Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Carnivorous Childhood

I grew up on the Mediterranean diet--the real thing, not the kinder, gentler version popularized in the U.S. by a culinary and nutritional establishment compensating for decades of over-consumption of beef products.  In my Mediterranean diet, we ate animals twice a day.  (Here, I am counting eggs--which we typically ate for dinner--as animals, since my grandmother's hens ran with roosters, which meant the eggs were fertile.  Michelle B. and her legions will applaud me for this, I'm sure.)

Most of these animals appeared on my plate with many of their attributes intact:  fresh little sardines with eyes and heads and fins and tails;  whole baby octopuses, less than two inches long, swimming in my favorite soup;  squid, cut into rings but slathered in a magnificent black sauce made from their ink, which made the serving platter look like something from Goya's black period.  And the mussels, clams, crayfish and tiny lobsters that inhabited the Sunday paella, complete with the black, gray, ecru, or translucent shells in which they had lived.

That was just the first course, for which my mother shopped in Barcelona's fabulous fish markets.  It was my grandmother, from her farm in western Catalonia, who sent us the birds and beasts we consumed next.  My grandparents kept pigs--huge, pink, sausage-shaped beasts--and slaughtered  a couple every autumn.  I was never present at this ceremony, but I loved every ounce of the results:  rich, greasy serrano hams (today one of the most expensive foods in the world);  crisp little cubes of fatback that brought to life a serving of beans;  and garlands of sausages made by my grandmother's hands:  butifarra blanca, butifarra negra (blood pudding), xorisso....

My grandmother kept rabbits--cheap to feed, prolific, and a source of high-quality protein.  In the summer, I would watch her slaughter one in the courtyard of the farm house.  It was like a speeded-up film sequence:  grab rabbit by hind legs, stun with blow to head, cut off same.  Hang body from hook.  Cut circles around hocks, and somehow (my vision was hampered by my short stature) yank off skin in a single motion, like a glove.  Cut open abdomen, scoop out entrails, call cats to feast.

An hour later, a rabbit arm lay on my plate, reddish-brown and transmuted by a sauce made with mortar-chopped almonds.  Next to the arm lay a special treat for me, the single child among twelve adults:  two small bean-shaped organs, what my grandmother called the ouets, the little eggs.  Were they kidneys, testes, ovaries?  I never thought to ask.  Were they good?  I don't remember.

There were chickens, too, and for Christmas, a couple of capons instead of a turkey.  Not a part of these was wasted.  Breasts and thighs and legs were brought to the table, but while we ate them, the next day's soup was simmering on the stove, made up of chicken backs, and heads, and legs.  For some reason, the comb---la cresta--perhaps because of its decorative merits, was brought to the table.  And yes, served to me.  Can't remember how it tasted.

What else did we eat?  Very little beef.  No milk after age two.  Gallons of olive oil, entire braids of garlic, ovenfuls of crusty bread to soak up all that oil and all those sauces.  Seasonal vegetables in moderation.  Every month or so, there was a religious holiday with its own special dessert, which you always bought ready-made:  turrons at Christmas;  tortell for the January feast of the Epiphany;  crema catalana on St. Joseph's day, in March;  la mona de Pascua at Easter....Otherwise, it was fruit and nuts.

If she knew what I eat today, my grandmother would be mystified.  For some reason, I have become reluctant to eat anything that looks like an animal.  Anything remotely anatomically accurate, I'd rather do without:  chicken knees, turkey wishbones, the blood of a cow oozing off a steak.  Is this hypocrisy?  Does it mean I'm o.k. eating meat--say, "chicken tenders"--as long as it doesn't remind me of the death of a living being?  Do I think eating meat is immoral?

I want to make it clear that I don't think eating meat is morally wrong--or I would be a hypocrite for drinking milk and eating eggs, which condemn to death 99.9% of the males of the species.  I do think that consuming the meat (or the eggs, or the milk) of animals that have been kept in inhumane circumstances is immoral for those of us who have the resources to make other choices.

I don't know what's right--do you?  It's possible that some people's physiology makes it impossible for them to thrive without daily servings of meat.  On the other hand, other people's preferences/philosophies/aesthetics make it important for them to avoid animal products.  This is a uniquely contemporary debate:  never before have such choices been available in such abundance.

How do you feel about eating animals?

Friday, December 16, 2011

E-mailing The Spouse

His study, where he sits in front of the desk-top computer, is at one end of the second floor.  My study, where I sit on the desk chair or on the single bed with the laptop on my thighs, is at the other end.  Between us a hallway leads past guest rooms and bathroom to our bedroom and his study.  Just before you reach the bedroom, you have to step over Wolfie, who parks himself in the one spot from which he can keep track of human and canine activity on both floors of the house.

It's not like crossing the Alps, I know.  So why is it that my spouse and I, alone together in the daytime for the first time since 1967, e-mail each other from room to room?  He sends me stuff he thinks might make me laugh.  I send him pictures of furniture that would improve the looks and comfort of our house, messages from family and friends that he may have missed, and medical alerts designed to keep us alive forever.

I could of course unplug my laptop, step over Wolfie, walk into his study, sweep aside the catalogs and promotions on the guest chair, sit down and say, "look at this!"  Or--and this would be the sustainable, low-tech approach--I could memorize and deliver the messages, describe the furniture, and summarize the medical advice while standing in front of him and looking him in the eye.

Instead, I copy the links, cut-and-paste the messages, hit "send."  Is this the new conjugal telepathy?  It used to be that long-married spouses not only grew to look alike, but could read each other's thoughts, finish each other's sentences.  And we still do that sometimes, when we're not staring at our respective computer screens, or at the TV screen, or listening to endless news of far-off disasters on our kitchen or car radio.

A mere generation ago, what was web-less retirement like for long-married couples?  Did they chatter all day at each other, or did they observe a monastic silence?  My father died young, so I have no model for being married into one's sixties.  But even if my parents had both lived, their experience would have held few lessons for us, in this super-connected age.

But that's all right.  My husband and I are inventing ourselves now as we did as a two-career, child-rearing couple in the 1970s.  I'm o.k. with room-to-room e-mails.  If we ever find ourselves eating dinner in front of our respective computers, however, I'll start worrying.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

DIY Christmas

I got into the habit of making Christmas gifts by hand during my penurious graduate school days, when dollars were few and relatives were many.  My father in law, who liked to encourage my domestic side, which he saw threatened by my academic leanings, had given me a sewing machine, and it became my weapon in the annual battle to produce tangible objects without spending money.

The Christmas after I got the sewing machine I made him a shirt.  Intended to be worn outside the pants, the shirt was rust-colored and Nehru-collared, with a generously wide trim around the collar and cuffs.  Granted, this was in the early seventies, but what was I thinking, giving such a garment to a strait-laced engineer in his late forties?  Needless to say, I never saw him wear it.

A more successful DIY gift was a  reclining Snoopy-type dog that I made for my older daughter's first Christmas.  The pattern was complicated, and the fur-like material wreaked havoc on the sewing machine, but somehow I pieced it together, and my husband stuffed it with cotton until it was as firm as a rock.  This dog, which was as large as the baby herself, was much loved, and grew gray and dull with age, but  the seams held to the end.

The days when I could sit up half the night making gifts are long gone.  But every summer, when the lavender and the roses and the many mints are in full glory, I pick masses of them, tie them in bunches and hang them by the windows to dry, thinking what fabulous potpourri they will make for Christmas.

In the fall, when I should be stripping the dried leaves and flowers from the stems and mixing them with essential oils so they will have a good two months to ripen before the holidays, I am too busy dealing with the garden produce to even think about potpourri.  I usually forget about it until a couple of weeks before Christmas, and then in a panic I strip and blend and oil, and hope for the best.

This year, I'm making sachets.  Yesterday I got my sewing machine out of the deep recesses of the closet where it lives and made a bunch of little bags out of bits of leftover fabric.  At the last possible moment, I will fill these bags with the half-ripened potpourri, tie a ribbon around the opening, and present them with a flourish. 

The recipient will thank me, sniff the little bag, close her eyes in appreciation.  Then, probably, she will sneeze. And I will bow my head and smile self-deprecatingly, as I inwardly congratulate myself on my thrift and industry.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


This being the season for it, I've been doing a lot of clicking lately:  clicking to enlarge object, to enter selection in shopping cart, to proceed to checkout.  The riches of the planet, including gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are at my reach as I recline on my studio bed.  All I have to do is click.

I rewarded myself from a day of clicking by watching Almodovar's film, "Broken Embraces," on TV.  At the end, as the titles were scrolling in their usual unreadable fashion, a flamenco song came on, slow and beautiful and sad.  The singer was not afraid to take his time, to pause in the middle of a phrase, to let you anticipate the end.  I love performers--speakers, singers, actors, musicians--who are sure enough of themselves to take advantage of pauses, and their effect on the listener.

But what was the name of this song, and who was the singer?  I squinted at the screen, hit rewind and squinted some more, but couldn't make out a single word.  That beautiful song, that soulful singer were gone.

It was late, and I got ready for bed, and while my husband was brushing his teeth, I idly googled Almodovar, then clicked the name of the film, clicked "music," and in a couple more clicks there was the singer, singing his song.

Now, of course, he sings whenever I want him to.  And the song, "A ciegas," ("Blindly") still gives me goosebumps, brings tears to my eyes.  But I know that if I play it too often, the goosebumps will go away, the tears will stop.  That's why I'm not going to send for the CD, although it would be so easy, with just a click.

When Bach was a young man, he walked twenty miles to hear the organist Buxtehude play.  And then I imagine he walked those twenty miles back, trying to fix in his mind what he had heard, and knowing that it would fade, but that the memory of the feelings it had aroused in him would remain until his death.

I wonder if the memory, not of the song, but of the emotion it evoked, would have been stronger if I had heard it just that once, at the end of the movie, knowing that when it was over I would have lost it forever.   

"On ne possede qu'en s'abstenant," ("We only possess by abstaining") Colette said.  In this season of buying, when the notion of abstinence is forced from our minds by the media, we might do worse than to let a few things go, to possess them all the better.

Here, in case you want to hear it, is "A ciegas," sung by the cantaor (flamenco singer) Miguel Poveda.  Just click:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bad Hair Day

In this odd semi-tropical winter, today is the third time I've had to shake heavy, wet snow off the young apple trees so their branches wouldn't break under the weight.  But that is nothing comparing to what I had to do after my husband brought the dogs back from their walk.  Wolfie and Lexi, the German Shepherds, came in bright-eyed and exhilarated by the cold.  But Bisou, low to the ground and with five-inch, orange-gold "feathers" on her forelegs, collected so much  snow that she came into the house hung with snow balls like a Chrismas tree.

When she's indoors, Bisou honors her five-century Cavalier King Charles heritage, lolling about on sheep skins and diving, the moment I stand up, into the warm spot on the sofa.  But let her out the door, and she is all Spaniel, sniffing the breeze, running through brambles, collecting ticks or, if the temperature is right, five-inch snow balls.  I quizzed my husband closely upon their return today, and he said that she had kept running the entire time, showing no discomfort despite the snow balls pulling her skin, weighing her down.

The snow balls were so dense and so big that I had to gently break them up with an ice pick.  The next tool, and one that Bisou has always been wary of, was the hair dryer.  But this time she seemed to understand her situation, and submitted.  I let her finish drying off and relax the rest of the afternoon, and waited until evening to tackle the mats.

Bisou is not a show dog, and I am anything but a show-dog person.  Still, of an evening, it is a joy to me to watch all that orange and gold rippling over the grass.  But alas, no more.  As the first snow balls glommed on to the end of Bisou's hair strands, her running made the hairs twirl around each other, which in turn collected more snow, whose weight caused the hairs to twist more tightly.  In a word, her leg feathers were such a mess of mats that in the end I had to play Alexander the Great, and just cut through those evil knots.

Who cares?  Not Bisou, who is snoozing happily under my elbow and making it difficult for me to type.  Not Wolfie, who just gave her face a thorough washing.  I do, with my human prejudices, the same prejudices, I suppose, that led the bewigged minions of Charles the Second to breed mini-sized hunting dogs with long-silky hair, the "spaniels gentle," who liked to sit on laps.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Opened an old book the other day, and my prom picture fell out:  two couples, the boys in dinner jackets, the girls in non-strapless dresses.  Ours being a Catholic school, strapless dresses were forbidden, because they constituted an occasion of sin.

The other girl in the photo is wearing a corsage--a washed-out-looking orchid enhanced with stiff bits of tulle and ribbon, the kind that your date brought you in a plastic box, still cold from the fridge . Me, I am not wearing a corsage.  Instead, I am holding a nosegay in my white-gloved hand.

I am not wearing a corsage because my date, who is standing behind me with his fingertips barely touching my waist, believed that corsages spoiled the look of a dress.  Hence the nosegay, which he had designed after extensive consultations with the florist.  It consisted of tiny dark violets and a larger flower of some kind, all carefully chosen to match the ice-blue of my dress.  He had been talking about this nosegay for weeks before the dance, and was as excited about it as I.

Not only was I the only girl at the prom with a nosegay--I was probably the only one whose date liked to spend entire afternoons chatting with her mother.  This boy adored my mother.  He loved to examine her collection of Indian pottery and her 18th century polichromed sculptures.  He could never get enough of her stories about our years in Ecuador, and she would happily oblige him while I sat in the background wishing he'd pay me some attention.

I loved his company.  He made fun of everything and everybody, was crazy about French Impressionism, read books that were not actually required for class.  Unlike many of my male classmates, he found my foreignness interesting rather than unfortunate.  He was thrilled about taking me to the prom, and the opportunity to dress up, and to design the perfect nosegay.  Amazingly, my conservative parents didn't mind my spending time with him.

Are you getting the gist of this?

At the time, I didn't.  But then, I was a painfully naive specimen even by the standards of those pre-Woodstock years.  It wasn't until we were having our picture taken at the dance and the photographer had to tell my date twice to put his hand around my waist that I began to feel that things seemed a little odd.

For a couple of days every year, our Religion class would be separated by gender, and we would be instructed in something called "Catholic Love And Marriage."  I don't remember much about these classes, except that marriage was intended for the procreation of children and the allaying of concupiscence;  that kissing was o.k. as long as it did not lead to arousal.  And I remember this electrifying statement made by the Irish priest who instructed us:  "Girls  are like irons, which heat up slowly.  But boys are like light bulbs."  Issues of gender identity and sexual preference were never mentioned by teacher or students.

I  can't imagine what it was like for that boy, in a Catholic school, in an ultra-conservative Southern city, to figure out who he was.  I lost touch with him after graduation.  But later, in the corsage-crushing embrace of some college date, I would sometimes think about the boy who gave me the only nosegay at the prom.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wood Woes

The wood piles in people's yards around here are to die for.  When I drive down the road, it's not the Christmas decorations that draw my eye, but the wood piles stretching majestically across the frosted lawns with a minimalist beauty all their own.  No matter how long the pile, it is the same height all across, and the end pieces are arranged in a cross-wise pattern that ensures that the vertical edge of the pile is perpendicular to the ground.  From the front, the best piles are as regular and textured as honeycomb.

This fall my husband and I had an especially abundant supply of wood to lug from the side of the garage where it had been drying to the front porch.  While he did the lugging, I took charge of the stacking.  How hard can it be to stack wood, you say?  Not very, I thought, at least at first.  I figured that to keep the pile from collapsing, I needed to stack the end pieces of each layer at right angles to the rest, and I tried my best to do that.  But it wasn't until the last log was in place that I stepped back and was horrified:  while the pile looked more or less o.k. from the front, its profile was a disaster--logs stacked at perilous angles to each other, precarious diagonals giving an unfortunate dynamic feel to a structure that I had wanted to be restful and symmetrical. 

Dejectedly, I pointed out the pile to my husband.  "What's wrong with it?" he said, wiping his brow.

"It's the first thing people see when they drive up to the house, and it screams flatlander," I wailed.

The wood pile failure was an esthetic one, but it was followed by a second, functional one.  Most of the wood that I stacked came from a big tree that fell across our driveway in a storm a couple of years ago.  We had it cut and split, and gave the logs a long time to dry.  That dry wood burns better is one of the two things I know about firewood.  The other one is that you shouldn't burn pine because it gunks up the chimney.

Other than that, I thought, all non-pine wood was pretty much the same.  How wrong I was became apparent the first time I built a fire with the home-grown logs, in the expectation of a warm evening cozily reading Iris Murdoch.  Although they were light as balsa wood, they took a long time and prodigious quantities of paper to start burning, and had to be continually coddled and encouraged to keep from dying out.  Imagine my dismay when I realized that, even after an hour of my nursing the fire--while Iris sprawled, unread, face-down on the sofa--the stove was producing very little heat.

That's when the memory came winging to me of some apple tree trimmings I burned in the fireplace once back in Maryland, and how blindingly white-hot  those flames had been.  (They had smelled good, too.)   I have no idea what kind of non-pine it was that fell across our driveway, but it obviously wasn't much good for keeping one warm.

Clearly it's time for me to stop winging it in this matter of fire wood.  Next year I'm getting a firewood mentor, a Vermonter or near-Vermonter who will tutor me in the fine points of choosing wood, and  stacking it.  And when I have a North-country-worthy wood pile of my own, I'll take a picture of it, and post it on this blog.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In His Prime

Wolfie turned five last week.  In human years, he seems to me to be about forty.  Fully mature in mind and body, poised on the brink of the long, slow, inevitable descent.

Physically, the descent has already begun.  I can't document this, but I'm sure he can't run as fast or as fast as he did when he was two.  And there have been other changes:  in the last year his neck has thickened, which makes his head seem even bigger than before.  And a sprinkling of white hairs has appeared on his black chin.

With regard to his personality, a new gravitas has come over him.  He is definitely in charge of Lexi and Bisou.  If it's dark outside and Lexi ignores my calls to come in, Wolfie sits looking out the back door until she returns. When, because she can no longer hear the warning beeps, she wanders beyond the perimeter of the invisible fence, I tell Wolfie "find Lexi!" and he always does.  He's not at ease unless there are three dogs inside the house. 

Wolfie's desire to have everyone present and accounted for applies to humans as well as dogs.  Out walking with his herding teacher and her dog the other day, she asked me to go ahead with the dogs while she made sure that some deer hadn't gotten stuck inside her fenced-in pasture.  Her dog, who is young and playful, came with me happily.  Wolfie, however, couldn't stand it that now there were three of us on the path, instead of four.  He kept trotting back to retrieve his teacher, despite my calls to stay with me.  At one point he ran off altogether and returned triumphant, teacher in tow.

With a younger dog, he holds his head high with dignity, and tends to boss the juvenile around, which only makes the juvenile adore him more.  His relationship with Bisou is more nuanced.  He lets her take bones away from him, but at ball-throwing time, even though she runs as far and as fast as he does, she knows not to touch the ball.  He still hasn't given up hope of having children with Bisou, and he periodically gives it a try, despite the discomfort to his hind legs that crouching low must cause.  She is good natured about this, but eventually slithers out of his embrace.

Of late his demonstrations of affection for human visitors have become less exuberant, and he obeys, albeit reluctantly, the "enough!" command.  (None of this applies to his special beloveds--you know who you are--who encourage him with high-pitched voices and fond caresses.)  The one thing time hasn't improved is his tail, and the devastation it wreaks.  It is long and he wags it strongly (it has been known to knock small children to the ground), and is capable of clearing the coffee table of wine glasses in a single swoop.

Sometimes I take a look at Wolfie's baby pictures:  the ones where he was fat and blue-eyed and stuck his little tail straight up, like a kitten;  the ones where he's toddling in the snow after Lexi, the idol of his youth.  And I wonder how it happened that I, who have long attained the age of reason, never once thought about the consequences of getting a puppy that would grow into a big, strong, take-charge dog.  A dog whom I would not be able physically to control, since dogs are proportionately much stronger than people, and even a fifty-pound mutt can be a challenge for a well-muscled human.

But I believed in the effects of training on a sound temperament, and in Wolfie's case I was lucky. Still, when he was an adolescent, a single lunge on the lead inflicted damage on my shoulder that took months to stop hurting.  In reality, Wolfie doesn't have to do anything I tell him.  But he does, even when it involves hard stuff like waiting at the door before charging out to meet a playmate.  It is a miracle to me that an animal will control an urgent desire for my sake, not out of fear of punishment, but maybe  because he regards me as his alpha, or perhaps, even, because he loves me.

Or maybe because he has figured out that this serious loyalty, this kindly acquiescence, is the surest way to keep me bonded to him.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hibernation Hesitation

Coatless and sockless in the four o'clock dusk, picking kale in the garden, I almost stepped on a woolly bear caterpillar that was crossing my path at a pretty good clip.  By now it should have been curled under a thick padding of leaves, safely tucked against the rigors of winter.

We do a lot of tucking here in the fall.  The hens get a thick bedding of hay to keep their skinny feet warm.  The garden gets a nice duvet of compost.  The young apple trees get hard plastic socks around their trunks to guard against the rabbits.  The climbing roses get a layer of mulch hay around their feet, while the lavender is surrounded by a wall of hay that reaches halfway up the plants.  The rosemary bush and the scented and zonal geraniums have been indoors by a sunny window for weeks.

Vermonters (and Vermonter wannabes such as I) tuck themselves behind massive stacks of wood that will feed the stove until late April.  Every driveway is outlined with four-foot markers warning the snow plows away from the grass.  And the shrub-proud among us (not I) put out A-shaped wooden contraptions to keep their plantings from being dismembered by avalanches dropping from the roof.

In a word, Vermont is tucked and ready for winter.  But, as that 15th-century rake Villon put it, Ou sont les neiges d'antan?  (Where are the snows of yesteryear?).  Sure, we've had a couple of snows already, but they have promptly disappeared in the next day's 60F high.  Reader, it's kind of hot here.

I'm worried about the lavender, sweltering under its thick coat of hay.  I'm worried about the yellow butterflies that flitted across the driveway yesterday, worried about the geese flying in indecisive circles overhead--to stay, to go?  I'm worried about the frogs, who tucked themselves into the gunk at the bottom of the pond on the first cold night, and can be seen clinging to the disintegrating lily pads in the weirdly warm noon sun.  I'm worried about the woolly bears--will they be able to rush to shelter when the real cold suddenly arrives?  And I'm wondering about their cousins, the brown bears.  Are they in their dens by now or are they making sleepy, ill-tempered sorties, hunting for the last berries?  Is it safe to fill the bird feeder?

People in the village store say, "enjoy this weird weather."  Others say, "we're gonna pay for it later."  And I wonder, who are the optimists, who the pessimists?  Me, I hope we do pay for it.  I hope I get to wear my new super-warm-yet-light-as-a-feather winter coat that is hanging in the closet with the tags still attached.  I hope the cold kills the ticks.  I hope a thick coat of snow both shelters my plants and leaches nitrogen into their roots.  I hope the harshness of winter keeps those who would move here for frivolous reasons away.  I hope another season of relative isolation teaches me to endure, to bend with the winds, to find sustenance within myself.

In case you're wondering--that caterpillar in the garden?  It wore a wide brownish-orange belt around its middle:  a sure sign of a mild winter.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Snail Hunt

There's been a lot of talk about food in the Zeitgeist lately and, in these parts, talk about hunting:  the local game supper (bear, deer, moose et al.);  who shot at a deer with a huge rack, and missed;  whose posted land was violated by out-of-state felons with guns.  All this has brought back the snail hunts of my childhood.

My grandparents' farm was on a fertile valley just south of the Pyrenees, in the westernmost province of Catalonia.  Summers were dry, and on the rare occasions when rain threatened, we would gather on the covered terraces at the top of the house and watch the storm come galloping towards us:  thunder and lightning, followed by fat drops splashing down on the dusty roads.  And the mineral smell of rain on parched ground.

It never lasted very long, but afterwards, while the last drops were still falling from the broad leaves of the fig trees, we would get our baskets and go snail hunting.  A long, straight dirt road led from the house to the threshing floor and barn.  The road was bordered with apple and pear and fig trees, and blackberry brambles, and long grasses, and that is where we looked for snails.

These were not the fattened molluscs, already evicted from their shells, that you can buy in cans in upscale markets.  These were real wild snails (cargols in Catalan), their shells less than an inch in diameter, who after a rain came out from their hiding places and climbed to the very tops of the dessicated grass stems, leaving a slight iridescent trail behind them.

It seemed in those days that anything good had to be waited for a long time--Christmas, summer, a new pair shoes--and snails for supper were no exception.  After the hunt, we turned the snails over to my grandmother, who would decant them into special baskets--vertical, narrow containers where the snails would fast for several days to empty out their digestive tracts.

When the time was right, my grandmother would announce the cargolada, or snail bash.  My mother and her sisters would go into action, wrapping aprons around their middles, picking parsley, chopping garlic, fetching bottles of tomato conserve from the attic.  While the maid scrubbed the shells with a brush, my grandmother would prepare the salt bath that would rid the snails of the last vestiges of slime.

One of the reasons I loved a cargolada was the sound.  No other dish was so musical.  The shells being dumped out of the baskets, swished around in the salt bath, stirred in the pot, made a unique and musical clacking.   This, together with the smell of garlic and parsley sauteeing in the big red earthenware cassola, and the continuous arguing of the cooks ("don't burn the olive oil!  don't stain your blouse!") filled my senses to overflowing.

Like all mollusk dishes, the cargolada didn't take long.  I helped set the table while my grandfather swatted the heat-dazed flies in the dining room.  And then we sat down, ten or twelve of us, glasses of rosy wine at each place (my water barely tinted, but enough to taste), and the cassola was brought in and everybody went ohhhh!  My mother sliced thick slices of bread for sopping up the sauce.  My aunt passed around little sword-shaped plastic toothpicks.

A portion (very small, snails supposedly being hard to digest) was ladled, clack, clack, onto my plate.  I picked up a shell, grabbed my green sword, stabbed the snail and gave a little yank.  At the spot where the muscular foot joined the beginning of the intestine, I pressed down with my thumb and the two separated neatly.  I popped the snail into my mouth, discarded the shell, soaked some bread into the sauce, drank a little pink water....

For dessert there was melon sweet as only dry climates make them, picked by my grandfather and sliced by my mother.  I always interpreted my mother's slicing of the melon as a sign of her special standing in the household.

I have since lost my taste for snails.  The idea of buying them in cans, then stuffing them into shells, seems as absurd as wrapping orange peel around the orange sections in Southern ambrosia.  Even in Spain, the last time I attended a cargolada, the thought of those little snails starved, brined, and cooked alive made me concentrate on the sauce alone.

The thick sauce of my childhood, redolent of garlic, parsley and tomato and, because this was Catalonia, the sweetness of ground almonds.  And a big slice of bread, crusty on the outside and yeasty on the inside.  And my grandmother looking over at me saying "Don't eat too fast now.  Chew it well."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How Sleeping Dogs Lie

When my three dogs return from their stay at the B&B, they are delirious with exhaustion.  Lexi walks into the house, gets a drink of water, lowers herself carefully down on the kitchen floor, and does not move until the next morning.  Bisou becomes more aggressive in her snuggling, pushing hard against my thigh while we sit on the sofa and somehow keeping up the pressure even after she has fallen asleep.  If for any reason I have to dislodge her, the effort is entirely up to me.  It is surprising how heavy an 18.5 lb dog can make herself when she doesn't want to be moved.

But it is Wolfie whose reentry is the most dramatic.  After a cursory sniff of our luggage, he becomes at-one with the floor the way a fried egg becomes one with the frying pan. His collapse is so complete that I catch myself checking his ribcage for signs of breath.  He doesn't look like a dog lying on a rug:  he looks like a dog pelt that has been flung on the floor.

All this is good news for me, since it allows me to recover from the trip that was the reason for the dogs' stay at the B&B.  They have had so much entertainment that I can go a good couple of days without having to think up diversions for them. 

After four days in the bosom of her Cavalier tribe--which includes her mother, a couple of aunties and two of her sisters--Bisou is glad to swap her enfant terrible mask for a temporary lapdog disguise.  Lexi is happy to lie all day with her nose in her empty food bowl.  As for Wolfie--whose exhaustion comes mostly from having to keep track of Lexi and Bisou among all the other canine guests at the B&B--you can almost feel his relief at getting his little pack home, where nothing will interfere with them, except himself.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Will Someone Please Explain About Vampires?

Every ten years or so I try to read a book about vampires, and fail.  I would like to be able to read vampire literature, since the fiction shelves of the nearby village libraries are mostly filled with contemporary popular fiction, and often it's hard to find something to read.  As I browse dispiritedly through the shelves, I see lots of vampire books.

My problem with vamp lit is the biology.  I've just never understood how vampires work.

My first stumbling block is the bite, and how it is made.  If I wanted to suck someone's blood--and wanted to do so unobtrusively, maybe while the victim thought he or she was being nuzzled affectionately--a small hole in the carotid artery would be the way to do it.  The hole would have to be small enough to heal quickly by itself, otherwise the person would bleed to death and I would have killed the goose that lay the golden e.  A set of sharp incisors would be best to deliver such a small but accurate bite.  But vampires are well known for sporting huge canines which, as any cat will tell you, are great for slashing and tearing.  Apply real vampire teeth to a vulnerable human throat, and there would be no second helpings.

There is another problem with vampire dentition.  If I close my mouth and run my fingers down over my canines, I can feel that if these were long and sharp they would run into my lower teeth.  If they somehow got past those, they would puncture my lower gums.  I opened Wolfie's mouth and checked his set of inch-long canines.  Despite their length, they don't pierce his lower gums because his lower jaw is quite narrow, and fits well inside the upper.  But that is not the way human mouths are made.

A thick erotic fog surrounds vampires and their victims.  Something about sucking someone's blood, and having blood sucked out of one, is supposed to be highly sexy.  I assume that a vampire's desire for blood is caused by anemia.  The universally pale, wan skin--there are no rosy-cheeked vampires--is a clear diagnostic sign.  As someone who is closely acquainted with anemia, however, I can attest that the feelings it generates (fatigue and an overwhelming desire for sleep) are anything but erotic.  The anemia theory is also at odds with the vampire's great muscular strength, which is not a trait associated with low red blood cell count.  From the victim's point of view, losing large amounts of blood at one time cannot be pleasant.  If there are people who derive sexual satisfaction from making blood donations to the Red Cross, I have never heard of them. 

If you want to become a vampire, you have to be bitten by one.  But you'd think that if becoming a vampire also gave you great strength, you'd be able to fight off the original vampire when he came around for another meal.  I really wonder what happens when a vampire and his victim-turned-vampire meet.  Do they have a big fight?  Do they take turns sucking each other's blood?  Exactly what do they get up to?

If I could get past these questions, I'd be able to deal with the nocturnal habits, the stakes, the crosses, the garlic.  Come to think of it, maybe it's all the garlic I eat that not only keeps vampires away from me, but keeps me away from vampires. 

If any of you are versed in vampire lore, please enlighten me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Lion Sleeps Tonight (In My Woods, I Hope)

A neighbor was going out to her compost pile one bright evening last July when, about forty feet away, she saw an animal lying down with its back to her.  From its size and earthy color, she thought it was a deer.  But then it turned on its belly, and she realized that it was a really large cat, with a long, long tail.  Not a bobcat, not a lynx, not an overfed Scottish shorthair.  A mountain lion.

She was standing there transfixed, the compost bucket in her hand, when a woodchuck leaped by the creature's head, flopped down and flew up again in a very un-woodchuck-like manner, but exactly like a mouse that is being tormented by a cat.  All kinds of thoughts rushed through my neighbor's head:  "I must rescue that woodchuck" (fortunately she thought better of that);  "I should run into the kitchen and grab my camera" (instead she decided to stay and live the moment--good for her!).

After three or four minutes of tossing the woodchuck around, the lion turned and looked at my neighbor.  My neighbor looked at the lion.  Then languidly the lion stood up, woodchuck in mouth, and disappeared into a brush pile.

This magnificent event, I am proud to say, happened a mere mile from our house, and I am basking in its reflected glory.  A mountain lion's range is between 50 and 100 miles, so I like to think that one of these days my neighbor's lion might honor our compost pile with a visit.  I know it sounds insane to wish this, especially with Bisou around, who is practically woodchuck-sized.  But I am told that mountain lions (puma concolor) on the East Coast are less dangerous than their brethren in the West, because our woods and fields are crawling with critters that they like to eat.

This is not the only sighting of a mountain lion in our area.  A couple of years ago, an even closer neighbor told me that he had seen one in the meadow by the river that runs between our houses.  And Wolfie's herding teacher, who lives just over the border in New York, saw one on a summer evening as she was driving down the road from her house.  She stopped the truck.  The lion looked at her, she looked at the lion...then he gathered his hind legs under him and gave a leap that took him almost across the two-lane road.

The lion (or lions) that roams our neighborhood is not, alas, the fabled catamount.  According to the Vermont Department of Wildlife, the Eastern Mountain Lion is extinct.  But their cousins from Canada and the West are coming this way.  Last summer, a mountain lion was killed by an SUV on a highway in Connecticut, and DNA analysis shows that it came from a population that makes its home in South Dakota (

To these wild immigrants, I say, welcome to the neighborhood.  Welcome to the mountain lion.  Welcome back to the wild turkeys rescued from the brink of extinction and who, this summer, outnumbered the  chickens on our yard.  And welcome, if it should choose to come this way, to canis lupus, the gray wolf.  Its DNA is already evident in the extra-large and furry coyotes that run around these parts.  The habitat is perfect, and I would dearly love to see one before I die. 

Veni, veni, canis lupus, puma concolor et al.  Come reassure me that all is not lost, all is not yet predictable.  My scraggly woods can be your shrine--you'll find all sorts of sustenance here, from deer to fisher cats. (For your sake, stay away from the porcupine that's eating our garage; and for mine, don't eat Bisou.)  Come and make yourselves at home.  Just don't make me wait too long.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From The Forest To The Trees

I've always been a "forest"  rather than a "trees" kind of person;  more macro than micro;  more into ends than means.  Something inside me always propelled me to get the thing--whatever it was-- over and done with, and not fuss too much over the details, but to keep moving towards the goal.

To this day, when I listen to a presentation, as the speaker launches into the introduction I start tapping my mental foot.  "Fine, yes," I mutter to myself, "but what does this have to do with the main topic?"  This makes me an impatient audience, and in the days when I worked with other people, it made me an impatient colleague.

Part of this had to do with years of combining motherhood and career.  I wanted meetings to run efficiently so I could take the kids home from day care, fix dinner, and then grade term papers before I got too sleepy to think.  I had to keep my eyes firmly trained on the forest as a whole--the family, the work, the survival of both--and could not afford to dawdle or give in to a fascination with a particular tree (forget the fancy recipe and the interesting article--there was dinner to get on the table, and a lecture to prepare).

When Chronic Fatigue Syndrome entered my life, the old familiar forest--ultimate goals, long-range plans, daily discipline and efficiency--went out the window, leaving me only trees, and scrubby saplings at that.  The frantic but meaning-bestowing days were gone.  I couldn't work.  I couldn't take care of anybody but myself, and that barely.

Last year, Elisabeth Tova Bailey published a brilliant and moving book, The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating.  She was bedridden with a severe CFS-like illness when a friend brought her a violet in a pot, and put it on her bedside table.  In that pot, there was a snail, and the writer, barely able to sit up in bed, devoted a year to watching that snail and writing about it.  How is that for letting go of the forest and focusing on the trees?

I don't know that I can ever match that level of tree-gazing, but in the almost two decades since getting sick, I have made some progress.  This blog bears witness to it.  In it, I often feel, I'm writing more and more about less and less:  putting a log in the stove;  making stock out of my old laying hens.  Then there is always the variegated past, in which things used to happen.  "Faire quelque chose de rien," to make something out of nothing, is a time honored tenet of the French classical theater, and later of the psychological novel.  Still, how much substance can you squeeze out of a life in which very little happens?

That all depends on who is doing the squeezing:  look at Elisabeth Tova Bailey with her bedside nature preserve;  look at Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk.  Look at Emily Dickinson shut up in her room.  Do you see why I feel out of my class?

The shift from macrocosm to microcosm is not easy.  These days, microcosms are not fashionable.   I read other blogs;  I read Facebook;  and I am overwhelmed by the sheer mass of external stimulation that enters daily into these writers' lives, as it used to enter mine.  Sitting on my Vermont hillside, listening to the silence, I often feel like a hermit and wonder what I am doing here.  This is what I wanted with all my heart.  The question is, am I worthy of it? 

When as a child I used to complain that I was bored, my father would answer, "intelligent people are never bored."  True, if they are not only really intelligent, but have considerable spiritual resources.  Nelson Mandela through his decades in prison must have delved deeply into the microcosm.  And so I add Mandela to my pantheon of tree-gazers.

Deep into stick season, when the leaves are down and the snow is yet to come, it's hard to focus on the trees.  But I know a forester who can look at the grayest stick and say, "this here is a nice little sugar maple."  In his footsteps, I hope to wean my gaze away from the forest and onto a single tree, and not just at the tree, but at its bark, the way its branches angle from the trunk, the almost invisible leaf buds, and the way it holds inside the promise of sweet-flowing sap in the spring.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Put A Log In The Stove

Days are short now, and chilly, and lighting the wood stove in the evening feels more like a luxury than a chore.  I sit on the sofa, my feet on the coffee table, rereading the tragic story of Tristan and Iseult.  Just as they drink the magic philter and their passion flares high, the flames in the stove dwindle.  It's time to add another log.

There are, between me and my goal, three dogs.  The first one, Bisou, is sprawled across my lap.  I have to dislodge her before I can get up, but have you ever tried to un-lap a dog bred for over four-hundred years for the exclusive purpose of lap-sprawling?  The minute she feels my hands under her body she becomes a dead weight, and it's all I can do, while murmuring apologies, to shift her 19.5 lbs to the side.

Now my lap is free, but I cannot put my feet on the floor.  That is because Wolfie, who despite his East German sheepherding father is a lapdog at heart if not in looks, has laid his long black body in the narrow space between the sofa and the coffee table, leaving no place for me to put my feet.  I hate to disturb him--I feel sorry for him because he cannot ever sit on anybody's lap--so I stretch my legs as far from his head as possible, heave myself up with my hands on the sofa cushions, and teeter to a standing position.

In front of the stove lies Dog Number Three, Lexi, the dowager queen.  My guilt towards Bisou and Wolfie fades to insignificance compared to my guilt towards deafish, blindish, lameish, 13 1/2 year-old-Lexi.  A few pages ago, as Tristan and Iseult first laid eyes on each other, I watched Lexi waddle over to the stove.  She stood, head lowered and hind legs a-tremble, thinking things over, then slowly lowered herself onto the hearth.  Positioned as she is, there is no way I can open the stove doors, much less put a log in.

"Lexi, move," I say.  Then, more loudly, "Lexi, move!"  She lifts her milky eyes towards me and gives me a reproachful look, but stays her ground.  "Dammit, Lexi...."  She sighs, heaves herself up, and waddles off into the kitchen, where I hear her plop down on the floor like a sack of potatoes.  I put the log in the stove.

Straddling Wolfie's bulk, I reclaim my spot on the sofa.  Bisou wakes up and snuggles back on my lap.  I pick up my book.  And in the guilt of Tristan and Iseult vis-a-vis the betrayed King Marc, I find an echo of what I feel towards my old dog, who is lying alone on the cold kitchen floor.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Google In The Kitchen

I butchered my crop of seven pumpkins a few days ago.  "Butcher" is the proper term for something that requires a strong stomach as well as strong muscles.

Mind you, my pumpkins are the medium-sized ones intended for eating rather than carving.  But cutting them open, even with my razor-sharp Chinese chopper, is by far the most strenuous thing I do in the kitchen.  It's kind of like sawing a tree:  the minute I get the chopper blade a couple of inches into the pumpkin, it gets stuck in the crack.  The only way to resolve this is to lift the chopper with the attached pumpkin as high as I can, and then crash it down onto the counter.  Eventually I win, and the pumpkin splits raggedly in two.

Then comes the gross part.  With my bare hands, I scoop out the innards--the slimy, sticky filaments, the flat, slippery seeds.  The only way to get it all is to scrape the inner walls with my fingernails.  Ugh.

I didn't have enough space in the oven to bake the fourteen pumpkin halves at once, so I had to make two batches.  While the first batch was baking, I took the pumpkin guts out to the hens.  I know, I know, I should have scrubbed those 1200 seeds clean, seasoned, and roasted them.  But I had, as the French say, other cats to whip that day.

When the pumpkins were done, I scooped out their flesh and rushed the still-warm rinds to the chickens, who loved them at first but soon turned up their noses at them.  I don't blame them:  fourteen pumpkin rinds for eleven hens is a lot. 

When the baking was over, I had several impressive mountains of orange pumpkin meat, which I divided into portions and froze.  Then I had to figure out a way to use it.  Sure, I could make pies, and if we ate a couple of pies a week we might empty our pumpkin stores by which time we'd be too obese to walk out the door to plant the new garden.  I could make pumpkin bread, which has more redeeming nutritional value than pies, but seven pumpkins would probably yield forty-nine loaves, which we also don't need.  I could make curried cream of pumpkin soup, which tastes great and would be good for us, but might lose its charm if we ate it every day.

Pies, bread and soup exhausted the resources of my modest cookbook library.  What I needed were recipes for pumpkin main dishes--concoctions that would use a lot of pumpkin and no sugar and would even taste good.  Can I sing enough praises of Google's recipe sites?  Like a helpful grandmother, Google comes to the rescue whenever I have too much of anything from the garden.

Although 90% of the pumpkin recipes were for bread or desserts, I found quite a few for main dishes, and a lot of those seemed to be of Italian provenance.  If they named green summer squashes zucchini (little pumpkins), Italians must grow a lot of zucca, and have come up with ways to use it.  I found a recipe for pumpkin gnocchi;  one for baked pumpkin, sausage and ziti;  and one, which I decided to make right away because I had all the ingredients, for pumpkin polenta with cheese.

It met all my requirements:  it used up a lot of pumpkin, was reasonably easy to make, and tasted good.  I'll make the gnocchi next.  Sure, one of these days I'll take out my 1977 Fannie Farmer and make a pie.  But until then, thank you, Google! 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

More Tales Of The Red Baroness

Shall I bore you again with Bisou's exploits?

Here goes anyway.

She needs to lose a couple of pounds, so she's been on a diet.  Two pounds doesn't seem like a lot, but if at your plumpest you only weigh 21, it's close to ten percent of your total weight.  I've put her on the house version of Weight Watchers and she's almost at her goal.  The weight loss has been aided by her perennial state of hunger, which revs up her desire for exercise.  Have you noticed how hyper a dog will get if you take him or her out for a walk just before feeding time?  My interpretation of this is that the stomach is screaming at the brain,  "make the muscles hunt down something to fill up this dreadful emptiness!"

Accordingly, my perennially hungry Bisou has set new records of physical exertion.  For example, it is impossible to wear her out throwing balls for her with the ball thrower.  She can retrieve at almost the speed of light for fifteen minutes straight, and when I beg for mercy she moans for more.  After one of these sessions, she was so outraged that I had stopped that she ran to the garage wall where I keep a bag of extra balls hanging from a high nail, jumped up, tore a hole in the bag and got herself a ball.

Then there was the day when we were walking with her brother Bear and his owner on a steep hill that rises behind Bear's house.  At the bottom of the hill there is a ditch with a little stream.  On the way back, Bisou  was running so hard that she left the ground halfway down the slope--legs splayed, ears fanned out like wings--flew over the stream, landed on the other side, and kept going.

The last time my dogs stayed at their B&B, Bisou's breeder told me that Bisou was acting more like a German Shepherd than a Cavalier.  There was a litter of toddling half siblings of hers in the house at the time, and she spent her days herding them around, pushing them into corners and making them stay, maintaining order.  This is not as far-fetched as it seems:  I read somewhere that a dog trainer who believed that you could train any dog, regardless of breed, to do any task, proved his point by training a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to herd sheep.

Like her mentor Wolfie, Bisou takes her guard dog responsibilities seriously.  When I let them out into the spooky darkness before bed time, and Wolfie charges out at top speed to kill whatever is there that shouldn't be, she's right on his heels.  This behavior does not manifest towards visiting humans, onto whose laps she leaps the minute she gets a chance.  (Wolfie would like to do the same, and is deeply envious.)

But Bisou has non-athletic talents as well.  She is an excellent bed-maker.  She sleeps on Lexi's discarded old bed, a big lumpy pillow that sits on the floor next to Wolfie's bed.  I have given her an extra-large bath towel  that she arranges to her taste, like a chimpanzee making its nightly nest as the sun sets over the jungle canopy.  The other night I folded Bisou's bed in half, thinking to make it more comfortable, and put the towel on top.  But she didn't like the new arrangement.  She grabbed the towel with her teeth and lugged it over to an empty corner of Wolfie's bed, right by his head.  With the corner of the towel in her mouth she turned around and around until she had made a perfect doughnut.  Then she dropped the towel, gave a couple more turns, plopped down inside the doughnut and went to sleep.

Sometimes on chilly nights, when I see Wolfie and Bisou sleeping blissfully on their beds next to mine, I am seriously tempted to join them.  But I feel that for my spouse's sake I must keep up the illusion of sanity, so I don't.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Z Is For Zoo

It's usually just a couple of lions in my basement, but occasionally they are joined by a tiger or some other big cat. Although I am the one who hid these animals in the house, my dreaming self worries about their welfare.

How can they survive with no sunlight or fresh air? The basement walls are cinder block and windowless; the floor, under a bit of soiled straw, is cold cement. There is no food. The water in the buckets hasn't been changed for days. The animals don't look too good: their fur is dull and matted, and their ribs show.

The reason they have no food or water is that I am afraid to go down there. What on earth possessed me to get these scary animals in the first place? What was I thinking? I am trying very hard to come up with some way to get rid of them. I could call the Humane Society, but I'm sure they wouldn't want to come in one of their vans to pick up a couple of lions and a tiger. I could call the police, but they would want to know what I was doing with these big dangerous cats in the house. I could put an ad in the paper....

Over and over, I curse myself for getting the animals. I am appalled at my lack of judgment. I don't recognize myself: it's as if some unknown part of me had suddenly surfaced, turned the basement into a zoo, and then disappeared again, leaving me to deal with the situation.

Guilt about the starving lions, fear that they will eat me, frustration that they are still there--in the dream I bounce from one to the other, looking for an exit. But no matter how hard I try to dispose of the lions, I never manage to get rid of them. So while I get on with my life, they lurk in the basement, waiting for the next opportunity to surface in my dreams.

(P.S., And now my alphabet is finished.)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Last Words

I must confess that, since stories by survivors of near-death experiences surfaced in the media years ago, I have been fascinated by them.  Those lights, that tunnel, do they mean?  Are they the final flashes of dying neurons, or are they glimpses into what Shakespeare called "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns"?

The dying are necessarily brief in their accounts of what is happening to them.  My father was comparatively descriptive when he whispered ecstatically his last words to my mother:  "I feel God so close to me."  My maternal grandmother, who had certainly never heard of near-death experiences, at the very end smiled, exclaimed, "Oh, such light!" and died.

In  the New York Times' recently published eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs, ( )  Mona Simpson says that his final words were "Oh wow.  Oh wow.  Oh wow."  

I find solace in these stories.  I am consoled when I read that people who have come very close to dying often say that they have lost their fear of death, and live out their lives in serenity and peace.  Is it foolish to find comfort in something that seems to answer our deepest hope, but hasn't been proven by replicable double-blind experiments?

I don't own an Apple, an iPod, an iPhone, or an iPad, and I've never watched Toy Story.  But I'm grateful to Steve Jobs for leaving life's final gate ajar for just a second, before closing it forever.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Y Is For Yoga, And For Young

Some people believe that running marathons will keep them young.  Others think that abstaining from eating animal products will do the trick.  Others join societies whose members eat almost nothing at all, in the hopes that this will enable them to live forever.

Me, I believe in yoga.  Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, my gut tells me that as long as I can do a forward bend and place my hands flat on the floor, I will not be truly old.  As long as I can sit in a half lotus, lean forward and touch my face to the mat, there is still hope.  As long as I can pick up one foot and touch my nose with my toe, I'm o.k.  If I could stand on my head--which I can't--that would guarantee immortality, but I'm not aiming for that.

I don't want to climb mountains or swim across straits or lift huge weights.  All I want is for my arms and legs and hips and neck to continue making most of the gestures they made when they were three years old.  All I want is to be able to control my limbs within the space of my yoga mat.  This strikes me as a self-contained, reasonable, even humble goal.*

The fact that I have CFS imposes certain limits on my yoga practice--which is o.k., because if it didn't I'd be doing nothing but yoga all the time.  The disease lets me do just about anything I want in class, but takes its revenge afterwards.  If I indulge in one sun salutation too many, I can be nailed to the bed for a week.

Yoga has done some very good things for me.  It was my flexibility going into hip-replacement surgery that allowed me to recover in record time and regain complete range of motion in the new hip (having a great surgeon helped, too).  When I developed severe neck pains that traveled down my arm, doctors took x-rays and mumbled about pinched nerves, NSAIDs and physical therapy.  But I remembered the yoga dictum to hold your head as if you were hanging from a golden chain attached to the top of your skull, chin tucked in and back of the neck extended, and behold, the pain went away. 

Best of all, yoga has enabled me to have a conversation with my body, every part of it.  Before yoga my feet were vague appendages flapping at the end of my legs.  With yoga I have gotten to know them personally--heel and arch and all ten toes.  After several years of practice, the weird things my teachers said about the breath finally began to make sense.  Now if I'm told to breathe into my hip, I know exactly what to do.  And I have learned, both literally and metaphorically, to listen to my gut, whose small, quiet voice had gone unheeded for my entire life.

*Buddhist Note:  I realize that this wanting to control my body within the space of my yoga mat, etc. is a sign of attachment to outcomes, but I can't help it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sustainable Entertainment

The first meeting of the Cabin Fever Abatement Salon took place yesterday afternoon, while the sun shone brightly on the new snow.  A young woman, the farm manager at that pearl of West Pawlet, Consider Bardwell Farm, told the touching, often sad but ultimately victorious story of her father, a fifth-generation farmer, and his struggles to continue working on the land.  It was clear as she spoke that in her own case the farming vocation has not, as so often happens, skipped a generation.

Afterwards, I sat by the fire rewarding myself with some leftover hummus and a glass of wine, and thought about those seventeenth-century Parisian ladies who, sick of rowdy parties where drunken noblemen got into fights, spat on the floor, and abused the servants, invented a kinder, gentler entertainment:  the salon. 

It should have been called not the salon but the chambre a coucher--the bedroom--for that was where the gatherings were held.  The hostess lay on her bed (I never could find out whether she got under the covers), which was on a slightly elevated platform.  The space between the bed and the wall, technically known as the ruelle, or little street, was occupied on one side by the servants standing ready to pour more of that exotic delicacy, le cafe, and on the other by her friends.  Depending on the degree of their favor with the hostess, some friends sat on chairs, others on mere stools.

As the drafty palaces and spartan furniture of the 17th century gave way to the cozier interiors and welcoming armchairs of the 18th, the gatherings moved from the bedroom to the salon proper.  Eventually, the in-home salon was replaced by the more democratic coffeehouse around the corner.  But the custom of living room  entertainments persisted until the early 20th century.  The young lady playing the piano for her parents' dinner guests;  the fledgeling poet reciting in a tremulous voice;  the returning traveler astounding the company with stories of naked savages--all are examples of the human talent for making entertainment out of home-grown resources.

Then, with the advent of radio, the movies, television, and the shopping mall, people stopped looking to themselves and their friends for entertainment, and the salon was no more.

Now that foes both natural and man-made assail us on every side, self-reliance--that grandmotherly virtue--is once again looking like a good idea, even an attractive one.  Some people are growing their own vegetables;  some are making their own soap.  Some discover that within their friends and neighbors lie rich deposits of wit, adventurousness, quirkiness and passion, just waiting to be exploited.  And the quaint old salon, updated as locally-grown, sustainable entertainment, makes its long-deserved comeback.

Friday, October 28, 2011

X Is For Xenoglossophobia

If xenophobia means "fear of foreigners," xenoglossophobia means "fear of  foreign languages."   Like Lyme disease, xenoglossophobia is endemic in many parts of the U.S.

This fear causes many parents to want to protect their children from foreign language instruction, resulting in a dearth of public schools that offer bilingual immersion (only 440 in the entire country).  In some states, programs that immerse children in another language are actually banned, because, a recent NPR report states ( ), "a majority of voters don't think children can learn proper English and at the same time hold on to a foreign language and culture."

Xenoglossophobes hold firmly to this view, despite a wealth of evidence that becoming not only bilingual but literate in a foreign language is really good for kids' brains.  For example, according to the NPR story, most of the students of Miami's Coral Way elementary school, which has been offering a rigorous English/Spanish immersion program since 1963, come from low-income families, yet many of them are accepted into the city's best high schools.

I've often wondered what xenoglossophobes think happens in the hundreds of sites around the globe where the entire population is, for political or geographic reasons, bilingual.  To pick an example close to (my) home, in Catalonia most natives speak both Catalan and Spanish, the two official languages.  It is said--mostly by Catalans--that we are the most intelligent people in all of Spain.  If there is any truth in that, it's probably due to the enforced bilingualism.  But then the Basques (who speak their own utterly weird language, and Spanish) and the Galicians (who speak a language related to Portuguese, and Spanish) probably maintain their own superiority.

Then there is the Vall d'Aran, a tiny valley high in the Pyrenees, in the northwest corner of Catalonia.  Its 7,000 inhabitants have not one, not two, but three official languages.  The first is Aranes, a variant of Occitan;  the second is Catalan, because the valley is in Catalonia;  and the third is Spanish, because Catalonia is in Spain.  Xenoglossophobes would assume that the poor Aranese are barely able to walk, much less think, with this linguistic turmoil in their heads.  But not at all.  The Aranese are proud defenders of their endangered tongue, and insist that it be taught in their schools.  In addition, because in winter it snows really hard and the passes into Spain used to stay blocked for months, they all also speak French.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

W Is For Water

My swimming suit didn't have bra cups yet, so I must have been eleven the summer my mother signed me up for swimming lessons at the base of Pichincha, the lively volcano that  periodically covered the streets of Quito with a light coat of ash.

It was the rainy season.  This meant that every day, shortly after noon, dark clouds would gather overhead,  thunder would rumble for a while, and then the heavens would liquefy and fall upon the land. 

The class, which met at midday, was composed of plump girls in their late teens who, to me, looked about the same age as my mother.  Our teacher, Senor Padilla, a former Olympic swimmer, was short and muscular.  He wore a  tiny bathing suit, and the rest of his body was covered by a rich pelt of black hair.  I didn't know why at the time, but being in that class with those plump girls and hairy Senor Padilla made me uncomfortable.

Not as uncomfortable, however, as being in the ice-cold water of the outdoor pool.  On the very first day, after a cursory introduction,  Senor Padilla blew his whistle and yelled, "Senoritas, al agua!"  There was nothing for it but to jump in, so I did.  I felt every muscle contract and my body turn to stone as the waters closed over my head.  I surfaced spluttering, my nasal passages burning from the chlorine, and looked up.  The dark heights of Pichincha were slowly disappearing under masses of lead-colored clouds.  I looked down at the water and saw that it too had grown dark and threatening, along with the sky.  I heard the faraway rumble of thunder.

The class ended just as the downpour began.  I went home shivering, and with a violent headache from what must have been chlorine-filled sinuses.  The altitude of 9350 feet, to which neither my parents nor I had adjusted, probably added to the discomfort.  Needless to say, I begged not to go back to the class.  Needless to say, I did go back.

Every day, my embarrassment grew as I watched Senor Padilla enjoying himself as he taught, and especially as my unathletic-looking classmates mastered the crawl and went on to the back stroke, the side stroke, the breast stroke, the butterfly.  Meanwhile I, frozen and stiff as a board, hadn't even learned to float.  If I floated face down, I inhaled chlorine.  If I turned onto my back, I saw the dark, leaden, threatening clouds rushing towards Pichincha, and feared I was going to die.

The last day of class finally arrived. Senor Padilla had arranged to exhibit our skills before our loved ones.  One by one, my classmates dove in and swam the length of the pool, each in her favorite style.  When my turn came, Senor Padilla said that all I had to do was dive and float across the pool.

As I stood shivering at the water's edge, I glanced up towards Pichincha and saw the black clouds galloping  overhead.  I closed my eyes and threw myself in.  Eventually I surfaced, sank, surfaced again and was making my way towards dry land when something bumped against my hip.  It was Senor Padilla, who, worried that I was drowning right in front of my parents, had jumped in to save me.

Several weeks later, I went to a different swimming pool.  The sun was out, the water was warm, and the pool was almost empty.  I got in, turned on my back, looked up at the blue sky, and, since nobody was watching, tried the back stroke.  I managed not only to stay afloat, but to cross the pool.  Then  I turned onto my stomach and did the crawl, the breast stroke, the side stroke, and the butterfly.  I couldn't believe it, but it was true:  despite the cold, the terror, and the embarrassment, Senor Padilla really had taught me how to swim.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

V Is For Violin, And For Violence

My first violin had tooth marks on the rim, where I had bitten it in a rage.  The bow was missing several hairs from being struck on the back of my parents' sofa, and certain pages of my method books retained the marks of crumpling no matter how carefully I later tried to smooth them out.

I was a violent violinist when I was a kid.  I hated my violin as if it were a living thing, and wanted to kill it.  I wanted to kill it so it would stop making those offending sounds that, week after week and month after month, never seemed to get any better.

Not that the violin had been forced on me.  My music career had begun with the piano.  But after a year of struggling with fingerings and trying to keep my wrists level with my hands and my fingers curled just so, I thought the violin had to be easier, more rewarding.  Besides, studying the violin meant that I would have my father for a teacher.

Why didn't my parents warn me?  Perhaps they did, and I didn't listen.  So on my tenth birthday, I got a violin, and my first lesson.  My father showed me how to tuck the violin under my chin and support its neck with my left hand so the instrument would be parallel to the ground.  Then he told me how to hold the bow, and how to draw it across the A string, halfway between bridge and fingerboard, with the hair tilted towards me at the frog and flat on the string when I got to the tip.  Less pressure at the frog and more at the tip. This I should do very carefully, over and over, fifteen minutes a day, every day, until my next lesson.

"You mean just drawing the bow across the A string?"  I asked.

"Yes.  It's very difficult to do right."   He lifted my left arm, which by then was pointing dispiritedly towards the ground, and left.

This was well before Suzuki, before the helpful fingering tapes on the fingerboard, the accompanying CDs, and the frivolous idea that playing the violin should be fun.  By the end of the second practice session, I was bored out of my mind and longing for the days of the Anna Magdalena Bach piano book, the little Minuets and Sarabandes that actually sounded like regular music. 

A year passed. My father pronounced me to have basic talent and a good ear worth cultivating, and raised my daily practice time to an hour.  Leaving my  mother to enforce the regimen, he went off to earn our keep as a musician.  This required him to work quite hard, and in retrospect I can see that expecting him to give me a weekly lesson, like his regular students got, was perhaps too much.  So I would go weeks, sometimes months, without a lesson.  Occasionally, if he happened to be home while I was practicing, my father would swoop into the room saying "Flat!  You're flat!  Here, let me show you..."  If I was lucky, sometimes these interventions would develop into lessons.

The years passed and, as I advanced, I fell deeper into musical despair.  The more I learned about the violin, the more I hated the way I sounded.  Having heard the sound of his violin from the day I was conceived, I considered my father's playing the minimum acceptable level of proficiency, so by comparison my own playing seemed beyond disgusting.  I was eighteen before I could stand to hear myself.

But by then I also realized what a jealous master the instrument was.  I was in college, majoring in Biology and French, and taking violin for one hour of credit--yet practicing for that single credit took as much time as the rest of my courses combined.  I played for another two years and then, without thinking too much about it, I put away the violin, the methods books, the music stand.  The calluses on my fingers slowly faded, and life rushed in to fill the now-vacant practice hours.  My parents had the grace not to make a fuss.

And after that, for years and years I never gave the violin another thought.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why I Shop At The Dorset Church Rummage Sale

There are twelve items in my recycled garbage bag:  a couple of heavy sweaters and several long-sleeved tees--all of them wool, cashmere, cotton, or silk.  All of them bearing brand names that even I am familiar with.  I hand the gray-haired lady $30.  She gives me change, looks into my eyes, says "thank you so much for coming."

Before I came to Vermont, I had never darkened the door of a vintage shop, much less attended a rummage sale.  But--blame the apocalyptic Zeitgeist, or the Vermont ethos, or the fact that the chicken shed has  replaced the office as my early-morning destination--I now attend the Dorset Church bi-annual rummage sale religiously.

So does everybody else.  In Vermont you can normally drive right to the front door of your venue and park.  But for this particular occasion, you sometimes have to park the equivalent of two blocks (there are no blocks in Dorset) away.  That tells you something.

It's usually brisk on the morning of the fall sale, and the wily church ladies have set up the tent with the coats, heavy sweaters and ski-wear right next to the (Vermont marble) sidewalk.  Indoors there is the "designer room," where cashmere and pristine labels abound;  the coat room, the shoe room, the children's room, and a huge room where you can buy dresses, skirts, pants, tops, sheets, blankets, comforters, not to mention clothes for guys, for practically pennies.

The place is so crowded that reflective shopping is out of the question.  This is a relief for me, who tend to go into existential crises in a mall.  Here the rule is:  buy first, think later.  For some reason, I don't feel overwhelmed by the crowds, but oddly serene, and wealthy.  Though we barely stop to talk, I run into several people I know.  One friend is buying wool sweaters that she will "felt" by washing them in hot water and then cut up and sew together into a vest of many colors.  Another friend carries her purchases in her arms.  "I won't let them give me a bag," she says, referring to the recycled paper or plastic bags that shoppers are offered.  Awed by her environmental conscientiousness, I vow to bring my own canvas bags next year.

And there you have the first of my reasons for shopping at the rummage sale:  it's environmentally friendly.  I'm recycling all that cotton, all those dyes, all that labor.  It saves my own resources:  I'm keeping myself warm and satisfying the remains of my feminine vanity for a fraction of what I would pay at a regular store.  I'm contributing (albeit not a lot, given the prices) to a local charity.  I am helping in a small way to make our region self-sufficient.

Finally, there is the issue of who makes the clothes we buy in the stores.  My husband's sister, Jodi Cobb, an intrepid photographer for National Geographic, shot a powerful story about slavery in the 21st century.  (You can read her post on the subject by clicking:  )  There is nothing I can do about young girls being sold as prostitutes in Eastern Europe.  But by limiting my purchase of new goods of uncertain provenance (and aren't all those "made in..." labels inside our sweaters signs of uncertain provenance?) I can minimize the profits of someone who makes his or her living off the skinny backs of six-year-olds.  It's a golden opportunity to do a little good in this sad old world.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Lazy Gardener's Guide To World-Class Compost

Here's what you do:  forget those instructions about gathering your various compost ingredients, layering them carefully, wetting them down and turning them frequently.  Instead, get two or three hens--or six, if you are ambitious--and put them in a shed.  If they have access to the outdoors, and they should, an 8'x8' space will accommodate six layers luxuriously.  You want your hens to be able to go outside:  the air and grass and bugs are good for their bodies and their souls.

You get a couple of bales of hay that is too old to be fed to cows, technically known as "mulch hay," and spread some of it on the floor of the shed.  The hens will rejoice in this, pecking at the hay seeds and scratching around until even the longest stems are nicely shredded.  This is the beginning of your compost pile.

As the hay in your chicken shed--the term of art is "bedding," or "litter"--becomes soiled, just sprinkle some more hay over it.  This will keep the surface clean and free of smell, and the hens don't care what's underneath.  Even better, as the bottom layers of hay start to decompose with the help of the chicken poop, they will help to keep your hens' feet warm in the cold weather.

But hay is not all you add to your bedding-cum-compost.  All your garden waste--your overgrown zucchini, your spent broccoli plants, your Halloween pumpkins--goes into the hen house.  So do your kitchen leftovers, including eggshells, which the hens eat to recycle their calcium.  You can throw in coffee grounds and tea leaves, too.  Although the hens will not eat them, they make great fertilizer.  Your birds will love bits of meat and fat, but bones will attract rodents, so put them into your (now greatly diminished) trash.

Then in the fall, when the garden is finished, you shovel the soiled bedding into your garden cart and dump it on the garden.  You will notice that the hay has been shredded, the poop has mostly vanished, and there is a good bit of fine dust:  this is the organic fertilizer that your hens have made for you out of the kindness of their hearts, the super-nutritious manna that will give your young plants a terrific start in life next spring.

Since chicken manure is very rich in nitrogen, it needs to age before it comes in contact with plants.  I let mine sit and ripen in the empty garden, absorbing rain and sleet and snow, from October to March.  If you are in a climate that allows year-round gardening, you will have to pile the soiled bedding somewhere and let it age for several months before using it.
When you've finished dumping the litter on the garden, go back and spread a clean layer of hay on the shed floor.  Give the hens a couple of apples, sit and talk with them a while.  They have fertilized, turned and shredded your compost for you.  Backyard alchemists, they have transmuted your kitchen waste into golden-yolked eggs.  They deserve a bit of thanks.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why Vermont Should Change Its Name With The Seasons

Driving to yoga this afternoon through the annual foliage follies, it struck me that at this time of year the state's name, which means "the green mountains" (les verts monts) becomes a misnomer.  "Vermont" is only descriptive of the state in summer. 

During the fall woodland pyrotechnics, there is precious little green around, so the state name should change to Rougemont, or Montorange, shifting to Beigemont during stick season.  After the first snow, Beigemont would become Montblanc.  In March,  the state should be known as Montboue.

And when spring finally comes, and lilacs burst into bloom, Vermont should be called Montlilas.  Which is rather pretty, I think.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How I Became An Internationally Famous Blogger, And How You Can Too

Several weeks ago, the number of daily hits on MyGreenVermont suddenly skyrocketed.  It's always good to know that one is not just a voice crying out in the desert, so I was pleased.  What is more, my readers seemed to be spread not only across the United States, but all over the planet.  While I slept in my bed at night, people in England, Sweden, France, Austria, Italy and Poland were reading my blog.  So were people in Turkey, Ghana, the Philippines, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

I couldn't figure out the reason for this explosion of my faithful but modest readership.  Then it occurred to me to check the search terms that my new fans were using.

About a year ago, when Bisou came into heat, I wrote some posts about the reaction of my big German Shepherd, Wolfie.  He followed her around day and night, whining.  He stood over her and washed her face and drooled over her until her hair stood up in points.  He lost weight.  It was intense but entirely platonic, Wolfie being neutered.  The posts were humorous, but hardly salacious.  They didn't even have drawings.  On the labels at the bottom of the posts I listed:  dogs, dog behavior, dog sex.

And that is what my international fans are googling:  dog sex.

I have several questions about this.  First, who are these people, and why are they staying up all night researching this subject?  Have we wandered so far from Nature that the sex life of dogs has become exotic and mysterious?  I would think that my readers in third-world countries would be especially familiar with dog sex, having only to look out their windows to witness the real thing.

Second, why do people keep looking for this topic in as unrewarding a site as MyGreenVermont?  You'd think that the dog-sex aficionados who find me would be so disappointed that the word would get out in the international weirdo community and interest would quickly die out, but not at all.  To these frustrated but persistent hordes, I can only say:  I'm sorry, lo siento, tant pis!

Third, why do so many of my new fans come from Muslim countries?  Don't they know that their religion considers dogs unclean?  And aren't they risking the ire of the Prophet by googling not just dogs, but dog sex?

I may never find the answer to these questions, for who knows the ways of the blogosphere?  But to anyone out there seeking fast fame through blogging: now you know what to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Nursing Bisou

Took Bisou to the vet at the crack of dawn today.  She was suffering mightily from a two-inch-wide impacted gland.  I will spare you the location of the thing, and how I came to miss such a big hurt on a little dog.  Suffice it to say that she showed little discomfort until the last day, that she is wiggly and has a lot of long red hair, and that I was not channeling my veterinarian grandfather while this was developing.

At the vet's I held her while she was shaved and the first measures were taken.  When the vet showed me what we were dealing with, I almost passed out.  But, turning bowels into heart (as we say in Spanish), I paid attention while the vet explained about the pain meds and oral antibiotics I would be administering, the many hot water compresses I would be applying (four or more daily, for ten minutes each), and the external antibiotic I would have to put inside the wound--deep inside, the vet said, looking me in the eye.

So far Bisou and I have survived the application of four compresses and one dose of in-the-wound antibiotic.  Every time I see the abscess I feel less queasy.  She, on the other hand, has become the very image of sorrow and mortification, not because she is in pain any longer, but because she is wearing an Elizabethan collar.  She refuses to walk, much less go up and down the stairs, while she's wearing the thing, so she gets carried around a lot.  I take it off to let her outside, and she scampers around as usual, but then starts licking the tragic spot and I have to put the collar back on.

By early afternoon, what with the trauma of the wound and the collar, plus the effect of the pain meds, Bisou was limp with exhaustion, and so was I.  I put her on the bed in my study, took off the evil collar, climbed in beside her, and we both had a restorative nap under a nice soft afghan.

Between now and bedtime, I'll do two more compresses and one more infusion of antibiotic.  And maybe by tomorrow I'll be more confident and she'll be more comfortable, perhaps even willing to take a few steps in her collar.  And with the help of good Saint Roch, patron of dogs, we will slowly make our way out of the woods.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Attack In The Night

Something bit a chunk off Lexi's ear last night.  My dowager German Shepherd, Lexi, is long of tooth, hard of ear and dim of eye, but she can still outrun me.

Around eight yesterday evening, the dogs began agitating to be let out.  I normally make them wait until nine, but this time I relented.  It wasn't until a while after I'd let them back inside that I noticed Lexi's ear, which was missing a half-inch-long, u-shaped piece right next to the tip.

I checked her over, but she seemed fine, and was busy licking the drops of blood that spattered the floor and walls every time she moved.  I cleaned the wound with a wet paper towel, set up one of the big dog crates and put her in it, to contain the bleeding.  I did my best to ignore the hurt looks she was giving me (she had house-trained herself as a puppy, and after her first week with us, thirteen years ago, I never crated her again) while I tried to reconstruct what had happened.

True, the dogs had seemed eager to go out earlier than usual, but they often do this, since they know that I will give them a treat when they come back.  Also, the weather had turned windy and brisk, which always makes them jumpy.  They usually run barking out of the house and across the grass and disappear into the woods, until they hear the warning beep of the invisible fence.  Had they barked longer or more furiously this time, I would have noticed.  Even allowing for the ear  being less sensitive than other parts of the anatomy, you'd think Lexi would have yelped when whatever it was bit her, and I would have heard it.  And so would Wolfie and Bisou.

And if they had, surely they would have gone over to investigate, and there would have been a confrontation with the critter.  If there was a critter.

Other than rabbits in winter, turtles in spring, and the black bear who made a historic visit several years ago, nothing much comes out of the woods and into our yard.  The deer, turkeys and foxes stick to the front field, where they know the dogs aren't likely to be.

We did once glimpse a fisher running parallel to the house, just inside the woods, and the fisher is my prime suspect.  A coyote or a fox would have taken a bigger chunk.  But even if Lexi had gone after the fisher, he could have outrun her.  Perhaps she accidentally bumped into him.  But you'd think she would have smelled him--or does a dog's sense of smell also fade as she ages?

A friend thinks that maybe it was a shrew--a tiny but fierce animal with (depending on the species) a poisonous bite capable of killing a mouse and cause pain to a larger animal.  Again, though, shrews are supposed to be quite musky, so you'd think that might have warned Lexi off.

At bedtime, not wanting Wolfie and Bisou to encounter the mystery attacker, I went outside with them, kept them close, and quickly brought them inside.  As for Lexi, I knew that if I let her out she would disappear into the woods and wouldn't hear me calling, so I didn't let her out.  I trusted that her excellent sense of house hygiene would hold through the night, and it did.

Things get dicey when a dog who is still relatively fleet of foot goes almost blind and mostly deaf.  Right now it's dark outside.  I let the dogs out a few minutes ago, and Wolfie and Bisou came back when I called them.  As for Lexi, she's still out there, staying away from shrews and fishers, I hope.  Wolfie is keeping vigil by the back door, looking out for her.

Last winter, to keep her safe, I tried attaching Lexi to a light chain that ran on a line suspended above the yard.  But she was miserable.  One of her few remaining pleasures, aside from eating, consists of ambling  around on her own outside, sniffing stuff and thinking old-dog thoughts.
A gerontologist told me recently that, in nursing homes, the policy has shifted from safety at all costs to one that tolerates a certain degree of risk in favor of allowing the very old to retain some feeling of self-determination.  That is how I hope to be treated some day, and it's how I'm treating my old dog right now.