Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hibernation Hesitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Snail Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How Sleeping Dogs Lie

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Will Someone Please Explain About Vampires?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From The Forest To The Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Put A Log In The Stove

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

Google In The Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

More Tales Of The Red Baroness

Shall I bore you again with Bisou's exploits?

Here goes anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Z Is For Zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Last Words

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Y Is For Yoga, And For Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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