Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Baseball and Chilies

People are funny about baseball. I grew up watching it, and we even had weekend season tickets to the A's for a while, so it all seems perfectly normal to me. But to non-fans, baseball is bizarre and perplexing, kind of like cricket or Sheryl Crow are to me. When we told some friends that we were going down to Phoenix to see spring training baseball, it was as if we had told them we were off to the Arctic to club baby seals. Why on earth would anyone do such a thing?

Tempe Diablo Stadium, spring home of the Anaheim Angels

There are many types of baseball fans: the die-hards, the charmingly superstitious, the unfortunately shirtless guys, the obsessed stats people that keep score on elaborate pads despite the fact that there is a massive scoreboard right in easy view and grumble when the official scorer calls an error on 1st when it was clearly a throwing error by the shortstop you moron, the fair-weather fans, more unfortunately shirtless guys. I'm another type of fan: a bad one. I can recite baseball rules all day long, but I just don't really get involved in fandom, and reading the sports page every day to keep up on how the teams are doing is about as enticing as repeatedly stepping on a sea urchin. I suppose I'm a fair-weather fan in the sense that I like to go when the weather's nice, but if you ask me how the A's are doing in the AL West I'll probably have no idea unless I happened to have overheard something. Apparently Washington has had a Major League team for 4 years and it was news to me about 6 months ago. Like I said, I'm a bad fan.

Oh well, I still love baseball, and after a baseball-free year last year, limited sunshine-filled outdoor activities, and far more snooker on television than anyone could possibly stand to watch, the thought of going to spring training was incredibly alluring.

The stadiums are so small at spring training you can get really close to the field

The weather was incredible - 80° in March

I freely admit that baseball can be boring if you're not into it. However, I think my general baseball philosophy makes it easier for anyone to enjoy it: just pretend it's a picnic with several thousand of your best friends. Seriously. Going to a baseball game for me is about sitting outside on a beautiful day, chatting with some friends and/or strangers, eating a hotdog, picking between a chocolate malt or some sort of slushy beverage, tossing a few peanut shells on the ground, and wondering why the lite beer you just drank cost $8. Oh, and occasionally remembering there's a game going on, just enough to know when to cheer and when to duck to prevent massive head injury. If you go to a night game, try to go on fireworks night so you can lie on the grass and listen to Journey in the dark while the sky explodes.

When do the lights go down in the city? Does he mean dawn?

Needless to say, with that attitude and easy access to hotdogs and Icees, we had an awesome time sitting in the sun watching some baseball.

8000 of our closest friends

Beyond the nifty desert plants and spring training baseball, one other reason I love traveling in the Southwest is the food, which, at it's best, is an orgiastic celebration of all things chili. Go to The Shed in Santa Fe, eat their red sauce until sweat starts pouring out of your knuckles, and you'll know what I mean. Phoenix, despite its massive size, admittedly isn't much of a foodie town in the way that Santa Fe is, but there are still some excellent restaurants to be found.

Dos Gringos: A good place to day drink, a god-forsaken crap-hole at night

For Southwestern food, you can hardly do better than at Richardson's or it's next-door sister restaurant Dick's Hideaway. The breakfast we had at Dick's Hideaway will go down as one of the best breakfasts of my entire life. Also one of the largest. I ordered the carne adovada with eggs, which could easily have been split by a family of four. Maggie's order of huevos rancheros, simultaneously the best and spiciest version I have ever encountered, was similarly massive. I wish I had one of those "wow that food looks so tasty" pictures right now, but you'll just have to take my word and go there for breakfast if you're ever within a few hundred miles. We had intended on going on a nice long hike that day, but after happily waddling out of Dick's Hideaway that plan didn't seem too feasible.

We doubled-up on our Richardson's experience having had dinner the evening before at their sister restaurant Rokerij, a sleek but cozy place that looked like Atelier Joël Robuchon transported to the Southwest and served up one of the best steaks I've had in ages.

We did manage to get out for a short hike nonetheless

And even got saw a plant or two, like this flowering cholla

Phoenix is so fast and cheap to get to from the Bay Area, there's no excuse not to go back next year for more spring training fun. Or sooner because now I'm seriously wanting more southwestern breakfast.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Glass in the Desert

Shortly after arriving in Phoenix last week, and after getting fueled up with an excellent lunch Haji-Baba, a little gem hidden in one of Phoenix's many unassuming strip-malls, we set off as planned to visit the Desert Botanical Garden. The weather was perfect – clear, blue, mid 70s – so it was the ideal time to go wander around the garden. As an additional bonus surprise, the garden was hosting a Dale Chihuly exhibition with numerous large installations throughout the garden (the exhibition runs through May).

I had previously been familiar with Chihuly's work through the massive Medusa-esque chandelier in the entrance hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the slightly more subdued one at Claridge's (seen below in the photo that got me in trouble with a posh twit):

I can't say that I was particularly a fan before – certaily I was impressed at the enormity of the chandeliers and I thought they were amusingly eccentric, but that was about it. With the DBG installation, however, I was really impressed and he seems to have been genuinely inspired by the surroundings. If you get a chance to visit before the end of May, it's really quite a thing to behold.

Some of the sculptures blended seamlessly with the forms of surrounding plants, others were more free-form and abstract but still somehow worked in context, and others were simply so strange they looked to be the handiwork of Willy Wonka (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on your point of view). The garden itself is already somewhat of a fantasy landscape, filled with snake-like chollas, towers of organ-pipe cacti, and Dr. Seussian boojum trees, and Chihuly accentuated this aspect of the garden with his pieces.

A dramatic sculpture blending well with surrounding agaves

Several of the installations involved forests of tall tapering columns of glass

Chihuly naturally couldn't resist a chandelier or two

I think he neglected the plants on this one and focused instead on frightening small children

And then there was this thing

Not to mention the boat full of Everlasting Gobstoppers

There was so much glass, it was hard to imagine how Chihuly managed to make it all and transport it to Arizona. The garden is a large place, and around nearly every corner you would find yet another glass installation. The fact that Chihuly employs a small army of glassblowers helps explain it, but the sheer scale of the project must have demanded months and months of work.

Chihuly and his loyal team of glassblowers

The landscape at the Desert Botanical Garden

The collection of cacti was impressive

Cactus skyscrapers

Boojums, cacti, and glass

This rare crested saguaro was a standout

I really appreciateed the sign that informed patrons that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Unfortunately a nearby sign had a less than satisfying definition of a cactus, saying only that it is "a plant in the family Cactaceae." Not exactly illuminating. They could easily have said something general like "Any member of a New World family of plants (Cactaceae) adapted to dry environments, most having leaves modified to become spines, and succulent stems that are capable of storing water through long dry periods," but then they didn't ask me.

A blooming desert Penstemon

There was a fair amount of wildlife to be seen in the garden as well. I was hoping to see a desert tortoise strolling around, but I never spotted one; however, we couldn't help but see dozens of lizards, happily buzzing carpenter bees, and a variety of birds including lots of goofy head-bobbing quail.

A Sceloporus spiny lizard

We also saw butterflies

And the butterfly's brother-in-law, the caterpillar

Even without the glass exhibition, I'll rush back to the Desert Botanical Garden next time I'm in Phoenix. I could have personally used a bit more labelling of the plants, and I didn't see a single desert fern in the whole place (although there are certainly areas we missed, so they may have been hidden somewhere), but in all other ways the garden is magnificent, extremely well cared for, and in a beautiful hilly desert setting that you wouldn't expect to find so close to the center of town.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Spring Post

It’s hard to believe I’m anxiously awaiting spring given how mild the winter was here. Last year, emerging from the long dreary darkness of a London winter, that spring was something to anxiously await. Here in Northern California, winter is like a brief slightly colder period with occasional rain - we freak out when it gets below 50°F and start worrying about our precious lemon trees.

The London Eye in the London grey

We're weather wusses around here, I'll freely admit that. This is partly why the weather in London was so difficult for us to deal with. Our time in London can be summed up based almost entirely on the weather, as follows:
  • Warm sunny [Hey, this isn't too bad!]
  • Not Quite Winter [This is manageable. I don't know why people complain about London weather so much. Buncha whiners.]
  • Winter [Okay, it's pretty cold now.]
  • Winter [And dark. I had no idea how early it would get dark here. Why does the rain seem to never stop and come in horizontally?]
  • Winter [What happened to "storm systems"? You know, storm comes in, storm blows through. This is just a constant grey morass with spitting rain - I don't remember signing up for this.]
  • Not Quite Winter [Light is starting to return, thank god. Oooh, crocuses - things are looking up!]
  • 1 Hot Day [Hey, Spring came early! This is awesome!]
  • Snowing [Oh hell.]
  • Not Quite Winter [I'm starting to see a pattern here.]
  • Kind of Spring-like [Hey, this is almost nice but not quite]
  • 1 Hot Day [Now this is what I'm talking about.]
  • Not Quite Winter [Back to this again are we?]
A Welsh colleague of mine recently told me just how proud they are of the weather in the British isles - after all, for how far north they are, the weather is amazingly mild. I'll agree with that - London's weather is a far cry better than that found at the same latitude in Canada or Russia. But the "it could be a whole lot worse" standpoint (otherwise known as "British optimism") doesn't sit well with me in general - it's like saying you love to watch The Rock only because it's better than watching Pearl Harbor.

Despite being only a slight change from winter, spring is really something to look forward to in Calfornia, especially if you're a nature lover (a.k.a. plant dork) like me. In the summer, the hills in California get parched and golden as the grasses dry up in the Mediterranean-style rainless summers. During spring, the hills are still lush and green from the rains, a stark contrast to what they look like for much of the year.

Hound's Tongue, and early bloomer

Douglas's Iris, Mt. Tamalpais

During the early spring, the desert is arguably the most spectacular place to be in California, with nearly all of the desert plants blooming at roughly the same time to take advantage of the cooler temperatures before the intense summer heat commences.

Henderson Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert

Desert Palafox (Palafoxia arida)

Brown-eyed Primrose (Camissonia claviformis)

Ferrocactus getting ready to bloom

Purple Mat (Nama demissum)

In fact, we're heading off to the desert this weekend - although the plant I'll be looking at more than any other is evenly mowed lawn grass at Cactus League baseball spring training games in Arizona, we're going to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, a place I've always wanted to visit. This is our first trip to spring training, and honestly we're only minor baseball fans as things go, but after winter and a baseball-less year abroad, sitting in the sun with a root beer and a hotdog watching some baseball sounds pretty perfect right now.