Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Brown Christmas

Took the dogs on a solstice walk in the rain yesterday afternoon, and thought of Robert Frost stopping to watch his neighbor's woods fill up with snow on a very different solstice eve.  Instead, my snow was going up in smoke.  I'm afraid we're in for another brown Christmas this year.

I told myself that this heat wave was giving the field mice and the foxes and the deer and the birds who had survived the -18F temperatures a couple of nights ago a chance to recover before the next onslaught.  But I hated to see the snow go.

Where does this obsession with a white Christmas come from, anyway?   Certainly not from Palestine, where December temperatures hover in the 40s and 50s.  It must be solstice-related, like everything else this season.   It makes sense that the winter solstice and the birth of the sun god are felt more keenly by those in the dark, snow-covered regions close to the pole.

Still it's odd that the association of Christmas with snow should have migrated southward, and stuck so firmly.  My childhood Christmases in Barcelona were snow-free, and the popular culture had not yet been transformed by sleigh-riding, ho-ho-hoing invaders.  But the German nuns who were my teachers decorated the classroom with Advent calendars whose little windows were adorned  with pillowy drifts of snow.  And we sang O Tannenbaum in our Spanish-accented German, praising the tree whose green endures even im Winter, wenn es schneit.

But the snow thing wasn't just a phenomenon of my German school.  There was snow in our apartment as well.  Two weeks before Christmas my parents used to set up an enormous Nativity scene.  It went far beyond the stable, and included mountains made of cork, meadows made of moss, trees made of twigs, and a pond made from a mirror.  Over winding, sandy paths a procession of Magi on camels and shepherds on foot, accompanied by cows with calves, goats with kids, ducks with ducklings, and hens with chicks, made its way towards the stable, over which an angel proclaimed his annual Gloria in excelsis.

My father, who though city-born and -bred was reputed to have an especially poetic feel for Nature, was the principal architect of this landscape.  I didn't pay much attention to the creation of the mountains and the meadows, being more interested in the critters and in the tiny, pink Baby Jesus.

But I do remember, when all of first-century Palestine was finally in place in our living room, my father carefully sprinkling a handful of white flour over the cork mountains--the snow without which it wouldn't have really been Christmas, and for which I have since longed every brown Christmas of my life.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Final Pets

Next to the chapel in the nursing home where my mother died earlier this month stood three large bird cages.  Their doors were open, and on a perch beside each sat a cockatiel.  The birds fixed us with their round eyes and chattered, furling and unfurling their crests.  Periodically, one of them burst into a wheezy, geriatric laugh.  A snow-white dove, looking like a soul of the departed, pecked at seed inside one of the cages.

I stood awkwardly before the cockatiels, wondering if I should somehow make conversation with them, when a magnificent cat, a Siamese/Persian blend with long white hair and blue-gray "points" ambled in, his tail held high.  Unfazed, the cockatiels kept up their chatter, punctuated by the wheezy laugh.  The dove didn't even look up from her seed.

Before disappearing in the direction of the chapel the cat allowed me briefly to scratch its head.  He was not, I was told, the only cat in the building.  There were also two dogs around somewhere, elderly small poodle mixes, whom I did not meet.  And next to the main entrance there was a large aviary where a flock of parakeets flitted among the branches while on the floor beneath them a covey of Chinese button quail scratched for seeds.

Have you ever seen button quail?  I am now obsessed with them.  They are tiny (four inches long), chicken-like birds with elegant feathers.  Watching them I decided that when I get too old to care for my hens I'll switch to button quail, which I will keep in the house.  True, their eggs are ten times smaller than a chicken's, but by then I'll be tiny too, and won't need a lot of food.

My mother spent her nursing home years in the critical-care area, where animals were not allowed.  But on Sundays she was hefted into a wheelchair and wheeled to the chapel for Mass.  I hope that as she went by she caught a glimpse of the cockatiels.  Perhaps their raucous shrieks reminded her of the big red macaw that we had during our years in Ecuador.  He was head over heels in love with her, would have nothing to do with anyone else, and whenever she appeared in the back yard would fly down from his perch, waddle over to her and, with his eyes half closed, rub his enormous beak against her leg.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why I Love this Frigid Spell

1.  The dogs.  The cold revs them up, then knocks them out--they run like crazy when I take them out, then collapse in front of the wood stove while I get my work done.  Also, at these low temperatures the snow is powdery and dry, and does not form huge ice balls on Bisou's "feathers."  If there's one thing I hate, it's ice balls on a dog.

2.  The light.  Forget the solstice blues.  The sun on the snow makes everything as bright as a Mediterranean beach in the middle of June.  The geraniums in the sun porch are blooming their hearts out, the Meyer lemons are ripening, and spring is practically around the corner.

3.  The ticks.  I hope that they're having a hard time with these single-digit nights, and that we'll get a  break from the plagues that have followed the recent not-so-cold winters.

4.  The silence...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter Comforts

It's getting seriously cold and snowy here, so I spent part of the day yesterday making sure the animals and plants were comfy.

The hens got special attention, since my geriatric flock is now down to six.  One disappeared mysteriously before we left for my mother's funeral, and another, who'd been looking poorly for over a year, perished when the weather turned frigid while we were gone.  (In case you're wondering, when one of our chickens dies we take the corpse out to the woods to provide some wild critter's dinner.  It's always gone by morning.)

I gave the hens some extra wood shavings for bedding, and a "poultry hot-cake"--a cylinder of high-protein food that I hang from a string so they can peck at it and be both nourished and entertained.  And, for the biggest treat of all, I defrosted some "drone brood" for them.

Drone brood, given to me by a bee-keeping friend, consists of bits of honeycomb filled with drone (hence, undesirable) larvae. The hens had never seen it before, and they exclaimed appreciatively at this sudden appearance of insects in the middle of winter.  I'm saving the rest of the brood for Christmas morning.

The four apple trees and the espaliered apricot got their winter "socks"--spirals of white plastic that I wrap around the trunk to keep the rabbits from girdling the bark.  And I wrapped the potted fig tree  in a double thickness of burlap.  The tree is supposed to withstand temperatures of -10F, but I'm not taking any chances.

Then I went to work on Wolfie and Bisou, whose needs were purely cosmetic.  I was clipping their nails, as I do every couple of weeks and, for the first time ever, I nicked the quick on one of Wolfie's. But instead of having hysterics, splattering the room with blood, and never letting me near him with the clippers again, this most tolerant of dogs merely muttered something that sounded like "wow" and let me finish the job.

When the clipping and brushing were done I rewarded the dogs with a walk in the field to eat frozen deer poop.  Speaking of deer, I really should wrap the Leyland cypresses in the backyard in burlap, to keep the deer from eating them.  But they don't actually kill them, and I know the deer have to be terribly hungry to come that close to the house, so I may just leave the Leylands to tough it out.

The wood is stacked on the porch.  The chickens are cozy.  The dogs are groomed.  My only worry now is the black cat that hunts far from the house, at the bottom of the field.  I don't think he has a home.  How is he going to make it through the winter?  There's no way I can lure him to the house, with the dogs around.  I'd leave some food out for him, but I don't know where to put it so he'll know it's there.

Any ideas?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Confessing Sadness

(My mother died a few days ago, and I am not yet ready to write about that.  What follows is a post I was working on before the news came that she was failing.)

It's been dark and dreary lately, and my mood has plunged along with the barometer.  You know the feeling: you dislike the whole world, and yourself most of all, but it doesn't matter because death--preceded by a more-or-less protracted deterioration--is where it all ends anyway.

Nausea, spleen, acedia, Weltschmerz, the blues, the dark night of the soul--surely everybody over 40 and not a twit is acquainted with this state.

Every once in a while, there comes winging to me out of the ether a message that seems straight from the hand of divine providence--as when I  clicked on Brain Pickings and saw a review of Jennifer Michael Hecht's Stay, A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.  (Just to be clear:  there is a world of difference between feeling that life is not worth living and actually considering suicide.  While the former is not foreign to me, the latter is.)

I was reading along when the following quote reached down into my well of despair and yanked me, if not all the way out, at least high enough so I could catch a couple of breaths:

"If you have any energy at all for participating in this world, perhaps live now only for those small kindnesses and consolations you can render. Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness. Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow. Your ability to console may be profound."

I was immediately taken by the beginning, "If you have any energy at all for participating in this world..."  This was exactly my speed.  This person, I thought, knows exactly where I'm at.

"...perhaps live now only for those small kindnesses and consolations you can render."  Hecht is not talking about big gestures.  She's not asking me to sell all I have and go to Africa to dig village wells.  But small kindnesses and consolations--I can probably manage some of those.

"Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness."  I love that gentle, tentative "perhaps."

"Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow." What!  Isn't sadness un-American, a sign of weakness and self indulgence?  And isn't it especially bad form to confess sadness in the neon-bright skies of social media?

Studies show that Facebook, with its unspoken norm of posting only what is cool or cute, promotes depression among the peoples of the earth.  And here is Hecht, saying that by showing others our own sadness we may help them feel better.

Schadenfreude, you say?  Not necessarily.  I believe that, when someone whom we think happy and successful confesses his sadness to us, we are reminded that our own sorrow is not a defect in our character or a consequence of the way we have lived our life, but rather a result of the human condition.

"Your ability to console," Hecht concludes, "may be profound."  Or, as St. Francis put it, in seeking not so much to be consoled as to console, we may ourselves find healing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Faberge Eggs

It's four in the afternoon, and practically dark outside.  In a minute I'll go to the chicken house and turn on the light, something I do at this time of the year in the hopes of encouraging the girls to lay.

When they hear me coming they make their way clucking up the little ramp and into the shed, one by one.  While they're settling in for the night I check the nests for eggs.  On good days there are two--one brown speckled with maroon dots, one a barely-there pink--but often there are none.

It's not like this all the time.  Last summer my eight hens averaged three or four eggs a day.  But now the days are short, the weather is cold, and the hens are moulting, shedding their old feathers and growing new ones, a process which puts extra demands on their bodies and causes them to temporarily stop laying.

But the main reason that they lay so few eggs is that my hens are four years old.  In chicken years, this means that they are perimenopausal.  It does not, however, mean that they are near death.  Chickens in stress-free environments, and my hens lead extremely serene and peaceful lives, can live a very long time.

During their non-productive years hens still consume--in addition to grass and bugs and garden waste in season--laying pellets ($16.99 a bag) and something called "scratch" ($6.99 a bag).  In winter, when there is snow on the ground and they get bored staying in their shed all day, I buy them the occasional fresh cabbage or squash ($2 a pound) to peck at, and a kind of poultry cake with extra protein which costs $7.99.  Hens do well in "deep litter," a thick layer of hay that keeps them warm in winter and later becomes the compost that keeps my garden growing, so I buy five or six bales of mulch hay a year, at $2 a bale.

 (Gu est illustration by my granddaughter, VWT)




You can see where this is going, and I'm not even counting the cost of building the shed, the gallons of barn-red paint to make it match the house, the electricity to keep their water from freezing or the gas for the endless trips to the feed store.  I am not an accountant--accountants probably know better than to  keep chickens--but even I can tell that every one of those eggs I bring into the house rivals in extravagance the eggs that Carl Faberge made to amuse the Czarina at Easter (one sold a few years ago for $18.5 million).

Serious egg producers do not waste resources on perimenopausal hens.  Industrial egg farms slaughter their hens before their second birthday--a blessing for the birds, who are kept practically motionless in cages during their productive life.

I am hardly serious, or I would have gotten rid of my hens years ago.  But I know that I cannot just keep adding new chickens to my flock year after year.  I know that I cannot keep my eight hens forever.

I have it all figured out.  In the spring I will go to the feed store and buy half a dozen day-old pullets (at $2.50 each), which I will keep in the basement under a heat lamp and check on and cluck over every couple of hours for weeks.  The pullets will prosper under my watchful eye and begin to lay in the early fall.  At that time, I will make an appointment with the "chicken processor," and he will in less than half an hour transform my bright-eyed, friendly old hens into featherless, headless carcasses identical to the ones in the supermarket.

I will bring them home in the cooler and put them in the freezer, and for a while I won't want to think about them at all.  But eventually I will take them out a couple at a time, put them in the big pot along with some carrots, celery and onions and turn them into fabulous, life-sustaining chicken stock.  The meat, tasty but extremely tough, will go to the dogs.  And another chicken cycle will have begun.

(Guest illustration by my grandson, RFT)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Nymphs of Vermont

The landscape of ancient Greece teemed with nymphs, the protective spirits that dwelt in particular places.  Glens, pastures, meadows, valleys, mountains and grottoes each had their own nymph species.  There were salt-water nymphs--oceanids--of which the Mediterranean contained a subspecies, the nereids.  Fresh-water nymphs, naiads, were classified according to whether they inhabited a river, a spring, a fountain, a lake or a swamp.  And there were nymphs of trees and plants, nymphs of the sky and nymphs of the underworld.

If Nature filled Greece with nymphs, who's to say She didn't put some in Vermont as well?  When I walk outside with the dogs they certainly appear alert to what are to me invisible presences.  Surely the hill on which our house sits has its own oread, or mountain nymph, and the front field its auloniad, or pasture nymph.  The woods behind the house must be alive with dryads--tree nymphs-- and I hope there is a watchful meliad in the big ash tree, keeping the deadly ash borer at bay.

 I never thought about the swamp at the bottom of the woods as anything but a nuisance--the dogs love to wade in it and get muddy--until I realized that it is home to a naiad, specifically an eleinomad, or wetlands nymph, put there to take care of the frogs and turtles and salamanders.

How to explain the disproportionately large crops I've been getting from my young trees other than that there must be a pretty good epimeliad, or apple nymph, floating around their branches?  I should put out an offering--wine?  milk?  maple syrup?--to thank her, and also some for the syke, or fig-tree nymph, to make sure my tiny potted tree survives the cold.

I wonder what happens to the anthousai, the flower nymphs, in this weather?  They must all be deep  underground by now, although seeing how exuberantly the geraniums and the rosemary burst into bloom when I brought them indoors, there may well be an anthousa spending the winter in the sun porch.

May the nymphs of yam and cranberry dance on your Thanksgiving table, and may you be filled with gratitude.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Iris Murdoch On Relationships


Conventional wisdom has it that taking a loved one for granted leads to loss. Instead, we are taught to constantly "work" at relationships lest they wither before our eyes.  This is why Dame Iris's pronouncement,  "There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship," seems shocking.  But I think she's right.

In an utterly-taken-for-granted relationship, you can stop constantly scrutinizing the other for signs of approval or displeasure, take a deep breath and return to your center.  You can be yourself, and relax into what my mother used to call the "blessed trust" of a committed  partnership.  You can stop arranging dates, making fancy desserts and buying flowers in hopes of keeping the love from expiring. You can even forget the occasional birthday or anniversary without fatal consequences.
 
 Over a lifetime, that saves a lot of energy.

Iris doesn't say that such relationships bring happiness, let alone fulfillment or ecstasy--the things that we have been taught to expect from love.  Instead, she settles for humble "comfort"--which does not, however, exclude happiness--because that is the more feasible goal.  She  knew that nothing guarantees misery like an impossible goal.

Iris herself was married for forty-three years, until her death from Alzheimer's, to John Bayley*, and produced over 25 novels plus a stack of plays and philosophical works.  She couldn't have managed all that if she had squandered her energies trying to come up with tricks to keep their relationship "alive."

This taking utterly for granted is not a good idea in the early stages, when the partners are building the foundation of their relationship.  And it is not to say that the occasional unexpected trinket or treat, when the effort is extended out of generosity of spirit rather than anxiety or propitiation, can't be put to excellent effect.

But in a mature relationship, once the roof and walls are firmly in place, it is good to move in, take off your shoes, and make yourself at home.

*After Iris's death, Bayley wrote Elegy for Iris, a memoir of the last years of her life.  It was made into Iris, with Judi Dench and Kate Winslett, one of the most affecting movies I've ever seen.


Monday, November 18, 2013

All That Hair

"When you were born," my mother used to tell me, "you had so much hair that as soon as the midwife cleaned you up she put a bow in it.  It was so long," she went on, "that it covered the tops of your ears, which was a good thing, because they had hair growing on them too."



Fortunately the ear hair soon fell off, but the rest of it hung on and provided the refrain of my childhood.   "Just look at it," my four aunts and my grandmothers would sigh, commiserating with my mother, "what on earth can you do with all that hair?"  Even the fishwives and the vegetable vendors in the market would exclaim over it, with the mixture of horror and grudging admiration usually reserved for natural disasters.

As a little kid I wore my hair short, scraped back off my forehead and fastened with a bow.  My mother, who in another century would have made a fine phrenologist, believed that a large forehead was a sign of intelligence, so until I left home for graduate school I astounded the world with my broad and rather bumpy forehead.



In preparation for entering first grade, however,  my mother let my hair grow long enough to be tamed into braids.  Every morning, to tease out the knots that had formed during the night, she would insert the comb next to my scalp and tug firmly downward, then proceed to the next tangle while I protested sleepily.  The actual braiding took considerable effort, due again to the volume she was dealing with--think of braiding hawsers.  The result was a pair of thick, short, stiff braids that would come undone at the slightest provocation.

In the Amazon, with a marmoset on my shoulder, my right braid coming undone as usual.  There is another one just like it behind my left ear. 

I longed to wear my hair the way the older girls wore it, in a single braid draped fashionably over one shoulder.  But no matter how hard I tried, I never could force my hair into one braid.  Nor could I wear it in a pony tail, since they didn't make bands wide enough to hold it.

On special occasions I was allowed to wear my hair loose, which I thought made me look beautiful.  I loved not feeling the weight of the braids with each head movement, and I wanted to wear it that way all the time, but my mother demurred, because of the knot issue.  "Besides," she said, "when you wear it loose you look like a lion."

Managing my hair continued to be a problem through my adolescence, but I was saved by the arrival of the bubble style popularized by Jackie Kennedy.  Unlike my friends, who had to tease and spray their hair to make it stand up, I barely had to touch mine.  Then in the late sixties, when everybody started wearing their hair loose and long, I all but gave myself a crew cut.

Over the following decades my hair gradually simmered down.  I was surprised when I could run a brush through it, as opposed to needing a sturdy wide-toothed comb.  I was shocked when I managed  to fasten my pony tail with a single large barrette.  Now I treasure every strand that still clings to my scalp.

But thinking of all the thinning and braiding and fastening that went on for all those years, I wonder what would have happened if I had put my foot down and worn my long hair loose and wild, sticking out in all directions and making me look, and perhaps act, like a lion?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nuns, Absolved

Get into conversation with a lapsed Catholic like me, and before long we're rolling up our psychological sleeves and showing off our scars, the result of wounds inflicted by nuns.  They scared us half to death, those nuns, we complain.  They killed our joie de vivre and injected guilt into our young souls.  We spent our childhood trembling in the shadow of their long habits.

I have, over the years, done my share of scar-showing and nun-blaming.  But now that I haven't been around veils and wimples for more than half a century, I'm having second thoughts about the nuns who taught me.

By the time I was eighteen, I had experienced nuns of three different orders and nationalities, in three different countries.  My first nuns, in Barcelona, came from Munich, having fled nazism in 1939 only to land in fascist Spain.  The school I attended in Ecuador was run by Mercedarian nuns from Spain.  And my high school teachers were Benedictine nuns in Birmingham, Alabama.

The German nuns were the scariest.  This may have been because their Spanish was sketchy.  When they got angry they lapsed into German, and nothing's more frightening  than being yelled at in a foreign language for failing to follow an order that you didn't understand in the first place. 

The Mercedarians were the most elegant.  They wore habits of creamy wool with contrasting black veils and belts.  But their thick-heeled, lace-up shoes looked mannish, I thought, and spoiled the effect.

By contrast with the German nuns, the American Benedictines were a piece of cake. They made jokes in class and actually praised us for just doing our homework, something the Germans wouldn't have dreamed of doing.  But by then fearing nuns was part of my nature, and I continued to tremble until I left Catholic education and went to college.

Why did so many of us spend our childhood afraid nuns?  Was it because we couldn't see their hair, ears or legs, or because they were so boldly in charge and so different from our lipsticked,  domesticated mothers?

True, they were somber and strict and they taught us some silly things, such as (this from my German nuns) the proper way to sleep at night:  flat on our backs, our arms straight along our sides "and not the hands going all over the body."  They were obsessed with punctuality, posture, and penmanship .

But they also dinned into us the necessity of being good.  They taught us the nightly examination of conscience, which meant going over the day with a fine-toothed comb, looking for sins venial and mortal and also for good actions.  In the case of the latter we learned to ask ourselves, "Did I give my allowance to charity only to impress my teacher, or because I truly wanted to help?"

At the beginning and end of every class, we would stand by our desks, lower our eyes, and say a prayer.  Although they didn't call it "centering," that is what it was, and it was a useful habit to develop early.

The nuns taught us discipline, and kept things in order.  My classmates and I may, during those years of strict obedience, have had some of our exuberance stymied, but we never had to worry about being bullied or, in our co-ed high school, being threatened by boys.  And I never, in twelve years of nun schooling, saw anybody's knuckles being rapped.

In the pre-feminist 1950s there weren't many role models for girls.  But we Catholic-school pupils had them, every day, and we learned that women in authority could be smart and fair but also petty and fallible--human, in short.

Whether they knew it or not, nuns were feminists by definition and history. The founder of the order of my German nuns was a 16th-century Yorkshire woman named Mary Ward.  She wanted to affirm the role of women in the Church and in society, and to tend to their spiritual, intellectual and psychological development.  Inspired by the Jesuits--the most intellectual of the male orders--she structured her order along parallel lines and left her nuns uncloistered, something highly unusual for the time.

I believe that our fear of nuns was partly dictated by an unconscious sexism, a rebellion against women who were so unapologetically in charge and who, at least within the confines of school and convent, did not have to obey, make themselves attractive to, or in any way propitiate men.

So I apologize to you, Mater Leonarda, Madre Mercedes, Sister Dominica, wherever you are, for having made you the topic of too many party stories.  Thank you for keeping me safe, for forcing me to perform in the face of fear, and for teaching me the habit of self reflection.  You were tough, and you were women, and we found--and still find--that combination hard to swallow.  But that wasn't your fault.


Monday, November 4, 2013

The Angel of the Killing Frost Comes By

Last night he descended on our hill, and with a touch of his icy blade felled the peppers and the eggplants and the nicotiana, and turned the unripe figs to frozen lumps.  I must remember to salvage the figs for the hens, who will appreciate them now that bugs and green grass are history.

 A couple of days earlier I had brought the two geraniums and the Meyer lemon into the house for the winter, and the five big lemons on the tiny tree are now slowly turning yellow next to a sunny window.

I also brought in the big pot of rosemary.  I forgot that I had given it a good watering the day before, and when I went to lift it it was so heavy that I almost dropped it.  But I have never yet dropped anything I've tried to lift, and once I've got something in my arms I am loath to call for help.  So I staggered and groaned and finally got the pot up the two steps into the sun porch where it will live until the spring.  And I thanked my lucky stars for my relatively short back, which has never "gone out" on me yet.  But in the future I must remember not to water the big pots before moving them.

It's time to wrap the Leyland cypresses in their burlap coats, to defend them not from the cold but from the deer.  Last winter, on the pretext that the wild apple crop had failed, the deer tiptoed right up to the house and munched on the evergreens.  This year has been great for apples--you can see piles of them littering the roadsides--but I'm not taking any chances.

I must also remember to put those plastic spiral trunk shields on the fruit trees before the rabbits start chewing on their bark.  And I have to figure out a way to protect the climbing roses against those same rabbits, though I can't see how I can wrap burlap around their thorny branches.  Maybe chicken wire?

Then it will all be done, except for setting up the bird feeder now that the bears have safely gone into their dens.  And then I too can finally--except for picking the chard and the kale, which continue to thumb their noses at the Frozen One--go into hibernation too.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Spanish": A Rant

O.k., here is a rant I've been repressing since the fall of 1958, when I first landed on these shores.

It has to do with what Americans mean when they say that someone is "Spanish."  It used to be that when people would tell me "Oh, I used to know a Spanish boy in high school," I would ask what part of Spain he was from.  And invariably it turned out that the person was Cuban, Mexican, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Honduran, Panamanian, Venezuelan, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Bolivian, Paraguayan, Uruguayan, Chilean or Argentinian.  But never, not once, was he Spanish.  He spoke Spanish, or some version of it, but he was no more Spanish than someone from Kansas is English.

Now, when I'm told that someone is Spanish, I just nod.  It's highly unlikely that the person is from Spain--after all, there are only forty million of us, as opposed to some five hundred million Spanish speakers south of the Rio Grande.  Spanish people come from across the Atlantic.  We are Europeans, and though we share certain cultural and linguistic features with Latin Americans, we are as different from them as a Californian is from a Yorkshireman.  Not better, not worse--just different.

Latin Americans in the U.S.  have introduced the word  "Latino," which is short for latinoamericano, to describe their origins.  Of course "Latino," absent the americano part, is also inaccurate, since it necessarily includes people from Spain and Portugal, who were conquered by the Romans before they, in turn, conquered the New World.  But I've quibbled enough.

And here is a sub-rant, about the Castilian and Catalan languages, which are often confused.  Until the fifteenth century, Spain consisted of a number of separate kingdoms, each of which had its own language.  Then Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married, subjugated all the kingdoms, and imposed Castilian as the official language of the new country. So what is generally called "Spanish" is actually the tongue originally spoken in the central region of Spain.

But the other regional languages--Aranese, Basque, Galician, Aragonese, Asturian, Leonese, Cantabrian, Extremaduran, Eonavian, Fala, Riffian, Calo and my own native tongue, Catalan--are alive to this day, despite centuries-old efforts at suppression by the central government.  With the exception of Basque, whose origins nobody has figured out, they are all Romance languages and not dialects of Castilian, but languages in their own right, just as French, Italian and Portuguese are.

And finally, a sub-sub-rant, about the supposed "lisp" of Castilian speakers which, according to a legend popular with Americans, originated with a Spanish monarch's speech defect.  Castilian speakers are perfectly able to pronounce the "s" sound--but they associate it exclusively with the letter "s."  They pronounce "Susana" not as "Thuthana," but the way you would.

However, the letter "c" when it precedes "e" or "i," and the letter "z" are pronounced "th." Thus Castilian speakers pronounce zumba (which means "he, she, or it buzzes") "thumba."  In Latin America and in the south of Spain it's pronounced "sumba."

That said, there are Castilian speakers who are afflicted with a genuine lisp.  How can you tell?  They are the ones who say "Thuthana."

I would like to end on a humble note:  I know perfectly well that one's sensitivity to regional and linguistic distinctions is dictated by culture and identity.  My mother teased my father because he spoke Catalan with an accent from Barcelona, whereas she spoke with an accent from Lleida, 100 miles to the west.  As a result, I am exquisitely aware of the contrast between those two ways of speaking.  But I cannot distinguish between an Australian and a New Zealand accent, or even a Queens and a Brooklyn accent.  And as for the origin of the differences between Sunnis and Shiites...I'll tell you in a minute, after I check on Google.

But I'm glad I got the Spanish and the lisp bits off my chest.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Yak Glovelettes

Shopping for clothes these days is complicated.  It used to be that all I had to worry about was finding something that looked and felt good on me, but now when I buy so much as a t-shirt I worry that on its way from the farthest corners of the globe it has consumed its weight in fossil fuels and left polluted rivers and impoverished villages in its wake.

So I am grateful when designers demonstrate awareness of ethical and environmental matters.  Gudrun Sjoden offers "Swedish design with a green soul."  Eileen Fisher's site showcases a collection of progressive corporate practices, encompassing employee health and happiness, environmental responsibility, and efforts to empower women in developing countries.

Why then did I snort with derision at a certain item in Eileen Fisher's latest flyer?  The model is wearing a jacket of boiled wool and made-in-the-USA organic cotton jeans, and her hands are warmed by fingerless "glovelettes."  The glovelettes are "encrusted with crystals...[and] knit with yak herded by nomads."



Yak indeed.  And not, God forbid, feed-lot yak, or yak herded by people who go back to their village every night, but yak herded by nomads.  Remember the three wise men crossing the desert on camels with their cargo of gifts?  It used to be you had to be the Son of God to rate such exotic goods, but now all you have to do is point and click.

I mean, really.  It's just a pair of gloves.

And yet, I know that nomadism as a way of life is disappearing from the planet, and soon highways and suburbs and slums will obliterate the high pastures where the nomads wandered with their herds.  So maybe buying gloves knit from nomad-herded yak is not just silly, but an act of kindness to the nomad and his yaks and the grasslands with their earthworms and their bees.

Can it be that shopping these days has become a spiritual act?  I think it has, and that's o.k.  In this cold and soulless world, we have to take our spirituality wherever we can get it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Innocent In Coffeeland

For years, although I liked nothing better than a good, strong cup of coffee, I drank instant coffee at home.

Then, for a long time, I gave up coffee along with dairy, wheat, and sugar, and lived mainly on weak tea, green vegetables, and will power.  One thing I clung to, however, was a glass or two of wine in the evenings, but during my recent bout of shingles I had to give that up as well, because of the narcotic pain meds.  And when it was over I thought I'd see if continuing to abstain from wine would have a positive effect on my health.

But I cannot forgo all worldly pleasures, so I decided to compensate for the absence of alcohol by letting coffee back into my life.  And this time it wouldn't be Nescafe, but real coffee.

I didn't know much about making coffee, but I disliked the taste of over-boiled coffee, and didn't want yet another electrical appliance cluttering my counter.  I wanted to make coffee by a simple method,with a beautiful implement.

From what I could see on the internet, the pour-over method seemed the most direct--you put some grounds in a filter and poured hot water over them.  And you could make it in a Chemex.  Chemex pots look like they came from a chemistry lab staffed by Italian designers.  They have an hourglass shape and wear an elegant wooden belt around their waist.  They have been enthroned at MOMA as exemplars of contemporary kitchen sculpture.  I wanted one.

The only problem was that the Chemex requires a disposable filter that is not sold in supermarkets.  That, and the idea of throwing out a filter every day of my life put me off the Chemex, despite its beauty.  But wait!  It turned out that a tiny company in Seattle--where else?--was makinga  permanent filter for the Chemex.  Unfortunately, it cost $90.

But the ever helpful spirits of the internet, who had figured out what I wanted without my ever having told them, came up with a Japanese variation of the Chemex, a Hario, that used a cloth filter.  It even had a wooden belt around its waist, and although the cloth filter looked like it would be a pain to clean I was ready to put a Hario in my virtual basket.

Before hitting "buy," however, I thought I should check exactly what the pour-over method involved.  I found a number of videos featuring solemn guys in aprons officiating at altar-like counters.  On the counters were arranged the ritual vessels and implements of  the pour-over method, which I learned was the purest, most artistic way of making coffee, and the one allowing the officiant a maximum of individual expression.

The objects on the counter were:  a tiny digital scale, a grinder, a digital timer, a filter, a cup, and a kettle.  Having ground and weighed the precise amount of coffee, the instructor put it in the filter and turned on the kettle.  But not just any kettle. The right kettle had a skinny s-shaped spout to allow him to pour the water over the grounds in the proper way.

This pouring was the most sacred part of the ritual.  Once the water was boiling, he turned the kettle off and let it rest while, with his index finger, he made a hole in the middle of the grounds.  He picked up the kettle and carefully poured a little water into the hole, letting the grounds "bloom."  He set the timer for exactly three minutes and, starting at the center of the grounds, slowly poured the water in an outward spiral motion, timing it so the last drop would come out as the timer bell dinged.  He removed the filter, took a sip, closed his eyes and all but genuflected.

I thought I could dispense with the scale and the timer, and I already owned a grinder, but clearly I would have to invest in one of those swan-neck kettles.  After another hunt for the ideal conjunction of function, looks and economy I purchased one, made in China but with a vaguely Italian name.  And then I was ready to buy the Hario coffee pot with the cloth filter.

But at the last moment my personal shoppers in the ether offered up yet another possibility:  a Hario pot with a plastic mesh filter that would be much simpler to clean than the cloth one.  Unfortunately, this pot was nothing much to look at--no hourglass figure, no adorable wooden belt.  Exhausted by my search, I put aesthetics aside and bought it.

It should be obvious to you by now that the kettle and the pot have arrived and I have become a priestess of the pour-over coffee-brewing method:  the sun isn't up yet, and look what a long post I've written.






Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Iris On Happiness


The British novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch, wrote, "One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats."  At first this sounds like hedonism with a small "h," possibly resulting in enormous weight gain.  But what Iris is really telling us is to pay attention, and when we do, we discover that most ordinary days are in fact a long succession of small, sometimes tiny but nevertheless pleasurable, treats.

When I was young, I had nothing but disdain for small treats.  I was focused on big ones:  a degree, a job, a mate, a child, a house.  But once those treats are in place, what is left?  One could start all over again:  get another degree, find a new mate, have another child.  But those treats are problematic, and require a lot of energy.

It used to be that people got the big treats and then they died.  Now for most of us there are years and years to fill after the big treats have been bagged. What is left, to ease the string of decades between the age of the big treats and the end of life, is the small stuff.   So it's important to become adept at inventing and identifying small treats for ourselves. 

Sometimes the treats are so tiny as to be invisible to the naked eye, and it's a good idea to carry a magnifying lens so as not to miss any that might go unnoticed.  And we need to train ourselves to look forward to our small treats, and then to remember and be grateful for them afterwards.

I stumbled upon this practice all by myself--or perhaps it was divine inspiration--in the darkest times of my CFS.  When the day from dawn to dusk had held nothing but misery and malaise, I would lie in bed in a tangle of frustration, unable to sleep and endlessly rehearsing all the things I hadn't been able to do.  Then one night, to calm myself, I began to go over the last sixteen hours with a mental magnifying glass, starting with getting out of bed in the morning, and noting every single good thing that had happened to me, no matter how small.

It turned out that even a particularly bad day was a succession of continuous small treats.  There were so many, and counting them was so relaxing, that before I knew it I fell asleep.  But while I was going through the process I was amazed at how studded with good things those miserable hours had actually been.

What kind of things? There was the comfort of waking up in a warm house on a cold day, the jade plant blooming next to the sunny window, the spouse's offer to fetch pizza for dinner, the freedom to lie down when I absolutely had to, the dog at my side...these were all, when I focused on them, reasons for happiness and deep gratitude.

In Catholic school we were taught to every night, before going to sleep, make an examination of conscience, reviewing any faults we had committed during the day.  I have since replaced the examination of conscience with the counting of small treats.  The practice of gratitude, because it leads to happiness and contentment and thence to generosity, is just as likely to make me a better person as the awareness of my failings.

So now that the era of big treats is mostly over for me, I lie in bed at night, fingering my day bead by bead, a rosary of continuous small treats.  And long before the end, I always fall asleep.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rainy Sunday At The Farmers' Market

At the nearby farmers' market there is a little old couple--actually, they are probably my age, but never mind--who sell potatoes.  Tiny red ones the size of meatballs;  deep indigo ones bursting with phyto-nutrients; and waxy, buttery, elegant fingerlings.

Most of the vendors at the market sell more than a single product.  Especially at this time of year, the vegetable farmers sell everything from chard to pumpkins;  the meat sellers offer squash;  and even the potter sets out a basket of garlic next to her mugs.  But not the potato couple.  They only sell potatoes.

In a crowd of vendors most of whom look like graduate students who ditched their dissertations to go back to the land, the potato couple are old-time farmers.  They've been growing potatoes for so long that they've come to resemble their product, short and squat and a little lumpy.  She deals with the public and he deals with the truck and the tent and the crates.  She refers to him not by name or as "my husband," but as "He," as in,"He planted a lot of Dutch Creams last spring."

I imagine their farm, a no-nonsense place north of here.  No Araucana hens laying colored eggs in charming coops, no mache or endive sprouting year-round under glass.  Just potatoes, and maybe an old dog, and the two of them at the kitchen table with the TV on now that the children are gone.  And on Sundays, the trek to the farmers' market to sell to summer people and flatlanders and leaf-peepers who park their SUVs by the side of the highway and carry their purchases in New Yorker totes.

Last week when I went to the market the heavens suddenly opened and the rain came down in torrents.  Tents flapped and leaked;  people could hardly hear each other speak for the noise of the water; and the Indian summer day suddenly turned cold.  The potato couple's tent was at the bottom of the field.  He had strewn a bale of hay in front of the potato table, but I nevertheless sank down to my ankles in mud.  She was doing her best with customer relations, but I could tell that she wanted to go home.

How much longer, I wondered, will they be able to do this--planting and weeding and harvesting and storing the potatoes, plus the endless round of farmers' markets?  Do they have any help at the farm?  Do they have savings, a pension?  

Except for the wealthy, buying produce at the farmers' market is a moral gesture.  Yes, the food is usually better than what you find at the supermarket, but it is a lot more expensive. It doesn't make immediate financial sense, but buying from these small local farmers is an act of faith and hope in, and charity towards, the community.  Vermont, which  has the lowest rates of church attendance in the country, leads the nation in the proportion of food that people buy locally, and even on that rainy Sunday the parking lot was full and cars were lined up by the side of the road.

This is good news for the potato couple, and for the young families with their college degrees, their  home-schooled children, and their dreams of raising food sustainably.  But given the perennially shaky economy, I wonder how long Vermonters will be able to continue to support their farmers.

For as long as possible, though, those of us who can would do well to spend part of our Sunday buying garlic from the potter, some soup bones from the meat lady, and a couple of pounds of tiny red potatoes from the potato couple.  There are, after all, many ways of attending church.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

More Crimes Against Nature: Lemon

The list of crimes against Nature in my Vermont garden is getting longer.  Along with espaliering an apricot tree and growing figs in a pot, I am attempting to produce a crop of Meyer lemons.

As with the apricots (three in this, the tree's first year) and figs (nine, in ditto) the lemon crop will be tiny--five, if they all make it.  I have known every one of those five lemons from conception--in fact, I was responsible for the conception of one of them, because when the tree first bloomed it was too cold to take it outside and I had to pretend I was a bee and fertilize the blooms indoors with a watercolor brush.

Meyer lemons, the offspring of a lemon and a sweet orange, originated in China, where they are grown in pots as ornamentals.  They are sweeter and more floral in flavor than ordinary lemons, and their yellow-orange skin is thinner.  Although they had been in this country since the early 1900s, they were rediscovered at Chez Panisse in the 1970s and later popularized by Martha Stewart.  Fancy chefs love them and have figured out a hundred uses for them, most of which are way too complicated for me.

Last winter I was so assiduous with my brush that a dozen flowers set fruit, and I was concerned about how the tiny tree would bear their weight.  But I needn't have worried.  When the little lemons got to be a quarter-inch long they all but one dropped off.

When the weather warmed I took the tree outside thinking that the sun and air would do it good, but with no thought of further fruit.  It surprised me by immediately covering itself in blooms again.  This time there were real bees to do the job, and most of the blooms set fruit.  Again, most of them fell off, but four persevered. 

Now they are tennis-ball-size, but still green.  The weather is turning colder by the day, and I worry that the lemons will not ripen properly indoors, so every evening I bring the tree inside, and take it out in the morning when the sun begins to warm the patio slates.  If it doesn't rain for a couple of days, I water it.  If the wind picks up, I move it to a sheltered spot. 

The four apple trees surrounding the patio watch all this and smirk.  They have withstood ice, snow and drought.  They have been chewed by Japanese beetles, buffeted by high winds and had their flowers decimated by late frosts.  They have not asked for help with fertilization or insect control.  Despite all this, hardy New Englanders that they are, they have produced a mountain of deep-red, crisp, sweet apples.  Now, without any fuss, they are shedding their leaves and going to sleep.

I don't blame them for smirking.  Why go to all this trouble for five measly lemons?  Because I'm human, of course.  Which means that I'm attracted by what is exotic, and delicate, and needing extra care--the tender perennial, the long-finned fish, the white cat, the tiny dog.  It's not just aesthetics or, in the case of fruit, gluttony.  It's the challenge of shaking my fist at Nature, showing her that I can do some things she can't.

As if.



Monday, October 14, 2013

Crimes Against Nature: Fig

Any day now, the Angel of the Killing Frost will descend to put an end to the 2013 gardening season.  Vermont gardeners will store away their tools and retire to their wood stoves with a book, tablet, e-reader, laptop or, in the lucky areas that have reception, smartphone.

Usually I can hardly wait for the Icy One to alight on our hill.  The thought of roasting another batch of eggplants or freezing another quart of beans makes me grow faint.  But this year is different.  This year I have a fig tree, with figs on it--seven, in fact.  It used to have nine, but I ate two.  They were so splendid, fat and ripe and warm from the sun, that I resolved to do all I can to bring the rest to, well, fruition.

This means frequent watering--my tree is in a pot--with buckets of fish-manure-enriched water from the goldfish tub.  It means sheltering it from the wind in the corner of the south-facing wall of the house and the enclosed porch, where it can grab every drop of sun and warmth that the waning season has to offer.  And it means going out a couple of times a day to see if there is anything I can do to make it more comfortable.

This way, even with the temperature hovering dangerously low at night, the figs still ripen, one at a time.  And I eat each one mindfully and reverently, amazed that such Mediterranean sweetness can  emerge from this Puritan soil.

It is a crime against Nature, or at least a misdemeanor, to try to grow figs in Vermont.  Figs need long strings of warm, sunny days to ripen, a moderately dry climate to concentrate the sugars in the fruit, and temperate winters.

The label on my tree, a Brown Turkey, assures me that it will be happy in its pot and survive temperatures as frigid as -10F.  People around here say they remember winters when the temperature would stay below zero for weeks on end, and reach twenty- and thirty-below at night.  In my nine winters in Vermont there's been nothing like this.  Occasionally there will be a fifteen-below night, but things soon warm up.  Still, I don't want to take any chances with my little tree, and am researching thermal blankets made especially for tender plants.  The fact that somebody out there actually makes and sells plant blankies tells me that I am not the only crazed gardener on the planet.

Why, you ask, go to all this trouble for just a couple of figs?  The answer lies not in the figs themselves, but in the warm sweet smell of the raspy leaves, which sends me back every time to those long-ago Catalan summers and the buggy rides to la figuera grossa, which was so enormous that the entire extended family, including the horse, could eat their lunch and then nap in its shade.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Duckweed

Ping and Pong, my fantail goldfish, live in a large tub in the sun porch.  The tub's amenities include a gravel floor and a little bamboo fountain that oxygenates the water and provides background music around the clock.  There are also a couple of aquatic plants, but they look meager and sparse and I thought that Ping and Pong, sociable though they are, would like a place to hide when they want privacy.

I spent some time trolling aquarium sites and found rave reviews of something called duckweed.
This plant, beloved of goldfish for its high protein content, not only gives them shade and privacy but keeps the water clean by discouraging algae and consuming excess nitrogen. You can buy half a cup's worth for $5.99, plus shipping.

I had a package of duckweed in my virtual basket--nothing is too good for P&P--when something made me want to find a picture of this fabulous plant. While Google Images was loading I looked out at the frog pond in the patio and made a mental note that it was time to yet again scoop out the weird, alga-like green stuff that has covered the water surface all summer long.  Google finished loading, and there, floating greenly on garden ponds and choking out entire lakes in South America was...the very stuff that I had been so dutifully scooping up and throwing out since the spring.

The common duckweed, Lemna minor, is a simple plant, consisting of two or three tiny bright-green leaves that lie flat on the surface of the water and trail a long, hair-like root below.  It has more protein than soybeans, which is why ducks and other waterfowl are so fond of it. It shelters the vulnerable young of aquatic creatures and takes up excess nutrients, which explains why the usually murky water of my pond has been exceptionally clear this season, and teeming with tadpoles, frogs and salamanders.  It is excellent food for laying hens, and is eaten by people in some parts of Southeast Asia.

I ran outside, scooped up a bunch of duckweed and brought it back to the goldfish tub.  Ping and Pong immediately disappeared under it.  Then I scooped up some more and called the hens.  They looked at it skeptically and backed off.  The mother superior, a Barred Rock with a bright red comb, took one bite, thought about it, took another, and the rest of the girls followed suit.  As they pecked I wondered how those people in Southeast Asia prepare their duckweed.  They probably saute it with a little garlic, and sprinkle it with soy sauce...

Lesson for the day:  before you go hunting for treasure on the internet, look in your own backyard.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Arachnicide

Every October, just in time for Halloween, the spiders lay siege to my house.

These are not the charming orb-weavers that E.B. White immortalized.  They are not the wispy critters that swing from the ceiling on a single gossamer thread.  They are big, dark, and fast.  They are wolf spiders.

I would much rather have real wolves at my door--come to think of it, I would love to have wolves at my door.  But instead I have these silent, faceless, scuttling beings intent on joining me indoors.

With the first cool nights they congregate by the door between the sun porch and the garage, and strategize.  The smaller ones squeeze through the chinks between the door and the jamb.  The big ones wait for me to open the door on my way to collect the eggs at night and they rush into where there is light and warmth, and the dogs' water dish, where they refresh themselves.

Last fall the invasion happened one evening when I was alone in the house.  It was sudden and  Hitchcockian, and my only defensive weapon was a spray bottle of water laced with a few drops of dish detergent that works like a charm on the tiny ants that occasionally visit our kitchen.  But the wolf spiders were way bigger and tougher than the ants.  They just shook off the water and kept coming.

Next I tried dousing them with organic apple cider vinegar, but ended up getting most of it on my clothes.  I finally resorted to gross mechanical means:  the fly-swatter and my own feet, clad in sturdy clogs.  When my spouse finally arrived he found me pale and disheveled, sipping weakly at a glass of Cointreau.  I told him I had killed at least a dozen spiders, and his response was, "But why?"

The horror of that night stayed with me all year.  I knew that fall would come again, and with it the wolf spiders.



Then I remembered something from my camel-cricket-fighting days in Maryland.  Camel crickets are big, pale, silent beings that haunt people's basements in the southern latitudes and also are obsessed with coming into the house in the fall.  They will, if the mood strikes them, jump on you.  The only thing to deter them was borax, the white powder that you add to your laundry to make clothes brighter.  I would sprinkle it on the basement steps and when the crickets landed on the stuff they would just sort of wither and die.

This fall, as soon as the sumac started to redden, I was ready with a box of 20 Mule Team Borax.  I sprinkled it around the edges of the porch floor, and really went crazy in the garage, especially near the door to the house, mounding it until it looked like snow drifts.  I don't know exactly what the stuff does to the heavily armored wolf spiders, but it seems to slow them down as they walk through it, which gives me a chance to whack them with the fly swatter.

And whack them I do.  Every night when I go to collect the eggs I carry the swatter and manage to bag  a couple of spiders.  There don't seem to be as many as last year, and very few have gotten into the house.  So my borax barricade appears to be helping.

I am aware that my spider-killing mania is at odds with most of the principles that I otherwise hold dear.  Spiders, my spouse never tires of reminding me, are beneficial.  I should live and let live.  "Not when they are the size of an egg and crawl inside my barn boots," I counter, swatter in hand.

All this is surely rooted in childhood.  One of my aunts was terrified of spiders, and I must have caught my fear from her.  On the other hand, my mother would literally lose her mind if you showed her even a picture of a mouse, and I did not catch musophobia from her.  In fact, I actually like field mice, with their big babyish heads and bright little eyes, and if they didn't poop so much and carry noxious viruses I would keep one as a pet, as Beatrix Potter did.  None of this makes a shred of sense, I realize.

The annual mouse migration into Vermont basements will probably start tonight, when the first frost is predicted to arrive.  The mice come in hordes, much more numerous than wolf spiders, and, not having a cat, we are reduced to killing them ourselves.  Or rather, my spouse does it, setting traps every night and feeding the dead to the chickens in the morning.  Me, I avert my eyes and wipe away a hypocritical tear.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Writing Bed

One day when I was in the depths of my recent shingles attack, I set up the double bed that spends most of its life folded inside a convertible sofa in the downstairs guest room.  I

I put on a blue fitted bottom sheet, stacked some pillows against the back, and folded a crocheted afghan across the bottom.  Then I lay down, exhausted, and closed my eyes.  Bisou came streaking into the room, took a flying leap and landed beside me, and gave a big sigh.  I sighed too, a sigh not of pain or discomfort or boredom, but of contentment.  I had solved the bed-and-Bisou problem.

Knowing the limits of a spouse's tolerance helps to keep a marriage going, and in the case of my particular spouse Bisou's body on the conjugal bed is beyond those limits.  In normal times, Wolfie and Bisou sleep on their own bed at night, on the floor next to my side of things.  During the day, I do my reading or writing or napping or mindless staring into space on various sofas and chairs where Bisou and I can be in close bodily contact.

But when the shingles hit, I was too sick to sit on a chair or even recline on a sofa.  I needed to be in bed, but I also needed my comfort spaniel.  Hence the recourse to the guest bed during the day.

I'm feeling better now--today I even did the laundry--but I'm still spending a lot of time on the guest room bed.  I have the phone nearby, and a cup of lemon balm tea from the lemon balm jungle at the back door.  A good lamp on either side of the bed, and a view of the trees turning russet along the driveway.  Also my Kindle, for when I get tired of writing.  And when I get tired of reading I can close my eyes and subside against the pillows, one hand on Bisou's silky back.

Compared to this, the living room, the sun porch, and my study, have come to seem pretty spartan.  In those rooms you cannot flow seamlessly from snoozing to reading to writing and back again.  You have to make an executive decision about what you're going to do and where you're going to do it, and then you have to get up and implement it.  It's a vertical kind of existence, and I am really getting fond of the horizontal.

The tradition of writing in bed is a long and honorable one.  Before central heating, lots of writers wrote in bed, for practical reasons.  But even in the twentieth century, when houses became more comfortable, Proust, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, George Orwell and Truman Capote all took to bed in order to write.

Why is that?  It's possible that the bed evokes a less formal and therefore less intimidating feeling than the hard, flat, cold surface of a desk.  In bed, you can just scribble and jot, whereas at a desk, you have to WRITE.

And perhaps the bed, with its softness and warmth, its invitation to recline and even to close the eyes, offers a physical conduit to that dreamy state in which the internal critic retreats and the poor neglected subconscious comes out to play.

Just curious:  how many of you like to write in bed?


Sunday, September 29, 2013

My Kindle And Other Miracles

Thanks to all of you who sent good wishes both here and by e-mail.  It worked:   my survival now appears inevitable.

Two days ago I left the house on non-medical business (lunch with a friend) for the first time in a month, and was amazed to see that, while I was suffering my attack of shingles, fall had arrived in Vermont--the time of year when the drive to the post office is so beautiful it hurts.

Between the pain and the pain meds, my memories of the last few weeks are hazy, but I do know I could not have survived without my Kindle.  In the days before the diagnosis, when the pain at night would keep me pacing, trying to hold out for another hour before waking up my spouse to take me to the ER, I slogged through a big chunk of the Journals of Thomas Merton.   I was unable to follow a plot or a line of argument, but Merton's oscillations from self-doubt to elation fit the rhythms of my mind as it was brought to focus, over and over, on the physical pain.

After Merton, when my brain started to clear a bit, there was a Trollope novel.  I don't know what I'm going to do when I run out of Trollope novels--I'm almost through his entire oeuvre.  Perhaps I should start saving them for emergencies.  Finally I read a hugely entertaining biography of the six Mitford sisters (Love in a Cold Climate, by Nancy Mitford, is one of my favorite novels).  Compared to what their mother had to endure, having shingles seemed a piece of cake.

Thanks to my beloved Kindle I could, in the middle of the night, my breath sour and my hair unwashed, press a few keys and have a book come winging to me out of the ether, as precious and consoling as a percocet.

But the shingles wasn't all bad, and in fact it worked a small miracle:  I lost ten pounds in two weeks, literally without lifting a finger (I didn't have the strength to lift a finger).  As someone who can go whole decades without losing her appetite, when it went away and stayed away I was filled with curiosity.  Why wasn't I hungry?  Why was I, a lifetime member of the clean-plate club, now pushing away most of my dinner untouched?  Why did nothing--not a ripe tomato still warm from the sun, or an apple from my tree, or a slice of home-made bread--hold the slightest appeal?

Then a couple of days ago, as I was sprinkling blueberries on a small dish of yoghurt---drearily thinking protein, antioxidants, acidophilus--I suddenly noticed a wet sensation in my mouth.  I was salivating!

Since that moment I've been thinking about food a lot, and wondering how I might recapture that elegant standoffishness towards meals that I enjoyed so briefly.  How can I hang on to that viral windfall, those vanished pounds?  I have no idea, but I suspect it will require lifting a finger or two every once in a while.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Troubles And Tribulations

It is about time I came out of the hole where I've been hiding the last couple of weeks and explained the reason for my silence.

I've been suffering from a hard-to-diagnose case of shingles which necessitated a couple of trips to the ER, two treks to a distant medical center, and treatment with an antiviral that I couldn't tolerate.

The pain is mostly gone now, but I feel like I've been hit by a fleet of UPS trucks.  I hope to be able to resume writing soon, and to find that you're still there when I do.

P.S.  For those of you who are wondering:  I did have the shingles vaccine a few years ago.  It does not guarantee that one won't get the disease, but supposedly makes it less virulent.  (I cannot imagine what the virulent version must be like.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Canning Jars For The Soul

Although I have never canned so much as a single bean, my kitchen is full of canning jars.  Some are squat, some tall, some blue, and some clear.  Some have bubbles in the glass, and many have the old bail fasteners, grown gray and dull with age.  The oldest have glass-lined zinc screw tops, also gray and dull.

I collect jars the way some people collect cats--I wait for them to come to me.  It started with some wide-mouth, gallon-size jars that were left behind by the couple who sold us our first house.  The jars, with their geometric embossed designs, have a 1940s look. Their green tops have been screwed and unscrewed so many times that the threads are hopelessly worn, and the only way to get them to stay on is to line them with wax paper. We have lived in eight houses since that first one, and in each house those three jars--one holding white flour, one holding whole-wheat flour, and one holding the incredibly hot red peppers that I grow and dry--have held pride of place on the kitchen counter.


 
 But my most important acquisition, the one that told me in no uncertain terms that the universe intended for me to be a keeper of jars, took place at the town dump.
Unlike many of my friends and neighbors, I do not enjoy my monthly trips to the dump.  In fact, that is the one time when I wish I lived elsewhere than in my green Vermont--somewhere with curb-side trash pick-up and recycling.  But one hot summer day, while I was concentrating on breathing through my mouth to avoid the dump fug, I saw, next to the old recliners and dinette sets and boxes of paperbacks, two cardboard boxes filled with antique canning jars, the jetsam of some dead grandmother's pantry. 

I rushed them home as if they were a box of kittens, gave them a good wash, and set them out on the counter.  The afternoon light coming through the window shone right through them as I ramsacked the pantry for pasta, beans, quinoa (the ancient grain of the Incas!), chia seeds, scottish oatmeal, barley, and lentils.  Then I cut open the store packaging and poured the contents into my heaven-sent  jars. 

Since then I have added to my collection by more traditional means.  I have bought a few old jars at a yard sale, and a couple of brand-new Italian ones from a fancy kitchen store in a mall somewhere.  And when people give me little jars of jelly or preserves that they have made, I always find something to put in them after I've eaten the contents--herbs for tea, or a small bag of pumpkin seeds.

Why so many canning jars, when I don't can?  I like their looks--I'd rather have a row of bright jars full of staples on a shelf than a row of cellophane bags or cardboard boxes.  And the jars allow me to fantasize that my food comes not from the supermarket but from the bins of some idealized and non-existent village general store.

Most of all, the jars enable me to maintain an illusion of old-fashioned domesticity, without the unremitting labor and monotony.   I can pretend that those homely and charming vessels are daily used by a cheerful female presence, the angel of the house--someone not remotely like me.

Sometimes I look at those jars and imagine my daughters kneeling among packing boxes--some marked "trash," others "Goodwill"--in the kitchen after my death, saying to each other, "Why do you suppose she had such a thing for canning jars?  God knows she never canned anything."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Plopping Breed

After flying like a bullet through the late-summer fields, Bisou comes back covered with burrs.  They are tiny and sticky and in less than a minute her silky hair forms big tight mats around every single one of them.

I put her belly-up on my lap and go to work--her long ears first, then the pale gold hair on her chest, the feathers on her legs, the weird long hairs that grow between her toes and are a mark of her breed.  No matter how careful I am, pinching the hair between the mat and the skin to keep from tugging, and making short strokes with the comb, it hurts.

Yet she stays in position, her wide eyes firmly fixed on mine, reaching up periodically to lick my face.  I have brushed a lot of dogs in my life--large and small, long- and short-haired, tough and sensitive--but never one like this.

This is what more than four-hundred years of selective breeding gets you.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels became popular in the 17th century under King Charles II of England.   The King was never without his pack of "spaniels gentle," and published an edict allowing the little dogs to appear in public anywhere in the kingdom.  (I would take Bisou everywhere with me too, if I didn't feel guilty about leaving Wolfie behind.)

After the burrs and the mats are gone, Bisou shakes herself and plops down on my lap.  She is an excellent plopper.  It seems impossible to me that a dog with her muscles and speed and passionate drive can turn it all off in an instant, and just plop.  I wish I could be like that.

Four centuries of breeding do not come without a price, however.  Cavaliers are plagued with heart problems, neurological problems, eye and ear problems, so it's crucial to pick from healthy stock.
But before you even think of getting a Cavalier, you need to be prepared for the plop issue.

Whenever she's not chasing balls or frogs or butterflies, your dog will want to be on your lap.  In the hottest hours of the year she might temporarily desert your lap to lie down next to you, but the entire length of her body will be right against your sweaty leg.  Then the minute the temperature drops, she will, with a groan of deep satisfaction, plop down on your lap again.

If you own a Cavalier, make sure before you sit down that you have at hand your phone, your book, your computer, your coffee, and your reading glasses, since once a Cavalier has plopped on your lap, you don't get up for trivial reasons.  She will be deaf to your commands to move, and if you try to shift her she will somehow make herself infinitely heavier than her eighteen pounds.  You will have to lift her bodily, and when you come back to your chair having retrieved whatever it was you thought you had to have, she will have moved into the warm spot that you left behind, and you will have to shift her again.  Fortunately, she won't hold that against you.

Over the four years that Bisou's been with me, I've gotten used to my little red shadow.  In the beginning, she would periodically disappear and I would search all over the house for her.  Now I know, if she's not either on me or within a couple of yards of me, to check the bedroom closet.  She follows me in there when I get dressed, and sometimes when I leave she's busy sniffing shoes and I shut the door before she can get out.

King Charles was a man of taste.  He wore little heels and long curly wigs and liked to have fun.  He made it legal for women in England to act on the stage, and without him we wouldn't have  Dames Vanessa, Helen, Judi or Maggie.  But worst of all, I wouldn't have Bisou.

Bisou and the King

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Winter's Worth Of Wort

In Vermont, people spend much of the summer preparing for winter.  They garden obsessively, and then they can, freeze, dry, pickle and jell the harvest.  They scour the countryside for sources of well-cured hay for their goats, horses, donkeys, llamas and sheep (people who have cows usually grow their own hay).  And they chop, split and stack wood into piles that are viewed with as much admiration as the rows of canned beans, tomatoes and apple sauce in the pantry.

I do a little of all the above, though now that my goats are gone my hay hunt is limited to what I use for mulch and chicken bedding.  But these activities only address the body's needs, for warmth and nourishment.  This year, I wanted to address the needs of the mind and heart as well.

Even when the vegetables are canned and the freezer is full and the wood is stacked, Vermonters shudder slightly at the thought of  winter:  the long dark evenings and the sporadic isolation that the weather imposes on even the hardiest souls.  At one time or another, between November and March, most of us complain of winter blues, cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder and generalized Weltschmerz.

Saint John's Wort  has long been revered in Europe as a remedy against moderate depression, PMS, insomnia, SAD, OCD, and a number of other ills .  I've always liked it that this plant, with its supposedly cheering effects, looks so cheerful, from its bright yellow flowers to its blood-red sap.

I like it so much that this year I went slightly overboard.  I filled a couple of big trash bags with flowers and leaves and macerated them for a month in two half-gallon jars filled with the cheapest vodka I could find.  Yesterday I gave them a final shake, strained the contents through cheese cloth, and decanted the wild-looking red tincture--the mere sight of which made me feel instantly energized--into bottles:


I threw the extremely alcoholic vegetable detritus into the chicken house and waited around to see what the hens would do.  They sniffed it and turned away in disgust, but the stuff will make terrific compost anyway.

With more than I could possibly use of the potent tincture at hand, I feel well armed against winter--practically looking forward to it, in fact.  I can see myself now, dispensing largesse from the top of our hill, squirting dropperfuls of the red panacea onto the tongues of melancholy friends...

(To those of you who are knowledgeable about herbs:  do not be disturbed by those bottles in the sunny window.  I  put them there just for picture-taking purposes.  I have since stowed them safely in a darker place.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Good Bread And How To Make It

After my recent post lamenting the decline of bread as a wholesome food, Jaimie sent me a link to a website that offers an older, healthier variety of wheat. 

I then searched for local sources of this flour and didn't find any.  But I did find a Vermont farmer who produces organic stone-ground flour from hard red winter wheat.  Bread purists say that the only way to make good bread is to grind your own flour, but since I neither own a grinder nor can deal with the minimum purchase of 50 lbs of wheat berries at the farm, I compromised by driving 40 minutes (which is as nothing around here) to a co-op that sells this flour in bulk.

I scooped what looked to me like fifteen pounds--after all, winter's on the way--into a plastic bag and came home and put it in the fridge.  The next day I looked up some recipes and stumbled upon one in Countryside Magazine (unfortunately I cannot find it again on their website without signing up for something or other) that looked reasonably easy.  Here is my version:

Put 3 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour into a bowl and add 2 tablespoons brown sugar (next time I'll try honey instead), 2 teaspoons salt and 2 teaspoons yeast.  Mix well.

Add 2 tablespoons coconut oil or butter (I used coconut oil, but will try olive oil with the next batch) to 1 1/2 cups of water that's been heated to 100F-120F.  When the fat has melted, pour liquid into the flour and mix. Add one egg.  Mix well and gradually add another cup or so of flour until the dough reaches the right consistency for kneading. 

Knead, in the bowl or on a floured board, for ten minutes (the recipe says to knead it in a mixer, but where's the fun of that?).

Put the dough in a greased bowl, turn it to grease all sides, cover it with a cloth and let it rise in a warm spot for about an hour.  Then punch it down, divide it into two loaves and place them into greased loaf pans.  Cover and let rise for one to two hours.

Bake the loaves at 350F for about half an hour.  Then let them cool in the pans for about ten minutes.  Remove the loaves and finish cooling them on wire racks.


Although this is nothing like the crusty bread of my childhood, it is sweet and nutty, easy to slice and surprisingly light, considering that it's made with 100% whole wheat. I froze one loaf and made some inroads into the other.

The bad news?  I gained a pound.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Change Of Tempo

As I write, in the kitchen tomato sauce is bubbling, eggplants are roasting, and bread dough, I hope, is rising.

This is only a fraction of what I should be doing:  making pesto out of kale, and freezing industrial quantities of broccoli, chard, arugula and rhubarb.  It's the time of year when I almost dread going out to the garden to see what is screaming to be picked right now.


And then, of course, I want to write here about it, all of which sometimes leads to mental as well as physical exhaustion.  If I am to survive this season--and I do realize that choosing this moment to start baking bread again is insane, but I found a source of terrific flour that I'll tell you about soon--I am going to have to slow down the pace of my posting.

I could, of course, choose to not harvest, not bake, not walk the dogs, but then what would I write about?

So I hope that you will be more patient than the tomatoes and the eggplants and the peppers and the greens and not dry up on me or turn away in disgust.  My aim is to post regularly, two or three times a week, with illustrations, and in between give the well time to replenish itself.  Writing and drawing here gives shape to my life and joy to my days.  I wouldn't dream of quitting.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Department Of True Confessions: My Fur Coat

It's hanging in the entrance closet, under a tailor-made cover with my name embroidered on it.  I've had it since the year I turned forty, a gift from my spouse.

It was supposed to signify that I had finally attained maturity, intellectual ripeness and maybe even common sense, and that he and I, together, had by sheer dint of sweat and some tears excavated the basement and were now adding floors to the house of our marriage:  children on the verge of adolescence, careers on the upswing, future looking o.k.  It was the 80s, and people wore fur then.

The coat wasn't a surprise, since it had to be fitted and adjusted to my measurements.  We shopped for it together, over a period of months, going from fur store to fur store in Baltimore.  We'd walk into those silent, carpeted rooms and were instantly attended by a salesman (never, for some reason, a saleswoman) while I tried to exude a self-confident urban chic that my academic weeds belied.

The salesman would look me over, then disappear and return holding what looked like a large animal limp in his arms.  Holding the coat by the shoulders he would sweep it insouciantly over the carpet and then  ruffle the fur the wrong way with his hand, in the exact gesture that cats despise.

I felt terribly nervous.  What were we doing, proposing to spend x amount of dollars on a winter coat?  Didn't I already own a perfectly serviceable parka?  But, hey, I was turning forty, and it was the 1980s.

One thing I was sure of:  I did not want mink.  Mink was of my mother's generation, and I wanted a fur that was more hip.  Coyote and fox were too dog-like.  Sable was out of our price range, as were marten and ermine.  That left--and I am beating my breast as I write--seal.

Not the pure white coat of the baby seal, but the deep, even, chocolate brown fur of the adult, short and velvety and delicious to the touch.  Its raised collar caressed my cheeks like a butterfly.  Its cuffs tickled my wrists.  And from shoulders to mid-calf I felt enveloped in a softness that was at once cool and amazingly warm.  We bought the seal coat.


What makes us do these things?  I have no idea.  All I can say is that, while I would not have bought something made from an animal that I knew to be endangered, such as an ocelot, I wore that seal coat as unthinkingly as I ate hamburgers at McDonald's or put newspapers in the garbage.  Those were the days.

But they didn't last, thank goodness.  By the time the decade was over, the horrors of the fur trade had been made public, and urban fur-wearers were routinely spattered with paint the color of blood.  On cold days I found myself reaching for a wool jacket, or my trusty old parka.

It's been a quarter century since I last wore that coat.  Although it makes me uneasy to see it hanging in my closet--I should do something with it, but what?--I'm glad that things have changed.  I'm glad that nobody--nobody I know, anyway--wears fur anymore.  I'm glad that many people think twice now before eating industrially-produced beef.  I'm glad that almost everybody recycles.

And on days when I feel that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, when the climate is warming and Egypt is exploding, I think of the fur coat languishing in my closet and say to myself that, at least in some things, we have made progress.