Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Silent Season

Every year, when our descendants depart for their homes after Christmas, the silent season begins. It is silent indoors—the house looking like the siege of Carthage, or rather like Carthage after the siege was over—and silent outdoors—the snow here for the duration and bird song just a memory.

For one who loves contrasts, and I do, this is a good time: the hullabaloo of the solstice followed by the silence of the cloister.

But it would be good if this nice quiet time were to elicit something more than just a sigh of satisfaction. Such as and insight, or a resolution, or a revelation of some kind. Such as an idea of who I really am, or what I am meant to do in this life. I would really like that.

“You are,” I imagine that hitherto-unheard-by-me small, quiet voice enunciating clearly, “a true goatherd. Do not let the latest contretemps dissuade you. So what if your shoulder hurts and your does are dry. Persevere on the goat path!”

Or, “You are a writer. Write single-mindedly. All else is a betrayal of your real nature.”

Or, “Stop thinking in terms of professions, but go and sell all you have and give it to the poor, then get thee to a nunnery.” (The small, quiet voice is familiar with a variety of literary sources.)

It's been quiet here all day (tomorrow I'll tackle the laundry) and I've been taking little naps, and interrogating the voice in between. But there is silence inside me as well as everywhere else.

And then I remembered Trollope's modest advice to writers—“nulla dies sine linea,” no day without a line. And I thought that seemed reasonable enough. And safe. And something I would like to do.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Holidaze

This has been a happy Christmas, but one that I will not remember.

The dark forces that at this time of year cause airline delays, lost luggage, and cases of strep in normally healthy people have converged upon my upper back, where they have seized my trapezius with hot pincers, which they twist at agonizingly frequent intervals. In other words, I have muscle spasms in my shoulder (and eight people in the house).

To be fair to the dark forces, they gave me plenty of warning. They started out about the beginning of Advent with minor twists and stabs which I studiously ignored, then got a bit worse, and finally exploded into major fireworks around Christmas Eve.

Since Christmas fell on a Friday, I was left to my own devices until I finally got to see a doctor this morning. These devices included:

Ingesting increasing doses of ibuprofen, tylenol and whatever non-prescription pain reliever I could find in our medicine cabinet.

When none of these worked, having recourse to one, then two tablets of a well-aged prescription narcotic that I had hoarded for just such an emergency.

Moaning, groaning and occasionally yelping—all these involuntarily. The noises would just come out of my mouth all by themselves as I tried to turn over in bed or pick up the dogs' water pail.

Gradually giving up my hostessing duties, such as cooking, setting the table, making fires in the wood stove and throwing out gift wrapping paper. Fortunately these tasks were cheerfully picked up by the other five adults in the house.

The last device caused me the most regret: I stopped milking my goats. Twisting my body to get the pail and my hands under their low little bellies, not to mention having to do a furious tango with the rebellious Blossom at each and every milking, became unbearable. This means of course that much water will pass under the bridge before I have home-grown milk again: the goats will have to come into heat and be bred and then gestate for five months, and the new babies will need to grow old enough to be separated from their mothers at night. The best-laid plans of mice and milkmaids....

While I was going through my tribulations, Christmas swirled around me. Fires were lit, meals eaten, presents given and received. But me, I was hunched over my pain, thinking how else to deal with it, how to avoid bending over one more time, what effect all those meds were having on my liver. Anything not pain-related ceased to exist.

Then this morning I went to the doctor, and he prescribed serious pain meds and told me how to take them, and referred me to a physical therapist. It's been a much better day. We've had a lovely snow fall that has made everything look soft and cottony, kind of the way I've been feeling. I'm not sure I had lunch. But I do have vague memories of reading a Trollope novel, then drifting off, then looking at the snow, awash in gratitude and relief. As I said, I don't think I'll remember much about this Christmas.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Minor Christmas Miracle

“Bisou,” I said to my little red dog before the holidays, “you know about those issues you've been having with pooping in the house?” Bisou wagged her tail. “You know how the only way to keep you from doing that is to watch you like a hawk and take you out a million times a day? And sometimes you just sniff and hunt for rabbit poop instead of getting down to business? And then when we go inside I either have to put you in the crate or tie your leash to my waist?” Bisou jumped up and licked my nose.

I put her front paws on the floor and went on, “When our guests arrive, there will be eight people and three dogs living in this house, and stumbling into your petites horreurs just as we're about to sit down to dinner would drive me over the edge. So, Bisou, much though I hate to do this, I'm going to make arrangements for you to spend the holidays elsewhere.”

Bisou started sniffing the floor about then, so I took her out and when we came back inside I called her breeder and asked her if she could board Bisou if circumstances turned out to be more than I could handle.

And here is the miracle: since the house filled with people three days ago, Bisou has not had a single accident. This, in the midst of tree trimming and meal cooking and joyful shrieking and present wrapping and unwrapping and generally such chaos as would cause many a dog to forget her training.

What is behind this miracle? Bisou's adorableness, what else. People have fallen in love with her and she has spent three solid days sitting on somebody's lap, or being taken out by a compliant family member, or stroked by a child, or carried off for a nap in one of the guest rooms. I have hardly caught sight of her, and it's been quite a...delightful break.

I'll be glad to have her back all to myself when her admirers leave. I just hope the Christmas miracle lasts into the new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Almost Christmas

When an entire loaf of rhubarb bread gets consumed at a single sitting...

When you can't find anything in the fridge because it's stuffed to bursting with dishes made in preparation and dishes brought just in case...

When the dogs, who at first terrified the children with the exuberance of their welcome, now lie motionless and exhausted as the children race over and around them...

When major surgery has to be performed on the tree (this year we'll just get a little one) to get it through the door...

When someone discovers the horn ornament “that really works” and runs through the house making merry...

When behind every closed door you can find: a) someone wrapping presents; or b) someone taking a nap; or c) someone staring into space, having quiet time...

When someone is shivering (build a fire!) or sneezing (get some Claritin!) or running out of Scotch tape (what time does the store close?)...

When someone reads “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” aloud during dinner...

When one by one people yawn and say good night, and the dogs have been let out and in, and the fire dies down, and the deer come into the front field to graze...

...then you know it's almost Christmas at our house.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Goats In Mourning

Sorry to write about dark stuff in this merry season, but today is the darkest day of the year, at least in our hemisphere, so here goes.

Yesterday, the baby goats left. They went to a wonderful farm,, and I was fortunate to be able to place them. They were almost three months old, and more than ready to be weaned. They were taking up valuable space, drinking milk they didn't really need. They needed to go, and I rejoiced that they did.

My two remaining goats, Blossom and Virginia Slim, are anything but pleased. Blossom is the babies' mother, and I know for a fact that she was trying to wean them; I'd seen her hunkered down in a corner of the shed, hoping they couldn't get to her udder. Virginia Slim was more of a wet nurse. She's a domineering goat, but when the kids were born she could not resist them, and when they were a couple of days old I caught them nursing from her, while she stood patiently and nosed their rear-ends, just like a mother goat would.

The minute we loaded the kids into the truck, Blossom and Virginia S. began screaming, “Where are you going with those babies!” When we returned five hours later, they were still screaming. I milked them both and gave them grain, and hoped that a good night's sleep would calm them down.

Not a bit of it. This morning they greeted me with anguished cries “What did you do with the babies?” Milking and a bowl of grain didn't make a dent in their distress. “What are we going to do now that our babies are gone?” they kept saying, over and over, in a strange throaty bleating. No mother who has just deposited her first born at college could have been more upset.

These are normally almost silent goats. But boy, they aren't silent now. They are in mourning. They are weeping and wailing. They look at me insistently, as if I have the answer.

Which I do, of course. The answer is: “We who own you and take care of you are not vegans. We are not even vegetarians. Therefore, we need you to have babies every year so we can get milk and cheese. Your daughters, if they are lucky, will go on to have babies and make milk for other people. Your sons...let's not talk about what happens to boy goats. Either way, for the rest of your lives you will be separated prematurely from your children, because I cannot take care of more than a couple of goats. If we were brave and honest, we would slaughter your kids right here, and eat them, but we aren't, so we hand them over to others—the girls for milk, the boys for food. Please try to get used to this arrangement, because it's all that I can offer.”

It is night, and the goats are quiet now. I hope they are keeping each other warm. I hope they are not too unhappy. How long does it take a mother to get used to her children's absence? Tomorrow I will give Blossom and Virginia S. a good brushing. What else can I do?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Snail

My five-year-old grandson spent several days in Vermont last June. He and his sister, who live in Philadelphia, rejoiced in their contacts with the local wild life: “Look, a butterfly! And here's another one! They're all white, and they're flying around the broccoli!”

Even though it rained every day while they were here, we filled up the kiddie pool and let them splash around in it. But the biggest thrill came next morning, when the kids discovered that a dozen tiny frogs had colonized the pool overnight.

The age-old human instinct to make pets out of wild animals expressed itself strongly in my grandchildren. Fortunately, the frogs were too difficult to catch, let alone bring inside. Snails made for slower prey, however, and my grandson put one in a jar and provisioned it with garden greens and placed it on the dining room table where he could keep an eye on it for as long as he was here.

Last week, as his mother was buying him snow boots for the Christmas trip to Vermont he said, “I hope they've taken good care of my snail. I can't wait to see it.”

Sweet, no? And sad. And it puts me in a quandary. I can tell him, in good faith, that his frog friends are in hibernation and will be ready to greet him and his sister again next summer. But the snails....I don't know how close to the equator a snail has to be to survive year-round, but in these latitudes, anything as soft and slimy as a snail is dead and gone well before Halloween, at best leaving fertile eggs in some well-protected spot to hatch out in the late spring.

Do I sit this child by the fire and hand him a cookie and tell him this biologically correct tale of perished snails and Nature red in tooth and claw? Or do I spin him some kindly story of his snail snoozing away the winter (like frogs, like bears) waiting for summer so it can play with him in the rain-soaked garden all over again?

Please advise. He'll be here on Tuesday.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Frozen Egg

Found a frozen egg in the nest last night. How did I know it was frozen? Because the contents had expanded and the shell had a beautiful thin crack running from end to end. The other eggs were fine—maybe they had been laid later in the day and hadn't had time to freeze.

My hens are Buff Orpingtons, big bosomy blondes bred to withstand cold weather. They have a heated dog dish for their water, and plenty of laying mash and leftovers. They prefer to spend their days in the goat room, scratching around in the hay and managing to find treats in there. Probably they like the goats' company, too.

The goats don't mind the cold either. They're wearing their fluffy winter coats—the babies look like little bears—and they go outside on the snow and ice. They hate the rain and mud, though. They, too, have a heated water bucket, and in the winter I add cider vinegar to their water.

The wooden shed that houses the goats and chickens is not insulated. At night I do lock everyone in, but it's more to keep the coyotes out than the cold. Both goats and chickens have a nice thick bed of hay, and the manure which drops to the bottom composts and helps to keep things warm.

In the evening, when I'm reading by the wood stove and the dogs are sprawled on the rugs, I like to think of my goats and chickens all snug in their shed for the night.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

J.S. Bach And Holiday Stress

I don't know about you, but a lot of Christmas music makes me nervous. I hear Jingle Bells and my breath begins to tighten, and the Rudolf song gives me the jitters. It's because of the association, over endless decades, of these tunes with stores, and gifts, and Time's winged chariot hovering near, plus the anxiety of finding perfect gifts for all the perfect people on my list.

So to destress these days, I put on some Bach. Bach without words is best. Bach without organs or harpsichords. Stripped down Bach, Bach for horse hair on cat gut: the Cello Suites.

The great Pau Casals, who discovered the long-forgotten Suites and performed them as no one else has, when he was in his 90s and couldn't play the cello anymore would play a single Suite on the piano every morning, as a kind of meditation. Casals was something of a Zen master, although he didn't know it, and the Suites were his mantra.

Bach has always induced a meditative state in me. I remember when I was in college, coming home in the afternoon and listening to the Brandenburg Concertos. “Why do you always play that record?” my mother asked one day. “It puts things back in order for me,” I told her.

Now that life is considerably more complicated, it takes the Suites to put things in order for me. But they always work, for reasons that I can't understand. And they work especially well in this, the most disordered of seasons.

Speaking of disorder, can you imagine what Bach's Christmases must have been like? With 20 children in the house? And little Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emanuel tootling on flutes and the lady of the house, Anna Magdalena, practicing her harpsichord? Sure, he had two wives, but only one at a time (his first wife died young). And he didn't have a ton of money. How did he manage to write such peace-inducing music, in the midst of all that chaos?

Maybe in the coming days, when there will be a mere eight of us at our house, I can channel Bach, and keep my wits about me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Belated Potpourri

I made my belated potpourri today.

It's belated because, in order for the content of the pot to become properly pourri (which means rotten...but a lot of almost-rotten things are really good—think stinky cheese) it's supposed to be mixed and left to ripen for at least two months. But two months ago I was in the throes of infant dog care, so I didn't get around to it.

Today I got out my two-gallon glass jar and poured into it my summer harvest of dried lavender blossoms, orange mint, lemon balm, rose-lemon-scented geraniums and a ton (well, almost a ton) of rose petals. I also poured in my jar of dried citrus peels—from all those clementines we ate last winter--to act as a fixative, and then sprinkled lavender and rose oil (the peels and the oils being the only non-home-grown ingredients) and mixed it all well.

The colors, seen through the glass, were lush. The scent, even before I added the oils, was divine—summer in a jar. I have never made potpourri this good. But then, I've never had a semi-wild, endlessly flowering, scented rosebush at my back door, or its cousins blooming generously at the edge of the woods. Every morning in June and July, after the dew had dried, while the birds were still singing, I would go out with my scissors and basket and, feeling vaguely Edwardian, snip off every single bloom. I would bring them inside, strip off the petals, and set them out on paper towels to dry. Meanwhile, behind the house, the rosebushes were busy making more roses.

Encouraged by the survival of the lavender that I had experimentally planted by our front stone wall, I put in half a dozen additional little bushes this past summer. Amazingly, they all bloomed and kept on doing so well into October, and I kept cutting. Through the fall, my curtain-less windows were adorned with little hanging bunches of drying lavender.

There is nothing like a ton of roses and a ton of lavender to make a good smell. In making potpourri, this time, for a change, I didn't worry about the proportion of leaves to flowers. I didn't follow a recipe. I just threw in everything I had, anointed it with oils, and said a blessing over it.

In a few days, I will decant the mixture into little jars and press my improvised, unripe, garden-grown and heartfelt potpourri into the hands of people I love.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Slow Down, Bisou!

I know you think you have wings, Bisou, but you don't, so please slow down.

I have watched you a million times: no sooner does an idea hit you--there's a toy on the bed--than bam! you're there—feet on pillows, toy in mouth. There's a bird on the lawn! Whoosh, you're on it—except oops! there's the sliding door. For you, there is no interval between “here” and “there.” Nor is there any danger.

Today, we had just finished watching your father on UTube place 10th on the 2009 AKC Agility Invitational. Watching him jump on and off and over stuff and generally throw himself about at top speed was not much different from an afternoon at home with you, Bisou.

As we were getting ready for our nap, you kept jumping off the bed, and when I said “Do you want to go outside?” you took off down the hall so fast that you slid around the corner and plummeted down our entire steep flight of steps...and disappeared.

I ran after you, imagining the worst, and found you sitting by the back door, wagging your tail and looking intense. You needed to go out, and fast! You didn't seem broken in body or spirit or anything else. Back in the house, I said to myself, “she won't want to go near those steps for a while,” and prepared to carry you. But no, you sprinted upstairs as if nothing had happened, and we had our daily snooze.

Your breeder tells me it is not for nothing that your mother's name is “Fling.”

At the moment, you're zonked out on a sheepskin, stretched next to my body as I type on the sofa by the wood stove, the very picture of a “comfort spaniel,” as Cavaliers were referred to in a quainter age. But the minute I close my laptop, watch out! You'll fling yourself off the sofa, and hurl yourself at the back door. Attention, Bisou! Doucement!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Matter Of Manners

Here are my shoes. Put them on for a minute and tell me what you would do.

Several months ago, the daughter of dear friends of ours got married.
Before the wedding (which was wonderful) I went on-line to the bridal registry and ordered a gift to be sent.

The store charged the item to our credit card. However, I have yet to hear from the bridal couple that they received the gift.

In my scale of social misdemeanors, neglecting to send thank you notes ranks just about at the bottom. I'm sure I've forgotten a few in my day. Nevertheless, I worry that something went wrong and the (not inconsequential) gift was never sent, or lost in the mail, or something.

Is there a statute of limitations for gift acknowledgments after a wedding? How long should one wait to hear—six months, a year? The couple are full-grown adults, which makes me think they know what to do, which makes me think they never got the gift.

Which is less bad: to take the chance that they think we forgot to give them a gift, or to make some clumsy inquiry of the couple or (even worse) their parents that will make them feel bad every time the use the object we got for them?

I'm terribly tempted to just close my eyes and get on with my life. What would you do?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

House Training Lament

Bisou, Bisou, what is going on with you? You will be five months old tomorrow, a well-grown pup in every way, lithe, well muscled, agile and coordinated. In just another couple of months you may, according to the norms of your breed, attain puberty. You are at the end of your puppyhood, and yet you are not house trained.

A couple of weeks ago, I thought you almost were. I would let you out with the big dogs and you would get right down to business. But since the snow arrived, I've been finding your petites horreurs in the house.

I would have expected that the heavy frosts would have dulled the outdoor smells, made the back yard less interesting. On the contrary, when I let you out onto the snow you run around sniffing and digging and doing everything except what you're supposed to do. So despite the snow and ice and cold and wind I have been taking you out on a leash, as if you were a two-month old baby, and standing in the swirling elements while you run in circles around me and do, or do not do, your business.

I know exactly what the experts say to do when a puppy breaks house training: go back to square one. Back to the crate, back to constant supervision, back to the umbilical leash. (This last means that one clips the leash to the puppy's collar, ties the other end to one's belt, and goes about one's business trying very hard not to trip over the dog.) Basically, square one means that the puppy is either confined to the crate or under one's watchful eye 24/7.

Two days ago, that's what I did, remember, Bisou? You stared at me uncomprehendingly when I hooked your leash on the kitchen doorknob so I could eat breakfast in peace. When I tied your leash to my waist while I folded laundry, you tugged and chewed and stood on your hind legs, trying to get away. And when I put you in your crate during the daytime you protest with a repertory of yelps and yodelings designed to melt my heart.

You would think all this discipline would have an effect on you. But no. You are still distracted and unfocussed when I take you outside. And today, after our nap together, I followed you downstairs to let you out (I didn't want to put a leash on you because I thought we might trip going down the stairs). By the time I got to the back door, Wolfie and Lexi were there, but you weren't. I found you in the dining room, looking out the window. But I was suspicious, and found under the table...yes, another of your sins.

How can you be so fast and focused indoors, so slow and distracted outside? I have heard that lapdogs can sometimes be hard to house train. I know you think you're an Irish Setter, Bisou, what with your red feathers and gorgeous ears, but you are in fact a lapdog, and I'm worried.

In fewer than ten days, there will be eight people and three dogs in this house. There will be a Christmas tree, and the usual hoopla and confusion. And I will not be able to focus exclusively on you, Bisou. Things have to get better, fast. They will, won't they, Bisou?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Things I Didn't Do Before The Snow

Here are my mea culpas for the 2009 gardening season. They aren't much different from the 2008 ones, and I don't hold much hope for the 2010 ones, but here goes:

I didn't tuck in the plastic mulch that was peeking out from under the pine mulch in the landscaped areas around the front of the house. It looked sloppy and unsightly and reminded me of the days when slips were wont to show under skirts. Mercifully, the snow has covered everything for the moment—kind of like putting on a coat to hide that hanging slip.

I didn't thin the apple mint, the spear mint, the orange mint or the lemon balm. Next year, they may take over the entire property. It will smell good, though.

I didn't wrap a burlap coat around the little Japanese maple, thus leaving it vulnerable to cold, wind, and deer.

I didn't put the plastic spiral wraps on the trunks of the baby apple trees, thus leaving them vulnerable to rabbits and who knows what else that will dine on their bark one of these nights while I'm asleep.

I didn't spread the extra compost that we dumped out on the field. The snow has covered that as well.

I didn't harvest the last of the chard, although if I dug around I might still find some under the snow.

Ditto for the kale, which is still sticking up bravely through the snow, like miniature palm trees sticking out of desert sand. I should crash my way through the ice-crusted snow to the garden and see if it is still usable. I read somewhere that heavy frost makes kale sweeter. If so, our kale should be pure sugar by now.

I didn't sell the baby goats, Alpha and Omega. They are getting big and taking up a lot of space and drinking milk that they no longer need. They are adorable, but I need to find them a home asap. Placing them in a caring home far outweighs my desire to get a price commensurate with their impressive dairy pedigrees. Perhaps I need to pray to Saint Isidore, patron saint of farmers, to help me find them a family.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Green Vermont Mornings

The only way I can get out of bed when the alarm rings at seven is to make a solemn promise to myself that I will come back to bed as soon as “everybody” is taken care of.

I let Bisou out of her crate, pull a turtleneck over my pajamas, thrust my bare feet into clogs, and go downstairs to let the dogs out. While they do their morning rituals I fill a big bucket with water and a dollop of cider vinegar for the goats, and heat a cup of water for washing udders. I let the dogs inside, and they act as if they hadn't seen me, or each other, for ten years. I try to act excited to see them too.

When we built our goat shed, we attached it to the back of our attached garage, so I have the luxury of doing chores without having to step on bare ground, which makes me nonchalant about what I wear for morning milking. Today, with the thermometer at 18 F and the wind howling, I threw the barn coat over my sweater and pajamas and sallied forth hatless, sockless, and gloveless. The goats were calling, and I was in a hurry.

In the milking room, I put grain on the milking stand and let Virginia Slim in, then let the little does out of their bedroom so they could have some restorative sucks out of their mother, Blossom. I cleaned Virginia Slim's udder, dried it, and milked her, then ushered her out and let Blossom in. When I'd milked her, I filled the hay feeder, opened the door to the yard, threw out the old water, poured in the new. Then I went into the chickens' room, checked that they had water and feed for the day, and opened their little trap door so they could rush next door to visit the goats.

My fingers had stayed mobile during the milking thanks to the warmth of the udders, but by the time I went back to the house, they felt like frozen twigs. And while I peeled off my coat and strained the milk those lines by Shakespeare kept running through my mind:

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail....

I fed the dogs their breakfast: half kibble, half the home-cooked melange that I know will keep them healthy and alive forever. While they ate, I heated water for my tea, poured cereal into a bowl, and added the rich, sweet, organic, fabulous milk from my own adorable goats which will keep me healthy and alive forever.

But before I could eat, the dogs had to be let out again, and I had to watch to make sure than Bisou did her thing despite the howling wind and icy snow. While I watched, I refilled their water bowl, and sprayed the rosemary bush and the scented geranium plants lest they dry out from the stove heat.

All this water made me realize (Reader, I know that this may be too much information, but I think it is a telling touch) that I had not been to the bathroom since the night before....

The dogs safely inside, I sorted out my daily vitamins, ate my cereal and drank my tea. Now, I thought, I can go back to bed. First, however, I gave Lexi her arthritis meds in a spoonful of peanut butter, then brushed her teeth, and brushed Wolfie's teeth, and Bisou's, and reminded myself that they all needed to have their nails cut SOON and their coats brushed.

Plus, before going upstairs and plunging back into bed, I needed to think about dinner, and go down to the basement and bring up whatever was needed from the freezer, and I should also start defrosting the next batch of homemade melange for the dogs.

Then Bisou had to go out again.

By the time I got upstairs and brushed my teeth and checked my e-mail, it was practically lunchtime. I decided to just get on with the day, and maybe take an afternoon nap.

Naps, as everybody knows, will keep you healthy and alive forever.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Big Snow, Little Dog

Snow storms are thrilling and beautiful, but they can seriously interfere with the lives of people such as truck drivers, emergency personnel, and those who, like me, are house training a puppy.

I let the dogs out into the back yard this morning, and stood watching at the window. Like many other parts of the country, we were experiencing the first serious storm of the season. The snow was falling thickly. It would sweep furiously past the house from left to right. Then a truckload of it would drop from above, and then more snow would blow from right to left. A big blast would come barreling out of the woods, aiming straight for the house, obliterating the view. The wind would die down for a minute, then start up again, howling.

I stood there for a very long time, but I wasn't focusing on the snow. I was watching Bisou try to pee in her first blizzard.

Normally when I let her out, no matter how long it's been since her last bathroom event, she first pays a visit to the bird feeder. What is it with dogs and bird feeders? Do they crave some secret nutrient in sunflower seed hulls? I suspect that they are after the tiny bird poops, which must seem to them like those little candy sprinkles you put on cakes.

After vacuuming the ground around the feeder, Bisou goes for a little walk. It starts out as a relaxed trot, then gradually speeds up as she circles more and more urgently until suddenly, as if hit by lightning, she squats, and it's done. I breathe a sigh of relief and break out in songs of praise and thanksgiving (it's very important not to skip those). We do this, oh, 27 times a day, every day.

This morning, in the blizzard, Bisou went straight to the bird feeder, then took off on her little walk. But the little walk went on and on. Up to her elbows in snow, she trotted right, then left, then back to the bird feeder to make sure she hadn't missed a hull. Periodically she would stick her head in the snow, sniffing for bathroom spots of yore. But they had vanished.

The blizzard raged, and I needed to go milk the goats, but Bisou was still running around all over the yard. I knew it would be folly to call her into the house, but how long was this going to take?

Finally she took off into the woods. I could see her little red body against the snow, and there must have been some magic under the trees, because suddenly inspiration struck, and she went into a squat.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tenure-Track Tales, Part The Third

Another faculty committee I got elected to, that first year, was the Faculty Council. It met once a month for lunch in the President's Dining Room--a dimly-lit, dark-paneled space with the feel of a basement rec room-- to discuss the agenda for the upcoming faculty meeting.

The Faculty Council never did much in the way of business, but the lunches were good, the President was a genuinely good man, and the meetings gave the dominant males of the faculty the opportunity to blow off steam without the danger of anything ever coming to a vote.

Yet again, I was the only woman on the committee. At the first meeting, I stood alone while we waited for the President to arrive, watching my colleagues smoke their pipes and top each other's tales of student ineptitude.

At last the President came in and we all sat down. Pleasantries were exchanged. The food was served. The chatter died down and an expectant silence filled the room. The gravy was congealing on the chicken breasts but nobody made a move. What was going on?

Then the President cleared his throat. “Dr. Cobb,” he said, turning to me. I gave an involuntary start. Was he going to ask me to say the blessing? Was he going to ask me to leave the room? “Dr. Cobb, would you kindly pick up your fork?” I stared at him blankly, but did as he asked. “Ah, now,” he said with a smile, “we can all have lunch.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

Goat On A Date

Sweet Alsiki went on a date today. This was not a spur-of-the-moment thing, but a highly orchestrated affair, like the betrothal of a Renaissance princess. Alsiki is not the most beautiful of my goats, but she is the one people fall in love with. She'll come and stand next to you, so quietly and unobtrusively that next thing you know you've got your arms around her and she's lying on your lap. She is subtly colored, cream and white, and she wears “goat jewelry,” a pair of little bell-like wattles that hang from her neck.

The date began with a hormone shot. At almost twenty months old, the biological clock is in full swing for Alsiki. But she had never given overt signs of heat—no tail wagging, no restlessness, no crying out in the night for her phantom lover, no pinkness or swelling or discharge in the relevant parts. To get things rolling, we gave her an injection that would bring her into heat within three to seven days.

Alsiki got her shot on Friday, and this morning we had an appointment with a buck at the farm where she was born, a couple of hours' drive from where we live (good breeders of Nigerian Dwarf goats are few and far between. Here is a great one:

I thought that it might help if Alsiki looked her best. I put her on the milking stand and she let me pick up each of foot and cut the overgrown parts of the hoof with nary a kick or a struggle. (By contrast, Virginia Slim, and especially Blossom, left me sweating and panting for breath as well as covered in hoof parings.)

I thought I should also give Alsiki a good brushing. But there's no such thing as brushing a single goat. When they see me with the brush, my goats get as close to me as they can and stand quietly for as long as I am willing to brush. This has an amazing hypnotic effect, not just on them, but on me. By the time I'm done, I feel as if I've just undergone a powerful meditative experience.

We hoisted the made-over Alsiki into the dog crate in the back of the truck, and took off for the frozen north. She was not giving any signs of heat. It might take days for the shot to take effect, but the breeder had kindly offered to keep her until she did go into heat, so we weren't worried about making the trip in vain.

It was a cold, gray day, the woods and fields covered with snow, the bare trees outlined in black, like you see in paintings by Brueghel. At the farm, we decanted Alsiki into a stall and the breeder led in the boyfriend—a beautiful young buck, about Alsiki's age, black and white with a swishy mane along his back that gave him the look of a Colobus monkey. (You'll be glad to know that Nigerian Dwarf bucks, whether because of their small size, or because it's a gift of the fairies, give off nowhere near the stink of “regular” bucks during rutting season.)

The boyfriend tiptoed in, shaking his mane, tactfully keeping his distance, lifting his upper lip and darting his tongue to determine how things stood.
As I said, until that moment, there had been no signs that Alsiki was even remotely in the mood. “Strange,” I said, observing the low-key scene, “she's not trying to get away from him.” (I'd seen does who were just not quite in the mood climb up walls to get away from a buck.)

And as I finished the sentence, the boyfriend mounted and the deed was done. Just like that. Not only had Alsiki been in heat, she'd been in “standing” heat, which is as hot as a goat can get. But, discreet as ever, she hadn't wanted to make a fuss.

The boyfriend retreated, Alsiki continued to stand, in case there was more to come. The boyfriend nickered and hung about near the relevant parts. He capered and curled his lip, stuck out his tongue. Alsiki stood politely, waiting for him to recover. We knew he would, so, leaving them to their privacy, we all went out to lunch.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tenure-Track Tales, Part The Second

When I was hired at a small Maryland college , there were only three tenured women in the 80-something faculty. At the end of the first year, we were supposed to fill out a form indicating which committees we would like to serve on. “Don't get your hopes up,” colleagues in my department warned. “It's really hard for a woman to get on a faculty committee.” To be on the safe side, I indicated interest in serving on the maximum number of committees allowed—five.

I did not realize, however, that in 1975 the idea had begun to filter into the minds of male academics that it was suitable to have an occasional female presence on a committee, just to show their openness of mind and liberality of spirit. That is how I found myself in five committees. How that was going to leave any time for class preparations and scholarly writing, let alone bringing up children and milking goats, I did not know.

The Admissions Committee met on Friday afternoons to peruse the student applications that had come in over the preceding week. There was a relaxed TGIF feeling about those meetings, and committee members sucked on their pipes and reminisced at length about students they had rejected in the course of their careers. Needless to say, I was the only woman at those meetings. And I didn't have that TGIF feeling: I had children waiting to be picked up at day care, and dinner to think about.

In those days, college applications required a photo of the applicant. In each folder, along with the high school grades and letters from counselors and church ministers, a photograph of a lantern-jawed boy with bushy hair (this was the 70s) or an oval-faced girl with flat hair parted in the middle would look blankly out at us.

Slowly, deliberately, we would weigh the grades obtained versus the difficulty of courses taken, assess the letters of recommendation and the essays about “A Special Person In My Life,” shake our heads over the eternal cliches and misspellings. When we got to the bottom of the heap, decisions became harder. The decent-in-math track star with no verbal scores to speak of, or the Candy Striper with good grades but no AP credits?

In the case of the Candy Striper my colleagues would often point to the photograph. “She's nice kid, and I personally wouldn't mind a bit having her in class,” they would say with a wink. At the end of the long afternoon, the assessments would become more crass, “Oh, what the hell, so she didn't take four years of math. But at least she's not fat, like this other one, so I say go with her.”

I couldn't believe my ears. These were elderly (they must have been in their mid-forties) men, tenured professors, my superiors whom I should respect and propitiate. But what was going on? How could they decide to let one person in, and keep another out, based on a photograph?

After a couple of meetings, I raised my hand. The professors turned to me with benevolent smiles. What cute thing was I about to say? “Ummm...,” I began. Then, gathering speed, “I don't believe that physical appearance should count as an, you know, admissions criterion. If you know what I mean.”

They didn't know what I meant. Beneath their busy eyebrows, their eyes opened in disbelief. “But Dr. Cobb, we're not using their looks against these young ladies. Quite the contrary. Their looks are an asset to their application for admission.”

True, their looks were an asset, as mine had been in getting the faculty position. Still, it didn't feel right somehow. “But, but...” I faltered, “it shouldn't matter whether they're pretty or...fat.” I looked around at the circle of uncomprehending faces. My mind went blank, then I gazed down at their tweed-clad torsos. “I mean, how would you like it if...if you were applying for a job and somebody judged you on the shape of your body?”

There was silence, followed by some shifting in chairs, some sucking on pipes. The academic dean barked a laugh, then declared that we had worked enough for one meeting and it was perhaps time go home. I kept my eyes down all the way to the car, then picked up my kids and drove home to fix dinner.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tenure-Track Tales, Part The First

When my husband and I finished graduate school in the early 1970s, the market for advanced degrees in his field (physics) and mine (Romance languages) had all but dried up. Students were into relevance rather than what was good for them, so quantum mechanics (and the math prerequisites) and French literature (and the language requirements) were not on their lists of exciting courses.

Twenty-eight years old, with two toddlers and two brand-new degrees, we decided that we would take the first job that appeared in a geographic area that offered any promise of employment for the other one.

I sent my resume to the South Atlantic Modern Languages Association in hopes of getting some interviews at their annual meeting, and was ecstatic when I got five responses. I left the children with my husband, flew to Atlanta, and checked into the hotel, feeling worldly and successful. I spent the next day in interviews. These were conducted by language department chairmen, elderly (to me) gentlemen who, after painting in detail their struggles with the inevitably barbaric administration of their university, gave vent to their appreciation not of my academic record, but my physical attributes. They said things like “Well, young lady, you certainly won't have any trouble attracting MALE students to your classes.”

How do you respond to something like that? On the one hand, the compliments meant that the guy liked me and might give me a job, which I and my family sorely needed. On the other, was this what I had slogged through a Ph.D. for? On yet another hand, hadn't I been taught from the cradle that a girl's first duty (well, second, after being smart and virtuous) was to be pleasing in every way?

So I did my best to smile and endure and ask the kinds of questions that would make me intellectually respectable. But through that long day I became more and more tense and uncomfortable. Then came my last interview. Amazingly, it was with a woman, a kind of wonder in those days, the chair of a large language department at a large southern university. And, for the first time that day, we talked about languages, and literature, and my ideas about a liberal arts education. I felt weak with gratitude and relief.

I got some offers out of that awful day—one of them from the woman chair-- but they were all for non-tenure-track positions, given the sorry state of academia at the time. (A tenure-track position is one out of which, if you are approved after five years, you can only be fired for moral turpitude or acts of terrorism.)

One particularly oily chairman did offer me a tenure-track job in his department. He invited my husband and me to meet him at a restaurant in a neighboring state to discuss details. But he was so leeringly disgusting during the meal—did things like slide his hand down my back as he helped me out of my coat—that I told him my professional goals had changed. Besides, his college was in a backwater town in no need of physicists.

Meanwhile, the country was going down the tubes. The President was clearly a crook, gas was expensive and hard to get, and the price of tomatoes was going through the roof. That was when I planted my first garden—a row of tomato seeds right under the eaves of our rented house. Thirty little seedling struggled up despite all odds, only to be slaughtered like the Holy Innocents at the first torrential downpour.

Then a letter came from a liberal arts college in Maryland, inviting me up for an interview. Wonder of wonders, the letter was signed by a woman, the department chair! We left the babies with my mother and drove up. Maryland in those days looked like Vermont—rolling hills, prosperous farms, charming villages. I fell in love.

The department chair was not only a woman, but a Cuban exile who ruled beningly over a German who believed in—guess what—punctuality; a Frenchman whose wife packed a bottle of red wine with his daily lunch; a Russian bedecked in diamonds who taught French part-time; and some recent American Ph.D.s who believed in alternative (meaning gay) lifestyles and deconstructionism.

My predecessor had been a bi-polar Frenchwoman who used a cane, dressed exclusively in floor-length white tunics, and scared the students to death. I was welcomed with open arms. We moved into a “faculty apartment” carved out of the former slave quarters in the oldest house in the village, and my husband promptly found a job within commuting distance.

I plunged into my job teaching French and Spanish language and literature like a house on fire. This is what I had read all those books, written all those papers, fallen asleep in the library stacks, endured oral and written exams, defended my dissertation for! And in the worst job market since the Depression, it had all paid off.

At a college party a few years later, one of my German colleagues, well in his cups, told me that when I came for the interview, he and several others had happily voted for me. “This one's got good legs,” they told the Cuban chairwoman. “Hire her.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Fresh out of reading matter, I've been rereading James Herriot for probably the fourth time. And like every time before, I'm amazed at how he does it: the cold nights attending cows in labor in the byres, the crusty farmers, the patient beasts, his own foibles. How did this lively voice emerge unscathed from decades of large-animal practice?

And I've been thinking about my maternal grandfather, also a vet, whose career overlapped Herriot's (my grandfather was probably fifteen years his senior) in Spain rather than Yorkshire. Like Herriot, by the time my grandfather retired in the 1960's his work had changed from healing mules, donkeys and horses to overseeing sanitation and medication practices for industrial chicken farms and piggeries.

As veterinarian, he had been one of the quartet of professional men reigning over the village, the others being the doctor, the mayor, and the priest. But my grandfather was different from them: he did not go to church—a gesture far bolder than, say, being a tattooed transsexual in the middle of Kansas in this day and age. He also, in the early decades of the 20th century, scandalized everyone by insisting that my grandmother accompany him to the movies, the only man in the village to do so.

Another one of his traits, and one that drove my grandmother to distraction, was his reluctance to demand payment for services. People didn't have to ask for credit—he offered it voluntarily. “Did you see how those children were dressed?” he would respond as my grandmother complained about yet another unremunerated visit. “I couldn't possibly stand there and ask for money. Do you want those people to starve?” It didn't matter how much a client owed. If a mule fell into a ditch or a cow came down with mastitis, my grandfather would put on his cap, hop on his bicycle, and get to work.

That was in the days when I knew him, in the long summers that my parents and I spent at my grandparents' farm. But years before I was born, before the Spanish Civil War changed everything, my grandfather used to drive to his visits in his own car. But with the war, the car was requisitioned by the Republican forces, food became scarce, and my grandfather and his family knew the terror of rushing out of bed in the middle of the night and cowering in a nearby ditch to escape bombardments.

They also knew the terror of civil strife, where old grudges were settled by a false accusation, a knock on the door at dawn, and execution in the field behind the house. The middle class, the well-to-do were special targets of the rage of the disaffected poor.

And here is where my grandfather's reluctance to exact payment from his peasant clients saved the entire family. In the anarchy of the war, when certain villages were marked for certain raids, my grandfather would secretly be given advance warning, told to keep his head low and disappear for a few days.

I don't remember much about his work as a vet. It either took place away from the house or, when an animal was brought to him, I was kept indoors, well out of the way. But I must have seen something, because one of my favorite games was to “disinfect” my toy horse's leg by rubbing it briskly with a rag, fling the rag to the ground as I'd seen my grandfather do with used cotton swabs, administer a shot by means of a discarded nail, then pick up the rag, disinfect, and start all over again....I think about that, every time I give one of my goats a shot.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

First Fire

Yesterday we had the first snow of the season--barely. We got just enough to fill the insides of the fallen leaves and of the curly kale that is still growing in the garden. But today the ice on the little fish pond stayed throughout the day, and when I got up from my afternoon nap I felt that special chill that comes over the house an hour or so before sunset.

At that time of day, in winter, I love to light a fire in the wood stove. And today, with the thermometer hovering around freezing and the skies gray and the woods and fields silent and dead, definitely qualified as winter. Plus, we'd had our chimney cleaned the day before. What better time to light the first fire of the season?

I went to the basement and brought up the box of kindling, the newspaper basket, the old crock where I keep my fireproof gloves. I bellowed “Leave it!” at Bisou as she sniffed the kindling (knowing her obsession with sticks, I figured I needed to make a strong first impression) and fetched in a load of firewood. I crumpled the newspaper, laid in the kindling and a log and, rejoicing in the knowledge that this season our two-year-old wood was finally bound to burn well, opened the damper and lit a match.

Phew! Gasp! Ugh! I backed away as an evil cloud of smoke flung itself at my head. What an idiot—I must have closed the damper instead of opening it. The damper on our stove is a mere iron handle, unlabeled, which closes in one direction, opens in the other. It's up to you to remember which is which.

Well, it had been seven months since I'd last lit a fire, and in the meantime my goat had given birth, a new puppy had come to live with us, a garden had been planted, harvested, and put to bed. Perhaps I'd forgotten which direction was “open”? Holding my breath, I pushed the handle the other way. More smoke billowed out. I slammed the stove doors shut, and smoke curled gracefully out of every crevice. I opened them, and a big gob of smoke hit me in the face like a fist.

There was only one thing to do: call the chimney sweep. While my husband saw to that, I went around opening windows and doors, and turning off the heat. The big dogs, delighted at this unexpected exposure to the critters getting ready for bed in the woods, barked frantically at the back door. Bisou, who likes her comforts, rushed all over the house, looking for a room that had some remnant of warmth. But as soon as she found one, I would run in and fling open the windows.

The chimney sweep said he'd be right over. While we waited, I called Bisou to my side and wrapped us both in an afghan. My eyelids kept sticking to my eyeballs, and there was a bitter taste in the back of my throat. Night fell. It got colder. We ate supper.

The chimney sweep, a scholarly-looking man with pale blue eyes behind glasses and a slight speech impediment, arrived with his big vacuum cleaner and many apologies. I gave him his privacy while he dealt with the blockage of soot—second time in 30 years, he said—that had caused the problem. Just to make sure everything was working right, he rebuilt the fire, lit it, and was gratified by how “clean” it burned. I thanked him profusely, he wished me a good evening and departed.

Now the fire in my stove is burning merrily and cheerfully and brightly, as a fire should. The big dogs are flattened out before it, and Bisou is snuggled up against me. Her coat is getting longer and redder by the day. She really does look like a flame.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mint, Anyone?

I just counted 22 jars full of various kinds of dried mint leaves in my kitchen. These are old canning jars—big blue glass ones with screw tops, smaller ones with those wire thingies to keep the top on. Some are brands I never heard of: Atlas, Lightning, Telephone. They make me think of little old grandmothers of yore putting food by, keeping their loved ones fed through the long winter.

I am proud of my canning jars filled with mint. I think they look neat, all lined up in the dry sink I inherited from my mother in law. The thing is, what am I going to do with all that mint? There is spearmint, and apple mint, orange mint and lemon balm. A lot of it will go into winter teas...but how much tea can two people drink?

Why do I have so much dried mint, you ask? The answer is: lack of self control. In the summer, when it grew thick and fragrant all around the back of the house, I liked nothing better than to pick great armfuls of it and bring it into the kitchen, tie it in bunches and hang it from the curtain rods in the dining room, where it looked kind of magical and medieval and so much more interesting than curtains. And every time I rounded the corner on my way upstairs, I would get a sharp whiff of apple, or orange, or whatever.

“This,” I would say to myself, bringing in yet another day's harvest, “will be fabulous in winter.”

And now here it is, winter. The chimney sweep visited us today and tomorrow evening I will light the first fire of the season in the wood stove. Snow flurries are forecast. Christmas is galloping towards us. Time to do something with the mint.

But my dry sink holds more than jars of mint. There are small jars of oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. There are big jars of lavender, rose petals, chamomile flowers and even dried orange peels. The latter are supposedly a good fixative for potpourri, and with the lavender and rose and mint I could keep my family and friends in good smells until next summer.

Thing is, potpourri is supposed to “ripen” for a couple of months, and here it is, a mere 25 days until Christmas. Yet again (this happens every year) my loved ones are going to get unripe potpourri. I feel the holiday angst rising up within me. Where has the summer joy gone?

I'd better make a cup of chamomile tea, and then I'd better get to work.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bread With...

This Thanksgiving, I passed the ceremonial turkey baster to my older daughter and her husband.

By now I figure I've hosted almost forty Thanksgivings, mostly at home, but some at restaurants. Some of the latter were terrific, some mediocre, but it was always a relief not to have to worry about having everything hot at the same time, and especially not having to thicken pints of gravy with the guests seated slavering at the table.

This year it was good to sit and slaver while my offspring stirred the gravy.

All the talk about food at Thanksgiving got me thinking about the foods of my childhood—not the major holiday feasts, but my everyday after-school snacks. The name of these snacks always starts with “pa amb...” (meaning “bread with...” in my native Catalan). By “pa” I mean a substantial loaf of bread so crusty it would scrape your palate raw, with a soft, elastic crumb that would soothe the pain as it turned to sugar on your tongue. Here are some that I remember:

“Pa amb oli i sal.” This was the ur-snack, endlessly accepting of embellishments but sufficient on its own. You take a thick slice of the above-mentioned crusty bread (if you have a very hungry kid, you slice the bread lengthwise) and drizzle dark, fruity (none of that anemic extra-virgin stuff) olive oil onto it while squeezing the crusty edges together so the oil is evenly absorbed. Take a pinch of coarse salt and sprinkle it over the bread. Hand it to the kid and send her on her way.

“Pa amb tomaquet.” This—not paella—is the true Catalan national dish. Prepare the above recipe, then cut a ripe tomato in half and rub it cut-side down so the bread absorbs the juice (you can also rub the bread with garlic before applying the tomato). This was not, strictly speaking, an after-school snack, since tomatoes were not in season during the school year. It was what my grandmother fixed for me in her shady kitchen when I came in from my afternoon rambles down the hot, dry roads of summer.

“Pa amb oli i raim.” This was a late-summer snack, consisting of oil-soaked, salted bread which you held in one hand, and a bunch of grapes which you held in the other. The grapes had to be white—red would not do. You took a bite of salty, oily bread, then a bite of cool, sweet grape, and you walked down the road, kicking your espadrilles into the dust, listening for the thunder of the village sheep being herded home from pasture.

“Pa amb oli i xocolata.” A city snack, this made the sadness of autumn afternoons bearable. First, I had to change out of my school uniform. Then my mother would hand me a slice of pa amb oli i sal and a hunk of dark, bitter chocolate. I would eat this—a bite of bread, a bite of chocolate--as I skipped down the long, dark hallway of our apartment. And the saltiness and acidity of the oil, the sweetness of the bread and the bitterness of the chocolate would console me for the fact that I was skipping down a hallway in my leather school shoes, instead of down a dusty country road in my espadrilles.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Endangered Tenses

You've all got me thinking about the shrinking use of verb tenses in this day and age. If language reflects how we think and who we are, Western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.

French long ago retired the preterite indicative and the preterite perfect (the passe simple and the passe anterieur, as we learned in Intermediate French) to literary use, replacing both with the present perfect, or passe compose, for real-life purposes. Spanish, I am glad to report, still hangs on to the significant distinction between the preterite (indicating actions that were completed in the past) and the present perfect (indicating actions that have just been completed). Those nemeses of anglophones, the imperfect and the pluperfect (indicating actions begun in the past but still ongoing) seem to be holding their own in Romance languages, for the time being.

But in English, quelle horreur! In a language that already has a pared-down verb system (no distinction between preterite and imperfect), people these days can't even seem to be able to deal with the past perfect, the tense that allows you to specify that a certain action preceded another action in the past. Thus routinely you hear “if I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake” as opposed to “if I had known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.” The knowing preceded the coming, and it would be nice to have it expressed accurately. How hard is that?

The situation is especially grave regarding the subjunctive. In her comment on my last post, Elizabeth mentions someone who has established a Society to Save the Subjunctive. Would that it could! The subjunctive is not a tense, but a mood with its own tenses. In contrast to the indicative—the mood of factual reality—or the imperative—the mood of command—the subjunctive expresses longing, desire, wishful thinking as opposed to what actually is, e.g., if I were rich, you would love me; or, may you rot in hell for putting your mat on my spot in yoga class.

Why are we losing the subjunctive? Is it because wealth and technology have erased the gap between wanting and having? Is it because of a more subtle philosophical shift, Kant dressed up in New Age lycra, that posits that subjectivity constitutes the only valid reality? Either way, there is cause for alarm, and the only solution I can see is to bring the subjunctive back in hopes that, if we speak well, we will think well.

If you were to have a happy Thanksgiving, I would be delighted.

Monday, November 23, 2009

English As A Second Language

I spent a lot of years teaching Romance Languages to English-speakers. Now I'm teaching English As A Second Language to my Cavalier King Charles puppy, Bisou.

She came to us at the age of nine weeks already fluent in Dog. Despite looking like she belonged to a different species from my two German Shepherds (pendulous ears, shortish nose, red coat) from day one she fit seamlessly into their society. She understood the (to me) invisible and inaudible warnings from Lexi that told her not to trespass in certain (to me) mysterious areas of the living room. She knew she could leap up endlessly to bite Wolfie's muzzle, but that at certain points in the dialogue she must flip over like an omelette and lie very still on her back. She understood, without the need of a single growl or snap, that she was never to wander over to the big dogs' feeding bowls at dinner time.

Dog is mostly a silent language, composed of signs and subtle moves. A few gifted humans understand a small percentage of these. In Dog, I am at the phrase-book stage—about the same level as Bisou's grasp of English As A Second Language.

She is making progress though. She knows “waitttt!” and “sitttt!” and “outside” and “inside” and “do your business!” followed by “good girl!” and “treat!” She knows “come!” but sometimes pretends she's forgotten. She knows her name, with variations: “Bisou, Beez, Bisoulette.”

As in all elementary classes, I try to keep things simple. “Toy” for the moment must stand for “bone, ball, and tiny bear.” Discriminating among bone, ball, and bear will come in the advanced stages. Her vocabulary right now is composed mostly of nouns, and of verbs in the imperative.

Given the nature of our relationship with dogs, the verbs will continue to be mostly in the imperative. (Most of my utterances to Wolfie are imperatives: get in the car, bring me the sheep, find Bisou!) There will just be more and more of them.

But we won't stop there. Soon I'll throw in some subjunctives (if you were to have a bath you would smell better) and interrogatives (why did you jump on the sofa with muddy feet?) and she'll look at me with her big eyes and act as if she understands every word.

And she will understand every word—just not my English words, but the other ones, the ones that I transmit by posture, tone and smell, and that reveal what I really mean. The ones in Dog.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Back To Square One

Wolfie is three years old today. He is big, and black, and powerful. He is in the flower of his doghood.

But, sigh, he's still a work in progress.

We took him out on a walk for the first time in quite a while today, and the lamentable state of his training became apparent.

“What!” you say, “you mean you don't walk your dog regularly—like, every day, morning and night?”

You see, in the country things are different. I can—and do—wear Wolfie out throwing balls for him in the front field with one of those thrower thingies. Or I take him into the woods behind the house—off leash of course, which means it doesn't really count as a walk, from a training point of view. And I take him for weekly herding lessons, which encourage him to think for himself, and to think that he is in charge of those sofa-sized sheep.

But today's walk was the regular kind, on leash, down a dirt road near our house. And he didn't do well. Did he pull on the leash? Did he drag me down the road? Did he chase cars? Of course not—I'd be long-dead if he did. What he did was to walk ahead of me to where he was just about to pull on the leash, at the point where the leash is not taut but not loose, and it's not clear who's in charge—him or me.

My husband was holding the leash when we came to a house with a Border Collie running loose. She caught sight of us and ran barking towards us. She wasn't being aggressive, just territorial. Her owner was outside and came over and put her in the house.

And Wolfie? Did he walk past on a loose leash, ignoring her fits because he was 100% attentive to our signals? Was he focused, was he calm, did he make us proud? Not a bit. Instead he barked furiously and his hackles stood up and he pulled at the leash so that if I'd been the one holding it he would have yanked it out of my hands. Then probably nothing much would have happened—he is not aggressive towards other dogs, he would have realized that this was a female, and so on. With a smaller dog, this incident would have been a mere blip in the Sunday morning stroll. But with a dog the size of Wolfie, it was upsetting.

The minute we got home, I called his all-wise obedience trainer. Her message was two-fold: don't make a big deal out of this, and go back to square one. In short: lots of brief sessions of leash training, just in our driveway; lots of recalls with tons of treats; gradually longer leash walks to various places; lots of focus and attention and patience on my part.

How many hours have I spent training this dog since he came to live with us as a toddler? How many obedience classes have we attended, how many hundreds (thousands?) of dollars paid to ensure he would be well-behaved?

Dog training, alas, is not like riding a bicycle. Once a dog learns something, he has to keep learning it, or he'll promptly unlearn it. Eternal vigilance is the price of a good dog. And lately, what with the new puppy and the baby goats and those heady herding lessons, my vigilance has slipped.

Watch out, though. Achtung! I have girded my loins and steeled my resolve. I wasn't brought up by German nuns for nothing. I'll make a well-mannered dog out of Wolfie yet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

He's Not The Puppy Anymore

For days after we brought Bisou home, every time I called “puppy, puppy!” Wolfie would appear, panting and wagging his tail, expecting something wonderful—food, or a game outside, or a training session. It took a while, but now when I call “puppy, puppy,” he no longer stirs. He knows I don't mean him.

I don't feel especially bad that at age three and 95 pounds he no longer thinks of himself as the puppy. But I watch him watch me throw balls for Bisou, and teach Bisou to sit, and praise Bisou for waiting before plunging out the door and I think, what have I done to Wolfie?

Is he jealous of the little red dog? He only seems to be when we come home, or when company walks into the house—then he insists on being touched first. Not that he snarls at Bisou. He just puts his big body between the person whose affection he covets and the wriggling puppy, and he gets what he needs.

The huge disparity in size between him and Bisou limits how much they can play together. For a play session to happen, Wolfie has to be lying down. Then he and Bisou will face each other on the rug, growling and moaning and yodeling at the top of their voices, taking turns chewing on a single bone. When they're done, he gives her face a thorough wash.

I still take him to herding lessons, though his teacher says his performance has fallen off a bit since Bisou entered the scene at home. I still make sure that he gets to chase balls on a regular basis. But there's no question that the amount of time and attention he used to get from me have decreased. There is, after all, only one of me, versus three of them. It is a zero-sum game.

What does he get in exchange? He gets somebody who tries to wrest the ball he's just retrieved out of his mouth. Somebody who speaks “dog,” albeit with lots of grammatical errors. Somebody who thinks he's the cat's pajamas.

I hope he's o.k. with that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lexi's Tail

I was driving up to the house the other day, and as I crested the hill I saw a white tail bounding across the horizon. I went into alarm mode. What was Lexi doing out? And why was she running like that?

It wasn't Lexi. It was one of the nine deer who take refuge on our land now that hunting season has started. Lexi, alas, doesn't bound like she used to. And the white, woolly underside of her tail—which for most of her life she has carried proudly curled over her back—is not visible as often as it used to be.

From the front, eleven-year-old Lexi looks like a German Shepherd. From the back, with her high hind quarters and her curly tail, she looks either like a German Shepherd with bad conformation or a German Shepherd with a Husky grandparent. Since we adopted her at four months from the Humane Society, we never did find out the reason for that curly tail.

My husband and I used to disagree about Lexi's tail. I thought it was a pity—if she would only let it hang low she could pass for purebred. He thought it looked happy and brave. The years have declared me the winner: these days Lexi's tail mostly hangs down between her withered hind legs. She is old, our feisty girl, and her back, her hips and her knees hurt no matter how we try to help.

The most intense, driven dog I've ever known now spends her days lying on a rug, looking out at the back yard. She doesn't get up to greet us when we come home. She doesn't come upstairs to sleep in our bedroom. Put your hand on her back and there's no cushion between skin and skeleton. The hair on her tail looks sparse, and feels dry and stiff to the touch. Her muzzle is white. Lexi's moon is on the wane.

But not completely. At night, when I let the dogs out before bedtime, Lexi still flies out like a bat out of hell, ready to do battle with whatever fiend is lurking in the woods behind the house. Barking with all her might, she dives into the darkness as fast as her stiff legs will carry her, and the last thing I see is the white underside of her tail, curled high over her back in outrage and delight.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bisou's Tail

Thwap, thwap, thwap. Thwap, thwap, thwap.

In the six weeks that Bisou has been with us, this metronome has become the measure of my days. I walk in front of her crate when she's supposed to be napping and thwap, thwap, her tail lets me know she knows I know she's awake. We're waiting our turn to demonstrate our (meager) skills in puppy class and thwap, thwap, THWAP, isn't it our turn yet? I pick her up out of the welter of her siblings at the end of a play date and thwap, thwap, her tail beats against my side—oh, there you are, SO glad to see you again!

Her tail is only 10” long, so no threat to coffee tables. It's a skinny tail—partly from all that wagging, but partly because Bisou hasn't grown her “feathers” yet. For those of you who don't know about “dog feathers”: they're the swishy bits of hair that swing in the breeze when dogs such as setters and spaniels run through meadows. The beginning of Bisou's feathers is showing as basically a bad haircut—random long hairs sticking out along the back of her legs, between her toes, and at the tip of her tail.

At the very tip of her tail, Bisou's future feathers, instead of hanging down like icicles off an eave, project in four different directions--north, south, east and west--on an axis perpendicular to her spine. In other words, she looks like she has a set of tiny helicopter blades at the end of her tail, and she could take off any minute.

Not that she needs helicopter blades. This is a dog with wings. She long ago mastered leaping onto sofas, and from there onto occasional tables. She transitioned to beds by leaping onto her crate, then clearing the gap between it and the bed in one graceful leap. Now the crate is obsolete, for leaping purposes anyway. She can go anywhere she wants to, and does.

Someday Bisou's feathers will grow in, and her shiny red coat will look sensational in its longer version. But I will miss the silly puppy look, and I hope the tail, in all its flaming glory, doesn't lose its wag.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wolfie's Tail

My German Shepherd, Wolfie, has a 20”-long tail. Sorry, let me rephrase that: my German Shepherd DOG, Wolfie, has a 20”-long tail. It emerges from the downward slope of his hips, 20” off the ground, and hangs mostly straight, with a bit of a curve at the end.

As you can envision from these measurements, Wolfie's tail can sweep a tray of hors d'oeuvres and half a dozen wine glasses off the coffee table in a single swish. At our house, attempts at civilized conversation are punctuated with cries of “Watch the tail! Pick up your glasses!” We have to be especially careful when we introduce Wolfie to small children, whom he adores, because they find being lashed on the face by his tail unpleasant. On the other hand, on a hot summer day, his tail displaces enough air to have a cooling effect if you're standing near him.

Lately, a new use for Wolfie's furry scimitar has emerged. I have moved my two large pots of rose-scented geraniums into their winter quarters: the back porch, close to the door that leads to the garage. This is the spot where Wolfie waits for my return. It is the spot where he greets me, wagging his tail for all his worth, twisting his long body from side to side, slashing into the geraniums...and releasing the most heavenly clouds of rose scent as I make my entrance.

Makes me feel like the Queen of Sheba.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Seasons Of Fall

Around here, fall is a season of extremes. It starts with the hillsides going up in flames of red, orange and yellow. And it ends with them the color of cinders, as if they had burned themselves out. Vermonters call this phase of fall “stick season,” because all you see is sticks—no leaves, no snow, no green, red, yellow, orange or white. Just sticks.

Sere” is an Old English word I love. It means parched, wizened, dry. That's Vermont right now—sere, not for lack of rain, but for lack of color. It's the monochromatic time. Everything is in tones of gray and beige—the sky, the trees, the hills.

As you drive down the country roads all sorts of things that were once hidden behind the greenery are revealed: old barns, new houses, mares with their half-grown colts, strange-looking cows, and, everywhere, wood piles.

Around four thirty, through the silhouettes of the leafless trees, you can see the sunset blaze.

It's not really cold yet. But we know it soon will be, so we get out the winter clothes. The roads are clear, but we know they soon won't be, so a last frenzy of social activity breaks out, “while we don't have to worry about getting there.” It's the time of fire-hall game dinners.

I should bring in those green pumpkins I left to ripen in the last warmth of the autumn sun, before a truly hard freeze turns them to mush.

Monday, November 9, 2009

To Post Or Not To Post

My fingers are itching to write a post about a recent encounter of mine. Chalk it up to my monastic existence, but the encounteree is the most socially inept person I've met in a good twenty years. So much so that my long-dormant hackles rose up in arms, and I stifled a dozen witty ripostes which I am dying to share with you.

This post that I am preventing myself from writing would have you in stitches. I would begin by setting the scene—and it was a lively and picturesque scene. Next I would (as charitably as possible) sketch the participants. There would be lots of dialogue. The tension would build from the initial pleasantries to faint rumblings to the inevitable climax.

Then, diminuendo, would come my ironic musings on the vanity of the issue at hand, the folly of people who obsess about their___ , and some rueful reflections on my own inability to remain aloof when certain buttons are pushed.

It would not be a mean post, but it would be funny, and it would make me feel great to write it. But I'm not going to.

Why not? After all, this is just a blog, and that means a certain freedom, no? Needless to say, I would not use names, and I feel pretty certain that the encounteree does not read my posts. Still, the “six degrees of separation” theory guarantees that one of you would recognize the encounteree. So in the interests of harmony and good will, I will not write the post I'm dying to write.

You know what Tolstoy said about all happy families being alike, but each unhappy family being unhappy in its own way (and therefore way more fun to write about). As a writer of personal stories, I find it more interesting to write (and I suspect readers would rather read) about my foibles, misadventures and befuddlements than about the rosier aspects of my existence—how much I love my husband, say, or how adorable my grandchildren are.

But sometimes, the accounts of my misadventures touch people I care about, and I have been surprised by their vulnerability to what I intended as the gentlest irony. So I'm trying to be caring here, and careful.

Many of you have a far longer history of blogging than I do. I'm sure you've dealt with this issue before, and I'd like to hear about it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


'Tis the season, already.

Soon after we moved to Vermont, we were inundated with sales catalogs. Part of the cause may have been our children, who had to travel far to join us for Christmas and reasonably decided to save space and time by having gifts mailed directly to our house. As with mice and fleas, for every catalog you see, a hundred more are on the way.

We became especially sensitized to catalogs because in our new location, any waste that we don't compost we have to take to the dump. And “dump” is a misnomer for a place where you do penance for your non-sustainable lifestyle by handling every single piece of waste material you have produced and classifying it according to some (I'm not kidding) fifteen categories: cardboard, box board, newsprint, newspaper inserts, magazines, phone books, office paper, clear glass, green glass, brown glass, tin cans, aluminum cans, and a number of different plastic categories--PETA something or other. All this in the sleet and rain and blizzards and summer heat.

The catalogs added pounds to our dump load. Also, because my husband saw “Alice's Restaurant” at a critical age and became sensitized to the dangers of throwing items with your name and address into the dump, every single piece of paper has to be scrutinized for personal information. As you know, in catalogs this involves not only the address label on the cover, but the information on the ordering form that is cleverly concealed inside the book.

All this made me angry enough to sign us up on-line on various “do not send” lists. I also made it a point, every time a catalog arrived, to immediately call and ask to be taken off their mailing list. This took a lot of time, a lot of listening to inane music while on hold, a lot of conversations with strangers of various national origins. The catalogs kept coming, but I persevered. Eventually, the torrent slowed down to a trickle, then all but stopped.

But around this time of year, a few catalogs start to appear again, like field mice looking for a winter home. I call and am reassured that my name is being taken off the list. “Nevertheless,” I am told, “because catalogs are printed in advance, you may get another two or three issues that are already in the pipeline.”

What kind of idiot do they take me for? I wasn't born yesterday! This is just the marketing department's ploy to make sure I get my full allotment of catalogs before Christmas, regardless of my objections. I can imagine the catalog marketers laughing at my feeble efforts to defend my house from their intrusions.

I don't want to vent my venom on the poor souls who answer the catalog phones. But asking them to pass my complaints on to their superiors is worse than useless. I feel weak and taken advantage of. Resentful, too.

The holidays are almost here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Zen and the Art of Leash Training

I am training Bisou to walk on a loose leash. This is no fancy trick with no relevance to the dog's well being. If Bisou learns to walk by my side without pulling, it guarantees that she will get to go a lot more places in her lifetime. It also means that she has accepted me as her leader. So it's an important thing to teach her, even though she only weighs 12 pounds and I can easily pick her up and put her wherever I want her.

The modern technique of leash training is as follows: place the puppy by your side and wait until she settles and relaxes her pull on the leash. The instant that happens, take one step forward. If the leash is still loose, take another step, and then another. But if the leash tightens, you must be quick as a hawk, and stop, and wait patiently until the puppy decides not to pull anymore. Then you can take another step.

I have been practicing this with Bisou, and we have not gotten very far--literally. She will sit calmly by my side, but the minute I take a step forward, she charges to the end of the leash (I keep the leash pretty short—three feet or so). I stop, and eventually she does too, and the leash loosens. I lift my foot to take another step, but before I can put the other foot down, she's at the end of the leash, pulling with all her might. So we stop. She settles. I lift one foot...and she's at the end of the leash. We stop again.

This morning, not being in a particular rush, I took her with me to the vet to pick up some flea medication. I let her out of the car, made her settle, took a step, she pulled, I stopped, she settled, I took a step, she pulled, I stopped. It took us about eighteen months to get from the parking lot to the office, and by then my arm was starting to hurt.

We went through the same drill on the way back to the car. Then I drove to the feed store, did my shopping, and took Bisou out for another tortured little stroll. Settle, step, dash, stop. Settle, step, dash, stop. On and on until my arm and my nerves gave out and I put her back in the car. But Bisou didn't give out, not one bit. She was as determined to charge ahead at the end of the walk as she had been on the way to the vet's office.

This is no fun. And, if you're actually trying to get somewhere, it's sheer hell. The only way to survive this process is to not attach to outcomes. So what if you only get three feet down the driveway? What's the hurry? Who says you have to reach a destination? Just be in the present: settle, step, dash, stop.

This reminds me of Zeno's Paradox. You know, where he proved that an arrow can never get from point A to point B because first it has to travel half the distance, and before that, half of that, and half of that again, ad infinitum. So the arrow never leaves the bow.

That's Bisou and me. We never actually make it out the front door. But by golly, she's not pulling on that leash.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Puppy For Sale

No! Just kidding! Bisou is the light of my life. However, like all the beings who light up one's life, she has her dark side too. She's four months old, and growing in grace and beauty in many ways. In other ways, she's going to hell in a handbasket.

Two and a half years ago, I was going through Wolfie's puppyhood in the midst of a hard winter—not an easy time, but I remember it as easier than this. Was I that much younger then? One thing I know for sure: by the time he was four months old, he was three times bigger than Bisou is now. He was expected to be smart—he was a German-bred German Shepherd, after all--and we were all extremely concerned not to encourage habits that would become intolerable in a 95lb, scary-looking dog.

Bisou, on the other hand, is small, and cute, and no one will ever be threatened by her. But don't let her dainty looks deceive you. She's every bit the dog that Wolfie is, and she's not giving any signs of becoming “just a lap dog.”

Let us look at the positive side first. Bisou's GI system seems to have settled somewhat and she no longer needs to go outside 97 times/day—only 25 times or so, and believe me, it makes a difference in my life. Also, she can go out on her own, and comes back happily if I hold a piece of puppy kibble out to her. She was sleeping through the night until the time change changed everything. She holds a stay while I put her food dish down. And she has the best eye contact of any dog I've ever known.

But little dogs grow fast, and Bisou is exhibiting clear pre-teen behaviors. When she came to us at nine weeks, she was a fabulous retriever, running after anything you threw and bringing it faithfully back. Not anymore. How silly, how infantile, I can hear her thinking, to assume that you have to return that ball or bone when you can keep it for yourself and kill it over and over again.

Gone too are the days when her greatest joy was to follow me around the house or yard. Now her greatest joy is to see how far away she can get from me, how long she can resist my call, how much exotic poop (deer, rabbit, bird, etc.) she can sniff and, alas, dive into.

Her father is a Mach IV Agility Champion, which I guess is a good thing. In Bisou's daily life, however, this heritage translates into jumping up on sofas, and from there onto occasional tables. The conjugal bed? No problem. She leaps up on her crate and flies over the gap between it and my warm body.

She came with a trousseau of tiny puppy toys from her breeder, all but one of which have mysteriously disappeared. Instead she prefers Wolfie's toys—stone-hard beef bones, a rubber bone that's as long as she is, and, best of all, the teat attachment from a milking machine (the quintessential Vermont puppy toy). She likes furniture, too—there's nothing like the crunch of the bentwood rocking chair, especially after it's been sprayed with Bitter Apple. And she loves to pull the computer cord out of the socket. I know, I know. Danger of electrocution. But she's faster than I am, and sometimes I just have to blink.

She's developing her vocal repertoire—mostly whines and pitiful complaints at being crated. But yesterday, sitting on my lap inside the house, she alerted to the nine deer in the front field and barked so loudly that they gave up and retreated into the woods.

What obedience skills, you ask, has she developed lately? Can she sit? Yes, sometimes. Will she lie down on command? Maybe—I haven't tried that in a while. Does she walk calmly on a loose leash? Hah! In your (and my) dreams.

I think we have a case here of second-child syndrome. You know, the first child—Wolfie--gets the full brunt of the parent's best intentions. He is watched, corrected, disciplined, brought up strictly by the book. By the time the second child arrives, the parent has mellowed, or gotten old, or gotten tired. She watches with a half smile as the second child evolves, hoping for the best. And sometimes gets it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Dark Time

Oh, how I dislike the time change! Here it is, not even dinner time, and already black as midnight outside. Of course it's nice to have some light earlier in the morning, but is it worth these dark evenings?

The fact is, that no matter how you manipulate the clock, the days are getting shorter on both ends. The northern hemisphere is tilting away from the sun, and we can't deal with it. Is that because as a species we got our start on the equatorial plains of Africa, and our DNA is addicted to twelve hours of sunlight all year round?

I have lived right smack on the equator (in Ecuador), and sure, the unvarying daylight was nice, but it felt kind of flat somehow. Dry season, rainy season—how can that compare with the drama in four acts that is life in our latitudes? The year goes out in a blaze of glory, followed by starkness and death, followed by birth and hope.

Ours is a bipolar climate, and many of us become bipolar right along with it. But I wouldn't dream of trading it for the boring placidity of places where the sun always shines, the leaves are always green, and the birds sing the same songs every blessed day.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vermont Footwear

I remember when we were house hunting in Vermont being amazed at the piles of boots in people's mud rooms and closets: tall boots, short boots, rubber boots and leather boots, as well as clogs of all descriptions. In my pre-Vermont days, I never saw the need for more than a couple of pairs of boots—one black, one brown, high-heeled of course, to go with whatever outfit I was wearing. And a third pair for hiking. As for clogs, I thought they were something you wore for folk dancing.

Now that we have been in Vermont almost five years, our house, garage, and barn are littered with various kinds of specialized foot gear. Let me take you on a tour, starting with the barn. In the milking room there is a pair of blue rubber clogs that I slip on every day when I go into the goat or chicken rooms. Their raison d'etre is to keep me from tracking hay and manure back into the house. Next to them there is a pair of tall rubber boots, the kind you see real farmers wearing. I keep them there in case I have to venture into the goat yard in mud season. Before putting them on, I always shake them upside down to get rid of any critters that may be hibernating there.

In the garage there is an old pair of Crocs—the kind without any holes—that I use to walk the dogs and to garden in when the ground is wet but not overly muddy or slushy. There is also an old pair of running shoes that I wear exclusively to my herding lessons with Wolfie. The soles are so encrusted with sheep manure that I'll never be able to use those shoes for anything else.

Come into the house. Just inside the back door, in winter, you will find a plastic tray with my serious cold weather boots defrosting on it. They are a pain to put on and take off, but I could trek to the North Pole in them and my feet would stay warm. I have snapped some gizmos onto the soles to keep me upright on the ice. On the floor of the entrance closet (the one by the front door that nobody ever uses) live my hiking boots.

Proceed up the stairs and look in the bedroom closet. Here is another pair of Crocs, this one with holes, that I wear indoors and, if the weather is clement, outdoors as well. Note the assortment of suede clogs which I reserve for fairly dressy (at least by Vermont standards) occasions. A couple of pairs of high-heeled shoes, forlorn reminders of days gone by, gather dust on the shelf.

On the floor there are more boots. These are my “dress” boots, one pair black, one pair brown, though with substantial rather than sexy heels because you never know what kind of terrain you'll have to cross on your way to the party. Plus two pairs of regular walking-around boots.

Did I mention the snow shoes hanging in the garage?

I would say that, at least from the standpoint of footwear, I am on my way to becoming a real Vermonter. But I am lacking in one respect: around here, when people come to your house, not only do they come to the back door, but they immediately take off their reveal some of the most exotic, imaginative, baroque socks I have ever seen. When I take off my boots, alas, nothing dramatic or humorous greets the eye. My chaussettes don't advertise my love for the German Shepherd breed or express my political convictions—they are a boring, solid, flatlander beige or black. I need to do something about that before the cold weather sets in.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Egg, An Egg!

It is a perfect oval (what else?), tinted the lightest pinkish beige. I brought it in the house tonight and put it reverentially in the fridge. And heaved a sigh of relief that my hens—Do, Re, Mi, and Fa—are not sterile.

It's been almost three months since we brought Do et al. home as well-grown pullets, with the expectation that they would begin to lay within a month or so. They lived in their summer quarters—a portable coop inside a movable fence—and grew tall and broad and sleek on grass and bugs and laying mash.

These hens are Buff Orpingtons, large, golden, matronly-looking birds with a calm and friendly disposition. As summer faded into fall and no eggs appeared in the nest, I moved them into their winter quarters—a room adjacent to the goat room—hoping that they would feel more snug and cozy and would begin to lay.

That was a month ago. The hens got fatter and more gorgeous in a Gibson-Girl sort of way. They made lots of hen noises, ones that sounded to me like the egg-laying kind. Still, no eggs in the nest. Maybe, I thought, they are laying under the shed. That would truly be a disaster, as there is no way I could crawl under there looking for eggs. As a test, I confined them to their room for 24 hours. But the nest remained empty.

During this three-month egg drought, I was reduced to buying eggs in the supermarket. I would stand in front of the shelves of egg cartons and despair. There were the run-of-the-mill jumbo-sized eggs that sold for a pittance...if you didn't count the price paid by the hens, confined in a cage, barely kept alive by medicated feed, and spent by 18 months of age.

There were “all natural” brown eggs in nice transparent cartons. These cost more, but offered no guarantees as to the hens' quality of life. Neither did the even more expensive organic eggs: you can feed a hen manna straight from heaven and still keep her in a cage.

I opted for “cage free ” eggs, which means that the hens—hundreds of them—are kept loose in a building. There is not much more square-foot per bird space in these arrangements than there is in cages, but at least the hens can walk around and peck each other, which they do—wouldn't you if you had to live your life in a metro station at rush hour? For all I know these birds are fed ground-up rats—but at least they're not in cages.

Every time I cracked an egg for an omelette I thought of those hundreds, those thousands of hens milling around in their buildings, and the ear-splitting noise, and the smell....We didn't eat many eggs these last few months.

But now those days are over: one of our girls has reached puberty, and the others will soon follow. And if I know young hens, they will lay like a house on fire through the coldest, darkest days of winter, thankful for our leftovers and keeping everybody's spirits up with their companionable clucking.

Come over some time, and I'll make you an omelette.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Puppy Sleeps Through Night. Owner's Worldview Drastically Improved

Would you call midnight to 5:55 a.m. “sleeping through the night”? You would if, like me, you'd been getting no more than three or four hours of sleep at a time for weeks.

Everything Macbeth said about sleep is right on the mark. I got up this morning and felt that the raveled sleeve of each day's care had been definitely knitted up.

It's amazing how affable and rational—how Zen, even--I can be when I've had some uninterrupted sleep. Lexi and Wolfie snack on the garden compost before breakfast—well, they're dogs, aren't they? Bisou insists, for the second time in ten minutes, that she must go outside—she's a puppy, what do I expect? The hens, healthy and fat, are still not laying—they're just late bloomers. They'll lay when the time is right.

I could describe in detail what I'm like on the mornings when, having been awakened by Bisou at three a.m., it takes me until four thirty to fall asleep, only to have the alarm clock ring at seven. But I won't. Suffice it to say that I can be seen creeping about the kitchen like Quasimodo, in full-blown existential angst, feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I've done to deserve all this.

Here's the header on a website on puppy training I came across recently:
“ 'It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.' Charles Dickens must have had a puppy.”