Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Deep Blue, Dull Green

If it doesn't rain soon I'll have to change the name of this blog to My Brown Vermont.

We're having a terrific heat wave (highs of 94F) and it hasn't rained in quite a while.  The usual values of earth and sky around here (bright green vegetation, muted sky) are now reversed:  we havedeep blue skies and dull green vegetation.  It looks like the Mediterranean.  Speaking of which, the last time I was in Spain it was a very wet summer, and gardeners complained that it was ruining their gardens, where everything is planned with an eye to drought resistance.

But that is not the case in Vermont, and even my intensively planted garden is showing signs of stress, and betraying my aversion to watering.  The tomato vines have been dead for a while, but they're full of ripening tomatoes that I must remember to harvest tomorrow morning before it gets hot.  I broke down and watered the beans yesterday, because even though the plants looked fine they weren't setting fruit as fast as they should be at this time of year.  While I was at it I gave the zucchini some water too, in case it still had some life in it.  Amazingly, the kale, chard, eggplants and peppers are unaffected, though I may have to give them a drink in the next couple of days.

Why do I dislike watering so much?  Part of it has to do with dragging the hose around, trying to keep it from knocking down plants, and getting water and mud all over myself.  Part of it is that I get antsy just standing there holding the hose, wondering if I've watered enough yet.  But the main reason is that I'm always afraid that our well will run out of water.

I experienced the waywardness of wells at an impressionable age (30 or so) when we bought our first house in the country.  That well was forever running dry and having to "recover" for long periods, like some 19th century neurasthenic. I could not wash more than one load of laundry a day.  Watering the garden was out of the question.  And if company came to stay, it was axiomatic that we would run out of water in the first 48 hours.

Unlike that one, our present well is faithful and true.  In the five years we have lived here, with sometimes ten people in the house for days at a time, it has never failed us.  It gives delicious-tasting water, so cold that in hot weather we have to put special trays under the toilet tanks so the condensation won't rot the floors.

Still, you never know.  Better safe than sorry.  A stitch in time, and all that.  With these precepts in mind, yesterday I went into water-conservation mode.  I persuaded my husband to adjust the water level in the toilet tanks so they don't use three gallons of water with every flush.  I saved the water from freezing some beans--between the boiling and the cooling baths this came to almost a couple of gallons--and gave it to the hostas in front of the house.  These are the big-leaved kind of hostas that look like something from outer space.  They are super-mulched but were looking dry, so they got the bean water.

Of course hostas look kind of dry at the end of even a wet summer, but how am I to know the difference between a hosta that is dying of thirst and one that is merely tired of summer and wishing for fall?  I have the same dilemma with my two little apple trees.  They each have a number of fat apples ripening nicely, but the foliage looks rather dull.  Should I water them?  I can't bear the thought of them languishing before my very eyes, so I guess I'll put the hose at their feet tonight, and let it drip for an hour.

The only thing that is prospering right now is the lavender, which thinks it's been transplanted to a tawny hillside between an olive grove and the wine-dark sea, and from sheer joy has burst into a mass of late-season blooms.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Purification Rites

Cleaned the chicken house this morning before the sun got hot.  It wasn't a particularly gross job--I believe in a high bird-to-bedding ratio--but it was horrendously dusty.  All that pecking and scratching and fluffing the hens do all day long, week after week, just pulverizes the hay, and the dried manure eventually turns to dust as well.  I put a scarf over my hair, and considered wearing a dust mask.  It would have protected my lungs, but might have made me pass out from overheating. 

I clean the chicken house twice a year--in between I just add more hay as needed.  The fall cleanings go on the garden after the last vegetable has been picked.  By spring they will be ready to mix into the soil, to feed the new crops.  Thus, as I shoveled today my thoughts were on next year's garden.  Chickens and compost and gardens are things outside time.  They just go round and round in an endless cycle.

I did the job soon after breakfast, and as it was both early and bright, the hens were in an egg-laying mood.  When I entered the shed, one of the young Rhode Island Reds was sitting on the nest, wearing that inward, meditative look that a hen gets when she is about to lay.  I had to open the door to the outside because of the dust, however, and that let in a lot of light, which she didn't like, since hens prefer to lay in secluded, shady places.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw her looking annoyed, and finally my shoveling got to her and she hopped out and ran outside, protesting .

All the time I was working I could hear her cackling.  Every few minutes she would come to the door to see if I was finished.  But I wasn't, so she went away complaining, and pretty soon the rest of the hens were cackling as well, having just been reminded by their sister that they had eggs to lay too.

There is nothing like a bunch of hens pacing up and down and cackling at you to make you want to finish a job in a hurry.  So I shoveled as fast as I could, and carted away cartloads of old bedding while muttering "O.k., o.k., I'm almost done now.  Just a little longer and you can come in."  I usually try to get into a Zen state of mind when doing jobs I don't enjoy, but there was no way I could do that today with all those hens harassing me.

Finally, I carried away the last cartload.  I swept out the corners of the shed, replaced the roosting pole and the water dish, and scattered clean hay on the floor.  I closed the big door and the room became cool, dark and inviting.  As I was putting away the shovel, one, two, three hens filed in through the little trapdoor, and made a beeline for the nests.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Translating My Mother

The summer I was fourteen, after our first nine months in America, my parents and I went back to Spain.  When we returned to the U.S., our friends the Kendalls picked us up at the airport and took us home.  After we had unpacked and readjusted to the tropical steaminess of Birmingham, Alabama, my mother said "We must write a letter of thanks to the Kendalls."

With a  year in an American school under my belt, my feelings of terror about functioning in an English-speaking world were beginning to abate.  My father too, in his work as a musician, had achieved a degree of comfort with the language.  But for some reason, this was not the case for my mother.  Despite having studied Greek, Latin and French at university, despite being a well-read, intelligent person, English came slowly to her.

But that was o.k., because she had me.  Since I was in school all day, she was pretty much on her own as far as spoken English went.  But letters were different.  Letters could be saved until I got home in the afternoon.  And for reasons that I couldn't grasp at the time, I had grown to dread those letter-writing sessions.

"Get a pen and a piece of paper," my mother said, "and I will tell you what to say."

If my mother had simply said, "Write a letter to the Kendalls thanking them for picking us up at the airport," I would have managed a simple letter that was within the confines of what I knew how to say.  I remember doing that a lot in those days, in school work as well as around my classmates.  I would take a mental inventory of the things I knew how to say--nouns, verbs, idiomatic expressions--and would then compose something that lay within that set of capabilities.  In other words, I didn't start out with an idea, and then try to find ways to express it.  I started out with what was possible, and then combined and recombined those elements to come up with something that would be appropriate to the situation.

The trouble with my mother was, she started out with what she wanted to say, in the way she wanted to say it, rather than with what she could say--or what I could say.

"Write 'My very dear friends,'" she began. I wrote "Dear friends."

 "Now say, 'Your generosity makes me ashamed.'"

I felt a wave of nameless aversion, coupled with obstinacy, wash over me.  "You can't say that in English," I muttered.

"What do you mean, you can't say it.  Can you say 'generosity'?"  I nodded.  "Do you know the word for 'ashamed '?"  I nodded again.  "Well, then," she commanded, "say it!"

"No, I can't"

"Why not?"

"Because you don't say things like that in English."

My mother would want to know why you didn't say those things in English, and all I could answer was that you just didn't.  She would get angry, and I would become sullen.  Somehow the letters always got written, but they took a toll on our relationship.

Many years later, when I knew that a language is more than words--that it is a way of thinking, an attitude towards the world, a way of being--I remembered the letter about generosity and shame.  To express shame or embarrassment at being the recipient of another's kindness is not bizarre or crazy in Spanish.  The speaker is simply saying that your kindness towards her puts her in the obligation of reciprocating said kindness, a thing that she, being so much less worthy a person than you, is incapable of doing.  Hence the feelings of shame. (This way of putting things is, I feel sure, a legacy of the eight centuries of Arab domination in Spain.)

The "shame" letter was just one of the countless balancing acts I did during my teenage years, translating the culture that I was wading into to my mother, and translating my mother--who made a point of honor of not changing who she was--so that her American friends and (especially) my friends would not think she was insane.

Eventually, after I married and moved away, my mother had to write her own letters.  Eventually, her efforts to steer me away from the dangers of excessive acculturation subsided.  Many people found--and still find--my mother quaint, exotic, fascinating and original, and I can now accept that persona without cringing.  However, when she asks me to look over her letters --overly effusive, baroque, emotional--I still want to yell "but you can't say that in English!"

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Great Printer Hunt

Went to the big city of Rutland (pop. 63,000, second-largest city in Vermont) to buy a printer/scanner/copier.

This was no spur-of-the-moment decision, but was preceded by several days of online research, phone calls to printer-owning friends, and marital discussions on just what this machine would be expected to do better than our present serviceable but elderly printer/scanner/copier.

What I wanted--for this was going to be my own printer--was a machine that would make my drawings, whether scanned or copied, bear more than a passing resemblance to the originals.  One that would show the pale, unsaturated colors--light grays, off-whites, barely-there blues--that balance the stronger hues.  One that would reproduce flesh tones so my little people looked alive, without having to sacrifice all the other colors in the painting.  One, in short, that wouldn't make me weep every time the scanned image appeared on the screen.

So it was crucial to choose the right printer.

But how is one supposed to know which is the right printer?  After eliminating the obviously unsuitable ones, you're still left with too many imponderable choices--it's kind of like choosing the right liberal arts college for your kid. 

Looking at the dozens of printers on the internet, I reminded myself of the Third World immigrant I once read about, who became stressed to the point of panic in front of the supermarket bread section, reeling from 100% wheat bread to whole wheat, high fiber, multi-grain, plain white, oatmeal, potato or raisin--all of it fortified, enriched, supplemented and wrapped in variously-decorated plastic bags listing dozens of ingredients and nutritional values and bearing warnings about dangers of suffocation.

At some point, that immigrant must have just grabbed a loaf and gone home, and that is what we did today--we grabbed a printer and brought it home.  We did, while at the store, make copies of one of my originals on a couple of machines, and we compared them to the copies we had made on our printer at home. 

I'm pretty sure that the new printer--a Canon Pixma 560--will be better than the old one, though the technology still has a long way to go before it approximates the human eye.  Still, I must not, as we say in Spanish, ask the elm tree for a pear.  As long as the sight of my scanned or copied images doesn't make me weep, I'll be content.  And when I sigh, I'll do it quietly. 

Now comes the hard part:  reading the instructions, which come enclosed in a plastic bag with--who'd have thought it--a warning in eight languages in four different alphabets.  Here's the one in Italian: 

AVVERTENZA!  I sacchetti di plastica pottrebero essere pericolosi.  Tenere lontano dalla portata dei bambini per evitare pericolo di soffocamento.

Bambini...soffocamento...did you know you could read Italian?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An Egg Of One's Own

The minute the salmonella egg brouhaha broke out, I started surfing the web for information about the incidence of salmonella in the eggs of backyard flocks.  Like every researcher, I had something I was hoping to prove:  that an egg from a hen who is known to you personally is safer  than an egg from an industrial egg factory.  This would not only make me feel good about the eggs I eat, but would enable me to write a post encouraging my myriad readers to get (just a couple of) hens.

I'm sorry to say that my searches failed to yield the results I wanted.  Salmonella can infect an egg externally through fecal matter.  Thus, cleanliness is important, and one could make the case that it is easier to keep a clean environment for three hens than for three hundred thousand.  But industrial egg producers do clean and disinfect the eggs, so external salmonella is not likely to be the culprit.

Unfortunately, a hen can be infected with salmonella and, while appearing perfectly healthy, pass the bacterium into the egg while it is being formed.  I could find no studies of the incidence of salmonella-infected hens in backyard flocks.

Today, at last, I heard on Morning Edition an interview with Dr. William Schaffner, Chair of the Department of  Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt, (you can listen to it here ).  He said--briefly, and in passing--that, while there are no studies to this effect, it makes sense that hens from smaller flocks would be less likely to be infected than egg-factory hens.

Thus, though it is remotely possible that one of your three or four hens might be infected, the rest of your little flock, having access to the great outdoors, living in clean, well-ventilated quarters, and enjoying a natural, stress-free existence, would be much better able to fight off the infection than their caged egg-factory sisters, who lead the most inhumane lives of all domestic animals.

Now for a statistically insignificant data point:  my family and I, and my dogs too, have been eating eggs from our own hens off and on since 1975.  These eggs have been consumed in various stages of doneness--the dogs eat them raw--and we are all alive and well.  (Well, some of the dogs are no longer alive, but they didn't die of salmonella.)

So yet again, I will make my case for keeping a small backyard flock of hens:

1.  Eggs from your own hens are fresher, tastier and probably healthier (see above) than eggs from industrial farms.
2.  Hens are good for you.  They are companionable, attractive, and not at all stupid. I am sure they raise your oxytocin levels.
3.  Hens are good for the garden:  they produce fabulous manure that, mixed with old bedding and allowed to age over the winter, will make your vegetables and flowers flourish.  Also, they will happily consume your garden waste and all the extra veggies that you would otherwise feel guilty about throwing out.

Hens Feasting On Overgrown Zucchini

4.  A few hens are not at all time consuming.  I probably spend no more than five minutes a day feeding and watering my six hens, and gathering eggs (I'm not counting the time I spend chatting to them).  Because I use the "deep litter" bedding method, I only clean their shed in spring and fall.  I should mention that my hens spend the day outdoors except when there is deep snow on the ground, and their shed is quite large.  A smaller shed, or a bigger flock, would require more frequent cleaning.
5.  Many cities (including NYC) now allow people to keep small flocks of hens.  My feeling is that as long as you keep things small, clean, and are generous with gifts of eggs, you'll get no complaints from neighbors, and that means that you can keep hens just about anywhere.  Please note:  I'm talking about hens, not roosters.  Regardless of his other charms, the male of the chicken species is always loud, and often bellicose.

If you're curious about raising eggs of your own, here is a terrific website.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In Flagrante Delicto

Ha!  We finally caught her!  We caught Bisou in the act...of starting to poop in the house.

As you know if you follow these chronicles, Bisou's obsession with frogs is such that if I just let her out into the yard on the assumption that she will responsibly relieve herself she goes straight to the fish pond to chase frogs.  And then poops in the house.  And she's so fast and so discreet that we can never catch her in the act.

In the last couple of weeks, I have been taking her out on leash in the wind and rain, urging and encouraging ("if t'were done when 'tis done, then t'were well t'were done quickly," as Macbeth said) until she does the deed. And that has worked fine, except that it's terribly inconvenient.

This afternoon, after I fed the dogs, my husband and I were talking in the kitchen when Bisou trotted past us and into the living room, where she stepped onto her favorite Bokhara and adopted the characteristic crouch that every dog owner knows by heart.  My husband bellowed "No!".   I shrieked "Outside!!!" at the top of my lungs and flung open the back door.

Bisou was so startled that she instantly contracted all the appropriate muscles--thus sparing our rug--and flew into the backyard.  And, wouldn't you know it, even in the throes of her direst need, she made a beeline for the frogs. But I reminded her of what we were there for and she ran under a tree and did her business like a good dog.

Back in the house, as my husband and I were hoarsely congratulating ourselves, I noticed that Bisou was holding her tail between her legs, hunching her head between her shoulders, and generally trying to make herself invisible.  We really had scared her.  I took a treat out of the treat can and got down on my knees and patted my chest and she came running.  And now she's sleeping peacefully next to me, digesting her dinner and, I hope, her lesson.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Big Wind

A strange kind of autumn has arrived.  The wind blew for 24 hours, the first rain in weeks drenched the gardens, and now the ground is covered with twigs and branches and many, many leaves--green leaves wrenched untimely from their homes, leaves that will not turn red or orange or gold in October.  It's long-sleeve weather, sock-and-boot weather, put-away-the-fans weather.

The little dog is Bisou, but I have no idea who the long-haired woman is

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Adventures In Home Sewing

A very long time ago, in the wild and carefree 60s, many women sewed their own clothes. Some were quite good at it. A graduate school classmate of mine made a Madras sport jacket for her husband. Men's clothes are hard to make--they have to fit just right, since in social situations most men don't move around enough to hide an uneven hem or an ill-fitting sleeve. Sport jackets are especially hard--they have to have padding, and lining, and buttonholes, and in the case of a Madras print you have to match all those lines. I was never in that league.

I specialized in shifts: loose-fitting, sleeveless, collarless tubes, with at most a couple of darts. With time I became more daring, and made a couple of long-sleeved outfits to wear to graduate fellowship interviews, in sober brown fabric to make me look scholarly. I made a robe with flounces at the collar and cuffs for my honeymoon, and a couple of years later I made my maternity clothes, including a cape to wear in winter. And I made cute little dresses for my daughters until, at an amazingly early age, they developed their own notions of cool attire.

The item I remember best, however, is my tablecloth dress, which I made while still in graduate school. My husband and I had been invited to a party, and I wanted to wear something new. This desire hit me with great force on the afternoon of the party, too late for me to run to the fabric store and make even the simplest pattern.

How I made the tablecloth-into-dress leap is not clear in my mind, but I remember holding a dark-green, round, fringed tablecloth in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other and thinking, "this is going to be a snap."

And it was (see below). I folded the tablecloth into fourths, cut a hole for my head in the pointed end, then made a cut about as long as my arm from the circumference towards the center. I threaded my needle and hemmed the neck hole, then sewed the sleeve and side seams. Thanks to the fringe, there was no need to finish either the cuffs or the skirt.

I slipped the tablecloth over my head, thrust my arms into the sleeves, and stood in front of the mirror. The dress needed some interest around the middle, so I pulled a paisley scarf out of a drawer and tied it around my waist.

I looked again. The sleeves were really really long, and the skirt quite short. The thought crossed my mind that people might think I was crazy, but it didn't linger. Those were unconventional times, and I was a grad student, and if those two factors didn't give me license to wear a tablecloth when I felt like it, nothing ever would.

I had a good time that night, despite having to push up my sleeves every time I wanted to stick a carrot into the California dip. But the stiffish fringe prickled on my thighs and on my fingertips, and I wasn't wild about the color of the dress--that deep avocado green which, along with harvest gold and daisy prints and lava lamps conjures up the era almost as powerfully as the smell of pot.

Although, come to think of it, the thing might have worked as a tunic over bell-bottom pants, after the party the bloom was off the rose, and I never wore my tablecloth again.

How To Make A Tablecloth Into A Dress:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pesto Morning

Sunny, bright, chilly, perfect weather to finish filling the third raised bed in the vegetable garden, which we did. It's too late in the growing season to plant anything, so I will let the compost do its thing and sometime in early March, before the snow melts, I'll plant spinach in it.

Because the kale was crying out to be harvested, I made kale pesto. (Thanks, Alison, for that first recipe, which I lost twice.) The garden produces tons of kale, and it's just about the most nutritious thing you can put in your mouth, but alas, I don't much like it. I'm crazy about pine nuts, though, and garlic and olive oil and Parmesan cheese, so pesto is a good solution to my kale dilemma.
For half a pound of kale without stems you'll need half a cup of olive oil, a quarter cup of nuts (pine nuts or walnuts or pecans), two garlic cloves, some salt and half a cup of Parmesan. Cook the kale for about fifteen minutes. (Don't throw out the water! Save it for soup, or pour it on the dog's food, or give it to your house plants--it's good stuff.) Put the drained kale and other ingredients except the Parmesan in the blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Mix in the Parmesan. Serve this on some pasta and I guarantee that you won't leave the table hungry.

I had two pounds of kale to dispose of, so I quadrupled the recipe and blended it in four batches. The blending part is a pain, since you have to stop and start the blades over and over. I suspect a food processor is easier, but I don't have one of those.

After mixing in the Parmesan I divided the whole into ten portions of about 3/4 cup each. This stuff is so rich that that amount poured on some spaghetti is more than enough for the two of us. I took my pesto-filled freezer bags down to the freezer and thought how nice it will be, on ten cold winter evenings, to linger by the wood stove with a book, knowing that dinner is practically taken care of.
Woman Overwhelmed By Kale

Thursday, August 19, 2010


It was the Summer of Love, 1967.

"Puff, the Magic Dragon" was at the top of the charts.
Hair was in rehearsal for its October debut.
Hopes for the liberalization of the Catholic Church after the Second Ecumenical Council were running high, as did hopes for many other things.

We scheduled the nuptial Mass for 9 a.m. because Ed said he wanted to wake up, shave, and get married.
Too nervous to swallow any breakfast earlier that morning, I got slightly drunk on the sacramental wine.

Ed wore a dark suit that later served him well at job interviews. I wore a hand-me-down Mexican wedding dress that was a little too short, and my First Communion veil. My little sister, who was flower girl, wore a long pink empire-waist dress I had made. My matron of honor wore the bridesmaid dress that her sister had worn at her wedding.

My father composed the organ music for our walk down the aisle. I did my mother's hair (my own was so short I just ran my fingers through it). A friend was in charge of picture-taking.

It was pretty much a do-it-yourself, proto-hippie wedding--our first act of rebellion against consumerism.

It was a broiling-hot day in Birmingham, Alabama, forty-one--no, forty-four--no, forty-three years ago.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dogs In The House

Here is one of my favorite passages from Colette, in which she describes, on her first visit to Paris, "...the surprise and melancholy aversion aroused in me by what I called houses without animals--mere cubes without gardens, flowerless abodes where no cat mews behind the dining-room door, where one never treads near the fireside on some part of a dog sprawling like a rug; rooms devoid of familiar spirits, wherein the hand seeking a friendly caress encounters only inanimate wood, or marble, or velvet..." (Colette, My Mother's House, translated by Una Troubridge and Enid McLeod, 1953)

I grew up in one of those cubes--in Barcelona, not Paris--a vast, echoing, turn-of-the-century apartment with tiled floors. My mother, having grown up on a farm, was a firm believer in keeping all non-human living things outdoors. A French couple lived in the apartment above us--he played the cello--with a pair of German Shepherds whom they transported in the elevator, and whose fleas feasted on me. That was the extent of my contact with the animal world during the school year.

In the summer, at my grandparents' farm, there were plenty of animals--horses in the stable, pigs in the sty, chickens in the chicken house, rabbits in hutches, the hunting dog chained in the courtyard, and the semi-feral cats wherever there were mice. But my grandmother would have fainted at the thought of my bringing the dog, or one of the kittens that periodically tottered out of the hayloft, into the house.

It wasn't until after my children were born that I had a house dog. Since that time I have never been without one, or two, and now three dogs, plus the occasional cat, under my roof.

It's a pain, believe me, having dogs in the house. They have to be house-trained, which requires the patience of a saint and the focus and strategy of a guerrilla fighter. They shed amazing quantities of hair; they gouge the floor with their nails; they occasionally throw up, or worse; they are forever stretching out across doorways; they run and skid and wrinkle the rugs; they knock wine glasses over with their tails; they snore at night; and they wake you up in the morning. Who would ever want to deal with all that?

I would. In my experience, all warm-blooded animals, all creatures capable of inspiring and returning affection--including children--have their inconvenient aspects: they poop, they pee, they spit up, they wake you up when you're asleep, they have to be brushed and thought about and talked to.

But think what you get in return: a pair of eyes that follows your every move; a set of feet that trots after you from room to room; melancholy partings and ecstatic reunions at the front door; something warm under your hand, at your side, or on your lap whenever you want it; a steadying rhythm to your days (wake up, go outside, eat breakfast, nap, go outside, wait for dinner....); a good-humored, all-forgiving presence, and more.

For myself, I cannot think how I ever took a nap or read a book without an animal beside or on me, or fell asleep without the comforting sound of a dog turning around three times and then flopping down like a sack of potatoes. I spent half my life in clean, orderly rooms "devoid of familiar spirits." But I'm making up for it now.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Frog Update

Frogs, and amphibians in general, are among the most endangered animals on the planet. They suffer from climate change, habitat destruction, and environmental pollution and are afflicted by a multitude of ills, among which are some pretty horrible physical deformities.

Our frogs, on the other hand, are doing just fine. These are the frogs that came out of the woods behind the house and started moving into our fishpond the same day the builders departed. They came by twos, then by threes, and now are too numerous to count. And they are growing in size--when they first showed up they were brooch-size, but now some are too heavy to sit on a lily pad, and when they jump into the water they make quite a loud plop. Otherwise they are very quiet frogs--possibly because their breeding season is over--although occasionally I have heard something that sounds like a croak.

These frogs are so tame that sometimes I worry that there's something wrong with them. I used to worry that they would get caught and mangled by Bisou, whose frog obsession continues unabated. Fortunately, all Bisou seems to want to do is bump them with her nose, again and again and again.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cavaliers 101

It is possible that I've given the impression in these pages that my dog Bisou is the cutest Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in existence. In the interest of full disclosure, however, here are some pictures of the four Cavalier color varieties (photos by Alix Leopold, Bisou's breeder).

Here is Bisou--technically known as a "Ruby"--with her sister Luna, a Black-and-Tan, at six weeks old. Is your oxytocin flowing yet?

This soulful face belongs to a Tri-Color--see the white, tan and black spots?

And this particular dog, whom I call The Breck Shampoo Girl, is a Blenheim (Blenn'em). Which do you like best?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Lexi's Outing

I don't often write about my twelve-year-old German Shepherd, Lexi, because these days she's mostly quiet. This is not to say that she is inactive, however: she amuses herself during the day by playing invisible power games with the other dogs. She parks herself in certain spots in the kitchen or living room and suddenly I'll hear either Wolfie or Bisou give a pathetic whine and I'll go see what's wrong and they're standing on the other side of Lexi, "trapped," even though there is plenty of room to go around her. I don't know how she does this, because she isn't growling or giving any outward sign that I can read. It must be her aura.

Lexi is in good health, except for the fact that her musculoskeletal system is falling apart--arthritis in the hips, the elbow, the knee, the spine. So every six weeks she and I go on an outing, to the vet. This involves getting out the heavy dog ramp, unfolding it, leaning one end against the edge of the cargo compartment of the Subaru, then telling Lexi that no, she can't jump into the car, she must use the ramp. Once she's settled, I take down the unwieldy contraption, fold it while trying not to catch my fingers in it, put it in the back seat, and we're on our way.
Lexi loves going to this vet, who started out as an "ordinary" vet and then decided to specialize in chiropractic and acupuncture. She is a soft-spoken, slow-moving young woman who always tells Lexi what she is about to do and shows her what she is going to do it with, namely, the acupuncture needles.

First, however, she has Lexi get up onto a low, towel-covered platform and goes over her entire body with her hands. Then, slowly and gently, using the thumb and little finger of one hand while supporting Lexi's belly with the other (Lexi has trouble standing for long periods), she adjusts Lexi's spine. Meanwhile I'm holding Lexi's head, and she and I gaze into each other's eyes, and generate oxytocin.
Then the needles go in, and Lexi is allowed to lie down and, as the vet puts it, "cook" for a while. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, the vet and I sit on either side of Lexi--I on the floor, the vet on the platform--talking idly of dogs or politics. But most of the time we are silent, and focused on Lexi. And under our combined gaze Lexi seems to expand, and takes on a kind of glow. Part of it is the action of the needles, part the anticipation of the fabulous treats that the vet dispenses at the end of the session. But I think that it is being the focus of our relaxed and caring attention that transforms Lexi every time.

Strangely, by the time the needles come out I feel as if I've undergone some kind of therapy myself. I put Lexi back in the car and drive home through the Mettowee Valley, looking at the cows, watching out for cyclists, wondering if the farmers got enough hay in to last the winter. At home Wolfie and Bisou, who have forgiven us for leaving them behind, throw themselves into our arms. I eat my lunch, and Lexi carefully lowers herself down in one of her power spots, and takes a nap.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Summer Sauce

The house smells strongly of tomato sauce today. I went out into the garden after breakfast and filled the basket with members of my favorite, the nightshade family: banana peppers, eggplant, Roma tomatoes. I brought in my first garlic harvest, too: five tiny garlic heads, hardly bigger than the parent garlic cloves I had pushed into the dirt around the new rosebushes. Garlic is supposed to protect roses, and it did, but at its own expense: the roses grew and prospered, the garlic failed to thrive.

In the kitchen I chopped a (store-bought) onion while I heated olive oil in my four-gallon pot. While the onion was sauteeing I cleaned the baby garlics and threw those in. I chopped and seeded the banana peppers, which I grow because they are more resistant to pests than the sweet kind, yet not as hellishly hot as the hot kind. I threw in a couple of eggplants, too (I never get a lot of eggplants at one time), and then the tomatoes.

I only grow Roma tomatoes, because they are good for eating fresh and making sauce, and are pretty immune to tomato ills. Still, this is the first time in a couple of years that I've had enough ripe tomatoes at one time to make sauce. Last year, although my Romas weren't touched by the blight that affected the entire East coast, they weren't productive enough for me to do anything but dry them in the dehydrator.

A few of the tomatoes I picked today were afflicted with blossom-end rot, which betrays my distaste for regular watering. But most of them were fine, and I sliced off the stem ends to feed to the hens later, and chopped them into threes and threw them in the pot. I added salt and pepper and a handful of last year's oregano that failed to survive this winter. I turned down the heat and went on with my day.

Tonight I will pour the cooked-down sauce into the blender--that's my way of dealing with tomato skins--and pour it into quart-sized plastic jars, label it and put it in the freezer, and feel like a squirrel that's stored away one more nut against the coming winter.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I thought I knew all the basic stuff about oxytocin and its role in human sex, parturition, lactation, and pair bonding. But I have just found out that you can raise your oxytocin levels by interacting with your dog--especially by gazing into your dog's eyes lovingly and lingeringly . Patricia McConnell, who wrote The Other End of the Leash does a good job of summarizing the research here .

Last night I was watching one of those Nature shows about how wolves evolved into pugs and borzois, all in the service of man, and it was stated that the repeated stroking of a dog raises the dog's oxytocin, as well as the owner's. I'm sure the same principle applies to cats, and probably ferrets, but I'm not so sure about turtles and snakes.

Aren't we lucky to live in a scientific age? For eons we've known that hugging babies makes us and the babies happy, that petting dogs makes us feel calm and contented. And now, thanks to scientific research, we are reassured that those warm and fuzzy feelings were real, after all, since they are caused by the rising levels of a certain hormone.

It's good to know that all this time we haven't just been imagining things.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Sale

In late July every year my favorite community event takes place: the Library Benefit Book Sale. Volunteers fill the local elementary school gym with row upon row of cafeteria tables, and cover them with rows of used books: fiction, non-fiction, nature, cooking, self improvement, foreign languages, how-to, art, photography, history, poetry, biography. The covered walkways outside the school are lined with dozens of boxes of paperbacks. The historical society sells homemade cookies and cakes.

This is where Vermonters come to stock up for the winter. They line up on the sidewalks well before opening time, carrying canvas bags and pushing luggage carts and even small grocery carts.

I usually go to the fiction section first, stand by the table, and proceed sideways in merengue-like steps, perusing the spines of books as I go. It is important to keep ahead of the person behind me, while not pushing too close to the person ahead of me.

Every so often one of us stops, picks up a book and reads a paragraph or two. The polite thing, in that case, is for the person behind the reader to step behind him or her and take the next place in the line. That means, of course, that the person stepping behind the reader misses a number of titles, the exact quantity depending on the reader's girth.

Some intense, compulsive types refuse to step behind you as you read, but will stretch their bodies across you and practically push you away from the table, just to make sure they are not missing the book of a lifetime. In my experience, these persons are usually male. When they reach across me, I make a great show of stepping back and waving them to pass in front of me, saying "please, go ahead." But the irony is invariably lost on them. All they care about is finding books.

And finding books is important around here, what with the prospect of winter and sparse village library collections and the scarcity of bookstores. I always find terrific books, many by English women of the last century: Rumer Godden, Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, Penelope Lively, Vita Sackville-West--hardback books with front-page dedications in faded, spidery handwriting, smelling of mold and wet wool.

As I sift through the fiction offerings, I note an unusually strong presence by Thomas Kincade, "the painter of light," who, having desecrated the visual arts, is now making a stab at the novel. I also see a lot of books by Jan Karon, who tried to transplant the English-village comedy of manners into a small southern town, and didn't quite make it.

By the middle of the morning, my canvas bag is so full I can hardly lug it around. That's when I try to find a quiet corner, take stock, and force myself to return some books to the tables. This year I made myself discard several novels by Daphne du Maurier, and regretted it immediately. Maybe they'll be back next year.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Crafts Show

Went to a crafts show nearby yesterday, with the intention of getting mental stimulation and some pottery bowls.

It was a big show, with potters and jewelers and weavers and woodworkers and glassblowers, and lots of people looking and buying and trying on stuff. I wandered from stall to stall, eyes glazed , barely stopping anywhere, hardly seeing anything. I stayed a little over an hour, but it felt much longer than that.

I am not a good crafts fair goer. My problem is that I fantasize about the crafts people--what they must be thinking, how they must be feeling, what their lives must be like. I worry that if I stop and look, let alone handle, anything, I will get the potter/weaver/jeweler/woodworker's hopes up, only to dash them cruelly when I walk away without a purchase.

Instead of looking at the objects, I play movies in my mind of the hardscrabble life of the craftsman, who labors in the workshop all winter long and travels to shows all summer, feeding year-round on beans and rice. I think of the dreams and visions that must sustain these people--dreams of working with their hands, making an honest living, maybe attaining a measure of success. I think of them sitting on a wooden stool three days in a row, watching the crowds go by, hoping that somebody will buy their stuff.

While I project my own hangups onto the craftspeople, my fingers are itching to feel a delicate, barely pink woven scarf, try on a pair of carnelian earrings, test the "hand feel" of a wooden crochet hook. But the craftsperson is right there behind the counter, and if I linger for even a second he or she will make eye contact with me, and then I'll have to say something.

I know that craftspeople are advised that it's good for sales to stand up and make eye contact and conversation with whomever stops by their stall. That doesn't work with me. I am much more likely to browse if the seller is either out of sight or occupied with some knitting or a book.

I heard the environmentalist Bill McKibben on the radio say that people shopping at a farmers' market have an average of fifteen conversations in the process of buying their food, as opposed to just one (with the cashier) when they shop at a supermarket. McKibben cited this as one of the benefits of farmers' markets. To me, who have been damaged by a lifetime of anonymous shopping in supermarkets and department stores, it's a reason to avoid them.

I suppose I could train myself out of this. I could work to recapture the spirit of the daily errands on which as a child I accompanied my mother--to the baker, the fishwife, the vegetable seller, the seamstress, the shoe repairman, and the lady who mended stockings. I suspect that I am too goal-oriented, too driven to go into a store, buy whatever I need, and get out so I can get on with my life, whatever that is.

However, I'm beginning to suspect that life may be what happens while you're chatting with the lady who sells thirteen different kinds of potatoes, or the man who whittles crochet hooks out of wood.

P.S. I did buy, and manage to converse with the maker of, nine adorable little pottery bowls.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Shepherd In Autumn

The moment our guests departed yesterday, the weather changed from stupefying heat to autumnal splendor: bright blue skies, cool breezes, low humidity. The kind of weather that makes a dog prick his ears, point his nose into the wind and put on sudden bursts of speed.

Wolfie is participating in a herding demonstration today, somewhere in the Adirondacks, about two hours from here. I am not feeling well, so my saintly spouse volunteered to drive him to the event. I stayed behind with the girl dogs. Bisou, who thought she should have gone along, is lying morosely by the back door, watching the frogs; Lexi is stretched out on her spot between living room and kitchen and thinking about the next meal.

At the demonstration, Wolfie will work the sheep under the direction of his herding teacher. She will introduce him to the crowd as a dog of East German descent, which accounts for the herding instincts running in his blood (Shepherds from American lines are practically never used in herding). She will mention that despite his fierce looks he is gentle as a dove; that he has never even tried to hurt a sheep; that in fact his owner (moi) uses him to help her catch errant hens. She will emphasize that Wolfie's disconcerting habit of "air snapping"--opening his jaws wide and clicking his big white teeth--is an expression of joy and excitement, not a sign of impending carnage.

Then she will put Wolfie on a sit-stay several yards from the sheep and walk away from him, with the sheep following her. At one point she will say "walk up!" and Wolfie will trot (not too fast, I hope) towards the rear of the herd, close enough to the sheep to keep them moving, but not so close that they scatter. This is the part that Wolfie does well, having figured out that he must control his pace to keep the herd together.

After dog and sheep have walked around the ring a few times, the instructor will say "go by!" meaning that Wolfie must circle the sheep in a clockwise direction. Wolfie does that really well, too. He's a "go by" kind of dog.

But eventually she will command "away to me!" and he will have to circle in a counterclockwise direction--or, as the witches call it, "widdershins." And unless a miracle happens, Wolfie will try to do a "go by" instead. Or he will look away and pretend he hasn't heard. Or, heaven forfend, he will pick up a mouthful of sheep poop and eat it. It will probably take several commands--perhaps even a shake of the stone-filled soda bottle--to get him to do a proper "away to me."

I have a little theory about Wolfie's preference for the clockwise direction, known as "go by" in herding terms, "deosil" in witchspeak. In the Wiccan tradition, "deosil" is the positive direction, the direction of growth and abundance. "Widdershins"--"away to me" in sheepspeak--is the direction of negativity, hindrance, and opposition (don't ask how I know this). I believe that Wolfie senses this, and being of a sunny disposition, opts for deosil every time.

Regardless, I hope Wolfie acquits himself honorably, pleases his teacher, and doesn't horrify urban spectators by eating sheep poop. But those are human wishes. From Wolfie's point of view, short of being kicked in the eye by a sheep, practically nothing can go wrong. Cool weather, a car trip, and sheep to boss around--what more could any dog ask for?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Time For Listening To Bach

A few years before she died of breast cancer at 52, the mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang Bach's Cantata "Ich habe genug," ("I have enough"). For the performance Lieberson dressed in a hospital gown, with tubes emerging from her body, signifying a sick woman's readiness to die.

I have a recording of that performance, and I've been listening to it these days, along with other music by Bach, as the news about my mother oscillates between "not so bad" and "definitely worse."

I hear from my sister, who is taking care of our mother, almost every night. In between the phone calls my mind endlessly replays the latest information, weighs alternatives, imagines outcomes. It seems that no medication exists that will relieve my mother's post-surgical pain without knocking her out for the better part of a day. But sleep is treacherous, for while she sleeps she is immobile, and immobility brings the danger of stroke, pneumonia, and a host of other ills.

Also, while she sleeps she is not doing physical therapy, which means that she is not improving, which means--and this is what my sister and I dread--that she will not be allowed to stay in the rehab facility where she is presently receiving wonderful care. She will have to go to a nursing home.

The doctor, who seems kind as well as wise, has recommended that my mother receive only palliative care. But how does "palliative" translate when blood sugar levels rise sky high? And does "palliative" mean that we abandon all attempts to keep her moving? Does it mean that she is constantly on pain meds, i.e., unconscious? Then there is the matter of my mother's mind, which runs the full gamut of dementia stages: unable to make any sense on some days, "almost herself" on others.

The doctor tells us that it is time to begin thinking about hospice.

How does one "do" end of life? My sister and I are woefully inexperienced. We've never done this before. We have good will, but no skills.

There is something about the music of Bach that makes me feel that he knew everything there is to know about being human, especially the stuff that cannot be put into words. So I listen to Bach these days, and wait.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Since You Asked...

Here are a few photos of Bisou's early days that foretell her future career.

Notice how nicely the black-and-tan puppies are resting in their bed. Bisou, however, has decided to set off on an adventure and collapsed on the way. (Photo by Alix Leopold, Bisou's breeder.)

Soon after she came to us, Bisou started putting her head inside Wolfie's mouth. Here she is, goading him into opening wide.

The end, however, is always idyllic.

They still do this every morning after breakfast, with much yodeling and singing, usually passing a bone back and forth.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Girl dogs, that is. And, in Bisou's case, they just wanna have fun with frogs.

Ever since the frogs moved into our fish pond, Bisou has been obsessed with them. Wolfie was obsessed for several days, and then he gave it up, but Bisou continues to think about frogs day and night, despite having fallen into the pond twice.

I must say, those frogs are quite endearing. They are mostly on the small side, with iridescent green heads and mottled brown bodies. Their eyeballs are bronze. They do all the adorable frog things, such as squat on the lily pads or under the spray of the little solar fountain, or float around in the heat of the day, their heads out of the water, their muscular, human-looking legs splayed out behind them.

Periodically they come out of the water, hop across the patio, and dive into the mint-filled flowerbeds next to the house. I can't decide whether these frogs are lethargic--you hear about all kinds of frog diseases and malformations these days--or extremely courageous, or simply friendly, because they let me walk right up and practically touch them.

So I can see why Bisou likes our frogs. I, however, don't like what the frogs are doing to Bisou, namely, taking over her brain. Every time she goes into the back porch, from which you can see the pond, she flings herself at the door, moaning and whining in the throes of frog frustration. She wants to go out to chase the frogs. Never mind that she was out there just three minutes ago. She wants to chase frogs again.

The frogs are o.k. as long as they're in the water. All Bisou can do is stand teetering on the edge, her ears soaking in pond scum, pointing like an Irish Setter at the disappearing frogs. If, however, a frog happens to be in transit between the pond and the apple mint, that frog is in danger. Bisou goes right up to it and bumps it with her nose, at which point I yell "LEAVE IT!" and she does. If she caught a frog, what would she do? Would she eat it the way Wolfie eats turtles? I can't have two wildlife-crunching dogs.

At one point last week, Bisou started pooping in the house, in the mornings. I was outraged and confused. What was causing this relapse? Would she never be reliable? I thought we were done with house training, and now this!

Then one dawn, when I first let the dogs out I saw that Bisou, instead of focusing on doing her business, like Lexi and Wolfie, was standing with her ears in the pond, watching frogs, and didn't move until I called the dogs inside. No wonder that, after breakfast, her peristalsis had been getting the best of her. Now in the mornings I have to chase her away from the pond, shouting "Bisou! Do your business! Right now!" Not a gentle way to ease into the day.

Will Bisou ever get over this obsession? By the time the frogs go into hibernation, will I have any voice left? Will she ever figure out that if she gets too close to the edge and cranes her neck too far, she falls in?

Here she is. Guess what she's thinking about? (Photo by Alix Leopold, Bisou's breeder.)