Thursday, December 30, 2010

Houseplant Season

Back in Vermont after a splendid Christmas with our assembled descendants, bags unpacked, dogs retrieved from their Club Med week at the Halfling B&B, I am now on the long annual slide towards spring.

Every year, as soon as Christmas is over, things take on a different look.  A spring look.  The day is a couple of minutes longer, a difference, my husband insists, that no one could possibly notice.  But I do.  I notice and take action, which means that at about this time, every year, I buy a houseplant.

This Christmas I received an amaryllis bulb, and yesterday, before even unpacking my bags, I opened the package from the nursery, read the directions, moistened the growing medium, nestled the giant bulb in it, and placed the pot by a south-facing window next to a zonal geranium that, as excited as I by the lengthening days (and by the sun reflecting on the Christmas snow) has put out a bright red bloom.

That amaryllis is getting a lot of attention.  Whenever I walk by it, I cannot help thrusting a finger into the growing medium to check for moisture, or giving the pot a quarter turn so every side gets equal exposure to light, or spritzing it with water.

This is the halcyon season for my houseplants, when, in the throes of gardening frustration, I coddle them and chat with them and give them baths in the kitchen sink.  And every year, I add to the collection.

Today in the grocery store, despite the pregnant amaryllis bulb waiting at home,  I couldn't resist a sprightly, bright-green little fern.  I also bought a miniature orchid that fits exactly on the windowsill above the sink, where it will never lack for moisture.

In March, as soon as I plant my spinach seeds in the snow, all my senses will turn towards the outdoors, and my interest in houseplants will begin to wane.  By June, when harvesting and weeding begin in earnest, I will wonder what possessed me to burden my life with houseplants that, after all, possess no edible parts.

But right now those little houseplants, as needy and useless and absurd as teacup poodles, are keeping me sane, hopeful, and focused on that long slide towards spring. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cookies For Lunch

Ate cookies for lunch yesterday, because my spouse is away.  This is something I would never do when he's around, not that he would object in any way.  The most he would do is ask me to let him have a couple.  But still, I wouldn't do it.

Then in the evening I worked straight through the "dinner hour" on a clay sculpture, not stopping until I reached a true stopping point.  I cleaned up, made a fire, had a glass of wine and the rest of the cookies, and some almonds.  And did the universe punish me by making me sick to my stomach or, worse, causing me to gain five pounds?  Not at all.  In fact, this morning I am half a pound lighter than yesterday.

Today I may commit other infractions, though they won't be cookie-related (I cannot bear to even think of cookies right now).  I may have an all-spinach dinner--sauteed with olive oil and garlic--or I may spend the entire night downstairs in front of the fire, with the dogs.

I am always surprised by the pleasure that these short periods of solitude bring.  Since the earliest days of our marriage, the prospect of my husband going on a trip has plunged me into separation anxiety.  Though the passing decades have taught me to abstain from throwing hissy fits as he packs his garment bag, I still, every time before he goes, devoutly wish he wouldn't.

And every single time, the moment the car disappears down the driveway, a strange exhilaration seizes hold of me

Don't think that the thought of his return depresses me.  The only thing that would depress me about that is if it were delayed by even five minutes.  But there is something about the change that a  temporary separation brings--the slight variation in daily rhythms, the ability to follow one's impulses from moment to moment, the silence--that is, temporarily, rejuvenating.

Eventually blessed conjugality resumes, enlivened by the hiatus.  As Bertie Wooster would put it, variety is the s. of l.  Or, as the witches say, "merry meet and merry part, and merry meet again."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Woods In Snow

Celebrated the end of deer-hunting season by taking the dogs out for a walk in the woods behind the house today.

Over the last couple of days the weather has changed wildly, from frosty and snow-covered to a tropical 50F in which all the snow melted, then back today to frigid and a fresh three inches of snow on the ground.  I knew that Bisou would get ice balls all over her coat if I took her to the woods, but I also knew that she would have a nervous breakdown if I left her behind, so I let her come along with Wolfie and Lexi.

The woods looked properly Frostian, dark and deep and full of snow.  There were no animal tracks on the ground--no rabbits, squirrels or turkeys.  The deer that survived the hunting were hunkering deep in their winter yards.

Old arthritic Lexi, whom I've always suspected of having Husky blood, and who was feeling the effects of her recent acupuncture session, trotted along looking spry.  Wolfie looked like a black paper silhouette pasted on all the whiteness.  Bisou barreled along up to her shoulders in snow, oblivious to the ice balls forming on her coat.  Every once in a while, to ensure that they didn't forget me, I would call the dogs and give them each a slice of string cheese, then let them take off again.

Being in the woods, just a hundred yards from my back door, is like being on a different planet.  Around the house, even in the dead of winter, there is always noise--hens cackling or pecking at the floor of the shed, chickadees chirping and fluttering around the feeder, the clothes dryer humming inside.  But in the snow-filled woods, the silence is about as absolute as I'm likely to experience in this lifetime.

Back inside the house, the Shepherds were dry in two seconds, but Bisou was another story.  She was decorated like a Christmas tree, white balls hanging from every one of her long feathers.  I brushed and shook off as many as I could, but the ones in her armpits had turned to solid ice.
I took her into the bathroom, closed the door, plugged in the diffuser and turned it on low.  Nothing much gets to Bisou, not even the cleaning lady's super-powered vacuum cleaner, but she had never come in contact with hair-drying appliances before, and she hid behind the bath towels hanging from the rack.
I sat on the floor and periodically waved the diffuser in her direction.  Eventually, she realized that this was a good thing, a vanquisher of ice balls, and came out from behind the towels.

When she was dry I went into my study and stretched out on the bed and Bisou hopped up and curled against me and I covered us both with our special dog-hair-covered fleece throw and we had a nap.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

So Darned Healthy

For the fourth year in a row Vermont has been named, by those whose business it is to know such things, the healthiest state in the nation.

We are outstanding in access to pre-natal health care and  medical insurance.  We are--and this surprised me--the least obese state.  I see hugely fat people whenever I go to the grocery store:  not only obese old people riding in those little carts, and men whose bulging stomachs force their jeans to slide perilously over their hips, but huge young women, in their late teens or early twenties, whose waist-to-hip ratio is the opposite of what it should be.  I worry about their skeletons, and what pregnancy will do to them, and how they'll fare carrying all that tonnage around by the time they're forty.  Granted, my supermarket is just over the line in New York, but plenty of Vermonters shop there.  If this is the slimmest population in the country, what must the rest of America be like?

Vermont is not without its health problems, though.  Binge drinking is one.  There are a lot of colleges in the state, which might account for the some of the drinking, not to mention those long winter nights and power outages.

Low rates of infant immunization is another.  I don't know a lot of people with babies here, and I haven't quizzed the ones I do know about their take on vaccinations.  But I do know a number of dog owners who, having done a lot of reading and being of an independent mind set, vaccinate their pets minimally if at all.  My hunch is that young Vermont parents fall along the same lines.

If you ask me, the main reason Vermonters are healthy is that there aren't many of us--fewer than 700,000.  My long experience with chickens has convinced me that the best way to keep a flock in radiant health is to keep it small--that means less competition for food and dirt baths, plenty of room on the roost, no manure accumulation, and a benign pecking order.  Plus, chickens like to be known and called by name.

For humans, less crowding means plentiful parking, short check-out lines, no road rage, blessed quiet (sometimes it's too quiet), clean air, and postmistresses who know you by name.  Now wouldn't that make anybody feel better?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Everybody Loves Chicken

...including foxes, errant dogs, hawks, fishers, bobcats, weasels, raccoons, coyotes, and coydogs.
Everybody knows about foxes--we have lost a couple of hens to them, in broad daylight--and about dogs who team up and go on the rampage.  Hawks are bad too.  Our first spring in Vermont, we lost two hens to a red-tailed hawk.

Fishers, or fisher cats, are ferocious members of the weasel family, dark brown, low to the ground, and evil.  At night their screams sound like a woman being murdered.  We have seen a fisher cat a couple of times in the woods behind our house, but so far it has come no closer.  A single fisher will kill an entire poultry flock just for fun, and leave the mostly uneaten carcasses behind for you to find in the morning.

We haven't seen a bobcat around here yet, though I know several people who have.  Bobcats are big and furry and tigerish, and I'd almost consider a hen a good price for a glimpse of one.

Coyotes are commonplace in the area, and we've come across their deer kills in the woods.  But we've never seen one, and I would dearly love to:  Vermont coyotes are extra-large, because they breed with Arctic wolves.

You hear a lot about coydogs attacking livestock.  Coydogs are not shy, eyelash-batting Golden Retrievers.  They are hybrids of coyotes and feral dogs, and they are fearless and mean.  Recent DNA research indicates that dog-coyote hybrids are rare, in contrast to the quite common wolf-coyote mixes, so the coydog may be a myth.

I once knew a woman from NYC who thought that deer broke into hen houses and ate chickens in the night, but deer are probably the only critters that will leave a chicken--or a duck, turkey or goose--in one piece.  Otherwise, poultry are easy prey for just about everything that roams the woods at night.

The Vermont Bird Fanciers Association list serve abounds in tales of prized laying hens and pet roosters disappearing without a trace.  Of mother ducks being dragged quacking from the nest.  Of wholesale massacres of turkey flocks on the week before Thanksgiving.

And for every tale of woe there is a proposed solution.  Dogs work well as deterrents in the daytime, by patrolling the general area.  But in these frigid nights, a dog would have to sleep with the chickens to keep warm, and no dog can be trusted that far.
Other suggestions include:  play loud music in your barn all night (the writer doesn't tell us what that does to the hens' laying rates).  Install dusk-to-dawn lights in the barnyard.  Get goats--but what good is a goat against the offspring of a coyote and a wolf? (See Alexandre Daudet's story "La chevre de Monsieur Seguin").
Get a llama--they are big and tall and supposedly will kick--or worse, spit on--a predator.  Get an alpaca--in this economy, alpaca farms are trying to cut down on their male populations, and though daintier than the llamas, alpacas are supposed to exhibit the same helpful behaviors, in addition to fabulous fleece.

Or get a donkey.  Donkeys kick as well as any camelid, and a close-up donkey bray can put anything to flight.  Plus you can ride your donkey when you take your eggs to the farmers' market.

My six hens don't have any of these fancy defenses.  Lord knows the dogs alert to the slightest squirrel in the woods during the daytime, but at night, when they are roasting by the wood stove, it would take something wolf-size to rouse them.

Much as I love my six ladies--even the one who lays thin-shelled eggs that break in the nest and make a mess--I must say I like the idea of predators lurking in the dark.  Every evening as I call the hens into the shed and close their doors tight, I like to think that Nature--poor, tamed, benighted, threatened-from-all-sides Nature--is still sometimes red in tooth and claw.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

All Is White

A couple of hours of big flakes yesterday, and now at last everything is white--the hills, the roads, the meadows.  Time to get the driveway cleared, time to sweep the steps, time to watch where you step.

Stick season is finished.  Even though the days will grow shorter until the 21st of the month, the darkest part of the year is over now that the snow is on the ground, because all that white reflects and magnifies whatever light the gray sky has to offer. That is why I can get geraniums to bloom indoors in Vermont as they never did in Maryland, where the ground stayed brown until spring.

Christmas is barreling towards us.  I have made the best arrangements ever for the dogs at a B&B run by Bisou's breeder (hereThe hens will be diligently cared for by a neighbor who specializes in pet-sitting.

The humans are the only ones left to deal with.  What will make each of them feel loved and cared for?  The size and quality of the gifts is the obvious answer, the one that every retailer propounds.  But it is not the real answer, not the answer that I seek as I put on my boots to take the dogs out, and as I shake the snow off my boots and bring the dogs back inside.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reflections On Power

Electrical power, that is.  Specifically, power outages.

Last week, because of a big wind storm, we were without power for 48 hours.  That means, theoretically, sans lights, sans water (because the well pump runs on electricity), sans stove, or heat, or clocks or radio or computers.  And food rotting in the fridge and freezer.

In reality, because we have a gas-powered generator, we did have water, and our winter food reserves did not go bad.  We had one lamp, and we even had TV, and internet access.  And, of course, we had our wood stove.

But we had big extension cords all over the house, over which we and the dogs kept tripping.  And we had to plan what we were going to use when.  And we kept turning things off so as not to use too much gas.  And the generator in the garage sounded the Battle of the Somme.

I hated it.

I was surprised by how much it got to me.  Power outages in summer are a different matter.  Then it's warm, and there's stuff to do outside, and it stays light until almost 10 p.m.  But these days it gets dark by 4:30, and it's cold, and every last lumen is precious.

I'm ashamed to admit that this December outage put me in a foul mood. My resentment was compounded by feelings of guilt and unworthiness, which in turn made me even less pleasant to be around.  Why did I feel guilty and unworthy?  Because, I said to myself:

1.  Think of the millions of people around the world who have no electricity, ever, and who would kill to have a generator blasting away in their garage--if they had a garage.

2.  You have clean, fresh, lovely water.  You can drink and wash your hands and take hot showers.  Think of the millions of people, etc.

3.  If you're tired of microwaved snacks, you can get in the car and go to a restaurant and have a hot meal.  Think of the millions, etc.

4.  If you are feeling this way now, what are you going to do when the real Armageddon strikes?  When there is no electricity, and no gas for the generator.  When hungry hordes roam the land.  When you run out of firewood and dog food and shampoo?  A local power outage is nothing compared to what you may have to face sometime in your remaining years.  Living in Vermont is no guarantee of anything.

Then, in the middle of my darkest musings, the power came on.  And, reader, I rejoiced.  I laughed and cheered and was happy.  I felt purposeful and energized.  Suddenly my every cell was bursting with  joie de vivre.

Why?  Because now I could go into a room and flick my finger and, behold, there was light.  Because I could have soup simmering on the stove while answering my e-mail.  Because the extension cords were gone.  Because the generator was silent at last.

Then, of course, I started beating myself up about being happy just because the power was back.  What kind of moral mettle was mine, to be destroyed and restored by the vagaries of the power company, the wind, the weather?  Shouldn't I be standing on some firmer moral ground?  Shouldn't I have more substantial emotional reserves to call upon?

Maybe I should, but the fact is, I don't.  I'm just another benighted child of the modern age, addicted to light and heat and instant access across the globe.  Just because I raise a ton of Swiss chard every summer doesn't mean I'm self-sufficient.  I know that now.

Friday, December 3, 2010

When A Person's Not A Person

This post is about my mother.

In October I visited her in an assisted living facility in Mobile, where she was recovering from encephalitis (which all the doctors thought would kill her) and a broken femur (which is supposed to do 92-year-old ladies in for good).

She was in a wheelchair and having all kinds of troubles, but she looked elegant in her beige jacket and ivory scarf and her white hair with, still, terrific body and wave.  The first thing she said to me was "Look at you!  So young!"  And when my sister, who is sixteen years younger than I, came to pick me up hours later, our mother said, looking at us standing at the foot of her bed, "What beauties!  You look thirty at the most!"

During the hours I spent with my mother in the next couple of days,  she grew progressively vaguer and more tired, but was still vibrating with emotion, and I found myself forcing her to take naps like a recalcitrant child, so I could have a rest. Otherwise, she talked non-stop:  about her mother and father, her sisters and brother, my father, his parents, my sister, my husband, my daughters, my grandchildren. And she recounted again how, toddling beside her on the way to my grandparents' barn, on a summer day long ago, I had asked "When everything was nothing, what was everything like?"

The very day I left she went back to the hospital, and then to a nursing home, chosen because it was run by nuns (who would give her spiritual sustenance) and had a homey atmosphere, with dogs and kittens running around, and a big aviary full of birds.

But my mother is indifferent to spiritual sustenance now, to nuns and dogs and cats and birds, and even to my sister.  "I'm supposed to be the light of her life," my sister says, "but when I walk in, hold her hand, pat her cheek, she stares right through me.  She doesn't care that I'm there.  She has no affect."

No affect?  Our mother was an affect professional, a virtuoso.  Even in the throes of encephalitis last spring, when her five doctors said she wasn't going to make it, she had affect.  Tons of it.
For better or worse, my sister and I had, from birth, been the recipients of our mother's torrential affect.  We complained about it--"Does everything have to be so earth-shaking?"  We devised strategies against it--"Just agree with her.  Don't engage.  Say 'M'hm, m'hm.'"  It made us crazy.  But we always expected it

And now it's gone.  So is everything else, except the ability to, very slowly, put food into her mouth...or into her juice glass.  Otherwise, her body is inert.  She cannot sit up or shift herself in bed.  Still, she could go on--her heart beating, gut digesting, lungs pumping--for quite a while.  She is her own life-support system.
But who is she?  If she doesn't recognize the friends who visit.  If she stares right through her own daughter.  If she shows neither pleasure nor distress, who is she?

People say "she's not herself anymore."  But if so, who is that stirring cole slaw into the cranberry juice?

All of which brings me back to the old catechism questions.  What makes a person a person?  What is the soul, and does it depart only when the grosser body apparatus quits?  Doesn't a soul need a mind to anchor it?  And when a person's not a person, what is a person like?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vermont Anniversary

(Written December 1st, posted December 2nd due to power outage.)

Six years ago today, we bought our house in Vermont.  We arrived the night before, weary and frazzled from selling the house in Annapolis, packing the car with the dogs and every last belonging that the movers had left behind, and driving eight hours down crowded interstates to sparsely-traveled two-lane roads to Vermont. 

The owner of the house we were buying had kindly offered to let us spend the night there, there being no motels nearby.  The house would be empty and unlocked, he said. 

"Unlocked?" we asked.  "Sure," he said, "I never lock my house."

We arrived in the dark.  I remember that as we reached the eastern edge of New York State, Bach's Concerto for violin and oboe came on the radio, and I started feeling as if I were ascending to heaven.  We found our driveway in the dark, and as we climbed towards the house, we saw a herd of deer, their eyes phosphorescent in the surrounding darkness, standing in "our" field.

At the top of the hill the house awaited us, lights blazing, doors  unlocked.

We got out of the car, let out the dogs--Lexi, and little Mojo, R.I.P.--and walked down the driveway in the cold.  We hadn't seen such darkness, nor such stars, since we were kids.

Today was weirdly warm, with winds up to 53 mph.  Coming back home from an errand, I had to take a detour because of a huge pine tree blocking the road.  In the afternoon, the lights predictably went out.
Thanks to our generator, we have water, and a single lamp, and I can write this (though I can't send it out), and the food in the fridge and freezer, the fruits of my summer striving, is safe.  But the noise from the generator is so awful that the chickens refused to come into the shed this evening, and I feel battered by the uproar.  Still, we have water, we have the one lamp.

The last six years have been...something.  Without the anchors of jobs or schools, it has not been easy to make inroads into the community.  On the other hand, many of the people we have come to know have become instant soul-mates--no need to explain about gardening or composting, no need to explain about animals.  I've gone from friends who, when they learned I had goats would exclaim "but why?!" to people who nod and ask "what breed?"  (I no longer have goats, alas, but that is another story.)

Like an adopted child, Vermont is a "chosen" state.  People don't come here for jobs.  They come because they want to be here.  They come for the hills and for the farms in the valleys, for the sense of place, the town meetings, the progressive politics, the commitment to the environment (which doesn't mean there aren't furious fights, such as the one between proponents and opponents of wind energy).  And once they're here, they figure out a way to cobble together a living.

There is not a day, driving out of our house, that I don't glory in the fact that there isn't a single ugly direction I can take.  Driving down the valley, or up into the mountains, I will encounter no traffic jams, no road rage--just the winter-ready fields, and the bare woods.

I may come across, in winter, treacherous black ice, or wheel-stopping mud on a dirt road in spring.  I will not chance upon a conveniently-placed mall where I can stop for a spool of brown thread or a spur-of-the-moment meander through a shoe store, or a movie.  The village libraries, though they couldn't be more friendly, don't have a lot of books on their shelves.  And we do not, alas, alas, have curb-side recycling or garbage collection, but must take every molecule of our waste personally to the dump.

But we have deep snows, wood stoves, cows in the fields, and thrushes singing in the woods in spring--and people who feel about these things the way I do.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nutrition And Me

For breakfast this morning, I ate an egg.  It used to be you couldn't eat eggs, because they were full of cholesterol and they would clog up your arteries and you would die young.  But now eggs are fine--an excellent source of protein and omega-3 oils and other good things.  So I'm eating eggs again.

I put salt on my egg , too.  For a while in the 80s salt was considered a killer, so I banished it from my cooking.  I even found a way to make bread without using salt, and wrote an article about how to do this (it isn't easy).  It turns out, however, that a no-salt diet is terrible for people with low blood pressure, especially for people with CFS and low blood pressure, so now I'm back to salting my food.

I cooked my egg in olive oil.  Olive oil is the ultimate soul food for me. It is also pure fat, and my collection of non-stick pans attests to my fat-free period, sometime in the 90s, brought on by the Zeitgeist notion that you could eat just about anything without gaining weight (even cookies, especially cookies) as long as you steered clear of fat.

In addition to the egg, I had a small bowl of oatmeal.  Oatmeal is loaded with carbs, of course.  I lost a ton of weight back in the 70s on a practically-no-carb diet.  I remember going into ketosis (a good thing, according to the diet book) and buying a whole new wardrobe. I also remember experiencing some savage food cravings.  I know better now, of course, and have welcomed carbohydrates back into my diet.

As I sweetened my oatmeal with a little Vermont maple syrup--pure sugar, you know--I thought back to those grim days (was it in the 80s or 90s?) when, cowed by the fear of hypoglycemia and obesity, I eliminated sweetness from my life. 

Having finished breakfast, I poured my daily regimen of vitamins and supplements into a pill box, and it struck me how the contents of that little box had changed over the years. They used to include megadoses of C (eventually proven to be ineffective against colds), later a good dollop of E (but no more, since it's supposed to be bad for you), also some gingko capsules (which we now know do nothing for memory), and I've forgotten what else.

Although my supplement list is pretty pared down these days, I do add some Vitamin D--the vitamin that our naked ancestors following game all day on the savanna got plenty of.  The vitamin that we, slathered in sunscreen, swathed in synthetic fabrics and imprisoned indoors by our computers year round, are pathetically  deficient in.

I usually listen to NPR's Morning Edition during breakfast, have been doing so for years.  That is where I get a lot of my knowledge about which substance to banish from my diet and which to welcome back like a nutritional prodigal son. 

Today, no sooner had I doled out my dose of Vitamin D than I heard a reporter say that research has shown that recent claims that we need Vitamin D supplementation in doses as high as 4,000 i.u./day are fallacious and misleading.  We might need, the new research indicates, at most one tenth of that.

Feeling foolish, I put my D capsules back in the bottle.  But I did not throw them away.

I'm keeping them for the day when somebody in a lab somewhere determines that megadoses of Vitamin D are in fact the key to vibrant health.  I just hope that my sound nutritional practices enable me to live until then.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Orchestra Tales, Part The Third: The Earrings

Four years after my disgraceful but relieving exit from the Birmingham Youth Orchestra, my father continued to worry about my lack of ensemble experience.  When the woman who played in the last stand of the second violin section of the Birmingham Symphony went on maternity leave, he got me an audition with the conductor, and I was hired as a temporary replacement.

My stand partner was an elderly gentleman--he was probably in his fifties, but to my eighteen-year-old eyes he seemed decrepit--short, round, and balding.  He can't have been a very good violinist, consigned as he was at the very end of the second violin rows, right up against the percussion section, but he knew his way around an orchestra score.

I, on the other hand, did not.  It's not that I wasn't able to play the parts--they were not technically demanding--but I kept getting lost.  If I blinked and missed a single note, I could never find my place on the score again.  The entire string section would be galloping ahead and there I was, embarrassed to be seen not playing along, frantically scanning the page to find something that vaguely resembled the notes I was hearing.  Sometimes my stand partner would take his bow off the strings for a nanosecond and point to the right spot on the score, but by the time I put my bow on my strings, I'd be doubly embarrassed, and behind again.

The long rests were the worst.  In an orchestra score, there are frequently rests of forty measures or more.  One is not during those intervals supposed to take short naps or review the twelve cranial nerves for the next day's biology exam.  One is supposed to count measures:  one, two, three, four;  two, two three, four;  three, two, three, four,  all the way to measure forty-seven or whatever.  Invariably, however, by the sixth measure, I was lost--was it six, two, three, four, or seven, two three four?  My only recourse was to watch my neighbor, and start playing when he did.

But there was one situation in which he could not help me, and that was at page-turning time.  As the "inside" partner--the one playing in the seat farther from the audience--it was my job to turn pages for both of us.  This gave me a great deal of anxiety.  What if I was lost when it was time to turn the page?  What if, while holding my bow  with the last three fingers of my right hand as I grasped the corner of the page with my index and thumb, my bow or, God forbid, the entire score fell clattering to the floor?

My months with the Birmingham Symphony were punctuated with musical faux pas.  There was the time when, daydreaming during one of those long rests, I jumped a foot in the air as the percussionist clashed the cymbals right behind me...and the conductor saw me.  And once I committed that ultimate orchestral sin, the accidental solo.  Thank goodness this happened during a rehearsal early on, after which I rigorously abstained from playing either the first or the last notes of any score segment.

I was a freshman in college, majoring in Biology and French, teaching French and Spanish in the afternoons to school children, helping my mother around the house.  Spending my evenings at rehearsal and my weekends playing concerts was not my idea of fun.

During my stint at the BSO, I don't think I ever talked with anybody, least of all my aged stand partner.  I spent rehearsal breaks practicing whatever solo pieces my father had assigned me. I was tired.  I had homework.  I wanted out of there.

Mercifully, in the spring the woman I was replacing announced her plans to return to the Symphony.  I was elated--just one more concert and I would be free.  

As we were putting away our instruments after the last performance, my stand partner dug a small paper bag out of his violin case and handed it to me.  Inside were two earrings, clip-ons with yellow rhinestones arranged in the shape of a treble clef.  They were clearly second-hand, since they weren't attached to the little cardboard square that store-bought earrings come with.  They looked hopelessly middle-aged to me, and I wondered as I stared at them whether they belonged to his wife.  I remember thinking how weird it was to be given earrings by this grandfatherly person.

Fortunately, the gods who watch over teenagers and sometimes keep them from disgracing themselves inspired me to put the earrings on right there, and say a hurried thank-you.  Then I closed my violin case and walked out of the Birmingham Symphony for good.

Those earrings rattled around in my jewelry box for a while, and then I gave or threw them away.
But now that I myself have begun to seem elderly to all but my contemporaries, I recognize the sweetness of the impulse of that long-ago violin player to give a gift of earrings to his hopelessly young and inept temporary stand partner.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Catalog Shopping

Spent some time the other day looking through a fat catalog of late-Gothic sculpture in U.S. collections.  I had no idea there were so many of those objects in this country.
Thinking of the additional thousands of ancient statues scattered throughout Western Europe, my vision of the era changed from one of peasants toiling in the fields and nobles hunting with falcons to entire populations carving away at limestone, alabaster, and linden wood, making virgins and  crucified christs by the dozen, comely saint catherines, and kinky saint sebastians.

Statues of the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus outnumbered everything else in the catalog, evidence that even after 1500 years of Christianity, the Goddess had not loosened her grip on the people. She is represented standing up, one hip cocked, the opposite knee visible under the draperies that swoop up across her middle and are caught under (and lead our eye to) the arm that is holding the Child. That arm is sometimes the right one, but the left is much more common, because as any mother knows, infants are calmer when they feel their mother's heartbeat. 

These madonnas have come a long way from the gravitas of their Romanesque predecessors, who glared at the faithful cowering at the foot of their thrones.   Their plump faces framed by long curls, these later virgins smile beningly at their infants, or at the worshippers, or at their own thoughts.  Their bodies twisted in a graceful contrapposto, their draperies swirling about their legs, they look like at any moment they might take flight, or start dancing.

Speaking of which, against all national stereotypes, the Catalan and Spanish statues are almost invariably reserved and hieratic, whereas the German saints with their spiraling garments and sinuous limbs look like flamenco dancers.  The Dutch pieces are the wildest, including a half-undressed St. Sebastian wearing a fashionable courtier's hat, and a crucifix in which the ends of the dead Christ's loin cloth fly out behind him in whiplash curves reminiscent of Art Nouveau.

The sight of all this bounty disgorged by the churches of old Europe gave me a hankering to possess just one piece of my very own--a  linden-wood Saint Catherine with maybe a couple of fingers missing, or an apple-cheeked Madonna holding a headless Child.  Something  unimaginably old, but somehow still alive.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mulch Hay

Got six bales of mulch hay today, a kind of vegetable duvet that I plan to apportion to various living beings around here, i to make their winter more comfortable.

A couple of bales will go around the feet of the climbing roses I planted last summer against the chicken-shed wall.  Climbing roses are supposed to be tough.  But this will be my roses' first winter, and their name, "New Dawn," makes them sound so young and fragile that I'm going to give them a nice thick mulch this year.

I will also mulch the seven lavender bushes growing against the stone wall in front of the house.  Not only did they survive last winter, but they produced an amazing crop of blossoms right through the middle of November.  Some of their flowers, which I picked and dried in early summer, are now inside the scented "eye pillow" that helps me go to sleep at night.
I believe that the lavender's survival was due not only to the warmth of the sun that the stone wall captured and retained, but to the excellent snow cover we got last winter.  Unfortunately, since  thanks to global warming, even in Vermont we can't count on heavy snows,  my lavender bushes will need hay to protect them if the snow is scarce.

Most of the hay, however, will go to the chickens.  Now that the goats are gone, my six hens have almost 130 square feet of coop space.  While that guarantees against the evils of overcrowding--hysteria, depression, and cannibalism--six birds hardly generate enough heat to warm up that much space.

The answer is a nice, deep, dry, crunchy bed of hay.  Something they can scratch around in, peck at, poop on.  Something to keep their skinny chicken feet away from that freezing-cold plywood floor.  Something to spread on the garden next spring.

And something to keep me, as I snuggle under my duvet at night, from fretting about my six girls while the wind howls outside.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Intermittent Reinforcement

The weather has turned warmish, and the frogs that were hibernating in the muck at the bottom of our pond are surfacing again.  Yesterday one of them was actually out of the water, sitting on the little marble block which was a favorite frog sunbathing spot back when there was sun.  It's a strange sight to see a frog on the patio in the middle of stick season.  I wonder what other wild critters are finding this warm spell confusing.

One of the confused critters is Bisou.  After there was an ice skin on the pond for several mornings in a row, she had finally stopped dipping her ears in the water, hoping for frogs every single time she went outside.  Yesterday, however, I saw her at the sliding door, and the wag of her tail told me, without my even looking out, that there was a frog on the patio.

So now it's started all over again, Bisou dipping her head in the water seventeen times a day, coming inside with dripping ears that need to be dried, wanting to go outside again....That frog on the patio constitutes intermittent reinforcement, which, if I recall correctly, renders a behavior harder to extinguish than 100% positive reinforcement.  Which means that if, when Bisou looks out, sometimes there is a  frog on the patio and sometimes there isn't, she'll be more persistent in her frog hunting than if there always were a frog on the patio (which might get boring).

In other news, last Halloween night a crime took place which struck horror into the hearts of the inhabitants of our micro-village.  A guy in a gorilla suit went to someone's door and stabbed the man who opened it twenty-five times.

Coming on the heels of a robbery at the village store, this event had many of us rethinking our habit of leaving cars and houses unlocked.  But now it appears that the gorilla episode was a hoax perpetrated by the supposed victim, who apparently was so desperate for entertainment (and here it isn't even winter yet) that he stabbed himself twenty-five times. 

A cautionary note for those considering moving to our idyllic region:  cabin fever--even in stick season--poses as real a danger in these parts as road-rage and street crime do in places where there are no frogs.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Orchestra Tales, Part The Second: Why I Hate Die Meistersinger

At the final rehearsal before one of our concerts, things were not going well.  We were playing the overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger, and something we were doing was bothering the conductor.  He kept stopping and explaining--it seemed to have to do with us first violins--making us repeat, beating his baton on the lectern, and explaining some more.

Way in the back of the section, I as usual had no idea what he was saying.  I was counting the minutes until time to go home.  I wasn't even watching the concertmaster, the blue- and brown-eyed boy, very much.  "Let's try it again," said the conductor.  "And this time..." but again, I didn't understand him.

We played a few measures, the ones where the strings go up and up a series of intervals.  "Stop!" he yelled, at the top of his voice.  "You!!  Back there!"  and he jumped off the podium and walked to where I sat with my violin under my chin.  He stood over me in a fury, yelling and jabbing his finger at my music and waving his baton until his breath ran out.

If there is one thing worse than being yelled at in front of an orchestra of teenagers (and I had never been yelled at by anyone before, except my mother), it is not understanding the content of the yells, because then the tone and the body language and the grimacing face convey rage at a much scarier, primordial, animal level.

The rehearsal over, I wept in the car all the way home.  I'd had it with the Youth Orchestra.  I'd had it with sitting all week in school not understanding what anybody said;  trying to keep up and do my homework on weeknights; helping my mother with housework on Saturday; and then spending Sunday morning at Mass and the afternoon in rehearsal, being yelled at.

Miraculously, for once, my parents relented.  My father spoke to the conductor, who played violin in the Birmingham Symphony, and explained that I hadn't understood him.  He, the conductor, in turn apologized to me.  But even then I disliked people who yelled and later apologized, and didn't really forgive him.

Maybe my father got tired of driving me to and from rehearsals on Sunday afternoons.  Maybe he and my mother decided that I had enough on my plate.  In the end, I didn't have to go to rehearsals anymore.

To this day, in a persistent Pavlovian reflex, when Die Meistersinger overture comes on our local public radio station, I turn it off.  I hate the bombast of the opening measures, despise the strings' endless climbing scales.

And every time, as I switch off, I am touched that my parents gave in to me, stopped forcing me to do something I hated and was scared of--that they were soft.  They probably felt guilty at not insisting that I do what was "good for me," little knowing that, many decades later, that single instance of parental indulgence would become one of my most cherished memories.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Orchestra Tales, Part The First: Why I Hate Die Meistersinger

Shortly after we arrived in the U.S., my father, who thought I could use some ensemble-playing experience, signed me up for the Birmingham Youth Orchestra.  Every Sunday afternoon he would deposit me and my violin in a drab, fluorescent-lit rehearsal space in pre-civil-rights downtown Birmingham and come back to fetch me two hours later.

Those rehearsals were a kind of purgatory for me.  Sitting in the back of the first-violin section, I thrashed like a shipwrecked sailor in a sea of sounds and rests and strange notations.  "Watch the conductor," my father would say as he drove me.  "Always keep your eye on the conductor, or you'll get lost."  

As far as I could tell, however, the conductor--a man with thick hair, a big nose and round tortoise-shell glasses--just waved his arms in random patterns, stopping frequently to complain about our playing. Instead, I watched, as best I could, the concertmaster, a curly-haired boy who seemed impossibly mature to me--he must have been all of seventeen.  When he started to play, I started to play.  When he stopped, I tried to stop too.
I should note, while we're on the subject of the concertmaster, that he had one pale-blue eye and one eye as dark brown as mine.  I used to sneak looks at those eyes during breaks, which I otherwise spent pretending to clean the rosin off my bow.  I didn't talk to the other players--my English was too rudimentary to understand their chatter, let alone contribute to it.

The only positive aspect of playing in the orchestra, as far as I was concerned, was that for concerts we girls were supposed to wear black skirts, white blouses, and stockings.

Even though I was fourteen and fully equipped to play my part in perpetuating the human race, my mother kept me in short dresses that tied in a bow at the back, and short white socks.  But since the orchestra's dress code demanded it, she had to get me a pair of stockings--and a garter belt to hold them up.

I was thrilled with the stockings (this was a few years before pantyhose burst on the scene), but less so with the garter belt.  For, in order to hold up the hose, the upper rim of the garter belt had to exert pressure on the curve of the lower back, just above the hips.  This produced a peculiar agonizing ache that I recognized a decade later, when I was in labor with my first child.  (To be  continued.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Fly And I

Several years ago I did a stint as academic dean at a small, private, liberal arts women's college.

In case it's been a while since you've perused college catalogs, the words "small, private, liberal arts, women's" stand--among other things--for "caring, personal, and supportive," a place where you, the student, will be treated as the unique individual you are.  A place where everybody, from the president to the cafeteria ladies, knows your name. 

One of my supposedly less-demanding tasks was to call out names at the graduation ceremony as the president handed each senior her diploma.  At graduation rehearsal after my first year on the job, however, it became apparent that just reading names in an appropriately solemn tone was not as easy as it seemed.
As I was going down the list, I became momentarily distracted, looked up from my sheet, skipped a line and called the wrong name, not realizing that the person walking across the dais was not the one whose name I had just said.

At a bigger school, say Indiana or NYU, the mix-up would have caused sniggers and cynical remarks along the lines of, what do you expect, in a place this size, how can anybody know who anybody is, and who cares anyway?But at a small, private, liberal arts women's college, this was irrefutable evidence that I did not know the name of my graduates. 

And if I didn't know every student by name, if I was so removed from the very life-blood of the college as to not even realize that I had called a senior in her moment of glory by the wrong name, what kind of caring, supportive, emotionally-present dean (and a woman at that!) was I?

This kind of lapse could be laughed off at rehearsal, but if it happened during the real ceremony, in front of the assembled ancestors (who had paid zillions of dollars in tuition just to have their daughter's name skipped by some cold-hearted administrator) it would be a not-minor disaster.

Graduation day arrived, and the graduates in their gowns, the mothers in their Laura Ashleys, the grandmothers in their little hair helmets, and the florid dads in their navy blazers assembled in a dogwood-and-azalea-speckled dell.
Behind me on the dais sat the faculty, hooded and robed and already bored  The president stood beaming by the pile of diplomas.  I stood behind the lectern, with the list of graduates before me and feeling anxious.

I was anxious because I'm notoriously bad at names, and though in the preceding two semesters I had met and liked a good many of the seniors, the truth was that I could only put names to at most ten percent of their faces, a ratio that, under the present pressured circumstance and with the students decked in identical caps and gowns, would probably plummet to two percent.
It was crucial, then, that once I'd called the first name and launched the first senior towards the dais, I keep going down the list without interruption, and not lose my place.

The processional ended, the invocation followed, the president made his speech, a generous donor was honored with a pretend doctorate.  And now came the moment everyone in the audience had waited for, the culmination of four years of nights in the library and meltdowns in the dorm and starchy meals in the cafeteria.  It was time for me to start calling names.

I jabbed my finger next to the first name and called it.  Cheers, cameras, applause.  Congratulatory murmurs from the president behind me.  I moved my stiffened index down to the next name, and called it, and then the next.  I began to feel more confident:  the trick was to put my finger by the name and keep it there until the graduate had left the dais, then move the finger down and call the next name.  And concentrate.

I was about halfway down the list and doing well.  The next name was Anne Marie Louise MacAllister-Provenzano.  But as I took a preparatory breath, a fly, drunk on dogwood and azalea pollen, flew into my mouth and down my throat.

The earth stood still.  I knew that if in any way I acknowledged, even to myself, the presence of that fly in my trachea, I would go into such a fit of coughing and gagging that it would stop the proceedings at best and cause me to vomit into the nearest azalea at worst.  And, if I survived, I would never find my place on the list again.

So, making bowels into heart, as we say in Spanish (hacer de tripas corazon), I pressed my index finger on the page, bore down with my diaphragm, and proclaimed, "Anne Marie Luise MacAllister-Provenzano!"

Somehow, I made it to the end of the list without choking, mixing up names, or giving any indication that, though I wished them all well from the bottom of my heart, I had no idea which smiling young face went with what name.  As for the fly, it dissolved without a trace in my alveoli.

Whenever life seems hard and my moral stamina feels soft,  I think back to that spring day in the dappled sunshine of the dell.  I feel my finger pressing down on the paper, feel that fly buzzing in my lungs, and think, I can manage--all I have to do is make bowels into heart.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bisou In The Storm

Yesterday, while the nor'easter was raging, I let the dogs out to relieve themselves. Bisou, who cannot accept that her frogs have gone into hibernation, shot out the door and ran to the edge of the pond, in hopes that one or two of them would be relaxing on the slush.

This being only her second winter, however, she forgot to allow extra room for braking, and slid into the water with a big splash.  Before I could jump in and rescue her, she swam across the slush like an icebreaker, and crawled out.

Concerned that she would die of hypothermia, I ran to get a big towel, but when I returned to the back door she had disappeared.  Had she fallen in again?

Then I saw a red blur hurtling towards me from the field.  She whizzed past me like a comet, then reversed direction and headed for the field again.  Over and over, while the rain and sleet and snow battered the landscape, she ran around the yard as fast as her legs would carry her.  

She ran up to Wolfie and Lexi, who were wisely trotting back towards the house, and jumped at their faces and barked, then did a few more laps, barked some more, and finally resigned herself to coming inside.

I rubbed her dry with the towel and gave her yet another talk about the need for prudence, etc.  Then she bolted upstairs, flung herself on her fleece afghan, and took a long, long nap.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Bulletin From The Well

Ever since I got back from the trip down South to see my mother, I've been at the bottom of a CFS well.  Whenever I try to scramble up its slippery walls, the CFS gods shove me down again.  They are angry at me for traveling, for attempting to maneuver my limp mother to a more comfortable position in her bed, for resuming my regular routines after coming back.  I may have to stay quietly in the well a while, until the gods forget about me.

Meanwhile, inspired by Bridget's post,, I have made a list of good things around and in me:

1.  We're in the grip of a raging nor'easter, and the house is being pelted with sleet, snow, and freezing rain.  I am inside.

2.  Bisou is cuddled up next to me, on the fleece afghan that is now hers because a) she loves it so much, and b) she has chewed a corner of it.

3.  There is food in the fridge and freezer for a healthy dinner tonight. 

4.  Nothing hurts. 

5.  My kindly spouse will stop at the bookstore on his way back from town and pick up two books for me.  If you have a phobia of being stuck in airports without a book, you can understand mine of being bookless during a CFS relapse.  The books are Joanna Trollope's The Other Family and Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, both of them sure to be well written while not overly taxing the brain (I lose about 30% of my mental capacity during a CFS relapse).

6.  The frustration and despair of the last few days have evaporated, and now I'm floating in a kind of Buddhist bath, having let go of desires, detached from outcomes, and anchored myself in the present which, taken moment by moment, is not all that bad. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Greens, Endless Greens

We're deep into stick season here--you know, the weeks after the maples and the sumac and the Virginia creeper drop their leaves (sic transit gloria mundi) and all you see is gray sticks under gray skies.

In the vegetable garden, the beans, tomatoes and other fair-weather friends are long gone.  The raised bed frames have been installed, though, alas, not yet filled with dirt and compost.  All the raised bed frames, that is, except for the three that are supposed to go on the beds where stuff is still growing.

And what stuff is still growing so lushly and relentlessly that you'd think it's midsummer instead of stick season?  The two immortals, of course:  chard and kale.

Every week since June I have given the local food bank between five and eleven pounds of c and k.  I have shared the bounty with my friends and my dogs (the latter love to gnaw on raw kale).  I have blanched and frozen quarts of the stuff.  And still it keeps coming.

And because I know that any night now the winds will howl and it will get really cold--like, into the teens--and there will be no more fresh home-grown vegetables until next April, I feel compelled to keep harvesting while I may.

So it's chard or kale, kale or chard, every night.  I blend the green du jour into soups, fold it into omelettes, mix it with cheese in quiches.  Slather it with bechamel and hide it in casseroles.  Boil it with rice and feed it to the dogs.
Out of recipes as well as patience, I echo the exasperated cry of Henry II, who'd had it up to here with Thomas a Becket: "Will no one rid me of these turbulent greens?"

Any volunteers out there?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Wolfie Makes A Statement

Here is a confession:  none of the three male dogs I've had in my life--two German Shepherds and one Shitzy-Poo--has ever cocked his leg to pee.  The trainers to whom I have mentioned this have given me such funny looks that I have not pursued the matter further.

Wolfie, despite his size, black coat, massive head and general commanding air, was no exception to this rule.  That is, until today, when we went on our weekly walk with his friend Gunner and his owner.  

Gunner is less than a year old, and almost as big as Wolfie.  Until now, he has been the Beta of the pair, and hasn't minded it at all.

Being the Beta means engaging in highly ritualized play in which Wolfie always does the chasing, and Gunner always gets caught and rolled and gets up again so Wolfie can chase him some more.  It also means that periodically Wolfie holds his head up and looks dreamily into the distance while Gunner, ears back and tail wagging, licks at Wolfie's lips.

But because I was gone last week, it had been a fortnight since the two had seen each other, and the minute they met today, it was clear that something had changed:  before Wolfie realized what was going on, Gunner was chasing him

Wolfie eventually recovered his wits and did some corrective dramatics involving a curious high-pitched bark, some flashing of his big white canines, and some bumping into Gunner to get him to back off.  This worked momentarily, but soon Gunner was chasing him again.
It was all in good fun, and Gunner was smiling the entire time.  But Wolfie wasn't smiling.  Something was going on with unneutered Gunner's hormone levels, and Wolfie didn't like it.  He rounded on Gunner, flashed his teeth, stood on his hind legs and pushed Gunner away.  Then, looking annoyed, he marched over to a nearby bush, cocked his leg, and peed.

After that, they returned to their old rituals, Gunner in front, running for all his worth, Wolfie behind catching, then rolling Gunner, then Gunner taking off again.

By the time he's a year, Gunner, who is already enormous for a nine-month-old, will be bigger than Wolfie.  By then, he will also have been neutered.  I am curious to see what these changes will portend for their relationship.  

Will Gunner's dwindling hormones help to maintain the status quo? Will his size advantage lead him to challenge Wolfie for the Alpha spot?  Or will Wolfie, with his seniority and new leg-cocking skills, retain his place at the top? 

Part of me is fascinated by their rituals and displays.  But part of me finds their posturing annoyingly reminiscent of certain faculty meetings in my academic past and wishes they'd get over it, already. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

My Mother, My Hair, And I

I was sitting next to my 92-year-old mother while she ate lunch in the dining room of her assisted living facility.  She sat in her wheelchair smiling, pleased that I was there, while I made conversation with the three other ladies at the table.

Since her recent health troubles, my mother's English has all but deserted her, but that doesn't keep her from addressing those around her in a hybrid of English, Spanish and Catalan.  The ladies at her lunch table find her mysterious, to say the least, so they were taking advantage of my presence to get some context that would help them make sense of my mother.

I was doing my best, enunciating in case they were hard of hearing, making eye contact with each lady in turn, explaining how things were, when my mother put her hand to my hair and brushed it away from my face.

I pushed her hand away.

My mother has been pushing my hair off my face for as long as I can remember.  She has pushed the hair off her grandchildren's face.  And, if she had access to them, she would do the same to her great-grandchildren.

For this, she offers vaguely phrenological explanations about the significance of a "wide forehead," which supposedly bespeaks intelligence, nobility of character, and beauty as Aristotle conceived it.  She never did accept my protestations that intelligence and nobility of character aren't necessarily cute or sexy.  She remained adamant on the virtues of the "frente despejada," the unencumbered brow.

The only explanation I can find for this is that the movie stars of her adolescence, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner, boldly bared their desert-like expanses of forehead to the world.  But I belong to the school of Colette, who said that a face, like a fruit, needs foliage around it to set it off to advantage.

But still.  Here was my mother, 92.  Here was I, not all that much younger.  Furthermore, I was on an errand of kindness and mercy, determined to be utterly sweet and compliant and non-confrontational for the 48-hours I would spend in her presence.  And the minute her hand touched my hair--well, I didn't exactly swat it away, but the swatting feeling was there.

Why didn't I let her brush back my hair?  Why didn't I let her dazzle her tablemates with the sight of my broad and noble forehead?  Why did I deny her that microgram of happiness?

I learned in Catholic school that a sin requires an act of the will.  So I can hardly call that quasi-swat a sin--it was more a spinal reflex.  But it was a reflex born of a lifetime of daughterly opposition, rebellion, resentment.
I don't even blame myself for those, really, for without them I would never have become a person.  
But I am disappointed that, despite the years and experience that I drag behind me like those carry-on bags on wheels, I saw my mother's liver-spotted, knobby, blue-veined hand reach towards my hair, and I pushed it away.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Tomorrow I'm leaving for Mobile to see my mother (who was seriously ill a few months ago but is now recovering) and will not be posting for a couple of days.  During my absence, I will also miss the fall rummage sale at the church in the nearby village of X.

I had never been to a rummage sale in my life until I moved to Vermont and was told by friends and neighbors, "You have to go the X church rummage sale.  Everybody does."  So I did, and there, hands deep in the mountains of separates, making their way along the racks of dresses, coming out of the "designer room," or entering the "outerwear" tent, I did in fact see most of the people I knew.

I have attended the twice-a-year X rummage sales faithfully since that first time.  I have gone on splendid fall Saturdays, when the church steeple is silhouetted against a background of red, gold and green hills.  And I have optimistically purchased armloads of sleeveless dresses and gardening clothes in the full blast of a spring blizzard.

The sale at X is so well attended that it's a testimony to the upward march of civilization that riots don't break out.  Maybe it's the calming presence of the church ladies that keeps things in check.  These women, who have worked the week leading up to the sale collecting and sorting donations, stand for hours behind the tables where the goods are piled, making change, bagging purchases, running out to look for more coins.  They all, without exception, look weary, but also without exception they are cordial and helpful.  In the face of such stoicism, the rummaging throngs put on their best behavior.

Like a gambler playing for low stakes, at the X rummage sale I allow myself to shop irresponsibly.  There is no way to try things on, no possibility of comparing prices, no time to talk yourself out of foolish choices.  You have to grab first, and think later.  So I do.

When I arrive home lugging a trash bag full of clothes, having spent all of twenty dollars, I have only the vaguest idea of what I have bought.  Usually there are pleasant surprises:  a designer top, a cashmere sweater, a pair of faded jeans just right for the garden.  There is also the dress that doesn't fit, and the bizarre and useless item that I could swear someone else must have put in my bag.

As I have mentioned before, shopping in Vermont is a delicate subject.  On the one hand, we complain about the absence of opportunities--there just aren't many stores around here.  On the other hand, we know that we owe our clean air, uncluttered roads and serene landscape to this very dearth of shopping.

So we are grateful to the urban souls who own summer homes near the idyllic village of X and who graciously do our shopping for us in the bustling burgs of New York and New Jersey, and who, after wearing the results of their labors a couple of times, kindly donate them to the X church rummage sale, where we buy them for two dollars a piece.

Like the recipient of a transplanted heart, I vaguely sense the frustration of the executive woman fretting in rush-hour traffic as I head out the door in her--now my--Eileen Fisher sweater, to feed the hens.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Mother And The Shrunken Head

The head-shrinking (or tzantza) tradition among the Jivaro tribes of the Amazon was alive and well when my parents and I arrived in Ecuador in the 1950s.

We first saw a couple of tzantzas inside a glass case in Quito's folk-art museum.  They were fist-size, the eyes and the grotesquely large lips sewn shut, the skin black and leathery, the hair--which had retained its length--streaming down the non-existent back.  

They were like puppets out of a nightmare, and I could barely stand to look at them, especially after reading the description of how they were made. The captured enemy's head was cut off, its contents were removed and replaced with a small wooden sphere, the skin was tanned, and the resulting object was dried and shrunk by covering it with hot rocks and sand.

My mother badly wanted a tzantza.  She admired all things Indian, and had a number of pots of various shapes and sizes, a chief's regalia made of pounded tree bark covered with tropical bird feathers, a nine-foot blowgun with its quiver full of curare-tipped arrows.  A tzantza would have made an exciting contribution to her collection.

But there was a problem:  real shrunken heads were not only expensive, but the Catholic Church forbade the faithful to own them.  Fortunately, there was a lively trade in fake tzantzas, made from monkey heads, or goat skin, or who knows what else.

When we moved to the U.S., my mother's Indian artifacts came with us.  (Those were the days when you could travel on a plane with a nine-foot blowgun and a supply of paralyzing arrows and nobody asked any questions.)

The first thing my mother did in our new house was to mount her collection.  The delicate, earth-colored pots went on a shelf.  The blowgun and the arrows--whose tips she had snapped off to prevent mishaps while dusting--hung on the living room wall, with the chief's ceremonial garb arranged below.  The tzantza, however, lived inside a brown paper bag in the hall closet.

This was Birmingham, Alabama, and I was fourteen years old.  When guests walked into our living room, their mouths would fall open.  My mother loved this, and would proceed, in sketchy English, to relate the origins and uses of each object.

Meanwhile, in a corner of the room, I would wither with embarrassment.  Why, I wondered, did she have to make us seem even more weird than we already were?  My survival strategy among my peers in those days was to try to blend in as best I could, but my mother seemed to delight in being different.  

As she neared the end of her lecture, I would begin to pray--God please, don't let her bring out the tzantza!  But usually she did.  She would fetch the brown paper bag from the closet, thrust in her hand and bring out the head with a flourish.

The guests would gasp and step back as she stood there triumphant, holding the thing by the hair, like Judith with the head of Holophernes.  Only after she had given a detailed description of the shrinking process and let the company sweat a while would she disclose that this particular head was a fake.

Where, I wonder, is that brown paper bag with its grisly contents after all these years?  Where are the blowgun, the quiver, the chief's outfit?  I don't want to know.  But I do have one of my mother's beautiful Indian pots in my living room.  It doesn't scare the guests.

Friday, October 15, 2010

First Fire

Is there anything messier than a wood stove, or a fireplace?  Wet, dirt-bearing wood gets carted in from outside, ashes are carted out from inside.  There are newspapers, spent matches, smoke.

On the other hand, is there anything sweeter, cozier, more comforting than a wood fire?  Anything--short of the smell of cooking--that more powerfully evokes the feeling of home and, well, hearth?

We used to live in a house with two gas fireplaces, one in the kitchen/family room and one in the bedroom.  They were the kind that simulates a wood fire, with the blue gas flames shooting up behind some fake logs.  My husband rigged the bedroom fireplace with a thermostat, and on extra-cold nights we would awaken to a whoosh, and the eerie blue light of the gas spontaneously combusting beyond our bed.   

Those gas fireplaces warmed up the room in seconds.  They were clean, cheap, ecological...and every time I lit one I longed for a good, messy, real wood fire.

Today has been rainy and windy and what Vermont meteorologists call "raw"--the first inkling of what awaits us in the coming months.  I've had to make extra sure that, soaking grass underfoot and rain pouring from above notwithstanding, Bisou remembers what the command "do your business!" means.  Back in the house from their necessary excursions, the three dogs have been grateful for the extra-large towel I keep to rub them down.

Now Lexi and Wolfie are blissed out in front of the stove.  Bisou is at her usual post, scrunched up against my elbow so I can barely type.  I closed the hens in early this evening, threw them some extra sunflower seeds, and turned on their light for cheer.

I know how glad I'll be next spring to be done with the woodstove, to put the ashes on the garden and cart the kindling box and log carrier down to the basement.  But for now there's nowhere I'd rather be than staring into the flames, with the snoring dogs and the snapping logs, and the rain beating hard against the window panes. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Power And The Glory, Or, Bzzzt!

For my birthday, my daughter decided to bring my kitchen up to modern standards, and gave me a food processor.

Having on my conscience the bread machine and the juicer that I bought, grew weary of, and subsequently gave away, I was leery of food processors.  In my experience, most counter-top conveniences took up more space than their convenience warranted.

Besides, I had my faithful Chinese chopper, a gift from my mother-in-law on Christmas, 1969.  With that fearsome implement I had over the years chopped hills of onions, mountains of zucchini, and entire sierras of rhubarb, and I still had all my fingers.  I thought I was keeping things simple, by staying away from food processors.

The spanking-new birthday present was sitting untouched and reproachful on my counter when I brought in the last couple of eggplants and the final crop of banana peppers yesterday.  Intending to make a version of samfaina, I fished an onion out of the fridge and then, looking at the pile of veggies waiting to be sliced, decided to get started on the food-processor chapter of my life.

I peeled the onion, sliced it in half with the Chinese chopper, put it in the food processor, pushed the "pulse" button, and bzzzt! it was reduced to shreds in the twinkling of an eye.  While the onion was sauteeing, I put in the two eggplants--they were small, so I didn't halve them--and bzzt! in a nanosecond they were turned into pulp.  The good old Chinese chopper came in handy for seeding the peppers, but when I threw the whole mess of them into the processor, bzzt! they were cut into teensy bits. 

Thanks to those whizzing blades, everything--onions, eggplants, peppers--sauteed with an unaccustomed evenness, which gave the contents of the frying pan a pointillist look, where my old  hand-chopped samfainas had been more cubist in style.  It looked neat and orderly.  It looked professional.

And it was finished and ready to eat half an hour before the main dish was done.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bisou's Play Date

Yesterday Bisou had a play date with her brother, Bear.

She and Bear were the largest puppies in the litter, and because Bear's owner Joanne (see her website here) and I are friends, we arranged lots of get-togethers for B&B when they were puppies, and they developed a strong bond.

In Bear's case this bond is made even stronger by the fact that he would like to have many, many puppies with Bisou.  He doesn't care that if they did, the puppies would each have at least two heads.  He doesn't care that Bisou was spayed three months ago.  He firmly believes that, if he applies himself and stays focused, a miracle will happen and Bisou will conceive.

Thus, their play revolves around Bear's ceaseless attempts to mount his sister.  This doesn't bother Bisou, who slithers out of his grasp and runs off as fast as she can, ears streaming in the wind.  Eventually he catches her, maneuvers himself on top of her, she slides away and the chase begins all over again.

This goes on for--I have timed it--two solid hours, while we walk through the woods, stop by the stream, and drink iced tea, the dogs chasing, mounting and rushing in circles around our feet the entire time.

Eventually, the last quarter-hour or so, they slow down a bit, stand up on their hind legs, and wrestle as hard as they can (this is the interaction I have chosen to depict, below).  Then Bear remembers, and the chase begins once more.

Bear is scheduled for neutering in the next few days.   When he recovers, we'll get him and Bisou together again.  I wonder how things will go then.  I suspect that they may not change too radically--this kind of play has become part of B&B's history, and mounting behavior is not always sexually inspired.

What I hope will never change is the exuberance and good humor of their encounters--for their sake because they get such fun out of them, and for mine because they allow me to imagine, for a while, what a blast my life would be,  if only I were a dog.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Slouching Towards Winter

There was frost on the grass this morning, and Wolfie, stimulated by the chill, raced around and skidded and slipped and almost fell.  Good practice for icy mornings to come.

I thought the cold night might have done in the beans, but no such luck.  By noon they were looking as perky as they did in August.  The eggplants and banana peppers are still bearing, and the chard and kale, needless to say, are chugging along as if The Killing Frost weren't around the corner.

Because it was a nice day in which to do the job, I brought in my two zonal geraniums and put them by a south-facing window.  They will stop blooming for a while, but when the snow covers the ground outside, the reflected light will stimulate them to bloom again.

I gave the scented geraniums in their heavy pots a good pruning and dragged them inside for the winter.  I did the same for the big rosemary bush.  Please understand that I mean "big" by Vermont standards.  Rosemary cannot survive our winters and has to be brought indoors, which means it has to be kept in a pot, which keeps it from reaching its full splendor.

Still, I'm quite pleased with my rosemary, which made it through last winter and is the first rosemary plant that hasn't given up the ghost within two weeks of being brought into my house.  I owe this success to my herbalist friend Dona, who told me that rosemary hates to be moved.  I paid attention to her advice and kept the pot anchored next to a south-facing window, refusing to move it even to make room for the Christmas tree.

Also, remembering that the name "rosemary" comes from the Latin ros marinus, meaning sea-dew, and that it grows in the semi-arid hills near the Mediterranean, I kept the soil fairly dry but misted the needles after feeding the dogs every morning.  The plant rewarded me by covering itself with lavender-colored blooms and hanging on until late spring, when it could go back outside.

The rosemary and scented geranium clippings are now drying on woven-straw trays in the dining room.  Does this herb business never stop?  I had finally finished stripping the oregano, thyme and lavender (three whole cups of lavender blossoms, of which I am inordinately proud), and now here are these handfuls of heavenly-smelling leaves that I cannot possibly throw away....

Meanwhile Bisou is mourning the disappearance of her frogs, which have abandoned the warm stones of the patio and dived into the depths of the pond, there to slumber cozily until the spring frenzy wakes them up, a long, long time from now.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sun Squirreling

These days I'm storing up sunshine like a squirrel stores nuts.  I don't know that I can really store sunshine (maybe in the form of Vitamin D?), but at least I can store up the memory of it.  On second thought, forget that.  I know that it is impossible, on a sleety January day, to recall how it feels to sit in the warm sun.

Regardless, I sat outside on the sunny patio stripping lavender for a while this morning.  I have quite a harvest this year.  My plants, which I placed up against the stone wall in front of the house, made it through their first Vermont winter, thanks no doubt to being snuggled under a thick duvet of snow, their backs against the sun-warmed stones.

Normally, I don't strip lavender, but roughly chop the stems and throw the whole thing into potpourri.  This year, however, I want to make lavender-filled eye pillows, and the stems might feel a little rough against the eyelids of my loved ones--not to mention my own eyelids--so I'm having to separate the blossoms from the stems.  It's a slow, repetitive task, but if you're olfactorily fixated like me, you don't mind it.

While I worked, Wolfie and Bisou passed the stick du jour back and forth to each other.  The bird feeder was right behind me, so I could hear the flutterings of the chickadees as they landed and took off, and also the bulletins they sent out (i.e., tweets) as to their location and activities.  "Just arrived at feeder for lunch," "Dropped a seed!" "Stopped on chicken-house roof to check dog locations," and on and on. 

Replace the flaming maples with gnarled olive trees and the chickadees with hoopoes  (you can see them here) but keep the sun, the cobalt sky and the scent of lavender, and I could have been somewhere on the foothills of the Pyrenees. 
Then a chilly breeze came up, and I came back to Vermont.  I gathered up my lavender, called the dogs, and went inside.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Few Dog Issues

What's with dogs and yoga mats?  The minute I unroll mine,  Wolfie and Bisou fling themselves down on it.  

This morning I was sitting cross-legged at one end of the mat when Wolfie stretched himself out full length on it, put his big head on my lap, took a deep breath and, as the yoga teachers say, focused inward.  There was no room for Bisou, who contented herself with licking my hands, which I had placed palm up on my knees, index- and thumb-tips touching, in whatever mudra that is.

God knows I've done some sweating on that mat--is that what attracts them?  Or is it something more ineffable, having to do with energies and such?

Here's another thing:  have you ever bent to straighten a rug that your dog has wrinkled without the dog instantly leaping onto the rug, making it impossible for you to fix it?  This happens to me at least seven times a day, every day.  

I think that this has to do with the dog's instinct to look in whatever direction we're looking.  Some people believe that this ability--which non-human primates lack--is the reason that the dog's ancestors became people's hunting partners and were domesticated.

And lastly, why does everything a dog plays with infallibly end up under a piece of furniture?  I'm not just talking about balls here, but bones, tug-of-war toys, whatever.  It seems that whenever I'm not straightening rugs I'm flat on the floor, reaching among the dust bunnies for something Bisou has lost and desperately needs.

My friend Alix, Bisou's breeder and dog woman par excellence, runs a bed-and-breakfast for dogs in her house.  If you have a dog that might need a place to stay, or just want to see beautiful dogs  (inluding Cavaliers) romping in idyllic surroundings, check out Alix's website: