Saturday, January 27, 2024

How I Spent My Covid Vacation

Napping. Coughing. Napping. Sneezing. Napping.

Repeat.

As I opened my fourth box of tissues today after three full weeks of testing positive — the initial infection rebounded 11 days after it was Almost Gone — I decided to assess my time away from the larger world.

As symptoms waned during Week Three, I live-streamed a Jerry Orbach tribute show from 54 Below, a supper club in New York City. I’ve been a fan of his since the mid-‘60s, when I bought the original cast album for “The Fantasticks.” After Orbach ended his memorable Broadway career, his acting lured me to “Law and Order.” He's gone; I'm still watching. 

Also this week, I whined at a nurse on Kaiser’s Advice Line about how long it’s taking to recover. He informed me that it may be two or three more weeks; not to fret just yet. Heartened somewhat, I streamed a show from SFJazz, which offers a “Jazz at Home” show every Friday night for just $50 a year. 

I composed and shot “Still Life with Bananas and Fingertip Pulse Oximeter.” As Birthday Card Manager for my building’s Residents’ Association, I addressed cards to the 10 people here born in February.  I sent out my laundry, ordered in groceries and occasionally had food delivered. For the most part, I’ve kept up with my physical therapy exercises, and at 9:30 one evening, I vigorously vacuumed the ceiling vent in the bathroom. 

One afternoon I listened to dynamic tenor Jonathan Tetelman’s new album “The Great Puccini” and then boldly bought a ticket to The Met’s production of “Madama Butterfly” in May, when the opera will stream to a local theater. (Tetelman is Pinkerton.) Plus, I made future plans for drinks with one friend and dinner with another. (That ticket and the two dates are my Faith in the Future ploys — eventually I WILL test negative and go out again.)

An unexpected freelance opportunity came my way with no hard deadline, and I turned in a big piece for Next Avenue on a new exhibit that opens in April at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That article required several phone interviews, which I was able to complete during Week Two in between coughing spells. Full Disclosure: I’m so excited to be working again that I splurged on four new fancy bath towels, on sale online for half price! 

Week Two also brought a flurry of Apartment Therapy, which is how I view spring cleaning and decluttering as long as it does not require the elaborate folding of underwear. Randomly, slowly and only when in the mood, I cleaned out the pantry, tidied up desk cabinet drawers and culled some raggedy cloth napkins. I replenished the barren freezer with new options: fig and walnut bread, grilled salmon fillets and currant scones! I shredded December's paper receipts. I even sewed up a tiny hole in a baggy sweater that serves as a warm layer over my pajama top.  

One friend insisted Pringles had eased her path through COVID, so I experimented with that. She later delivered a wonderful meal to complement my snacking. When another friend picked up and delivered a needed birthday gift, she also brought me delicious homemade chicken noodle soup. Neighbors fetched my mail and delivered packages to my door, bags and boxes that held new face masks, extra COVID tests and more Kleenex. On chatty phone calls, I learned about friends’ bouts with the virus, which I caught after three years and 10 months of avoiding it. Eventually, I’ll even forgive the one who told me after a positive test result, her nose ran for two days — and then she tested negative. 

Week One was the hardest. Fatigue was the worst side effect for me, and I slept — a lot. “Obey The Body,” I always say, a lesson learned a long time ago while navigating an entirely different disease. The fatigue wiped me out completely for about four days and then demanded multiple naps in the days to come. When awake, I read. I also watched TV (some good, such as "The Holdovers" and "Maestro;" some silly, such as "House Hunters International," where people moving to exotic locales expect American-style amenities with authentic local "charm"). 

Now and then I pondered how I may have caught COVID. My Best Guess is in the hot tub at my gym. The virus may have been lurking in the vapor I inhaled as I relaxed in the glorious bubbly water — and then it invaded, in spite of the seven COVID shots I've had and my judicious masking all this time. One friend reminded me her doctor had predicted every one of us eventually will get the illness. 

What have I missed since embarking on this unwanted “staycation?” Plenty.

Seeing a play put on by The Boy’s class, exercising in the pool, enjoying a facial, attending a Pilates demo to determine if it's for me, spending time with the family and settling in on the table for a weekly therapeutic massage. I also had to miss a long-awaited group outing for monologist Josh Kornbluth's performance at Club Fugazi, a birthday party in my building, a dentist appointment, a haircut and a residents' meeting. (Hard to feel too bad about missing a meeting…) 

Through it all, I’ve had to enlighten concerned friends who worry that after so much time at home, I am climbing the walls. I’m not. I love my nest. I love my routine of playing complex word games each morning. I love sitting on my 13th floor balcony, where I talk to the hummingbirds and my ginkgo tree, tune in to the sounds of the city and try to sort out whether the cactus plants on the table are dying or are already dead.  

A little perspective is in order here. Six months ago, the Centers for Disease Control told U.S. News and World Report that “while a little more than half of American adults think they've had COVID-19," the reality, according to new government data, is that "about 77.5 percent have been infected at least once.”

More recently, the World Health Organization reports that from Dec. 11, 2023 through Jan. 7 of this year, new hospitalizations and admissions to an intensive care unit both recorded an overall increase of 40 percent and 13 percent with over 173,000 and 1,900 admissions, respectively. 

Hey, at least I’m not one of them, so I will endeavor to be a patient patient. You — stay well! 


Sunday, December 3, 2023

Making Holiday Plans Is a Must

Most large hairy mammals, my friend Sue always says, hibernate in the winter months. “But not people," she adds. "They go crazy in December.” 

For some of us, going crazy is a way to avoid the “red and green blues,” a phrase I came up with some years ago. (See my blog post from Dec. 17, 2019.) Individual pressures we put on ourselves may vary, but sky-high expectations for the holidays — so often unmet — can interfere mightily with holiday cheer. 

“Don’t have expectations,” my friend Ross always said. “Then you won’t be disappointed.” I often countered that with arguments in favor of gleeful anticipation, but he would not be moved. Even knowing, at this age, that taking responsibility for your reaction to anything that occurs is one of the few things we can control does not remove my sense every December that somehow, the holidays could be brighter, shinier, maybe overlaid with a touch of Norman Rockwell.

Then I remember reading decades ago that Rockwell painted what he wished life — his own life and our collective lives — looked like, aspirations on canvas. 

Another friend, the first long-term breast cancer survivor I met, said her secret to joy year 'round was this: “Cast your anchor into the future.” In other words, make plans, plans that may even live up to any expectations (ill-advised or otherwise) you may have.

Come December, I make plans, many plans. 

At some point, the family will fill me in on the schedule for Christmas Day, but I take responsibility for filling the rest of the month. For example, I buy tickets. This year, I’m taking The Boy to see the national tour of  “The Lion King,” and as I shopped the first date that tickets were available, I scored him an aisle seat! Another day (so grateful for matinees in my dotage), I’ll see “Guys and Dolls” at a local theater with a neighbor. 

I bought a ticket to the Smuin Ballet’s holiday show, billed as “a little ballet, a little Broadway, and a whole lot of Smuin,” which sounds festive. I’ve already seen the San Francisco Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker,” and because I love the score, I make a point of playing it each year on the evening that I wrap gifts. Because I also am a huge fan of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” I am considering springing for a ticket to the Adam Shulman Trio’s performance of Vince Guaraldi’s memorable score at SF Jazz. But Snoopy won’t be there…

A friend has invited me to a gala showcase at The Circus Center, to watch people who still fully trust their bodies execute astonishing moves. I’ll attend a posh Hanukkah party with lively newspaper people. My Full Moon Cocktail group has  lunch reservations at a nice Italian place. My apartment building, aka the Senior Dorm, has numerous events planned: a holiday decorating party, a piano concert by a gifted resident, a casual residents’ gathering, Christmas movie showings and also a lovely catered meal. Plus, I’ve got Something Fun to Do on New Year’s Day.    

In the past, when my living space was a generous 1,700 square feet, I routinely invited 75 close friends to a Winter Solstice party. After losing 1,000 square feet in the move to San Francisco, in many a December I invited The Boy, his cousins and the other local grandma over to help me decorate my apartment. Now, the kids are much older and much busier, and my box of decorations are high up on a closet shelf. 

“Used-to-bes” don’t count anymore, so I’m making plans. Next up: I’ll ask someone in the office to get that box down for me. December is here, so it’s time to manage expectations — but also to spruce up the place with some red and green!  


Tuesday, October 24, 2023

I Brake for Fresh Fruit

All this time, I thought I was the Fruit Queen, as I've been obsessed with fresh fruit flavors, varieties and origin stories for well over three decades. Yet now a company called fruitqueen wants to bring me a box of farm-fresh fruit once a week. 

Joyce Zhang, Ben Hartman and Brian Carroll — all veterans of the food industry — seek out seasonal fruits from San Francisco Bay Area farmers and growers, box it up and make it available through pick-up or delivery. 

As they told a reporter at Eater SF, “The goal for us is to focus on things that are really delicious and height of season, but also maybe a little off the beaten track, like a special varietal that’s being grown that we really want to highlight, or a farmer or grower that’s doing something remarkable with their practices and that we think is really cool and want to shout about.”

Put me down as a yes — for some weeks, anyway — even though they've run off with my title.

While working as a food writer at a daily newspaper some years ago, I read a syndicated column from the Los Angeles Times by David Karp about the more than 50 types of kiwi in the world. 50! Mind officially blown — I knew of only one at the time, the fuzzy kiwi brown on the outside and green within. I contacted Karp and interviewed him, and he elevated considerably my interest in fruit. 

(To this day, if anyone is selling fresh fruit by the roadside, I am stopping to shop.) 

Karp called himself a pomologist, one who studies and cultivates fruit and often works in the horticulture industry "in research, teaching, and extension positions, developing, breeding, and evaluating new varieties of fruits and nuts." Currently, Karp is a citrus scientist, working as an associate in the Agricultural Experiment Station of the Botany and Plant Sciences Department at the University of California at Riverside.

I, the recently deposed Fruit Queen, am merely a consumer and more than a bit of a snob when it comes to mangos (California-grown Keitt are superior to all others), the Honeycrisp apples (thank you, Minnesota) that lured me away forever from my beloved Granny Smiths and Pippins and strawberries (nothing but Chandlers will do, true for me for the past 30 years or so).  

About those Chandlers — to my mind, the best ones grown locally come from Swanton Berry Farm, located in Santa Cruz County about 65 miles south of San Francisco. I stock up in late May and every week all through June, blowing the food budget on these perfect ruby gems, and freezing most of them to support my daily fruit smoothie habit well into October. I've bought them from four different local groceries, from a seasonal food delivery service and yes, from fruitqueen. 

I've also been to the actual farm, where I loaded berries picked by professionals into the car, bought a piece of Swanton's strawberry cheesecake and then sat with my friend Julia at a picnic table positioned across the road from the magnificent Pacific Ocean. A sublime afternoon! 

Tomatoes command some of my attention, and have for decades. When a restaurant owner near my home in St. Louis County first started serving Real Summer Tomatoes in place of the polyester orange varieties present on so many plates there (and, surprisingly, here in California) year 'round, I asked him why he made the switch. "All summer long, my wife and I eat ripe, juicy tomatoes at home, and we decided one day to serve them at the restaurant too," he told me. 

What happened next? For much of July, all of August and even a wee part of September some years, his menu included special dishes featuring the best tomatoes available from local farmers. My friend Edward and I made regular forays to the restaurant during that time for what we called "Tomato Orgies." 

Today, I hold out for heirloom tomatoes. Or I did, until this summer when a single lop-sided specimen cost $10 at a posh local grocery. A friend kindly clued me in on dry-farmed Early Girls, and another friend introduced me to Campari tomatoes. Sometimes, tomatoes with a bit of salt and plenty of pepper are what's for supper. 

Often, Warren pears (so sweet, with no grittiness), Medjool dates, fancy figs of several varieties and fresh berries of all sorts are found in my home. Stone fruits are a favorite, but they were kind of a bummer this summer, and in truth, the best peak-season peach I ever had was from Southern Illinois. (There you are, Gail!)  Bing and Rainier cherries are my favorites. Regarding citrus, I am a fan of pretty Cara Cara oranges and the mighty Sumos, Japanese mandarina available from January through April. 


Seasonal fruits are always the best, even if you're pining for next summer's bounty in the middle of winter! A fall favorite is pumpkin — if it's in a pie, of course. As it happens, this very day a delicious pumpkin pie arrived at my door, made by a friend of a friend, an experienced professional baker who grinds his own spices and thus produces a zippier pumpkin pie than most. I ate a small wedge for breakfast and set aside a piece for later. 

Then I took the rest of that pie and most of an equally outstanding dark, dense chocolate pie decorated for Halloween to the lounge here in my senior apartment building. I managed to get out and back upstairs before the crowd moved in and the fist fights began!    


Saturday, September 23, 2023

Curated Conversations Worth 1,000 Words

When my friend posted this photo on her Facebook page, I immediately imagined how her conversation with Mr. Rogers had gone. I'm certain that he told her that he likes her just the way she is! 

The picture made me think about several conversations I've had through the years that also may have appeared to be one-sided — yet the sense of communication was solid. 

Here I am chatting up a gremlin, on tour promoting its movie. He was a kind of a big deal!  

Alfred Hitchcock and I met in Bodega Bay. I could swear we hummed the theme from his TV show, Gounod's "March of a Marionette" — bet you're humming it now! 


In the Bear Valley Visitor Center at the Point Reyes National Seashore (a treasure beyond compare),  I  spent some time with this elephant seal. I recalled that I'd once clamored down a rocky cliff to see a herd of the magnificent critters on a Peninsula Valdes beach in Argentina. Dr. Roger Payne, the esteemed whale scientist I was visiting, helped me back up the cliff — hey, I'm a mermaid, not a mountain goat!


Look who I met on a visit to an exhibit on the brilliant Jim Henson at the Contemporary Jewish Museum! (No mask required that day for Muppets.)  


At the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, I hung out with Woodstock, who never says much but is a righteous soul. Later, I visited with his best friend Snoopy for a while.   


In San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, Mexico, my memorable encounter with a gray whale bigger than our boat "spoke" volumes: 


And on one remarkable day, this nonverbable bond was forged.  


  Talk, talk, talk — sometimes it's overrated! 


 



Saturday, August 5, 2023

For a Gardener, I Make a Good Writer

Except for a glorious ginkgo tree, a one-time upwelling of California poppies and a Texas Mammillaria cactus named Molly Ivins, I am not known for my green thumb. In fact, when it comes to tending plants, I seem to be all thumbs, and do not excel at what others find so easy.

For Mother’s Day, I boldly treated myself to four succulents (Flapjack, Fiesta, Letizia and one anonymous variety) and three teeny barrel cacti. I bought special cactus potting soil, listened carefully to planting instructions from the woman at the garden shop and made a lovely home for my new plants in a beautiful blue pot that lives on my balcony 13 stories up in San Francisco.



We were all very happy together for seven weeks or so, when I noticed weird little black spots on the plants. It was a busy time for me, and I decided “watchful waiting” was the lazy course I’d take. I waited. I watched. Then little white spots appeared on some of the succulents.

 

Ten days ago, my son diagnosed the white spots as aphids. He did a lot of research and showed me magnified photos of the pests. (Ewwww…) He also proposed some options, which included everything from cleaning the plants with soap to learning to live with aphids as part of the natural world to moving the pot to the other end of the balcony where I couldn’t see it and so would fret less. 



I did further research. “Spray the plants with soapy water,” one friend said. (I don’t own a spray bottle.) “Aim a forceful stream of water at the plants,” counseled one website. (I don’t own a hose and the balcony has no faucet.) “Throw them all out,” said one wag who has no tolerance for tending plants. (I considered it.)

 

One website said the black spots might be from too much sun — or too little. An expert at the garden shop, reached by phone, suggested that the high winds San Francisco often experiences may have stressed out my succulents, and that made them easy targets for aphids. He offered to sell me a container of 750 ladybugs (!), as they eat aphids. When I asked if the ladybugs might not all fly away home when released from the container, he admitted that was a possibility.

 

Next I read that aphids hate the smell of banana peels. (Was this an insight generated during a focus group?) I peeled a banana, made a fruit smoothie for myself and then draped the peels atop the soil in the pot. Two days later, the peels were black and the plants looked worse. I donned my gardening gloves (surprise— I own a pair!) and dumped everything in the compost except the barrel cactus triplets.



Maybe I imagined it, but when I popped the cacti into a cheap plastic pot of their own, I thought I heard them sigh with relief. Four days later, all three are bigger — taller and wider. I’ve bought them a pretty pot that's slightly bigger,  but it may not do the job for long. I just read that barrel cacti can grow up to 3 feet tall. Oh, and their lifespan is 50-100 years!



Now my pretty blue pot is empty once again. When I first got it, I planted geraniums, which were so joyful and seemed so happy on the balcony.  Over time, the geraniums got a fungus. I bought a special spray at the garden shop and tried gently wiping each leaf, top and bottom. I was patient for maybe two days, at which point I decided life is too short to sit around cleaning geranium leaves. I tossed the plants and started over. Alas, fungus arrived soon after, and I had to throw out those plants too.



Shortly after, I was on the verge of tossing some stringy poppy plants I’d started from seed in a tin pot. (It was a gift; I had to try it.) Instead, I moved the poppies to the really big pot that holds my ginkgo tree. Soon, I had 2-foot tall poppies! When they faded, I thanked the ginkgo for being such a good host, pulled out the poppies and moved on.



For now, I've put the pot in the corner of the balcony. I turned it upside down, because a few months ago, two pigeons were arguing out there over who would build a nest inside the pot and take up residence. One had even brought some building supplies. I yelled at the pigeons, dumped out the pot and flipped it over.


Even though I'd rejected his offer to sell me 750 ladybugs (wait — who counts them?), the guy at the garden shop told me that barrel cacti stand up to wind and they thrive on being ignored. Good, because this may be may be my last attempt at caring for plants. If so, I guess I’ll have to find another hobby. 


Don’t suggest I do crafts — the only thing I can make is paragraphs. 

--

Monday, May 22, 2023

A Delightful Career: Talking to Strangers

Everyone has a story — several of them, usually. I know this because I’ve been interviewing people ever since I was a reporter for the Plymouth Rock, my junior high school newspaper, some 50 years ago. Here’s a photo of the staff. (That's me in the middle!)

Just this morning, I interviewed the founder of a handful of circus schools who still performs at 52, a sculptor who has worked on more than 70 large-scale public art projects across the country and an artist who has taught painting for over 30 years. Tomorrow, I’m interviewing another painter, a cheesemaker and a farmer who teaches the homesteading arts.

In between, I’ve interviewed such luminaries as Robert Bakker, Honi Coles, Tim Curry, Harvey Fierstein, Betty Friedan, Savion Glover, Vadim Gluzman, Jane Goodall, Ricky Jay, Erica Jong, Josh Kornbluth, Rocco Landesman, Judith Lasater, Steve Leatherwood, Peter Max, Donna McKechnie, Roger Payne, Louise Penny, George Plimpton, Phil Rosenthal, George Schaller, Gloria Steinem, Twyla Tharp, Tommy Tune, Diana Vreeland, Hal Whitehead and Alex Winter. 

For countless articles on as many topics, I've listened to the stories of home cooks, Broadway stars, whale scientists, Holocaust survivors, book authors, dancers, medical researchers, famous chefs, the founder of Allbirds shoes, body builder title-holders, world-class musicians, healthcare professionals, fiber artists and the fellow who designed the title character for “Gremlins.” 

I’ve taken notes in interviews with museum curators, TV stars, an astrophysicist, poets, a community activist, playwrights, a 99-year-old piano student, cancer survivors, national park rangers, many a psychologist, yoga instructors (on land and in water), a glass blower, a New York producer, bar owners, chocolate manufacturers, a monologist, restaurant owners, massage therapists and a Buddhist nun. 

Because I like people — and because I hold informal conversations, rather than conduct structured interviews — most of these encounters have been great fun. Sometimes, the relationships my subjects and I establish last beyond the allotted time spent on the interview. 

After a rowdy interview over lunch, Joel Grey invited me to see him in “Cabaret” a second time and then join him for dinner. Weeks later, he mailed ginkgo leaves he collected for me in Central Park. After my phone interview with Lily Tomlin, she suggested we meet for a quick hug later in the parking lot at the venue where she was speaking. And as a splendid afternoon with Jerry Mathers wound down, the photographer and I invited him to come back to the newsroom with us so our co-workers could meet The Beaver. 

Not every interview has gone smoothly. One famous dancer responded to every question I asked with just one or two words, and declined to elaborate on any topic. When an interview with a TV star from a popular show revealed his side hustle was as a slum landlord — and he was proud of that — I cut the interview short. Another conversation ended abruptly after 14 minutes, because that was all the time the famous fellow’s agent said he could spare. (I got a story out of it anyway!)

Sometimes, people who agree to be interviewed tell me tales they should keep to themselves, and sometimes, when I have reported what they said, they’ve tried to get me fired. (They have failed.) A haughty restaurant owner told me that he didn’t want customers 40 or older in his place because “they don’t know anything about food.” Another owner revealed he offered different menus to people he recognized from those menus handed to strangers.

Most of my interviews involve setting up mutually convenient times to talk, but editors have sent me to malls, community events and even street corners to pester unsuspecting members of the public with questions. I’ve polled people on whether it’s okay to wear white after Labor Day, whether they do or do not watch political conventions on television (and why) and whether they prefer plastic shopping bags or paper. Talking to strangers has been part of my job for a long time — no wonder I do it all the time, even when I'm not working. 

At some point over the years, I came up with the perfect final question for many an interview, one that sometimes reframes much of what came before and often garners unexpected gems. I ask: “What else would you like for me to know?”  

I know this: I learn so very much as I listen to people’s stories, and then I have the privilege of writing articles about their jobs, their lives, their hopes and dreams. What a gift! Gotta run now — it’s time to prep for the first of tomorrow’s interviews. 

 


Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Is This a Happy Cactus?

 UPDATE: Confidence boosted by success with Molly, I've branched out (sorry) and now am tending to Flapjack, Fiesta, Letizia, three teeny Barrel cacti and one anonymous being. (Enlighten me if you know.) 

So far, so good! Fiesta has three orange blooms, the wee barrel cacti are thrilled to be out of their tiny pot, Flapjack is amazing and I send Molly out on the balcony for playdates. Stay tuned. 

Original Post: 

Meet my Texas Nipple Cactus, whose Latin name is Mammillaria prolifera

I call her Molly Ivins, because like that extraordinary journalist who made quite a reputation for herself writing about the Texas legislature, my cactus is prickly.

Except for the hardy 3.5’ tall ginkgo tree that lives in a giant pot on my balcony, Molly is my only plant. At one time, I had red geraniums blooming in a lovely blue pot on that same balcony, until three different plants got some nasty fungus that required I treat each leaf with a toxic substance every day.

Life is too short! 

For a time, I also had a vigorous jade plant — a gift from a neighbor when I moved in — but it grew too big and heavy for me to lift, and I could no longer dump the rain out of its saucer. I’d been told that jade plants didn’t like to sit in standing water. 

I’d also been told it was impossible to kill them, even if I didn’t dump the rainwater, but because I didn’t want to be the first person ever to do in a jade plant, I donated it to the office staff In my building, and it now lives on a first-floor patio with another jade plant. 

So it’s just Molly and me, which is fine, because I’m more of a fauna person than a flora person. I’ve been watching whales in the wild since 1982, and I once hugged a friendly gray whale in San Ignacio Lagoon. In the Galapagos Islands, I snorkeled with reef sharks. And I’ve swum with rays off Hawaii’s Big Island. 

At a zoo, I had the great privilege of giving a baby elephant his first solid food — a banana. Elsewhere at that zoo, I handed a blind, elderly rhino a piece of lettuce and offered a giraffe a slice of bread. Another joyous day, I petted a baby manatee in a tank in Orlando. Also, I’ve loved and nurtured four cats, three dogs and three parakeets.     

In contrast, taking care of a Texas Nipple Cactus should be easy, but I fret about whether I’m doing a good job. 

Molly had a rough start. I paid $5 for her in 2016, after my friend who owns Avenues Dry Goods, a great shop in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, found the plant lying on its side in a gutter. She brought it into her shop, where I was up for an impulse buy. 

“Just take it,” my friend said, but I wanted to be supportive of the new store. I paid and brought the cactus home, placed it on my desk and researched cacti. 

Yikes — there are 1,500 different species! At last, along with a photo that looked just like my plant, I found this: 

“A Texas Nipple Cactus is a low-growing cactus that forms a clump of dark green, globose or cylindrical stems with conic to cylindrical tubercles with clusters of spines at the tip. The stems are up to 3.6” tall and 2.8” in diameter. 

"Each areole bears 25 to 40 radial and 5 to 12 central spines. The radial spines are hair-like, white or yellow, and up to 0.5” long, while the central spines are needle-like, 0.4” long, and white, yellow to reddish with a darker tip.

“Flowers appear in spring. They are yellowish-white, cream-colored, or pinkish-yellow with brownish midrib and up to 0.8 inches” in diameter. Fruits are scarlet, club-shaped to cylindrical, and up to 0.8” long." 

Flowers? Haven’t seen a single one, but on three occasions, Molly has startled me with “fruits” that resemble teensy chili peppers. They are beautiful! 

I also unearthed this tidbit: "Mammillaria is one of the largest genera in the cactus family, with currently 200 known species and varieties recognized. Most of them are native to Mexico, but some come from the southwest U.S., the Caribbean, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Honduras." 

At some point, I wondered whether Molly might enjoy a larger pot, so I drove her to a hardware store with a gardening department. A clerk there told me cacti like to be pot-bound, but mine probably did need food. She offered to sell me a 5-pound bag. 

I explained that Molly was an only plant, with no siblings. The clerk laughed, and said she would pop Molly out of the pot, mix some food in the soil and water the cactus, all for free. Grateful, I bought a pretty red pot. That was pre-Covid, and I now fret that Molly may be hungry again. 

That said, she is taller than ever. (See top photo.) I believe the sun gets credit for that. As much as I enjoy her presence on my desk, keeping me company as I write, it’s clear my little Texas Nipple Cactus likes a sunnier spot, so often I put her on the floor in front of the sliding glass door to my west-facing balcony. When the wind in San Francisco is calm (we get a lot of gusty days), I let her bask in the sunshine outside, often sharing space with the ginkgo.   

Still, I think another trip to the gardening experts might be in order soon! I want Molly Ivins to be a happy cactus.