Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rites Of Spring

Two chicken-sized birds appeared on a tree behind the house this morning and sent the dogs into a frenzy of barking. They were clinging upright to the trunk of a nondescript tree (all trees are nondescript these days, without their leaves), going round and round by making little sideways hops, but always keeping the trunk between them.

They had long beaks and black-and-white plumage, and bright red caps shaped like those silly pointed bikers' helmets. They kept on opposite sides of the trunk, so it was hard to compare them, but one did perhaps have a tad more white on the wing than the other. So, according to the bird book, that one--the one with a bit more white--was a female.

In which case, the coyly peeking and chasing around the tree trunk was a prelude to mating. Or, if they were two males, they were establishing territory, as a prelude to ditto. It's also possible that they were two females, but if so, the books are silent on the reasons for their behavior.

In any case, in between shushing the crazed dogs and adjusting my dusty binoculars, I did establish that the two birds were Pileated Woodpeckers, the largest woodpecker species in North America if you don't count the mythical Ivory Billed W.

I looked up that weird word, "pileated." It comes from "pileus," a felt cap worn by Roman soldiers. But wait. Didn't Roman soldiers wear plumed helmets, and those little leather skirts? Perhaps that was their summer outfit, and they reserved the felt caps for the colder seasons. If so, what was the rest of their plumage like?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Snowstorm Is Coming...

...but I'm not upset, although most people around here are. We're supposed to be well into the lamb part of March by now, and instead, we're stuck in the lion's maw. Fleetingly, the temperature climbs up to 40F, maybe 43F at high noon, then dips into the teens at night. The fish pond is still a block of ice, and the heated waterer for the hens is going day and night. Still, as far as I'm concerned, it's spring. The hens know it, too: I'm getting four eggs a day, instead of two.

Forget the temperature; look at the light. It's six p.m. right now, and bright blessed daylight outside. The mornings are less traumatic, too. In winter I wake up like Quasimodo, hunched and blinking and prey to existential despair. These days, the light from our east-facing window hits my lidded retinas well before seven, and I wake and doze and mumble to Wolfie to lie back down, and when the alarm finally rings I have grass and peepers, not Jean-Paul Sartre, on my mind.

But now, to (almost) everyone's despair, there's a blizzard forecast for Friday. Several inches of snow. Impassable roads for a while. Same old, same old. Except that we're close enough to gardening season that I can easily look on this as a last respite before chores to come. A time to fold laundry, finish a clay piece, do some writing, practice the G sharp on the recorder, make blueberry bread with the last of last summer's blueberries. Also pay a medical bill, check out some friend-recommended websites, clean out my in-box, finish that crocheted poncho.

Unfortunately, temperatures in the 40s are forecast for Saturday, by which time I won't be even halfway through my list. Winter of 2011, hear my lonesome plea: won't you stay a little longer?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Death Of A Country Store

When we were planning our move from Maryland to Vermont, we asked the man whose house we were buying if there were any motels nearby where we could spend the night before attending settlement the next morning.  "No, but I'll have moved out by then," he said,  "and you can stay in the house if you like."

We were amazed.  This was our ninth house purchase, and we had never been treated with such courtesy and trust.  There was one snag, however:  the house key.  "We won't be getting in until late," we said.  "How will we get the key?"  He laughed, "You won't need a key.  We've never locked our house."

And that's the way things were in our micro village, in the halcyon days a mere six years ago.  People didn't lock their houses or their cars.  Some exceptionally trusting souls even left car keys in the ignition.  But in the last several months, things have happened that are making life here somewhat less halcyon.  It began late last summer, when the village store was robbed of a couple thousand dollars of cigarettes.  It seems that nearby New York state had increased the cigarette tax, and a lot of country stores in Vermont suffered the same fate.  Still, it was scary--a night-time robbery right in our midst--and everyone felt terrible for the two nice guys who ran the store.  Neighbors took up a collection, and peace descended once again.

But didn't stay.  In the winter, two summer residences--houses that had stood empty and inviolate during the cold months year after year---were burglarized.  Then Friday night the village store--the same one that suffered the summer robbery--burned to the ground.  The owners escaped physical harm, and so did one of their three dogs.  But the other two perished, as did the homeless man who broke into a building next to the store and, accidentally or intentionally, set the fire.

The effect of something like this on such a tiny community is enormous.  Needless to say, this was the only store in the village, a center of social life as well as a convenient place to get a sandwich.  When the present owners bought the failing, decrepit business a few years ago, all eyes were on them.  Would they make a go of it?  Would you be able to get good coffee there?  Would they be "nice folks"?  The answer to all these questions was "yes."

Not surprisingly, then, neighbors began organizing relief efforts on behalf of the store owners before the ashes had cooled.  With remarkable speed and efficiency, arrangements have been made so people can donate on Facebook, and in the coming weeks there will be a pig roast at the firehouse, a silent auction, a bingo benefit at the library....and before long, we hope, the store will be rebuilt, and the men who run it will get over their appalling trauma and find goodness in life again.

Because we're human, however, as we donate money and buy raffle tickets and eat roast pork we're hoping in our heart of hearts that if we all hang together and help each other we will somehow keep future evils at bay.  This is magical thinking, of course, an attempt to maintain control over uncontrollable forces.

But I think it just might work.

P.S.  If any of you would like to make a donation, here is the link to a page where you can donate by credit card.  Scroll down below the paragraph under the photo and you'll see the "donate" button.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Walk In The Woods

Today, for the first time since last autumn, the dogs and I went for a walk in the woods behind the house.  The land slopes down to a narrow swamp, and that slope, which faces south, was completely free of snow.  There were quite a few trees down, victims of the brutal winter.  But the six huge sentinel pines that stand near the ridge were still upright.

I wondered when we set out what we would find back there.  It is such a secluded spot, that I thought we might run across a deer carcass, or a bear-marked tree (a few years ago in early spring a bear came out of those woods and right up to the house--one of the high points of my life).  And of course I always hope for a glimpse of one of those elusive--and, according to the State of Vermont, nonexistent--catamounts.  But there was nothing out of the ordinary that I could find, other than a bit of carnivore scat--too big for a fox, must have been a coyote.

The dogs, on the other hand, found plenty.  They sniffed every stump and patch of moss.  Wolfie marked conscientiously, the "Posted" signs we put up before hunting season not being enough for his purposes.  Frequently, Wolfie and Bisou would converge on the same bit of ground, sniff intently, then take off.  Lexi, following behind, would stop at the same spot, read the same message.  The dramas and catastrophes of the past four months were spelled out for all to see.

Except for me, of course.  I felt like someone who'd never learned to read and wandered into a bookstore by mistake, and was surrounded by people picking up books, flipping the pages, reading a sentence or two,  placing them back on the shelf. 

But still I enjoyed the walk, in my pathetic human way, feeling the sun on my back (the trees are still bare), enjoying the respite from the wind that raged over the hilltop, listening to the chickadees.  Back at the house an extraordinary sight greeted us:  the hens were out in their yard, all six of them, pecking at the frozen ground, fluffing out their feathers in the sun.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Oh, Geraldine...

It was 1984, and it was a big deal that a woman was running for Vice President.  We were all holding our breaths for her--how would she do?  More to the point:  what would they do to her?

I don't remember much about that campaign, except dreading that Reagan would win.  And I remember the vice-presidential debate, in which Geraldine Ferraro stood opposite H.W. Bush.  As we attempt to recover from his son's presidency, these days the elder Bush looks comparatively benign.  But in the 1980s he was, along with Reagan, the enemy.

At one point in the debate, Geraldine Ferraro was asked a question--I believe it was about foreign policy--and when she finished speaking H.W. turned to her, smiled that lipless smile and said condescendingly, "let me help you with that...."
In front of their TV sets, millions of women gasped.  This was the kind of attitude that we confronted every day at work, and here it was, at the highest possible level, in front of the entire nation.  How would Geraldine handle it?  What would happen next?

What happened next was that she said something like "I resent your patronizing me."  And then she teared up.  And we all gasped again. 

Oh Geraldine, how could you?  Didn't you know that it's o.k. for football players and politicians caught in flagrante and repentant evangelists to weep hot tears in public.  But not a woman, never a woman, and especially not in front of that smug, arrogant man.

I never got over that awful moment, but Geraldine seemed to, and went on to an illustrious career in politics despite the shadow cast over her ambitions by her husband's business dealings.  For women watching the news that debate was merely a warm-up in the art of gasping.  We did a lot more of it during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle, and by the time Hillary Clinton ran for the presidential nomination, we were gasping virtuosi.

Rest in peace, Geraldine.  And may we all be around (somewhere) to cheer the day when women are allowed to weep, and win.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Begetting

There's been considerable back-and-forthing in some of my favorite blogs lately about whether or not to have children, and what to say or not to say about people's decisions in this regard.  And that's started me thinking about why I had children.

Mine was the first generation to have a real say in the matter--a real say as opposed to the old difficult  remedies of abortion, adoption, or abstinence.  When we married at 23 and 22, my husband and I were both imprisoned, and periodically tortured, in graduate school, and he was in perpetual danger of being sent to Vietnam. We decided that children were out of the question until we were finished with school, settled in our respective careers, had bought a house, and felt ready to bring what seemed like a huge complication into our lives.

I had never been one to stop and coo at strangers' babies on the street.  My mother gave birth to her second child when I was sixteen, and I was drafted into diaper- and bottle-washing duties, plus ad hoc babysitting.  I enjoyed my little sister, but I learned what mind-numbing work a child could be.  Besides, I was so young, and had lived so long under my parents' thumbs, that getting married felt like a huge liberation--a place of my own, a man ditto...The last thing on my mind was getting pregnant.

No sooner had I embarked on this delicious adventure of grownup living, however, than my body rebelled against the pill.  After a year of violent migraines, we had to switch to more traditional ways of contraception.  And right away I got pregnant.

This amazed my husband and me.  How had it happened?  Hadn't we been careful enough?  Hadn't we read the instructions?  Now what?  And that is when the weird thing happened:  no sooner had the first drop of pregnancy hormone dribbled from my pituitary than I became, 1) horribly nauseated and, 2) intensely happy.

Three months later, when I lost the baby, I mourned.  And because it was clear that nothing would console me except getting pregnant again, I was dismayed when the doctor advised that we wait six months to conceive.  I was taking my final courses for the Ph.D., and studying hard for prelims.  You'd think that six months would have gone by without my giving the matter another thought.

But somehow, a couple of months after the miscarriage, I got pregnant.  Again, we couldn't believe it.  Hadn't we been careful, etc.  And  to say that I was beside myself with joy was to put it mildly.  What better antidote to the mind-numbing boredom of memorizing minor seventeenth-century French playwrights than a  living baby growing  inside me?

This time, it only took a month to lose it.  It happened in the middle of the week-long ordeal known as written prelims, between Tuesday, which was devoted to the sixteenth century, and Wednesday, when we covered the seventeenth.  I wept as I wrote my essays, and during the lunch break pleaded with my obstetrician not to send me to the hospital.  He reluctantly agreed, and warned me again to wait half a year.

A couple of months later, the familiar nausea, the familiar elation returned.  This time it all went swimmingly, and we had our first girl, and two years later (for once, our planning worked) the second.  And we all made it just fine.

But what interests me, in retrospect, are all those failures of birth control.  How could two reasonably intelligent, educated people accidentally conceive three times in a single year?  And me, a biology major in undergraduate school!  For a long time, I chalked it up to hormones.  Once it experienced that first accidental pregnancy, I thought, my body simply insisted on making a baby, and its urge overwhelmed my comparatively feeble brain.

Lately, though, I have revised my thinking.  Six months after our wedding in the Summer of Love of 1967, my 53-year-old father died of lung cancer.  I mourned him both as a child (I'd only barely left home) and as an adult (I'd just gotten married).  Life took a downturn then:  the people who represented hope for the country were assassinated, graduate school was tough and boring, money was scarce, any minute my husband could be drafted and sent to Vietnam, and my mother and my little sister were bereft.  But worst of all, my father was dead.

I mourned him for years, bursting into tears at unexpected moments, often without knowing why. And then, when my daughter was born, the tears vanished.  It's not that I didn't miss my father--I'd have given anything to see him as a grandfather to my girls.  But I had a new generation on my hands, and the future was demanding, insistent, and, though I didn't realize it at the time, immensely consoling.

The reasons that we choose to beget or not to beget children, and the feelings that accompany each birth, each failure to give birth, or each decision not to give birth, are as diverse and imponderable as the stars in the sky--and should be as free from judgment as they.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Not-So-Therapeutic Dogs

I just heard that stressed-out law students at Yale and a few other universities can now check out a therapy dog from the library, just like (but not for as long as) they check out books.  At the end of my "wellness" visit last week, my doctor--who thinks I'm his star CFS patient--learned that I have three dogs.  "That's why you're doing so well!" he exclaimed, beaming.  I could tell that he is up to date on all the research on dogs as psychotherapists, exercise coaches, and all-around guardian angels.  The general consensus these days seems to be that, whatever your problem, a dog can do you good.

I'm not so sure about that.  To tell the truth, my three dogs add a lot of stress to my life.  Lexi is getting old.  She needs regular appointments for chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture, as well as daily aspirins and acid reducers.  She doesn't like being brushed, and since she has a ton of cloud-like, fuzzy hair, she needs to be brushed a lot.  She won't hear of my clipping her nails, so I have to file them, which takes forever.  She has developed selective hearing loss, so I can never tell, when she's slow to obey, whether she hasn't heard me or is just resisting.  And, despite the substantial amount of money I have spent on anti-coprophagia remedies, she continues devotedly to eat poop.

Wolfie is in his prime.  He needs exercise;  he needs mental challenges;  he needs discipline.  He needs good food--all three dogs do--which I have to drive thirty minutes to get (nobody buys dog food in the grocery store anymore).  He still hopes that Lexi will play with him the way she did when he was a pup, so I have to watch carefully, when I take them for walks, that he doesn't body-slam her and knock her over.  He has a lot of cloud-like, fuzzy hair as well, so needs frequent brushing, but at least he lets me use the clipper on his nails.  His teeth are enormous, so I brush them almost as frequently as I brush mine, to keep them white.  I brush Lexi's and Bisou's teeth too.

The Red Baroness, Bisou, needs to run a lot, which means that these days she comes in from outdoors transformed into a mud mop, which requires endless drying with towels.  She also needs sustained, physical human contact, which means that I don't like to leave her alone for long.  For a lap dog, she's rather well behaved, but tends to err on the side of enthusiasm, jumping up before I can stop her and moaning and crooning and yodeling when she has to wait to go outside or to get her food.  She would benefit from another course of obedience or agility instruction.  I feel guilty about not doing this.

 In the morning, the instant I take my first conscious breath, the dogs are on me to let them out, let them in, give them water, give them food.  In my house, at any given time there's one dog who wants to sit on my lap, one who wants to go outside, and one who is lying down right where I need to put my foot.  During the day, the minute I close a book, all three dogs rush to the back door.  The minute I log off my laptop, they rush to the back door.  The minute the end titles come on after a movie at night, they're off to the back door, squealing and scrabbling, to be let out just one more time. 

So what do I get out of this--buckets of  unconditional, single-minded devotion?  My dogs have never met a human being they didn't love unconditionally, especially the two shepherds, despite the breed's reputation of being one-man dogs.  Do my three dogs relax and de-stress me?  No more than three children under the age of ten relax and de-stress a parent.   Do they bring me into closer contact with Nature?  Yes, but I'd much rather take my morning walk in the yard without a pooper scooper and a bucket.

The day before we leave on a trip, I put the three dogs in the car and take them to their B&B, which they love better than anything in the world.  That entire evening at home I have nobody watching me, keeping track of my breathing, sending me mute entreaties, shifting to piteous moans when those fail.  I bask in the absence of my dogs, and, for a change, experience true relaxation.

But I think about them every minute, until they come back home.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Here Today...

I read an article in the Times about how people no longer call each other on the phone, but use e-mail instead.  If they do call, they first arrange the call via e-mail.

So true.  Somehow we have all gotten the feeling since e-mail became available that to call people up on an impulse is presumptuous.  Now, if I call without obtaining prior permission via e-mail, I make sure to ask, the minute I identify myself, "is this a good time?"

Spontaneous, non-business phone calls have gone the way of drop-in visits.  Remember those?  I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of impromptu visitors who have come to the door in my adult life.  But when I was a kid, family and friends of my parents used to drop by all the time. 

In Spain, whether the visitor was a family member or a life-long friend, he or she was always ushered into the living room.  We were amazed, in our first years in the U.S., when people would follow us into the kitchen, leaning against the counter and chatting away while we made them coffee.  In Spain, you could visit your aunt weekly for decades, and never see her kitchen.

I remember certain visitors eliciting some covert eye-rolling on my mother's part.  I remember resenting having to interrupt my homework or get off the phone to go into the living room to greet them.  But a lot of visits turned into impromptu dinner parties, my  mother saying, "Why don't I make some omelettes?" and all of us welcoming the respite from daily routine.

With the entrance of women into the workforce, however, the spontaneous visitor first became endangered, then extinct.  What's the use of knocking on someone's door when only a lonely dog will answer?  And it would take one heck of a visitor--perhaps an archangel in human form--to pleasantly surprise a woman who, after a day in the office, is trying to hold on to sanity while sauteing onions and supervising the kids' homework.  Curiously, some people still say "come see us sometime," but who would be crass enough to take them up on it?

During the long era of phone calls,  I fixed many a dinner with the phone jammed between ear and shoulder, the long cord following me from stove to fridge, while on the other end I could hear my caller banging pots and pans in her own kitchen.  Now the phone, even with the advent of cordless sets and cell phones, has gone the way of drop-ins.

Instead--who'd have thought it?--we type messages to each other, and a whole edifice of etiquette has sprung up around e-mail, regulating whom to message and how frequently, the appropriateness of forwarding, the rules of attachments.  But who knows how long e-mail will last?  I  hear its death-knell on the pages of Facebook, which has already supplanted blogging for many people.

First there were impromptu visits, then phone chats, then e-mail, then Facebook.  This very minute, legions are abandoning Facebook in favor of Twitter, which eventually will itself be deemed slow and cumbersome and replaced by the flash between synapses recorded by implanted devices and instantly conveyed to a preselected list of "friends."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Spring List

It might have been too much for our winter-wizened systems, after two days in a row of warmth and sun.  So today we're back to clouds and chill, and I stayed indoors and walked from window to window, and made a list of the tasks awaiting me, such as weeding. 

This is the best time of year for weeding.  The weather is cool, the weeds are small, the dirt is soft, and you are aching to be outside anyway.  And for every weed you pull in March, you save pulling six in July (in the heat, and when you've got a full-grown garden to deal with).  So I should weed the back garden and the front beds and the front walk as soon as possible.

I should also get rid of the hay mulch around the lavenders and the roses, and figure out what to do with that perfectly good hay--maybe pile it on the rhubarb bed.  I should cut down the stems of the apple mint and the lemon balm, and put them somewhere.  I should clean out the fish pond, but first I need to find out how to do this without disturbing the hibernating frogs (if I wait too long those frogs will be spawning, so time is of the essence here).

The biggest job will be to finish filling the raised beds in the vegetable garden.  It is really heavy work, carting dirt in a tub across the yard, and I'd like to hire a guy with a front-end loader to do it in a couple of hours.  But guys with front-end loaders work according to mysterious and unpredictable schedules, and the job needs to be done as soon as the piles of dirt defrost, or I'll miss planting time for the spring crops.  I'd hate to make a deal with a guy, and then have him not show up at the critical moment, so I'm dithering about that decision.

After the beds are filled, I'll need to empty the compost bins and pour their contents into the beds.  And once the bins are empty it will be time to clean out the chicken house and put the old bedding in the bins, in preparation for next fall. 

Speaking of chickens, my three Buff Orpingtons, though only two years old, are hardly laying.  One of them, in fact, lays soft-shelled eggs that break in the nest and make a mess (yes, my hens have access to calcium supplementation).  Fond as I am of them, it really makes sense to have the three Buffies slaughtered and replace them with chicks that will start laying next fall.

This brings me to the dilemma of what breed of chicken to choose.  The "heritage" breeds I have right now--Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and a single Barred Rock--are calm, friendly and picturesque.  But as layers they don't hold a candle to the "sex-link" hybrids.  These are modern genetic inventions that yield white roosters and red hens.  And the hens are veritable laying machines, producing giant brown eggs, unperturbed by winter blizzards and summer droughts.

Only real chicken aficionados raise the heritage breeds.  Those more interested in production and efficiency go for the sex-links.  I need to decide where I stand in the world of poultry.

Needless to say, the dog poop cleanup will take several more days, until the snow is entirely gone.  The ersatz wattle fence I put up last year needs some major maintenance.  A couple of long-neglected ornamental trees need pruning, and the beds in front of the house will need their annual application of mulch.

At this point in my spring list, I start envying the woodchuck, who can shut his eyes to the coming avalanche, and burrow back into the earth for another nap.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Today, For The First Time In Months, I saw...

the pond in our patio; 
the tip, none the worse for wear, of the little arbor vitae I planted in the fall; 
the lavender bushes--seemingly alive--by the stone wall; 
the patch of lemon thyme--smelling of lemon--by the back door; 
wild chamomile sprouts between the slate slabs;
shallow ponds of muddy, sky-reflecting water all over the lawn; 
a thick carpet of sunflower seed hulls and rabbit poop all around the bird feeder; 
another stratum of winter dog poop.

And, with much rejoicing, my red-crested, black-and-white Barred Rock hen, who, having ventured outdoors for the first time since December yesterday, survived the night by herself under the chicken house and lived to lay another egg.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Not A Moment Too Soon

Today you can practically hear the hoof beats of spring galloping north toward our latitudes.  Bright sun, blue sky, hens cackling, birds rejoicing.  And the snow sinking, sinking into the ground.

I figured it would be a good time to start on that disgusting spring task:  cleaning the yard of a winter's worth of dog poop.  Three months of snow, three dogs--you do the math.  It's not as if I can clean it all in one day, but rather, as the snow melts, I proceed like an archaeologist, disposing of one stratum at a time.  In most of the yard, the snow was up to my knees, so it wasn't easy work.  But at least I made a start.

While I had my rubber boots on I walked to the vegetable garden--keeping close to the house wall I could step on bare ground--where things were far from quiet.  Various weeds--the inevitable ground ivy among them--were already poking up, but they're still in the cute baby stage, and anything green looks fabulous to me at this point.  The stems of the chard I never got around to pulling up had managed to retain their bright red color.  But the kale bed was the real surprise.

After the first snow in December I went out to uproot what I called the kale trees.  Wolfie, who is mad for kale, over the summer had tried and failed to pull several out of the ground, and they lay like half uprooted palm trees, their thick stems twisting and spiraling on top of the bed, tufts of gray-green leaves growing from the tips.  I pulled up a few and took them to the chickens--their last fresh greens of the season.  But four or five of them were rooted so tenaciously that I gave up.  "What's the difference?"  I thought.  "By spring they'll have turned to compost anyway."  So I left them.

But today, there they were, looking nothing like compost.  The rabbit--don't ask me how he got over the two-foot walls of the bed--had gnawed the green outer layers as far as he could reach.  But in the places he couldn't, all along those long, gnarly stems, a whole crop of new leaves was sprouting.

To celebrate, I shoveled snow (and a couple of pounds of rabbit pellets) off a corner of the patio, moved the table and chairs over to it, sat down, turned my face to the sun, and basked.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sentient Beings Everywhere

I read somewhere--I think it was in a book by the herbalist Stephen Buehner--that when a field of clover is being overgrazed by sheep, the plants increase their production of phytoestrogens, which causes the sheep to miscarry.  At the moment, our fields are still covered in snow, but when it thaws and I resume walking in them, I will be apologizing to the clover with every step.

I don't know about you, but over the last few years, I have become painfully sensitive to the feelings of the beings that surround me.  I was eating lunch with a friend today, and a skinny fly-like bug landed next to her plate.  She brushed it off the table and stepped on it--and I had to hold back from mewling some insanity like "oh, the poor little thiiing!" 

I used to laugh at people who carried house-invading bugs to the door on a paper napkin and set them free, but I have joined the ranks of the bug liberators.  I do kill some bugs, such as the big, hairy wolf spiders that scuttle indoors in the fall.  But I do it in self defense--I am so creeped out by the things, that knowing that there was one in the room with me would drive me mad. 

Pretty soon, it will be ant season in our kitchen.  Legions of tiny workers will stream over the counter and across the sink in search of a grain of sugar, a molecule of fat.  Armed with a spray bottle of soapy water, I will stand above them and rain death upon them.  (The soap clogs up their breathing holes and coats the pheromones they leave on their trails, so other ants can't follow.)  But I hate doing it.  I feel like some merciless god wreaking havoc on the innocent.  For all I know, and I think of this every single time I spritz the ants, there is an angry and much bigger deity standing in the clouds above me with his finger on the nozzle....

Of course I am not alone in this.  Our generation thinks very differently about animals these days.  Where as children we tolerated the idea that free-roaming family dogs regularly got run over and were as regularly replaced, now we hire dog nannies to walk our soul mates so they won't be bored while we're away at work.  At dinner, many of us think about the animal whose body part we are about to dig into.  Many have stopped eating animals altogether.

And some of us--though we tend to be quiet about this, lest we be sent away from the table--think about the plants who were once alive and now lie limp on our plates, anointed with the blood of dead olives and the crushed remains of the fruit of the pepper plant.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Mozart Saw

"Though ... [Mozart] lived through the French Revolution you search his letters in vain for anything other than the most oblique references to this continental cataclysm.  He had no feeling for nature and no interest in the visual arts.   In his letters home during his wide-ranging travels he describes everything he heard and nothing he saw."

I found this quote by Anthony Tomassini here--one more confirmation of my belief that we each perceive the world in radically different terms.

Years ago we lived next door to the retired director of the National Arboretum.  He was an affable gentleman who asked my permission to prune our tree--the sight of our unkempt ornamental pear was distressing to him.  One day I was in the car with him, and he kept a running commentary on all the sidewalk trees we passed.  For me, at that time, a tree was an indistinct mass of green atop a brown pole, but on that drive I realized that when our neighbor looked at the world, he saw trees.

A gardener friend looks at the world and sees bushes (which for me are an indistinct mass, etc.).  She doesn't just keep track of her own bushes, but of those in neighboring villages as well.  We'll drive past some stranger's yard and she'll say "That lilac suffered a lot last winter.  But it seems to be recovering nicely now."

My zoology professor saw birds everywhere.  He'd be driving us to a field trip and out of the corner of his eye point out little brown fluttering forms that I could barely see, much less identify.

My husband perceives the world in terms of fulcrums and levers, forces and currents.

I drive down the road and see dogs, and here in Vermont--lucky me--also chickens and cows and horses and goats.  

And I notice sounds (so like Mozart, no?), which is both a blessing and a curse.  The sound of birds is the essence of spring for me, and their silence in the fall depresses me as much or more as the fading light.
I am acutely attuned to people's voices, their volume and pitch, the rhythms of their speech.  When certain announcers come on the radio, I have to turn it off, or leave the room.  I know several people with the habit of letting out a sudden explosive laugh, and when I talk with them I find myself flinching in anticipation.  I cannot read if there is music playing.  I can barely make myself enter a store during the Xmas season.

Not only do we all perceive different worlds, we are different worlds.  And this reminds me of a magnificent quote by Proust about the function of art:

"...style for the writer, just as color for the painter, is a matter not of technique  but of vision.  It is the revelation, which would be impossible by direct and conscious means, of the qualitative difference in the way in which the world appears to us.  This difference, if it weren't for art, would remain the eternal secret of each of us.  Only through art can we come out of ourselves and know what another sees of that universe which is not the same as ours, and whose landscapes would have remained as unknown to us as those of the moon.  Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, our own, we watch it multiply, and we have as many worlds at our disposal as there are original artists."  (My translation.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Suddenly Summer

Well, it's hardly summer when the ground is still covered with snow, but the light more than makes up for the lingering chill. 

Oblivious of outside temperatures, my houseplants  know that it's spring.  The zonal geraniums are bursting in red and pink blooms;  the orchids are putting on their last show before going dormant for the summer;  the amaryllis is putting forth leaves by the yard.

Last night, as he has for as long as we've been married, the man I call the Daylight Savings Fairy reset all the clocks in the house as well as my watch while I slept.  This morning when the alarm went off I was dismayed by the darkness outside, until it dawned on me that the seasonal shift to lovely light-filled evenings had occurred.

To mark the occasion, even though the evening was chilly I took my book and glass of wine not to the living room sofa by the stove, but to the chair in the back porch, where I could drain the sunset to its very last drop.

Funny how it is just as enjoyable not to light a fire in the spring, as it is to light one in the fall.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

If It Sounds Good...

Somebody once asked Louis Armstrong what made a piece of music great.  "If it sounds good," he replied, "it is good."

Now there is a formula to put art critics out of business, and to embolden college sophomores, nouveaux riches, and you and me to speak our minds about music, art and literature without fear of being found naive.

In a recent New Yorker review of a book about Modigliani, Peter Schjeldahl laments that Modigliani is, alas, easy to like.  I was dismayed to read this.  Those earthy reds!  Those mask-like faces!  Those long, long necks!  How I used to rest my eyes on them, as a sophomore taking art history, after trying my damnedest to fall in love with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon!  From now on, every time I gaze at a Modigliani I will hear Schjeldahl's voice whispering "easy to like, easy to like."

This happens to me whenever I listen to Tchaikovsky, but there the voice I hear is my father's, and he's saying, "it's a piece of candy, just a piece of candy for the audience!"  Now I happen to love T's violin concerto, but when it comes on the radio, and I hum along with those gorgeous melodies, I feel a little ashamed.  Here I am, gorging on chocolate-covered cherries, when I should be--what, eating steak tartare?

Last month Anthony Thomassini, the music critic for The New York Times, published a list of the top (in his view) ten classical composers of all time.  Bach was number one (Whew!  And yet I've always found Bach easy to like...).  Number two:  Beethoven.  What--not Mozart?  No, Mozart is third, losing to Beethoven because of what Mr. Thomassini calls his "facile" moments.  You can bet that from now on, every time I hear, say, the Symphonia Concertante, I'll wonder, was that a little facile?

The problem is, of course, that the definition of "facile," or "easy to like" or "a piece of candy," varies not only with the critic, but with the times.  Take those painters of sweetly naked ladies, Alma-Tadema and Bouguereau.  Adored by the Victorians, they became despised as purveyors of eye taffy by the following generations.  But now people have been taking a second look at those maidens, those Cupids, and the landscapes behind them, and saying, "those guys really could paint...." 

For that matter, think of Bach.  If it hadn't been for Mendelssohn stumbling on a moldy manuscript and muttering "This sounds good, so it must be good!" Bach wouldn't have made Thomassini's list at all, since he'd been entirely forgotten after his death.

So now you know some of my "pieces of candy":  Modigliani, some Tchaikovsky, Gladys Taber....

Gladys who?  Gladys Taber lived in the country, bred Cocker Spaniels, and wrote for women's magazines in the middle third of the last century, and I think she's a fine writer.  What are your favorite candies?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Concierge Dogs

(Still reading and appreciating your comments;  still unable to respond!)

I just finished a dark novel by Louise Erdrich, Shadow Tag, about artists and Indians, alcohol and fatal passions.  My favorite part had to do with dogs, though.  Here is what she writes:

"Wherever the family was, these two dogs, both six-year-old shepherd mixes, took up their posts at the central coming-and-going point.  Gil called them concierge dogs.  And it's true, they were inquisitive and accommodating.  But they were not fawning or overly playful.  They were watchful and thoughtful.  Irene thought they had gravitas."

My two shepherds, Wolfie and Lexi, each have their posts.  Lexi's is on the first floor (she seldom makes it up the stairs these days) right at the intersection of the paths between the kitchen, living room, and back porch.  This means that we have to step over her a dozen times every day, and that periodically Wolfie and Bisou get "stuck" behind her, and whine helplessly until one of us calls out "Lexi, stop that."  I have never seen any external signs of what "that" is--no growling or hair bristling--but she gives off waves of something that the other two clearly understand.

Wolfie's post is at the top of the stairs, equidistant from my husband's study and mine, so that as we go from one to the other we have to step over him, a dozen times a day.  Sometimes when he's at his post and I'm in my study, Bisou will get "stuck" at the bottom of the stairs, and I have to say "Wolfie, get over here and let Bisou up."  I guess he gives off waves too.

Bisou's post is wherever I am, preferably on top of me.

Do you have a concierge dog?  Do other breeds besides German Shepherds have posts?  Where is your dog's post?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Weird Blessings

My mother turned 93 last month.  Last spring, after a lifetime of robust health, she became gravely ill.  If someone had told my sister and me then that nine months later she would be in a nursing home, immobile, incontinent, and deeply into dementia, we would have mourned, and despaired, and prayed for a quick, merciful end.

Nine months later, she is indeed in a nursing home--immobile, incontinent and demented.  She is also...happy.  My once hyper-critical mother now loves everybody:  her caregivers, the visitors with whom she cannot communicate unless they speak Spanish (English being a casualty of her decline), the teenage grandchildren who a year ago she thought would come to grief.

When she first became incapacitated, my sister and I most dreaded her loss of dignity.  Would she beg to die when she needed help with...could no longer...?  If, God forbid, she were somehow aware of her dementia, how would her pride, her sense of self tolerate the loss?

In the early days of her illness, my sister and I pored over her advance directive;  speculated about what she would want if things came to "the worst," as in fact they quickly did;  hoped against hope that she would qualify for hospice so we could  benefit from the advice of people knowledgeable about these issues.

But, against all her doctors' predictions, our mother never did qualify for hospice.  To do that--in the absence of intolerable pain--you need to have lost a substantial amount of weight (instead she has gained ten pounds) or have stopped communicating (she talks constantly, to everybody, though never in English).

Strangest of all, she has a sense of humor about her dementia.  On a recent visit, my sister decided to call me so my mother and I could speak.  She handed the phone to my mother. 

"Say Hi to Lali," my sister prompted. 

"Who is this?" I heard my mother ask her. 

"It's Lali.  Tell her who you are," my sister said.

Then my mother said, "Lali, this is your mother.  And I'm calling to wish you a Merry Christmas."  Whereupon she burst into gales of laughter at her mistake.

These days, my mother loves to watch black-and-white Westerns on TV, loves greeting cards (which she has no trouble reading), adores food.  Her religious ties have loosened considerably. On the whole, she has taken a turn towards frivolity.  She is, for the first time in living memory, content.

My sister and I don't quite know what to make of this new mother.  Perhaps we should just enjoy her?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spinach In The Snow

The post-blizzard sun was irresistible, so although I was weary from shoveling snow, I planted spinach today.

The hardest part was trudging to the garden (a mere six yards from the back door) through two feet of snow, in  my knee-high rubber boots.  In my gloveless hands (you can't wear gloves when planting seeds) I carried one and a half packets of seeds, my planting stick (an old chopstick) and my planting frame.  The planting frame consists of six bamboo sticks tied together to form a 4'x4' grid, divided into one-foot squares.

I set the frame on top of a raised bed, and placed three rows of three seeds each on top of the snow in the first square.  I poked each seed into the icy blue depths with the chopstick and brushed a few snowflakes over the hole to fool the birds.  Then I went on to the next square.

Nine seeds per square, sixteen squares per bed, two beds.  If all goes well, that should yield 288 spinach plants by late April/early May ...or about 2 1/2 cups of steamed spinach.

But never mind.  Quantity is not the point.  For that matter, I still have a freezer full of last summer's veggies.  The point is to get out in the warming sun, to be blinded by the crusted snow, and to go back inside with frozen feet and fingers, empty seed packets in my pockets, and a heart full of hope for the (surely it won't be too long now) spring.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Wolfie Earns His Kibble

(Please note:  Blogger is still not allowing me to respond to your comments, but I do read them faithfully--and respond to them in my heart.)

Drove to Philadelphia last weekend, to attend the mother of all birthday parties.  We saw bare ground for the first time since December, and on Saturday ate lunch in an open porch, without coats, hats, mittens or even sweaters, in the proximity of a hydrangea bush loaded with buds.

We saw a lot of bare ground as we drove back north in a downpour, but in New York state, there was still  snow on the ground.  The Hudson, which on Friday had been frozen solid, was a soupy mess of ice and water.  In the meadows, as the warm air came in contact with the cold ground, the snow appeared to evaporate into a thick white fog.   We crossed into Vermont, and I heard a pinging on the windshield:  an ice storm had come out to welcome us.

We unloaded the car at the house, glanced at the backyard where for the first time in months a corner of the fish pond was visible, and rushed to fetch the dogs from their B&B before the roads got worse.  On the way back, as we turned right by the big dairy farm, the Holsteins cozy in their barn, munching their eternal silage, the car slid gently all the way across the road---hardly a heart-stopping moment, since we were the only moving vehicle in the landscape.  By the time we got to the house, the corner of the fish pond had disappeared again.

This morning I let the dogs out while I shoveled a short path for them through two feet of new snow, but all they wanted was to get back inside. They didn't like crashing through the ice-crusted snow.  They didn't like having buckets of the stuff thrown in their faces by the howling wind.  They are winter-weary too. 

A few minutes later, standing at the kitchen window, we saw a weasel or a fisher (neither is good news) running through the woods in the direction of the chicken house.  Wolfie figured out that we were looking at a critter, and started barking.  I took him to the back door, said "go scare it!" and let him out.  In two seconds he was in the woods, and the weasel/fisher was running for his life.  Fortunately for the w/f, Wolfie stopped at the invisible fence, where he did some marking, to ensure the critter wouldn't be tempted to come back (no pasaran!).

I called him inside and went upstairs to my meditation spot.  I unrolled the yoga mat, put down the cushion, sat down in sukhasana.  Wolfie lay himself down with his back tight against my legs, and went to sleep.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sap Is Rising

Went to the figure drawing session again this morning.  The model was the same young farmer who modeled three weeks ago, but he was transformed.  Bopping into the room in his roomy white shirt and droopy Carharts, he informed us that the sap is rising, and he was feeling the energy coursing through his entire body.

"I may have trouble standing still," he said, doing deep knee bends.  "I really need to ground myself," he said, popping his knuckles.  He stretched his arms, he touched his toes, he gave a couple of twirls.

"Are you ready to begin?" the session organizer asked.

He skipped over to the window, turned this way and that, wouldn't stop moving.  "Is this good?  Would you rather have me here?  Boy, I really do need to ground myself!"  He kicked off his shoes and gave several of those loud exhales through pursed mouth that some people do during yoga, and that I find auditorily distressing.

But nothing seemed to work.  "Maybe it's these electric lights," he said.  "I'm off the grid at home.  We just use candles.  These lights are really stimulating me."  He flopped around some more.

Finally the organizer got him to stand still for the first one-minute pose.  The model continued chatting.  "Why are you squinting your eye?" he asked one of the women drawing.  "I do it to see you better" she answered.

Then it was time for the second one-minute pose, but it took three minutes of twirling and exhaling and giggling for him to find it.  Me, I kept my eyes carefully averted from his face.  I was afraid that if I made eye contact he would start whirling again.

The fact is that I found his "energy" (I still have some difficulty using that term outside of a physics context) disturbing.  Something in me wanted very much to say "O.k., that's enough of that.  Let's settle down and get to work, please."  What I found even more disturbing was that the other women in the room were smiling and laughing and being extremely tolerant.

What kind of dragon am I?  I wondered.  Why can't I just relax and make little jokes like everybody else?  Why must I be so controlling?  Did the German nuns who ruled over my childhood make such a deep imprint on my soul?

Eventually (the session lasts three hours) he simmered down, grounded himself, whatever.  And I fell into the quiet, meditative state that is my favorite part about drawing from life.  When he comes back three weeks from now, the sap will have risen, and with luck he'll be tired enough from plowing and planting that he'll stand still long enough for me to draw him.

Here, at last, is the photo of "Flight Of Fancy" that I couldn't post yesterday.  It was all because of a cache of cookies, and I'm happy to say I fixed it myself.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Blogger Blues

I was going to insert a photo of the clay sculpture that I took to a gallery in Barre, Vermont today.  It was for a show on the theme of Flight.  My piece--a woman with birds flying out of her head--is called "Flight of Fancy."  The photo of this piece is in the same folder where I keep all the other pictures I include in my posts.  But when I click on the Blogger "add images" icon, I get this:

Details:
The feature you requested is currently unavailable. Please try again later.
 
Notice the impersonal "There was an error!" and the coy exclamation mark.   I suspect it's meant to make me wonder if maybe it was my error.  It's after ten p.m. and I've had a long day, and I don't know what Blogger means by "later."
 
In addition, Blogger is not allowing me to respond to your comments on my own posts.  Clearly, it's another case of "There was an error!" All I can do is to apologize to you thoughtful commentators for my non-responsiveness.  And wish everyone a good and error-free night.