Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Cape

My soon-to-be-five years old grandson , Remy, is a chivalrous little guy, but when you're trying to save the world from evil, it helps if you have the right outfit. His mother told me that the other day he came downstairs with a sheet of newspaper wrapped around his shoulders, fastened at the neck with a taped-on penny. So I've decided to make him a cape for his birthday.

The cape is long and wide, made of black felt with a blood-red lining. It has a raised collar, a fancy gold clasp, and, I hope, the right sweep and swish. It is not a magician's cape, or a Dracula cape. It is an all-purpose cape, for saving princesses or fighting trolls or doing card tricks.

It's difficult to find a gift for a child—or anybody--these days. The avalanche of cheaply available goods that swept over America after World War II has made it impossible for adults as well as children to truly hanker for things. Of course some people hanker for helicopters, McMansions, and yachts. But I'm talking about ordinary stuff, like sweaters, or dolls, or toy cars. The ordinary house today is bursting at the seams with these, leaving little room for wishing and dreaming.

Wanting to please, but hating to add to the clutter, we as grandparents have faced this dilemma every birthday and Christmas since Remy's older sister Violette was born six years ago. The solution we have arrived at is to offer hand-made gifts whenever possible. (It's not clutter if it's hand-made.) Out of Ed's workshop have come a gorgeous pull-cart full of blocks, an art-supplies box and, most recently, a toy chest made in collaboration with the recipients. I've produced a clay statuette of a princess, a be-jewelled, heart-shaped pendant with Ed's picture on one side and mine on the other, a dress for Violette, and now this cape.

The last time I sewed anything, my daughters were toddlers. Now I'm trying to recapture long-lost skills—how to read a pattern, how to line a collar.

Today, having cut the cape and the satin lining and the collar and the interfacing, I put on a Schubert CD and started sewing. It was chamber music at first, and as I pinned and basted I thought about my father, and how chamber music had been his love. I listened to a Schubert piano trio and it sounded not exactly familiar, but absolutely right. I must have heard him practice the violin part. I must have been taken to the performance. I wish I could talk to him about this music. I would like to think that he's listening too, as I sit here making a cape for his great-grandson.

A great-grandson, in a family of girls. What a surprise he was, when we met him at the Maternite in Paris, not only male, but blond and blue-eyed. Where, we wondered, had this little Visigoth come from? I took care of him for several days when he was six months old, and it struck me how uncannily like my husband he was—calm and amiable, interested in his meals, but happy to keep busy putting stuff together and taking it apart.

That resemblance, physical but especially psychological, has continued to amuse and amaze us. How did Ed's influence skip over our two girls only to emerge full-blown a generation later?

I trimmed seams and listened to Schubert and thought of my long-dead father, of my little grandson. No obvious resemblance there. Before fusing the interfacing to the collar I switched from chamber music to Schubert's “Travels In Winter,” sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. We will be traveling in winter down to Philadelphia, to celebrate a birthday. Poor Schubert, dead at 37, left no descendants other than his music.

But oh, “Travels In Winter,” with D F-D! Fie on those fashionable tenors. Give me a baritone like Dietrich of the three names. I turn the cape collar and iron it flat as he pours out his manly sorrows: “mein Herz, mein Herz!” He truly is my favorite singer...him and Elvis. I never asked my father what he thought of Elvis. I wish I had.

And now the cape is almost finished. Tomorrow I will attach the collar, and sew on the gold(ish) clasp. The day after we will travel in winter to Philadelphia and deliver it to Remy. When he takes it out of the box, it will be impregnated with hours of thought, reflections, memories. Sewed into it will be the music of Schubert, the voice of Dietrich, the memory of his great-grandfather, and my own desire to make him a real gift, something he can wrap himself in, and be anything he wants to be.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Music in Winter

Yesterday we had the fourth salon in our debut 08-09 winter season. It coincided with a day-long fall of wet, sticky snow. Some people canceled, but a number of hardy souls assaulted our long, steep driveway and arrived unharmed.

Tim and Lynda played recorder-flute duets from the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods. We drank red wine and ate Vermont cheese and listened as the snow fell and fell. The musicians stood in front of our porch's tall windows, so that from the living room they were silhouetted against a background of woods whose every twig was outlined in white. Closer to the house, finches, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and one fabulous cardinal fluttered around the feeder. The snow fell, the music wove ribbons around our souls, and we marveled that such pleasures were so freely and easily available to us. Chamber music doesn't get any better than this.

At the end of the program we demanded an encore. Then Tim and Lynda put away their instruments and we sat and told silly stories and laughed until dark.

It's been—still is—a long winter. But the salons have helped lighten the mood. They have featured friends and neighbors who do interesting things: a breeder of prize-winning Romney sheep, a dairy farmer turned politician, a painter who makes a living from her work, and our two musicians. The next salon will coincide with the start of mud season, a time when Vermonters badly need a shot of something—energy, optimism, laughter—to get them through to spring. We'll have no problem finding an attraction. There are adventurous cheese-makers, writers, sculptors, glass-blowers and milliners within a stone's throw of our front door.

Then spring will come and every last one of us—sculptor, writer, glass-blower, hat-maker, painter and shepherd—will disappear into our vegetable garden, there to hold our own salons with the earthworms, the seedlings, and that most hallowed guest, the toad.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Waste Not

I was putting away the laundry the other day and noticed that several of my socks had developed small holes. These are not fancy socks. They are plain white cotton ones with an elasticized middle, which I like because they don't slide around inside my boots. Nor are they expensive, though I must admit I have no idea how much a pair of plain white socks might cost. Two dollars? Three?

My question is, should I darn these socks? I have needles; I have thread; I have a darning egg that I bought in a fit of domestic optimism in the 1970s and never used. I even have that scarcest of all commodities: time. What I don't have is the inclination.

I would rather write than mend socks. I would rather draw. I would even rather cook. And I would much rather read a book. But when I hear about how we Americans are going to have to make big changes in the way we live, I think it may mean that we should start mending our socks.

I grew up with mended socks. Mending stuff, in the Spain of the 1950s, was just another routine household activity, like dusting or ironing. If your family was particularly hard on clothes, you could hire a woman to come one afternoon a week to help with the mending. Otherwise it was up to the lady of the house and her maid to keep things in shape (not many people in the middle class had cars, but everyone had a live-in maid).

Besides socks, my mother and the maid mended bottom sheets –the flat, not the fitted kind. When they got worn in the center, they split them down the middle and then sewed the outside edges together. They turned shirt collars so the worn part was underneath. They mended my school uniforms. They even mended kitchen towels.

There was an art to mending. You picked the right color thread and then wove the edges of the rip together so that you ended with a smooth, flat surface. The edges of the mended patch were supposed to be straight and even, the stitches tiny, the result nearly invisible.

There was one thing my mother didn't mend: her stockings. When she got a run she took them around the corner to the lady who specialized in mending stockings. My mother and my aunts were forever running to the stocking mending lady.

I've been throwing away socks with holes during my entire adult life. And I have thrown away an entire rubber plantation's worth of pantyhose. Pantyhose make great ties for tomato plants, but I would have had to cover the entire east coast with tomatoes to use up all my torn pantyhose. I read somewhere that you could make a warm, attractive quilt by sewing lots of little square bags out of leftover fabric, stuffing them with old pantyhose and sewing the squares together, but I never got around to doing that.

I realize that the stories about my mother's mending sound like the ones told by Americans who lived through the Great Depression. But my mother and the European women of her generation who devoted themselves to mending were hardly on the brink of financial disaster. They were simply doing what their mothers and grandmothers had always done: squeezing the last bit of usefulness out of material things.

I have pleasant memories of those sock-mending times (of course I wasn't doing any mending): women sitting by a window, surrounded by clean-smelling laundry, talking, giving a satisfied sigh and folding each piece away as it was finished.

Maybe I could get a sock-mending group together....

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Old Dog, New Trick

When we adopted Lexi at four months, she had only two bad habits: she liked to dig holes, and she disliked having her feet touched. She got over the first habit in short order. The second turned into a decade-long saga.

Determined that Lexi would become the perfect dog, I worked hard and long to get her to let me cut her nails, and eventually she did. This golden era lasted about three minutes, until I nicked the quick of one nail. There was much bleeding and yowling on her part and apologizing and propitiating with treats on mine.

After that, she didn't even want to see the clippers, much less let me near her with them. But long nails can lead to foot deformities, not to mention deformed floors, so I had to train her all over again. It took me weeks, but one day she let me clip her nails. And yes, I nicked her again. This time there was blood everywhere—me, the walls, the floor. I had to put her in her crate to contain the flood. When the bleeding finally stopped, Lexi and I were still shaking.

After that I couldn't stand the sight of the clippers any more than she could. I went to the hardware store and bought a wall scraper—a flat contraption with a handle onto which you snap a piece of sandpaper. And that is what I used to file Lexi's nails for the next ten years.

The process was fraught with anxiety for her and irritation for me. It was slow and tedious, and left me covered in nail dust and sand. She wiggled and squirmed and complained and I praised and scolded and offered treats. We both hated it, so it didn't get done as often as it should have.

When Wolfie came along I realized that life is too short to file 36 dog nails every couple of weeks, so from earliest puppyhood I clipped a tiny bit off his nails every week. As a result, he is quite mellow about the process, and his attitude has helped Lexi loosen up about the filing.

A couple of weeks ago, I had finished clipping Wolfie's nails and had Lexi in filing position. I was thinking about something else, and before I knew it I had clipped one of her nails! When she realized what I had done she let out an ex post facto yelp, and I had to use the file on the other 17 toes, but the germ of an idea had formed in my mind.

Today was nail day again. I did Wolfie first, then Lexi rolled over for me and I gave her a treat and while she was munching I clipped one nail. She protested, but I clipped another one, and gave her another treat. I had meant to end things on a high note and almost reached for the file, but something made me continue. Two more nails and one paw was done. Another treat. Did I dare do the other paw? Clip, clip, clip, clip, and it was finished. But I knew she would never let me do her delicate, her sensitive, her impossible back feet. I handed her a biscuit and grabbed a back foot. Clip, clip, clip...could this be happening? I grabbed the other foot--clip, clip—and then there were no more nails to clip. It had all taken less than two minutes!

Now I'm wondering, has she been putting me on all these years, exploiting my guilt and my nervousness? Or was she truly terrified of the clippers, and if so, what happened to change her mind? Was it the brand of biscuits I gave her today? They weren't anything special, but I had just opened a new box....

Who can fathom Lexi's mind? This is not the only trick she has “learned” in her old age. For years I thought she couldn't retrieve, wasn't of a retrieving breed, shouldn't be expected to retrieve. And then we got Wolfie, who loves to retrieve, and suddenly Lexi is a perfectly competent retriever. Does this mean that if I brought home a Border Collie Lexi would learn to herd sheep? If she was in competition with a Pointer, would she point? If she was jealous of a coon hound would she tree coons? I have no idea. But I won't be surprised if she still has a few tricks up her hairy old sleeve.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Story of Saint Eulalia, Virgin and Martyr

In the early years of the 4th century CE the Roman Emperor Diocletian decreed a persecution of Christians throughout the Empire. As a Roman province, Spain came under the edict, and in Barcelona Dacian, the Roman Consul, was doing his job. People scurried about, trying to survive. Many went underground, others abjured, and some were caught, tortured and killed.

Eulalia was a thirteen-year-old girl living with her parents in a pine-shaded villa overlooking the Mediterranean. She heard of the persecutions and was outraged. If nobody else would, she proposed to do something about it.

Knowing her temperament and worried about her safety, her parents watched her closely, but one night she escaped and ran down the hill to Dacian's palace. As soon as the doors opened in the morning, she insisted on seeing the Consul, and once in his presence denounced the persecutions and proclaimed herself a Christian and a willing martyr. Dacian knew her parents, and maybe he had teenage children himself, so he tried his best to reason with her. He said that if she offered just a tiny pinch of salt on the altar of Venus, he'd be willing to forget the whole thing and send her home.

She responded by kicking the altar and the statue of the goddess to the ground.

That set the Roman law enforcement machinery in motion. She was imprisoned, then dragged out and subjected to thirteen tortures, one for every year of her life. They put her into a barrel with nails and broken glass and threw her down a hillside. They cut off her breasts. They tied her to an x-shaped cross and set her on fire. She was still alive and unrepentant when Dacian got to torture #12, so he finally had her head cut off (torture #13). As she expired, a white dove flew out of her body and disappeared into the sky.

Dacian left her naked body out on the street as a final outrage. And then the real miracle happened: it was February 12, a time when the broom is already budding on Mediterranean hillsides. But on that day snow fell on Barcelona, and covered the martyr's body in a white shroud.

Today her remains are in the crypt of the city's cathedral. In the cloister, around a central fountain, a flock of thirteen white geese is kept in her memory.

There is a rich iconography of Saint Eulalia, most of it conventional: X-shaped cross and martyr's palm in hand, she rolls her eyes meekly up to heaven. But that is not my Saint Eulalia.

My Saint Eulalia is a bold pre-pubescent girl, afire with indignation and convinced that if nobody else dares, then she can and must do something to put the world to rights. (I feel for her parents.)

My Saint Eulalia does not roll her eyes mutely up to heaven. Instead, she raises her fists and rails against terror and injustice on earth.

In Greek, her name means “fair of speech.”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Who Are Those People? And More Goat Stuff

O.k., a number of you, even those who know Ed and me in person, assumed that the two characters leading the goats in my previous post illustration were the two of us. What I actually had in mind was a procession of nymphs and shepherds. But because I was rushed (I wanted to go spend quality time with the girls), I only drew two people, male and female, so many of you naturally figured that these were portraits, despite major discrepancies in hair color and length, not to mention age.

(There is one portrait in the group: the faun. As Indigo immediately realized, it is an accurate and detailed representation of her husband.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that the female figures that accompany many of my posts are not self-portraits. For one thing, they don't look much older than high-school sophomores. But they are not unrelated to me, either. They are either projections, or illustrations of the eternally sophomoric part of me, or whatever. Just wanted to make that clear.

Now back to the goats. There is nothing like a couple of ruminants to make a place feel like a farm. A tiny farm, in this case. Blossom and Alsiki are smaller (though heavier) than Charlemagne, the rooster. And they are forever freaking him out, not to mention his wives, by leaping uninvited into his quarters.

When we built the coop, Ed cut a chicken-sized trapdoor into the wall. Since the floor of the coop is about three feet off the ground, he also made a ramp with slats so the chickens could waddle comfortably into the yard. No sooner did B and A see that ramp than they ran up it and into the chicken room, upsetting a red hen who was concentrating on laying an egg. I quickly ushered the goats out—not hard to do, since they follow me like puppies—and called for help.

We have a terrible problem,” I said when Ed came out, all bundled up against the cold. “I can't keep the goats out of the chicken house.”

Ed looked around, thought for a minute, then said “Just take away the ramp,” and went back inside.

With the ramp gone, the chickens were reluctant to go out, which I wanted them to do because the sun was shining and I am a big believer in the health-giving powers of sunshine. I scattered a handful of sunflower seeds on the ground and pretty soon Charlemagne leaped out onto the snow and called the hens to the feast. Whether they would be able to leap back into the coop was another matter, but at least B and A were staying away.

This evening at sunset I went out to put everybody to bed. I was in the chicken room gathering the single (due to goat-induced stress) egg and saying my good nights to the roosting hens when B and A were suddenly with us. They had leaped straight in through the trap door, without a ramp!

I took the goats back to their room, apologized to Charlemagne and Co., and closed the trap door safely against foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, bears, and the mythical catamounts that are said to haunt the Vermont hills. In the goat room, I served up molasses-sweetened grain to B and A. I returned Alsiki's kisses and discovered that Blossom, the shy one, will stand still forever if you rub her belly. They are eating well and looking bright. I made a quick exit, before they could push out the door behind me.

The chicken coop dilemma is not solved. We will have to outsmart B and A somehow. Like teenagers, they have all the time and energy in the world to figure out how to get their way. But we'll work it out somehow. There's nothing like a couple of goats to make a farm feel like home.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Saint's Day

Today is the Feast of Saint Eulalia, Virgin and Martyr, my patron saint and the patron saint of Barcelona, where I was born. I was going to write a post about her short life and martyrdom, and why I find her so intriguing, but other stuff has come up.

In the company of my saintly (but not martyred) spouse, I spent the morning doing heavy labor in the shed, making it ready for the two Nigerian Dwarf goats that we will, if all goes well, bring home tomorrow.

First, I evicted the chickens from the goat room and into their own quarters. Taking advantage of a short-lived thaw (which is now over) I shoveled out some of the accumulated chicken manure so the hens would have a relatively pleasant environment until the real thaw comes a month or two from now.

In the goat room, I put down new hay to make a cozy floor. I scrubbed and set up the frost-free water bucket. I swept down cobwebs with the barn broom. Then I looked around and checked that everything was as it should be—like one does in the guest room when expecting company--including plastic milk crates to serve as seats for visiting goat-petters.

The big project was the milking/feed storage room. Nature abhors a vacuum, so when my last set of goats went, that room became instantly crammed with flower pots, potting soil, gardening tools, a power saw, extra roofing shingles, an electric lawn mower left over from our suburban days, and a mare's nest of old baling twine. Today Ed and I labored for hours, moving shelves, sorting unsortable items, consigning stacks of old paper feed bags to the recycling pile, and making the place neat and clean. By noon the milking room was swept and the milking stand was set up, though I won't be milking until June. There was room for several bales of hay, and empty metal trash cans stood ready to hold bags of grain.

We had lunch, changed clothes, collapsed.

When I was a child in then-ultra-Catholic Spain, we celebrated saint's days instead of birthdays. That's when I got my presents, none of which I remember, except for the year when I got a pair of parakeets. Until today, that was my happiest Saint's Day ever. But I believe this one tops it. Hair full of cobwebs, lungs full of barn dust, visions of wee dairy goats dancing in my head, I am grateful and exhilarated by the prospect of a new adventure. I hope this time I can get it right—smaller, more manageable animals; fewer bales of hay and bags of feed to lift and carry; easier barn cleanings and, above all, less milk to deal with day after day. But wonderful milk. And cheese, as we say in Catalan, that makes the angels sing.

The tale of Saint Eulalia's martyrdom will have to wait until another day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Presidential Speech Coach

At Monday's news conference the President painted a dire picture of the country's situation. While he did so, however, I kept thinking, wow, isn't it wonderful to hear such well-constructed, complete sentences, flowing one into the other, powered by the strength of a rational mind? And the voice, smooth and snicker-free—what a delight! And finally, at last, after eight long years, the word “nuclear” properly pronounced! (Why didn't Bush's advisers advise him that “nucular” is wrong and sounds awful? Were they afraid of him? Or did Bush think that he was The Decider in matters of language as well as policy?)

Finally, a President we don't have to be ashamed of when he steps to the podium and opens his mouth!

That said, I have a tiny grammatical bone to pick with Obama. Well, maybe not so tiny, because it bothers me a lot. He often uses “that” redundantly, as in (not an exact quote), “I am afraid that, if we don't intervene in the economy, that we will have a catastrophe on our hands.” See what I mean? That second “that” sounds like a hiccup. It implies that the speaker, or the listener, has gotten lost in the subordinate clause, and can't click back to the main clause.

And one other little thing, but one that might get bigger if, as I hope, we are going to be listening to Obama for the next eight years. It's his habit of dragging out “and” with his voice, as in “...unemployment aaaaaand lack of consumer confidence...” He does it a lot.

I'm not being petty here. I'm just invested. I want him to be 150% perfect, so that everyone—Republicans, the Taliban, the entire Middle East—will love him and will make it possible for him to save the world.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Our Bear

Soon it will be the time of year when the State of Vermont admonishes its residents to put away their bird feeders. Yes, just at the moment when wild foods are at their ebb, just as the chickadees begin to sing their mating songs, just as the first migratory birds are starting to arrive, cold and hungry and tired, they want us to put away our feeders. Why? Because of the bears.

When bears wake up from hibernation, they are hungry, as you would be if your last meal had been at Thanksgiving. They are in a bad mood—something to do with low blood sugar, I bet. And they are hunting desperately for the last dried up berries dangling on the end of long-dead branches. If there is a full bird feeder nearby, they naturally go for it.

Our bird feeder sits in our backyard, close to the house. About fifteen yards back from the feeder, the woods begin and go on for quite a while. The first couple of years we were in Vermont I disregarded the State's warnings because I couldn't believe that a real bear would ever come to our backyard. We should be so lucky! A bear, after all, is a totally wild animal. You won't find a bear in a New Jersey parking lot, the way you will find deer and other suburban species there. Bears are magical, or there wouldn't be two of them in the sky on clear nights. Anyway, a Vermont bear would never visit a couple of newly-arrived flatlanders.

One early spring morning two years ago we woke up and saw that the bird feeder—one of those metal boxes with a counterweight designed to foil squirrels (they work)--had been knocked off its pole and dragged halfway across the yard. It would have taken a raccoon the size of a short man to accomplish this feat, or a vegetarian coyote with remarkably nimble front paws. And who or what could have dragged that heavy box so far, and bent the metal perch? Perhaps that short man, if he was very strong. Maybe a night-prowling Vermont lumberjack?

We tried every reductionist hypothesis we could dredge up, and finally had to conclude, much to our delight, that only a bear could have done the deed. We made a mental note to e-mail our friends and relatives with the news.

That night we were watching for the fourth time an episode of “As Time Goes By” when our Wolfie, then only seven months old, alerted. I turned my head and looked out the window. And there, at arm's length, was our bear. The night was dark, and he was dark, but I could see him plainly—not a very big bear, probably an adolescent emerging from his first winter's sleep.

By then the dogs were going crazy. He plainly heard them, but continued to snuffle around. Then, figuring it wasn't worth the commotion, he shuffled back into the woods.

That summer, driving on the road just below our hill, we saw him again. I'm sure it was our bear—not too big, black as the night, shuffling into the trees at the sound of the car. In the fall, at the village game supper, we heard that a bear had been shot near that same road.

I hope it wasn't our bear. I want him back, if only a glimpse of him—to be truthful, a glimpse is all I really want. But I want to know that he's out there, lurking in our woods, providing that whiff of danger and mystery that makes the fire in the stove feel doubly warm and protective on cold spring nights.

The birds needn't worry. There will be plenty of seeds in our feeder this spring.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Messy Weather

After months of below-freezing temperatures, this morning the thermometer read 40F. By the time the dogs and I went outside, however, the wind that is heralding the next cold front had arrived, and I had to run back in the house to get a hat and gloves. The driveway was that combination of mud and ice that means you don't look up much while you're walking.

The dogs didn't care, though. They found a spot with really deep snow in the side yard and flung themselves about in it. Lexi was all rejuvenated. Whether she was reacting to the temperature or the wind, I actually caught her making play bows at Wolfie. When she got tired of that she dug a tunnel with her snout and filled her ears with snow, then ran up to me and nearly knocked me over, pressing herself against my legs and requesting a back rub.

We didn't stay out long. When we came back to the house the dogs were a muddy mess, and Wolfie's little chewed spot on his foreleg was bleeding where he had scraped it on the icy crust. (The little chewed spot is a sore that manifests whenever Wolfie feels that life is not as much fun as it could be...and that has certainly been the case for him lately.) I took off my muddy boots and saw that in the backyard, enough snow has melted to reveal an appalling number of dog poops.

We need another snow storm to make everything clean again. Or else we need an early spring. Or else...

But when I catch myself complaining about winter, I remember that it's winter that keeps Vermont the way I like it, mostly empty of malls and traffic lights and traffic jams and road rage and all those things I came here to get away from.

Besides, to cheer up all I have to do is look out (averting my eyes from the dog poops) and notice the afternoon light, which begins to change and strengthen just in time to keep me from giving up and fleeing south.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Mobbed By Teensy Goats

We went to a Nigerian Dwarf Goat farm today. It was my first contact with the breed. I found myself in the barn, in a pen full of yearlings, the largest about the size of a Cocker Spaniel. They instantly surrounded and jumped up on me like overly-friendly dogs, and nibbled my coat. They tilted up their little smiling faces with the weird horizontal goat pupils and looked into my eyes, and I predictably melted. I wanted to lie down on the hay and go to sleep in the midst of that affectionate crowd.

We also got a taste of Nigerian goat milk. I thought Nubians gave high-butterfat, sweet and delicious milk, but this was unbelievably rich--like drinking vanilla ice cream.

When we got home the dogs sniffed me all over, and looked wistful.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bright Morning

It was only four degrees at nine a.m. today, but the sun was out and the wind was still, so I grabbed the chance to ensure my mental health for the next few days and took Wolfie out.

Lexi didn't come with us. She's getting old. Despite chiropractic and acupuncture treatments and expensive supplements and home-cooked food, she's not the dog she used to be. Two years ago she would have been making a nuisance of herself in her eagerness to go out. Today she looked at me from her bed by the hearth, crossed her front paws neatly and said, “No, thanks.” I showed her the cheese that I take on our outings, but she didn't move. This is a dog who loves to bury her head in the snow, who is forever hungry, who gets easily bored. But she's getting old.

The chickens were standing on their top step, soaking up rays and digesting their a breakfast of hot gruel with milk and molasses, and their second mouse in as many days. But they were silent—no cackles, no gurgles, no clucks. There were no other sounds coming from the woods or the field, either. All the creatures who spend the night commuting across our land were hunkered down somewhere, finally getting some sleep. Wolfie checked out the fox's tracks.

I'm very proud of our fox, even though he killed one of our hens last spring. He's bright orange, and has a 15” stride, which is as big as it gets for a North American red fox. I've never seen his family, but last summer I heard some unearthly sounds coming from the woods. I checked on the web and found an exact match—the cries of a baby fox in distress. I hope whatever had that baby fox in its jaws or claws let it go. And I hope that some spring I will see a litter of cubs playing in the grass.

On this walk Wolfie seemed more subdued than usual, perhaps because he didn't have Lexi to annoy, or was feeling the cold. He was trotting along when, near the bottom of the driveway, he suddenly turned into an arrow—ears and nose forward, weight on forelegs, tail out—poised to shoot into its target. Out on the road, the mailman's car had stopped at our mailbox. And Wolfie took off.

It was my fault. I'm a lot more observant than I used to be, but I don't have Cesar Millan's preternatural ability to predict what a dog will do next. You have to practically turn into a dog to be that good.

In two more bounds Wolfie would have been on the road. But Artemis was merciful, and when I yelled Wolfie turned around and came to me. Whereupon he got three pieces of slightly hardened mozzarella.

Back at the top of the hill I got the ball thrower from the garage. In the last week the snow has developed a crust, which is great for wearing out a dog in record time. A ball won't bounce on soft snow, but on crusty snow a ball can go for a long time, jumping at crazy angles when it hits bits of ice. Wolfie weighs enough to break the crust, which means he has to work much harder to get the ball. Watching him gallop towards the rolling ball, trying to overcome the drag of the snow, I was reminded of those TV programs that show wolves chasing elk through a snow field.

Now he's stretched out, eyes half closed, on the rug in the sun porch. Outside, there are five chickadees, two gold finches and a titmouse at the feeder. The sun is pouring through the glass, and the rosemary, the lavender, and the scented geraniums in their pots are drinking it in. Is it me, or are those finches starting to get a bit of their spring color?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Every fall, armies of mice invade people's basements in Vermont. These are not the rat-like city mice, but adorable little country mice with big ears, bright little eyes set wide apart and tiny round bodies—so cute you want to make pets of them. (That, by the way, is what Beatrix Potter did—she tamed them and they ran around in her bedroom while she painted them.)

Mice in the basement don't really bother me. Mice in the house are another story. Yesterday, on the kitchen counter, I found some minute specks that I thought might be caraway seeds—except that they were too small for caraway seeds, and I don't think I have any caraway in the spice rack. So I alerted the official pest management expert, and he duly set a trap.

Which worked. This morning the OPME considerately emptied the trap before I got up, and hid the contents in an empty yogurt box before taking them to the chickens.

Yes, the chickens. You don't think we'd waste a mouse, do you? A lovely bit of fresh organic protein in the middle of this barren season would cheer the hens no end. I was filling the chickens' water dish when the OPME came in with the yogurt box. He opened it, dumped out the little cadaver...I won't describe the scene, but will refer you instead to the Old Testament, to the part where Jezebel is thrown to the dogs.

We've fed our chickens other kinds of exotic protein in the past. Back when we used a Japanese Beetle trap (we don't anymore, because they attract more bugs than they catch), we would empty it into a bucket of hot water, swish the beetles around and throw them on the compost pile. The hens would congregate around the bugs like party guests around the shrimp platter, and gorge until not a single one was left.

Tonight we're having spinach omelette for dinner (homegrown spinach, ditto eggs). When I crack open those pinky-brown eggs, I will remember the mouse, which, through the miracle of the hen, has been transubstantiated from pest to protein, and I will give thanks.

Monday, February 2, 2009

School For Mothers

The year I turned sixteen I could be found after school washing diapers, scrubbing bottles, and mixing formula. I wasn't a teenage mother. My parents, after sixteen years of vain attempts, had miraculously produced a second child.

Nine years later I could again be found after (graduate) school washing diapers, but with my own infant on my hip.

In comparison with my friends who were also new mothers, I was remarkably relaxed. I knew how to hold a baby. I knew about burping. I knew about the fontanel. I knew to put my fingers between skin and diaper when fastening a diaper pin. I wasn't haunted by fears that the baby would sicken and die because I had neglected to do something. And even though in the South in the 70s breastfeeding was still considered exotic, after sterilizing and warming all those bottles for my sister, I fought the establishment and breastfed.

Partly due to blind luck, but partly, I suspect, because of my confidence, my daughters were easy-going babies. They slept through the night at four weeks*. They didn't have colic. They didn't catch colds. There was the occasional unexplained crying jag, but on the whole they were responsive and I would even say responsible infants.

Looking back, I now see that in caring for my sister had gone through a training for parenthood that is common in many mammals. Adolescent wolves stay home and watch the new litter when the parents go hunting. Teenage marmosets carry their little brothers and sisters around and take them back to the mother for feeding. That is how they learn the art of parenting. Deprived of that opportunity, they neglect their own offspring.

In the large families of earlier times it was usual for girls to help care for infant siblings. But people have far fewer children now (and a good thing, too) and closely spaced, and the daily opportunity for teenagers to practice parenting is gone.

This is not to say that the experience was all roses for me. Although I enjoyed my sister, I resented the changes that her presence brought into my life, such as having to live at home while attending college so I could help take care of her. None of my friends had to wash diapers or sterilize bottles. I wanted to stay up nights discussing Sartre in the dorm, not home taking care of a baby.

In the end, it all paid off. I'm glad my life was enriched by something that, in their wisdom, many animals practice, and I was lucky to launch into parenthood with more than good intentions and a copy of Dr. Spock.

I'm wondering how many of you had the “mammalian” experience of taking care of much younger siblings, and how you felt about it.

*Part of that willingness to sleep through the night was due to the spoonful of cereal that, in those barbarous times, pediatricians advised giving babies starting at age one month.