Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Rite Of Socks

Since yesterday's post about the citrus trees, I've had Versailles on my mind.  I've been thinking about the morning ceremony known as le lever du Roi, when the highest nobles in the land, having intrigued for the privilege for years, would awaken the King and offer the kinds of services that, in our day and age, are tendered only to incapacitated inmates of nursing homes.

Although I get out of bed with a lot less hoopla than le Roi Soleil my mornings are not entirely devoid of ritual.  I'm talking about the Rite of Socks, which involves me, the two dogs, and my chaussettes.

Every morning while I get dressed Wolfie lies down on the rug between the bed and my dresser.  When I sit on the edge of the bed with my socks in my hand, Bisou comes running, throws herself on her back on the rug next to Wolfie, and does a frantic snake dance.  Then she rights herself and, growling fiercely, starts to nibble Wolfie's lip.  This causes Wolfie to open his mouth wide and break into a high-pitched yodeling, which gives Bisou the opportunity to put her entire head inside his mouth.

"Gentle!" I caution, seeing those saber-tiger teeth flash close to Bisou's eyes, but the dogs are too far gone to hear me. As Bisou's nipping continues, Wolfie's yodels rise in pitch and her growls descend a couple of scales.  Between the two of them I can barely hear myself think.  When he can't take it any more, Wolfie rolls on his back and does his version of the snake dance, snapping his jaws for accompaniment.  This is the point where I have to make sure I keep my bare toes out of the way.

Then suddenly the frenzy abates.  Bisou, seeing that I now have both socks on, throws herself at me, ears flapping, tongue hanging out, "Are we going out?  Are we going out?  Are we going out right now?"  As she rushes headlong down the stairs Wolfie flops down on the rug.  I flop back on the bed.  We both need a minute to catch our breath.

Monday, February 25, 2013


When I ordered my lemon tree online, this is what I had in mind...

except for the elegant planter, of course, and the palace of Versailles in the background.  I didn't expect it to have that perfect shape, either, since mine would be in its comparative infancy.  But I did assume that it would have been pruned in such a way as to have some hope of growing into a decent shape.  Sort of the way you take a puppy to puppy classes so it will have the best chances of growing up to be a good dog.

When my tree arrived it had indeed been pruned--you could see the stubs where former branches had attached to the trunk--but it looked like it had been pruned by a tribe of drunken monkeys.  Branches were growing at crazy angles, pressing against each other and looking scraggly.  Getting this tree was a bit like adopting a dog from the pound--neither one arrives looking its best.

But, as with a new dog, at first my attention on the tree was focused on survival issues--giving it just the right amount of water, putting it in a spot it liked.  This must have worked, because the next thing I knew the tree was covered in flower buds, dozens of them on every branch.  Many of those buds fell off, but many clung to the branches and started opening, filling the kitchen with their scent.

Much as I loved the blooms, however, every time I went near the tree all I could see were those clumsy branches growing at ugly angles.  I badly wanted to do some pruning, but I held back because, 1.  you're only supposed to prune while a tree is dormant, and mine was exuberantly awake;  and, 2.  by chopping off the offensive branches I would be cutting my potential lemon crop in half.

 I didn't want to harm the tree, and I badly wanted every last lemon it could produce, so for a couple of weeks I controlled myself and tried to focus on the flowers, which I was hand-pollinating with an old watercolor brush, and their smell. But I wasn't satisfied. To me, the flowers were decorative and thus contingent, but the shape of the tree was essential.  And the shape was all wrong.

Then one morning I was impersonating a bee, dabbing pollen onto pistils, when suddenly, out of nowhere, I had pruning shears in my hand and was slicing off branches right and left.  Decimating my potential lemon crop.  Possibly harming the tree.

I threw the branches (all those flower buds, such a pity!) out on the snow and took a good look at my newly svelte tree.  It was no longer covered in blossoms, but now it had shape, design, intention.   It no longer looked like a refugee from the pound, but like a tree that was loved.

March is almost here, and the little apple trees on my patio are looking scraggly, full of suckers that cry out for the secateurs.  By the time I'm done with them they will be nicely pollarded, the main branches coming off the trunk at wide angles, the interior of the tree trimmed free of clutter so the sun can reach the fruit.  They will have the well-tended, cared-for look of a freshly bathed dog and whoever sees them will think, "these are trees that somebody loves."

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bisou And B.F. Skinner

I have been avoiding clicker training for years.  This is a method, heavily based on the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner, that gives the trainee--dolphin, horse or dog--immediate positive reinforcement for performing a desired action.  The reinforcement consists of a metallic click followed by a treat.

It sounds simple, but it isn't.  The idea is to not force or lure the dog to do anything, but to simply click and deliver a treat.  Thus, by a patient game of "hot or cold," you can train Bisou to jump up onto a cane-bottomed rocking chair.  This is remarkable because dogs are not fond of jumping onto moving surfaces full of little holes.

I sneered at clicker training when I first heard of it.  It seemed amoral to my Catholic soul (all that bribery!) and abhorrent to my minimalist preferences (you have to have with you a clicker and a bag of treats in addition to a collar and leash every time you want to train).  And it is complicated, at least at the beginning.  Delivering clicks and treats at the precise moment they are required, plus holding a leash with a wiggly dog at the end of it while staying upright and listening to the instructor can feel overwhelming.

But I signed up because Bisou's brain needed stimulation and the only class available was clicker-based.  At first, it was a disaster.  Not only was I late and sloppy and endlessly fumbling in my clicking and treating, but Bisou, who would weigh eighty pounds as opposed to seventeen if I gave her all the food she wants, went completely to pieces whenever she saw the treat bag fastened around my waist.  Her eyes would bug out of her head and she would jump and twirl and yip and act like a complete idiot.  This from a dog who will be four this summer, and who had, albeit in her earliest youth, gone through obedience and agility training.

It took a couple of weeks for the sight of the treat bag to stop driving her into a frenzy and for me to become more adept at clicking and treating.  And things began to change--the clicker seemed to work.  I have to say that on paper clicker training seems, despite the complete absence of negative corrections, somewhat heartless and inhuman.  Maybe I got that impression because, when you're training a new behavior, you're not supposed to speak to the dog, just click and treat the correct action and ignore the incorrect.  And for me speech is so tightly tied to the mechanics of affection that to do without it seems cold and impersonal.

But I am not a dog.  And Bisou, once she stopped going into hysterics at the sight of the treat bag, has taken to the clicker like a duck to water.   She cannot wait to train;  cannot wait to get to class;  and once there, cannot wait for her turn to perform.  On command, she touches her nose to my hand, walks on top of squishy pillows, drops to the ground from a walk.  Last week, when the instructor put out some agility obstacles that she hadn't seen since she was a puppy, she threw herself at each one--the tunnel, the ring, the teeter--as if she'd been practicing all along.  All I had to do was stand there and point.  One that she had never seen before, the ladder, she did perfectly from the very first attempt.

What can I say?  She has a lot of drive stored in her DNA.  When I was first considering buying her and was told that her father was an agility champion, I thought that this boded well for her general health, which is a huge concern with this particular breed.  But I had no idea what this would mean for her temperament and needs.

Now I know.  It means an irrepressible joy in doing, and endless energy.  Some dogs in the class have to be motivated to do stuff.  Bisou has to be slowed down.  I am not good at that.  Her eagerness makes me hyper, which in turn excites her more, so that the two of us are forever in danger of spiraling off into the stratosphere. 

Bisou's DNA is a source of some guilt and regret to me.  What is a dog with this kind of breeding doing, going to class once a week and chasing balls in the front field the rest of the time?  Isn't a dog's mind a terrible thing to waste?  Shouldn't I be devoting my life to taking her to agility trials all over the country, amassing ribbons?

But I don't think that a trunk full of ribbons would make her tail wag any faster.  I figured out at some cost, years ago, that just because one can do something well is no reason that one should do it.  I think I will apply that lesson to Bisou.

If you'd like to see her sire, Denzil, covering himself with glory, click here (scroll down for videos): http://daisylanecavaliers.com/daisylane_paws/denzil

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dread Of Spring

No doubt about it, spring is on its way.  No matter the frigid mornings, the sere landscapes, the hungry birds and deer, the time of growth and renewal is inevitable, is at hand.  I can tell by the sunlight that hits my eyelids from our east-facing window before the alarm rings at seven;  from the fact that the hens are awake when I greet them with a pan of hot milk for their breakfast;  from the honey-colored light that hits the side of the garage in the late afternoon.  Spring is coming, and there's not a thing I can do about it.

More and more, I find spring a scary time.  I'm not the first to feel this way either--you remember what T.S. Eliot said about April.  And Stravinsky's Rite of Spring makes my hair stand on end whenever I hear it:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1tn7WJ9lRc&list=PL8B572976288776C9

As people around here greet each other with "have you noticed how light it is at five?" I feel a desire to hold things back, to slow the march of the year a bit.  Yes, I'm glad the days are longer.  Yes, it's wonderful that when I walk the dogs in the front field I can actually feel the sun.  But please, let this time of reprieve, when the days are longer and the sun is warmer but nothing as yet is happening out there, last a little longer.

Because, the minute it starts happening, I'm going to have to be out there dealing with it.  Pruning the apple trees, putting down mulch, planting spinach in the snow, and then weeding, weeding, weeding (everybody knows that early weeding saves much labor in the hot months).  This to be followed by more planting, more weeding, and the endless cycle of harvesting, preserving and fertilizing that will get us into fall and through the next winter.  Just thinking about it makes me want to take a nap.

I love this cold weather respite.  I rejoice in going down to the basement freezer and pulling out the night's ration of frozen broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, chard, tomato sauce, or eggplant that I put by last summer.  Getting supper on the table is a snap in winter.  But it took endless hours at the sink and stove to wash and parboil and cool and pack and label and freeze those veggies,  and as I contemplate the coming spring and summer I wonder, do I have it in me to do it again?

With some breaks for urban living, I've been going through this cycle since the mid 1970s.  How much longer can I keep up the illusion of (relative) self-sufficiency?  How much longer will the taste of those tender first salads-- that "veal" spinach and lettuce as a friend used to call it--sustain my determination to live close to the earth?

The answer is, as long as I'm able.  I imagine myself growing thinner (at last!) and shorter (alas!), white hair pulled back into a bun, creeping around my vegetable beds, picking the evening's meal with my gnarled hands, toddling inside while two old dogs snuffle at my feet, going from sink to stove with slow, deliberate steps.

Really, that's not a bad vision of the future at all.   So I guess I'll keep on growing things as long as my fingers can hold the pruning shears and my back can bend to push tiny seeds into the moist soil.  But meanwhile, I intend to squeeze every minute of my winter reprieve and pretend that the eerie drumbeats of approaching spring are still a long way away.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What's In It For Me

 I've been feeling strangely perky of late.  It might be the lengthening hours of daylight--I've noticed a definite decrease in melancholia among my local friends since the beginning of February--or it might be the crazy new training I'm doing with Bisou (more on this in a later post).  But I think that the real cause is my frequent posting here.

It is encouraging to see the number of "hits" rise proportionally to the frequency of posts.  And it is way  more than that--it warms the very cockles of my coeur--when you respond.  But daily posting does even more than that.

A normal day on this windy hilltop consists of a series of mundane tasks enlivened by a visit with a friend or a good movie in the evening.  But if it is a day in which I plan to write a post, it becomes a day lived with intention, a day in which my inner periscope is constantly scanning the horizon for possible topics as I fold the laundry, trim the dogs' nails, or mist that darn lemon tree.  A day when I take special note of the weather, check the mood of the hens as well as my own, remember things I've read or heard people say.  A day that builds quietly to a climax when I open my laptop and type in a working title.

If I didn't have this self-imposed posting deadline, outwardly my days would go on exactly as they are.  I'd be walking the dogs in the woods, folding the eternal laundry, defrosting the supper veggies.  But preparing to write a post gives shape to my experiences.  If there's nothing on the horizon but a basketful of laundry to be folded, the very fact that I'm trying to come up with something to say about it redeems it from drudgery and gives it meaning.

Finally, after the shitty first draft and the draconian deletions and the final tweakings, I stuff my message into its Blogger bottle and push it out into the ether.  And then comes the reward that only writers know about, the exquisite relief of having written.

What funny creatures we are, with our infinite hankering for story.  When I was very small and had to take afternoon naps my mother's sister would often take me to her room and let me lie on her bed.  Then, with the curtains drawn against the afternoon sun, she would quietly turn on her radio.  Often all she could get was static, or those weird whistling sounds that ancient radios used to make.  But out of that static she would make up a story about a mosquito that lived inside the radio and was telling us stories in mosquito-language. 

And that is what blogging is for me:  making stories out of the static of everyday life, giving it shape, color and direction.  Making it bearable.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cafe Writer

J.K. Rowling, who couldn't afford to heat her house, wrote in a cafe because it was warm.  Simone de Beauvoir also wrote in a cafe, I suspect because she needed to get away from J.P. Sartre's demands for clean ashtrays, praise, and cigars.  Lately I too have been doing some writing in the cafe attached to the sacrosanct independent store in the next town.

Like all cafes, this one is noisy.  I can hear every detail of the confidences the two young mothers at the next table are exchanging, and there is music, a fairly harmless variety of country that I nevertheless would rather do without.  And yet, despite the talk and the music, I sit at my table, sip my Dark Roast Peruvian Rain Forest Decaf, and write.

In college I did a lot of studying in the campus snack bar while the juke box blared, hamburgers sizzled on the grill, and people wandered in and out--it's a miracle that I ever managed to learn anything.  But I would sit there despite the chaos until the last possible moment before going back to my parents' house, where many duties awaited me.  Sitting in the snack bar was the closest I could come to dorm  life, that halcyon state of unlimited freedom and few responsibilities that my American contemporaries enjoyed.  Also, if I sat there long enough, whoever had custody of my heart at the moment might come through the door and plop his books down on my table.  And then--oh, then there would be no more studying.

Perhaps what makes writing in a cafe enjoyable now is that although I am surrounded by distractions they have nothing to do with me.  If the women at the next table get into an argument, it's not for me  to intervene.  And I certainly cannot step into the laundry room to put the clothes in the dryer, or run downstairs to let Wolfie and Bisou out and spritz the lemon tree while I wait to let them back in.

In the cafe I sit with my coffee inside an imaginary but powerful bubble, simultaneously exposed and protected, and wait for the words to come.  The only thing I'm missing (and I'd write so much better if I had one!) is a cigarette.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In Which I Answer A Personal Ad

I just found this in the "Personals" column of a local paper:  "Elderly man would like to meet middle-aged female for dining, dancing, sports & lots of hugs!"  If the ad had given an address instead of just a phone number I might have written the following:

Dear Elderly Man,

I applaud your honesty in classifying yourself as "elderly."   Many a less scrupulous gent, trying to put his best foot forward, might have omitted that important adjective.  I also approve of your desire for human company, which is good for people of any age.  And it's great that you're into sports (not just as a spectator, I hope), and dancing.  Dining is o.k. too, as long as you don't overdo it.

It's the "middle-aged" stipulation  that bothers me.  Powerful men have always gone after, and often gotten, younger women.  In his nineties, the cellist Pau Casals married one of his students, who was then in her twenties.  The guitarist Andres Segovia fathered a child when he was in his seventies.  And everybody knows about Picasso.  But it doesn't sound from your little ad as though you are powerful, or a genius, or wanting to beget offspring.  It sounds like you are an ordinary guy who wants to have fun.

And to have fun you want a middle-aged woman instead of one who, like you, is elderly.  A  middle-aged woman will probably:  a)  be better at sports and dancing and, b) have fewer wrinkles than an elderly one.  But did you ever prior to penning your ad put yourself in that imaginary middle-aged woman's place?  Did you think what it might be like for her to ride in a golf cart when she'd rather be playing squash, or sit down while you catch your breath after a fox-trot?  Did you wonder how she might react to the sight of your wrinkles, age spots and ear hairs?

Did it ever occur to you that a woman your age might be more tolerant of your trifocals, hearing aids, pill dispensers and other paraphernalia of the twilight years?  That she might be more understanding of your memory lapses, aching back and other occasional deficiencies?

Speaking of which, I'm not sure what to make of "lots of hugs!"  Is that intended to reassure the applicant that hugs are all that will be forthcoming?  Or is it intended to warn her of your intact virility?  The distinction is one that she might want to know about.

Because you are a man, you think that you are less vulnerable to age than your female contemporaries, and thus entitled to younger flesh.  But that very assumption, I am sorry to say, dates you even more than belting your pants at the armpits.  The only middle-aged females eager to rush into your arms are probably in desperate straits--jobless, or burdened with teenaged children, or in less than optimal health.

You may be so ancient that you still think that a woman is happier on the arm of a man, no matter how decrepit, than alone.  If you really are approaching the century mark, you may find that there are still some women around who feel that way.  But they won't be middle-aged.  They will be your contemporaries, your sisters in wrinkles, swollen ankles and ropy hands.

And even there, I would proceed with caution.  Strange things happen to old ladies:  they get feisty, and won't put up with  nonsense.  They have learned the wisdom of what my widowed mother used to say: "better alone than in bad company."

Dear Elderly Man, I wish you joy and good company, and the peace that comes with acceptance.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Needlepoint With Thich Nhat Hanh

A friend lent me a CD of one of Thich Nhat Hanh's talks and I put it on the player and sat down to work on my needlepoint of big, red Art Nouveau poppies.  I was multitasking, a really bad Western habit.  But at least I wasn't watching TV at the same time.

TNH's English is very good--he studied at Princeton and taught at Columbia in the 1960s.  But his intonation is still a bit disconcerting, and that, combined with the quality of the recording, made him difficult to understand.  His voice, though, is lovely, soft but deep and just a little raspy and absolutely even in volume.  If there is such a thing as an equanimous delivery, TNH has it.  Listening to him is the polar opposite of listening to Italian opera.

After some initial frustration I let go of attachment and just let his voice wash over me. At the same time, I was acutely aware of the aural aspects of needlepoint, which in case you'd never noticed are as follows:  thwack!, the needle goes in;  swishhh..., the thread goes through;  pop! the needle comes up.  And so on.

Beyond all the thwacking and swishing, TNH kept up his murmur.  Every once in a while, like a deep-red leaf dropping to the ground in autumn, a sentence would reach me:  "Stop thinking;  start feeling;  enjoy brushing your teeth."  "How wonderful to have a paradise at any time, because you have eyes."  "Breathing in, I calm body and mind.  Breathing out, I smile."

Thwack, swish, pop...

And the kicker:  "I think, therefore I am not here."  Take that, Descartes!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Those Advice Blogs

There are so many advice blogs on the web.  They tell you how to lead a simpler life,  make your house more light and cheerful, raise chickens, train dogs, cope with children, plant a garden, get in touch with your true self.

Often, in the dark of night, I wish I too could write an advice blog.  Advice blogs seem to generate such buzz, such enthusiasm among the readers.  They give people hope, and something to try--no wonder they're popular.  So I toss and turn and look around in my mind and in my heart for something that I could give advice about.  Surely I've been around long enough to have some words of wisdom to impart on the multitudes.

But every time I rummage in the attics of my brain (and of my heart--mustn't forget the heart!)  I come up with a collection of raggedy afghans, old dog collars, musty files and abandoned projects-- nothing that I would want to bring to the light of day.

In my blithe thirties and forties I used to write articles for the popular press, and many of them offered some kind of advice:  how to run with your dog, how to get your kids to pick up after themselves, why it was a good idea to have dinner for breakfast (yes, that was actually published).  I was no authority on dog training or child rearing or nutrition, but I spoke in good faith from personal experience, and was confident that others might benefit from it.  And,  though they weren't my favorites, those advice articles always sold.

Now here I am, older and supposedly wiser, yet I feel unable to offer advice even on how to put your pants on in the morning.  (Wait!  I do have something to say about that:  it's good for your brain if you alternate which leg you put in first.)  Who am I to tell you how to train your dog, raise your chickens, or achieve serenity?

I remember so clearly when I was fourteen thinking that when I finally grew up I would understand all things and my adolescent angst would vanish forever.  Why didn't anybody tell me that that angst, though slightly different in flavor and texture, would stay with me for the rest of my days?

I went through a period of relative certainty when I was a parent, probably because this is an adaptive mechanism for the species.  But now that my parenting days are over everything is subtler, grayer, less defined.  From day to day the ground seems to shift under my feet.  I have forgotten so much of what I used to know, and the stuff I'm learning now is almost impossible to put into words.

I doubt that things are going to become any clearer in the coming years.  Still, if by some miracle one of these days I have a flash of understanding--and the words with which to express it--I'll be sure to write about it here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Of Weather And Lemons

The bad news is that we only got a measly four inches of snow, and now the wind is blowing it all around and making driving difficult.  The good news is that everything is white and the sun is out and it's blindingly bright outside.

In direct response to this my little lemon tree, which has been covered in buds for weeks, finally opened one of its flowers, and it smells just as heavenly as I expected.  I love citrus trees--their dark green, leathery leaves, their waxy white blooms, and their scent.

I've worked hard for that one bloom.  I ordered the tree online in December, and it came without any buds.  I put it in the sun porch and read up on its care.  I gave it a blue-and-white Chinese cachepot, spritzed it daily, and watered it neither too little nor too much.  When it dropped a few leaves I assumed it was because of the stress of getting used to its new home.

I was encouraged when the first flower buds appeared, but I kept having to pick up more and more leaves off the floor.  And even the leaves that were still clinging to the branches had a kind of tense, unhappy look about them.  The only thing I could think was that, since the sun porch tends to get chilly at night, the tree might be cold.

I moved it near a south-facing window in the kitchen, to a shelf above the baseboard heater.  And overnight the little tree relaxed.  I could practically hear it sighing with relief.  It lost that tight, clenched look and stopped dropping its leaves.  And it made even more buds, one of which is now open, like a little star.

I understand that if I want fruit I may have to hand-pollinate the blooms with a fine paintbrush, which sounds like a strangely intimate function to perform.  But I'm willing to do almost anything to attain self-sufficiency in lemons.  I'll let you know how it goes.  Meanwhile, you can find me in the kitchen, brush in hand, waiting for the second bud to open.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Weather Bulletin

There's exciting weather coming this way, and about time, too.  I like a cold winter, but I especially like it if the ground is covered with snow, and even more if the sun is shining on that snow.  Although it's been below freezing for days, the snow melted during the last weird warm spell and now the ground is bare.  I think about my lavender bushes and how they must long for a snowy duvet to keep their feet warm. 

The news and weather channels are doing their usual apocalyptic song and dance about the expected blizzard.  Don't they realize that with their perpetual hype they are desensitizing the population to real threats?  Of course this coming storm may be a real threat, but how are we to know, when high drama is the staple of these shows?

Still, in preparation for what might come I did send my spouse to the nearest village to buy... not bread or milk or toilet paper, but laying mash.  I figure as long as the hens are fed and happy, we'll have eggs.  We still have plenty of veggies that I harvested and put in the freezer last summer.  And there's some quinoa in the pantry that I bought in a fit of nutritional idealism and should find a use for before it goes bad.  (Does quinoa, "the grain of the Aztecs," ever go bad?)

On the whole, I am not displeased at the prospect of a big old snow storm.  I've been out of the house a lot recently, and I could use a day or two of cocooning. My needlepoint could use some attention, and my Kindle is fully charged.  Not to sound frivolous, but I like the sense of adventure that a blizzard brings.  I sympathize with all those who have work they must go to and roads they must travel.  I especially sympathize with working parents of school-age children.  I feel their pain.  There was one February back in the 1970s when I thought I would go out of my mind if there was one more school closing.  That said, I plan to stay in the moment and enjoy the view out the window.

The snow has started and the wind is blowing hard.  I'm keeping the hens locked in their shed.  You fellow northeasterners, stay warm and safe.  Those of you in warmer climes, wish us luck.  Bulletins will be forthcoming.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Day I Buried My Youth

One of the puzzles about growing older is how much to give in versus how much to resist it.  By temperament and upbringing, I am in the camp of the resisters, but am considering a switch.

My mother, who was chronically young into her nineties,  used to say that it was foolish to try to look twenty years younger than you were--the thing to aim for was to look better than everybody else your age. This seems reasonable to me, so I work at it.  I believe in my bones that if I do everything right--if I eat, exercise, meditate and get enough exposure to sunlight--I will, if not avoid aging altogether, then at least do it in the slowest, most dignified possible way.

My age-defying efforts are on the low-tech end of the scale.  I don't dye my hair or inject foreign substances into my anatomy.  But between the walking and the yoga and the vitamins and the meditation--not to mention the growing and cooking of anti-oxidant-rich foods--this staving off of senescence is taking its toll.

I was lying on the sofa after another weary day of fending off the inevitable when I remembered something George Sand (the prolific 19th century French novelist who, like George Eliot, was a woman) wrote when she was sixty-two:  "The day I buried my youth I immediately felt twenty years younger."

And, judging by her letters and diaries, burying her youth worked.  Not only did she write novel after novel and run a large property, she traveled constantly and cultivated friendships with the literary luminaries of her time.  By far the brightest of these was her best buddy, Flaubert. She would visit him for a week at a time and the two would sit up talking about literature until four in the morning.  Despite all my vitamins and yoga, the thought of staying up until dawn talking about literature--with Flaubert no less--makes me feel deeply fatigued.  So maybe George S. was right.

But how does one bury one's youth?   In my childhood, the line of demarcation between young and old was pretty well defined:  old ladies of fifty and over wore black, cut their hair short and said the rosary a lot.  They did not lift weights in gyms or do downward dogs or go on gluten-free diets.

Today women of a certain age gel their hair into short spikes or grow it down to their hips, start on their third or fourth careers, and their prayers consist of reciting mantras while sitting in half lotus pose.  Is this a good thing, or is it bad?  Certainly our generation looks to be in better shape than our grandmothers', but some of us are nervous, exhausted wrecks.  Might there not have been some comfort in knowing exactly how to be old? 

In the twenty-first century, it's hard to figure out just what burying one's youth might entail.  But I intend to keep trying and see if, like it did George S., it makes me feel twenty years younger.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sister D

My high school math teacher, Sister D, died last week.  She entered the Benedictine order in her late teens, and must have been in her thirties when I knew her.  Like all but the very ancient nuns, she seemed ageless.  How can you tell someone's age when all you see is the triangle described by the span of the forehead and the chin, especially if you yourself are fifteen and even the 12th graders look fully adult in your eyes?

Those were my years of terror, when I was the only foreign student in a Catholic high school in the deep, deep South.  When I didn't know English and there was nobody but myself to teach it to me.  I am not inclined to find fault with those who were in charge of me in my past, but sometimes I think about those teachers--the young lay men and women, the smiling nuns, the Irish priests with their incomprehensible accents--and wonder, did they have an inkling of how lost I was?

Maybe they did.  Maybe they conferred on how best to handle me.  But nobody ever said anything to me about my language difficulties.  Maybe it is because I did my best to mask them--fear of ridicule is a potent learning aid in one's teens.  I remember clearly missing a question on a biology test about organisms in shallow streams because I didn't know what "shallow" meant.  Did I ask the teacher? The way I saw it, if I had asked every question I had, the entire school would have ground to a halt.

The principal did once during my freshman year stop me in the hallway and ask if I was doing o.k.  I had to make him repeat the question a couple of times, but once I understood it I said yes, yes, and fled down the hall.  And after that casual check, that was it.  As far as I could tell, the approach of my teachers during those high school years was to treat me exactly as they treated everybody else.  They probably had no idea what to do.  Bilingual ed was decades in the future.

There was one exception. Sister R, the junior-year English teacher, thought that I should give my speech on Communism (this being the early 60s) at the state-wide Civitan oratorical contest.  But she thought that first I needed to work on my accent.  So she kept me after school a couple of days and tape recorded my readings of the speech and tried her best to show me where the pronunciation was wrong...but I couldn't even hear what she was talking about.  I did nevertheless go to Selma, Alabama (just a couple of years before the march), and give the speech and somehow came in third.  That was the extent of my English language instruction.

But back to Sister D.  She taught college-prep algebra and trigonometry and physics.  Her classes were full of boys with bright futures involving slide rules hanging from their belts.  They were her favorites.  She treated them with a rough good humor, and stole their hearts with talk about football and baseball.  The girls did their homework and hoped that their math grades would not hinder them in their pursuit of majors in nursing and elementary education.

I worked harder for her class than I did for all the other subjects put together.  Of my three years with her I remember that I did learn about quadratic equations and logarithms and such--nothing I could ever begin to put to the slightest practical use except the habit of working hard at difficult things.  What I remember most clearly about Sister D was that she taught me an expression I had never heard before.

One day in class she came to my desk and said with a smile, "I have a bone to pick with you."  I instantly assumed my deer-in-the-headlights, language-impaired expression.  My classmates, who had seen it a million times before, tittered.  Why would my math teacher want to do something to a bone in my company?  Was this picking a good thing or a bad?  It turned out that she was joking about something having nothing to do with math, and I finally understood dimly that bone picking had something to do with fighting, but not, thank God, in this case.

And ever since, every time I hear that phrase, I think of Sister D and of the deeply scary days of my youth.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Is Wolfie A Moral Being?

Despite his fierce looks,Wolfie  is the sweetest dog I've ever had.  He has caught many an errant hen for me without ever drawing blood.  He has declined to decapitate goats who butted him.  And at the vet's, though he complains loudly (he is anything but stoic), he never growls.  I can pick up his food dish while he's eating, brush his big white teeth, call him off a rotten deer haunch in the woods.  He has never challenged me.

Except for this:  when I throw balls for him, after a few throws he lodges the ball tightly among his back teeth, and no force on earth can make him let go.  He is not nasty about this in any way.  He just...refuses to let go of the ball.  If I throw any other object for him--a rubber bone, a frisbee, whatever--he brings it back and hands it over without any problem.  But not the ball.

So why do I insist on throwing the ball?  I like efficiency, and throwing the ball (which comes with one of those arm-like "throwers") allows me to exercise both dogs at once, since Bisou runs after it just as fast as Wolfie, though she wisely lets him have it.  Now Wolfie doesn't have nearly the stamina or craziness that Bisou has, so when he gets tired after several throws (I suspect he's never fully recovered from anaplasmosis, a tick-borne disease) I would like to take him inside and then continue throwing balls for Bisou.  But he won't cooperate by releasing the ball.

I could beat him over the head with the thrower.  I could zap him with the electric collar which I used in his youth to "proof" his recalls so he wouldn't run out into the road.  But I find those methods abhorrent and counter to the spirit of ball throwing.

This afternoon, when he lodged the ball in his mouth and got that stubborn look in his face, I took him by the collar and put him in the feed room which is part of the chicken shed.  Then I got another ball and threw it for Bisou until I (but not she, never she) was exhausted.  After a while I went to check on Wolfie in the feed room.  He still had the ball in his mouth, but this time I was able to pry it out.  Thinking to make this into a teachable moment, I offered him the ball (Take it!)  and then asked him for it (Give!).  Again, I had to pry it out.  At the third attempt, since he still wouldn't give it willingly I let him keep it, shut the door, and left him in there to think about it.

Back in the house, it was dog dinner time.  While I fed Bisou I kept wondering what was going on in Wolfie's mind.  The part of me that has read piles of dog training books kept saying:  he has no idea why he's out there;  he's not able to make the connection between holding on to the ball and banishment to the feed room;  he hasn't the foggiest notion of how to redeem himself.  But another part of me--irrational, faith-based, possibly intuitive or perhaps just prone to wishful thinking--thought, Wolfie knows exactly what's going on.

I went to the feed room again.  Wolfie was at the door, ball in mouth.  "Wolfie, give!" I said, and the ball dropped into my waiting hand.

There was much rejoicing on my part, and an extra good dinner for Wolfie.  The lost sheep, so to speak, had come back into the fold.  But I was left with an uneasy feeling. How much more complex is Wolfie than I give him credit for?  The chicken shed episode seems to show that he knew what he was being punished for, and what he should do to get back into my good graces.  Moreover, he held all this in his mind for a good couple of hours.

Is my dog a rudimentary moral being?  What does it mean that my tiny betta (fish), whom I bought strictly for his decorative potential, has emotional needs and demands frequent petting?  What is the limit of one's responsibility to these beings who hang out at knee level or swim around in a glass vase on the kitchen counter?

It's a tiring business, having pets.  Rilke thought so too, who said:  "Anything alive, that makes demands, arouses in me an infinite capacity to give it its due, the consequences of which completely use me up."  I know what he was talking about.

(I  apologize for putting you through that aggravating word verification before you can comment.  I have done my best to avoid it, but last week, after spending hours getting rid of almost 200 spam comments, I cried uncle, waved the white flag and threw in the towel.  It was either write posts or deal with the spam--there was no room in my life for both--so I made my choice.)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Compost And The Monk

A friend sent me a link to an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/zen-master-thich-nhat-hanh-love-climate-change#skiplinks ).  In it the 86-year-old Buddhist monk, one of the world's foremost spiritual leaders, talks, among other things, about his own mortality:

"It is like the tea. When you pour the hot water in the tea, you drink it for the first time, and then you pour again some hot water and you drink, and after that the tea leaves are there in the pot but the flavour has gone into the tea and if you say they die it is not correct because they continue to live on in the tea, so this body is just a residue.  It still can provide some tea flavour but one day there will be no tea flavour left and that is not death. And even the tea leaves, you can put them in the flower pot and they continue to serve, so we have to look at birth and death like that."

And even the tea leaves, you can put them in the flower pot and they continue to serve... I could just see TNH using and reusing the tea leaves, then carefully dumping the residue into his African violet pot.  And it's true, tea leaves are the nectar of the gods to a houseplant.  I'm sure that TNH has champion African violets, what with all the tea leaves and his equanimous presence.

What I'm wondering is, where did this angelic figure learn about the benefits of tea leaves for houseplants--or do angelic beings automatically know such things?

Apparently this angelic being is deeply into compost.  When he learned that a temple in his native Vietnam was planning to build him a memorial, this was his reaction:

"I said don't waste the land of the temple in order to build me a stupha. Do not put me in a small pot and put me in there. I don't want to continue like that. It is better to put the ash outside to help the trees to grow."

Such a cheering thought:  compost as the means to resurrection.  What better afterlife could any of us aspire to, than to to continue to serve by helping the trees to grow?