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

Catalogs

'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 shoes...to 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.