Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Unknown Errors of Our Lives by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

"The Unknown Errors of Our Lives,"

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

While some of my favorite books are "The Palace of Illusions" and "Arranged Marriage," by Divakaruni, I had not read "The Unknown Errors of Our Lives" until only recently. It is a collection of short stories about Indians, some living in the San Francisco Bay Area, some in India. Sometimes a short story is just what I'm looking for, something quick to read, entertaining, a glimpse of a vision, and a story that leaves the rest for the reader to imagine. Often, a well-written short story collection is a great conversation starter in a book club. Sure, you cannot discuss a complex story, but sometimes the intriguing quality of the piece, and its somewhat limited scope, is better than some mediocre full length novels.

I have always enjoyed Divakaruni's writing because she speaks in a very beautiful, elegant voice, describes the experiences from a deep perspective, and writes as if having first-hand knowledge. I especially enjoyed "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," where the complex, heartbreaking feelings of a mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, and son's family dynamics are explored. The emotions of a mother, as she becomes a member of his immediate family, and lives in his home are very believable. The characteristics of the new immigrant, as she tries to navigate life in the Bay Area and fit in with her son's family, are so often felt by many friends' relatives I have met in the Bay Area. The descriptions of the grandchildren, and the son's wife's disconnect with their newest family member, whether generational or cultural or emotional, will hit a nerve in those that live in an extended family. An extended family is the norm in Indian culture, and often the subject of extraordinary, sensational TV serials, but this story puts the complexities in a realistic, touching short story.

In "The Intelligence of Wild Things," Divakaruni writes about the changing relationships of once close family members, who are separated by distance due to marriage, political unrest, and college studies. A sister in California, a younger brother in Vermont, and an ailing mother in India, are the subject of a family living with questions and losing their once close bond. Everyone can identify with how lives changes among siblings after one gets married, has children, or a career, and start getting caught up in day-to-day responsibilities. The story shows how easy it is to avoid talking about difficult subjects when you have such little face-to-face time with family.

"The Love of a Good Man," spoke about forgiveness, and left much of the why's and what's for the reader to figure out, but I enjoyed it anyway. "What the Body Knows," was a touching story of a woman and her post-partum health illness.

All of the stories explore the characters' choices that might be considered an 'error' if they could see the consequences of that choice. It is only human to make these 'unknown errors' and who among us is free of making mistakes? The emotional journey of each character, in the brief slice of life portrayed in the short story, is heartfelt, very moving, and evokes a multitude of feelings in the reader. This was another great book by Divakaruni. I look forward to another book by this author, I hope one is in the works!

To purchase this book at Barnes and Noble click

Have you read books by this author? Click on comment, and tell me!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to Select Interior Paint Colors

How to Select Color for your Walls?

With all the hardships going on in the world today, a little distraction that isn't too costly seems like a good idea to help perk up my environment and lift the mood.

I've decided to pick paint colors for my house!
The interior of the whole house is a "builder's white" color. Not only did they paint my house all one color, but the trim, molding, baseboards, everything in every room is the same color. It feels very institutional. I'm sure for the right room and place, this color scheme might work, but for me it feels..well..sterile..anitbacterial...void of life of any kind.

I've brought home color chips from the paint store, magazines, paint company brochures, but still am really overwhelmed by all the choices. I know I need to decide on a color scheme, keeping in mind the whole flow from one room to the next. I also need to figure out what mood I want to create in each room (and for good measure, if it is Vastu and Feng Shui compliant!) Do I really care about the latest color trends, and updated colors? I decide that first I'll determine the color family for each room, then zero in on the exact shade, taking into account the trends, and what matches the items in that room. Sounds like a good plan...I think.


Here's what I recall from Vastu Shastra:

- Use red in areas used for socializing, dining, exercising, creating courage.
- Use orange in social areas, dining room, to stimulate happiness.
- Use yellow in restful areas, and areas that need concentration, and communication.
- Use green in areas used for good health, to create abundance, balance, harmony.
- Use Blue in areas to reduce pain, calm the nervous system.
- Use Violet in areas for meditation to soothe and calm the mind.
- Use White in any room for purifying and healing.

From this I take it that the stimulating colors are good in kitchen, dining, and living rooms. While the calming colors are good for bedrooms, study, and bathrooms. Vastu rules for color are not as strict as Feng Shui because the Vastu system believes colors work differently for each person. Colors are used as a remedy to bring the person's environment into balance. Bright, bold colors are used as accents, nothing that 'yells' at the occupants is recommended on the walls.

So where does my favourite color taupe fit in? I would say it is a neutral in the yellow family, and yellow/tan/taupe colors are the the ones suitable for most quadrants in Vastu (ie. NE, E, SE, S, SW)

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Here's what I recall from Feng Shui:

The Feng Shui system is much more strict based on which element is represented by the quadrant. Here's a summary:

1. NE : earth element: yellow, tan, earth colors, to make NE stronger, can add fire colors.
2. E: wood element: greens, browns
3. SE: wood element: greens, browns
4. S: fire element: red, yellow, orange
5. SW: earth: saffron color, yellowish orange, orange-brown, tans
6. W: metal element: white, silver, gold, metallic colors, can add earth colors
7. NW: metal element: silver, gold, metallic colors, do NOT add fire colors, can add earth colors
8. N: water element: blue, purple, black

So that gives me something to work with. I'll start looking in each room for color inspirations, and see how it goes with the above guidelines. If I get overwhelmed, I'll remember that you can't go wrong with all white in a house, it's not sterile, it's peaceful...

I'll reveal my color selections in future posts..stay tuned!

Do you have any suggestions? Click on comment and tell me!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Way of Vastu by Michael & Robin Mastro

"The Way of Vastu," by M. & R. Mastro

Is Feng Shui based on the ancient Vastu Shastra?

According to the book "The Way of Vastu," by the Mastro's, the answer is yes!

The authors, Michael and Robin Mastro are both consultants, teachers, and speakers on the subject of Vastu Shastra (which means Building Science.) In fact, Microsoft's first office building was built using Michael's consultation advice in which he used all the principles of directions, shape, and placement according to Vastu Shastra. I guess it worked for Microsoft since their business boomed after their first building was built!

The book is small, well illustrated, and easy to read quickly. The ideas about directions, and their effects on our prosperity, and how to remedy any deficiencies can quickly absorb you. This book gently suggests people to purchase the different remedies for any deficiencies as the Mastro's are owners of a company called Vastu Creations.

At first I though the book had the additional motive of marketing their own products, but decided to keep reading. I found that there were simple ideas listed very clearly that anyone can follow. Some of the ideas are really pertinent to Hindu traditions, and perhaps not everyone would be comfortable using them.

After reading the book, I took away a few very simple ideas for my home:

  • Try to keep the energy that comes from the East unblocked. The East is the rising sun direction, and it is good to allow the sun's morning rays into the home unobstructed.

  • The North direction should not contain large trees, or obstructions since it brings magnetic energy for prosperity.

  • Try to keep the center of the home open, uncluttered, and clean.

  • Rectangular or square mirrors are good, round ones should be avoided.

  • Try not to have too many windows and doors in the South

  • The West should be the direction for higher elevation, fewer windows and doors, and less open space.

The authors go on to list suggestions for color, placement of altars, and list many products that can increase prosperity. This is where I decided that a basic idea of balance in my house is what makes me happy. If I want to keep one or two items that bring me feelings of peace and good luck, then there is nothing wrong with that. If I don't believe that a gadget will work, then it just becomes a gimmick to me.

Having a home or office that follows the rules of Vastu is impossible for most of us. I think, for me, I will try to make sure I follow a common sense approach, use a few of the principles where I can, and hope for the best!

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Do you have any books to suggest on this topic, or something else? Click on comments to tell me!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Feng Shui by Lillian Too

"The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Feng Shui,"

by Lillian Too

Can the placement of furniture, wind chimes, and lighting change your life?

For those who don't believe that 'good' and 'bad' energies exist, that encouraging a positive 'flow' in your environment can impact your life, the concept of Feng Shui (or Vaastu Shastra in Hindu traditions) will not mean much. If you really don't know what to believe, then following a few simple suggestions from these ancient belief systems just might improve your environment, and what's the harm in that?

A friend gave me the book "Feng Shui for Gardens," by Lillian Too to read to help me plan my landscape design. I found the ideas and suggestions for trees, flowers, shrubs for each location of our yard a helpful guide, and fun too. I picked up Too's book for Feng Shui for the home in general and really enjoyed her simple and easy to follow suggestions.

The new ideas I learned (from both of Too's books) were regarding each family member and the quadrant that represents them. The simple ideas for remedying any deficiencies were not overwhelming. You need not tear down walls, or renovate the entire house to make it Feng Shui compliant. I liked her ideas of using little glass bowls of pebbles, marble statues, metal wind chimes, and crystals to seek a balance in the house for all family members.
The suggestions for placement of furniture so that guests feel welcome, and can easily mingle, really do make sense. The elimination of clutter, sharp lines, and harmful objects is logical (think childproofing your area) so how can you argue with that? Displaying objects that are associated with happiness, good luck, and prosperity can only invoke good feelings when you look at them. If you sift through the many ideas, numerical calculations, and compass directions what you are really left with is a guide to make the home peaceful.

I found that many Feng Shui suggestions were something I would do anyway. I like to display pictures of family members, making sure we are all smiling (who wants to put up a picture where one of us is frowning?) I like having fresh and silk flowers in the house. I don't like artwork depicting war, battles, or struggles. Who doesn't like beautiful candles, clean floors, and comfortable chairs?

Feng Shui can be very complex, or very simple, depending on what you choose to believe. I really enjoyed reading Lillian Too's books, and getting a few ideas for the home and garden.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click

What do you think of Feng Shui? Leave a comment and tell me!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Family Tree by Barbara Delinsky

"Family Tree,"

a novel by Barbara Delinsky

What if your biological child resembled none of your ancestors, or your spouse's ancestors?
What if your biological child was of a different race?
What conclusion would you make, or your spouse make?

In this story, an African-American baby is born to a Caucasian couple and triggers many reactions in both the couple and everyone around them. They not only struggle to come to terms with finding out how this happened, genetically and physically, but how much they trust each other.

The mother, Dana Clark, loves her newborn unconditionally and accepts whatever unknown circumstances caused her daughter to have an African-American appearance. Dana is keen to find out where in her own family tree there may be African-American blood. Her husband Hugh, whose ancestors can be traced back to the Mayflower, also loves his daughter, however he initially hesitates to distribute her photograph until he can answer questions that will obviously be raised. Was his wife unfaithful? What do they really know about their own ancestors?

Barbara Delinsky writes an easy to read story with very complex issues that challenge the reader. She develops her characters thoughtfully and the reader is comfortable exploring the controversial feelings along with them. Questions and feelings regarding race, especially when it concerns one's children or grandchildren, are not often written about. The family interactions, among grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. are written invoking many different points of view. This is a well written story that raises many issues that parents and families of mixed-race children might have had to deal with. The tension in this story was due to the fact that no one expected any African-American ancestors in the family's ancestral tree. With knowledge of their family tree the characters might have expected this, have had nothing to explain, and just simply enjoyed the birth of their daughter.

This story peaked my curiosity since I wondered where the story would go. This is a great book for a book club where you feel comfortable enough to share feelings about race and diversity. In some areas, they consider it a 'mixed' marriage if you marry someone from a different part of the same country but speak a different dialect, even though you are the same religion and race!

Many people embrace diversity, even fight for the cause, as long as it doesn't include their own offspring. Many people are fine with diversity, as long the socio-economic levels are a match!
Some embrace their mixed heritage simply as an enriched social environment. Parents who can expose their children to different cultures, and show them that feelings of love, respect, and family unity are common to all, are the ones who rise above any controversy. That, in my opinion, is how it should be.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

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What has been your personal experience with this topic? Share your views in comments below:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How to Start a Book Club That's Fun and Interesting

How to Get a Social Group Together

for a Successful Book Club...

It is not difficult to get a book club started since many of us love to read books and talk about them with friends. The key to a successful club is to keep members actively involved, eager to participate, and looking forward to each meeting. Book clubs are a great social activity that can really enrich your life. Here's how you can start your own:

1. First, think of the kind of group you want to have (nearby neighbors, close friends group, or an open call for new members in your building, people at work, or charitable organisation, etc.)

2. Approach two or three people and ask if they are interested to get the ball rolling, or if you have a great response from the number of people you want, then just get an email list started! Having the number of members under 12 is a manageable size. Anything larger may need a more formal structure, and members to rotate responsibilities. Don't be afraid to ask others to help you.
3. Come up with a book for your first selection just to get the club going and to schedule a meeting. Since you are initiating this, you can suggest a few titles and take a vote. Anything to get the process going quickly while everyone is still interested.
4. If at first you only have a few (or two!) members, don't be discouraged. The word of the club will spread, and it will grow quicker than you might imagine!

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5. At your first meeting, you can discuss the kind of books you'll read, how you'll select a book (random pick from a hat of titles, everyone take turns selecting, anyone can offer a suggestion, etc.), how often you'll meet (once a month, every 8 weeks, etc.), when you'll meet (on Friday nights, Sunday evenings, Thursday nights, etc.). It's important to schedule a day/time that suits all members. Be punctual and end on time. This keeps everyone happy. Encourage everyone to commit a few hours for this activity for themselves!
6. The host can send out a meeting reminder, provide snacks/drinks for everyone, and most of all, a comfortable place to sit and share your thoughts (this means no interruptions from spouses, children, phones, pagers, etc..) Meetings generally last between an hour or two.
7. You can decide to pick a new selection at every meeting, or publish a list of titles and assign the order in which you'll discuss them. Encourage everyone to keep a list of books (or authors) they're interested in reading. The variety of material you read with input from each member helps keeps members engaged in the club.

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8. Some publishers have Book Club reading guides, or Discussion Questions published online or at the end of the book, so make sure you take advantage of that to get a good discussion going. Encourage everyone to read the book and think of what they liked most, and what they didn't like. Encourage the discussion to flow freely, from the book to other events in your lives.
9. Snacks, drinks, music can be based on the theme of the book if applicable. Encourage simplicity, so no one feels pressure to 'put on a great show' when they host, but actually are enthusiastic about doing so!
10. Some meetings can be 'Field Trips' to a play, restaurant, movie, author's book reading, or other venue inspired by the book selection. Although not easy to accomplish very often, group outings are really fun and enrich your experience within the book club.
11. Invite guest speakers to your meetings that have something to say about the book or topic you are reading. You can even request a visit from the author if possible! Guest speakers add a whole new dimension to your club and keeps the discussions fresh.
12. Agree that you can all have very different opinions making group discussions interesting. Encourage everyone to set a non-judgemental tone to the club and provide an open minded forum (or you'll just get everyone simply nodding in agreement and not adding to the dialog.)
Above all, enjoy each others company, keep it light, and don't take it too seriously!
These are some key ideas to keep a club engaging, after all, the whole purpose is to encourage social interaction. With that in mind, your book club should go on year after year!


What did you think of this post? Click on comments below and leave me your thoughts!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tulsi - Sacred Basil Plant - Ocimum tenuiflorum

Growing a Holy Basil Plant

Ocimum tenuiflorum or
Ocimum sanctum

Eight years ago in California, a friend gave me a tiny, one-leaf seedling in a styrofoam cup full of soil and told me it was a Tulsi plant from a neighbor's yard. Apparently, her neighbor's tulsi plant had spread seedlings all over the flowerbed, so she was potting each one and giving them away. Since Tulsi (or Holy Basil) is highly regarded in Ayurvedic and Hindu traditions, there was a huge demand for her seedlings.

I happily adopted the tiny plant, and watched it grow into a 6 foot tall, multi-stemmed shrub over seven years. I used the leaves in tea and in yogurt raita dishes. I used the seeds from the its ripened flowers to grow more seedlings to give to others who wanted their own Tulsi plant.

When it came time to relocate across the country, I had the plant sent by overnight courier to our new location. It did well during the summer months, even thrived, but a harsh North Carolina winter draft finally put my Tulsi plant to sleep. I was very disheartened and sad at losing my treasured plant, and didn't have the heart to plant a new seedling from the bag of seeds I had saved.

Then, this past weekend, I went to the new Hindu temple in Cary. The beautiful new temple is breathtaking. We enjoyed the service, the sounds and smells, and most of all, the feeling of peace one gets when in a place of worship. On our way out of the temple, I noticed a crate of tiny seedlings off to one side. The sign read "Tulsi Plants" and a suggested donation amount was posted. I couldn't help but pick up a tiny seedling, in a styrofoam cup, and bring it home.

Maybe this one is meant for North Carolina!

How to Grow Holy Basil

Here's how I took the tiny seedling and grew it into a 6 foot tall shrub:

1. Replant the seedling first in a 6 inch pot (not bigger) with good indoor/outdoor potting soil so that the roots and plant both grow well.

2. Water frequently, do not let the soil get too dry, but also do not let it stay too soggy either.

3. Keep it in a sunny location. While the plant is small, (less than 2 feet tall) keep it indoors, away from cold drafts.

4. Transfer the plant to a larger pot when the plant is about 18 inches tall. You can keep the plant outdoors if the weather is not cold, and overnight temperatures are not cold. In California I kept the plant outdoors during the spring/summer months after the last frost, and indoors for fall and winter.

5. Watering and keeping the plant away from cold drafts is the key.

6. When the flowers dry up, you can gently remove flowers from the stem and save for future use. Inside each dried flower will be a tiny black seed, about the size of a dot on this page.

7. Certain varieties of Tulsi plants may only be annuals. However, you can try to make them perennial by bringing the plant indoors. If that doesn't work, save the ripened flowers/seeds from your annual and plant a seedling in spring to have a year-round supply of Tulsi.

8. Tulsi leaves are great added to chai, or cool yogurt dishes, or as a garnish.

Enjoy your Holy Basil for years!
Please share your opinions with me, click on comments below to leave me a message:

Easy Tamarind Rice Recipe

Easy Tamarind Rice (Puliogare)

For me, an easy to fix, tangy, spicy accompaniment to a cup of Chai is worth its weight in gold. I watched a South Indian friend make Tamarind Rice from scratch (she roasted and ground the spices etc.) and prepared a dish so mouthwatering that I needed to make it myself. Another friend told me the easy way: buy a packet of Puliogare powder or paste from the Indian grocery store and you can have quick Tamarind rice in a flash! I've used leftover rice, plain or with vegetables, anything you've got on hand.

Here's my quick recipe:

Easy Tamarind Rice
(Serves 4 as snack, 2 as side dish)

1 Tbs olive oil
6 Tbs Puliogare powder (I like MTR brand)
3-4 cups cooked rice (depending on how spicy you like it)

Heat oil in non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add Puliogare powder and blend in. Add cold, cooked rice and gently fry on medium heat until heated. Serve and enjoy!

What did you think of this recipe? Click on comments below to tell me!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

"Garden Spells,"

a novel by Sarah Addison Allen

Herbal Remedies for Life's Ailments such as...
...Lemon Verbena to calm overly talkative visitors, Lavender to lift spirits and make good decisions, Rose petals to encourage love...

"Garden Spells" is the first book by an author from North Carolina that I have read. Sarah Addison Allen has beautifully written an imaginative, simply enchanting story about two sisters living in a historic house in a small college town in North Carolina.

I have been looking to find a story based in North Carolina written by a local author. Since I've been researching landscape plants lately, the title "Garden Spells" caught my eye, and peaked my curiosity.

This is more of a 'chick-lit' type of book, and I had not read one in a while. Some parts were predictable, but the romantic story was easy to read, and kept me engaged.

The story centered around the two Waverley sisters, Claire and Sydney. Claire remains in her ancestral home for most of her life and yet does not connect personally with locals there. Sydney leaves her hometown at the earliest opportunity, with the intention of never coming back. The two sisters, one who stayed and one who returns back home, are both trying to find out where they really belong, and with whom.
At the center of the story is the magical garden in the Waverley's backyard, with its enchanted apple tree. I enjoyed the descriptions of the uses for herbs and flowers from the magic garden. Allen painted vividly enticing pictures of gourmet menus that I could almost smell the marigold-petal rice, rose-hip soup, and anise hyssop honey butter on toast...

The story described the heartaches, misunderstandings, challenges, and ideas of what "home" really means for the Waverley family. As many of us have left our hometowns, countries, even the continents where we were born or raised, the notion of "home" takes on different meanings. Usually there is only one thought that comes to mind when you think "home." There is usually one place that gives you certain feelings of familiarity, triggers flashbacks, and evokes a sense of belonging. We may dread going home at times, or delay facing issues with family, or try to skirt responsibilities but it is impossible not to be drawn to a place called home and to the feelings of belonging. This was the case with the younger Waverley sister named Sydney.

For me, this book triggered strong feelings of wanting to reconnect with childhood friends, see the places I used to visit growing up, and taking a ride on the subway to stops I travelled everyday. I took for granted that those sights and sounds would always be there, never realizing the distance that jobs and responsibilities would take me.

This is a an easy to read love story, terrific beach-reading material, and a good 'chick-lit' book. Sometimes a fantasy story is just what you need!

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Have you read books by this author? Click on comments below to tell me what you think.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Landscaping in Cary, North Carolina without Feeding the Deer

Selecting Trees, Shrubs, and Landscape Plants

...that are deer, insect, and disease resistant!

There are lots and lots of trees in North Carolina.

Trees are all I see when the airplane approaches RDU for a landing. Trees are everywhere along the two lane highways that curve and wind to the local shopping malls, schools, and Research Triangle Park. There is a "tree protected" thicket behind our house. Tons of yellow pollen covers everything outside during the start of spring...

So why do I need to purchase and plant even more trees?

Unfortunately, the builder from whom we purchased our house cleared all the trees on our land prior to building the houses. They planted some small trees and shrubs on our property for 'landscaping' and leave the rest to the homeowner to do depending on their own personal taste.

I've never needed to plant a tree in any of our prior homes (we've moved a dozen times and most of our homes had 'mature' landscapes.) I'm also not familiar with what thrives in this area since there are a million deer, some snakes, foxes, insects, heat, humidity, and freezing temperature issues.

The builder planted Leyland Cypress trees along the backyard property line. How pretty the rows of trees looked when we moved in. Then, when winter came and there was nothing growing in the thicket of protected trees behind our property, our 5 foot tall evergreen cypress trees looked even prettier. So good in fact that all the deer in this area thought we put out an all-you-can-eat buffet for them!

In the winter we enjoy seeing the deer in the backyard, especially a tiny, young, unsteady fawn. I'll see them in the morning when I'm making my breakfast tea, and then again at dusk when I'm getting dinner ready. Leyland Cypress are fast growing trees, so we'll just let nature take its course and fill them in. Meanwhile, our front yard is in need of help.
What We Want for Landscaping our Yard:

1. Two large evergreen trees planted beside the house on the left and right side. These 2 trees would replace the Arborvitae trees that look diseased.

2. One small 'specimen' tree in the front yard, to view while sitting on the front porch. This tree would give us some privacy, and hide our right-side neighbor's driveway from our view while we sit and have our smoothies or tea on the porch.

3. Two small to medium sized formal evergreen trees or shrubs on either side of the foot of the driveway. These trees/shrubs would anchor the entrance of our driveway and give a formal appearance to the yard.

4. Several small to medium shrubs to replace a small piece of grass between our left-side neighbor's property and our driveway. This patch of grass is very difficult to water, plus we want to soften the direct view we have of our neighbor's driveway/garage. The shrubs must give a formal appearance as this is at the entrance of our driveway as well.

5. One large tree to provide shade, and beauty, in our backyard's corner where there is a steep slope.

6. Several shrubs to control erosion on the steep slope in our backyard.

So that is really overwhelming to someone who hasn't done much landscaping.

How to Make a Landscape Plan
To make this an organized and enjoyable process, I will follow these steps to make a Landscape Plan:

1. Look at the area you are trying to landscape. Separate the area into manageable sections if possible, keeping in mind the entire picture. It helps to enlarge a copy of your lot survey for this purpose. You can make a scale drawing of each patch of area on grid paper. Ask the local utilities companies (gas, electric, cable) to mark the lot so you can plan accordingly. We found out the gas line runs right down the middle of my front yard!

2. Visit local nurseries to get an idea of what the local market trends are, and the availability of common varieties.

3. Drive around the mature areas of your town, including well manicured business locations. Take pictures of trees and shrubs that look interesting and that you might use.

4. Research the Internet for disease resistant, deer resistant, evergreen trees and shrubs. Keep notes on the botanical name as well as the height, width, sun, and soil descriptions for each. This is the most time-consuming part.

5. Read books from the library, home improvement stores, or gardening magazines. These usually show the plants in landscape pictures so you can get many ideas.

6. If you are interested Feng Shui, read "Feng Shui for Gardens," by Lillian Too. This book really gives a great deal of information but you can get really caught up in trying to follow every suggestion. If you can take even some simple ideas from this book, you'll add a very positive energy or 'Chi' flow in your garden. I took the idea of not having sharp, pointy plants in my front yard (cuts up the incoming positive energy.) Also, I decided to plant red, yellow plants in the South side of my yard, blue flowers in the North, and gold/silver color plants in the West. (I'll try anyway...)

7. Draw a rough sketch of each area you are landscaping (try to draw to scale) on grid paper. Now draw in the possible plants, in their mature height and width, in the proper locations.

8. Decide if you'll buy trees locally or order through the web. I decided I wanted to see the trees in person. There are many websites that ship trees all across the states, and for every zone. Ask friends and neighbors for suggestions.

9. If buying locally, you can go to the home improvement stores, nurseries, or tree farms. Through our neighborhood group we found out about several nurseries that are outside the city (1 hour drive or so) that sell trees and shrubs for low prices. This was perfect for our small budget!

10. Plan your purchase and prepare your yard. This is very important for a successful tree transplant. Make sure you select healthy specimens, water and fertilize as needed, and watch your garden grow!

Here are my plant selections for our yard:

1. Nellie Stevens Holly to replace the Arborvitae

2. Specimen tree choices: Osmanthus Fortunei, Southern Wax Myrtle, Japanese Maple, Crape Myrtle. I will select one choice when I actually purchase the trees in the fall. I'll base my choice on what is readily available, looks healthy, and the cost.

3. Dwarf Burford Hollies to anchor the driveway.

4. Lorapetalum, Logustrum, Ilex Cornuta, Curlyleaf Privet, or camellia as small shrubs in the front yard.

5. Lil' Gem Magnolia, or Heritage River Birch for the back yard. Again, I'll wait until fall to select.

6. Junipers, and lavender bushes for the steep slope in the backyard.

Stay tuned, I'll update the outcome of this landscape plan in coming months...

Happy Gardening!
Do you have an opinion about landscaping? Click on comments below to leave me a message!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Cold Coffee Smoothie - Mocha Iced Coffee

To keep teenagers in the house happy, I made cold coffee drinks without caffeine today. It was nice to have a glass myself while taking a break from taking measurements of the yard for landscaping.

Mocha Iced Coffee

(Serves 2)

1 cup ice cubes

2 1/2 cups cold milk

4-5 tsp. sugar (to taste)

2 heaping tsp. instant coffee (decaf. is ok)

2 tsp chocolate ovaltine or 1 tsp chocolate syrup

Place everything except 1 cup of the milk into a blender.

Blend until ice is crushed, add remaining milk and blend until foamy.

Pour into tall glasses and enjoy!

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Mango Lassi - Yogurt Smoothie - Lactose Free

After I finished "Breakfast with Buddha", I was ready for lunch with the family. The weather was extremely humid and muggy this weekend and so I craved a cool Mango Lassi. Lassi is a cool yogurt based smoothie from India, perfect for humid East Coast afternoons. This easy recipe never fails, just multiply the amounts to make the number of servings you want:

Mango Lassi
(serves 2)

2 cups ice cubes
8 tablespoons mango pulp (sweetened)
8 tablespoons plain yogurt (fat-free, or full-fat)
3-4 tablespoons sugar (to taste, depends how sweet the pulp is)
2 cups cold water

Put everything except the water into a blender. Add about 1/2 cup of the cold water and blend to crush the ice cubes, and dissolve the sugar (about a minute). Add the remaining cold water and blend until mixed and frothy. Pour into two tall glasses and serve immediately. Enjoy!

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo

"Breakfast with Buddha," a novel by Roland Merullo

What would it be like to be on an American road trip with the Buddha?

Also... How to Meditate

At the bookstore over the weekend I thumbed through the pages of "Breakfast with Buddha" and and could not stop reading. I purchased it and finished it before the weekend was over. This was the first book by Roland Merullo that I've read. I have never read such a mixture of insightful dialog and deep spiritual questions intertwined with a beautiful, witty, funny, and easy to read story!

This book does not point to one way of life or one religion as having all the answers. Rather, it makes the reader see the similarity and inclusiveness of all faiths, and raise the appropriate personal questions. The descriptions and experiences of Otto on the road during a drive from New York to North Dakota with a smiling holy man, Rinpoche,in the passenger seat were priceless. The author described the restaurants, Inns, and attractions along the way as a worthy travel guide. The descriptions of the many different cuisines (Thai, Hungarian, Mexican, Nepali, Chinese, German...) that the characters sampled along the way were very authentic.

The best parts of the book were the ones that dealt with Otto's seeking answers to questions like:

"What is the meaning of life?", "How is it really possible for a holy messenger to take human form on Earth?", "What is the underlying principle that makes sense out of life?"

Otto's reluctant, and many times humorous, journey into the world as explained by his travel companion was interesting and insightful. The simple yet wise ways to make our complicated lives and relationships make sense were enjoyable to read.

The book had a nice story, good advice, and great bits of insight. A relaxing, enjoyable, fun to read book.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

How to Meditate

To me, meditation means simply trying to quiet your thoughts so that your mind can be clear, even for a brief moment at a time. With practice you are suppose to increase the duration that your mind is still.

Why, what is the advantage, what do I get out of it, and why in the world would I do this?

For me the answer is: peace and relaxation.

The degree of relaxation and what impact it has on my day-to-day life varies with what's currently going on in my life. I've found I have more energy to deal with challenges, overcome anxiety, and have a sense of well-being after I am able to meditate.

The most frustrating and difficult part of meditating is to stop the constant hum of thoughts that come in and out of my conscience when I have "a zillion things on my mind." Allowing sufficient time, and patience, in a soothing place free of distractions is the key. You can light a candle or burn incense, or anything to give you a soothing and calming feeling. Even just sitting comfortably at home and breathing deeply is very soothing. It is sometimes relaxing to just even try to meditate and have a few moments of pause.

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

"Q & A," by Vikas Swarup

"Q and A," a novel by Vikas Swarup

My thoughts about the Slumdog Millionaire book.

With all the Oscar buzz last year about the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" was anyone curious about the book on which the movie's screenplay was based? I read Vikas Swarup's engrossing novel a few years ago, while living in the Bay Area, long before any idea of a Hollywood/Bollywood movie was taking birth. Reading the book back then, without any preconceived expectations or beliefs, I was very pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, and could not put it down. Each chapter was like a short story on its own, but I wanted to see what would eventually happen at the end. The brutality, rawness, painful and touching moments had me hooked. Each story touched on a sensational or controversial topic (police brutality, corruption, religion, war, race, prostitution, poverty, child enslavement, difference among socio-economic classes, etc.)

Time passed, more people discovered this book, the movie was released, and wow..the immense media blitz and numerous Oscars could not have been predicted. I was disappointed with the movie because of the complete story change and numerous omissions.

I started a book club with neighbors in Cary, North Carolina and picked "Q &A" as the first selection. I re-read it and noticed all the differences between the book and movie, and rediscovered why I originally enjoyed the story.

After reading this book, I couldn't help but be grateful for everything in life. The India that I remember, as a child 7 years old, was from a sheltered child's view. I remember beautiful verandas for playing, pretty custom-made frocks, wearing crisp uniforms to school, and the fun we had performing in school musicals wearing gorgeous traditional costumes. It made me sad to envision the nannies (they were called Iyas), house cleaning personnel, and various other helpers as perhaps being part of the extreme poverty that exists there. As a child, I was not completely aware of class structure, economics, and was sheltered from the situation of slum dwellers. I remember seeing beggars on the street through the window of our taxi, or from a distant when riding with my parents on an auto rickshaw, but never really thinking about it. While reading this book I had flashbacks of several childhood memories and it made me pause, reflect on my brief time lived in India. It makes me want to visit New Delhi, and see the vibrant city it has become. Sadly, even though my parents visited India many times during the past 30 years, I was unable to do so. It makes me want to see India through my 'grown-up' eyes.

This was a great read, and I recommend it highly.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click

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