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Coz Blog is an exploration of hobbies, ideas, stories, happenings, and viewpoints. I'm a Surgeon by trade, gentleman farmer at heart. My favorite things outside of solving problems in the operating room are being out in nature and raising my rare Seraphim pigeons which you can see at my other blog, Coz Lofts. Have fun exploring my site!
David Coster M.D.

How to Make an Indoor Plant Conservatory in Iowa

Amyrillis. Plant the bulb at Thanksgiving and this is what you have at Christmas. Plant it outside in the spring, dig the bulb in September, cut the top off, and store it in the garage until Thanksgiving and plant it again!

It’s not that hard. Seriously.
1. Find the correct space. A room with East AND South windows is preferable, without buildings or evergreen trees blocking the low-angle sun that comes in during the winter. If the room happens to have a bathroom attached, that’s even better. The shower can be used to periodically steam the air, and plant watering becomes much easier. Make sure the windows are properly sealed to avoid winter drafts. If the windows are screened it is great for allowing in outdoor air on warmer days. An old closed in porch can work pretty well provided it is properly insulated and has a heat source. Indoor plants need higher humidity during the winter months, about 60%. A humidifier may be necessary to achieve this.
2. Find some narrow glass and steel tables of whatever length is necessary upon which to place the plants. A table called a “Parsons Table” is ideal and can be located at a number of stores on the internet which will provide custom lengths and widths. They are not terribly expensive.
3.  You will want to sit in your conservatory, I like a porch-like feel, so found wicker furniture to enhance that ambiance. A little coffee table is a necessity, as you will need to drink coffee in there when the sun is coming up and read books there in the afternoon. ESPECIALLY if you’ve added a little indoor fountain for some background water sound – available at all the garden centers and all over the internet. Small ones don’t cost much.
4. Find a space heater if needed – the type that just sits there and looks like an old-fashioned radiator. All the hardware stores have oil-filled ones with thermostats that just plug in for particularly cold nights. The heat from these goes straight up, pulling cold air down from the ceiling and keeping air moving even though it has no fan apparatus; air movement is important in the conservatory.
5. It’s okay for the room to get cool at night, preferably down around 55 or 60. The room will warm up drastically on sunny days, and the temperature variation is good for the plants, so if the room has a door to separate it from the rest of the house, leave it closed. A lot of tropical plants need a period of cold nights and warm days to stimulate blooming, particularly orchids. And don’t over-water! Your plants will slow down over the winter, and the roots will be cooler. Standing water or soaked soil will kill them. Go easy on the fertilizer as well; you can begin adding that back in around March when things heat up again and your plants get excited about growing.
6. In the summer your plants will nearly all be outside, or they should be! Move them out! They will go crazy and look spectacular when brought in by October or November. Put them out as early as possible but be aware of the sun; it will cause terrible sunburn for plants which have been inside all winter – they must be eased into it if direct sun is necessary. This is true even for cacti and desert plants, so put them in light shade and gradually ease them into the light. In the Fall I always have a “staging area” on the back step where the plants I’m bringing in are cleaned up and re-potted if necessary. I gather them there when frost and cold weather seems imminent and watch the weather reports carefully. I do not bring them in until nighttime temps are hitting 40 or just below, except for some of the bromeliads which can’t stand anything below 40.

This is my Fall “Staging Area”. I put all my indoor plants on the steps for cleaning and re-potting; the door to the conservatory is conveniently located at the top of the steps.

7. Now, arrange your furniture, and make it cozy. A room as small as 8×8 feet will feel like a jungle if done properly! And you’ll fit in it just perfectly. Be creative. The tables do NOT have to go along the wall. They can be perpendicular to the wall. You can even stack them if you want!

8. Pick plants that are easy to manage over the winter that will give you some beautiful blooms. Christmas Cactus and Amaryllis Bulbs are great for Thanksgiving and Christmas; orchids take off in January and February with spectacular blooms. Other good choices are Passion Flower vine (which will climb to the ceiling), Norfolk Island Pine, Bromeliads, all sorts of Cacti and succulents, and African Violets for color all the time, though they are a little more finicky. Personally, I like to get spectacularly blooming plants for the Conservatory, and weird plants that no one else has.

Everything described in this article is in this room.

I know … hideous, aren’t they.

Beautiful! This Thanksgiving Cactus blooms like this every Thanksgiving. I leave it out from April until mid-November, and this is how it rewards me! 

9. If you want to go crazy, get some animal carvings, African masks, butterfly prints, and so forth for the walls and floor here and there.
10. The only problem with your Conservatory will be that everyone will want to be in it all the time. Remember, it’s a special room, because you’re the gardener, and you did all the work to make it so perfect! Enjoy it!

La Bete!

La Bete = “The Beast”

This Broadway play showing at The Music Box at 239 W. 45th Street in Manhattan is hilarious, as well as astonishing in the sheer volume of verbiage spewed forth (literally) in the first thirty minutes or so by Mark Rylance playing the character of Valere, a street actor whose little productions have attracted the attention of The Princess (Joanna Lumley, best known for her role as patsy Stone in “Absolutely Fabulous”) who has taken it upon herself to write an order demanding that Valere be allowed to join the acting troupe headed up by Elomire, David Hyde-Pierce, who is supported by a special dispensation from The Princess herself. Needless to say, Elomire does NOT want the verbose street urchin Valere anywhere near his brilliant acting troupe OR his plays and puts up a fight, which The Princess does not much appreciate.

I will not state what happens in the end, but the fact alone that the entire play is done in rhyme should tell you something; it seems an impossible feat to do such a thing without it sounding contrived, stilted, and ridiculous, but it is so well done I didn’t even notice it at first and eventually found myself trying to find them all.

There is no question that the character of Valere played by Mr. Rylance totally steals the show, but then again, how couldn’t he? He talks incessantly! But David Hyde-Pierce and Stephen Ouimette (who plays Bejart, Elomire’s assistant and friend) play perfectly off of Rylance’s nutty character to give the show just the right effect.

The special effects are minimal but great, especially the shower of gold glitter announcing the entrance of The Princess into the library, an over-the-top spoof on the aura of royalty if ever there was one. And Joanna Lumley plays the part of a princes to perfection, especially since this princess is either dripping with honey or shrieking like The Queen of Hearts, an act of schizophrenia that Lumley is particularly suited to performing and one that made me wonder in the end exactly which character the title of the play ultimately refers to.

The theater is a bit small and the seats crowded, but the show holds so much interest this is a minor inconvenience at worst. Once you’re seated you’re there for the duration, as the play is short enough at an hour and forty-five minutes to avoid the necessity of an intermission.

The Pee-wee Herman Show!

In November, 2010, I attended the revival of The Pee-wee Herman Show at The Steven Sondheim Theater at 124 West 43rd Street in Manhattan. The first thing I noticed is that everyone has been missing Pee-wee Herman! The theater was jam-packed with people of all ages, from three year-olds to ninety-three year-olds, and when the lights went down the crowd went crazy, yelling and screaming for Pee-wee. He obligingly appeared from the shadows in his tight little gray suit and red bowtie to even more screams, if that is even possible! After his characteristic laugh and a bit of posing and eye-lash batting, he gave a brief introduction and then skipped merrily behind the curtain, upon which shadow puppets began dancing crazily to the old Pee-wee Herman Show music.

And then the curtains lifted to show—-Pee-wee’s playhouse—-in all it’s gaudy delight, and with all the characters right where we left them a couple of decades ago.

The show is as campy and crazy as always, with plenty of double entendre for the adults that will go right over the heads of the little ones, so it’s a great uplifting fantasy land for adults and kids alike.

It seemed a little weird to see Pee-wee in this older mode (now 58) as he doesn’t have quite the pep he had when he left off twenty years ago, but it doesn’t matter. It’s Pee-wee as only Paul Reubens can play him, and he puts on a great show with his old cast of characters who fall right into their old roles like a second skin. The crowd loved it.

Happily there is a new Pee-wee Herman movie in the works too!
Anyway, if you go to New York see the show; I don’t know how long it will be playing, but it is a great trip down memory lane, and you won’t be disappointed.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I will say it first: I’m not a movie critic or review expert; however—this movie by John Cameron Mitchell is an amazing piece of work. I’ve watched it half a dozen times now and every time I am completely mesmerized. John Cameron Mitchell stars in the movie and wrote the script, and Stephen Trask is the lyricist and musical director for some of the most intense and moving music I’ve ever heard. Mitchell’s voice is…..indescribably perfect. His portrayal of Hedwig as first an androgynous young man and then a transgender musician and back again, searching and searching and searching for his missing half is a stunning performance. This movie asks a lot of questions and leaves the viewer to fill in the blanks, but the eyes of Hedwig/Mitchell tell the tale, as they are pools of the soul, portals to the pain.

And the movie is all about the self and how one struggles to be whole, and about the love we all seek and need but never quite really find because it hurts too much to look at it straight on, like the sun—it will blind you if you really see it. The recipient of pure love can only accept it completely for a second before turning away; anything longer will kill him.

And Mitchell almost kills the viewer with those eyes. The only reason he doesn’t is because we’re tangential recipients of their power; they’re not meant for us to look at directly. We only feel the searing edges.

But you’re left wondering “What if….those eyes were really searching mine?” “What if…I could really feel what he is feeling?” Could I live through it?

And of course the movies that matter to us most are those that touch closest to home. A very personal thing about this film for me is the portrayal of how life just carries us along. We keep making the best decisions we can every day, but we remain hostage to so many things—our culture, our place of birth, our economic condition, our lost childhood innocence, wrong paths thought to be right, and on and on. And this film touches so many things that I’m not now, but once was—-musically and physically creative and in touch with a different self, a self that was not this person that I am now. “What if….” my life had started someplace else, someplace where the world of art and music and dance was at my fingertips from the beginning! “What if….” my life hadn’t been bogged down by the weight of Christian fundamentalism slowly snuffing out that burning light I once had inside to sing and dance and paint and FEEL—yes, FEEL— life instead of just living it responsibly the way I was expected to. What if….. And Hedwig has a lot of “what if’s” weighing down his world, like most of us do, and that is how this film pulls the viewer in.

The first time I saw the musical “Chicago” when I was about 40, I sat in my seat and wept. I had never seen professional dancers like that, and without even trying I suddenly envisioned myself up there, one of the dancing muscle boys in the back with those unbelievable Bob Fosse moves, the crowd stunned by my look, and never before had it hit home so hard that it was too late for me. Life carried me too far too fast, and I missed something that mattered to me more than I knew; my memory suddenly flooded with those dance recitals as a boy, recitals suddenly abandoned at age nine at the discovery that Jesus would not approve.

And watching Hedwig I know the other thing I missed, because when I was young I used to sing and sing and sing, and FEEL the music so deep it almost killed me; I needed it to live, I needed it to breathe, I needed it to find myself. And the last scene of this movie, the final transformation of Hedwig, is the thing I need that will never happen; the full awareness of not who I am now, but who I once was; I had a specific path that was best for me, but it was not the path taken. Like a pluripotent stem cell my environment turned off my potential in many directions and eventually locked me into a certain path of development. It was a good path, but once on it everything else faded away. I became really good at being the sort of cell I now appear to be, but inside, those suppressed genes are still raging against their shackles. Sometimes I hear them begging for the key to be let out, their voices fading as the years go by. I will never be that singer and dancer I should have been; I will never be that happy-go-lucky, totally self aware creative little genius I was as a little boy; little by little life compressed him into someone else.

Not that it matters; it’s the story of nearly everyone’s life and nothing to fret about, just something to know.
And it’s good to be reminded—though bittersweet—that life is nothing if not a series of compromises, and we should always just do the best we can. For most of us that should be enough.

Meanwhile, Hedwig, stop staring into my eyes… know it can kill.

Building a Pigeon Flight or Aviary

A pigeon loft need not be difficult or gigantic, but it should definitely be aesthetic to the surroundings in which it is placed. I converted a little garden shed to suit the needs of my pigeons, and it works quite well. The shed is portable and rests on skids, so it can even be moved if needed. It was built by VanWyk Builders on the south side of Grinnell; these guys do great work and build all sorts of neat little sheds, cabins, storage buildings, gazebos, and etc and will do custom work when asked. In my case, they came and built the shed right on my property because I didn’t want my gardens all messed up dragging a pre-built one into the back yard. Even with that, the cost was quite acceptable. I had them place lots of windows in it and electrify the building, then had it spray insulated for comfort. All I have to do for electricity is plug the building into an outdoor socket on the house. The 8×10 size of the shed is pretty minimal for a Fancy Pigeon loft I think, though I’ve seen smaller. It is made of cedar for long-term weather resistance.

Travelling in Europe I saw some amazing stone dovecotes and pigeon lofts; some were round and looked like short silos, and others were stunning little cottages. The Europeans really get into their pigeons and pigeon loft design. There are lots of designs to view and study on the internet, and anyone interested may be able to find other information from various pigeon fancier magazines and the National Pigeon Association. Purebred Pigeon magazine occasionally has articles written by experienced pigeon fanciers regarding their building design for lofts.

So, in the summer of 2010 I added a flight to my little pigeon loft to give my birds lots of fresh air and some “flapping” room, because a loft without a flight is just not really complete. I would love to just let them out free to roam, but one never knows what might happen to them with all the cats and varmints running around. I was recently talking to a friend of mine who happily accepted a number of my birds that I could not keep for breeding; he had a great set-up with a little loft on the farm where they could get out and about and fly free. I went out a couple of times to watch them; of course, they were a beautiful sight to see winging about in the sunlight. So beautiful, in fact, that a few weeks later he found half of them were gone, as they had caught the eye of a pair of sharp-shinned hawks, one of which was calmly devouring one on the branch of a nearby tree, white feathers drifting by the hundreds to the ground. This is the problem with “showy” birds in the wild, and especially pigeons. They have a multitude of predators already; throw in a lot of color and contrasting white, and you have a meal in a suit; may as well wear a sign that says, “eat me”. So, mine will stay behind bars. His, however, will be allowed out when the hawk migrations are past, and it will be survival of the fittest. We’ll see what happens.

In the past I’ve built my own aviaries out of all sorts of materials from wood and wire mesh to PVC pipe and high-grade aviary fencing, depending upon what sorts of birds I was keeping. I also once had a custom-made indoor glass and oak aviary made by a gal in Texas for my parrotlets. The last outdoor aviary I had was used by my pigeons as well as Gouldian finches and canaries, so I used a very fine mesh screen on the outside and a heavy plastic square fencing on the inside with a wood frame; the roof was wire mesh covered with willow fencing. It looked like a little Hawaiian beach minibar. It was great until we got about 80 inches of snow in the winter of 2009-10 which was so heavy it caused the roof to collapse. So, I made window aviaries to hang on the side of the loft. These work great – made of wire mesh and PVC pipe, they are light and sturdy and merely hang on the side of the building over the windows on hooks. The birds alight on the window sill and hop out on the mesh floor. The only problem is that they cannot be made very deep, or they will sag.

Hanging small aviaries or flights off the side of the building is convenient and easy and allows for lots of exercise and fresh air. This technique is best for small birds.

So, I ordered an outdoor dog run from Northland Pet Supply through The Jewett-Cameron Lumber Corporation in North Plains, Oregon. It is made of 4X6 foot panels, one of which contains a door within a door. The roof is flat and also made of panels. It is covered with a black powder coat; this is important, as the best bird observation in an aviary can only occur if the aviary panels are black, as otherwise there is too much light reflection off the wire, and it is a terrible visual distraction. The individual squares are 2×4 inches.

Here’s the site – 8X12 feet. I changed the path so it will come to a door in the center for easy access. I put old willow fencing on the floor to avoid mud. A bird bath will be available.

So the following pictures show the 8X8 foot version (temporary while waiting for more panels to arrive) and the 8 X 12-foot version. Under the windows is a 2×6 pine board perched into the wire panels with a couple of nails in each end. It’s easy to move and remove, and the pigeons really prefer to have a landing board both going in and coming out of the loft. The bird bath is a big plus, as they use it daily. The willow fencing on the ground keeps their feet and leg feathers clean. They love being outside. There is the possibility of extending the flight to 16 feet; the more outdoor flying the better.

This aviary is incredibly easy to get in and out of since the door is nice and wide and opens in and out. Because of the design and the easy to apply clamps for putting the panels together, one could make any number of shapes as well, including an L-shaped flight. For those who are interested in urban chickens for home-grown eggs, it would work perfectly for that as well! (Just check with the city council first to make sure your town allows it.)

The almost completed new aviary! The access door at the end of the path has a second half-door so one can reach inside to fill the bird bath without walking all the way in. It is a great design for larger birds, even though it is sold as a “dog-run.” 

Another view. I really like how the aviary is nestled into this space with gardens and specimen shrubs all around.

Here then is the final 8X12 foot version. It has a ceiling of the same panels and was incredibly easy to put together. It is rugged and rust-proof. The birds love being outside and spend all day out there now. 

Anyway, this flight looks very nice and professional. It’s important to have some trees and shrubs and flowers around to soften the effect of tubular steel, however, and these sorts of panels would be amenable to window boxes for flowers on the outside. Don’t forget this if you use this approach! Keep in mind that some varmints can get through this sort of panel, as the openings are two inches wide. Obviously, mice and chipmunks and young squirrels, but also a much more deadly critter – the weasel or mink. Weasels and mink will enter the loft and kill all the birds by biting their heads off and eating the brains; they leave the rest. This happened once years ago to a flock I had, and by morning there were three birds left. It was a hideous bloody massacre. So, keep in mind that the loft should be closed up tight at night. Furthermore, don’t feed the birds in the outdoor flight – it will be an unnecessary attraction to some of the pests I mentioned.

And here, in the last photo, is the scene the following spring of 2011 with the aviary fully integrated into the landscape. Ferns have grown up around the perimeter, and a Passionflower vine in its pot has been allowed to grow up and over the wire; a clematis is doing the same nearby along with Virginia Creeper, and I’ve attached some air ferns to the cage for additional softening of the “square” effect of the steel. Glazed giant copper flower sculptures have been “planted,” and native woodland plants have grown in everywhere. I seeded the entire floor of the aviary with shade tolerant grass where the pigeons like to lie on warm sunny days, wings spread out. As the writer Gertrude Stein wrote in her opera: “Pigeons on the grass; alas!”

Medical Malpractice Reform

NOTE: The following is my opinion based upon years of experience with a very, very problematic medical malpractice system. You may not agree with my opinion or assessment, though I have a well-rounded perspective as a patient, physician, employer, purchaser of health insurance, medical expert, and victim of frivolous lawsuits; thus I am in a better position than most to have what I call an “informed opinion”—-an opinion based on extensive reading and direct experience with the system as it exists. If you wish to express a differing viewpoint, please do so understanding my expectation that your opinion also be “informed”, i.e. based upon extensive experience or study. Uninformed viewpoints are not helpful to the discussion.

Medical malpractice insurance costs a fortune for each and every physician practice, and the system in which it works—-the courtroom—– with plaintiffs and defendants flanked by expensive lawyers is rarely a place of real justice for anyone. The process is incredibly expensive, stressful, and lengthy; if there is real negligence or malpractice and the jury determines damages, a big chunk of the payment goes to the plaintiff attorney rather than the victim who really needs the payment for their damages. The process for the defendant physician is fraught with tremendous emotional distress, loss of sleep, and inability to focus on work, i.e. his/her other patients who need his/her undivided attention. The attorneys consider it nothing but “business” and go home at the end of the day as if it’s all just part of the days’ work; the physician being sued goes home to exhaustion and severe mental distress and just wants to quit.

In cases where real malpractice or negligence has occurred, the physician wants a quick resolution to the matter on behalf of the patient and himself; it does neither party any good to have a battle over the situation. The only thing that needs to occur is a determination of damages and a payment. The physician meanwhile must go through a process of professional re-evaluation, peer review of his/her work, and go through an evaluation of his/her work with the medical board for recommendations regarding additional education, proctoring, or a change in practice—-more than enough re-direction to keep him/her busy for a very long time. If a real problem exists with the doctor, it will be identified and dealt with.

So…..what alternative is there? It seems to me there is a very simple alternative that makes good sense. Eliminate the current system. Set up a mediation/case analysis system with members variously made up of legal advisors, medical advisors, accountants, and so forth to analyze malpractice claims. Create a patient injury fund in the state or region. The fund is sustained by a small payment made by each patient every time they see a doctor for a new problem, for example, one dollar, though probably less. Basically the patient is paying a minuscule “premium” to insure himself/herself against an injury or bad outcome from treatment. The fee would be paid only for visits for a new problem—-follow up visits for the same problem would not have this tiny fee. The patient would also pay a small premium at hospital visits for inpatient or outpatient treatment as well. The revenues from the millions of visits per year would go to the state patient injury fund, from which disbursements would be made on a case by case basis dependent upon the findings for each case analysis.

What does this plan do? It pays the victim, not the attorneys. It frees up the court system. It assigns premiums to the individuals who are insuring their own body from injury rather than to the physicians, drastically reducing the office overhead expenses of the physicians and decreasing health care costs. (Having physicians pay malpractice premiums is ridiculous; insuring the patient against injury makes more sense than insuring the physician against malpractice lawsuits, and it would be drastically less expensive to the health care system.) It reduces the stress to all patients to know that they are insured against injury and won’t have to go through the horrible experience of a lawsuit to file a claim. It reduces the use of unnecessary tests since physicians will not feel constantly threatened by patients and lawyers. Lastly, it would promote honesty and a willingness to carefully and fully evaluate cases of mismanagement; imposing financial hardship on physicians and physician practices as part of the “punishment” for malpractice is not productive: it is the rare case indeed when a physician is truly grossly negligent or acting with malice or intent to do harm. Most injuries, accidents, or adverse side effects occur in situations where a good physician is doing their regular routine work and something goes awry and a variety of factors result in an adverse outcome, hardly a scenario that should result a year or two later in all parties battling it out in a court of law.

I’ve seen this issue from nearly all sides and have had many years to think about it. I’ve sat in the courtroom as a defendant for a malpractice claim, I’ve paid gigantic malpractice premiums which prevent my practice from growing and expanding to help those in need and keep jobs in the area, I’ve acted as an expert on behalf of physicians inappropriately sued for malpractice, and I’ve advised malpractice carriers not to settle frivolous suits and to settle claims when a physician inadvertently made an error resulting in harm to a patient. I’ve hated it all! None of it works properly for the patient or physician, and it is a horrible, stinking, costly process for everyone. The only ones who seem to enjoy it are the trial lawyers; they are the only winners at the end of the day, and frankly that’s a loss for everyone.

Parallel Universe

Ten years ago, I was attending a family reunion at my mother’s house in southeast Iowa. It was a hot July day, and everyone was outside on the lawn enjoying the shade of the big River Birch while chatting and drinking tea. A lot of people had come that summer of 2000, including my Great Aunts from Florida, Missouri, and other parts unknown. I didn’t really know these Aunts. They were in their upper 80’s and 90’s but as spry and sharp as one can imagine, with clear blue eyes to match their blue hair. I was visiting with a cousin while my mother talked to the oldsters nearby when above the general din, I overheard some snippets from the adjacent conversation: “…Marlene Dietrich…oh, I don’t know…well! We just don’t talk about her, even if she IS our cousin.”

I turned and looked at the group. Mom was joining right in with them and seemed to be in the know. I walked over. “What are you talking about Mom?”  “Oh…nothing” she replied. “It didn’t sound like nothing to me! I thought I heard one of you say that Marlene Dietrich is your cousin.”  They all stood looking at me, blinking for a moment, then one of them finally spoke up: “Well, she IS our cousin, but we don’t want anyone to know it, and we just don’t talk about her. I don’t know why we’re talking about her now!” they laughed. I was astounded. “What do you mean you just don’t talk about her? And how is she your cousin? And why didn’t I know this?”

“Well, she’s our first cousin. Her mother is a Felsing just like us. And we don’t talk about her because she’s a bad girl.”  “What do you mean she’s a bad girl?” I asked, even more incredulous, “She’s a movie star!”  “WELL!” they replied, “It’s nothing we can talk about out loud! Let’s just leave it at that!”

Marlene Dietrich in the 1940’s.

By this time, I had grabbed Mom and pulled her aside and asked her “just exactly when” did she ever plan to tell me that we were cousins of Marlene Dietrich; I was 40 years old, and she was 65 and I was completely unaware of this connection. She said never; she just didn’t think it was important. Her father, Paul Felsing, was Marlene’s first cousin on Marlene’s mother’s (Josephine Felsing) side. “We just think the sort of things she did were not always in the best taste,” she said.

Of course, by 2000 Marlene had already been dead a number of years, having spent the last years of her life as a recluse in Paris. After her death her body was returned to Berlin, where she had grown up. She had been on the outs with the Germans for years because she was so outspoken against her own people and Hitler during WWII, but by the time she was finally returned the Germans turned out in great numbers to honor her and throw flowers on her casket as the procession went through the streets.

It turned out that I didn’t know enough about Marlene, so I bought a biography and any other information I could get my hands on, and sure enough, her family tree includes my great grandfather. Some of the family emigrated to Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota from Germany, so it was true. Her family owned the Felsing Clock Co. in Berlin. Eventually I found an old Felsing clock made for the Parisian market; it sits on my book cabinet and I’m looking at it right now. The antique dealer from which it was obtained thinks it was brought to the U.S. by a G.I. returning from the war. It still works.

My Turn-of-the-Century Felsing Clock, designed for the Parisian market.

So, this summer I went to Berlin for the first time. Of course, there is nothing left of the Felsing Clock Co. store at 20 Unter der Linden avenue where Josephine Felsing, Marlene’s mother, was living when the war ended, but nonetheless I tried hard to imagine what it must have been like to live in Berlin in the early 1900’s when she was there, having watched all the Marlene footage I could find, along with some documentaries. Eventually I walked down to Pottsdamer Platz where the Marlene Dietrich film museum is located and spent a great deal of time walking slowly through, looking at movie clips, clothing, and accessories and reading personal notes of hers. She was a lot taller than I imagined, and incredibly beautiful. (She reported, though, that she always felt like the ugly duckling in the family, as the Felsing women were all incredibly beautiful, a statement I can easily believe: the first time I saw my mother’s little sister Margaret Felsing, I nearly fainted; I was only 5 and she was 18, but even at that young age I was stunned by her flashing black eyes, magnificent black hair, flawless skin, fantastic teeth, bell-like laugh, and astounding figure. And years later most of my seven sisters could cause a ten-car pile-up just by walking down the street; my nieces can now do the same thing. It’s seriously ridiculous.)

And what an interesting and full life Marlene had! We wandered down to the gay neighborhood around Nollendorf Platz in Schoneburg (where she is buried), where she performed in one of the local bars in her twenties and we explored that area too. So much history there! Christopher Isherwood stayed in that same neighborhood in the 1930’s and I’m pretty certain he knew Marlene; his “Berlin Stories” are based on his experiences there and are, of course, the basis for the musical “Cabaret.” Ironically, I sat for a portrait with Don Bachardy – Isherwood’s partner – just a few years ago in Los Angeles when my son was enrolled briefly at USC; Don had been introduced to – and painted a portrait of – my partner back in 1999; they had a mutual acquaintance. Don happily agreed to paint me as well when I visited. So, I spent a day in Isherwood and Bachardy’s house and art studio, not knowing he had drawn Marlene’s portrait too in 1963 when I was just 3. Later we had dinner at a little diner down the street that you can see in the new movie “A Single Man,” based on the book by Isherwood. Don is a really interesting and kind man, and an amazing artist. He is well into his 80’s now, and Chris has been gone for many years, as he was much older. Anyone interested in the lives of these individuals can get the documentary “Chris and Don” through Netflix, as well as at least two good documentaries about Marlene.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.

The photo of Chris and Don at left is, of course, old. Living life as an out gay couple at the time this photo was taken was not easy and was fraught with potential danger. They had some security because of their connections and work, but even that wasn’t enough. The gay community was mostly hidden. An example: my father had a first cousin who died in 1979 in his late 70’s; he was a gay man, very accomplished – an author, artist, and more, who had traveled the world. Did I know him? No. I was never allowed to meet him. I knew nothing about him until he died, and then was given only sketchy information because his gay life was just something not talked about. It’s upsetting, frankly. I wondered about him all the time. Most of his papers were destroyed, and only fragments remain of his art, books, and diaries and letters; it was just enough to convince me that knowing him would have enriched my life. So, I tracked down all of the papers and books that remained at the University of Iowa’s historical archives, obtained one of his paintings, read his diaries and letters, and found a woman – Gretchen Spencer – in Des Moines, who knew him and had spent a good deal of her life trying to reconstruct the history of his life. After my research, I wrote up a biography with my findings, and you may now see it on this site, entitled “Artist Lee Ver Duft 1910-1985.”

Lives touch and reconnect across time and generations; how often we don’t know the connections or importance of certain events and experiences until much later! And how often we don’t know what we missed or lost entirely! I am fortunate to at least finally know as much as I do, and incredibly fortunate to have met Don Bachardy – the closest direct connection to someone who knew Marlene Dietrich I will ever encounter.

The Miniature Garden

We’ve all had this happen. You plot and scheme and dig and plant and have everything laid out exactly the way you want, and for some reason there is one small area that doesn’t turn out right. It looks ridiculous, the plants are bigger or smaller than expected, the soil conditions are wrong, the colors are wrong, there’s too much sun, there’s too much shade, and blah blah blah.

So, what do you do?

I had a spot like that beside my steps – a little area just about eight feet deep by six feet wide, nestled under the overhang of the house. It was bone dry against the foundation, sopping wet in one spot where heavy rains always overflow the gutter above, burning hot in mid-day, and in complete dark shade the rest of the day. Insane! What can you do with an area like that???

Well, after many mistakes, THIS is what I did with it – a miniature rock-garden!

Roses in the back, Golden Globe Arbor Vitae, Yucca, Creeping Phlox, Pinks, Thyme, Basil, Tri-color Sage, Alpine Ground Cover, Irish Moss, and 16 types of Hen and Chicks!

Limestone slabs were used to make the terraces, and rubber mulch or pea gravel was used throughout. Every plant I used can put up with a wide range of temperature and moisture conditions and tolerate hard direct light for several hours a day without harm. They can also manage the dreadful heat generated in this southeast corner. The roses love it here, as they are not winter hardy and the soil by the house stays warm enough to keep the roots from freezing, especially with the rubber mulch four inches deep on top. The Irish Moss seemed fine at first, then seemingly died after blooming, only to suddenly return at multiple sites around the original planting spot from seed. The new plants have proven to be indestructible even though the parent plant didn’t make it. I’ve always had trouble with Irish Moss as it doesn’t follow directions very well or adhere to it’s supposed “ideal” planting instructions, so don’t be shocked if you plant it and it thrives, and then vanishes only to return from seed all over the place. As for the hens-and-chicks, I give them away by the bucket. The Alpine ground cover is pretty neat, growing only an inch high but spreading rapidly; the only problem is it wants to cover all the hens-and-chicks like kudzu; I have to take a scissor to it periodically to teach it a lesson. The phlox, of course, is gorgeous in May and tough as nails. Lavender also does well in this spot, though its growth habit is a little sloppy for this tiny area.
An interesting fact is that the various ground covers and hens-and-chicks maintain their color throughout the winter under the leaves and snow. In fact, some of the hens-and-chicks really take on their most intense color in the cold, late in the fall. So, this little garden provides a lot of interest all the time. In August the roses are six feet tall in the back with gorgeous blooms!

So, that’s what I know. I fiddled around with this spot a lot and must have moved plants in and out fifty times before it had any semblance of the little garden I had in my mind’s eye the whole time. I hate to admit it, but the process actually seemed more fun than the end result; it’s like a little artist’s palette – the fun is in the mixing of the paint.

Old Hen and Chicks, Alpine Ground Cover, tiny Sedum…  

Gardening in Iowa

One wouldn’t think it should be particularly difficult to create and maintain a beautiful garden in the upper Midwest, but one would be wrong. It IS difficult. What plants can tolerate temperature extremes from -37 F to 105F? Bone chilling cold, ice, wet snow, fog, high winds, thunderstorms, torrential rains, and unbelievable summer humidity? Blazing sun, to days on end of cloud cover; you just never know what you’re going to get with the weather up here. And yet…

Sometimes it just snows and snows in Iowa. It’s beautiful too, and I love it.

Prairie flowers are tough and beautiful, and they just don’t care about difficult weather conditions. And Iowa’s woodland flowers are just as tough, provided they have a woodland environment and aren’t foolishly planted in the hot blazing sun. But what of the others—the exotics, the domestics, the unusual cultivars, the tropicals? Well, they can also be grown here as long as they have a wintering place inside. In the summer I have Spanish Moss out back, along with bromeliads of several types, begonias, Wandering Jew, passionflower, Mandeville vine, hibiscus, and even a banana tree. In fact, I have a gigantic Elephant Ear taro that comes up every year beside my goldfish pond; the top freezes out but the roots manage to survive underground on the south side of the house adjacent to the goldfish pond, which I heat and cover for the winter. These Tropicals absolutely love the humidity, heat, and rain of Iowa’s summers and can really thrive if thoughtfully placed. Sometimes I plunk them right into the garden soil, other times I leave them in the pot and bury the pot, and for those I really want to keep, a big ceramic pot holds them in a place of honor somewhere mixed in with the coneflowers, bergamot, lilies, hastas, hybrid rhododendrons, and all the other things that just live no matter what. I’ve been occasionally bemused by the survival of geraniums and annual salvia, buried by the fall leaves and a thick coat of snow for insulation, new leaves poking out tentatively in May from what I thought was a dead stem. So, you just never know. And I sometimes wonder, for those plants which flower and go to seed in my garden, could there be a chance mutation or adaptation that allows the offspring to somehow be more resistant to adverse weather conditions? Every spring hundreds of Impatiens come up all over the garden from seed wintered over from last year’s annuals – they’re tougher than you might think.

A carefully tended Iowa garden in July.

A couple of years ago I went to the Chelsea Flower Show in London, something I had always wanted to do. The show was amazing, as the Brits DO like their flowers; but the most amazing garden we saw was a Purple Garden. The designer picked only plants and trees with purple coloration for it, like Purple Beech, Purple Smoke Bush, Purple Weeping Birch; and then filled in with all sorts of annuals and perennials of various purple shades underneath.

So…..we decided to make one in our small back yard when we got home, knowing that it would take a lot of thought. We picked a small area off the patio where we placed as the main focus a Copper Beech tree – a lighter toned version of the Purple Beech; one doesn’t see many Beech trees in Iowa, but they do perfectly well here; ours was purchased at Iowa City Landscaping, along with a Tri-Color Beech which has done extremely well also. On the other end we placed a Dwarf Blue Spruce, figuring it was purple enough, and then began experimenting. Coleus proved to be a good choice, along with some varieties of New Guinea Impatiens. A clump of Little Blue Stem grass added more blue contrast, along with Purple Fountain Grass, Wandering Jew, some Begonia hybrids, Black Taro, and Coral Bells. We found a Purple Joe Pye Weed that proved to be not so purple, so had to get rid of it. Eventually we found a “black” Elderberry bush which has proven to be perfect, along with an annual purple Basil which self-seeds all over the place, and purple sweet potato vines. In the Fall I placed various bulbs to get early color, as The Purple Garden tends to mature in mid July.

The Purple Garden, September 2009. With pumpkins added.

Every year The Purple Garden is different, and every year it is the last thing to really catch the eye, but it adds tremendous interest and depth to what would otherwise be a much less interesting sea of green in the typical mid-summer Iowa garden— blooming Coneflowers, Black-Eyed Susans, Bee Balm, and Phlox notwithstanding!

A different view of The Purple Garden. The coleus are beautiful, though the purple undersides of the leaves showed only when they fluttered in a breeze.

Here’s the 2010 version of the purple garden.

I think the reason the purple garden works so well is that purple foliage creates such a fantastic backdrop or foreground for other things going on in the garden. Try it sometime and think of it as an ever-changing piece of artwork. It’s a great palette upon which to experiment and be creative. In 2011 I’ll be doing away with it though, because I’m now tired of it. 🙂 I will have patches of purple in various places in the background, along with tons of tulips. The Purple Garden will be, I think, a sea of red Salvia and wandering Jew instead.

Now, here’s another cool idea I came up with in the summer of 2010. It all started with my son’s wedding in the back garden, and I was trying to find a way to separate the driveway from the patio where the ceremony would occur. I had already planted an Autumn Clematis on the main fence, then added some trellises for them to climb over to, but they didn’t provide quite enough screening effect to suit me by the time the wedding was about to happen. So…. I asked the florist to find a red synthetic gossamer fabric that would be light and inexpensive and resist the effects of rain and sun; she just happened to have such a thing on hand. I wove it through the trellis with her help and trailed it on through the Impatiens in the garden, and now look at this! It is really beautiful, and a marvelous idea for all summer. I will try it again next year with a different color of fabric. It is a neat and easy idea to apply anyplace you need a splash of color and/or some privacy!

Another interesting idea is a poison garden. Ha! Gotcha! It’s really a medicinal or herbal garden, but it COULD be a poison garden – a veritable witch’s brew! There is a great book called Wicked Plants that is a must for those interested in what sorts of plants contain harmful compounds. Most of these compounds were the original sources of a number of modern-day medications used regularly in hospitals and pharmacies. The problem is, of course, that any unsuspecting person can accidentally poison themselves with such plants. The funny thing is that as I read the book, I realized that nearly EVERYTHING in my ornamental garden was already poisonous! The Rhododendrons, Azaleas, and Daphne are particularly dangerous, along with the Digitalis, all parts of the Lilies, and the Tulip Bulbs, for starters. And it gets worse! Monkshood, a very common flower in Iowa gardens is terribly dangerous, as is Castor Bean and Trumpet Flower (a form of the Jimson Weed). Anyway, you get the idea. It’s not a bad idea to know these things.

2011 Seraphim Pigeon Breeding Project

{To learn all about my rare pigeon breed called Seraphim, go to This breed is one of the rarest in the world and is alarmingly beautiful. It is bred and raised as a show bird – you will never see one in the wild.}

So, the breeding program I set up last fall has been successful enough to allow me to work almost exclusively with pure Seraphim.

I paired Seahorse up with a Seraph daughter of Superjock and Gorgeous (whom I’ve named “Snow”), who is just now old enough to breed. The only show fault I can detect in Seahorse is a little too much downward curve of the beak, and Snow seems perfect to me except she has not quite enough downward beak curve. These two are beautifully matched and make a dashing couple. I caged them the weekend of February 5th in order to enhance their attachment to one another, and by the 18th they had their first egg, which proved to be a dud; by the end of March though they had a new set. The technique of closely caging the birds to create a pair bond works very well unless the birds are already bonded to other mates which remain in the same loft. In this case, a single day and night was all it took to bond the birds; they were inseparable when let out of the cage.
(Update: As of June 1st: two beautiful babies out of the nest, Snow on a new set of eggs.)

Seahorse in front; Snow behind. A beautiful pair.

Snow on her first set of eggs, April 4, 2011!

James is now paired with the Seraph daughter of Seahorse and Mama, whom I’ve named “Sassy.” James is a large bird, and Sassy is quite delicate. I’m hoping to see a little more delicacy in the offspring from the mother’s genetic contribution, though frankly I am hard-pressed to find any flaws at all in James. He is a stunning Seraph cock. Sassy has a single significant flaw, and that is an imperfect peak; hopefully this will not transmit to many young. She’s otherwise perfect. The unusual thing about this pairing is that these two birds are perhaps even closer than siblings genetically. James is the brother of No Band, and Sassy has the same mother as both James and No Band. I expect good things from these two.

James on the left, and Sassy, his new mate. They are truly as white as snow. A really beautiful pair.

Superjock and Gorgeous are a great pair, and I’m willing to keep them together even though just 50% of their young are Seraphim. Snow is their first Seraph daughter. They are the first so far to produce another Seraph this year, and it looks like it’s going to be a really nice one – see baby pictures below! He hatched the first part of March, and his name is Gianthead.

The first Seraph of 2011, just 3 weeks old but already with nice form! Note the reddish coloring that will vanish with the first molt. This little guy is the son of Gorgeous and Superjock; I say “guy” because he is a very aggressive little thing and I think his behavior indicates a male. Isn’t he cute?