Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Birds In Blizzard

While the nor'easter rages outside, I'm watching the birds at the feeder under the eaves. Long past the time when they usually retire to their roosts, they're flying in for a few last bits of energy to get them through the night. Titmice, their little crests down from the cold; feisty chickadees; and winter-dull goldfinches swoop in, perch, grab a single sunflower or nyger seed and fly off into the trees to feast in peace. You'd think that they would use way more energy in those flights than a single seed could supply, but the yard is not littered with bird corpses, so they must know what they're doing.

Slate-colored juncos--elegant little birds with deep-gray backs and wings, white bellies and yellow beaks--are ground feeders, gleaning what our obese squirrels have left of the seeds that drop from the seed containers. Just now, as the agile titmice dove at the feeders swaying in the gale, I saw a pathetic sight: a junco fluttered up from the ground towards the trove of sunflower fuel, fell short, fluttered down, then fluttered up again. What was he thinking? That is the last thing he should have been doing, wasting energy pursuing an impossible goal.

After watching five or six of these vain flutterings, I filled a plastic tub with sunflower seeds and flung them into the shrieking wind. "Those seeds will be covered up in no time," said my husband. As it happened, the wind was blowing against the direction in which I had thrown the seeds, and they stuck fast to the surface of the snow. Soon four, five, six juncos appeared, feeding greedily. For a few minutes even a female cardinal came by, her feathers ruffling in the gusts. Cardinals are scarce in these latitudes, so even I, who used to get a dozen at a time at my Maryland feeder, have taken to gasping with wonder when I see one. I hoped she would stay, but she didn't.

It's almost dusk now, and although the titmice, etc. have gone home, the juncos are still out there, in the midst of the weather hoopla, pecking the ground like hens. But one little clever one, wing feathers tending to brown, beak a paler yellow--a female--is hanging out in the one-inch-wide strip of bare ground right against the house. Except that that ground is not really bare, but covered in sunflower husks and seeds fallen days and even weeks ago. She's filling up on these, feeding contentedly next to the wall, away from the males battling the storm. Bon appetit, junquette. I have high hopes for you. May you live to fledge a nestful of babies in the spring.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Paper Protest

Ten nasty, persistent women, one (v. nice) man, and a little red dog spent Sunday afternoon writing messages to the President, in anticipation of #TheIdesofTrump. Bisou wrote a card of her own (the one with the paw print), which I will be forwarding for her on Wednesday, March 15.

It was as much fun as a protest march, and warmer, since we were indoors with the gas fire on while outside the wind chill was well below zero. Two stalwart women showed up on foot, so swaddled in coats, boots, hats and scarves that at first I didn't recognize them.

A couple of days before the card-writing marathon I went to the Shelburne, Vermont post office and asked for sixty stamped postcards. The clerk said, "I don't think we have any left, but I'll check." She was gone a while, and when she came back she said "Nope. Not a single one. People have been buying them for that thing on March 15."

I got nervous. Where, if anywhere, would I find sixty stamped postcards? The clerk advised me to try the Charlotte (pronounced a la francaise, Char-lotte) post office. So I drove over, tempering my irritation with chilly views of Lake Champlain on my right.

When I told the Charlotte postman--four-feet tall and with uneven brown teeth, but beautiful to me--what I wanted, he smiled a cunning smile: "We got wind of what was coming, so we ordered extra." Tiny Charlotte, Vermont, voted to impeach Trump at its recent Town Meeting.

"I want to be prepared. Where will these be going, and when?" the postman asked, counting cards into little piles. I explained about #TheIdesofTrump, handed him my VISA, and drove back with the slate colored Lake Ch. on my left, to saute chicken livers for pate to sustain the card writers.

In the end, thanks to the Char-lotte P.O., all went swimmingly. We wrote and laughed and planned for the next paper protest (Show Us Your Taxes? Save ObamaCare? Hands-Off Planned Parenthood? Climate Change Is Real?). I'll know where to get my stamped cards from now on.

It looks like a promising spring for nasty, persisting women, v. nice men, and little red dogs.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Don't Link, Think!

At breakfast, sipping coffee, I said to my spouse, "Did you hear that thing on NPR about cyborgs?"

"What about them?" he asked, measuring honey into green tea.

If this had been the 1980s, I would have rummaged in my short-term memory and retrieved whatever shreds of the story I had retained. Then, flexing the muscles of my frontal lobes, I would have turned those concepts into coherent speech and voiced the results, thus giving myself a tiny intellectual workout before even starting my day.

"Cyborgs," I might have said, "are created by combining organic and inorganic parts in a single being. For instance, I became a partial cyborg when I got an artificial hip ten years ago. Merging the human brain with computers, which is already beginning to happen, will create the ultimate cyborg, with potentially alarming results."

But, this being 2017, I just said, "I'll send you a link."

(Here, in case you're interested, is the link to the cyborg story: http://www.npr.org/2017/02/21/516484639/are-cyborgs-in-our-future-homo-deus-author-thinks-so)

I'm suspicious of all this linking. Of course, the advent of hypertext has expanded our access to knowledge in ways undreamed-of in the era of shoulder pads. One click and I can read about Hildegard of Bingen's migraine-induced mystical visions, or find out how to make yogurt in a crock-pot. How can we not love this?

But this ease of access risks turning us into spectators of knowledge, passive enjoyers of an endless cornucopia of facts. And it's changing the way we interact with each other, as we increasingly express ourselves by posting links to what third parties have said or written rather going through the admittedly taxing process of putting things into our own words.

Consider Facebook. If you're like me, most of the posts on your news feed consist not of your friends' own ideas and opinions, but of links to videos and articles made by unknown others. I often click on these links, and laugh and cry along with the everyone else, but, unless we increasingly are what we link, they strike me only as indirect communications, at best, from my Facebook friends.

True, even before the hypertext era, few people managed to come up with really original ideas. Most of us just rehashed stuff we'd read, or heard others say. But even at its worst, rehashing is more mentally demanding than clicking.

Of course I know that fighting links is a losing battle. We Googlers and linkers are already cyborgs, letting the machine articulate and express many of our thoughts and feelings for us. But for those who would like to cling to the old ways of being human for a few more years, the strategy is clear: think, write, paint, sculpt, and compose more...and link less.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Feeding the Furniture

It's the depths of winter in Vermont. The deer in their deer yards and the bears in their dens are using up the last of their fat reserves. By this time each year, after months of having the heat on and despite the clouds of steam billowing out of our humidifier, my furniture, like me, is starving for moisture. The few wooden pieces that survived our downsizing look dull and gray, not unlike how many New Englanders feel about this time of year.

My husband and I didn't buy any of these pieces. They came to us almost fifty years ago from his Alabama grandparents, who knew that, as graduate students with two babies, we could barely afford to feed ourselves, let alone buy tables and dressers and chairs. Transplanted to the north country, in winter this Southern furniture wilts like a camellia in a New England garden. It wants care, nourishment, attention. It wants oil.

Household Goddess Bearing Oil and Rag, ca. 2017 A.D.
I get my bottle of furniture oil and look for a rag. I have very few rags now, having purged most of them in the Great Downsizing. I finally find one in which I recognize a piece of an old baby blanket and go to work on Grandma Ruby Violet's walnut dresser. It has two funny little drawers that used to hold her six pairs of white gloves, and where I now keep broken jewelry and old eyeglasses. The dry wood soaks up the oil thirstily, and I have to give it some extra passes with my rag.

Ruby Violet's kitchen table, now promoted to dining table, comes next. RV could hit a squirrel out of a magnolia tree with her .22, but she was a terrible cook, Her table is adorned with the circular burn marks made by the cast iron frying pan in which she cooked her fried chicken, the one dish at which she excelled. I love this beat-up old table, and massage oil into its every dent and crack.

The wobbly gate-leg sewing table, which I polish next, bears the marks of the serrated tracing wheel that RV used to transfer pattern markings onto fabric. RV liked to sew. For my honeymoon she made me a two-piece bathing suit, white with green polka dots, that scandalized my parents, who couldn't believe that my future grandmother-in-law would sew me such a daring garment.

Lastly I turn to an item known in the family as "Grandpappy's made-on-a boat chest." It's a vaguely Victorian piece made by a ship's carpenter as his steamboat sailed down the Mississippi. I have a vision of this carpenter, bored and sweating in the Delta heat, swatting mosquitoes and humming Negro spirituals to the beat of the paddle wheels as he sawed and planed.

It's the pathetic fallacy, I know, but I'll say it anyway: as I go around the cottage rubbing oil into wood with my rag I can practically sense the chests and tables relax and expand under my touch, can almost hear them heave a grateful sigh. When I'm done, I look at the scented, glowing wood around me and heave a sigh myself. Fallacy or not, feeding furniture is not a bad way to pass the time until that day in mud season when I can finally turn off the heat, open the windows, and let in some moist spring air.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Nun on the Bus

When the noon bell rang in the hill-top convent school of Nuestra Madre de la Merced in Quito, Ecuador, we would board the pale-yellow school bus that took us home for lunch. Two hours later, the bus would pick us up for our afternoon classes. And it was during that after-lunch trip that the drama of the motorcycles would unfold.

As the bus made its rounds on the cobbled streets, the boys from the Jesuit school in their uniforms and the ones from the American school in their leather jackets would come roaring up on their Vespas, Harleys, and Moto Guzzis and escort us through the town. On cloudy days there were fewer of them, and during the rainy season only the most ardent pursuers showed up. But on sunny afternoons they came out by the dozen, hooting, whistling and waving as they rode.

As the first motorcycle appeared over the horizon, the older girls would start to whisper and nudge each other, and with each addition to the procession they giggled and rolled their eyes and squirmed in their seats, trying to get a better look at the bikers. I was twelve at the time, and convinced that my classmates--who, due to the difference in school systems between Spain and Ecuador, were two or three years older that I--were insane. While the gawky Rodrigos, Pacos and Ricardos accelerating towards us sent the other girls into raptures, I watched Sister Imelda.

She was a young nun, newly professed, which is why she had been given the hopeless job of maintaining order and decency on the bus. She had a pretty face beneath her wimple, with ruddy skin, shapely eyebrows, and flashing green eyes. In her floor-length habit of white wool with wide sleeves and black veil she looked, except for the mannish lace-up shoes that were part of the outfit, almost elegant.

She sat near the front of the bus. As soon as a motorcycle was heard in the distance, she would straighten up in her seat, tug at her veil, and stare fixedly ahead, resolved not to let the bus chasers get to her. But soon there would be two motorcycles, and then three, and her face would redden and her knuckles whiten as she gripped the seat in front of her. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she would whirl around on her seat and yell "silencio!" at the giggling girls. But they couldn't hear her because of the motorcycles thundering behind us.

She would sit back down, adjust her veil, and clench her jaw. I could see her struggling to control herself, but as the whistling and hooting and roaring reached a certain pitch, she would leap up and fly to the back of the bus, her face purple with rage and flames shooting out of her eyes as she shook her fist at the bikers, shouting "imb├ęciles! malcriados! facinerosos!" This never failed to send the girls into fits of suppressed laughter and embolden the boys, some of whom leaned over to slap the bus as they sped by.

Poor Sister Imelda! I felt the indignity of her situation. She could either rail at the boys and be laughed at, or ignore them and appear to approve of their behavior.  As it was, the only thing that dissuaded our escorts, besides the rain, was the end of the route. As soon as the school's great iron gates came into view the riders would peel off one by one, like fighter pilots abandoning formation, and head to their own schools.

I wondered what Sister Imelda made of her trial. Perhaps she saw it as punishment for her sins. Perhaps she offered it up to relieve the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory (don't ask how that was supposed to work). I imagined that every day at dawn, as she headed to the chapel for prayers, she begged Our Lady of Mercy for rain.

Where is she now, my nun on the bus? Nuns last a long time, and she may still be living in the sisters' quarters on the third floor of the school. I wonder if, when she hears the bus depart on its rounds, she's glad that she's no longer young. As for those long-ago boys, her tormentors, do they now, driving their cars through the winding streets of Quito, remember the days when the girls they pursued were held captive in a yellow bus and guarded by a green-eyed dragon?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Early Critters

It may have been my mother's mother, the one who brought me a lame chick to keep me company after my tonsillectomy, who ignited my passion for animals. Or it may have been that, as the only child in an extended family, for me a dog or a cat, a rabbit or a hen was the closest I could get to a playmate, a sibling, someone who did not tower above me and talk about things I did not understand.

I grew up in a vast turn-of-the-century apartment in Barcelona. My mother, having been raised on a farm, believed that animals should not live under the same roof as humans. No dog claws skittered on the hard tile floors. No cat left a drift of fur on my pillow.  I hungered for a friendly, silent presence at my side, but had to make do with watching the pigeons who perched on our balcony.

But summers were different. We spent them at my grandparents' farm, in a fertile valley south of the Pyrenees, where an endless procession of animals amazed and delighted me. Horses and donkeys munched and snuffled in the stable; a sow the size of a bus fed twelve of her children in the sty. My grandmother let me throw corn to the hens who scratched the dirt in the courtyard, giving wide berth to the hunting dog, an Irish Setter who lived chained to his straw-bedded house. She would lift the cover of the nest box in the rabbit hutch and hoist me up to see the hairless litter moving feebly in a cozy cloud of  fur. And when one of the semi-feral cats who lived on mice and bread crusts gave birth, she would take me up to the hayloft and move aside the hay so I could see the still-blind kittens sleep entwined like the fingers of two clasped hands.

My grandmother and I feeding the chickens
One summer, she arranged for a goat kid to arrive in time to be my companion. Another year, it was a lamb. I tried my best to get these creatures to follow me around, but they seemed mostly intent on pursuing their own goals, the goat leaping up to reach the branches of the pear trees, the lamb on getting away from me.

The lamb and I
When one of the sows farrowed, my grandfather would detach a warm, pristine piglet from one of her teats and place it in my arms. Many years later, when the nurse handed me my first-born I inhaled the same clean, slightly oily smell from her scalp that I had smelled on the little pig.

The horses, donkeys and mules were my favorites, both the ones that belonged to my grandparents and those that were brought to be treated by my veterinarian grandfather. I would watch out the dining room window as some poor mule was brought limping into the farmyard by a couple of peasants wearing standard Catalan country attire: black beret, blue shirt, a black sash around the waist, black corduroy trousers, and dusty espadrilles. A hand-rolled cigarette hung perennially from their lips. 

My grandfather would appear and confer with the men, run his hand over the mule's back and lift one of its hooves. The mule would shy and roll its eyes; the men would admonish it in low, soothing tones, and my grandfather would do his work. I paid special attention to his technique for giving injections. After rubbing the area vigorously with a swab of cotton dipped in alcohol, he would drop the cotton on the ground, bring out an enormous syringe and plunge the needle in. When the men and the mule were gone, I would take my toy horse out to the yard, disinfect its hind leg with a bit of rag, fling the rag to the ground, pierce its thigh with a nail, retrieve the rag, rub the other leg, give another shot, and so on until I was called inside because the sun was too hot. 

I spent hours skulking around the farm, watching the creatures, absorbing their smells, wondering what they were thinking, and how it would feel to touch one. But I was constantly warned against getting too close to them--the sows had been known to eat children, the horses could bash your head in with a kick--and my grandmother would have fainted at the thought of bringing the dog, or one of the kittens that periodically tottered to the back door, its finger-long tail held high, into the house.

Back in Barcelona, in early December my mother would take me to the Christmas fair that was held next to the cathedral, to get supplies for our Nativity scene. But first we would go into the cathedral, to see the geese. Barcelona's Cathedral of Saint Eulalia may be the only church in the world to harbor geese--thirteen large white birds said to be the descendants of a gaggle first put there in Roman times.

It would have been bad spiritual manners to go straight to the geese, so first we used to stop before the main altar to pray. Already as I knelt there, with the grit on the kneeler digging into my bare knees, I could hear them, their cries echoing against the stones. I would say a quick prayer and whisper, “Can we go now?” My mother would answer by closing her eyes and praying some more. She knew the art of sharpening anticipation.

Eventually we would rise, make the sign of the cross, brush the grit from our knees, genuflect as we passed the altar, proceed in a dignified manner to the holy water basin, make another sign of the cross...and emerge into the cloister.

The cloister was like no other place I knew—a space that was both indoors and outdoors, where light and sound bounced oddly among the stones and the palms and the orange trees, a space that spoke to me of beauty for its own sake in the midst of the serious business of religion. A space inhabited by geese.

In the center of the courtyard was a raised stone platform, surrounded by an iron grille, where a moss-covered fountain trickled water into a spacious basin. There the geese, with majestic disregard for the holiness of the place, honked and waddled on the flagstones, making the most amazing green droppings and then casually gliding into the water and floating about, looking
pleased with themselves. Warm, alive and untamed in the midst of the stone and cement of the city, those geese seemed like a miracle to me.

Hoping that that goose will let me pet her
Not long after the visit to the geese, it was time for the Christmas capons. They came by train from my grandparents’ farm, in a large wicker basket cushioned with straw and covered with a piece of burlap. When the birds, annoyed but alive, arrived at our apartment, my mother would  put them in the cement tub in the laundry room. There I would sit until bedtime, watching the way their red combs shook as they cocked their heads to look at me with one eye and then the other, stretching out a finger to touch their feathers, inhaling their hot poultry smell and feeding them crusts of bread. 

The next morning, inevitably, the empty laundry tub was scrubbed clean and the apartment became, once again, devoid of animal life. I don’t remember making any connection between the succulent birds at the center of the Christmas feast and my temporary pets.

After the capons were gone, I hibernated for six long months until the train and then my grandfather's horse and buggy conveyed me back to my real home, the farmyard and the dusty summer roads and my animal brothers and sisters--the horses and the rabbits and the chickens that made my life feel real again.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Pizzicato (finale)

“Flat! Flat! You’re flat!” my father cried, swooping into my bedroom and waving his arms. He wasn’t scolding me—he just couldn’t bear it when I played out of tune. Occasionally, these interruptions would turn into a full lesson. More often, after reminding me to hold up my violin, my father would dash off to a rehearsal, a performance, or some other student’s regularly-scheduled lesson.

I was twelve and more advanced now, playing “real” music—Handel, Vivaldi, Viotti—and practicing an hour a day. But as I progressed, my ability to criticize my own playing had also advanced, and I was more aware than ever of the gulf that separated my playing from my father’s.

As conscious as I was of my failings, I had little notion of how to remedy them, and every hour I spent cloistered in my room with my four-stringed enemy felt like a week. Worst of all, my hoped-for reward—an hour of my father’s attention and possible approval—only came at long and unpredictable intervals. Given all this, I failed to see why I should be made to practice at all.

This is where my mother came in. My father having neither the temperament nor the leisure to keep me on task, she became the enforcer. “Have you practiced yet today?” she would ask as I finished my homework.

I would roll my eyes and close the door to my room. I would open the case, inhaling the sad, sour smell that emanated from its maroon velvet lining; pick up the violin; tuck it under my chin, and tighten the bow hairs. Then I would begin my musical Stations of the Cross—first the scales, then the harder position and bowing exercises, uphill through the assigned pages of Kreutzer, finally ending on  the Golgotha of some sonata. When the hour was over I would emerge shouting “I hate the violin! It’s awful! I despise it!”

My mother would shake her head sadly. “Such a pity! Such a pity! Daddy tells me all the time what a fine violinist you could be if only you wanted to. He says you have a good tone—something that can’t be taught….”

I wondered why my father never said those things to me, never looked me in the eye and said I had a good tone. As it was, my mother’s words only irritated me. “I don’t care,” I would say, stamping my foot. “It’s hateful. Why should I spend all this time on something I hate?”

My mother would smile wistfully. “Some day, when you are grown up and married, and living in your own house, on a rainy afternoon when you are feeling melancholy you will pick up your violin and play, and be grateful that I made you practice.”

This explanation only added fuel to my anger. I didn’t want to grow up into a lady with no way to fill a rainy afternoon. I had seen what empty afternoons did to my mother! Despite my dislike of it, to me the violin was serious business, not some bored housewife’s occasional pastime. I knew only too well how terrible that housewife would sound, if she only practiced when she was in certain moods.

Underlying all this was my intuition that there was something amiss in the lives of my mother and the other women in my family. They were charming, attractive, educated and smart. They were good at many things: they embroidered, painted in oils, played various instruments. They read constantly, went to concerts and to art exhibits every week. But somehow, in a way I couldn’t understand but was sure of, they weren’t serious. My father, on the other hand, was.

On the brink of puberty, without ever having been told so expressly, I saw myself relegated by fate to the charming, witty, non-serious side of things. Unfortunately, I wanted both: to be clever and attractive (especially that, please God) as well as serious. As for the violin, if I couldn’t play like my father, then I wanted no part of it.

Years passed.  My mother stuck to her guns and I to my grousing. In my freshman year in college, my father decided that I needed some orchestra experience. The woman who played in the last stand of the second violins in the Birmingham Symphony was going on maternity leave and had to be replaced. My father drove me to the conductor’s house one afternoon. I auditioned, and was told to report for rehearsal that same evening.

The nightly rehearsals and weekend concerts wreaked havoc with my social life, not to mention my study hours. I was so terrified of playing an unintended “solo” that I spent my time in the orchestra mostly trying not to be heard. But in some ways these were good music times for me: my father was the violin instructor at the college I attended, and I signed up for classes from him. On Friday afternoons, when it was time for my lesson, he would suggest that we go back home and do the lesson there. But I, knowing what would inevitably happen once we arrived—the phone would ring, my mother would have to be driven somewhere, somebody would drop by—insisted on having my lesson on campus, in a real classroom, like a regular student.

He must have liked what he heard during those lessons, because one day he announced that he and I were going to play the Bach Double Violin Concerto at the college’s weekly assembly. (In those by-gone days, it was usual for the undergraduate student body to convene for cultural events.)

Both flattered and terrified, I practiced hard. He and I rehearsed together a few times, and I got some pointers on ensemble playing (don’t play loud all the time; listen to the other voice). The day came. I did my best and even enjoyed it, in a strange way. The audience clapped and clapped--the Bach Double is an easy work to like—and one former boyfriend confessed that he had wept during the slow movement. I was pleased, and yet…

I was living at home, cleaning the house, doing the ironing, babysitting my sister, and giving private language lessons. I was taking a full academic load, majoring in Biology and French. I got only one credit for my violin courses, but worked harder on that than on all the rest.

Compared to the violin, the rest of college—the life cycle of the blood fluke, the dissected dogshark, even the poetry of Mallarmé--seemed relatively straightforward. I longed to sit with my classmates drinking coffee in the snack bar in the afternoons, listening to Frank Sinatra and smoking an occasional cigarette. I longed to walk the leaf-strewn campus paths with a boy at my side, like a regular American college student. The violin had to go.

All this was half a century ago. I am now a married lady, in my own house. And on a rainy afternoon, or even a sunny one, whether I am feeling melancholy or otherwise, I open my case and take out my plastic Yamaha alto recorder. I start with some basic tonalizations, remembering to hold my instrument up and minding my breath (which is the hairless equivalent of the bow). I struggle through some challenging bits by “Unknown 18th Century Masters” and cap things off with Georg PhilippTelemann, a composer who devoted himself to tormenting recorder players.

Before I know it, an hour has passed. I look forward to my lessons, and to playing duets and trios with friends. These days, nobody has to remind me to practice. As I swab the spit out of the instrument and put it away, I can hear faint laughter emanating from the woods behind the house, where my mother’s ashes are scattered.