happiness, and home. This small luxury I will allow myself–and you should too, every chance you get.

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