Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Tizzy


Found myself in some existential turmoil on Easter,
of all days,
so drew a cat to calm down.

It worked.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Spring Babies

Every year at this time I am overwhelmed with desire for animal babies.  I miss the goat kids that used to make the place come alive with their hopping and jumping and general delight at having landed on this amazing planet.  I long for a little donkey, one with big eyes and long soft ears and tiny hooves that I could take on walks and perhaps, when it was grown, even ride side-saddle like the little old black-clad women I used to see on the roads near my grandparents' farm in Catalonia.

Failing a donkey, I would love a couple of geese.  I am perilously close to getting a couple of goslings, the kind that would grow low-slung, bulldog-like bodies with gray backs, white bellies and bright orange beaks.  To me, a goose waddling and honking in the yard is the very essence of country living.  What holds me back?  The lack of a pond and of adequate fencing, and the mountains of poop that a pair of geese would produce.

Short of a goose, I could get more hens.  I was at the feed store picking up grain last week and there they were, the year's shipment of day-old chicks, cheeping and running around under the heat lamps.  What kept me from scooping up a half dozen and taking them home?  Only my near fanatical belief that a peaceful, healthy flock is a small flock, and that I owe it to my hens to keep their numbers low.

So I've become resigned to the thought of no new babies at the place this year.  But that's not quite right. There is new life here after all. 

As if to reward me for my restraint the potted lemon tree has just presented me with eight little  lemons.  This is the tree that, as you may recall, I had so much trouble shaping and acclimating           (  I was surprised and grateful when it suddenly covered itself in blooms, then dismayed when most of them dropped off.  But I became a dedicated pollinator (I was going to write "husband") to the remaining few.

Every morning after breakfast I would pick up an old watercolor brush and tickle the innards of each flower, hoping that I was doing it right.  The petals eventually dried and fell off, and I kept peering at the base of the pistils, looking for the slightest swelling that would tell me that I had succeeded as a bee.

After days of looking in vain, I decided to enjoy my lemon tree for its foliage and abandon all thoughts of a crop.  Then suddenly yesterday there they were: deep green and less than a quarter-inch long, but definitely lemons, my own little lemons in whose procreation I had played an active part. 

I feel such a fatherly kind of pride in every one of them, that I'm not sure I'll ever bring myself to make them into lemonade.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Saving The Ivories

Just got back from an hour's communion with the spider plant in my dentist's office.  Since I find nothing more boring than talk about teeth--even my own--I will write instead about the spider plant that kept me company while the dentist and his assistant fought the good fight in the tiny battlefield of my mouth.

This was not a spider plant filled with joie de vivre.  It drooped in its hanging pot and was obviously deficient in Dylan Thomas's "force that through the green fuse drives the flower."  It disturbed me because my house is always in danger of being taken over by spider plants.  They ooze vitality and make babies by the dozen, and the minute I put those babies in water they send out thick shiny roots, and then I have to find homes for them. 

Spider plants being famous for purifying the air of pollutants and bad energies,  I wondered if the dentist's plant's failure to thrive was due to the pain and apprehension it was obliged to absorb day in, day out,.  But I'm almost sure that I did not, during my sixty minutes in the chair, personally add to its daily load of negativity.  I was so relaxed that in fact I wrote this entire post out in my mind and thought of a couple more topics to get me through the blogging week.  Plus, I was sending out waves of gratitude the entire time.

I don't like going to the dentist any more than you do, but whenever I'm there I imagine in vivid terms what my life would be like if, as has been the case for the human race during 99.9% of its history, I couldn't go to the dentist--a friendly, clean, well-trained 21st century dentist.  And I am overwhelmed with thankfulness.

In another age, by now I'd be missing a bunch of teeth, some of which would have fallen out as a result of calcium depletion during pregnancy.  But others would have dropped off only after days and nights of the kind of pain that obliterates thought and makes a living creature long for death.  My face would have that sunken look that one sees on witches in fairy tale illustrations, and my few remaining teeth would be crooked, wobbly, and yellow.  I would not be able to eat walnuts, or almonds, or pistachios. 

So I'm grateful that my cheeks are anything but sunken and that my teeth, with the help of dozens of dentists over the decades, are still clinging to my gums.  I'm grateful for the chair that tilts at the touch of a button, the piped in music that matches the blandness of the decor, the face masks, the rubber gloves, and the assistant who asks me if I'm ready for spring.  And I'm grateful for the hard-working spider plant, which looks like it is in urgent need of some spring sunshine.

And now for a negative P.S.:  One thing I am not grateful for is the arm-and-leg cost of all this, which is covered neither by Medicare nor by supplementary insurance.  I am grateful that I had an arm and a leg to give in exchange for having my tooth saved, but it is distressing to think how many people in America can only get this kind of care by sacrificing other necessities of life.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Two Dogs In Mud Time

(My apologies for the title to Robert Frost, who used to live around here.)

Last summer, to keep our dirt driveway from washing away, we had our "driveway guy" cover it with a load of crushed granite.  Now, every time the temperature rises above 30F the dogs return from their walk with their feet, bellies, and tails coated in a kind of gray cement that resists the most vigorous toweling.  I hate to leave them for hours in the garage, so I let them in the house where, for the rest of the day, they shed sticky grit on any parts of the floor and furniture not already covered in a light film of wood stove ash.

I could avoid the driveway by taking the dogs into the woods, but when my CFS is acting up, as it has lately, taking a walk is something  that I know will have repercussions if I force myself do it.  One option is to throw balls with the ball thrower, which enables limp-wristed me to throw with the speed of a major league pitcher.  I could do this in the backyard, where mercifully the winter's crop of dog poop is still covered with snow.

Ball throwing, however, is fraught with conflict.  It is Bisou's favorite thing in the entire world, and  given the chance she would chase balls until her last dying breath.  Wolfie likes to chase balls too,  but even after three courses of antibiotics his anaplasmosis (a tick-borne disease from which may the gods spare your pets) has kept him from regaining his former stamina.  As a result, after half a dozen throws he snatches the ball and refuses to give it up, which means I have to isolate him until he changes his mind.

All this is way too emotional for me, especially on bad CFS days, so I have acquired a soft frisbee, which Wolfie has no trouble giving up.  Bisou, bless her heart, runs after the frisbee too, and lets him catch it, but I can tell that she is longing for the speed and excitement of the ball.  I think she should have something of her own to run after, so I pick up the frisbee plus a weird s-shaped toy that they both like and slosh into the backyard.

I put Bisou on stay and throw the frisbee for Wolfie.  He runs after it, and she breaks and runs after it too.  I put Bisou back on stay and throw the frisbee for Wolfie.  This time she holds the stay, and then I throw the weird toy for her.  Meanwhile Wolfie is ready for me to throw the frisbee again.   This time it goes into the woods.  I praise Bisou for waiting and throw the weird toy for her.  Frisbee, toy, Wolfie, Bisou.  How long do I need to keep doing this?  Wolfie is slowing down and my fingers are freezing from picking up the snowy toys.  But Bisou is barely warmed up.

I do a few more throws.  The familiar cloak of lead is on my shoulders and I know that every minute of additional effort will cost me hours of recovery.   As I take the dogs into the garage to dry them off, Bisou sees the ball thrower hanging near the door and jumps up, trying to knock it down.  There is nothing she would like more than a solid hour or two of running after that ball.

I pick up each of Wolfie's saucer-size paws and dry them while he moans his doleful moan.   I call Bisou away from the ball thrower and swaddle her with the big towel.  Despite her disappointment, her tail wags and wags.  Inside, the minute I stretch out on the sofa she jumps up and reclines on top of me.  Her ears spread out moth-like on my chest, she looks into my face, and in her orangey-brown eyes I see perfect happiness.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

After Steubenville: Defensive Driving For Girls

I really don't want to write about the Steubenville horror, but I won't be able to think of anything else until I do, so here goes.

Lest I be accused of blaming the victim, let me say that if I had been the judge, I would have handed down much stiffer penalties to the rapists.  And I hope that the grand jury metes out the punishment they deserve to the sneering bystanders, the coaches, and those who perpetuate the wrong-headed cult of sports and athletes.  As for the victim's drunkenness, that no more excuses the rape than did the mentally deficient state of the girl who was raped by another gang of football players in Glen Ridge, New Jersey a few years ago.

Since the Steubenville story broke, there have been numerous accounts in the media of similar occurrences in analogous situations:  fraternity parties, bars, post-game celebrations.  Which leads me to wonder, what are we telling young girls as we send them out into the world?  (What we are telling boys is another, and more appalling, story)

When girls are learning to drive, we warn them repeatedly about all the bad drivers out on the road:  drivers who text while driving, drivers who fall asleep at the wheel, drunk drivers....  It would be great if we could tell our daughters, "Drive without a care, my dear, for nothing bad will happen to you."  But that's not the way the world works, and so we teach them to drive sober and drive defensively.

On the other hand, many girls are launched into the roiling waters of adolescent social life without equivalent instruction.  It would be nice to be able to say, "Go have fun!  Do whatever you want and nobody will bother you."  But frat houses and bars and, apparently, people's basements are just as dangerous as the highway, and we need to teach girls to navigate them defensively, even if such instruction causes them to roll their eyes and mutter, "whatever!"

I don't think that it need take the joy out of going to parties for a young woman to be told that excessive alcohol consumption removes inhibitions and often makes people more aggressive.  I don't think that it places an unfair onus on her to be taught that the first step in protecting herself is to drink cautiously and sparingly so she can remove herself in time from dangerous situations. This is not blaming the victim, but helping her to keep from becoming one.

I mentioned in another post my grandmother's advice never to trust a man with a nose on his face.  It is overly misanthropic, so I've come up with another version:  never trust a man with a drink in his hand, a weave in his walk and a roomful of buddies who are also drinking and weaving.  If you are approached by such a person, do what you would do if you were driving and saw a car weaving all over the road--get out of the way.  And whether you're driving or partying, for your own sake and that of your parents who are waiting up for you at home, stay sober, stay sober, stay sober.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reading, Writing

My mother's sister says that she taught me to read when I was three years old.   "That can't be right!" I interrupt--she is, after all, 92--but she persists, "Don't you remember reading La Vanguardia with me?"  And the memory comes back of sitting on the terrace of my grandparents' farmhouse.  It is summer, and a storm is coming in.  You can smell the rain on the dusty road to the next village long before you can see it.  There is a clap of thunder and my aunt looks up at the black sky, "The angels are banging their furniture around," she says.  Then her finger lands on the next line of newsprint, "Tell me what this says."

Lest I appear precocious, I should mention that Spanish spelling is highly phonetic, so a three-year-old reading the newspaper is not as extraordinary as it might seem.  But it wasn't exactly ordinary, either.  My early reading was the combined result of my aunt's eagerness to show me off to her rival, my mother--"See what I can do with your child!"--and my urge to comply and be praised.

My aunt's enthusiasm earned me years of boredom in school.  On the first day of class, when we were handed our new textbooks, I would go home and rush right through the readings book, followed by the history and then the religion books.  After this the remainder of the school year was a trek in a desert of tedium, relieved only by bursts of terror in math class.

This gorging on school books came to a halt when I landed in an American high school with only the sketchiest knowledge of English.  But I compensated by whizzing through the French texts--so much easier than the ones in my other classes--and as a result I was bored to tears all the way through my college French major.  It wasn't until grad school prelims, when there wasn't even a reading list because we were supposed to have read every "serious" book ever written in the French language, that I felt I had more reading than I could handle.

But how did I celebrate my dissertation defense?  I went to the library and checked out all the authors who hadn't been deemed worthwhile by my professors--Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras...(Yes, all of them women.) 

And what am I doing today, a couple of centuries later, when I'm not dealing with the dogs or the garden or the hens?  I'm reading.  A lot of women writers, and a lot of British writers whom I didn't get to read while I was teaching Romance Languages:  Anthony Trollope, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Penelope Lively, Kate Atkinson.

I read too much.  I read instead of writing.  "Read everything you can get your hands on," writers are told, but that is dangerous advice, for who wouldn't rather read than write?  Who wouldn't rather eat than cook?  True, you do learn from reading (some) writers.  But really, you learn to write by doing it day after day, sentence by sentence, world without end, amen.  And by deleting, deleting, deleting.  "Renunciation is the writer's honor," Colette writes.  See?  I did learn something from reading.

But mostly I read because, other than eating, it's the earliest thing I can remember doing.  A friend used to say of a man we both knew that he was such an obsessive reader that while you were talking with him he would try to read the brand on the sole of your shoe.  I am probably afflicted to a lesser degree, but, like an alcoholic, I never rest easy unless I have a  stash of books safe in my cellar.  God forbid I should set out from home without something to read in my bag--who knows where I might get stuck?  And especially when a storm threatens, and we're expecting one tonight, I like a thick book by my side.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Dogged By Dog Guilt

I know I'm not the only one suffering from this, but sometimes it feels that way.  Are there really other people out there who, watching their canine companion snoring peacefully on the rug, wonder whether the dog is sleeping because, a) she is tired or, b) she is in despair at the hopeless monotony of her days?

There is no end to the emotional and mental states that I attribute to my dogs:  frustrated ambition, a sense of unrealized potential, loneliness, boredom, and existential despair.   Don't think I haven't noticed that some of these preoccupations also occupy my mind.  But it's hard to keep from projecting when my dogs are at my feet (Wolfie) or under my elbow (Bisou) practically 24/7.

I feel that I am perpetually disappointing them.  Every time I close my laptop or put on a sweater they catapult to the back door in the mad hope that something magical is about to happen--but alas, it's just me going to fire up the wood stove or spritz the plants.  It's that all-forgiving but never-ending hope in their eyes that does me in.

I'm lucky to be a member of an unofficial dog-guilt support group.  I have dog-loving friends whose dogs by any standard lead enviable lives.  They have good food and soft beds.  They have received the benefits of training.  They enjoy the company of their own species and are hardly ever out of sight of their owners.   And yet when we humans get together, one of our perennial topics of conversation is the guilt that dogs us.  We each assure the other that her dogs couldn't possibly be depressed or sad or bored in any way.  This makes us feel better for as long as it takes to finish a glass of wine.  But the moment we get home and are greeted by our patient dogs ("Not that I hold it against you, but why were you gone so long?"), the guilt returns.

Many years ago, I felt guilty about my first dog, who lived in the back yard--now that was something to feel guilty about.  But all our subsequent dogs have lived in the house, slept in our bedroom, been trained and groomed and walked and cooked for.  And the guilt has, if anything, only gotten worse.

Lately the guilt has expanded to include my fish, my little Betta splendens that I got for aesthetic reasons but who, it turns out, has emotional needs like everybody else in this house.  Every time I go by--he lives in a large flower vase on the kitchen counter--he rushes towards me, waving his tiny fins.  If it weren't for the glass between us, he'd jump onto my shoulder.  He doesn't want food.  He wants to be petted.

So I do.  Every morning, after I let the dogs out, I stand at the counter and stick my index finger in the water and pet the fish.  I try to remember to pet him once or twice while I'm fixing dinner, and again before retiring.  I don't want him to feel ignored--my interactions with him are probably the highlight of his day. 

For some reason, though, I am delightfully free from chicken-related guilt.  I take good care of my hens, but although they come running whenever they see me, they don't have that ever-hopeful-yet-forgiving look in their eyes that the dogs have.  Besides, there are nine of them.  They are their own little tribe.  They depend on me for food and shelter, but not, thank heavens, for mental stimulation or emotional sustenance.  I find them blessedly restful to be around.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Dear Pope Francis...

I had not held out much hope for the election results, but for about five minutes after the announcement that you would be the new pope I felt a surge of optimism.  I liked it that you had named yourself after everybody's favorite saint, who despised the trappings of wealth and authority and got down to bare essentials.  I liked hearing about the small Buenos Aires apartment which you chose over the episcopal palace and where you cooked your own meals.  I could just see you riding the bus to work so you could give to the poor the money you saved by leaving the limo in the garage.  And I liked it that you are a Jesuit, which supposedly means that you know how to use your mind.

But with the second wave of news reports, my optimism faded.  I am willing to suspend judgment on your supposed silence during the military dictatorship in your country.  It can take a long time after such periods to decipher who did or did not do what to whom.  But I cannot get past your opposition to the legalization of gay marriage, nor your opposition to Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, on the grounds that ”women are naturally helpless to exercise political positions....The natural order and the facts show us that man is the being for politics by excellence; the Scriptures show us that the woman is always the support of the thoughtful man and doer, but nothing more than that.”

Above all, I cannot stomach your supposed compassion for the poor on the one hand and your opposition to birth control on the other.  The poor have a lot of needs:  for food, housing, education, honorable work.  But one thing they do not need more of is children.

Can you not see that the Church's traditional prohibition against contraception is a remnant from a time when the survival of the species necessitated every woman to give birth as many times as her body could bear?  How can you not realize that in this century the very reverse is true, that the welfare of humanity and of the planet hinges on people having fewer babies?  What do you suppose Christ would say to the desperate mothers and their starving infants if He were walking around the slums of Lima and Port Au Prince these days?

The birth control prohibition, back when it had very personal implications for me, caused me to leave the Church.  I had been brought up too strictly to embrace cafeteria Catholicism, the kind that says "I'll use contraceptives but still go to Communion when I feel like it."

I've been trying to find a way back ever since.  I've been looking for a chink, no matter how small, that would let me squeeze back into the cloister.  But from what I can see so far, Francis, the stone wall is thicker than ever, and all the chinks freshly mortared.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Chickens And Bullies

One of my hens was being bullied last week, and I had to take action.  She was showing all the outward signs of hen misery, standing hunched with her feathers fluffed in a corner of the shed.  I kept an eye on her for a couple of days and then realized that the other hens were pecking at her.

Now I want to make it very clear that my hen house is a Peck-Free Zone.  That doesn't mean that there isn't a pecking order, in which the top hen delivers mostly symbolic pecks in the direction of lesser hens who are showing too much interest in a certain worm or apple core.  But because I keep just a few hens in a large space my flock is not prey to the stresses that cause bullying.

Bullying among chickens (and here the delicately nurtured might wish to skip the next couple of sentences) can be a serious problem.  Once a bird gets hurt or appears weak the others will peck at it, plucking off not just feathers but bits of flesh, until it dies, at which point they will eat it.  Chicken bullying is such a horrible thing that every spring when the batches of fluffy, super-adorable baby chicks arrive in the feed store, the thought of the dangers of overcrowding prevents me from swooping up half a dozen of the little darlings and adding them to my flock.

Given the near-idyllic environment that my hens live in, I couldn't figure out what had prompted the abuse until I picked up the victim and saw that she had a partially frostbitten comb (this sometimes happens to chickens in winter) and somehow it had bled a drop or two, and the scent of blood had turned her sisters into ravening wolves.

I fenced off a corner of the shed and put her in it, along with food, some warm water laced with apple cider vinegar, and a heat lamp.  I had to prop a piece of cardboard against the fence because her bloodthirsty sisters were reaching in to peck her, and she was too stunned to move away.  But the warmth and the isolation and the vinegar all did their work, and in less than 48 hours she was healed and eager to rejoin the flock, who welcomed her back with open arms (hens have short memories).

There is no question that without intervention my bullied hen would have slowly succumbed to the attacks.  Likewise, it is a good thing that parents and schools have become aware of the effects of bullying on its victims, and are paying attention and taking action where necessary.  But sometimes I wonder if the definition of bullying has become so broad that it covers unpleasant but essentially harmless, sporadic interactions among children.  I worry that if well-intentioned parents overreact their actions may result in making the child feel even more vulnerable and helpless.

When I was in second grade, I had to wear an eye patch for a year to combat "lazy eye."  This ultimately saved my eyesight, but its short-term side effects were unfortunate.  One of the most popular girls in my class, a red-headed tomboy with a talent for making trouble, announced in the playground that the patch meant I had a contagious disease, and people should stay away from me. 

To say that I found this upsetting is to put it mildly.  I wept and wailed and railed at my parents and said that I never ever wanted to set foot in that school again.  Today, many people would classify this episode as bullying and would feel justified in speaking to the teacher or principal about it.  My parents, on the other hand, while they commiserated  and assured me that my nemesis was wrong in what she had done, did not interfere.  They must have figured that an occasional lesson in the school of hard knocks would not damage me, would in fact help me to acquire a thicker skin and enlarge my knowledge of human nature.

As it happened, the episode had a happy ending.  The errant girl mentioned what she had done to her father, who happened to be a doctor and who instructed her to apologize to me and to tell the other girls that my condition was not contagious. Shortly afterwards the redhead and I became friends.

I don't mean to minimize the damage that can be caused by prolonged, serious bullying.  In these cases, intervention is the responsible, the only thing to do.  But I do worry that sometimes we overprotect children--from germs, from falls, from unfair grades and unpleasant people.  But the world, unfortunately, is full of germs, falls, unfairness and unpleasantness.  And reasonable amounts of exposure to these evils is a kind of vaccination of which I would not want my own child to be  deprived.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fruit Laundry

I bought some fruit in the supermarket the other day:  apples and grapes and that key to immortality, blueberries.

The apples, now conveniently available in our nearby supermarket, came from a Vermont orchard about thirty miles from here, so they did not grievously wound the planet with pollution and waste of non-renewable resources. 

On the other hand the grapes and blueberries, may Gaia forgive me, came as far south as you can get without hitting Antarctic ice--the land of guanacos, vicunas, and Isabel Allende.  On the way home from the supermarket I tried to imagine the odyssey of my bag of grapes and my carton of blueberries from their south Andean slopes by fume-spewing truck to some Chilean airport, then north over the snow-capped volcanoes of  Peru and Ecuador, over restless Colombia and Chavez-mourning Venezuela, over the blue Caribbean, the blue Gulf of Mexico, the Deep South ankle-deep in azaleas, and the sodden mid-Atlantic.  After a brief rest in some American airport, they were flung into a truck and taken to a warehouse for packing.  Another truck conveyed them to the supermarket, and finally my Subaru, weaving and sliding up our muddy driveway, delivered them into our kitchen....

Of course the main reason I had bought the apples, grapes and blueberries was not their taste--does anybody buy supermarket fruit because of its taste anymore?--but their antioxidants.  But eating one of those grapes right out of the bag could be downright  harmful to my health, for who knows what Chilean growers do to their fruit before they ship it north, what pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers they use to maximize their profits? 

The apples I was less worried about.  They are not organic, but the grower's website states, "[We] adhere to strict growing practices that emphasize the health of our soils, waterways and workers, and encourages [sic] beneficial insect species in the control of pests.... Sometimes [however,] we must treat the orchard with a chemical because we have exhausted all other options."  Nevertheless, apple sprays being among the most toxic, I couldn't eat an apple straight out of the bag either. 

No.  Before I could put these health-giving, perhaps even tasty, fruits into my mouth, I would have to do fruit laundry.

Fruit laundry involves more than a casual rinsing under the kitchen faucet.  You cannot count on mere water to get rid of the poisons that cling to the skin of apples, grapes and berries. And getting rid of the peel won't do the job either.  What you need, according to Dr. Andrew Weil,  is dish soap and elbow grease:

This is what I do with every piece fruit I buy in the store:  I plunge it into bubble bath of detergent-laced water.  I scrub it (well, not the grapes and berries--I'm not that obsessed) with a brush.  I rinse it, then rinse it again.  I rinse it some more.  I then wonder whether those antioxidants are worth all this--couldn't I just swallow a vitamin pill?  But I persevere and drain the lot and pat it dry with a dish towel.   Finally, when the fruit laundry is done, I eat a couple of grapes and a blueberry.

Which is why I can't wait until our own blueberry bushes start bearing, and why I try to take such good care of my apple trees.  As for the grapes, I'll take mine in the form of wine.  There's nothing like a glass of dark red Malbec to banish the worry about what deadly stuff I am putting into my body.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Spinach In The Snow

We got five inches of snow on Friday, and the forecast said that the next day the temperature would go up into the fifties., so early Saturday, before the snow melted, I was out in the vegetable garden, wearing knee-high rubber boots and carrying seeds, my trusty planting chopstick, and the planting frame. The latter is a kind of grid made of bamboo that divides my 4'x4' raised beds into sixteen one-foot squares.  I garden by the square-foot method (, which was popularized by Mel Bartholomew, a former engineer whose obsessive-compulsive approach to growing vegetables I have cheerfully adopted.

The sun was out for the first time in about a year.   Bisou and Wolfie ran around while I worked, carrying half frozen sticks in their mouths.  With my chopstick, I dug a hole in the snow, dropped in a little horned spinach seed, then dug another hole and dropped another seed. Nine seeds per square, sixteen squares per bed times three beds should yield 432 plants, or about three cups of cooked spinach.

It took quite a while to dig 432 holes and drop in 432 seeds.  I noticed that my feet in their rubber boots were getting cold, the snow between the raised beds being ankle-deep.  But at the same time the sun on my shoulders felt almost hot.  There was a timid twittering in one of the bare trees that could practically count as bird song.

While I worked I figured out why I love the first spring garden tasks so much.  It's not just because it's the start of a new gardening season, all rosy hopes and crazy dreams, or because it feels great to work outdoors again.  It is because, in the very early spring, I can go out on a sunny morning and face just one single task.  Plant the spinach.  Or, prune the trees.  That's it.  The world is still largely dormant and there's nothing else I could do even if I wanted to. There is not a dandelion in sight to pull, not a sign of the the soon-to-be ubiquitous ground ivy.  So I have the luxury of doing a job in the sweet sunshine and then go inside and read a book, secure in the knowledge that I accomplished what I set out to do.

In another month or so, this will no longer be possible.  The minute the ground thaws, gardening becomes a perpetual compromise between what one should do and what one is able to do.  On a  given day in May, I may have put in the kale and the chard and the lettuce, watered and blessed them and wished them well.  But the need to weed and mulch the flower beds, prune the lilacs and weed whack the front walk will haunt me in my sleep.

So please, spring, take your time.  Let this leisurely first movement stretch out a while, moderato cantabile, as the maple sap rises and the ramps push their way up from under the leaf mold in the woods.  Don't be so eager to bust out all over.  Give me time to gather my strength and gird my loins for the allegro con fuoco that will be here, willy nilly, before we know it.  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Marissa Mayer, What Were You Thinking?

Yahoo employees, I feel your pain, especially if you are parents.  Instead of telecommuting you will now have to put in forty hours of desk-time at the office every week.  Your new boss thinks that this will make you more productive.  I think she's wrong.

In the days before personal computers, college teaching--which is what I did for most of my career--was practically the only profession that offered flexibility in where and when one worked.  Sure, you had to show up for classes and for boring committee meetings.  You also had to have office hours during which students could come in to get help or complain about their grades.  In late May, sweltering in your robe, hood and mortarboard, you had to march to Pomp And Circumstance and sit through graduation speeches.  But you could pretty much set your own class schedule, and as for time spent preparing lectures and doing scholarly research, nobody cared whether you did this at home, in the library or in your office, during daylight hours or in the dark of night.

As a parent, this kind of flexibility saved my sanity.  Not that it was an easy life, by any means.  For years I taught classfuls of slumbering students at 8 a.m.  I scheduled my classes one right after another and ate lunch in my office while grading papers or preparing lectures so I could pick up my daughters at school on time.  (My husband had a long commute to work, so I was essentially a single parent during the day.)  Then, after dinner was done and the kids were in bed, I would work some more.

During Christmas, spring, and summer breaks we were supposed to put together new courses and do the writing and research that we didn't have time for during the semester. But nobody told me how many hours I had to spend on these activities.  Nobody looked over my shoulder.  And because of this I used to feel that my work was never done, that I was never doing quite enough.  I remember finding summers, when the kids were home and I felt that I should be producing reams of scholarship and inventing new course syllabi, quite stressful.  But I can't imagine what would have happened to our family if I had had to be in some office every day from nine to five.

All this changed during the last years of my career when I went to work for a grants-making agency in D.C.  There, for the first time in my life, I was subjected to a nine-to-five schedule.  By then, my daughters being grown, child care was no longer an issue.  But I remember feeling amazed at how little of that eight-hour day people spent actually working.  We were not bored federal workers marking time until retirement, but highly motivated former college faculty who  enjoyed our jobs.  I estimate that a solid four hours of work was the most that anybody got done in a normal workday.  The rest we spent on necessary personal business, creative gossip, speculation about the Congressional budget negotiations, and post-prandial torpor.

At least in my case, the college where I was practically my own boss got more out of me than the D.C. agency where I had to fill out time sheets.  I found the college job much more demanding, because the onus was on me to produce.  When I went to work in D.C. I felt for a change that I could leave my job behind the minute I left the office.  And I did.

So Marissa, if you're looking to squeeze more juice out of your people, I say give them more responsibility.  Treat them like grownups.  Treat them like professionals. The good ones won't let you down. 

You may have to make an effort to find creative ways to evaluate productivity and identify those who use telecommuting as a way to shirk work.   If you force these types to stay in the office from nine to five they'll find other ways to waste time--their own and other people's.  You wouldn't want them at Yahoo anyway.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sidewalk Nostalgia

This is the season when I yearn for sidewalks.  Lovely flat, hard sidewalks that don't give way under your foot.  Sidewalks on which you can wear regular shoes instead of boots.  Sidewalks that your dog can walk on without dragging home half a ton of--you know, that brown stuff that the earth and the clouds make together.

Its name is mud.

Mud season is in full swing in these parts, and our long, steep, unpaved driveway has never been worse.   Our Subaru is coated to the roof with a thick layer of mud and road salt, but I don't feel too bad about that because all the other cars (ninety-five percent of which are Subarus, the state car of Vermont) look the same.  I have often stopped myself just in time from getting into somebody else's mud-covered Subaru.  Recently my husband left ours--unlocked, of course, because there are some advantages to living in this mud-spattered state--in a parking lot, and when he got back found that the driver's seat was pushed all the way up.  Some poor woman (or a very short man) had gotten in by mistake, adjusted the seat, then realized she was in the wrong car and got out in a hurry.

The first winter I spent in Vermont I wondered why natives walked around with horizontal stripes of grayish, crusty matter on the back of their pants, right at calf-level.  This condition seemed to affect women in particular.  It wasn't until these stripes started appearing on my own pants that I realized that they were due to the back of the legs hitting the edge of the floor when one exits a  mud-and-salt-covered car.  Women, having shorter thigh bones, find it more difficult to get out without touching the edge.

But one good thing about mud season is how madly it makes one long for spring.  As Tristan and Isolde knew so well, half the fun is in the longing.  Accordingly, I bought three packets of spinach seeds today.  They are sitting on my kitchen counter waiting for tonight's snow.  If we get even an inch, I'll go out and plant them tomorrow.  I don't know for certain that planting spinach in the snow yields an earlier crop.  But I do know how good it makes me feel.

I also went into a frenzy of houseplant TLC. I installed a humidifier (better late than never) in the sun porch where my plants live.  I watered and spritzed and fertilized the geraniums which, bless their hearts, have bloomed non-stop all winter.  I did the same for the jade plant, the orchids, the lemon tree, and the giant pony tail plant which is beginning to look worried that its top is about to hit the ceiling.  I also watered the rosemary, and as usual it overflowed its drainage dish onto the slate floor, which I then mopped.

It was while I was mopping that I saw the ants.  A barely visible but determined column of them was marching up the side of the rosemary pot.  I don't normally rejoice at the sight of ants in the house, but today I did because, like the mud, they are an unmistakable sign that things are waking up out there.

Doesn't it make you crazy, how relative happiness is?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Not-So-Noble Savages

I recently read Napoleon Chagnon's Noble Savages, an account of his years of anthropological field work among the Yanomamo tribes of Venezuela and Brazil. 

Blithely summarizing here:  Chagnon takes a Darwinian, socio-biological approach to anthropology.  This means that he regards the behavior of the Yanomamo, one of the last remaining Stone Age cultures, as an expression of the competition for reproductive advantage that has fueled the evolution of all other species on the planet.  And he thinks that our ancestors behaved pretty much as the Yanomamo do.

It is the scariest book I have read in a long time. 

Since a woman cannot have more than one child every nine months, having more than one husband is not necessarily to her genetic advantage  On the other hand, it is in a man's interest to have as many wives, and thus as many children, as possible. Yanomamo men who have killed other men enjoy superior status.  They have more wives than men who have not killed, and sire an average of three more offspring.

Because some men have several wives, and because among the Yanomamo significantly more boys are born than girls, there is a chronic shortage of women.  This, you would think, would redound to the women's advantage--men would go to great lengths to seduce them, bringing them flowers or feathers or food.  But it doesn't work that way.  Men use their daughters and nieces as currency, establishing complex systems of exchange and alliance that will in turn give them maximum access to their exchange partners' female relatives.

 Adult men are in constant competition for women.  They spend their lives both trying to get more wives, and guarding the ones they have from other men.  This is a lot like what happens when deer go into rut in the fall, except that bucks calm down after a few weeks, and they do not abuse the females.

Yanomamo villages regularly raid each other, not for food or land or machetes but for women.  At any given time, approximately a quarter of the women residing in a village have been abducted.   These abductions are brutal:  the kidnappers grab the woman by one arm and her "defenders" grab the other, and a tug of war ensues that leaves the woman, regardless of who wins, in a sorry state.  Gang rapes are common.  If a party of hunters comes across a woman and her husband from another village in the forest, they restrain the husband and rape the woman.

What with the need to get more women so as to sire more children on the one hand, and to keep other men from impregnating his wife on the other, a Yanomamo man is under a lot of stress.  He takes this out on the woman, with the excuse that she deserves punishment for her supposed infidelities. Chagnon describes the disfiguring marks of their husband's abuse that Yanomamo women bear.  Unable to dispatch her with a gun, the husband beats his wife with his fists and burns her with logs from the fire. He hacks at her with an ax or a machete.  He shoots curare-tipped arrows at non-vital parts of her body...unless he misses and hits a vital organ, in which case she dies.  And nobody in the tribe thinks anything of this.

If, as Chagnon believes, our ancestors lived  pretty much like the Yanomamo, isn't it a miracle that human females, bound to their muscularly superior males, ever evolved to walk upright and use language, let alone get master's degrees in business administration?

Just after I finished Chagnon's book the Oscar Pistorius story broke.  And it struck me as ironic that, even inside a body which, transformed by twenty-first century technology, illustrates the apex of human evolution, a Stone Age male lurks and rages.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Originally it meant "resembling," or, as a verb, "to take pleasure in."  Then it morphed into a kind of verbal hiccup, a place holder while the mind caught up with the runaway tongue:  "And I said to her, like, who do you think you are?"

Then Facebook came along, and "like" went, like, viral.  It got a new opposite, "unlike," and an imperative, as in "like my page!"  I'm o.k. with being told to "love me, love my dog," or even better, "love my dog, love me."  But can I really be commanded to like a Facebook page?

The "like" Facebook button used to be a last resort when you didn't have time to write a response but wanted to signal approval.  But now that one half of humanity is FB friends with the other half,  "likes" accumulate on posts like drifts in a snow storm.  A wedding anniversary is worth at least thirty likes, a new profile photo fifty, a baby's first tooth--a baby's anything--as many likes as the proud parents have Facebook friends. The "like" reflex has become so generalized that I have even seen it in response to someone's post about mourning the death of a loved one.  Pelted by posts from morning til night, what can we do in the face of the gale but weakly like, like, like?

Facebook needs to broaden its one-click response repertory.  This might include "empathize,"
"congrats," and "envious." These would save us a lot of typing.  And we need something to balance "like."  I propose "hate," or even "abhor."  Maybe "yawn"?

I know, this social medium critique is making me sound quite antisocial.  But I will confess that when I was starting up my FB business page I shamelessly ordered my friends to like it.  They kindly clicked, and I in turn click whenever I'm asked.  And many times every day my finger hits "like" when what I really mean is, "your dog is adorable;  you don't look old at all;  I hope that dish you cooked and photographed agrees with you."

And when someone "likes" one of my posts I always read it as, "I live to read your every word!"

Sunday, March 3, 2013

My Mother And The Mediterranean Diet

If my mother, who turned 95 last week, could understand it, she would feel pleased and vindicated by the recent brouhaha about the Mediterranean diet.  In case you have been news deprived lately, this has to do with the large study in Spain which had to be halted because the positive effects of the diet on the experimental group were so strong that it was deemed unethical to deprive the control group (who were eating a "healthy" diet based mainly on lettuce and such) of its benefits.

Here's what to do if you want to live forever.  Eat little dairy and meat.  Eat fish three times a week. There's no such thing as too much olive oil. Eggs are fine, as is chicken, in moderation.  You can eat all the nuts you want, as well as veggies, legumes and fruit. Chocolate and wine are good.  And, this is my favorite part: several times a week, saute onions and garlic in olive oil, then add tomatoes and simmer;  eat this on rice or pasta.

I was born a few blocks from the sea in the days when Mediterraneans still ate the Mediterranean diet.  My mother used to buy olive oil in four-litre cans, and garlic by the braid.  Every morning she or the maid (in post civil-war Spain you didn't have to be wealthy to have a live-in maid) would grab a basket and go to the market to buy bass, whitefish, mackerel, sardines, octopus, squid, mussels or crayfish, which we would have for the main meal, between one and two in the afternoon.  Dinner, around ten at night, was a one-egg omelet, cooked in olive oil.  For an after-school snack, I was given the food of the gods, pa sucat amb oli i xocolata--a thick slice of crusty bread sprinkled with olive oil and salt, and a piece of barely sweet dark chocolate on the side.

Our diet varied according to the season:  salads and green beans and melons in summer;  cauliflower and swiss chard and dried beans in winter, with almonds and raisins, and the occasional orange, for dessert.  A glass of wine with every meal.

Except for the after-school snack, everything we ate had to be prepared at home.  Meat and vegetables had to be washed, trimmed, sauteed.  Sauces--the garlic and onion sofregit, the velvety bechamel, the almond-based romesco, the divine allioli--had to simmer patiently.  The table cloth had to be laid and the table set, the family summoned.  After each meal the dining room had to be swept (you wouldn't believe what a mess all that crusty bread makes), and the dishes washed and dried by hand.  Food was not a casual affair.  It kept women from becoming lawyers, accountants and astronauts.  It was a daily ritual that enslaved its priestesses.

One thing people hardly ever cooked at home was dessert.  The only home-made one I can remember was the crema catalana, similar to creme brulee, that my aunt who lived with us made on the feast of Saint Joseph.  All the other desserts came from the pastisseria, the neighborhood pastry shop:  tortell de Reis for the feast of the  Epiphany;  mona de Pascua at Easter; coca de Sant Joan at the summer solstice;  panellets and ossos de sant (saint's bones made of marzipan) at Halloween;  and turrons for Christmas.  These formal, celebratory desserts were washed down with champagne and followed by a tiny cup of extremely strong coffee. 

One thing that my mother, whose mind was taken away by encephalitis three years ago, still reacts to is Mediterranean food.  She rejoiced over the turrons that one of her granddaughters sent her at Christmas, and for her birthday I mailed her a package containing the soulful combination of a wedge of manchego, a sheep's milk cheese, and a chunk of membrillo, a barely sweet, fruit-scented concoction made from quince. 

Now that her ability to comprehend and communicate has vanished, food remains as a vehicle for emotion, an assertion of her will to live.  Unlike most people in her dire circumstances, who shrink  with each passing day, my mother in her great old age has grown round, almost spherical.  Her vital signs, the nurses assure us, are excellent.  She has never lost her appetite.

If I could, it would give me joy to reciprocate the earliest gesture that she made for me, the offering of food.  I would make for her a long-simmered sauce from my own tomatoes;  a simple omelet from my own hens' eggs;  and a thick slice of crusty bread sprinkled with olive oil and salt, with a hunk of dark chocolate on the side.