Thursday, April 29, 2010

Death Of A Gym

The closest village to us (other than West Pawlet, which is in fact a micro village) is Granville, NY. That is where we do our grocery and hardware and chicken food shopping. And it is where, for the last eighteen months or so, my husband has faithfully gone, three times a week, to the gym.

If church bells in the western Vermont had been in the habit of ringing, they would have rung when, two years ago, a family from "away" opened a gym in Granville. It was large, it was clean, it had separate workout rooms for men and women, a swimming pool, classes you could sign up for. In these latitudes, this kind of thing causes quite a sensation.

A number of my friends signed up immediately, even as they wondered, "How can the gym's owners make a go of it? Who will the clientele be? How long can it last?" You should know that Granville, NY, is not the most prosperous of villages. It has a lovely library, and a serviceable supermarket and a couple of hardware stores. It has no fewer than three dollar stores, which should tell you something. On the short Main Street, there are more empty store fronts than functioning businesses. The town in general looks down at the heels, depressed, hanging on by its fingernails. That is why, when the gym opened, we all wondered who would go there.

My personal preference being for silent, spare yoga rooms, it took me a while to warm up to the new gym. But despite the grim exterior and the garish murals around the pool, the people were so friendly and the machines so spanking new that even I was persuaded to join what looked like the future community center for Southwestern Vermont and rural upstate New York. I was also hoping that by joining I could entice my husband into a regular exercise regimen.

As it turned out, no matter how gently I forced myself to go, the workouts on the various machines gave me terrible CFS relapses, so I was forced to drop out midway through my one-year membership. My husband, however, stayed with it, and made his workouts a part of his regular routine, just like the medical pamphlets say you should do. And when our grandchildren visited and the world was covered in snow, it was wonderful to be able to take them to the pool.

Now, we are told, the gym will be no more. That is all we know. Will outstanding memberships be refunded? Is this a case of bankruptcy? Were the owners--and their lenders--so naive as to expect membership fees to quickly compensate for the expense in building and equipment? There are no answers yet.

All we know is that yet another community resource has been lost due to insufficient local support. This is the sort of thing I never thought about during my years in the Baltimore-DC megalopolis. If one gym failed, there was always another one nearby, and the same was true of restaurants, theaters, stores. But here, where your neighbor delivers your mail, clears the snow from your driveway, changes your dressings when you are sick, things are up-close and personal. I'm not sure what I could have done to save the Granville gym. But I am once more reminded that in deciding where to put my money and my energy I must take into account not just my own welfare and interests, but those of my neighbors as well.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Slate Hunting In The Snow

My husband and I left the house in a kind of blizzard this morning to go to a nearby slate quarry. I say "a kind of blizzard" because although the snow was coming down thickly and covering the ground, you could see the emerald-green grass poking through--not at all the color that grass would be in the case of a real blizzard.

But it was cold and exceedingly wet when the kindly owner of the quarry told us to just look around and take what we wanted. For free, because it was the first time. So there we were, clambering around slippery piles of slate of all colors and sizes and thicknesses. There was orangy-red slate, purplish slate, gray slate, almost-black slate, green slate, green shot through with gold, green with brown stripes....

How to choose? One criterion was weight. I long ago made a vow that I wouldn't carve anything I couldn't lift, so even though my obliging spouse would have helped me carry heavy slabs to the car, I kept my vow. Unfortunately, what I could lift today was negatively affected by the wet and frozen state of my hands, which could at best only grasp tile-sized pieces.

But no matter. The wonderful thing about slate hunting in the snow is that the colors of the wet stone show brightly, in a way that the dry stone only does after it's been polished. So even as my hands got colder and stiffer, I kept seeing more fabulous pieces that I couldn't pass up.

Eventually, the elements got the better of me, and I called it quits. I came home with a dozen pieces in different sizes and proportions. In the coming weeks, I'll find out which colors make for a harder stone, which thicknesses are not thick enough--maybe I'll even learn to tell, the hard way, which stone is most likely to flake.

The snow is gone now. The baby lettuces in the garden seem unscathed, as are the pink blooms on my little apple trees. This weekend the temperature will hit 70--perfect for carving outdoors.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Infanta and I

This is a detail of Velazquez's "The Maids Of Honor," a portrait of the family of Philip IV of Spain--you can see him and the Queen reflected in the mirror in the back of the painting--and their daughter, the Infanta Margarita Teresa, surrounded by her attendants.

I am posting this picture because--despite my lack of royal blood and blond hair--the little Infanta's pose and the look on her face remind me powerfully of the way I felt as a child.

There she stands, the sun around whom a planetary system of adults (including the greatest painter ever) revolves. I love the way the Infanta turns her head away from the kneeling woman who is holding her hand, trying to get her attention, saying "Look, here are Mommy and Daddy!" as the King and Queen make their appearance. Even though the Infanta's eyes are obediently turned towards the attendant, or perhaps towards her parents, her face is turned towards...the dog! The dog and the little page who is playfully putting a foot on his back. (Sorry, this detail only shows the page's foot.)

One of the Infanta's hands is imprisoned by the maid of honor, and the other one rests limply on the shelf-like armature that holds up her skirt. She would like to play with or at least pet the dog, but she is prevented by the three maids who follow her wherever she goes, and by a skirt as broad as she is tall. Is there really a skinny little five-year-old body inside that cage? Does she ever get to run full tilt down the palace corridors, her blond mane streaming behind?

It would be easy to make the little Infanta into an icon of the abused child. But she doesn't look unhappy to me. To me she looks...nonplussed. I know the look because I felt the feeling. Nonplussed and perplexed is how I felt most the time, until I turned fourteen. Continuously surrounded by a circle of attentive adults (I was the only grandchild in both my mother's and my father's families); encased in clothes that, while not exactly corsets and crinolines, felt itchy and confining; gazing wonderingly at other children, I felt like a visitor from another planet, trying to figure out the codes of the world into which I had been thrust so unprepared.

"Who are all these people?" the Infanta and I--separated by three centuries and an ocean, not to mention social class--say in chorus. "And why are they always around me? Why are they telling me all the time how to stand, where to look, what to feel? Do I have to wear these clothes, and can I play with the dog? Is that boy going to get in trouble?"

Not too long after Velazquez painted her, little Margarita Teresa married her uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor, and went to live in Vienna, where she died at 21 after bearing six children and suffering many miscarriages.

Me, I got married at 22, and after many years and some adventures went to live in Vermont, where on this 27th day of April of the year of Our Lord 2010 I can look out the window and watch the snow fall.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Patio

I am proud that, over the years, I have, by means of newspaper, black plastic, and several tons of mulch, minimized or even eliminated the lawns in the houses we have owned. Lawns, like corsets and high heels, are crimes against Nature. They consume energy and water, choke out native species, and compel otherwise rational people to use noxious chemicals. There should be a law.

Our present house, unfortunately, is surrounded by a large lawn. I have made inroads against it in the form of the vegetable garden and a couple of flower beds, but I will never be able to eliminate it altogether. Now, however, an opportunity to take a large bite out of the lawn has presented itself.

The lawn comes right up to the back of the house, and in that space we have plunked an iron table and some chairs, and the bird feeder. But the ground in Vermont stays wet for such a large part of the year, that we hardly ever sit out there. I had long resisted putting in a patio because I thought it would look suburban--bear in mind that the area where the patio would go is bordered by the back of the chicken house. This year's mud season went on for so long, however, that I finally decided that we needed some terra firma on which to enjoy the first rays of the spring sun; watch the stars on summer nights; and toast marshmallows around the fire pit in early fall.

So we're going to make a patio--a slate patio, this being West Pawlet. And in it there will be a small round or rectangular pond. And that, I'm afraid, after weeks of thinking and drawing, is as far as I have gotten.

I have a pile of garden and pond books that friends have lent me. And it may well be that these books are what is holding me back. The pictures in them are so gorgeous, so paradisal that they have given me a severe case of gardener's block. Those cunning nooks and charming vistas, those benches and arches and paths, those filigreed beds--what have they to do with my bare little patch with its two infant apple trees?

Where do I begin? I know that what defines a garden is a sense of enclosure, and that the patio and pond will have to relate somehow to the square vegetable garden, the pair of apple trees (which, as I write, are covered in bloom--bless their hearts), the chicken shed. I know that the project must not cost zillions of dollars. And I know that whatever I end up with, I will have to maintain.

So, my parameters are: simple, cheap, and aesthetically pleasing. Is it any wonder I'm stuck?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

How I Avoid Going To The Supermarket

I often manage to put off my trips to the grocery store for three or four weeks at a time. My husband goes to a gym near the supermarket, so he runs in to buy the odd banana or potato when we run out. Otherwise, I have over the years evolved a number of strategies to avoid grocery shopping, which tires me out and depresses me.

Strategy number one: buy a freezer. In its recesses one can always find a long-forgotten piece of meat or fish that will do for one more dinner.

Strategy number two: plant a garden and keep some hens. The garden allows us to eat fresh, freeze or dry most of the vegetables we need, and the hens deliver fresh eggs daily. (BTW, raw eggs, with the yolk and the white barely scrambled, can be frozen.)

Strategy number four: give up milk, because it necessitates frequent trips to the store. I keep some cans of evaporated milk on hand for cooking.

Strategy number five: plan dinner according to what is actually present in the fridge, the freezer, or the pantry--not what some recipe calls for.

Strategy number six: don't eat lettuce unless you grow it (lettuce doesn't keep well). And give up the idea that sandwiches and salads need both lettuce and tomatoes. Combining the two is an unnatural act, since lettuce grows in cool weather and tomatoes in hot, and you'll have to buy one or the other at the supermarket if you insist on eating both together.

Strategy number six: for fresh fruit, buy things that keep well--apples, melons, oranges, grapes.

Strategy number seven: eat out once in a while.

It had been almost a month since my last trip to the supermarket, but today I had to go. We were out of things that I don't grow, such as potatoes and carrots. But also, for the first time in years, we had run out of our own frozen vegetables before the spring salad crops in the garden were ready. There was nothing for it but to buy green veggies at the store.

So I did, and found that you can get organic (frozen, not fresh) broccoli, green beans, peas--all nicely packaged in a plastic bag, ready to cook. For a brief moment, I played in my mind the movie of my typical summer: the planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, washing, cutting, blanching, bagging, labeling, freezing. And for a long moment I was tempted, sorely tempted to give it all up and become once more the supermarket's slave.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Pond

It all started when Our Forester (you can read about him here) mentioned that he had found a number of alders in the woods at the back of the house, and that alders usually mean there are springs nearby. And if there is a spring, then all you have to do is dig out a spot and you have yourself a nice little wildlife pond.

It was February when he was here, and everything was dead and frozen solid, so his talk of water and wildlife went straight to the area in my brain where the neurons live that catapult me into action. Our Forester recommended the Pond Guru to guide us through the finding and the damming up of water, and when the Pond Guru came we showed him the places where we suspected the springs were and he took one look and said nah, those weren't springs. And unless we wanted to dig a separate well and spend tens of thousands of dollars digging it and a pond, we'd have to make do with--and here the Pond Guru curled his lip slightly--a garden pond.

When his lip uncurled, the Pond Guru gave us the name of the Garden Pond Person, who would guide us through the process, advise us on the proper technology, etc. The Garden Pond Person, who is an honest woman, spent half an hour on the phone telling me how she had just had to dismantle her own (large) garden pond to clean it out, and what a huge job it had been. Even when you're not dismantling it, she said, a garden pond is equivalent to having a second garden to care for.

Never one to be daunted by the prospect of more work, I invited the Garden Pond Person to come over and take a look at the place. After that conversation, I began to have doubts about the project. It wasn't so much the maintenance as the technology that scared me.

These days it seems that you cannot just dig a hole, plunk a liner in it, fill it with water and add plants and a couple of fish--which happens to be my idea of a garden pond. You must oxygenate the water, and for that you have to have a waterfall, or a fountain, or at least a bubbler. And for that you need a pump, which runs on electricity. And if you have a pump you have to have a filter, and a skimmer. As the GPP talked, I envisioned all this machinery clacking and whirring inside my little pond, and breaking down, and having to be repaired, while the dreaded algae take over....

The people who invent pond technology--and they do such a good job that you can have a facsimile of Niagara Falls built right in your suburban backyard--have come up with a sop for ecologically-minded pond aspirants like me: a bog. A bog consists of a layer of gravel on a specially-built shelf inside your pond. You plant some plants in this gravel without any soil so that they have no recourse but to draw all their nourishment from the water, thus making a filter unnecessary. But you have to have a system of pipes under the gravel for the water to reach the plant roots, and (what else!) a pump to force the water in and out of the bog.

"But can't I just have a pond with plants and fish, a pond with no machinery?" I asked the GPP.

She pursed her lips. "You could, I guess, if you wanted to," she said. "But you wouldn't be happy. The water would be green with algae. With a filter and some products, the water will be crystal clear. You'll be able to see right to the bottom."

And that's when I began to suspect that I am just not in tune with contemporary thinking about ponds. To me, a garden pond means greenish water, and fish, and frogs. I don't care if I can't see all the way to the very bottom--the murk is what gives the critters privacy. True, a waterfall would help to aerate the water, but a waterfall would not occur naturally in the flat stretch between my house and the woods. And if I put in a fountain, every time I heard it instead of feeling serene I would feel guilty about the electricity that it was wasting.

In our house in Maryland we had a circular pond set in a little stone patio. No fountain, no filter, no pump, no skimmer, no products. Just plants and gold fish and some frogs and snails. It just sat there, reflecting the sun, being green. My kind of pond.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My First Vocation

When I was very young--long before the German nuns had yelled "schnell!" at me; long before I learned to fear other little girls my age; long before the violin, or the piano, or even the solfeggio started--I knew exactly what I wanted to become.

It was nothing like what my mother or my aunts were. As far as I could tell, their occupation was clothes, theirs and mine: thinking and talking about clothes, then shopping for fabric, which included dragging me along while endless bolts of--to me--indistinguishable cloth were brought out and carefully felt and discussed. Then they took this cloth to a dressmaker who lived with her widowed mother in a tiny apartment. More discussion followed, magazines were looked at, and eventually the dressmaker got on her hands and knees and took measurements. On the way home, my mother and her sisters stopped by the mender-of-ruined-stockings and dropped off one or two to be repaired.

While waiting for the next appointment at the dressmaker's, my mother and her sisters mended clothes: they let down the hems of my dresses, turned my father's shirt collars. The next visit to the dressmaker was, for me, a kind of purgatory. It meant standing absolutely still in sweltering summer heat while the basted-on components of my next winter's woolen coat were applied to my sweating body. I stood and smelled the dressmaker's dinner cooking while she wheeled slowly around me like a planet, her mouth full of pins, ripping seams and pinning them together again. I would a million times rather have been sitting next to my uncle, driving the manure-filled cart into the fields, than in this tiny city cubicle, surrounded by my mother and her sisters and the dressmaker, like the hapless Infanta in Velasquez's "The Maids of Honor."

What I really wanted to be, in my earliest heart of hearts, was a fishwife. I saw fishwives frequently in the market, when my mother took me along on her daily shopping. Of all the stall-keepers--the fruit-sellers, the legume ladies, the butcheresses peering from behind their mounds of glistening sausages, the lucky souls who sold live poultry--the fishwives were my favorites.

They presided above a huge display of seafood--the freshly-caught, practically still leaping bounty that Mother Mediterranean used to disgorge for our pleasure. Fish of all shapes and colors were artfully arranged in psychedelic wheels on large flat baskets. I don't remember their names, but there were huge and tiny fish, blue fish, and yes, red fish, alternating with mounds of mussels and clams and other creatures of the deep.

The fish stalls were always dripping wet, and the fish were laid on beds of deep green leaves, and the whole thing was so moist-smelling and slippery and strange that it made you feel that you were literally in the sea. And above all that bounty, singing their enticing chants of "won't you come take a look at my sardines, my beauty?" were those sirens, the fishwives.

I only ever saw them from the waist up, their lower bodies being hidden by the displays, but the parts I could see were magnificent. Their arms were bare and their fingernails were painted red. They grabbed a knife and made a cut and all the fish's guts came out. Or they picked a fish up and put it down and picked another one up instead and plopped it on the scale and announced its price with a big smile of their red lips and handed your mother the package and wiped their hands on their aprons after handling the money.

Ah, their aprons! Stretched across their considerable busts, their aprons were white, and smeared with fish blood and scales. And they were bordered, around the sleeves and neckline, with a good four inches of the most delicate, intricate, extravagant lace you could imagine, lace that would have looked impressive on a wedding dress or a christening gown.

I must have been, at most, five years old. But I knew real luxury when I saw it, and I was captivated by the aristocratic disregard of the fishwives for their finery--so different from my mother and her sisters' worshipful attitude before a length of Prince of Wales weave. Also, something in me really responded to the combination of fish blood, and lace. I too wanted to wear lace and not care if it got dirty. I too wanted to handle fish of many colors. I too wanted to wield a knife....

Years later, on one of my trips back to Spain, I went to the market. The fishwives were still there, as were most of the fish. And the fishwives still wore their spectacular aprons. But now the finery was protected by a transparent plastic apron that kept the blood and guts at bay.

For myself, I went on to a profession that involved little lace and, except in the rhetorical sense, no blood or guts at all. But if I had become a fishwife in Barcelona, I like to think that I would have fought tooth and nail against wearing those protective plastic aprons.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Goddess Loosens Her Grip

My dog-breeder friends told me that she would, eventually, but I didn't believe them. They were right, though. After three hellish weeks, Aphrodite has withdrawn her claws and Bisou is no longer in heat. I knew it right away when I saw that she and Wolfie were in different rooms, of their own accord.

Peace and serenity have descended upon us as we welcome the reign of chaste Artemis. But Wolfie, Bisou and I are still haggard and hollow-eyed from our encounter with the Goddess of Hormones.

I am carrying out the proper purification rites: I have washed, dried and put away the towels and sheets that I had draped over all our furniture. I have combed out Bisou's shiny red coat in preparation for the berry-scented bath that I will give her tomorrow.

And as soon as it stops raining I will, for the first time in three weeks, take us all out for a walk.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Great Rooster Dilemma

The rooster dilemma has arisen because I now have seven hens, enough to support a rooster. By "support" I mean "allay the concupiscence of" a rooster. Roosters, especially young ones, are such mating machines that they will stress and wear out their wives, unless there are enough of them so he can spread his favors more thinly.

Of course one could end up with a monogamous rooster, as we once did. He was a gorgeous Barred Rock, decorated with narrow black and white stripes from head to tail and with a rakish red comb flopping over one eye. He fell in love with an elderly hen, one of those scrawny rust-colored hybrids who lay huge brown eggs day in and day out, winter and summer. We had a flock of eight hens, but he ignored all except the one he had set his heart upon. The trouble was that he didn't just set his heart upon her, but also the considerable weight of his body, his beak holding her fast behind her head and his spurs clawing her back for balance. The poor hen started losing the feathers on her back, and looking haunted and unhappy. I decided that she had precedence over the rooster, and so he went. Fortunately, monogamous roosters are fairly rare.

On the plus side, a rooster can be a surprisingly good husband to a flock. If he finds a worm or an especially tasty weed, he will call the hens making the very same clucking sounds with which a mother hen calls her chicks, and let the hens eat first. He will keep an eye out for hawks and foxes while the hens graze, and will get them to safety if a predator appears. And nothing beats a rooster for getting the flock into the shed at night.

A rooster means fertile eggs, and if one of the hens should go broody and sit on a nest of eggs, that means the possibility (albeit not the guarantee) of chicks. And a rooster crows--a trumpet-like, cheerful sound that heralds such events as the rising of the sun, or the arrival of guests.

On the minus side, a rooster crows. He often crows in the middle of the night, way before dawn, or because the dog just came into the yard, or because he feels like it. It is a loud, trumpet-like sound. We don't have near neighbors to worry about, but there is no question that, at all times and in all seasons, the yard is a noisier place with him about. Then there is the hustle and bustle of his sex life, the frequent beating of his wings for showing-off purposes, the sheer energy of the beast.

Rooster or no rooster, I have seen no difference in egg production or in the health of the flock. But in their hearts, are the hens happier without a mate, or would they like a strutting husband with a bright red comb? Me, I like the calm, conventual feel of a roosterless flock. But I can't deny that there is something missing: the excitement, the drama and (in the case of roosters especially) the sheer danger of the male presence. The question is, is it worth it?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Putting Pullets To Bed

Today I released the new pullets into the society of the four older hens, and into the wide open spaces of the regular pen and the much larger temporary pen that is attached to it. I watched for a while and made sure that my placid Buff Orpingtons had no desire to murder the new arrivals, then left them to get acquainted.

You should know that yesterday one of the little Barred Rocks died. I found her by the feeder, with no signs of external trauma, but dead as a door nail. I performed our usual dead livestock ritual and flung her into the woods. I checked the spot today and sure enough, she was gone--a good meal for baby racoons or fox kits or God knows what. Still, her death upset me. I've never lost a young chicken, not even that most fragile of creatures, a day-old chick.

I half expected to find the remaining three pullets in extremis this morning, but they seemed fine, and I decided it was time for them to experience not only the society of the older hens, but direct sunshine. They thought this was imprudent nonsense, and quickly scurried under the shed, where they spent this entire glorious April day in the dark, huddled and peeping.

7:00 p.m. I go to check on them. They are nowhere to be seen, or heard. Possibly, I worry, whoever has gotten their dead sister has come back for more. I entice the older hens into their room by means of that opiate--sunflower seeds--to get them out of the way. Then I peer under the shed and see a flash of yellow leg--the pullets are there, in the darkest recesses. I need to get them out of there, up the steps, and into their room for the night.

Armed with a handful of Chick Grower crumbles, I sprinkle some just beyond the shed. Miracle of miracles, they hear the crumbles fall and come out of their refuge. I sprinkle more of the stuff on the steps and sit down to wait.

There is nothing more frustrating than waiting for a chicken to come inside a building. The first thing she does is walk away, but just as you are about to give up hope she turns her head, then takes a couple of steps in the right direction. You coo encouragement, but she doesn't like that, and goes back where she started. Seeming to sense your despair, however, she pecks her way slowly towards you, then stops, turns around, pecks some more....

I run out of patience. I turn on the light in the chicken house, hoping that the energy-saver bulb will function as a beacon pointing the way home, and go inside to start dinner. I really don't want those pullets to spend the night outdoors.

7:55 p.m. It is still light. I go back out to the shed--no pullets in sight, but I hear desperate cheepings from way over near the wood pile. And that is where they are, huddled and pathetic, so much so that they let me pick them up (usually it's not that easy to catch a chicken in daylight) and carry them to the shed. There is a thick bed of nice clean hay for them, clean water, more Chick Grower crumbles. And a door that I close against weasels, foxes, owls, raccoons, possums, rats, bears, mountain lions ("catamounts" in these parts), coyotes, coydogs, dogs, fisher cats, bobcats and house cats.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In The Grip Of The Goddess

I've been trying my best not to write about this, but it has blotted everything else out of my mind today, so here goes.

My housekeeper/house sitter, whom I'll call Z, has acquired a small-breed puppy. The animal is male, five months old, un-neutered. Because she doesn't want to leave her dog in his crate at home while she cleans our house, she brings him along. I have mentioned to her before (when in fact I should have stated firmly) that the dog is a distraction and needs to be kept in the crate while she cleans.

Today I was at Wolfie's herding lesson when Z arrived. Prior to leaving, I had instructed my husband that Bisou was in standing heat and that Z was to keep her dog crated at all times.

How do I know that she is in standing heat, you ask? By Wolfie's behavior. Instead of sniffing and licking he has been determinedly grasping her hindquarters and making those distressing-looking motions...It takes a bit of agility on his part to do this, given how close to the floor she is, but he manages many, many times a day. Is she actually standing? Is she holding her tail to one side, as the books describe? I can't tell, because she is completely hidden by his bulk. But his actions tell me that things have come to the crisis point.

When I arrived home, Z's dog was in his crate. A while later, however, going to my bedroom to change shoes, I found the door closed and, inside, Z vacuuming and Bisou and Z's dog all over each other. Who was on top of and doing what to whom? I couldn't tell, they were moving so fast. I scooped up Bisou and put her in her downstairs crate, went back upstairs and told Z that I understood her need to bring the puppy along until he could be given the run of her house, but that while he was here he was supposed to be in his crate--especially with Bisou in raging heat; that three dogs in the house was all that I could handle; and, again, that Z's dog was proving a distraction in her work.

I kept my remarks brief and to the point, my voice as even as I could manage. But eight hours later my inner voice is still screaming, "What was she thinking? How could she so brazenly ignore our instructions? Z has had dogs before, and even goats. Doesn't she know that males in their infancy are perfectly capable of becoming fathers? And what, for crying out loud, am I doing allowing a fourth dog into the house at all?"

If this seems a little extreme, remember that it comes on top of three weeks of ceaseless and obsessive sexual behaviors by Wolfie and Bisou. Ceaseless. And all of it, except for one weekend we went away, has happened right at my side. My life has been an endless round of spreading towels on furniture, yelling "leave it!" to Wolfie, drying his drool off Bisou, giving her refuge between my feet or on my lap (and then having to wash my jeans in cold water).

As I write, Wolfie is asleep at my feet, Bisou at my side. They are exhausted. They have lost weight. Aphrodite is a cruel goddess, and when she grabs hold of you, you'd better watch out. But it will, I am told, soon be over. Mercifully, Bisou is a dog, not a teenage girl. A couple of months after her heat she will be ready for spaying, and we will all breathe a sigh of relief.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Thirty Million Bachelors

I recently came across the statistic that, when China's one-child-per-family generation comes of age, there will be thirty million more males than females of marriageable age. Thirty million guys for whose sakes roughly fifteen million of their older sisters were sacrificed in utero or at birth. Thirty million sons, repositories of their parents' fondest hopes, now unable to find a mate.

O.k., not all those guys will be looking for a woman. Say that five million are gay and out of the Chinese closet, that still leaves twenty-five million frustrated heterosexual males.

My first reaction when I saw the statistic was "serves them right!" Serves them right for being so male-centered. Serves them right for all those gender-based abortions and female infanticides. (NB: I believe in reproductive freedom but agree with Bill Clinton that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.) Serves them right for all those baby girls languishing in orphanages.

Who is going to pay the price for this outrageous manipulation of Nature? Not the men and women who did the aborting and the abandoning, but the precious boys for whom such sacrifices were made. Thirty million of them--o.k., twenty-five million--will fail to bring home dutiful daughters-in-law and beget grandsons to gladden their parents' old age. And what are they going to do with themselves?

Will they raid other countries in search of women, as primitive tribes used to do?

Will they worship women because of their scarcity, and grant them equal, or even superior, rights?

Will they vie for women's favors by making themselves beautiful, or will they joust and duel and clobber each other until the gender balance is reestablished?

Will they vent their testosterone overloads on fast cars and motorcycles and cigarette boats, thereby increasing planetary pollution levels to all-time highs?

Will they seclude themselves in dark basements and spend their lives playing video games?

Will they form male harems serving a single woman?

Will they turn to each other for solace?

Will they declare prostitution a sacred profession?

If they manage to beget a child, will they insist on aborting the fetus if it is male?

Will they roam war-ravaged countries, looking for widows?

Will they become celibate monks?

Will they swear never to fool Mother Nature again?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The New Girls

Went to a "chicken swap" and got four new hens today-- seven-week-old pullets, two Rhode Island Reds and two Barred Rocks, all bright-eyed and fully feathered. The Reds are a deep, brownish red; the Rocks are black-and-white striped all over, and when their red combs grow out, they'll look like Parisian apaches. (We did not get the handsome pair of mated geese that I craved, or the handful of day-old baby ducks--all yellow down, with those adorable tiny duck beaks--that I came within inches of grabbing.)

There is nothing more charming than a seven-week-old pullet, with her big yellow feet and her tiny head and her Audrey Hepburn eyes. My little lot are clever and inquisitive. Even after the traumas of the morning--being transported inside a cardboard box by their old owner, and in a large dog crate deeply bedded with hay by us--they figured out the feeder and waterer we had set out for them right away. Despite the helpless-sounding peeping that they keep up, they already know a lot about being a chicken.

Why add to our existing flock of four? With hens, you have to think ahead. Our older hens are Buff Orpingtons, a heritage breed, which means that they aren't exactly egg-laying machines. They are now a year old, and due to molt in the fall, at which time they will stop laying for a while, and when they start again they will do so at a slower rate. (Besides, one of them may be turning into a rooster, as I explained here ). If all goes as planned, however, the new girls will come of age just as the days grow shorter, and will be in their laying prime in the depths of winter.

For now the new quartet are sequestered in the old goat room, separated from the older hens' quarters by a screen door so they can see and, most importantly, be seen by the Buffies. This way, when I release the pullets in a week or so, the Buffies won't kill them, which they would certainly have done if I had put them all together this morning. Chickens have a dark side, you know.

In other chicken developments, today we set up the portable fence, and released the Buffies into the lawn to gorge on the new grass and the newly-hatched bugs. Every year about this time the hens grow so desperate for fresh greens that they stick their heads out through the bottom holes of the fence to get at the lawn grass, and make a bare swath of earth the exact length of their necks all around their pen.

The sky was bright blue when we got the temporary fence set up, and the Buffies, finally released to their summer pasture, looked like golden balls on the bright green grass. In the shed, the pullets, having eaten and drunk, collapsed into a heap and fell asleep. A big tom turkey came out of the woods and ushered his dun-colored mate into the side field, as if he were taking her to a restaurant. And that made me think, should I get a rooster for my flock?

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Organic Gardener's Complaint Against Ground Ivy

Bane of my garden, fair April's evil gift,
Creeping green menace, Beelzebub's own weed.
Thou killest the seedlings upon which I would feed,
Like the Great Alexander, thou art cruel and swift.

Sprouting demurely at the birth of spring,
Thy blossom's deep blue to the gardener appeals,
But the stench of thy root thy true nature reveals
When onto the weed pile thy remains I fling.

Th'art a yin plant, ground ivy, and yieldest with ease
To my yankings and pullings and strivings to clear
My poor garden of pests such as thee. Yet I fear
That thou mockest my efforts, ground ivy, thou tease.

No chemical killers needs't thou fear from me,
But I have greener weapons: I will spit on thee!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Some Sexual Aberrations Among Our Critters

Forgive me if I seem to have sex on the brain, but Bisou has been in heat for what seems like several months now, and it's hard to think of anything else. If we didn't have Wolfie, it wouldn't be so bad. But Wolfie, despite his neutered state, is much taken with this new phenomenon, and is glued to Bisou 24/7.

I've had to refill the dogs' water bowl more often lately, because of all the fluid that Wolfie is losing through his tongue. Not only does he lick Bisou's girl bits, but also her head and ears, her neck, the towel on which she has sat, and the floor on which she has walked. The Red Baroness goes around looking dazed and bedraggled, her hair sticking out in points all over.

People ask me if Bisou has been in "standing heat" yet--that is the relatively short period (three days in a three-week-long heat) when the female stands still for mating instead of snarling at attentive males and sending them on their way. But Bisou has never snarled at Wolfie, never sent him away. She puts up with his incessant licking, and doesn't run from his attempts to mount her (which are pretty comical, given how much taller he is). I think that her love of attention trumps her hormonal states: in her case "standing heat" is an irrelevant concept.

Speaking of irrelevant--but aberrant--concepts, did you know that not one of all our male dogs, from 95 lb. German Shepherds to 11 lb. Shitzy-Poos, has ever lifted his leg to pee? They have all, though neutered, exhibited quite macho affects--especially the Shitzy-Poo, R.I.P. But they have all, every one of them, squatted like females.

And now, for the most aberrant behavior of all: this morning, at 7:10, one of our hens crowed. Several times. Enough that I could call my husband to the door and have him bear witness. No question about it: she was crowing. And in case you're thinking that a rooster had sneaked into the hen house under cover of darkness: 1. chickens don't sneak around in the dark; they go to sleep, and 2. our four hens are checked up on and locked in safely by me every night before I go to bed.

No, it was definitely a hen crowing. And she, whoever she is, is not turning into a rooster, because yesterday there were four eggs in the nest, one per hen. Of course, she could be turning into a rooster that lays eggs....

Around our place, you never know.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Maids, Part Two

When we arrived in Ecuador, my mother was warned by the local ladies that the maids would steal everything.

In the 1950s, Ecuador had practically no middle class. Some twenty families owned 80% of the country's cultivated acreage. The rest of the population were Indians and mestizos living in squalor. Everybody expected the maids to steal, but the ladies wanted my mother to be prepared.

How do you defend yourself against theft by someone who lives in your house, cleans your bedroom, cooks your food? My mother figured we didn't have that much to lose and relaxed her vigilance, so she wasn't surprised when, one by one, her lace-edged batiste hankies disappeared. One day, the maid disappeared too. Surprisingly, several months later she came by for a visit. My mother gave her coffee and some cookies. After they had chatted a while my mother said "Maria, I am sorry that you took my handkerchiefs when you left."

"Your handkerchiefs?" Maria said. "I didn't take those. I took your towels, senora, but not your handkerchiefs!"

Our second Ecuadorian maid was another Maria. She was the youngest maid we had ever had--seventeen--and she disliked me. I was twelve, and I can see now that she probably envied me, with my school and my glasses and my violin. I was not allowed to give orders to Maria--or any maid--but if I gave Maria a message from my mother, she would ignore it, which would then get me in trouble. I was relieved when she left.

I loved the third Maria. She was a grown woman, and treated me like the child that I was. Short and squat, she wore her hair pinned up above her ears. The house we rented while she was with us had "servants' quarters" in the backyard, and Maria asked if she could bring her ten-year-old niece to live there. My mother agreed. When the girl arrived, barefoot and in braids, it was clear that she had never been to school, and my mother thought I should teach her to read. Our lessons were not a success. Like the second Maria, this girl seemed to resent me, despite my good intentions. The lessons didn't last.

We soon became aware that the third Maria had a novio, who would visit the little building in the backyard. As time went by, she seemed to be gaining weight, but it was hard to tell, since she was large-boned. Finally one day my mother decided to take the bull by the horns.

"Maria, is there any possibility that you might be...expecting?"

"Oh, yes, senora, I am."

"And when do you think the baby will come?"

"Any day now, senora, any day."

Horrified, my mother excused Maria from all but the lightest work and hastily collected a layette. Maria went into labor almost immediately after disclosing her pregnancy. My mother told her to get ready, that my father would drive her to the hospital, but Maria demurred. She mopped the floor. She emptied the trash. She walked me (quickly) to pick up some shoes that I was having repaired. And finally she let my father take her to the hospital.

She came back with a baby girl asleep under a thatch of straight black hair. The novio moved into the little house in the backyard, and my parents gave a party when the baby was baptized.

In the weeks that followed, Maria kept her daughter sequestered in her room. The weather was sunny and mild, and my mother suggested that she take the baby outside. Maria demurred, my mother--a firm believer in the benefits of fresh air and sunlight--insisted, and Maria finally took the baby in her bassinet into the backyard. But when my mother looked out the kitchen window, she saw that Maria had tented the bassinet with a shawl, so that not a drop of sunshine could reach her daughter.

It took my mother a while, but she finally got Maria to explain that she was hoping to keep her baby's skin as white as possible....

When we came to the U.S., that was the end of The Maids. It took my mother years to get over the shock. "How am I supposed to give a party," she would complain, "after spending the whole day cooking? I don't know how these Americans do it...."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Maids, Part One

Until my parents and I came to the U.S., we always lived with a stranger in our midst: The Maid. The Maid lived with us in our Barcelona apartment, 24/7, except for Sunday afternoons, which she had off. She had her own bedroom--The Maid's Room--which was bigger than mine, but she shared our bathroom facilities (toilet in one room; sink, bathtub and bidet in another).

As I have explained before, in the 1940s and 50s, when Spain was recovering from the Civil War (1936-39), you didn't have to be rich to have a live-in maid: plenty of impoverished women were glad to get a roof over their heads, three meals a day, a uniform, and a salary. Since The Maids came from the poorer regions of Spain, they spoke Spanish. Barcelona is in Catalonia, so we spoke Catalan (all Catalans also had to learn Spanish, as mandated by the Franco government). This meant that, as a family, we spoke a language that The Maid could not understand, which gave us a measure of privacy. Otherwise, The Maid was in our midst.

My mother treated these women kindly. She fed them well, paid them the going rate, gave them rest periods during the day and addressed them with the formal usted. Since I was just a kid, the maids always called me tu.

Every morning, The Maid would get me dressed, put my hair in braids, and take me to school. Back in the apartment she made the beds, dusted, mopped the tile floors, washed our clothes by hand, and ironed. My mother normally did most of the food shopping and cooking. At midday, The Maid would fetch me from school and serve lunch. Then she would sweep the dining room, which had to be done after every meal because of the amazing quantities of crusts that fell to the floor every time you cut a slice of bread. Then The Maid would take me back to school (all this on foot) and go back to her room for a nap. If she was busy when school let out at six thirty, my mother would come to get me, which gave me great joy. The Maid's day ended after she washed the dinner dishes--like everybody else, we ate around 10 p.m.

The first maid I can remember was Luisa, a grim, dark-haired woman who always wore black, which meant that sometime in the last ten years someone in her family had died. Luisa was with us when I started first grade at a school run by German nuns. She was as obsessed with punctuality as the German nuns were. A slow, absent-minded child, I was forever being harried by cries of "corre, corre!" on the part of Luisa, and "schnell, schnell!" on the part of the nuns.

Luisa left one day in a mysterious huff and was replaced by Florentina, a red-faced widow also dressed in mourning who wore her gray hair in an untidy bun. Florentina wasn't much fun either, though she was less driven by the clock--but by then I had internalized the punctuality mandate, and would force her to run panting up the hill to my school. Florentina smelled of bleach, and in the winter she got chilblains on her fingers, from washing our clothes in cold water.

The best maid of all was Maruja, from Malaga, and she fulfilled all the national cliches about the wit and charm of Andalusians. She was younger than her predecessors, and, even though she wore glasses like me, she had a novio, for whom she would dress up on Sunday afternoons. She told thrilling stories about the Holy Week processions in Malaga, she told jokes, and she sang. In the spring, when the kitchen windows were open, you could hear the maids all up and down our apartment house singing while they washed dishes. Maruja was the best. She sang old boleros,

Dos gardenias para ti,
con ellas quiero decir:
te quiero, te adoro....

She sang them with feeling, and she sang them in tune.

Friday, April 2, 2010

First Failure of the 2010 Gardening Season

Last month, I wrote here about planting spinach in the snow. I have believed unswervingly in this method since I read about it in The Mother Earth News, and have spoken about it with such fervor that I have made several converts.

One such acolyte (you know who you are) informed me matter-of-factly last week that her spinach was an inch high. Now that the temperature is in the 70s, she must be eating baby-spinach salads. Moi, on the other hand, have nothing coming up in my garden. Nothing, that is, except for green grass and emerald weeds.

Being a good (recovering) Catholic, I made an examination of conscience. What had I done wrong, or not done right, to account for this failure? The answer was, I had committed sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. Specifically, I was guilty of autumn sloth.

I confess that by October, when the leaves turn and the birds leave, I get heartily sick of gardening. The intensity of it! The endless planting, weeding, harvesting, washing, blanching, freezing! Lord, I pray, deliver me from all this bounty! Kyrie eleison, hurry up and send that killing frost.

To get the animals ready for winter, I clean out the shed and pile the manure-enriched bedding on the garden. This is hard work, but I do it gladly because it marks the end of the gardening season. When I'm done, I put away the pitchfork and the cart and go inside and light a fire. The last thing I want to do is go back to the dead garden and work the compost into the ground. Instead, I leave it on top of each bed, like a kind of duvet, waiting for the first snow.

When I went out with my seed packets last month, the snow had melted overnight, but the ground was far too hard to work. As long as I was out there, though, I figured I might as well drop the seeds into the compost, and hope for the best.

Well, the best hasn't happened. Those little seeds never did find a molecule of dirt to glom on to, or they would have come up by now. Despite torrential rains, the hay-and-manure duvet was far too thick for them to navigate, and I am sure they are stuck somewhere near the middle of it, not germinating.

As a result of my autumn sloth, I have no spinach, alas, and no arugula. Moreover, last summer having been a bad veggie summer, I now have three packages of frozen veggies in the freezer: one of pureed pumpkin, one of broccoli, one of peas. I cannot believe that I am going to be forced to buy greens at the grocery store.

I know that I should get out there right now and work that fabulous compost into the ground and plant some seeds. And I know that if I do that in the beds where I put in the spinach and arugula I will turn up and kill sad little green embryos. What to do? Just in case, I'll fork over and plant the beds in which I didn't plant the early greens. And in another couple of weeks, I'll replant those early beds again. Mea culpa.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Haiku

Red flowers bloom in her wake,
Wolfie follows closely:
Bisou, in heat.