Sunday, February 28, 2010

Walking Dogs In Mud Season

Let me be clear: this is not the real mud season. This mud, these balmy temps--they are the mere Braxton-Hicks contractions of the year. When the real mud season happens, spring is actually crowning. But enough of obstetrical metaphors. The fact is, we're still in the middle of winter. It's been warmish, though, and the snow that caused all those power outages two days ago has dwindled, and turned to mud on roads and driveways.

But dogs must be walked, so today I put on my serious mud gear: old jeans, up-to-the-knee rubber boots, barn coat. I tied the treat pouch belt around my waist. I grabbed the hiking stick. I told the dogs to sit and stay. I opened the door, said "o.k.!" and off we sailed into the glorious mud.

I had a strategy in mind. The driveway was muddy, but the field in front of the house was still pristine with crusted-over snow. I didn't think that I, or even the dogs, would have the stamina to walk the circuit of the field through the snow. But I could let them run down the hill on the driveway, then cut across the bottom of the field and back up to the house in the snow. That way, I reasoned, I could let the dogs in through the front door, with nothing but wet tracks to worry about: the snowy uphill trek would have washed off all the mud.

And that is what we did, Wolfie and Bisou tearing down the muddy slope, Lexi staying by my side, hoping for cheese bits. Then we got to the bottom of the hill and turned into the field, always a problematic area, for that is where the fox lives. And though it's a good way from the highway, I always worry.

I used to worry about Wolfie and Lexi, who resent that one of their kind who shouldn't be on our sacred land nevertheless has made a home at the bottom of the field. Now I worry terribly about Bisou. The two Shepherds are quite good about coming when I call, even in the midst of temptation. Bisou comes like a shot...most of the time. Although she is technically a lap dog, she has spaniel in her genes, and is much more nose-driven than the Shepherds. When she catches a scent it's no easy task to distract her from it. So far, I have depended on her ardent desire to stay with the pack. But who knows if one of these days the ardent desire to follow the fox will prove irresistible.

It took a bit to entice her away from a certain bush in the danger area, but finally she could not resist the thought of yet another piece of cheese, and came running. As we trudged up the hill, breaking through the thick crust with each step, I reflected on how much Bisou needs training, and how remiss I have been in providing it. She's suffering from third-child syndrome: she's learned the basics from the big dogs; she's little enough that her lapses are easy to ignore; and I've got my hands full. But she really needs some focused attention, and I mean to give it to her. Maybe when spring comes.

And speaking of ardent desires, this very evening I noticed some atypical gestures on Wolfie's part towards Bisou. Not the usual "let's play keep-away with this bone"-gestures, nor the "let's lie down on the floor and pretend we're going to bite each other's face off"-gestures. But the other know, thrusting-type gestures, along with some very focused sniffing. Could it be that he knows something that I (and Bisou) don't know? I'll keep you informed.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Barbara Pym, Writer And Martyr

I found Barbara Pym's first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, in the used books section of the local bookstore, and am rereading it now, as I reread her books whenever I come across them. Pym has been called "a 20th century Jane Austen," and all kinds of praise has been heaped upon her.

Whenever I read her, though, I cannot help thinking about her life, which was marred by the worst tragedy a writer can experience. She published her first novel in 1950, and five more between then and 1961, all to critical acclaim. Then, in 1963, her publisher rejected her latest book, saying that it was out of keeping with the times. She sent the novel out nineteen more times--the way writers are supposed to--but it was rejected.

She kept writing. Two more novels were rejected in the early 70s, and, in the meantime, she developed breast cancer and had a mastectomy, then a stroke. In 1977, she was mentioned in The Times Literary Supplement as "the most underrated novelist of the century," and suddenly everything changed. Her unpublished novels were published; her published works were reprinted. All her books were published in America, translated into foreign languages, internationally acclaimed. But it was too late: her cancer returned, and she died in January, 1980.

It seems so unfair that she was such a great writer and then fell out of favor for sixteen years, then was rediscovered only to die in two years. The vagaries of Fortune! What was going through her mind through those dark years? How did she manage to keep writing? I guess she couldn't help herself.

Sure, there have been many great artists who went unacknowledged during their lives--Van Gogh, who didn't sell a single painting, the most famous. But at least Van Gogh never tasted success, and so didn't know what it was to lose it.

I suppose we writers should look on Barbara Pym as an example, the way the lives of the martyrs were held up to kids in Catholic school. But something in me recoils from Barbara Pym's life, the way it did from the accounts of limbs cut off and bodies burned in the martyrs' lives. Call me superstitious, but I don't want to imitate either her or them, for fear that I might meet their fate.

Who knows, maybe Barbara Pym was an innately happy person. Maybe she did not attach to outcomes. But I don't think so. "I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again" she confessed. She must have suffered deeply. And yet, it's hard to imagine that, writing as well as she wrote, she didn't derive intense pleasure from it, despite the rejections.

So I will hold on to the idea of Barbara immersed in her writing, satisfied despite the reversals of Fortune. And when Fortune reversed itself again for those last two years, I hope that Barbara enjoyed herself to the hilt.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Schools And Snow

Every time I hear that schools are closed because of the weather, my heart goes out to all the parents. I sit eating my breakfast, no children to deal with, no job to go to, and I imagine the young families in their houses, the kids jumping for joy, the parents trying to figure out how to get through the day: who has a meeting when, whose meeting is more important, can the kids possibly be left on their own, and if so for how long?

I am transported back to the 1970s, in Maryland, when winters were still snowy and cold, and schools routinely closed, or opened late, or closed early. My husband commuted to a job out of town, so for school transportation purposes, I was a single parent. I had arranged for my daughters to attend out of district, a school close to the college where I taught so I could pick them up and take them to campus if I had a late meeting.

On the mornings when school opened late I would deposit my daughters in my office, give them the backs of old tests to draw on, and rush to my class. When school opened two hours later, I often had another class to teach, or a meeting to attend. But the girls needed to get to school. What to do?

I don't remember what I did. I do remember that in the afternoon, if it started to snow, the department secretary would listen to the radio and come and get me in my office or out of meetings so I could go pick up the kids. The worst was when school was closed for the entire day. When the girls were little I would leave them in my office with books and snacks and dire instructions to stay put. Sometimes I would find an empty classroom and let them draw on the board--as long as they erased everything before leaving. Meanwhile I would be teaching my class, hoping the kids wouldn't run screaming down the hall or get kidnapped by a student with a grudge. As they got older, I gave them more freedom, but I always worried that they would get lost or that one of my colleagues would complain.

There were few faculty children wandering the campus on snow days back then. Almost all of them were at home with their mothers, while their fathers got on with their professorial duties, undisturbed by parental concerns. Female full-time faculty--with children yet!--were a rarity in that bygone era.

As a result, I always felt divided: part of me was lecturing on the French Renaissance while part of me wandered the halls, wondering what the girls were up to. I would sit in a meeting and while the dean droned on about the dismal future of the liberal arts I would be looking out the window, watching the snow and dreading the secretary's knock on the door, telling me that schools were closing early. Winter seemed to last forever in those days.

So today on snow days I worry about young families--my daughter's among them. I empathize with that feeling of forever being mentally in two places at once that is the hallmark of good parenting. I hope that things have gotten better in a couple of ways. I hope that the burden of snow days is shared more by fathers. And I especially hope that employers have become more attuned to the tribulations of working parents. In matters of child care and the needs of working families, however, I know that we still have a long way to go in this country.

I hope that some day, when the radio announces that schools are closed, the kids will still jump for joy, but the parents will no longer tear out their hair.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In Which I Whine About Snow

I had a topic in mind for today's post, but I can't remember what it was, because the snow messed with my day.

It began yesterday and fell all day today--a beautiful, heavy snow that quickly accumulated to over a foot. It did all the things that snow is supposed to do--covered up the bare fields and the dirty remnants of the last storm, brought flocks of birds to the feeder, made the world look like a Christmas card (which could be a good thing, or not).

This was all fine until, feeling chilly after a nap, I went to make a cup of coffee and found that the power was out. And when the power goes out in these parts it means no light by which to read, no stove on which to cook, no heat, no water (for you naive city dwellers: wells are powered by an electric pump), no internet.

While my husband tried to contact the power company, I made a fire in the wood stove. I also brought up from the basement two of the many gallon jugs filled with water that I keep for such occasions. We would need them for flushing toilets, for washing hands and brushing teeth. Fortunately, the temperature outside was somewhere in the 30s, so the wood stove kept us comfortable, and the sun took a long time going down, so I could read. But I really wanted to be in the basement carving, and I couldn't do that without lights.

When dinnertime came, we started calling restaurants, but the ones we frequent were closed due to the weather. We ended up in a dive in the nearby village of G, in New York state. What is it that makes some dives cozy, and others repulsive? This one was of the latter kind.

There was a salad bar with brownish iceberg lettuce. The bread was that super-soft kind that, if you squeeze it ever so lightly it collapses into a kind of paste. The lasagna that I ordered huddled under a blanket of cheese so thick that I had to roll the fork over and over before putting it into my mouth to get the strands of melted cheese to break. There were many large chunks of grayish sausage which apparently had been added to the dish without draining, since the whole concoction was awash in 3/4" of liquid grease. And what about the tomato sauce, you ask? After some searching I did find a tiny pink vegetable-looking thing swimming around all by itself....

I am a fairly omnivorous person, but this lasagna defeated me. The cluttered look of the restaurant didn't help, of course. Neither did the deadly lighting (but at least they had lights, which is why we were there), nor the greasy-looking panelling on the walls. But the most discouraging sight was the people, both staff and clients, almost all of whom looked like they subsisted on a diet of the lasagna that sat congealing on my plate. Young and old, they ranged from severely plump to out-and-out obese. Most pathetic to me were the women in their twenties, with rolls of fat overhanging their low-rise jeans, their thighs rubbing against each other, their fingers like sausages....

But enough about sausages for tonight. Let's just say that I asked for a styrofoam box (a bad environmental choice, I know) and brought the remains of the lasagna home. Tomorrow I will serve it, with apologies, to the hens.

We came home in the dark, stumbled over the dogs, looked for matches, lit some candles. I tried to read , but even Penelope Lively's writing couldn't distract me from the discomfort in my eyes. Plus, every time I looked up from the book, the rest of the room was in total darkness. Where was Bisou? What would we do when we ran out of candles?

How did people ever live like this? How did they cook, clean, have babies, care for the sick (can you imagine having the flu in such darkness?)? How did women even go up the stairs, with a candle in one hand, their long skirts in the other, and a baby...where?

At 10:30, even though I wasn't sleepy, I decided to go to bed. I was wondering how to brush my teeth--should I use the water that had been stored for months in the jug, and if so, how would I pour it? Suddenly, the lights came on. And I thought, wow, I can brush my teeth! I can flush the toilet! I can find my pajamas! and for a couple of minutes these thoughts made me happy.

But then came the obligatory reflections on the extent of our dependence on non-renewable resources, the fragility of our accustomed way of life, the fact that this power outage was a mere taste of the deprivation under which most of humanity labors every single day. And right away I was less happy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lost An Ear, But Doing Fine

Left Bisou under my spouse's supervision and went down to my studio to carve some slate.

When I say "went down to my studio," it's because, instead of going up into some light-filled space, I descend into our dark basement. I make my way past the piles of wood that my spouse keeps in case the need to build a small house should arise. I open a door and walk into a cement-walled cell, dark except for a tiny window near the ceiling.

A couple of artist and sculptor friends have visited my studio, and backed away in horror. "How can you work in a place like this?" they ask. They don't realize that, once I shut the door and turn on the lights above my carving table, the stone is all I see. Mallet and chisel in hand, enveloped in a cloud of dust, I barely remember to blink.

I have never carved slate before. I'm attracted to it because it is everywhere around here, and thus allows me to "carve local." Slate cannot be carved in the round, because it is too flaky, so I am having to learn to carve in bas relief.

I have begun a bas relief of a woman reclining on her side, her head on her folded arms, and a cat curled up on the crest of her hip. To make a bas relief, you have to figure out what is behind what, and start with whatever is furthest back. So I carved out the background behind the woman and the cat, feeling my way with the chisel on the slate, which behaves like no other stone I've ever worked. If you tap in just the right place, you can lift off a big chip with a single blow, which makes the work go faster. By the same token, if you tap in the wrong place, you can lose a major body part.

Having taken a good quarter inch off the background, I started work on the cat--his abdomen was the furthest back, so I carved that out. Then came his head and leg. The tail, which was curled around him, would be in front of everything. But the entire cat would need to be farther back than the woman's hip on which he was resting. I was thinking about all this, using my wee chisel and giving little taps when, in the twinkling of an eye, one of the cat's ears flew off. It was an itty bitty triangle, you see, so even a tiny tap with my lightest mallet was enough to do it in.

Did I panic? Did I curse and throw my tools? Not at all. In sculpture, it's easy to lose projecting body parts (think of ancient Greek statues--which parts are usually missing?). But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to throw the whole thing away. It just means that you have to carve away from where the projecting piece was, until you have a new projection. (Often that is tantamount to starting all over again.)

In the case of my cat's ear, I just carved away some of the head behind it, and I soon had the beginnings of another ear...kind of like a salamander growing a new limb where the old one was cut off. Then I continued working very carefully.

This is what I love about sculpture: it is so slow, and yet so risky. One impatient move and bad things happen. I also love the sense that I'm feeling my way in the dark: the work goes so slowly that it's hard to keep in mind the image I want to carve. Plus, the dust accumulates and obscures the surface, and the chisel marks change the color of the stone and further disorient the eye. So it is a kind of miracle each time when something like what I had in mind begins to emerge.

I never know at what point that will happen. It is always a surprise. That's why I never look up when I'm carving.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Death And Dying

Yesterday, some fifteen friends and neighbors crammed into our living room for the second salon of the season. There was wine, white and red, and cheese and chips and dips and a tray of spicy deviled eggs.

I find deviled eggs laborious (all that peeling and filling) and messy (the filling sticks to my fingers no matter what I do). However, since we were going to talk about death and dying, I decided we needed something cheerful to look at--I think deviled eggs always look cheerful. Also, there's nothing like a mouthful of cayenne to make you feel alive.

The speaker was a friend who has been a nurse for many years, in oncology and cardio wards. She spoke with feeling about sitting with dying patients, about their needs and the needs of the families. She spoke about helping people to let go, about ensuring their comfort, and about the horrific lengths to which modern medicine, if allowed to, will go to prolong a torturous life.

It was a beautiful afternoon, with the sun shining on the snow outside and the chickadees and nuthatches coming and going from the bird feeder. People spoke eagerly about their own experiences around the death of friends and loved ones. Others spoke about their utter lack of experience: after all, it is entirely possible in this country for a person to reach adulthood never having seen a dead body, or stood at the bedside of a dying relative.

From the beginning of the talk, there was a feeling of warmth and relaxation among us. There was also amazement that here we were, on a day that made us all, even though we knew better, think of spring, talking about death--the ultimate taboo as well the only certainty.

There was humor, too. One woman told about a friend, who had always been a controlling type, deciding after a long illness that it was time to die--and being annoyed that she couldn't make it happen by sheer force of will.

After a while the talk meandered to other topics. There was an update on the sheep that had gotten into the grain bin (she's chewing her cud!) and talk about when it's too late to breed a bitch for the first time. Some people had brought puppies in crates in their cars, and went outside to let them out. In other words, life took over. The deviled eggs were all gone.

Next month we're going to talk about bees.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pooper Scooper

At the pet store yesterday I purchased: 1. a bag of high-end super-digestible dog food, and 2. a pooper scooper. The woman who rang me up did not respond to my joke about the relationship between the two items.

Until now, I have resisted scooping poop. I mean, we live in the country--our house has fields before it and woods behind it, eighteen acres of potential dog bathroom space. In this day and age, however, even in the country we can't allow our dogs to roam freely, to kill a neighbor's chickens or get mauled by coyotes or, most likely, get killed by a car.

We have put an invisible fence around our backyard. I regard this fence more as a deterrent than an impregnable boundary. If a deer came close (which for some reason it never has), I'm almost sure our dogs would opt for the pleasure of chasing it despite the sting of the fence. Therefore, I never leave the dogs out unsupervised for more than a few minutes--the time it takes to relieve themselves.

However, now that I have three dogs, and especially since Our Forester has cleaned up the woods so nicely, I'm having to change my irresponsible attitude towards dog poop. I'm going to have to scoop. Hence my purchase of highly digestible, expensive kibble which, combined with my home-cooked melange, will, I hope, reduce the matter to be scooped to an absolute minimum.

Still, I am not looking forward to the job. I have resisted it for years, but the time has come for me to join the ranks of responsible 21st-century dog owners. The time has come for me to hold my head high, think of England, and scoop poop.

Friday, February 19, 2010


I went out to consult with Our Forester this morning. He and his son are turning the woods behind our backyard into a sort of "park"--you know, like you see in those BBC specials about the Great Houses of England. They are clearing out the skinny trees and the undergrowth so that the big trees can grow even bigger and we can walk unimpeded by thorn bushes and honeysuckle. As the big trees grow, their canopy will shade the ground and keep down the undergrowth, and voila--we will have our English park.

The wind was blowing so hard while the Forester and I talked that when I got back in the house I was chilled to the bone. Even though it was morning, I lit a fire in the stove. But that meant that I had to stay in the living room, to tend the fire and, well, to enjoy it. I'm still enough of a flatlander that I think of fire in aesthetic rather than utilitarian terms.

"I know," I thought, "I'll do some mending." There was a pair of my husband's pants that needed re-hemming. Perfect! I could sit by the fire in the a.m. and do something useful as well. I brought my sewing things into the living room got to work.

Sewing--such a peaceful activity. Kind of like carving stone in its slowness. Sitting by the fire, hemming my husband's pants, I felt connected to Victorian women in their stuffy rooms, medieval women in their chilly towers. Heck, I felt connected to my mother in the 1950s, who used to like to darn socks on rainy days.

Unfortunately, I always like the idea of sewing better than the act. I get tense and impatient, and make bigger and bigger stitches. This time, to make sure I stayed on-task, I put on Handel's "Messiah." My musician father would have called this philistine multi-tasking, an act of lese-majeste, an insult to Handel and all musicians. I decided to ignore his voice as it lives in my mind, and get on with things.

It was wonderful. I was especially taken with the aria "Man of Sorrows," sung by a contralto. "He was des-pi-sed," it goes, "re-jec-ted. A man of sorrows, and rejected by men..." Who, especially what artist, hasn't felt that way? When the rejection letters come, it helps to know that others, including the Son of God, have experienced it before.

The pant cuffs were finished before the oratorio. I went into the kitchen and made a gallon and a half of mint and green tea. We keep this in the fridge and drink it cold or hot for a week. I filled a large tea ball with green tea. I filled a square of muslin with a mixture of mint, apple mint, orange mint and melissa, tied it up, and put that and the tea ball in a 1 1/2 gallon glass jug. In the summer, I set this out on the stoop and let the sun do its magic. Today, I had to heat the water and let the whole thing steep a while. I was glad to be using some of my dried mints--I have 18 jars of various kinds, and before I know it, the real, fresh mint will be sprouting up in the corner between the house and the garage. I also felt good because mint tea is good for you.

Now my husband, as I sit by the fire writing this, is sweetening the tea. That is his job. He pours in just the right amount of honey, deals with the stickiness, makes sure the honey dilutes evenly. Funny how, as a couple, we have specialized. I make the tea, he sweetens it. I cook dinner, he washes dishes. He drives the car, I do the talking. I teach the girls how to write, he teaches them how to's been going on for over forty years, this division of labor. It's efficient in many ways, but often I think, what would either one of us do on our own?

The "Messiah" is over now. England is told that God will smite its enemies "like a potter's vessel"; the King is reassured. The fire is still going and, outside, Our Forester is wrapping up for the day. It is still light. I don't want to write another "spring is coming" post, but I am human, and above all, I am an animal. So I can't help it: spring is coming, and I'm glad.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Zen Puppy

Did the title scare you? Did you think I'd completely lost my mind, and gotten another dog? Relax. The real truth is only slightly less insane.

The puppy I'm referring to is Teddy, another of Bisou's littermates. When my younger daughter and her partner were here at Christmas, they grew fond of the cuddly side of Bisou, and when they met Teddy, to whom Bisou doesn't hold a candle in the cuddliness department, they fell in love. They decided to adopt him, but there was no time to arrange to take him back with them to Montana. Hence Alison's lightning quick trip to pick him up this week.

Teddy is a lovely black-and-tan Cavalier, and, bar none, the cuddliest dog--no, animal--I have ever encountered. You pick him up and he melts in your arms, and stays there, eyes half closed, meditating. He is also a "special needs" puppy. He was born with a rare heart defect (not the typical heart troubles that haunt the breed), and this means that, though he appears perfectly healthy and requires no treatment, he may die suddenly, without any warning. The average life span of dogs with this problem is about five years.

My daughter and her partner, who are soulful people, decided to take on this bundle of joy and possible heartbreak, knowing full well what they were getting into. I think that it was Teddy's Zen qualities that made him so attractive: not just his serene demeanor, but the fact that he is a walking lesson in non-attachment, a living sermon on how to live, namely, for today, since that is all any of us have.

We went to get Teddy yesterday morning, and delivered him and his new mistress in Albany tonight. In the intervening hours, he lived in our house with Lexi, Wolfie and Bisou. Lexi took one sniff and wandered away, except that she did not think that Teddy should be permitted to go from the living room into the kitchen. Wolfie took many sniffs and tried to do some dominance mounting, which was difficult since he outweighs Teddy by 80 pounds. This told us that the retiring Teddy, who has not yet been neutered, was giving off enough testosterone-laden whiffs that Wolfie felt compelled to let him know who was the male in charge of the pack.

I don't think Bisou even stopped to take a sniff before flinging herself upon her brother, growling and rolling him over until we stepped in and took her away. "But it's my brother!" she whined, wriggling out of our grasp, "let me at him!" And the growling and the rolling would begin all over again. And we would take her away again, because it's one thing to watch Bisou fling herself upon Bear, who is bigger than she and who gives as good as he gets. But Teddy, because of his mild demeanor and because of what we know about him, aroused all our protective instincts and made Bisou look like a menace.

There was one moment of peace today, however. This was when we all came back from a walk on our new trail, and the puppies collapsed exhausted (Bisou spreadeagled on top of Teddy) on a sheepskin rug. They looked so charming with their floppy ears fanned out that one of us stood up and got the camera. Unfortunately, that woke Bisou up, and the circus started all over again.

Early tomorrow morning Alison and her little black-and-tan Buddha will get on a plane for the long trip back to Montana. May they be safe, may they be happy, may they live in peace....

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Trail In The Woods

For the past two days, in the falling snow, a man with a chain saw has been working in the woods behind our house. He has a master's degree in "Northeastern Sylvan Hardwoods," and he's making a trail so we can walk our woods without getting lost. I call him Our Forester.

I love a man who knows his trees. The first time Our Forester came over, we went with him to figure out the boundaries of our land (is that the stone wall over there? Oh look, here's a piece of old barbed wire...this must be the corner of the property). And as we walked, he would stop and point to a non-descript tree trunk and say "you've got a nice red maple here," or "these beeches look like they're in pretty good health," or "this one here's a sugar maple." (A sugar maple! We have sugar maples on our land! We'll be "sugaring" this spring!) All the trees he pointed out, except for the pines, which are green, looked pretty much alike to me--ashes and white birches and gray birches and oaks and cedars and hickories and gnarly old apple trees.

He would put his hand on a winter-bare tree and look up at the branches outlined against the sky. "Now this one's got a nice rounded crown," he'd say. "If we clean up the area around it a bit (he meant cut down the little spindly trees and bushes) it'll get a growth spurt, and you'll have a really beautiful tree in no time at all."

Obviously, we can't just ask him to cut us a trail. In Our Forester I have found a kind of vet for our woods. He needs to give them a thorough check-up, and then clean out the stuff that is clogging them up so the trees can breathe and grow strong and healthy and produce nuts and apples and things for the wildlife....

Speaking of which, there are a lot of wet spots in the woods, spots that with just a little work could be cleared out and maybe dug out a bit and turned into a nice little pond that would make the frogs and the salamanders and the fisher cats and the coyotes, not to mention the bear that I want to believe still lives around here, really happy, come spring.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Maternal Angst

It's been snowing all day. In a little while, our younger daughter will be landing at the airport in Albany, NY, an hour and a half from here, and we will not be there to meet her. And it will be my fault. We checked the radar maps, and we checked the roads online. There were three accidents between here and Albany, and dire predictions of bad road conditions.

Still, had it been up to my husband, we'd be on our way to the airport right now. He feels a strong imperative to meet people at the airport, to be there at the gate when they land, or just beyond security if the gates are out of bounds. When one's near and dear alight from the skies, he believes, one needs to be there to meet them. No matter what.

My view is more nuanced. One is there to meet them if at all possible. When it came time to decide whether to go or stay, the snow was coming down implacably, and someone who'd been here had called after she left to say the roads were bad, and besides, there are hotels right near the airport, so I said, no, we'd better not go. And my husband said, whatever you say.

We tried calling our daughter's cell phone when she was between flights but she didn't answer, so we left a message. We will page her at the airport when her flight gets in. She is a grown woman who will know what to do. In fact, she will probably enjoy a quiet room and an early night after a day of flying. And tomorrow morning we will go to pick her up.

So why do I feel so bad? Because, though mostly retired these days, I'm a mother, and I want to be there to greet my child and cluck over her stories of narrowly-missed flights. I want to get her home and give her something to eat and put her to bed safely. And instead I'm in bed safely while she's in the wilds of Albany, NY all by herself. All because I didn't think it was safe to drive to Albany in the middle of a snowstorm. What kind of mother am I?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lexi At Eleven And A Half

It seems like only yesterday that we got her from the Humane Society, a crazed, big-eared four-month-old, fond of digging holes and scared of anything on wheels.

In those days we lived near a mall (imagine!), and I would take her there and walk her up to the big idling trucks and make her sit and stay, and walk her up to people of all ages and colors and let her meet them. Except that she house-trained herself quickly and perfectly, she was like a wild animal, forever pulling on the leash, whining, driving me nuts. A couple of times, on our expeditions to the mall she wrapped the leash around my legs and knocked me down to the ground. In obedience class, she whined non-stop for the six weeks that the course lasted.

But I signed her up again, and again. We went to obedience classes for almost two years. It helped, but it didn't take away her intensity. She became a good dog...just too much of one. When she turned six, she began to settle down a little.

And now, suddenly, she's old. She's withdrawing: she doesn't get up to greet us when we come home, leaving that task to the younger dogs. She doesn't come upstairs to sleep in our bedroom at night. She's slowly fading into the background of our lives.

At mealtimes, however, she's right there, jumping with eagerness. And when we go out into the field, she runs to look for deer poop (that's what country dogs do, fervently, all the time. I think it must have survival value). And then she takes off. If I call her, she pretends not to hear. (She might be going deaf, but if so, how come she can hear the slightest touch of my hand on the food bowls?) She takes off in the direction of the neighbor's compost pile and is gone for an hour. Then she comes back, looking three years younger, tail high and proud of herself.

I know that this going AWOL is dangerous for her. She could go out on the highway and get run over, she could get lost, she could be attacked by coyotes, she could slip and fall and make her arthritic knees and elbows and hips even worse than they already are. To avoid these dangers, I could confine her to our roomy back yard. I could walk her on a leash. But she wouldn't think it was the same.

I find myself in a similar situation to that of people with an elderly relative who insists on staying in the house where she has lived for years. She could fall at any minute and not be able to get help. She could have a stroke in her sleep. She could do any number of things that would shorten her life. She would be much safer in an assisted living facility, where she would be watched day and night. But it wouldn't be the same.

At the end of her life, there is still in Lexi that wild independence she had as a pup. I realize that it may cut her days short, but every once in a while I err on the side of risk.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bisou At Seven Months

Bisou has two trainers, and that's about ten too few, since she could use a trainer for every waking hour of her day. As it happens, both of Bisou's trainers have also worked with Wolfie, one in obedience and one in herding. Bisou is studying neither obedience nor herding, but agility, in hopes that she will learn to pay attention to me while she uses up some energy running through tunnels and leaping over jumps.

In the past few weeks, both trainers had taken me aside and said: "Don't tolerate anything from her that you wouldn't tolerate from Wolfie. If you don't watch out, she's going to run your life. Just because she's little and cute doesn't mean she doesn't need discipline."

They are right. When Wolfie was seven months old he was so big that every time he wouldn't lie down the minute I asked him to I would go into alarm mode: omigod, this dog is turning into a monster, this is dominant behavior, if I don't do something someday he'll start growling at me. And right then and there I would give him a short but brisk obedience lesson.

With Bisou, it's a different story. And it would be a different story even if she were as big as Wolfie, because of the temperament difference in the breeds. For instance, I've always had to work hard to get my German Shepherd puppies to make eye contact with me, because by nature they are oriented outward, to watch the flock and scare off wolves. Whenever Wolfie, who is quite a cuddly dog, lies down by me, he can be pressed against my body, but his head is turned away, scanning the horizon for malefactors. Bisou, on the other hand, gave me full eye contact from the first day I had her, and when she and I lie down for a nap she drapes her head sweetly over my arm, and falls asleep facing me.

Still, I have watched dozens of TV programs featuring pathetic people who have turned their small dogs into babies who in turn have taken to terrorizing the household. I know that, despite her floppy ears, Bisou is a kind of wolf. I know that next spring, if she happens to find a nest of baby rabbits, she will murder every single one without a second thought. I know that she needs discipline, and I believe I give it to her.

But clearly her two trainers are seeing something that I'm missing. Maybe she is pulling the wool over my eyes...Achtung, Bisou! A new era is about to begin.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Soup Story

I've been making chicken stock for the last several days. This is the kind of soup that starts with chickens that I knew by name, grown old and slaughtered (by somebody else) and stored in the freezer in plastic bags.

On Thursday, I bunged two of them into my biggest pot, along with eight quarts of water, some vinegar, onions, celery and carrots. They simmered in that pot until Friday, so that the entire house, my hair and my clothes reeked of chicken stock. Then minutes before I turned off the heat, I threw in a whole bunch of parsley. This is all according to a recipe in Nourishing Traditions, a book that tells you what to eat in order to live forever.

In the meantime, I had prepared a lovely curried cream of (home-grown) pumpkin soup for Friday's dinner. I was heating this on the stove when something impelled me to go check my e-mail--and next thing I knew the smell of scorched soup brought me running to the kitchen. The stove top was awash in smooth creamy orange goodness, which I sopped up as best I could. There was enough unburnt soup in the pot to have for dinner, but the bottom of the pot was entirely black. Worse, the burnt smell mixed with the chicken smell took away my appetite.

Friday night I put the pot of chicken soup into our supplementary winter fridge (the front porch) and set the pot of burnt pumpkin soup in the sink, filled it with hot soapy water, and turned away from the depressing sight. In the bedroom, I dabbed lavender oil on my temples to distract me from the chicken and burnt pumpkin smells.

This morning, the most daunting part of the chicken stock task awaited me. But first I had to tackle the burnt pot. I contemplated just throwing it away, but this being Vermont, I figured it would be a while before I could get to a store to buy a replacement. So I rolled up my sleeves, put on my rubber gloves and started scrubbing. I didn't think I would be able to even make a dent in the burnt gunk, but lo! with amazingly little effort, it all came clean.

I lifted all the limp veggies, all the deconstructing carcass parts, all the semi-congealed fat into a large strainer, which I put inside another pot, lest a single drop of stock go to waste. Then I lined up eight quart jars on the counter. I picked up a jar, set a big funnel into its mouth, set a small strainer into the funnel and poured in some stock until the jar was almost full. Then I shook the contents of the small strainer into the big strainer and started on the next jar.

When all the liquid had been poured into jars, it was time to deal with the meat. This is the part I hate. The meat of old chickens, though flavorful, is too stringy and tough for human consumption, but the dogs love it. That means that I have to go through every last ounce of chicken and get rid of every last bone, while worrying that I will miss one and thereby cause the death of one of my dogs.

You should know that, despite my would-be country ways, I am extremely squeamish about the anatomy of cooked chickens. I cannot bear the sight of a chicken leg on my plate, much less eat it. I will eat chicken breasts, but only if they are removed from their bony armature. And yes, I think that the least upsetting way to eat chicken is in the form of "chicken fingers" and other fast-food aberrations. Or in the form of eggs.

You can imagine, then, how I felt, combing my way through mounds of chicken knees and vertebrae and those horrid things that cling to the inside of the rib cage. It is a measure of the love I bear my dogs that several times a year I go through this ordeal for them.

Eventually, the last wee bone was thrown into the trash. The deliquescing vegetables, the stringy meat and the amazing amounts of fat went into plastic freezer containers labeled "dog meat." Just for fun, I weighed them: eight pounds in all. Lexi, Wolfie and Bisou will get a lot of joy out of my morning's work.

The eight quarts of stock will make eight wonderful soups (I don't mind consuming chicken in liquid form). I just hope I don't burn them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fasting In Haiti

I heard an amazing report on the radio today. On the one-month anniversary of the earthquake, the people of Haiti have declared a three-day period of mourning. During this time, all those who are physically able to will fast, eating nothing but bread and water for three days.

A three-day fast is serious deprivation. And to think of Haitians, who have already been deprived of just about everything, willingly engaging in this further sacrifice is unspeakably sad and touching.

I wonder what the meaning of this gesture on the part of an entire nation can be. Is it the expression of a sorrow so great that it can only be demonstrated through self-inflicted suffering, like beating one's breast or leaping into a funeral pyre? Is it a sacrifice on behalf of the dead, in hopes of ensuring their eternal salvation? Is it an offering to the gods, in hopes that they will spare the nation from fresh disasters?

And can you conceive of Americans reacting in such a way to a national tragedy? Did anything like this go on after 9/11, or after Katrina? Certainly many people made considerable sacrifices to help others in need--maybe even skipped meals to have money to contribute to charity. But that, worthy as it is, is a practical approach, whereas the Haitian fast seems gratuitous, lyrical, a manifestation at the purest physical level of an unimaginable sorrow.

It's enough to make one weep all over again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why Carving Stone Is Easier Than Writing

I've been doing a bit of both lately, and thinking about the differences and similarities between the two.

When you sculpt stone, you take an irregular lump of rock that looks like nothing much and you chip away at it with your mallet and your pointed chisel. Then you chip with your fork chisel, and eventually with your flat chisel. You chip and you chip until your arm hurts and hours and days go by, until eventually you realize that you have taken away (to paraphrase Michelangelo) everything that wasn't the form within the stone.

Writing, at least for me, is much the same process of taking away what doesn't belong. Sacrificing what seems clever for the sake of form and flow. Chipping away at whatever gets in the way of the point of the piece.

But here is the main difference between carving and writing. In carving, you heft your stone into the studio and heave it onto the carving stand, then prop it up with sandbags so it stays still while you whale away at it.

In writing, before you can start whaling, you have to produce the stone. And birthing that rock, that raw material, often feels like it must have felt to Zeus to have Athena burst, fully armed, out of his head. Sometimes the prospect of birthing that rock gives a writer writer's block.

Me, I try to get the rock out of my system as quickly as possible. I try to think about it as little as possible as I'm setting it down, except to remind myself that it is just a formless lump, something to work on later, something for my mallet and chisel to chip into shape. And once the rock is on the work table, I get a great feeling of relief.

Because I know that the rest is just fiddling with the stuff--cutting and pasting, changing a word here and there. But mostly it's erasing, deleting, taking away even what is dear to my heart, until the final form emerges.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Polishing Stage

I have signed up to take a slate-carving workshop in early March, but because that seemed an eternity away, I have been working on a rough chunk of gray slate I picked up in the back yard. (For those of you unfamiliar with the geology of West Pawlet, Vermont--you can pick up chunks of red, green, gray, or blue slate in anybody's backyard, anytime.)

With my lovely new English mallets and chisels, I have carved a bas relief face on said chunk, and am reasonably pleased with it, and would like to go on to the next piece. But, alas, it is not finished. It has tiny scratches and pinpoint nicks in places. It does not have that satiny smooth finish that makes people say "aaaaah!" and, "may I touch it?" It needs polishing.

Thing is, while I love to carve a shape, I hate polishing. It's boring. It lacks that cheerful rhythm of mallet on chisel. It lacks suspense (if I strike here, will the nose fly off?). And it can take strength and definition from the original carving.

Here is what the great William Zorach said about polishing:

"The one thing that fascinates the layman in sculpture is a polished surface. He feels that real accomplishment has gone into the work; it is finished. To the artist the real creative work and skill come before the polishing; yet even polishing should be done with great feeling and patience."

Can we detect the tiniest bit of contempt for the layman's love of polished surfaces here? Zorach continues, "I find rainy days in the country ideal for polishing--where there is no rush and the element of time does not enter."

Rainy days in the country indeed. He was probably depressed by the low barometric pressure and thought he might as well do some polishing....

It's not exactly raining in my piece of country right now, though the barometric pressure is low. Guess I might as well do some polishing, and hope the universe sends me some "great feeling and patience."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dressing Up Blues

My mother will turn 92 this month. Because she cares a great deal about her looks, I went to one of the outlets in a nearby town that caters to weekend skiers and bought her a silk top by that designer for ladies of a certain age--you know who I mean: Eileen Fisher.

Now I don't care if Nora Ephron says, as reported in the Times, that once you start buying Eileen Fisher it's a sure sign that you've given up. I love Eileen Fisher, and have done so ever since I read in an interview that she got her inspiration from the habits of the nuns who had been her teachers. (We're talking pre-Vatican Council habits here, the long elegant ones derived from medieval peasant costumes.)

I realize that the fact that a designer's creations resemble nuns' habits may not recommend them to everyone. But I really like Eileen Fisher clothes--their long, fluid lines, their simplicity, their fabrics. They are a kind of blank slate, and they don't hog the conversation. And as I looked through the racks of sober but luscious (not a contradiction in terms!) tops and dresses, all drastically reduced and with an additional 10% off because it was Tuesday, I really really wanted to buy something for myself. A slinky dress, an all-enveloping cardigan, a scoop-necked top with long sleeves and flared bottom....something that would make me look and feel like a very together abbess--Hildegarde of Bingen, say.

But I didn't. Why? Because I live in Vermont, that's why. In the best of times, in this place, you can only dress up from the waist up. For most of the year, from the waist down your limbs will be encased in dark colored pants--so they won't show the mud marks from where your calves hit the car as you get in and out--and boots to protect you from the snow, ice, and mud.

This limitation has a damping effect on people's enthusiasm for dressing up, so that in 98% of occasions dressing up is optional. Vermonters being a freedom-loving people, they won't laugh at you if you show up at the game supper wearing heels, but you will be the only one not tromping around in sensible footwear. Paradoxically, this is one of the things I love about this state--the genuineness, the lack of pretense, and all the endless meanings you can read into a populations' near-universal preference for bluejeans.

Time was when I used to dress up every day, to go to work. It was a challenge--I didn't have much time for shopping, so my wardrobe was limited--and it was fun. I remember putting myself to sleep at night planning the next day's outfit. I worked in some pretty strait-laced academic environments, and getting dressed for work allowed me to start the day with a small creative act.

So, if in reading these pages you occasionally find yourself disgusted by my adoration of all things Vermont, know that when I pull on my mud-spattered jeans and my worn turtleneck (why buy a new one when only the chickens will see it?) for the umpteenth time, I long for the days of glitz and glamour, of pantyhose and heels, of tight skirts with long slits, and jackets and scarves and earrings, bracelets and lipstick, mascara, perfume, and that crowning touch, the eyelash curler.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bisou In Agility Class

There are eight dogs in our agility class, and Bisou is, far and away, the most hyper of them all.

She is not the most hyper one in the ring. That is, she IS hyper, but when she takes off, she does, unlike some of her classmates, come right back to me. Otherwise, she errs on the side of overperformance. Did you want me to go over this jump? Sure! Glad to! And this one, and this other one too! Go up on the table? Watch me! No sweat! I love jumping up on the table--you don't even have to ask. Wow! Here be weave poles! And now I'll go over this jump again. Oh, you didn't want me to do this one? What about this other one? All this is done like a speeded up film, so that poor slow plodding human me can barely tell where she's been or where she's going.

But that is the least of my complaints. My main gripe is about the craziness that comes over her the minute we get out of the car and enter the training facility. She rushes to the end of the leash and then stands on her hind legs and pulls until she starts to choke herself. She relaxes for a minute, I barely get a "good girl!" out, and she's Cavalier rampant again, trying to get to the other dogs, to the people, to the jumps, to the jumps, to the jumps!

This goes on, I kid you not, for the better part of an hour. I try to be Zen about it. I try not to attach to outcomes. I tell myself she's just a puppy--never mind that her twin brother, also in the class, is the picture of calm composure. I tell myself to accept her as she is. Somehow, after endless self-sermonizing, grounding, and centering, we get through the class.

When we get home we head into my study and she jumps onto the inspiration divan (i.e. twin bed) where I join her, having taken off my boots. She folds sweetly into my arms, I pull the afghan over us, and we take a good long nap.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Farewell, My Lovelies

This afternoon, Blossom and Virginia Slim left, never to return. My goat herding days are done, this time for good.

It is the end of an era that began in 1975, when we bought our first house and with it an orchard, a garden, berry bushes and a few chickens. My mother visited and said "Now all you need is a little goat..." And in a week I had a little goat, only because goats are herd animals I had to get a second goat for company.

Over the next thirty years, whenever we lived in the country, I had a couple of goats, for milk, for cheese, for company. These last two were Nigerian Dwarfs, the reasoning being that little goats would be easier to handle, would not drown us in daily gallons of milk, would require fewer bales of hay, less work. But when I had to stop milking at Christmas because of shoulder pains that are still with me, I couldn't see myself going through the whole breeding/kidding/milking cycle again. The chronic fatigue syndrome that dogs me is not getting better with the years. I finally had to admit that keeping goats no longer made sense.

As I agonized over the process of putting Blossom and Virginia Slim on the market and letting them go to some unknown place, the heavens sent me the ideal buyer--a gentle woman seriously dedicated to building a Nigerian herd, knowledgeable, and recommended by my long-time goat guru. I took it as a sign and went ahead with the deal.

This afternoon I put collars on Blossom and Virginia Slim and led them up the dog-ramp into their new owner's Jeep, where a thick bed of hay awaited them. I took a last look into their bright little faces, those eyes that--unique among ruminants--sparkle with cleverness and intelligence, and wished them well. I know they'll be happy. For one thing, they're going to a farm tht has bucks, and that is what they have literally been screaming for the last few weeks. So they will be fine.

Me, on the other hand...There is no question that I will not miss the 7 a.m. expeditions to the barn in sub-zero weather, nor the milking that crippled my arm so that every move was painful. But oh, the smell of the place, and those bright eyes, and the way they stood still as if hypnotized when I brushed them. I will miss them in the spring, when the dandelions come out and I would let them gorge themselves while I picked blossoms for dandelion wine. I will miss the uniquely peaceful feeling that you get sitting in a field with goats grazing around you. I will miss the milk and the cheese and generally being a goat lady.

But it's time to let it go. I've been reading Buddhist texts lately, which helps. And I remember what Colette said: "On ne possede qu'en s'abstenant." You can only possess by abstaining. If so, I will forever possess Blossom and Virginia Slim--their lithe little bodies, their perfect udders, their long, refined necks, their upright ears, their cleverness.

This time, it's time to let it go for good. I have asked my spouse, if ever he sees that goat-gleam in my eye again, to sit on my head and not let me fall prey to my obsession. To everything there is a season, and my season for goat keeping is past.

I will still have my hens, and that is all I need to provide compost for the garden, which will feed us, and them, and they in turn will feed us with their eggs. With chickens and a garden, you can still have a homestead, right? Those four Buff Orpingtons better watch out--there's a whole lot of loving coming their way.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tools, Glorious Tools

Today I got a package from England containing my slate-carving tools, and I am in heaven. The package contained one nylon mallet, weighing maybe half a pound; one beechwood mallet, weighing about the same as a large butterfly; one teensy (6mm across the tip) carbide-tipped chisel; and another chisel, even teensier (4mm).

Until now, I've been carving slate with the same tools I used to carve Indiana limestone, which is almost as hard as marble: big steel chisels, and mallets weighing as much as five pounds. I've said before that slate is like mineral fillo dough. Put a big chisel on it and whack it with a heavy mallet, and chips--noses, chins, eyelids--go flying everywhere.

But these small, light, sharp, super-precise tools give the most amazing control, so that carving slate is no scarier than carving any other stone, and a lot easier on the body. You put the tiny chisel on the surface of the stone, give it the lightest whack, and four specks of dust fly off: no harm done. Put the chisel down again, whack it lightly, and four more specks fly off. You're definitely getting somewhere. (Have I mentioned that one reason I love direct stone carving is that it is slooooow?)

The downside of slate is that it cannot be carved in the round. You can only do bas relief, which is kind of between sculpture and drawing. But, for a lover of line like me, that is not a downside at all.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dogs On My Yoga Mat

My house is full of rugs, mostly used to cover up the scratches the dogs have made on our wide-plank pine floors. Lexi, Wolfie and Bisou run and skid and play on these rugs all day long, and the rugs are forever getting bunched up and moved around. But whenever I try to straighten up a rug, one or more dogs immediately get on top of it. Why is that? Does my focusing on one spot on the floor make them think that I'm about to dig up a bone? Haven't they figured up by now that I'm strictly motivated by aesthetic impulses? Do your dogs do this too?

But my dogs' behavior around rugs is nothing compared to their reaction to my yoga mat. The minute I unroll it, Wolfie and Bisou are on it, reclining like pashas on a divan. Is it the smell of accumulated sweatings? Is it the purple color? Is it the "energy" of the thing?

For some reason, I hesitate to shoo them off. In my yogic moments, I strive to become open and vulnerable to all life, so how can I make myself yell "off!" at these peaceable, well-intentioned creatures? I end up doing my sun salutations on a narrow strip of mat while trying to avoid nearby paws and tails and wondering what a true yogi would do in this situation.

When I sit cross-legged on the mat to meditate, Wolfie arranges his big frame so that his back curves to fit exactly along my legs, then gives a big sigh and puts his nose down on his paws. Ahh, I think, this is it. Matching energies. Kinship with all life. Openness to the universe.

Then Bisou comes along, squeaky toy in mouth, lured by the irresistible purple mat and the energies that swirl around it. She shakes her toy around, sniffs Wolfie's face, then decides that the spot between my ankles and pelvis is the best place for her. She settles in and quiets down. Ahh, I think, double bliss.

For a moment, all is quiet.

Then WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF! Wolfie explodes, growling and snarling, having heard something dreadful out in the front field. I open one eye and peer out the window. Nothing. There is nothing out there but snow and ice and winter deadness. But by now Bisou has abandoned her nest between my legs and is jumping up at Wolfie, whose long wagging tail catches me on the cheek...

And I tell myself, back to the breath, back to the breath.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My TV Show, Part the Third

My TV show ended after three summers, but its effects are still with me today--and I'm not talking about being cured forever of the fear of public speaking.

Here's what happened. After my mother had signed me up to do the show, and after I'd been to the studio for my fifteen minutes of instruction, my mother notified me of another commitment she had made on my behalf. The studio was giving a party for the crew. Apparently, one of the crew had cast his eye on me during my visit to the set, and had asked my mother if he could take me to the party as his date. And my mother had given her consent.

I was outraged. This was America in the 1960s, not some god-forsaken third world country where women were traded for camels, I yelled. Why should I go anywhere with a guy who didn't have the nerve to ask me out himself? But my mother was implacable. She had told the guy he could take me to the party, and to the party I would go.

Alas, I'd been brought up as a good Catholic girl, taught to honor my father and mother, so, gritting my teeth, I got ready and waited for my date to pick me up. He could not have been more pathetic. He was short and skinny, dressed in baggy shorts and a red football jersey that came almost to his knees. His hair was thinning already, and he wore a smirk on his face. I detested him on sight, not because of his looks, but because of his cowardice.

With every cell in my body screaming "let me out of here!" I got into his car. We drove in silence for what seemed like hours. At the party, which was held outdoors, the director introduced me to the crew I would be working with. I was sitting in the semi-darkness, trying to stay away from my date, when a voice said, "here's one you haven't met yet."

I remember looking up and half seeing someone tall and broad shouldered bending towards me. We shook hands and every one of my formerly screaming cells became instantly alert. I scanned the environs. There was a pale blonde hanging about--his date--but that did not worry me. What did concern me was hearing that he would only be working my first show (he was a cameraman), as he was leaving the job to attend summer school.

I need not have worried. After the first show, he took to dropping by the studio when I was there. Soon he asked me (not my mother!) for a date.

The last programs of my third summer on TV had to be videotaped in advance, so that my cameraman and I could go on our honeymoon.

And to this day, my mother takes credit for the whole thing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My TV Show, Part The Second

(If you're wondering how I came to have my own live TV show during my college years, you can find out here.)

The end of my junior year in college was full of angst. On top of preparing for finals, I was having to write the textbook for the televised Conversational Spanish course that my mother had signed me up to teach that summer. Worst of all, I had just broken up with a boyfriend, felt sure that life was basically over for me, and was weeping copiously into my books several times a day.

I got through finals somehow, and handed a tear-stained manuscript of the textbook to the TV station manager. A couple of days later I was summoned to the studio for instruction. Here is what I was told: start talking when you get the signal, look at the camera, stop talking when we tell you. And don't wear prints--you'll look fuzzy. A couple of days after that, I was on the air.

Was I nervous? What do you think? Since the show was aired live, I was well aware that any mistakes would be seen and scoffed at by the invisible multitudes watching the show. My biggest fear was that I would not be able to time my final sentence to end exactly at the off-air signal.

Soon after the first show, my parents departed for North Carolina, and I moved into the dorm. Bliss! No house to clean, no dishes to wash, no grocery shopping, no babysitting my sister. Just classes and homework, and the TV show once a week. I quickly regained my joie de vivre.

Nevertheless, even after I lost the worst of my nervousness about the program, unpredictable things happened, like the time I had to abandon my car in a flood on my way to the studio.

The campus was all the way across town from the TV station, and I used to drive there in the afternoon in my little car. It was a dark blue Renault Dauphine, with the charm of all things French but made, I think, of papier mache , and with all the power of a lawnmower.

One afternoon I was driving to do the show when I got caught in a horrendous rainstorm, right in the middle of downtown Birmingham, Alabama. The intersections were underwater, the traffic lights were dead, and cars were being abandoned right and left. I could feel my little Renault swaying, but I had to get to the studio (I was supposed to go on in fifteen minutes) and I would never make it if I had to walk.

Eventually, though, I had to pull into an alley and abandon the car. The water was up to my knees. I had ten minutes til show time. I found a telephone booth and called the studio, and they splashed up in a huge late 1950s Impala and rescued me.

I ran upstairs to the set and sat down at my desk. I was panting, and soaked to the skin. Someone handed me a towel and I wrung out my hair. The music came on. I kicked off my sodden shoes and looked into the camera. "Buenas tardes," I said, with my best smile.

(To be continued.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

We Inaugurate the West Pawlet Salon Season

(My TV Show will resume in the next post.)

It couldn't be simpler. During the winter months, on a predetermined Sunday afternoon people drive up our steep driveway, stomp the snow off their boots, and cram into our living room. There is a fire in the stove, some wine, some dips, some nuts. Then things get quiet, and one of us tells her story--or his--while the rest listen.

The speakers are neighbors and friends, people whom we know but haven't had the chance to really hear in crowded fire department benefits or holiday parties, people with interesting lives and strong passions. There are lots of them around here. There is the world-class glass blower who lives just the other side of our woods. There is the painter/graphic designer/garden inventor who also teaches me yoga. And many others encrusted like gems in these woods and hills.

Yesterday's interesting person is Angela Miller, of Consider Bardwell Farm--see it and sigh here. She showed up straight from the little cafe that she runs on weekends in the antechamber of her barn--a kind of civic gesture on her part so that the citizens of West Pawlet will have somewhere to go. She was carrying an assortment of her magnificent cheeses in an unassuming plastic bag (and I'm not the only one saying that these cheeses are magnificent--I'm merely agreeing with a bunch of national cheese judges).

This is a woman who uses not only the right and left frontal hemispheres of her brain, but the back parts, too. Four days a week she's in her farm, turning cheese wheels, hefting hay bales, dealing with goats in childbed. The rest of the week she's in New York City, being a literary agent. After her talk, I tried to get her to say which world she would rather be in, but it became apparent that she needs both to be happy. And she is.

We passed around little plates with samples of cheese--cow, goat, aged, more aged, each named after a nearby village. We drank more wine. Cheeks grew rosy, and the talk turned to books. Then the sunlight grew dim and people had to go do evening chores, let out the dogs, see to the children, get home before dark. On went the hats, boots, coats and scarves, and the first salon of the 2010 season was done.