Saturday, January 30, 2010

My TV Show, Part The First

When I was twenty, I had my own TV show. This was many many years ago, practically the 18th century, but TV had already been invented. It was live; it was black and white; and I was on it.

This was just before PBS came on the scene, when states had their own educational channels. My mother, a Catalan housewife with a university education, fresh from four years in the jungles of Ecuador, had been recruited to teach Spanish to the school children of Alabama, on the educational TV channel. She was forty-two at the time, had never owned a TV set before coming to the U.S., and had just had her second child. At sixteen, I saw nothing unusual in any of this. She was a mother, after all, and supposed to cope with stuff.

My turn came four years later, when I was in college. My mother's school-year programs were such a success that the TV station wanted to add something different--a summer course in Conversational Spanish for a general audience. But there was a problem: in the summer, my father was on the faculty of a music camp in North Carolina, and my mother and my baby sister went with him.

Forty years later, it still rankles with me that, while my buddies where whooping it up in the dorms, discussing Sartre and listening to Bob Dylan, I had to go back to my parents' house every afternoon, to babysit, hang diapers on the line, wash dishes, and make myself generally useful. When I begged to live on campus my father said "What is wrong with this family that you want to live away from us?"

One afternoon I came back from campus to find my mother reclining on her bed. "I have some important news for you," she said solemnly.

"You're not...pregnant again, are you?" I asked.

"No. But you have a job this summer."

I had been looking forward to summer with all my heart. With my parents in North Carolina, there was no choice but for me to live in the dorm while I took a full load of summer school courses. Contemporary Philosophy at 7 a.m.? I was all for it, as long as I was able to live on campus. So now I had a job. How bad could that be?

"What is this job you have found me?"

"You will teach a television program." My mother went on to explain that this would be a new course, and that I was to write the textbook for it--more of a large pamphlet, actually, but still....

"But I can't!" I gasped. " You know I can't. I'll be taking Contemporary Philosophy and Algebra, and there's no time to prepare. I have spring finals next week..."

"You have no choice. I have told them at the station that you will do it. Get to work on the textbook right away."

You know how it is. Sometimes you want to kill your parents. Sometimes I still do....

(To be continued.)

Friday, January 29, 2010


It was so cold today, and with such a bitter wind, that even the dogs didn't want to be outside. It was a waste of a sunny day, too--bright and sparkly, and I should have been out with my face to the sun, getting my share of Vitamin D and dopamine, but I just couldn't. Too darn cold.

Instead, I made a fire in the stove, in the morning. Normally I don't light the wood stove until late afternoon, more for psychological comfort than for heavy-duty heating. I am ashamed to admit, that even in the midst of these wooded hills, we heat mostly with oil, and only slightly with wood.

But this morning, despite the thermostat, which was supposed to keep the house at an even 66F, it felt cold, so I made a fire. Am I the only one who finds it especially hard to keep a fire going on cold, windy days? I ended up spending most of the day crouched in front of the stove, reviving the flames. It was hard to get anything done. Every time I turned my back, the fire would die.

I dearly wanted to go down to my carving room in the basement and work on my little piece of slate. But the fire would surely go out in my absence, and what if Bisou needed to go outside? I toyed with the idea of spreading a sheet on the living room floor, in front of the stove, in view of the dogs, and doing my carving there, but recognized just in time the insanity of this.

So I spent the day feeding the fire and going outside with Bisou when she needed it, and reading the autobiography of Rumer Godden. At one point I dozed off, but heard Bisou whining by the door--not something I can afford to ignore--and that was the end of my nap.

I find this kind of day especially trying. Tending fire, making soup for dinner, dealing with the animals--it just doesn't seem enough. It seems like a waste, and it leaves me feeling restless and dissatisfied.

And at the same time I realize that it may be my life's work to come to accept and feel pleasure in a day spent tending the stove, and dealing with the dogs.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Because her brother, "Bear," belongs to a friend of mine, Bisou sees him at least once a week, when we carpool over snowy hills and woods to agility class.

You should know that Bisou's and Bear's papa is a nationally-acclaimed agility champion. When I was looking for a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, this attracted me, not because I envisioned spending the rest of my life attending agility trials but because if a dog can run and jump and twist and race that well, he's got to have a really good heart. And hearts are the Achilles heel of the breed.

Bear and Bisou are attending beginning agility classes because agility gives puppies confidence and strengthens the bond with their owners. That said, my friend and I are not displeased when Bear and Bisou shine in the ring.

They shine, but they could not do so in more different ways. Born less than an hour apart, these two puppies came to earth from different planets. They look different: he is a "black-and-tan," she is a "ruby." He is more rugged, and she more refined, as befits their genders. But the real difference is in their personalities. This is so immediately striking that, on the first day of class, another dog owner took one look at them and asked the instructor whether it was usual for puppies from the same litter to be so entirely different.

What did this person see that made her ask this question? She saw Bear sitting composedly at his owner's feet, watching the proceedings, while Bisou wriggled and whined and strained at the end of the leash, wanting to get to Bear, wanting to greet the instructor, wanting to get inside the ring.

Two months later, nothing has changed. The puppies are leaping over jumps, walking on low teeter boards, rushing through tunnels and chutes, jumping on tables and then lying down. When it's Bear's turn to run through a course, he walks calmly into the ring, listens to directions, then goes through each obstacle with great deliberation and presence of mind, making few mistakes. Then he stalks out of the ring looking a lot like his champion father (also a black-and-tan).

While Bear is in the ring, his sister is quivering, whining and moaning on the sidelines, every red hair of hers screaming "my turn, my turn, my turn!" Even though she only weighs sixteen pounds, it's all I can do to hold on to her.

Eventually, after a looooooong wait, it's our turn. What is Bisou like in the ring? I have no idea, because all I can see is a red streak, very close to the ground, long ears flapping, going from jump to jump to table to chute with such speed that I can barely bark commands out in time, much less keep up with her. Every once in a while, I hear the other people in the class laugh. I never hear a sound out of Bear.

Despite their differences, Bear and Bisou adore each other. Put them in a room together and they instantly go up on their hind legs, arms around each other's neck, then fall to the ground, rolling over and over to the accompaniment of incessant growling from--you guessed it--Bisou. Bear never says a word. This can go on, literally, for over an hour, with no breaks, until my friend and I, our eyes sore from focusing on all that movement, pry them apart from each other.

For now, we let them have their fun, knowing that things will change soon. In the next month or two, Bisou will have her first heat, and Bear too will be swept by the hormonal tides. We will have to separate them, at least temporarily. (Although their two-headed puppies would be adorable, my friend and I, when we bought the dogs, signed agreements never to breed them.)

The thinking in veterinary circles these days is not to neuter females until they have had their first heat, males until they are fully grown. So we are in store for some Romeo and Juliet times in the coming months. I've already been warned by the vet that 95-pound neutered Wolfie may find Bisou very interesting when she goes into heat....Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Please Remove Your Shoes

The first time I was asked to do this, outside of a doctor's office, was in the house of a friend I hadn't seen in decades. We had played together as children during the years my parents and I spent in Ecuador. Now she was married to an Englishman and living near Philadelphia, and I was going to spend Thanksgiving with them.

This being the 1980s, I had dressed for the occasion: rayon dress with significant shoulder pads, and color-coordinated shoes and panty hose, to give a maximum effect of height and slimness.

I had barely made it through the door, barely taken in the fact that the diminutive 12-year-old had grown a couple of inches and turned into a teensy woman, when I was directed to take off my shoes (my beautiful barely-there-very-high-heeled shoes)...and was handed a pair of snowshoe-like white slippers to replace them.

They might as well have asked me to take off my dress and sit on the sofa in my slip. Without my shoes I felt utterly vulnerable and clumsy, and every time I glanced down at those white slippers I felt like a housewife ( in the negative sense, god forgive me) caught with her hair in curlers.

My hosts were generous and kind, but I never did relax in their house. Their floors looked elegant, but I didn't, and guess which I cared more about?

Here in Vermont, where unpaved roads and driveways mean that the great outdoors often trails indoors, I have friends who, winter or summer, the minute they step into my house take off their footgear. "Please, there's no need!" I assure them. But they insist.

I can deal with optional shoe removal. Compulsory shoe removal, on the other hand, makes me nuts. I build my outfits from the feet up: footwear to legwear to top, so if you tell me to remove my shoes, the whole thing topples.

I went to a party recently, an all-female potluck followed by dancing (what the ancient Greeks used to call a Bacchanal). I showed up in my best pair of boots, tights, and a dress, only to be greeted by a sign directing me to take off my shoes. I complied, and entered the living room feeling dowdy in a skirt that, without the height of the boots, seemed to drag me down. I skated around the floor in my tights, feeling the cold seep up through the soles of my feet. But the worst was yet to come. After dinner, which I ate with my toes curled around the chair rung, the dancing began.

Have you ever tried to dance on a slick wooden floor, in stocking feet? Pas possible! When you dance, your shoes are supposed to help you grip the floor, not skate over it--hence the suede soles on ballroom dancing shoes. I did a few gyrations in my tights--the thought of runs and splinters ever present in my mind--and then withdrew, feeling miffed and missing my armor.

To me, asking guests to remove their shoes is like asking them to help wash the dishes. Human gatherings inevitably produce mess: tracked-in dirt, dirty dishes, stained table cloths. If one invites friends over for a meal, the pleasure offered is not just in the food, but in the freedom from responsibility for the ensuing mess.

So to my friends I say: track mud onto my floors, dirty my dishes, stain my napkins ad libitum! Think nothing of it: you're a guest in my house. And I'll do the same, when I'm invited to yours.

Monday, January 25, 2010

January Meltdown

The technical term, I know, is "January thaw." But what's happened here today goes beyond that. In less than 24 hours, the landscape has gone from pristine white to horrid brown. The skies have opened and let down tropical--well, almost--downpours. Weird warm winds have blown and the snow has disappeared, replaced by mud. Dirt roads and driveways (the majority of Vermont's roads are dirt, and we're fighting to keep them that way) have become brown rivers. And below it all is that stubborn layer of ice, growing thinner but no less treacherous by the minute.

Our backyard is one of Dante's circles of Hell. You think I exaggerate? Picture mud, and dirty snow, and places where the water is up to your ankles, and deadly hidden ice, and a winter's worth of dog poop.

The hens went outside for the first time in months today. When I gather the eggs tonight they will be smeared with mud from the hens' feet.

If this were March, we could look forward to warm sunshine, and less snow, and the end of mud season. But that is a long way away.

The good news is that tomorrow it will freeze again, hardening the mud so it doesn't get tracked all over the house, and it will snow, covering up the dog poop and other yuckies. Mud season without the consolations of spring is an abomination, and I for one will welcome the return of winter.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beauty Secrets Of A Stone Carver

I was in the basement the other evening, carving passionately at my experimental piece of slate. I was going to a party later, and had planned to change my clothes and wash my hair and make myself presentable. But I really got into the carving, the "ping" of mallet on chisel, the rhythm of the hand, the slowly emerging features. By the time I took off my mask and gloves and smock (really just an old shirt of my husband's), I knew that all I had time for was to wash my face and change my clothes.

The hair...would have to take care of itself. I would brush off the dust and put on a smile and--well, this being Vermont, I probably had nothing to worry about. Brush in hand, I bent over the bathroom sink and brushed upwards from the nape of my neck. Then I straightened up and looked in the mirror, and lo! my hair looked fabulous, if I say so myself.

And then I remembered the one beauty benefit of carving stone. While it will gnarl your hands and stiffen your sinews and damage you lungs, stone carving will make your hair look great. Just look at the portraits of the great sculptors: Michelangelo and Bernini both had nice full heads of hair, doubtless thanks to all that Carrara dust, and so did Brancusi.

I once read that if you don't have time to wash your hair you should sprinkle talcum powder over it, rub it in and then brush it out, and your hair will regain its bounce and shine. Talcum powder, of course, is nothing but very fine stone (soapstone, to be precise) dust.

So I went off to my party feeling all smug and put together, except for the disconcerting smell of slate dust that stayed with me the entire evening.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Nuthatch, Chickadee

Chickadees and nuthatches are the mainstays at our feeder in winter, and I think they kind of "go" with the look of the landscape--elegant black and white, with subtle blue or rosy shadings that mimic the play of afternoon sun on snow.

Both are tiny birds, but the chickadees look cuddlier than the nuthatches. Nuthatches are more streamlined. They have small heads and long beaks--adult proportions. Chickadees are "neotenic"--they have the kind of features that remind us of babies and trigger the cuddling response. Puppies and kittens are neotenic with a vengeance: big heads, widely spaced eyes, tiny muzzles. That's why we fall victim to them, even when we ought to know better. Chickadees--even the bossy adult males--look like babies too: their heads are round and large in proportion to their bodies, their eyes are wide apart, and their beaks are the size of a niger seed: the very essence of cuteness.

It was sunny today, and cold, but in the middle of the day you could actually feel the warmth of the sun. And up in the bare branches of a birch a chickadee could feel it too, and sang its song with extra oomph: "Heeere sweetie, sweetie, sweetie!"

Before you know it, the sweetie will answer the call, and then spring will really be on its way.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fear Of Food

"Americans," I remember hearing Julia Child warble, "are afraid of their food."

So true--for me at least. My first apprehensions about food were based on a realization that, unless one was extremely careful, food could make one fat. But since those days, my food fears have expanded and become more sophisticated as a result of years of exposure to "healthful hints" and the latest reports on what is likely to kill us in the food we eat.

On grocery-shopping days, my food fear escalates into a phobia. Take today, for instance. Heart full of dread, I wheeled my cart into the supermarket's produce section. Ostensibly, this should be the least fear-inducing part of the place. What could be healthier than fresh veggies and fruit?

Because I grow most of the vegetables that can be frozen, I don't even look at broccoli, spinach, chard, and so on. Those are safely in my freezer, and I am not afraid of them. But I don't grow my own apples, for example. And here the dilemmas begin. Should I buy expensive organic apples that have been trucked across the continent with much damage to the environment, or opt for local apples that have been sprayed with god-knows-what? There is a new apple on display today, the "Pinata," fresh from Washington State and combining "typical apple character with tropical flavors." What kind of idiot do these grocers think I am? Don't I know genetic engineering when I see it?

O.k., but I need some fruit. What about grapes? There they are, in seedless splendor, just arrived from Chile. Forget the hydrocarbons that their trip shot into the atmosphere. Who knows what they were sprayed with? Ditto for those beautiful pineapples, and the oranges, and the off-season berries. I leave the produce department with some sweet potatoes (at least you peel those) and a box of raisins (I need those antioxidants in one shape or another, and these come from nearby California).

I push my cart to the fish department. Fish is supposed to be good for you, and I like fish. I like salmon. Here's some--oops, no. It's farm raised. You thought factory-farmed chicken was bad? Wait til you hear what the fish farms are doing not just to the fish, but to the coastline. Plus, see that orange color? Do I really want to put that into my body? There is some fish that is not farm raised: it comes from Ecuador, and from Indonesia. I can just see the black clouds of diesel behind those trawlers. I can feel the emptiness of the over-fished depths.

Deep in the bowels of the store are canned goods, sitting in their baths of salt. I put a can of organic chickpeas in my cart anyway. Who cares where they came from? Here be pastas. What could be wrong with macaroni? Wheat, that's what! Wheat these days contains high amounts of gluten, and you should eat it in only tiny amounts. But, you say, bread is the staff of life! As if.

I pick up a 25lb bag of white rice--don't worry, it's for the dogs! So is the big tray of chicken drumsticks, and I even feel guilty about feeding those to the dogs, given what we all know about Purdue et al., but it's better than the regular dog food, which contains even worse horrors.

The Mediterranean diet is supposed to be the epitome of healthy eating. I was brought up on the real thing, and I love that kind of food. Which begins with olive oil. I have always looked down my nose at the "extra virgin" stuff, preferring the darker, more flavorful oils. But it turns out that something in the processing makes the extra virgin oil kinder to your heart. I used to like buying olive oil. Now I do it with a frown.

Forget the cereal aisles, the bakery, the ice cream section. I pass those by, a monk in the midst of Vegas. In the dairy section, I buy a big package of string cheese, which I will cut up into tiny pieces for dog treats. I look at the racks of eggs: regular eggs (from hens enduring unspeakable torments in cages), organic eggs (well-fed hens, but probably still caged), cage-free eggs (a million hens kept in a building, as free to move about as people on a metro platform at rush hour), and finally, free-range eggs, almost as expensive as the Faberge kind. Well, at least I have my four girls at home, who are a little bored because they cannot go outside, but are otherwise all right. I go back to the produce section and buy them a couple of cabbages to peck at.

It never fails--by the time I get to the checkout, I am depressed. Isn't it ironic that, in the midst of plenty, I am practically starving. Surrounded by foods from all over the planet, I can allow myself to eat only a tiny percentage of them. What is wrong with this picture?

On my way out of the store, I pass by a new display rack--garden seeds! Utterly premature in this climate, but there they are--the embryos of chard, spinach, lettuce, peppers, basil, only hope, my bulwark against starvation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Snail Update

Back in December, I wrote here about what I should tell my grandson, when he came for Christmas, about the pet snail that he had left behind on his summer visit to Vermont. He had mentioned to his mother that he was looking forward to seeing his snail again, and I was wondering whether I should tell him what I believed was the truth, that the snail was long gone, done in by the snow and sub-zero temperatures; or invent a pious story about the snail waiting patiently under the leaves in the yard for summer and his next visit.

A number of you voiced your opinions as to how this should be handled, and one of you suggested that I simply find out what does happen to snails in winter. So I did a cursory web search--I was busy wrapping presents and didn't have much time--and found out that some snails live for four years. "That must be in Florida," I muttered, and googled "Vermont snails." And behold, the life span of some Vermont snails is two years. That means that those fragile, soft-bodied, slimy creatures make it through two whole winters under snow and ice. But how? Do they burrow under the earth somehow (and how do you burrow when your head is the consistency of jello)? Do they hide under leaves? The websites were silent on these points.

At any rate, when my grandson inquired about his snail, I was able to tell him with a clear conscience that the snail was outside somewhere, waiting for spring. "But why," the boy inquired, "didn't you keep him in the house?" And here I did make something up. "Because," I said, pointing to the fire burning in the wood stove, "the heat would have dried him up."

My next dilemma will be, when my grandson visits in the summer and wants to see his snail again, whether to pick up an understudy from under a spinach plant and tell him he's the one, or to tell him the truth.

Nature red in tooth and claw--snails gobbled up by chickadees, bunnies carried off by hawks, a hundred Haitis in every square foot of field and woods--how can I bring myself to paint her as such to my grandchildren, when I have trouble seeing her that way myself?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Spiritual Practice: Housetraining Bisou

The good news is that Bisou hasn't had an accident in the house in a month or so. The other news is that it takes a bit of an effort to achieve this.

She's six months old now, and her metabolism has slowed down significantly. This means two or three poops a day as opposed to six or eight. So that helps.

Also, she has figured out that P1 and P2 belong outside. She becomes agitated and runs to the back door when the urges strike. If I clip the leash onto her collar and take her outside, with a little encouragement she takes care of things quickly, and then can be trusted indoors for a couple of hours or so.

But, reader, this is winter in Vermont. When Bisou does her little dance at the back door, I have the choice of putting on gloves, coat, hat, and boots and going out with her into the elements(and then undressing again)--or of simply sending her out with instructions and watching her through the sliding door.

But Bisou (for those whom her fame has not yet reached)is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The "Cavalier" refers to her attitude towards life in general, and I haven't figured out the "King Charles" part yet. But the Spaniel in her means she is driven by her little button nose, impelled to follow every rabbit foot print, every whiff of feather, oblivious to the signals from her vitals.

I stand at the sliding door and watch her as she goes back and forth across the snow, farther and farther into the woods, clearly having forgotten why she's there. As she weaves her way behind trees and bushes, I have no idea whether she has done the deed. I watch until I start to worry that she will disappear--perhaps be picked up by an owl. I become aware that I am not feeling serene or centered or grounded, but anxious and perturbed.

I call her--"Bisou!!" She stops--a red speck in all the whiteness--and looks at me as if she's never seen me before in her life. I put a falsely jolly tone in my voice and call again. Suddenly her entire past life comes back to her, and she rushes at me like a bullet.

This is all very nice, but a minute later she's at the door again, agitated. This time I abandon the fireside, heave a deep sigh, dress from hat to boots, clip the leash on her collar, lead her outside, and in a matter of seconds the mission is accomplished.

She's happy. I'm happy. She curls up on the arm chair; I sit before the fire.

The lesson that I cannot seem to learn is that SHE IS NOT READY TO GO OUTSIDE ON HER OWN. She is too young to withstand the temptations of rabbit and squirrel and bird scent. She still needs help. But me, I'm always pushing forward. She's signaling to be let out? Well, then, she SHOULD be able to manage the whole business by herself. Why should I waste minutes of my life putting on clothes and taking them off when she SHOULD be able to take care of things alone?

My unrealistic expectations are usually disappointed, and I have to get dressed anyway, and take her outside and stand there looking at the rising sun, or at the birds at the feeder, or at the stars (and in Vermont, we've got STARS). I could decide to just accept the putting on and taking off of clothing for the rest of the season. I could accept the notion of six or seven daily bathroom trips outside.

I could use the time to reflect on life issues, or to plan what I'm going to make for dinner, or I could just focus on the Red Baroness, who is doing her best to be a good girl, and all the pleasure she brings into my life. Wouldn't that make sense?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Itchy Fingers

About this time of year, halfway between the holidays and the start of gardening season, my fingers start to itch. I want to make something--something tangible, three-dimensional, with texture...something that isn't words.

Over the years this itch has led me to crochet (so 70s), embroidery (so 80s), drawing and painting (so...eternal) and eventually sculpture--hard stuff (stone) and soft (clay, and even softer: dolls with hair, dresses, etc.).

How I loved carving stone! I did what is called "direct carving," that is, I just whaled away with no drawings or preconceived notions, until something came out. It was so earthy, so primitive, so close to where we humans began. I used no power tools--just what carvers have used since time immemorial, mallet and chisel. I loved the "ping!" of chisel on stone. (You can see some of the pieces that have gone to other homes here)

In a very short time, however, the work began to take a toll on my body. Not only was all that pounding and smoothing hard on my shoulders and arms, but the hauling of my comparatively small (60 lbs--I never carved anything I couldn't lift) sculptures to shows became debilitating. So I wended my way back through clay work, back to drawing, back to writing.

But oh, I've missed the carving.

The village where I live, West Pawlet, on the southwestern end of Vermont, sits on one of the richest slate deposits on the planet. The slate here is green, blue, gray, purple, red--and it is everywhere. Our porches, our walks, our stone walls are made of slate. The village itself is crammed into the nooks and crannies of slate quarries. You want a piece of slate? Just pull off the road and load it into the back of your Subaru.

Not only is slate lovely and plentiful--it is relatively soft and easy to work. But there is no free lunch. Slate is a kind of mineral fillo dough, made of many thin layers that can chip off at the slightest touch. As such, it cannot be carved in the round, but lends itself to bas relief.

Bas relief, where sculpture and drawing meet, is dear to my heart, in theory. I have no idea whether I can do it. I tried to get a local sculptor who does beautiful slate carving to give me a tutorial, but she has proved elusive. That's o.k. Maybe it's best if I find my own way.

This afternoon, there being a thaw, I waded to our shed and pulled a couple of small slate pieces out from under the garden tractor. They are a beautiful greeny-gray, and fairly smooth. The one I've got my eye on is long and narrow, maybe 12"x4"--nowhere near the golden ratio. I like that. I like being bounded by the stone--it's kind of like writing a sonnet, where you have to fit your meaning into the corset of the form.

Tomorrow morning, after I put a couple of loads in the washer, I will wander into the basement and sharpen my smallest chisels. And I will attack my little piece of slate, and see what happens.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Casals At 95: I Live!

I've been immersed in youtube videos of Pau Casals, the great cellist and interpreter of Bach. There are videos of him in his seventies, toddling around with his black umbrella in the villages of southern France, just over the border from his native Catalonia, which he never reentered after the Spanish Civil War, as a protest against the Franco regime. There are recordings of him playing the Bach Cello Suites, which he rediscovered and performed all over the world. There are tapes of his speeches, and his heart-breaking performance of a Catalan folk song at the U.N., when he was well into his nineties--his bowing shaky, his vibrato gone, but the feeling and the passion all there.

When he was 93, he continued to play the cello three hours every day, beginning with scales and arpeggios, and ending, every day, with one of the cello suites by Bach. When somebody asked him why he did this, he answered "I'm beginning to notice some improvement."

In one interview, he tells how, when he was seventeen, he was invited to perform for the Queen of Spain and her court. His mother went with him, along with a baby, one of Casals' many siblings. When, during the performance, the baby began to cry, Mrs. Casals, without a second thought, put him to her breast, and nursed him.

(That baby, by the way, grew up to be a fine violinist, who shared a music stand with my father in the Barcelona City orchestra, in the 1950s.)

In that same interview, the 95-year-old Casals is asked what keeps him going. "I can look at a tree, at a plant, for an hour. Such beauty!" he exclaims, raising his hands. "You see," he says, his black eyes twinkling, "most people don't live. I live!"

You can see Pau Casals (whose name in Catalan means "Paul," but also "peace") here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dog Park Follies

Took Bisou to the local dog park this morning (in Vermont, that means a 45 minute drive, no traffic, gorgeous landscape). Every two weeks, from 10:30 to noon, it's Cavalier Play Group. In Vermont, that means five people and nine dogs, not all a the same time.

When Bisou and I arrived there were five males there--four Rubies, one Tri-Color--all neutered except for one. That particular one, a feisty Ruby, is waiting for the breeder to determine whether he has show potential, in which case he will get to keep his gonads.

In which case, god help us. Because that particular Ruby has been obsessed with Bisou from the minute he first set eyes on her. She was only four months old the first time we went to the park, and puberty not even in the horizon. But the minute I let her in the gate, he was on her the Energizer Bunny on a rampage? Like some obscene windup toy? Like the ideal male lead in a porno film?

Now she is six months old, and his lust has reached new heights. This morning he and Bisou wandered over the park like a weird sort of dog tandem, one in front, pulling with the forelegs (Bisou) and one behind, pushing and shoving and, you know, humping.

I was determined to be polite and not over-protective. I know that bitches have their ways of keeping inopportune suitors at bay. But those must be more experienced bitches. All Bisou did was run, and, when caught, submit--ears back, eyes round--then run again, and submit once more. A couple of times I heard her growl, but it didn't have any effect. She didn't seem cowed or hurt in anyway, so I decided to let Nature take its course.

Which it did, over and over and over again. The male's owner was embarrassed and apologetic and would periodically call his dog and reason with him. At one point the dog, unhappy at being distracted from Bisou, grabbed his owner by the sleeve, his eyes wide, growling and tugging with all his strength. I was aghast. I've never seen such raw dog-to-owner aggression live before. If this had been a bigger dog (Wolfie, say) the owner's arm would have been torn off.

But this was a small dog, a lovely long-haired, big-eyed sweet-looking lap dog, so his owner cooed to him, and entreated him to sit (which the dog laughed at), and petted him until he was no longer snarling, and let him go. Whereupon the dog, feeling he had succeeded in teaching his owner a lesson, went back to Bisou.

Eventually three of Bisou's littermates showed up, and the older dogs went home, and the puppies had a good old pre-pubertal romp. We three puppy owners promised not to hold it against each other when the hormonal tides sweep in and turn our little darlings into sex-obsessed maniacs for whom all idea of play is a thing of the past.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thinking Of Haiti

...of those who died and those who mourn them,
those who are lost and those who search for them,
those who are trapped and those who free them,
those who are hurt and those who heal them,
those who are hungry and those who feed them,
those who despair and those who comfort them...

we can always click here and help.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Trollope And Snow

When I find a writer I like I always hope it's somebody with a large opus, so I can dive in and swim around in the stuff and not come up for air for a long, long time. With Trollope, I've hit the jackpot.

I first read his Palliser novels ten years ago, followed by the Barsetshire series. Then at the book sale at our local library last month I found Phineas Finn (one of the Palliser series) in paperback for a dollar. I stuck it in a pile of books during Christmas, and pulled it out after our guests were gone, just as it began to snow. I found that I loved that novel even better than the first time I read it. It was a brick-sized tome, but the snow lasted three days, and Trollope saw me through it.

Then we had a clear day or two, and another snow was forecast. I had a bunch of books to read, but no more Trollope. I rushed to the local bookstore, and they had a single book by Trollope on their shelves. (What are people reading these days, anyway?)

Luckily, it was one I hadn't read, The Way We Live Now, and even thicker than Phineas Finn. I clasped it to my breast and rushed home as the first flakes began to fall. The storm went on for days, but the book outlasted it. I'm only half way through it.

There is no end to the man's inventiveness. There are love intrigues, money intrigues, political intrigues. The last two are not my favorite reading topics, but I'll take anything from Trollope, who makes me empathize with his financiers and understand his politicians by shining the clear light of his intelligence over each one. His women are nuanced--unlike Dickens's icons--fully formed and human. There are salt-of-the-earth heroes whom I find irresistible.

But my favorites are his dithering young lords, forever in need of money, forever in search of an heiress--any heiress-- who will provide it. They have the oddest notions of honor--it's o.k. to owe money to tradesmen, but disgraceful to expect a fellow club member to pay a gambling debt. They are so clueless and so bumbling, that I'm sure that P.G. Wodehouse was thinking of them when he created Bertie Wooster and his cohorts at the Drones Club.

Trollope is smart and he is kind, and that's about the best thing I can say about anybody.

If there is a heaven, do writers go there? And in that heaven, are there peepholes through which they can watch us reading their books? I hope so. And I hope that Trollope knows how glad I am that he wrote every day of his life (nulla dies sine linea was his advice to writers) and how grateful I am for his company this winter.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Dithyramb For Bisou

Dithyramb: a wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing, a passionate hymn, usually in honor of Dionysus

I sing of Bisou and her feats, the likes of which have never been heard with regard to a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel two days short of six months of age, or of any dog at all.

Behold, she hath not messed in the house since before Christmas, but cometh to me entreatingly, with her tail a-wag and an anxious look in her eye to be let outside even if it be storming.

And she cometh back at my bidding, and eateth gladly of the special offerings which I make to her in gratitude.

She feareth not the big dogs, nor their frightful jaws, but thrusteth her head valiantly into the maw of Wolfie, and liveth to try again.

She quaketh not at going for walks in the snow, and valiantly ignoreth the ice balls that collect upon her loins, and goeth her way despite them.

In agility class, she leapeth over jumps, flingeth herself into tunnels, walketh fearlessly upon elevated planks, her only fault being the over-enjoyment of same.

She runneth like a bullet, and flieth around the house and hath earned for herself the sobriquet "The Red Baroness."

Then she cometh into my arms that she may rest, and spreadeth her silky ears on my lap, and my cup runneth over.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ingratitude--Bred In The Bone?

As you may have read here, I was afflicted with pretty horrendous shoulder and arm pain during the holidays. Then, after a course of narcotics, and a couple of physical therapy sessions, and healing thoughts sent my way by my yoga classmates, I suddenly got better. Much better.

I was aware of the cessation of pain, and grateful for it. But I was not aware of my new freedom of movement. Motions that had caused me agony--turning over in bed, getting out of bed, putting on my shoes, hugging my spouse--no longer did so. So I just did them, as I always had, without giving them a second thought.

And that is what puzzles me--how easily those things came back, and how little I was aware of them. The minute that putting down the dogs' dishes didn't hurt like the dickens, I put down the dogs' dishes while thinking of something else. The minute my mobility returned, I took it for granted, and went on to other things.

Why did I? Why didn't I stop and bask in gratitude for even a single day? I think it's because I'm human. I suspect that generations of upwardly-mobile ancestors have geared my genes to take the good for granted, and strive like mad for the better. A recipe for discontent, you say? I agree. And a recipe for progress, too, for better or worse.

I saw a TV documentary about the Neanderthals recently. Neanderthals shared a common ancestor with our species and migrated to Europe a zillion years ago. There they settled in caves and made nice stone axes and ate lots and lots of meat. And lived happily in the same way for forty thousand--or was it forty million (I was on pain meds when I watched this)--years. They were grateful for what they had, and saw no need to rock the boat.

Then the homo sapiens types arrived and started improving the cave walls with art and carving little figures of fat women out of bone, and pretty soon the peaceful, contented Neanderthals were history. Next thing you know, it's the Trojan War, followed by the Crusades.

You see what I'm saying? Why can't I just be happy bending over without pain, turning over in bed without groaning? Why must I be thinking about painting on my cave walls, and carving stuff?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Critters In The Cold

I knew by how heavy the sliding door felt this morning as I let the dogs out that it was extra cold. Eight below zero, by our front porch thermometer.

While the water for my tea was heating in the microwave I put on socks, my barn jacket, gloves and a hat over my usual morning chore outfit--my pajamas. I filled a bucket with water and ventured into the attached garage, picking my way over the accumulated chunks of muddy ice that have been falling off the bottom of our car and are waiting for the temperature to, someday, rise above freezing.

As you all know by now, our goat and chicken shed is attached to the garage, so I do not have to trek through the elements to feed my critters. This morning the goats greeted me with loud cries. Was something wrong? Had they starved during the night? Were they cold? Had the coyotes scratched at their door? I checked the hay feeder, which was far from empty. Their heated water bucket was still half full. And in their long, fuzzy winter coats they looked like plump matrons in fur coats. What was all the fuss about?

While they ate their sweet grain, I checked under Virginia Slim's tail. Aha! She was in heat--that's why she was yelling. "There's nothing I can do about that particular need of yours right now, my dear" I said to her. "You'll just have to try to think of other things until it's over."

Next door, the hens were just waking up. The droppings under their roosts have been freezing almost as soon as they emerge during the night, forming Himalayan peaks that are as rock solid as the real thing. Looking at that piled-up manure, I could just see the tomato plants that it will nourish in my 2011 garden (chicken manure needs to age for a year before it is used ). When you're doing chores in sub-zero weather, it is important to take the long view of things.

The hens were cheerful enough, even though they would not venture out into the deep snow. I made sure their feeder was full and then threw a handful of sunflower seeds onto their bedding, to give them a sense of purpose.

My fingers were stiff inside the gloves by the time I went back to the house to feed the dogs. As I doled out the kibble and the home-cooked mush I filled their bowls a bit more than usual, thinking that if I had to go out into sub-zero weather every time I went to the bathroom, I would need some extra calories too.

And as I drank my tea I reflected that all over these hills people with red noses and freezing fingers were trudging with buckets of water and pails of grain to keep the critters fed and comfortable, to check that all is in order, and to keep things going, morning chores and evening chores, through another winter.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Southern Exposure

Nothing restores the soul in winter like a south-facing window on a sunny afternoon.

I am fortunate to have a glassed-in porch at the back of the house. It is narrower and more rustic than I would like, but on a cold sunny day, with plenty of snow on the ground, it is heaven on earth.

It was 14F when I took the younger dogs out this morning, and the snow in the field was knee-deep. Wolfie and Bisou plowed through it like a pair of dolphins in the surf, but before long I could tell that even they had had enough, and we went inside. I unfastened my treat pouch, took off my sunglasses, gloves, hat, and coat. I rubbed Bisou with a towel and did my best to melt the snow balls that had collected in her armpits and belly. And then she and I went into the porch.

It felt like 80F in there, and was as bright as a Mediterranean beach. We sat down on the old loveseat that is too banged-up for the living room and watched the birds at the feeder. The day we took down the Christmas tree was so frigid that we just threw it out the back door, thinking to drag it out to the woods later. But what with the non-stop snowstorms and everything, the tree is still lying there, right at the foot of the bird feeder. The chickadees perch deep inside its branches and eat their sunflower seeds in comfort, out of the wind. I think we'll leave the tree there for them until the spring.

What a difference the sun makes! Snuggled in our loveseat, Bisou and I do a bit of Apollo worshiping. Against the window, my modest collection of houseplants--the rosemary bush, the scented geraniums, a tall pony tail plant, a jade plant in bloom--are worshiping too. Plants by a window--cold outside, warm inside--did I already say it was paradise? If Bisou and I were cats, we'd be purring.

My boots come off, then the fleece top that I wear over my cotton shirt, but I keep them close at hand. Pretty soon the light will begin to decline, the temperature will drop, and Bisou and I will retreat to the living room, and sit on our sheepskin by the woodstove.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Impending Puberty

She still looks like a puppy, her coat short and flat with a few scattered wisps of longer hair to indicate where her future "feathers" will be. She's not even half a year old, but sweet little Bisou is about to plunge into her teenage months. Trust me. I've had daughters; I know.

In dogs, as in people, the surest sign of impending puberty is separation issues. As in "I am separate from you. Very separate. So don't be getting any ideas of sappy together times. Unless I want to be with you, of course, in which case you'd better be there."

It happens very fast. A week ago, I'd say "crate!" and she'd trot happily into her cubby. Now she gives me a look that says "As if! Do you think I don't know when I'm being abused? I wasn't born yesterday, you know."

She used to be unfailingly deferential towards the big dogs, especially old Lexi. Now, while I prepare their food, she drives Lexi nuts, jumping all over her and distracting her from her focus on the food. Bisou has learned to play tug of war with Wolfie, and growls so convincingly that he lets her win.

She came to us at nine weeks old, a demon retriever. She would chase anything you threw for her, and bring it back to you, and be grateful if you threw it again. Now she chases things, all right, but once she gets them she yells "Mine! I got it and it's mine, mine, mine! And never in your fondest dreams will I let you have it! Ha!"

At nine weeks--ah, those halcyon days--and at twelve weeks and even sixteen she had perfect "recalls"--that is, she came at me like the wind when I called, wherever I called, no matter what she was doing. I knew at the time that it wouldn't last, but it was sweet while it did.

Now she comes to me, sometimes. Often, on good days. Always, eventually. And, believe me, it is one of the hardest things I've ever done to follow the trainers' advice and welcome her back with open arms and give her a smile and a treat in hopes she'll remember that next time.

You'd think the deep snow and the cold would drive a little dog like her indoors as soon as she was called. But not at all. She has heard the other call, the call of the wild, and she likes it better than my call. She has figured out that it takes a few minutes for me to pull on my boots and coat to go get her, and she believes that she has earned this reprieve and has a right to it. This afternoon the sun was out, and even after she'd started to follow me to the house she decided to take a few detours along the way. We are entering the dangerous time.

At this point, the trainers tell me, I should be exercising her, playing with her, training her and stimulating her so much that she will decide that nothing in the woods or under the snow or in the compost pile is as much fun or as interesting as I.

To which I say "pshaw!"

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

More Confessions Of A Milkmaid

It was Christmas Day when I gave up milking my goats because of terrible pains in my shoulder. It took a lot for me to reach that decision. After all, things were going swimmingly in the goat house: the babies had just gone to a wonderful home and I was getting almost two quarts/day from Blossom, their mother. For a Nigerian Dwarf goat, that is a lot of milk--and what milk it was, rich, sweet, full of protein and fat. My city-bred grandchildren, who were staying with us during the holidays, were drinking the stuff as fast as Blossom could make it, and the one adult in the family who puts cream in her coffee was happily using Blossom's milk instead.

But Blossom, as I have explained, was a demon milker, and each encounter on the milking stand required much bending and twisting and holding and forcing and sweating, not to mention actual milking, on my part. It hurt so much that I finally quit.

I stopped feeding the goats grain (I gave them all the hay they wanted) and that and the cold weather helped them to stop producing almost immediately. At the moment, then, I don't have dairy goats. I have, it pains me to say it, pet goats.

Why does it pain me to keep goats, especially these adorable tiny goats, as pets? I don't know. All I can say is that I have a compulsion to have only farm animals that are productive, that feed us, that eat our grass (though mostly they eat hay I buy at the store) and our pumpkins and turn them into milk, or in the case of the hens, into eggs. I have a vision of the cycle of nature being reenacted on our bit of land, and the goats need to be participants rather than spectators.

For the moment, however, Blossom and Virginia Slim are dry. In the mornings I take them a bucket of water spiked with cider vinegar, give them a handful of grain, open their door to the outside, replenish their hay and bid them have a good day. I'm back in the house in no time. There's no milk to strain, no milk pail and strainer to wash. Same thing in the evening. I miss the milking and it's not that much trouble, really,'s awfully nice not to have to do it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Laptop, Lapdog

I am not a desk person. I own a desk, but I use it as little as possible, for paying bills and such, and I never put my computer on it. For I am the ultimate laptop person, and I adore being able to write in bed, on the floor, on the grass (well, not right now).

These winter days, my writing spot is on the living room sofa, close to the stove. The big dogs sprawl nearby--right now Wolfie is sleeping with his head on my foot. Bisou, whom I've started calling the Red Baroness, flies up onto the sofa and..wait a minute, where's the lap? She's a lapdog, and she's just had dinner. She feels a nap coming on and she's looking for a lap, but there is a computer on it.

Bisou is not easily discouraged, so she burrows and insinuates and next thing I know she's ensconced under my right elbow, every inch of her body in contact with my thigh. "Poor thing," I think to myself "she must be cold," though how a dog who plows happily through two-foot snowdrifts could be cold a few feet from a roaring fire I cannot imagine.

I go to the hall closet and retrieve my precious sheepskin and spread it on the sofa next to where I'll be sitting. "Here, Bisoulette," I urge, patting the wool, "Lie down here and be comfy." I sit down, start typing, and my spell checker goes crazy. It seems that I'm making lots and lots of typos, all with the right hand: Bisou is once more under my elbow, her entire body pressed against my leg. Seems there's no comparison between the comforts of a sheepskin and my jeans-clad thigh.

I push her away gently (I'm not a monster!), lower my elbow, holding it tightly against my waist, and try to recapture my train of thought. A minute later, the typos start. She's back!

But it's not her fault, is it? Centuries of obsessive breeding have produced a dog who is irresistibly attracted to the human lap, and Bisou is just following the dictates of her DNA, which coincide exactly with the job description I drew up for her. After all, if I didn't want a dog who would insist on full body contact when at rest I could have gotten one of those non-cuddly breeds--a sled dog, say, or a Pharaoh hound.

Clearly, I'm the one who's going to have to adjust. I'll have to learn to type with the right elbow held high, to accommodate Bisou's thorax. In the meantime, if you notice more than the usual number of typos in these posts, please bear with me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

North For The Winter

When, five years ago, we announced our plans to move to Vermont, the response among our friends was 95% negative. "Do you have any idea how cold it gets up there?" people shrieked. We could literally go anywhere we pleased, so why not Florida, people wanted to know, or even North Carolina? Those were reasonable choices. But Vermont--hadn't we heard about the winters there?

Our first three winters in Vermont, I must confess I was disappointed. It just didn't get that cold--no colder, say, than Maryland in the 1970s, before global warming. The last two winters have been more like what I'd expected, and been warned about. This winter...suffice it to say that I've lost count of how many days it's been snowing non-stop. And I love it.

I was born on the shores of the Mediterranean, spent the last years of my childhood on the equator and came of age in the American south. And I have been making my way north ever since. Why?

The answer is: fairy tales. I was brought up on Hans Christian Andersen--The Ice Maiden, The Little Match Girl, The Snow Queen--all stories that take place in unimaginable cold. I was educated by German nuns, and the books they taught us from were full of pictures of villages under snow, children skating, and the dark pyramids of evergreens. Winter was exotic, magical, desirable.

And now I'm in the midst of it, and it is everything I dreamed it would be. The stillness, the whiteness, the hush--that is where magic and mystery reside.

"Oh well," our friends said, when they realized we were serious about moving to Vermont, "you can always go south in the winter, if it gets to you." If it gets to me? But that's exactly what I want, for winter to get to me, and into me. And then spring will really mean something.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Strange Day

Is it possible to have a day when nothing happens?

I wrote here about the oddly blank days I've been having lately, when every sensation is muffled and cushioned by the pain medications I'm taking. And it's not just the sensations coming from outside me that are dulled, but also the ones that come from inside me, and are the prickliest.

For example, the laundry room is bursting with unwashed sheets and towels; the Christmas tree is begging to be taken down; and the dogs are eating straight kibble because I've run out of the home-cooked stuff. Normally, just one of these items on my list would either drive me into action or drown me in guilt. But today I have done nothing but sit snuggled in afghans and stare out the window at the falling snow, napping, reading Trollope, then napping some more. I have not fed the birds. I have not taken the dogs for a romp. I am, in fact, still in my pajamas.

Outside, the snow keeps falling. It has been snowing for days. The driveway, plowed this morning, has disappeared again, and I can barely see the outlines of the vegetable garden. The lavender bushes are completely covered up, which is good, because the snow will protect them from the severe cold to come. Inside--inside me, that is--a kind of snow seems also to be endlessly falling, dulling edges, covering up the prickly twigs of guilt that normally spur me into action.

Snow outside of me, snow inside of me, I have sat by the window and, for an entire day, nothing has happened.

Except that Bisou threw up on my afghan.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Anniversary Of An Obsession

One year ago today I wrote this post about going to a New Year's Eve party and meeting Mimi, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who changed my life.

This year, despite my having disgraced myself on the earlier occasion by sitting alone through the night, stroking the dog and plotting ways to kidnap her, the hosts of that party invited us again. And there, again, was Mimi, the Cavalier.

This time, however, I had come fresh from the arms of my own Cavalier, Bisou, so I was able to stroke the adorable Mimi in a more detached way, and while I stroked I reflected on the variety of packages that come under the label "Cavalier."

Mimi is a "Blenheim" Cavalier--white with reddish-brown spots all over. Bisou is a "Ruby"--a solid dark-orange all over. Mimi is small and dainty, weighing eleven pounds at eight years old. Bisou, not yet six months, weighs sixteen pounds, and with her coloring looks like a pygmy Irish Setter. Temperamentally, Mimi is a cup of chamomile tea. Bisou is a can of Red Bull.

When I was plotting to kidnap Mimi, I was after the chamomile qualities. But the universe sent me a can of Red Bull instead.

That's not to say that Bisou doesn't have her chamomile moments--right now she's curled up beside me, all silken ears and velvet muzzle. But this was preceded by a romp in the snowy field in which she ran circles around the big dogs, despite a mass of snowballs that formed around her "feathers."

It is clear to me that I'm going to have to expend considerable energy bringing out the chamomile side of Bisou. Walking in the snow and racing after the big dogs doesn't quite do the job. So I have signed us up for agility classes, beginning Monday. I'll keep you posted.