Sunday, January 30, 2011

Speaking Of Foxes...

In yesterday's post I wrote about the fox that lives at the bottom of the front field and occasionally steals one of our chickens.  Here is a clay sculpture I made recently, inspired by our fox.  I have titled it, with heavy irony, "Guardian."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter Bunny

This is our resident bunny.  He (she?) lives a fraught existence, between the backyard where three dogs who would love to tear him to pieces occasionally roam, and the front field, the domain of the fox who has his (her?) den at the bottom of the hill.

In the daytime, when the birds are at the feeder in front of the house, he gleans their leftovers, impervious to the madly barking dogs behind the window.  And he knows that the fox won't dare come this close to the house in broad daylight.

At night, after the dogs have gone to bed, he roams the dog-saturated backyard, into which the fox never wanders, and eats...what?  Well, during our absence in December he chewed up the three glorious climbing roses that I had planted the summer before to cover the side of the chicken coop.  It will be a miracle if the roots survive under the snow.  I had never thought to fence off the bushes in the fall.

However, I did think to protect the trunks of the little apple trees by wrapping a spiral of thick plastic around them.  I had read that once a rabbit "rings" the trunk, the tree is done for.  But now that the snow is firm and packed a couple of feet deep, the rabbit has been stretching up on his hind feet and nibbling the bark off the lower branches.  I have dug deep wells in the snow around the tree, and am hoping that that will keep him away.

But I'm wondering what he'll think of next.  I feel about this bunny the way I feel about the fox who occasionally carries off one of my hens:  I hate what he does, but part of me roots for him, wishes him fortitude and perseverance, cleverness and luck enough to last out the winter.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why I No Longer Take My Dogs For Walks Around The Neighborhood

Laurie has been writing about loose, unruly dogs knocking down her elderly Boscoe  (click on the name to find the link) when she takes him for walks on leash near her house. 

On my part, and much to my regret, I have given up taking Wolfie, Lexi and Bisou for walks around our neighborhood.  Back when Lexi was our only dog, a mother-daughter team of German Shepherds wandered over, cornered her against our garage wall, and mauled her so that she had to have surgery.  Those dogs lived nearby, and were free to roam.  After the attack, I no longer felt safe to walk past their house, and risk another encounter.

One day, when Wolfie was about eighteen months old, I was walking him in the village when another neighbor's dog came screaming around the corner of his house, ran through his invisible fence, and charged   The dog was snarling and circling us as we stood in the middle of the road, around a bend where oncoming cars couldn't see us.  I reacted out of sheer instinct:  "You go back home right now, you bad dog!" I growled.  Miraculously, the menace turned tail, and ran back through his electric fence. Wolfie at that time was too young and inexperienced to react much.  These days, there is no question that he would have taken  the situation in hand.  So we have stopped taking walks in that direction.

The owners of the mother/daughter terrorist duo have moved away, but their place has been taken by people whose enormous Newfoundland hangs out in the yard unsupervised.  There is no way I'm going to walk my dogs past that.

There is always the Rail Trail, a lovely path that wends its way through idyllic woods and meadows--an ideal place to walk dogs, except that most people let their dogs off leash (how could anybody deny a dog the God-given right to run free?), and I don't relish the prospect of some exuberant dog running up to leashed Wolfie and getting in his face.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Wolfie weighs over 90 pounds and is far, far stronger than I am.  Although he has been diagnosed as extremely stable and good-tempered by a number of trainers, he has firm ideas of what constitutes polite behavior, and will not tolerate impertinence from another dog.  And I am not powerful enough to enforce human notions of diplomacy in these situations.

Where only people are concerned, I truly believe that I could take him to the ends of the earth.  With the prospect of other dogs' unpredictable behavior, however, I cannot be so sure.

At this time of year, taking one dowager queen, one big male in his prime, and a little red torpedo for walks down our snow-clogged roads is both insane and unsafe.  But when spring comes and the snow melts nothing will change.
  
I have long nurtured the illusion of having such well-socialized dogs that I can take them with me anywhere, any time.  That, unfortunately, has proved to be an illusion.  The Shepherds are just too big, and the unknowns too unknown, to risk it.

Bisou, of course, is another kettle of fish.  No matter what comes up, I can always scoop her up in my arms and save her from herself.  But I can't make a practice of taking her with me while leaving Wolfie and Lexi at home--dogs feel these things deeply.  So mostly I just don't take anybody anywhere.

Fortunately, we have a long driveway that we can walk up and down when the snow is deep, and a field and woods to run in when the footing is easier.  But oh, how I wish we lived in a perfect world and I could take my three with me everywhere, confident that no crazy, aggressive, out-of-control or just plain silly dogs would interfere with our bliss!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pumpkin Bread

When the temperature outside is below zero, it becomes morally imperative to make something that requires turning on the oven.  Yesterday afternoon was the ideal time for making pumpkin bread.
 
I made it with something called "cheese pumpkin."  The skin of a cheese pumpkin is a lovely pale pinkish beige, and the pulp is supposed to be especially good for pies.  I did not grow this pumpkin myself, but bartered it with a friend for a big bag of my Swiss chard.  I had done the initial slaughtering and processing of the pumpkin--if you've ever cut and cored a pumpkin, you know what I mean--back in the fall, and had baked and frozen the pulp.

My recipe was for pumpkin muffins, but I tend to double or quadruple recipes when I bake, and making four dozen muffins--greasing the cups, pouring the batter, then prying the finished muffins out of the cups without breaking off the tops, putting them carefully on cooling racks, and so on--seemed overly labor-intensive.  I decided to make pumpkin bread instead, with the same recipe but a longer baking time and lower temperature.

Unlike what I suspect is the case with most people, I cook less in winter than in summer.  In summer I spend endless hours cutting and blanching and freezing stuff.  In winter I go to the basement freezer, pull out a bag of beans or broccoli or whatever, add a whisper of  animal protein and some rice or pasta, and that's dinner.

Cooking is not like riding a bicycle--you do tend to get rusty.  Thus I was disconcerted when our snow-plow guy called as I was adding baking powder to the dry ingredients and when I got off the phone I couldn't remember whether I'd put in one or two teaspoons.  And just before I added the liquid ingredients to the dry, I thought the latter looked rather skimpy.  Sure enough, I'd forgotten to put in the sugar.

Despite these narrowly-averted disasters, the four loaves came out lovely, firm and moist and much easier to deal with than 48 muffins would have been.  We had a slice of pumpkin bread with dinner, along with soup made with barley from the store, broccoli from last year's garden, and chicken stock from one of our former laying hens (R.I.P.).

And we survived another day of winter.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

In Winter's Grip

It's cold, cold, cold outside, and will stay that way for several days:  highs in the single digits, lows wherever.

Served the hens a hot breakfast, then went back at noon to give them some sunflower seed treats, which they love, and found them perched on their roosts.  They never roost during the day, but I guess the floor of the shed is too cold for them, despite the foot-thick mattress of hay.

Lexi has been going out with me and the other dogs for walks up and down the driveway these days (the snow on the field and woods is too deep for walking).  Wolfie gets whipped into a frenzy by the chill, which means that he tries to entice Lexi to play by bumping into her--despite my shrieks of "GENTLE!!!"--which makes her fall.  Luckily, there is soft snow everywhere for her to fall on, but I still worry that she will get hurt.  On the other hand, I don't think that leaving her behind would be good for her spirit, so I usually opt for the physically risky alternative.

Today, however, there was no debate:  at 3F Lexi, in her wisdom, chose to stay inside.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why I Love Our P.O.

The town snow plow sheared off the front of our mailbox the other day.  We haven't been able to replace the mailbox because the post on which it rests is buried in a mountain of snow, so we have been getting our mail at the village post office.

The other day the postmistress saw us park in front of the post office and she ran outside.  "Nothing very exciting for you today, I'm afraid," she said, handing the mail to my husband.

One day a couple of years ago, we were waiting for some overdue meds to arrive in the mail.  The postman delivered before 10 a.m., and the meds hadn't come.  In the afternoon, we called the postmistress to ask if they had arrived so we could pick them up, but they hadn't.  At 4:30 p.m., post office closing time, our phone rang.  It was the post mistress. The package with our prescription had just come in, and her assistant would be glad to bring it to our house on his way home.

To someone who can still remember the dread of dealing with the P.O. in our nation's capital--where the employees would just as soon spit in your eye as sell you a stamp--our local post office is a kind of miracle

Even miracles have their dark side, however, and the dark side of our little post office is its hours, which are as follows:  Mon-Fri 8:00am-12:00pm,  1:30pm-4:30pm.  One wonders why a post office would close at lunch time, the very hour when working people have the opportunity to run errands.  And if you have post office business to transact on a Saturday, you'd better get up early and make sure your driveway is plowed:  the P.O. closes at 10:30.

In every aspect but the physical (the post office building is anything but picturesque) ours is a kind of postcard post office, a relic of the Norman Rockwell version of Vermont that you can still catch glimpses of  here and there, along with the occasional moose and the elusive catamount.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spring Catalogs

I belong to a list-serve called the Vermont Bird Fanciers Club.  The birds being fancied are not parakeets or macaws, but farmyard fowl:  chickens, ducks, geese, guineas, and peacocks.

It's cold and snowy here, and going to get colder and snowier, and the members of the list are sitting by the fire and going through their spring catalogs--not seed catalogs, but poultry catalogs--and they are sharing their plans and dreams on-line.

One person is going to abandon regular-sized birds and go exclusively for bantams--the miniatures of the chicken world.  Another wants half a dozen of something called "Cuckoo Marans," a chicken that lays eggs with chocolate-brown shells.  Araucana hybrids--the ones that lay eggs with shells colored pale blue, light green and faint rose, and that inspired Martha Stewart's line of house paints (yes, Martha Stewart has chickens)--are old hat.  Cuckoo Marans are considered much more recherche these days.

Buff Orpingtons and New Hampshire Reds--the kinds I have--are heritage breeds, but as common as pigeons around here (come to think of it, I've never seen a pigeon in Vermont).  The real connoisseurs are making up orders for Speckled Sussex, Gold-Laced Wyandottes, Buff Brahmas, various breeds of ducks, and one lucky soul is going to get a pair of Sebastopol geese.

Geese!  Now that is something that makes my mouth water.  I love geese.  Nothing says "country" like the honk and waddle of a wedded pair of Embdens or Toulouses.  But the way they hold their heads like periscopes at the end of those long necks makes them look like Cyd Charisse.  In addition, as Konrad Lorenz demonstrated, the domestic life of geese is something humans would do well to emulate.

Unfortunately I cannot get geese.  The chicken pen is too small for even a single pair;  plus,geese need a pond.  We did install a small fish pond in our patio last summer, but geese are big birds, and their poop...suffice it to say that, with three dogs, I have more than enough issues along those lines.

So no geese, but maybe I could get some exotic hens, or a mere couple of teensy bantams?  But no, where chickens are concerned, small is beautiful (no feather loss from pecking);  small is healthy (no stress, therefore better disease resistance);  and small is happy (no battles over food or roost space).
  
I'll have to content myself with spoiling my six hens with little attentions such as hot breakfast (a gruel of laying mash soaked in warm powdered milk) on sub-zero mornings, and gifts of woodstove ashes so they can have dust baths even while the ground is frozen--hens like a dust bath better than anything.  Fortunately for me, there is practically no end to the ways one can minister to a hen.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Recorder Redux

A few years ago I began to learn to play the recorder.  Then last year, bedeviled by a damaged neck, a hard-to-milk goat, and Bisou's infancy, I returned the music scores I'd borrowed from T, my recorder mentor, and put the sweet pipes away.
 
These days, however, the nights are long, the goats and the neck pain are gone, and Bisou has settled down, and I have pulled my plastic Yamaha alto recorder out of the closet.  In the evening, before dinner, I set up the stand by the wood stove, open my Sweet Pipes Recorder Book, A Method for Adults and Older Beginners, and practice.

Wolfie and Lexi keep their distance, and Bisou scuttles off to the TV room to watch the news with my spouse.  I try to remember my fingerings, try to breathe at the right places, try, above all, to keep my beginner's spit from clogging up the pipes (I'm told that this problem decreases with time).

Spit is one thing I never had to worry about during my violin-playing days.  But then, the thing I love about the recorder is how un-violin-like it is.  Compared to that sadistic four-stringed sergeant, the recorder is a kindly Montessori teacher.  It rewards your slightest attention with a reasonable sound.  After just a few hours of practice you can play little tunes.  There is no vibrato, no position changes, no bow to confound the player.

At one point during my first attempt to learn the recorder, I became frustrated with its limitations--a less-than-two-octave range, no dynamic range, no bow.  I took my father's violin to a luthier to be reconditioned, bought a couple of method books whose names I remembered from forty years ago, and started practicing
.
It was dreadful.  Not only were my tone and technique utterly gone, but holding my arms aloft was hard on my CFS-ridden body.  I was aware of so much about my playing that needed fixing right away that I would practice for ninety minutes straight--my jaws, arms and upper back rigid with anxiety--and then collapse.  After a few weeks of that I put the violin away and fled back to the recorder.

Now once again, after more than a year's hiatus, it has welcomed me back with open arms.  But perhaps what makes playing the recorder so different from playing the violin has more to do with what's going on inside my head than with the instrument itself.

To the recorder I bring what buddhists call "beginner's mind."  I am free from expectations, goals and priorities.  I barely know what to aim for in tone, and have only the sketchiest notions of breath control and hand position.  Instead, I'm simply focused on getting through the "Bransle" by Michael Praetorius as best I can.

And that's another thing I like about the recorder.  The method books are full of little gems from the (to me) musically hazy times before Bach, by composers I'd never heard of:  Tielman Susato, Claude Gervaise, even Henry VIII.  One of Henry's pieces is entitled "Alas, Madame," to which I mentally add "I'm going to cut your head off."

Right now I'm a couple of lessons into Book II of my "adults and older beginners" method.  Maybe if I practice faithfully, and get enough fingerings into my brain, and do something about all that embarrassing spit, I'll get to play duets with my mentor, T, before spring comes.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Hope...Or Not

Thinking about hope lately, I put together a short list of some of the contradictory things that have been written about it:

"Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul" (Emily Dickinson)

"...Hope, like a bat,/strikes the walls with timid wing,/bangs its head on rotted ceilings..." (Baudelaire)

"The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man..."  (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

"Abandon all hope, you who enter here."  (Dante--inscription on the gates of Hell)

"Abandon Hope and embrace Joy."  (Spinoza, with thanks to Elizabeth)

"We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment." (Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun and teacher)

...and so on.  What do you say?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lexi Wins

O.k., I give up, give in, surrender, acquiesce, capitulate, raise the white flag, and throw in the towel.  The coprophagia battle is over, and Lexi wins.

As you know, in an attempt to keep Lexi from eating my other dogs' poop, I have been tying her to a chain suspended from a line that goes from the house across the yard to the big ash tree at the edge of the woods.  This has worked perfectly:  for the last several weeks her diet has been pristine, her breath immaculate.

But her quality of life has dropped significantly.  One of her few remaining pleasures used to be to patrol the fenced-in acre behind the house, sniffing and tracking, barking at the coyotes, bears, fisher cats and chipmunks lurking in the woods, and, yes, eating poop.  In the really cold weather her sled-dog genes would come alive and she would sit Buddha-like for long periods on the snow, smelling the breeze.

Under the new hygienic regime, she goes out on the chain and, because she often gets tangled up around the tree trunk, I don't let her stay out more than a few minutes.  She doesn't get to go on patrol, or lie daydreaming on the snow.  She's tied up.

I have weighed Lexi's pleasure in her old routine versus my displeasure at her breath and at the idea of her nasty habit (which several vets have assured me is harmless), and I have to acknowledge that her needs outweigh mine.

She will be thirteen years old in July.  Her hips and elbows hurt.  She is getting hard of hearing.  She is welcome to her dog joys, every last one of them, for as long as she is with us.  Me, I'll do my best to keep the yard clean, and when she nonetheless does the unthinkable, I will avert my face, and think of England.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

For Want Of A Hyphen...

While the snow piled up outside today, I thought it would be a good time to replace the ties on my (home-made) duvet cover with the snaps I bought in Rutland last week.

Rutland is the second-largest city in Vermont, and the ugliest.  It even has a  strip on which are stores like Bed, Bath etc., Joanne's Fabrics, a mall with K-mart and Sears.  When we need stuff beyond raw cow's milk or layer pellets, we sigh and go to Rutland.

That is where I bought a little snap-inserting gizmo, which came with enough snaps, I thought, for my purposes.

As the blizzard raged outside, I wrestled the king-size duvet (we have a queen-size bed, but I believe in over-duvetting) out of its cover, and set about unstitching the nine pairs of ties and replacing them with snaps.  The snap-inserting gizmo came with a fairly complex set of directions involving pencil erasers and hammers, but after some false starts I figured out what to do.

No sooner had I inserted the first set of snaps, however, than I realized I didn't have enough--I needed nine sets, and only had four.  How was this possible?  I remembered clearly checking the package label and ensuring that the gizmo came with  more than enough snaps for my purposes.

I pulled the label out of the trash, and here is what it said:  4 size 16 snaps.

Obviously, in the store my eyes had focused on "16 snaps," and that is what I assumed was in the package.  Had the benighted souls who write such things possessed the rudiments of grammar (I know I'm sounding priggish, but too bad), the label would have read 4 size-16 snaps, and I would have bought an additional five size-16 snaps.

As it is, we are going to have to make an extra 45-minute trip to Rutland, past the lake with the ice-fishing shacks, past the snow-covered cow-farms and the country stores selling local goat cheese and expensive wines, to the awful strip to buy five snaps.

But all is not lost.  We can have lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Horns Of Winter

It's cold and sunny here today, but the weather forecast for tomorrow says that a storm coming from the south is going to combine with something else, resulting in a "nor'easter" that may drop as much as sixteen inches of snow on southern Vermont.

Or not.  The anticipated blizzard may dwindle to a couple of flurries, leaving school children disappointed (it takes a major, major storm around here for schools to even delay opening), commuters relieved, and some of us embarrassed.

Several times each winter the same situation arises:  a snow storm is forecast for a day when I have plans to be away from home.  Do I cancel my plans or do I ignore the weather and go about my business as if I were in, say, Atlanta?  Although I am a lot braver about driving on snowy roads than I was when we first moved here, my daring does not approach that of my spouse, who will blithely drive into the teeth of a blizzard.   
The easiest thing would be to wait for the event to be cancelled, thus relieving me of all responsibility.  But in Vermont cancellations tend to come, if at all, at the last minute, by which time one may be risking life and limb on the road.

Tomorrow morning, right when the blizzard is expected to hit, I'm supposed to drive half an hour to the first of a series of figure drawing sessions.  This being a small community, it's important to show up for stuff, to encourage the organizers so they'll keep things going.  On the other hand, if one gets oneself killed on the road, the community shrinks even more.

So--should I go to figure drawing tomorrow, or should I stay home?  Either way, the potential for embarrassment is considerable.  If I stay in, and we just get a couple of flakes, I will look foolish not only to others but to myself.  But I'll also look foolish if I set out in the car and end up in a ditch and have to be rescued by strangers.  This is what I mean by the horns of winter.

While I wait for developments, I check the online forecast frequently.  I also use my personal forecasting method:  the number of birds at the feeder.  In my experience, if the weather is clear and calm but the feeder is mobbed, a storm is on the way.

I just looked and saw:  a male cardinal, half a dozen chickadees, a flock of juncos, and a tiny nuthatch--a respectable showing, but not what I would call a mob.  My guess is we won't get much snow.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In Which I Rant About My Dogs

I've often wondered how parents of three children manage.  After all, most adults only have two arms;  most families have only two adults, maximum; and there are only two windows in the back seat of most cars.  Foolishly, I never did wonder how people with three dogs survived.

Here's the story at our house, in this winter of 2011.  Twelve-year-old Lexi, neat as a pin otherwise, has acquired the nasty habit of poop-eating.  (Be forewarned:  the following material may not be suitable for the delicately nurtured.) Not her own poop, but the other dogs,' especially Bisou's.  She is like a heat-seeking missile, zeroing in on excreta with speed belying her age, while pretending deafness as I try to call her off her prey.  I pooper scoop the yard every morning, but cannot be out there to whisk away every scat from every dog during the day
.
I have consulted several vets about this.  To a woman, they have shaken their heads and said it's a nasty habit, popular among dogs, and virtually impossible to break.  It does not, they have assured me, hurt the dog in any way.

Unable to muster a Zen attitude towards this problem, I persuaded my husband to install a line across our yard, and a chain running along it to which I could attach Lexi when she needs to go out.  And so I do.  Every time Lexi needs to be let out, the two other dogs--yapping and swirling and beside themselves with eagerness to go outside--have to wait until I have attached Lexi  to the chain.  This doesn't sound like much, but time after time, day after day, it gets old.

Wolfie, during the recent snow and ice events, has cut both his hind pasterns by crashing through the ice crust or being scratched by sticks and stones lurking under the snow.  The wounds don't seem to bother him much, but they are swollen.  I put warm salt-water compresses every day on them, hoping to forestall infection.
This means that I cannot take the dogs out into the woods or field for exercise, since every time I do this Wolfie's wounds open and bleed.  The only way to exercise him is to walk him on leash up and down our icy driveway.  And because Bisou, if left  behind, would have a nervous breakdown, she has to come along too, on leash.

For a long time, I couldn't figure out why Bisou, at over a year old, would still occasionally poop in the house.  I'd never had this problem with a dog before.  I thought she might have neurological issues.
  
We have always kept a well-stocked bird feeder in the back yard, and there is lots of seed spilled by the birds not only around the feeder, but under the bushes and trees where they congregate to enjoy their meals.  The dogs love the bird leftovers, especially  when sprinkled with avian poop.  It finally occurred to me that the vast quantities of bird seed that Bisou would consume in the briefest excursion outside might be affecting her digestive tract.  All those sunflower seeds and shells are a lot of fiber for a little dog.

A few days ago, we moved the bird feeder to the front yard, to which the dogs don't have access.  However, because there are still masses of leftover seeds and shells  in the backyard, I have been taking Bisou out on a leash--into single digit temps in the morning, in my pajamas;  into blowing blizzards whenever she gives me a meaningful look during the day;  into the frozen night, last thing before bed.  And give me meaningful looks she does, all day long because, hey, who wouldn't want to be taken out for a romp in the snow?  However, the leash routine works.  There has not been a poop in the house since we started this regimen.

So things are actually perfect.  I have total control over Lexi's poop-eating, Wolfie's wounds, and Bisou's house training...as long as I spend most of my day and part of my night obsessing about, keeping track of,  and interacting with my three dogs.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Artsy Afternoon

Went to an opening at the local arts center this afternoon.  It was a big show--two whole floors of a largish building--because every member of the arts center was guaranteed to have at least one piece accepted.  Alas, almost everyone at the reception was an artist, and I saw no more than three red dots (indicating sales) while I wandered around.  This was the first time I showed one of my new clay pieces, and the setting hen, which had seemed so robust and substantial while I was working on her, looked pale and wan on her shelf in the show.

Afterwards we met several artist friends at a Chinese restaurant.  While I ate my eggplant in garlic sauce--it was actually eggplant in syrupy glop--there was a discussion about whether the work of certain accomplished but conservative local artists had "soul."

Things got intense, and I kept fighting the urge to shout, "Hold it for a minute!  Would you please define your terms?"  But I held my peace--every "definition" would have sparked another discussion--and concentrated on the sticky eggplant.

The old questions about art that used to set me on fire--what gives it soul, what makes it honest, what makes it good or bad--now leave me tepid.  Art, I have decided, should be looked at in silence--reverent or irreverent depending on the looker.  And it should be enjoyed, if it is to be enjoyed at all, in solitude.  Talk just gets in the way.

Back home I was glad, when I went to shut the chickens in for the night, to see that my real hens are as robust and substantial as I could wish.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Who Could Ask For Anything More?

Every once in a while I get a day like today.  A day in which CFS only hovers around the edge of my consciousness.  A day in which I was able to:

Write reasonably thoughtful answers to a number of e-mails.
Put in several hours of reasonably satisfying clay sculpting.
Walk the dogs in the cold sunshine.
Go to yoga class.
Have a long telephone conversation with my sister about our mother.
Sit by the fire and read the New Yorker (eat bananas while you can--the one export variety in existence is now endangered).
Write this little post.

I realize that tomorrow may be a completely different story, so I'm not attaching to my present state.  I'm just relishing it, and putting off going to bed.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Little Girls, Long Hair

Combing the tangles out of Bisou's coat the other day--a process she does not enjoy but for putting up with which she gets small bits of mozzarella--I thought about some hair issues that arose over Christmas concerning my granddaughter, V.

V is in second grade, and has long hair.  Not long enough to sit on, but long enough to cause problems with knots.  The trouble is that V wants long hair, but doesn't want to deal with the ensuing tangles--especially the ones at the base of the skull, which are both the biggest and the hardest to reach.

Over the holiday week, everyone in the house--parents, grandparents and aunties--volunteered to very gently brush out V's hair.  But she turned us down.  We then suggested that she get it cut--not, God forbid, like a boy's or anything--but short enough so that it wouldn't hurt so much.  But she wouldn't hear of that.

One of the persons offering to help with the detangling was V's Auntie A, who, back when she was in second grade, had even longer hair than V, and tons of it.  Like V, A refused to have her hair cut, and turned down my offers to brush it for her.  The summer she was eight years old, A took swimming lessons, and you can imagine the effect of frequent baths in chlorine on already-tangled, sweat-coated hair.

One day, A finally agreed to let me help untangle the mess.  I found the comb with the widest teeth, and went to work as gently as I could, gripping a hank of hair with one hand, holding it away from the scalp to minimize the tugging, while slowly combing out the snags with the other.  But tugging was inevitable, and A put up with it without protest, although under the tent of hair I saw her shoulders shaking--she was crying silently.  I don't know which made me feel worse, the fact that I was hurting her, or the knowledge that she was taking responsibility for the pain, and being brave.
 
But back to V.  Inevitably, her mother had to step in and detangle.  There were tears.  I left the room, unable to watch, and wondered, what is it with little girls and long hair?  Why, in this enlightened age, do they feel that it is worth the pain?  Do they believe that long hair is beautiful, and beauty is worth suffering for?  What do they think would happen to them if they were less beautiful, but more comfortable?

Is this a cultural phenomenon or a predisposition towards masochism embedded in that pair of X chromosomes?

Unlike V, and A before her, poor Bisou isn't free to cut her hair, which is why she gets bits of cheese while I work on her mats.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My New Life (I Wish!)

I don't make New Year's resolutions, other than to write heartfelt notes to the people who send me, in time for Christmas, personally signed (for which I'm grateful) reports of their yearly achievements (no one is busier, it seems, than the newly retired).
 
However, every January I imagine new ways to radically change my life.

One snowy January in Maryland--back when it still used to snow there--I decided that academic writing was o.k. for salary and promotion purposes, but what I really wanted to do was to write for real people, and thus embarked on an alarming and thrilling venture into magazine and newspaper freelancing.  I wrote giddily and earnestly about stuff that was unrelated to my professional life but close to my heart:  raising children and vegetables, milking goats, training dogs, making do.

Another January, living and working in DC, and newly diagnosed with CFS, I was struck with the idea that the road to healing lay in returning to my earthy roots--goats, chickens, and swiss chard.That impulse eventually brought me to Vermont where, possibly as a result of the wisdom that supposedly comes with age, my post-solstice inspirations have taken a milder turn.

This year, I resolved to rearrange the room where I make stuff.  I never know whether to call it my study--for that is where I write--or my studio--since that is where I draw and sculpt.  And that very duality makes the space both interesting, and hard to arrange.

It is a smallish second-floor room, with tall windows, two facing north, one facing west.  In it there is a single bed, covered in red dog hair, where, reclining odalisque-like on many pillows, I write on my laptop and nap with Bisou.  There is a six-foot-long cafeteria-style table where I do my drawing and clay sculpting.  There is a bookcase, a small chest with a CD player, and a desk, consisting of a heavy board resting on twin two-drawer file cabinets.  I have never liked working at a desk, and I reserve this one for things like filling out insurance forms and other tedious tasks.

My rearrangement today consisted only of moving the sculpture table to where the desk had been, the bed to where the sculpture table had stood, and the desk...wherever.  But the physical change matters far less than the change I feel inwardly, the rush of hope that the light coming in from a different direction as I sculpt, the different view of the front field as I write, will make of me not necessarily a better, but a different sculptor and writer.

All this is not very Zen, I know.  I should be content with what is, and make space in my heart for it, and gaze compassionately on myself and my misguided urges.  But for just a little while, the naive Western illusion that change is really possible, that a new life--a new me--is just a few adjustments away, keeps me going, keeps me hoping.

Monday, January 3, 2011

In Which The Gardener Gets A Reprieve

Not once since I embarked on my vegetable-growing career decades ago--not in Alabama, North Carolina, or Maryland--have I worked in the garden in January.  But yesterday, in Vermont, I did.

Every year, in March, I go out and plant spinach in the snow, which guarantees me an early crop of greens that snatch us back from the brink of beriberi.  As I pick the delicious but none-too-abundant leaves, I promise myself that this time I will not neglect to put compost on the spinach beds at the end of gardening season.  And every fall, sick of garden tasks, curled up by the stove, reading a book, I tell myself that it's o.k. to have early spinach that is less than lush, as long as I have some spinach.  By the end of November the ground freezes solid, the gate  into the chicken yard where I store the compost freezes shut, and the whole question of fertilizing garden beds becomes moot.

Yesterday, however, out of nowhere, the sun came out;  the temperature rose into the 40s;  and the knee-deep snow melted down to a mushy couple of inches.  In some places I could actually see the compost that, having filled the two bins to overflowing, I had dumped on a corner of the chicken yard.  I tried the gate and, sure enough, I was able to work it open.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I seized it.

I got a shovel and a big tub (the gate wouldn't open wide enough for the wheelbarrow), filled it with compost, carried it to the garden and dumped it into the first spinach-destined bed, then filled it again and dumped it into the second bed.  I gave a few desultory digs with the shovel to see if I could work the stuff into the soil, but couldn't make a dent--the soil was still frozen hard.  Come spinach-planting time in March, the little seeds will have to find their own way through layers of snow and compost to a bit of dirt to burrow into.

I spread the compost as best I could, then put away the shovel and the tub, and bid them adieu until spring.  As I did so, a cloud obscured the sun, a cold wind picked up, and the chickadees, who had been chirping while I worked, fell silent.

This morning the gate to the chicken yard is frozen shut, the compost is covered in ice crystals, and we're in the depths of winter once again.