Monday, February 28, 2011

The Art Of Chewing

We had our monthly winter salon here yesterday.  I woke up to an unexpected white-out, but  at 2 p.m. the sun came out and nine of us sat in front of the stove to hear an herbalist/nutrionist/healer talk about that hallowed rite of spring:  the fast.

I was left full of admiration for those who, our speaker among them, can go for a week or ten days with no food, only water.  But where fasting is concerned, my admiration comes easily--I'm impressed by a juice fast, a brown-rice fast, a green-veggies fast, or a mere day-long fast.

If I ever go on a fast, of whatever kind, I'm going to need all the help I can get.  I envision a retreat in a monastery, elegant and Shaker-like, where, clad in robes of unbleached organic cotton, my fellow fasters and I would take meditative walks, maybe do a bit of chanting, and be protected from the sight and smell of all things edible.

One thing our speaker said made a particular impression on me:  the importance of chewing food slowly and thoroughly.  I was familiar with the concept in the context of weight loss:  if you eat slowly, your stomach has a chance to send satiety signals to your brain, which enables you to stop eating sooner.  But our speaker went more deeply into the effects of chewing.  Digestion begins in the mouth, with salivary enzymes, so that when the food reaches the stomach it is more thoroughly and easily assimilated.  Plus there is something about the act of mastication that stimulates the production of endorphins, so that not only do you feel full, but you feel cheerful, too.

My mother was an enthusiastic proponent of thorough chewing.  "Chew it well!"  she would admonish as she filled my plate with paella.  She probably got that way as a result of watching me, from the age of four weeks, bolt down my food.

As a newborn, I cried non stop.  My  mother was having difficulties nursing me, and it wasn't until my veterinarian grandfather came to visit when I was a month old, picked me up and declared me seriously underweight that things took a turn for the better.  I was put on a diet of semi-solid pablum, which was fed to me with a spoon.  Or rather, two spoons, by two people.

I've been told that I was so ferociously hungry that, in the time it took to refill the spoon, I would fly into a rage, choke, and throw up.  My mother had to recruit one of her sisters as assistant feeder, so that the gruel could flow into my mouth without interruption.
I'm not sure whether my early relationship with food is responsible for my bad chewing habits, but I have never been a thorough chewer, and my stomach has had to deal with improperly processed contributions on a daily basis for decades.  But that is about to change.  It's not the promise of a slimmer, better-nourished me that has converted me to thorough chewing.  It's the promise of cheerfulness.  Forget slim, forget healthy--I'll do anything for joie de vivre.
All day long today I've been taking tiny bites of food and chewing each one about a million times.  In fact, as I write, I have a peanut in my mouth.  I have been chewing that same peanut for the last four paragraphs...and my mood is excellent.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Many Words For Snow

Wikipedia informs me that the notion that Eskimos have several dozen words for snow is a degrading myth that ignores the diversity of tribes and the structure of languages designated by the coarse label "Eskimo."

When I lived in Maryland, I had only a couple of words for snow--"light snow," and "stops-all-traffic snow." (There wasn't a lot of difference between the two.)  Now, after six years in Vermont, I can make up for whatever the Eskimos and their languages have left unsaid.

There is big-flake-plopping-down snow, and tiny-flake-making-swishing-noise snow.

There is all-gone-by-morning snow, and stays-on-forever snow (the kind we've got right now).  And drives-the-parents-crazy snow, when school is cancelled yet again.

Outlines-every-branch-and-twig snow is beautiful, even in will-Spring-ever-get-here Moon (late February).  On the other hand, rots-by-the-roadside-gray snow turns your winter-weary stomach.

As the days grow longer, we get melts-and-turns-to-ice snow, which forces me to shuffle down the driveway like a nursing-home resident.
And if the temperature is just right, we get snowballs-on-Bisou's-feathers snow, which form in thirty seconds and take ten minutes to melt with the hairdryer on Low.

Finally, there is spinach-planting snow, which comes just as the supermarkets and hardware stores put up their racks of seed packets.  Get your trusty planting stick, drive the eyelash-thick seeds into the white stuff, and I guarantee that you'll be eating fresh greens in April.  (Also known as sanity-saving snow.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pruning Apple Trees

Today I did one of my favorite garden jobs--favorite perhaps because it is the first of the season:  I pruned my apple trees.  There is still a foot and a half of snow on the ground, but in my little subtropical, south-facing patio, it felt balmy.  It seems early for fruit-tree pruning, but I had seen a man stringing sap lines in the "sugar bush" by the side of the road yesterday, so I figured it would be all right for me to work on the trees.

My European background comes to the fore when I deal with fruit trees:  I prune the heck out of them.  I keep the apple trees no taller than about seven feet, because I want to be able to reach every part of them without a ladder.  They seem to like the treatment, and reward me with huge (relative to their size) harvests.

The pruning consists mostly of getting rid of "suckers," those long, upright-growing branches bearing only leaf buds, and so called because they suck nutrients away from the fruit-bearing branches.  When my daughters were little they used to pick up the longest, straightest suckers to use as foils, and they would have sword fights.  I would gather the rest of the cuttings and throw them over the fence for the goats.  This being the first fresh food they'd seen in months, the goats would dive into the pile of suckers, and munch happily in the sun for hours.

Today, in the absence of both children and goats,  Wolfie and Bisou picked up a few suckers and carried them around for a while.  I left the rest of them on the ground for the rabbit.  We're expecting another foot of snow tomorrow, and I figured he might get hungry.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Farewell To Scallops

Scallops, those marshmallows of the sea, are one of my favorite foods--soft, pleasantly fibrous, slightly sweet with the barest hint of fishiness

I often order them broiled at the neighborhood $12-entree restaurant.  I also buy them frozen, in plastic bags, at the supermarket.  I like to shake a few of them into a marinara sauce, or into a bechamel which I then stir into a casserole with spinach or broccoli and pasta.  No fat, no salt, no bones.  Who can argue with a scallop?

I usually approach the supermarket's fish department with caution.  Just because it's fish doesn't mean it's good for you or for the planet.  For years I served my family big hunks of pink, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth salmon, bursting with protein and omega-3 oils, and affordable to boot.  Then I learned  that the pinkness was due to injected dye, and the affordability was due to fish-farming practices that fatten salmon on toxic swill and destroy natural coastlines.

I took farm-raised salmon (and tilapia, catfish, etc.) off the menu, and saved up for occasional spartan servings of $12 lb. wild-caught fish.  I also spurned wild-caught fish from other hemispheres, envisioning the hurt looks on the ruddy faces of our local purveyors of pastured pork if they saw me buying swordfish from Ecuador or flounder from New Zealand.

With my seafood options thus severely restricted, scallops seemed pretty harmless, lying white and faceless in their transparent bag.  Probably frozen at sea, too, and therefore fresh.  Wonderfully adaptable to so many dishes, and perfect (pour exactly what you need out of the bag) for the modest requirements of a household of two.

Imagine my horror this evening when, slashing open a brand-new bag of scallops in preparation for dinner, I happened to see in small print, on the label, "farm-raised product of China."

I had nothing else that I could put on the table on short notice, so into the tomato, green pepper and garlic sauce went the industrially-farmed Chinese scallops and their retinue of stowaway life forms, the whole served on a substratum of brown rice.  They were delicious, those scallops, sweet with the taste of all things that must come to an end.

As someone who grew up eating a different species of seafood--freshly caught from the still pristine Mediterranean--almost every day of the week, I find saying goodbye to scallops sad.  In my dark moments I imagine a future when, between dietary dictates and ecological concerns, cheese, then wheat, corn, coffee, eggs, rice and even olive oil will be banished from my diet, and I will be reduced to eating only my own home-grown chard, hold the salt and butter.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chicken Coop Upgrade

I read Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human recently.  You know Temple Grandin, the scientist responsible for making animal handling and slaughter facilities  more humane and less stressful for the cows and pigs that move through them.  She is also severely autistic, and an advocate for people with autism and their families.  And she is a major figure in my pantheon of contemporary saints.

In the book, she says that battery hens are the most abused animals on industrial farms:  crowded into tiny cages, fed unspeakably bad diets, and inhumanely slaughtered at barely two years of age.  And one of the worst stresses inflicted on these hens is that they are forced to lay their eggs in a brightly-lit room.  The hen, according to Grandin, when she is about to lay, has a deep-seated instinct to repair to a dark and hidden place, and when that instinct is frustrated, she suffers.

My own six hens lead comparatively idyllic lives, with plenty of indoor and outdoor space, deep hay to scratch in, and healthy, even delicious (to a chicken) food.  But until now they had been laying their eggs in a couple of hay-filled plastic milk crates that I casually stashed in a corner of their coop. There was nothing dark or hidden about these nests, and I was appalled that I had inflicted this unnecessary stress on my hens.

I pleaded their case to my in-house self-sufficiency enabler, and in a trice he built a lovely plywood roof that overhangs the nests, with a hinge to allow me to reach in and collect the eggs.

Now, while the outside world goes about its frantic business, a hen can hop up on the darkened nest, turn around several times, center herself, and do her thing as Nature intended.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Drawing The Ectomorph

This morning in our drawing session we had an angular young woman as model.  I liked the contrast between the long, spare lines of her body and her curly, curvy hair.  While we were drawing, the outside temperature went from 9F to 40F.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


A hundred years ago, orchids were rare in our latitudes.  Wealthy and obsessive connoisseurs hired explorers to rip them off the dripping jungle trees to which they clung.  In the 50s and 60s, teenage boys would sacrifice a significant amount of their paper route earnings to buy a single, hideously beribonned bloom for their prom date.  But all that changed a few years ago, when someone figured out how to clone orchids.  Now they are everywhere, in supermarkets and superstores, as common as that other winter-blooming staple, the African violet.

You can buy great big orchids, with two-inch blooms soaring atop two-foot stems,  or medium or tiny ones.  I am enamored of my tiny one, which sits on the windowsill above the kitchen sink and has just produced a 3/4" bloom on a skinny six-inch stem.  The flower is white as snow, and like snow its color varies according to the light, from barely-there lime to delicate mauve.

I thought that if one mini orchid looked good on my windowsill, two, or even three, would look sensational.  But the supermarket where I bought it had sold out, and wouldn't be getting any more.  I called three other supermarkets, a garden center, a superstore, a home improvement store--nobody had mini orchids.  Overnight, they were gone without a trace.
But if the store shelves were bare of minis, they were crammed full of maxis, and I consoled myself by buying two of those.  If you are in the market for orchids, this is the time to buy them cheaply.  They are nearing the end of their winter blooming season, and stores don't want to be left with endless pots of generic green leaves.

My two plants were showing the stress of a long season in a big store--who wouldn't?  The flowers were mashed against the plastic sleeve that was supposed to protect them, and the leaves were forced into an unnatural vertical angle.  I held the orchids in my arms (my husband was driving) during the forty-minute trip home to keep their precious surviving buds from being damaged.

In the house, I cut off the plastic sleeves and picked up the spent blooms and dead buds that had collected on top of the dirt, then misted the plants with water.  The flowers and leaves stretched out and seemed to expand.  I could almost hear the orchids sigh with relief.

I put one in the bathroom, where it considerably dresses up that spartan space, and the other on a high shelf in the kitchen, well out of reach of Wolfie's scimitar tail.  And there, thanks to technological advance, they sit, cheering up my drab winter interior just as they once adorned Queen Victoria's conservatories.  Who says we're not blessed to live in this era?

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Pox On Updates and Upgrades!

My computer and I have a marriage of convenience rather than passion  While I'm grateful for its services, I don't ask very  much of it, and in return I expect it not to ask too much of me.  Periodically, however, our privacy is invaded by intruders from the digital empyrean, who insist on upgrading or updating our relationship.

My new Canon printer/scanner and I, for example, have reached a shaky truce where images are concerned.  It mostly ignores the unsaturated colors in my drawings, preferring to reproduce only vivid hues like crimson and ultramarine and weird orange.  I, on my part, refrain from hurling it out the window.  Originally, I could push an "adjustments" button on the Canon menu designed to give me the illusion that I could bring the scanned image a tiny bit closer to the original.

Recently, however, some digital entity decided that instead of letting me access the "adjustments" button directly from the screen on which the scanned image appears, it would be good spiritual practice for me to have to search for an intermediate screen from which to improve the looks of my scanned drawings.  Did the digital entity ask my opinion on this?  Did he or she at least send me a warning to that effect?  Not at all.  Instead, for a couple of weeks I beat myself up for missing a button or an icon or something that must surely be in front of my eyes.

Or take Blogger, and its system for uploading images into posts.  In the beginning, there was a window that would pop up when you clicked on the image icon, and a browser button, and some choices about the size and placement of the image.  No sooner had I gotten used to that system, than a different kind of window started popping up, one that offered no choices as to size or placement.  Instead, these choices appeared only if you clicked on the image after it appeared in the post--but nobody told you this.  Being somewhat flexible and willing to learn (as if I had any choice) I adjusted to the new system.  And then, yesterday, I clicked on the usual image icon and lo, the old window popped up, with its usual choices of size and image right there.  I gave it a friendly but reserved greeting, as I do not expect it to stay around.

Whenever little windows pop up announcing that I have been favored with an update or an upgrade while I was sleeping, I grit my teeth.  I resent these intrusions..  It feels as if, in the night, someone has come in and rearranged  my kitchen drawers.  Suddenly, my hand-operated can opener is gone, replaced by an electric model which now resides not in the drawer but in the third cabinet on the right.  The trusty vegetable peeler is gone too, replaced with a carbon-bladed paring knife encased in a leather sheath.  And my favorite wooden spoon, veteran of a thousand stews, which used to live in a crock by the stove, has been exiled to the drawer among the serving utensils.

Who are the people making these changes, and who gave them the right to barge into my house, my study, my computer and change stuff?  Are they so self-involved that they don't realize that their idea of "better" doesn't necessarily coincide with mine?  Won't they let me rest even a little while in my minor but hard-won computer competence?

There is no answer, no mercy.  And in the silences between the click of my laptop's keys, I can hear the digital entities laughing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

DrawingThe Human Figure

After four weeks of snow-related cancellations, a small group of us finally made it to the lunchroom of a nearby deli that imports, among other things, olive oil from my mother's village in Catalonia.

We were there in the early morning to draw the human figure, the clothed figure as opposed to the more usual--in drawing circles--unclothed kind .  But you can't put a nude model in a public lunchroom.  Also, given the surprising but real prejudice against nudes on the part of (some) of the buying public (don't rich art lovers go to museums?), it seemed useful to learn to draw clothes--the fall and weight of fabric, the convolutions of folds.

On arrival we, the painters/drawers, moved aside tables, folded table cloths, arranged chairs.  Then the model came, a wiry young man, a farmer who had "only been up once" with his six-month-old baby the night before. He wore good clothes for drawing--an appropriately peasantish shirt, heavy pants, thick Van Goghish shoes.  He was amiable and at ease, and the morning light was ricocheting off the snow into the room.  We got to work.

Figure drawing sessions usually start with ten one-minute poses designed as warm ups.  This is my favorite part of the session.  There is no room for self-doubt or second thoughts.  You're like a camera taking snap-shots, reduced to hand and eye.  You dive onto the sheet and thrash about, trying to keep your head above water, and next thing you know, you're into the  next pose.

After this come the ten-minute poses, then the twenty- and thirty-minute ones.  Since the model is a live human, the longer poses are less extreme and, to me, less interesting.  But throughout the session, I love the peculiar, almost devotional silence that comes over us as we peer at the form before us and make marks on the paper, and are transported into a universe where the eye and the hand, bypassing the mouth and tongue, do their thing together.

When the time is up, I raise my head, blink, and look around.  I smile at the model, put away my charcoal stick, wipe the black off my fingers.   I stand up and stretch, put on my coat and drive home through the snow-covered valley, thinking how much life drawing resembles sitting zazen.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Snow Outdoors, Plants Indoors

I promised myself I wouldn't write about the weather today, but since it's reaching epic proportions, I'm sharing a photo of what it looked like this afternoon just outside the front door right after, A) the plow guy came through with a huge bucket loader and pushed the back the walls of snow so that, B) he could come back with the regular plow and clear the driveway.

The minute he left it started snowing again.  The wind picked up and it got markedly colder.  I made Lexi stay inside since there was ice under the snow and the footing was slippery.

Inside the house, all is calm, all is bright.  The zonal geranium is putting out blooms of a red such as I don't recall ever seeing in nature--but then I don't recall seeing anything much other than white in nature.

Despite the nursery's directions, I decided to treat the miniature orchid on the kitchen windowsill like a regular houseplant--namely give it plenty of light, let it get good and dry between waterings, and mist it daily during wood-stove season.  Today it rewarded me by finally opening one of its teensy greenish-white blooms.  My experiment with regular-sized orchids last winter ended tragically with the flowers being decapitated by Wolfie's tail, so I'm especially pleased by this little plant's survival.
I'm told that the nearest Walmart has big blooming pots of orchids for a laughable $12, and I'm sorely tempted to get a couple (maybe I could duct-tape Wolfie's tail to his hind leg?).  But the store is almost an hour away from here--which is a good thing--and the roads are iffy.  

Besides, the Amaryllis leaves are shooting up out of the bulb at the rate of a couple of inches/day, the flower buds will appear any minute, and orchids will probably feel superfluous then. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bisou In Winter

In a word, she loves it.  And for someone with a 300-year history of intensive lapdog breeding in her genes, she is remarkably sporting about it.

Some of her littermates have been donning coats and booties to go out in the elements this cruel winter, but I don't think Bisou stands still long enough to get cold.  She plows straight into four-foot snow drifts,  then emerges, head covered in snow, swims back to the relatively dry conditions of the driveway, then finds another snow drift.

Yesterday she had a play date with her brother, B.  B's owners have a securely-fenced yard, and prior to Bisou's arrival they had snow-blowed (sic) a network of paths for the dogs to run in.  Since we were having a heat wave--the temperature had risen above freezing for the first time in recent history--we left B and Bisou outside to growl and chase and roll each other and went inside for a cup of tea.

A while later one of us looked out Bisou!  Polite panic ensued, followed by understated relief.  She had climbed up on a big pile of snow, walked over the fence, and was retrieved from the driveway.

This morning, when I took the dogs for our driveway walk, Bisou was in her glory.  Overnight the short-lived thaw had covered the snow with a sheet of ice hard enough to withstand her nineteen pounds.  She scaled the ragged wall of snow formed by the snow plow and took off into the pristine field as fast as her legs would carry her.  She ran and circled and sniffed and ran some more until she was a mere red speck in the distant whiteness.

I saw Wolfie look her way, approach the snow wall, then back off.  When he couldn't stand it anymore he scrambled up the wall and leaped into the field, and crashed through the ice.  Bucking and twisting and thrashing he got himself back to the driveway, and tore a branch off a tree in frustration.  He didn't try to follow Bisou again, and was subdued and downcast for the rest of the walk.

Now it's snowing again.  Even the hardiest winter lovers around here are starting to whine a bit.  But not Bisou. Tomorrow, when she catches me looking in the direction of my boots, my fearless would-be sled-dog will be scrabbling and moaning at the door, dying to throw herself body and soul into winter, once again.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Meditator Wannabe

I understand that it takes a smoker an average of six serious tries before he or she can kick the smoking habit for good.  I've been keeping this in mind the last few mornings as I try yet again to develop the meditation habit.

How many times have I attempted this?  I can't remember--probably more than six.  I started meditating sometime in the 1990s, and I must have tried at least once every year since then.  Sometimes I manage to meditate almost daily for a couple of months;  sometimes for a couple of weeks.  This time, I'm hoping it will stick.

I've read lots of instructions on how to do it.  It's not hard:  sit comfortably, close your eyes, relax, and focus on your breath.  A mantra is optional.  Your mind will wander, and you will bring it back gently to your breath.

I follow all the above to the letter.  I sit on a yoga cushion on the floor in a half lotus, which feels comfortable to me.  I close my eyes, relax, and focus on my breath.  And my mind wanders.

I think about the dog--big or small, Wolfie or Bisou--that has snuggled right up against my legs and is now snoring softly.  I think about my mother.  I think about the next clay piece I'm going to make.  I think about spring.  Ideas for blog posts cascade through my brain.

I return gently to my breath, and next thing I know I'm planning next season's garden, and worrying that it will soon be time to retire (i.e., kill) my three old hens to make room for new ones that will start laying next winter....  But back to the breath.

While my, as the buddhist call it, monkey mind careens through the jungles of my brain, I notice a familiar tingling sensation in my right leg.  That's the one that always goes to sleep first.  Soon the left one will follow suit, and by the time my thirty minutes are over, it will take me another five to regain full mobility.  But never mind.  I should focus on the present, on the breath that has been going in and coming out of my body the whole time I've been ignoring it.
And so on and so forth.

Meditation is supposed to do wonderful things, both mental and physical, for you.  If you do it faithfully, thirty minutes every day, it will actually change the structure of your brain, for the better.  I can't imagine how something that feels so like nothing can be that effective.  It's kind of like drinking green tea, which is full of amazing antioxidants but tastes only like slightly bitter water to me.
I do both--meditate and drink green tea--once a day, on faith.  But often I can't help wondering whether both the tea and the sitting still aren't a huge joke that the inscrutable East is playing on us gullible westerners.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Meditation With Blizzard And Bisou

Afterwards I took the three dogs down the driveway for a walk in the storm.  It was absolutely quiet, except for a chickadee, who was singing his spring song.