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, willowmoonfarm.com, 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: www.willowmoonfarm.com).

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

Vets

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.