Friday, May 31, 2013

The Goat, Her Milk, And The Poison Ivy

Back in the days when The Mother Earth News was my bible, I came across an article that said that goats not only love to eat poison ivy, but if you drink the milk of a goat that has eaten the plant, you will become immune to its effects.

We had plenty of poison ivy in our yard, and it was difficult to teach our two toddlers to stay out of it. Worse, Madge, our Irish Setter, was forever running through it and getting the oils on her red coat.  Teaching the girls to refrain from petting the dog was beyond hopeless.

We also had two goats whom I milked, and who consumed exorbitant quantities of hay.  By feeding poison ivy to the goats and then drinking their milk, we would get rid of the scourge, develop immunity to it, and save on our hay bill.  The elegance of the Mother Earth scheme made my head spin.

Not wasting a moment, I sharpened my sickle, put on my gardening gloves, and rushed to the poison ivy patch.  It was a hot summer day, but I was working in the shade and feeling very close to Mother Earth.  As I cut down the ivy I meditated on the beautiful economy of simple living.  How much more satisfying on so many levels was this method than spraying some horrible herbicide!

When I had gathered a big armful of ivy I took it to the goat yard, and the goats attacked it with all their might, stuffing great wads of it into their mouths, then going for more.  In a couple of minutes it was all gone.

At dinner that night I poured the milk with some ceremony.  "This," I told my family, "is magical milk.  Drink it, and you will never have poison ivy again."  We all emptied our glasses.

At dawn the next day, I was awakened by an intolerable itching.  My arms were red and swollen, covered in the telltale blisters of poison ivy.  Too late I realized that, in my enthusiasm, I had neglected to cover my arms while cutting the ivy.  Evidently the inoculating properties of a single glass of milk had not been sufficient to counteract the exposure.

I never did find out if drinking poison-ivy-infused milk confers immunity.  From then on I relied strictly on an avoidance-based strategy, with only mediocre results.  It was an itchy, oozy summer, and we all went around looking like members of some exotic tribe, our faces, arms and legs adorned with flaking streaks of pink calamine.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Waiters Beware

When, ignoring her instructions to the contrary, he addressed her as "young lady" for the third time, she attacked him with a fork.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Eggplant Alert

Though late May is supposed to be warm,
A nor'easter will not do much harm.
The lettuce and peas
Won't be brought to their knees,
But the eggplants have cause for alarm.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Apple-Culling Time

This is the time of year when, feeling like King Herod getting ready to massacre the Holy Innocents, I pick up a pair of scissors and go out to cull the apple crop.

Apple blossoms grow in clumps of five or six or even more, and on years when there's been plenty of sunshine and the wind has been still and the pollinators have done their job, every one of those blossoms becomes a baby apple.  Infant apples are adorable.  Plump and green and darkly pink, the size of my smallest fingernail, they thrust themselves up on their stems towards the light, towards life, towards the future.

And then I come around with my scissors.

Sometimes among the five or six siblings in a clump there is a clear winner, a plumper, healthier apple to which the others must be sacrificed.  But often all the apples are similar in size and future prospects.  Then I must choose at random which one will live and which will be severed from their stems, fall to the ground, and be gobbled up by my little red dog, Bisou.

I don't like these choices.  They make me feel like some irrational deity wreaking havoc on harmless beings.  They also make me wonder if there is some invisible demiurge poised above me, enormous scissors in hand, ready to cull me.

Besides, I dislike getting rid of all those potential apples.  The purpose of culling is to enable the tree, instead of producing a large number of stunted, gnarly apples, to concentrate its energies on fewer fruit so that these may attain their full glory.   But all kinds of misfortunes may yet befall the apples that I spare.  They may be knocked down by winds, pecked by birds, attacked by fungi.  It is entirely possible that, at harvest time in the fall, I will end up with only a couple of apples.  Wouldn't it be smarter to leave them all on the tree?

But I ignore my doubts and continue sniping with the scissors.  It takes a while to find all those tiny apples.  This is where I'm glad for the severe pruning I do in February or March.  I keep my trees so small that I hardly have to raise my arms to reach the highest branches.

I'm barely into the second of my four trees when it starts to rain again.  After a worrisome dry spring we're finally getting rain, but it's stormy, scary weather with lightning and thunder and precipitous drops in barometric pressure.   This sends Bisou onto my lap and me into the arms of CFS.

I try not to fret about the unculled trees, the unweeded garden, or the unmade bed.  Instead I close my eyes, breathe in, breathe out, and visualize the water table slowly rising.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Needle And Thread

Spent some time with  needle and thread this morning, repairing my spouse's pants.  But first I had to blow the dust off the tray that holds my sewing supplies.

It's rainy and gloomy today, what my mother used to call "a day for mending socks."  A day for staying indoors, sitting by a window, working at some undemanding yet productive, soothing task.  I can still see her, darning egg in hand, bent over an old sock while our Andalusian maid regaled us with stories of Holy Week in Malaga as she folded the laundry.

While struggling to thread my needle I thought of the two pairs of socks I had thrown away in as many weeks.  Each pair had one hole in one sock, but they were different colors, so I couldn't combine the remaining good socks into a pair.  I remember thinking, "I should mend this hole," and then quickly, "Life's too short to be mending socks."   Before I could change my mind I dropped them in the trash, and now they're on their way to a landfill, along with 85% of clothing purchased in the U.S. on any given year.

I've been feeling some clothes guilt lately, having bought two dresses in the same month as the Bangladesh factory disaster.  But one of those dresses came from Gudrun Sjoden, a Swedish designer who, on her website, advises us to wear our old clothes with pride and to wash them only when they are in fact dirty.  Otherwise, she counsels, we should just air them out and spot clean them.  Needless to say, her clothes are manufactured in observance of fair-trade and ecological standards.  When you buy one of her outfits you feel that you're actually contributing to the well-being of Mother Earth.

Nevertheless, I know that the kindest thing I can do for Mother Earth is to keep wearing the clothes that are presently in my closet over and over and over, until I die.  If I stop washing them so often and begin to mend them, I can probably even pass them on to my descendants.  This is how it was for most of human history, after all, with textiles being saved and reconstructed to fit the next generation.

If current apocalyptic scenarios come true, those days may come around again.  Good-bye then to clothes as entertainment, as expressions of a spring day's mood, as symbols of momentary enthusiasms.   Hello to clothes as mere weather protection.

But maybe there will be some good times in exchange.  European lyric poetry began with the chansons de toile, the songs that women sang while sitting at their weaving a thousand years ago.  Maybe when the economy collapses for good and the climate changes beyond recognition, on rainy days women will again sit together by a window, mending socks, telling stories, making up songs.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Why I Live In Vermont

Some of you have asked how I ended up in Vermont.  Here is a piece I wrote a while ago about the process that led me here, entitled "Magnetic North":                                                                      

The attraction began in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1959.  I was a freshman in high school, newly arrived in the U.S. and drowning in a river of southern English.  I would grasp at words as they floated past, but could not reconcile the currents that engulfed me with anything in the Primer Curso de Ingles that had been my sole preparation for school in the Deep South.

It was a Catholic high school, so miracles and visitations were not unheard of.  Mine came in the shape of a freckled girl whose family had just moved to town, and the miracle was that the first time she opened her mouth in class I understood everything she said.  Her words were as clear and precise as if she had clicked them out on a typewriter.  She did not stretch her vowels out like taffy, and though she spoke faster than the southern kids, I could tell exactly where each word began, and where it ended.  I could follow her train of thought.  It wasn't that different from mine.

She took me home with her one afternoon and her mother, her father and even her little sister all sounded the same.  No drawn-out diphthongs, no languid cadences.  Here was an entire family whom I could understand.  

My friend and her parents were from Massachusetts, which I learned was in New England.  I thought that someday I would like to live in a place where everybody spoke like that.                                                                                                                              
Graduate school took me out of the Deep South, all the way to North Carolina.  By the time I arrived in  Maryland in the 1970s,  language had ceased to be an issue:  I was not only dreaming, but even counting in English.  
The back-to-the-land movement was in full swing then, and I was determined to achieve self-sufficiency in the acre and a half that surrounded our house.  I had an ambitious vegetable garden with an asparagus bed, and twenty-seven fruit trees.  For protein there were a dozen laying hens, and two Roman-nosed Nubian dairy goats who looked vaguely like Barbra Streisand.

As I had never grown a tomato, pruned an apple tree or milked a goat, I did a lot of research at the local library.  This consisted mostly of reading back issues of Organic Gardening and The Mother Earth News, and I noticed that many of the articles and letters to the editor came from New England.  The writers alluded to sugaring in the spring, and to goats coming into heat as the trees began to turn in the fall.  They advised readers to be vigilant about frozen water buckets in winter, and to keep a stack of old blankets handy for covering tender veggies in case of September frosts.

September frosts!  As I sweltered in the heat of the interminable Chesapeake Bay summer, the fantasy of living in a land where gardens snuggled under blankets, water buckets froze solid, and roadsides were free of that tropical menace, the kudzu vine, became more and more compelling.

The  library also had a shelf dedicated to books about country living.  These were more lyrical than practical, and I read them with the same passion with which as a child I had read about Heidi and her goats.  It was there that I first found Noel Perrin, Louise Dickinson Rich, Scott and Helen Nearing.  In the children's section I discovered the illustrations by Tasha Tudor.  I had read Thoreau years earlier, but the life he described seemed impossible to translate into the twentieth century.  The writers on the country living shelf, however, were very much  alive,  and they had one thing in common:  they all lived in New England.

In the 1980s, as the Maryland countryside succumbed to suburbia, I had to give up my little homestead.  But at the least provocation I would launch into nostalgic stories about the hens I had kept and the goats I had known.  “What do you mean, you kept hens for eggs,” people would say.  “Don't you need a rooster for that?”  The reactions when I mentioned my elegant Nubian does were so predictable and so dispiriting, having to do with tin cans and foul smells, that I soon dropped livestock from my repertoire of party conversations.  Would I ever live where I didn't have to explain or excuse the things I really cared about?

 It took almost four decades—about as long as it took the people of Israel to get to Canaan--but I finally made it to a place where the roadways are free of kudzu (and, because this is Vermont, of billboards as well), and MacMansions are few.  Where a near neighbor makes world-class cheese with her goats' milk.  Where, when I tell people I keep hens, they ask “what kind?”

Yesterday, in yoga class, the woman who usually sits on my right was late because one of her sheep had gotten loose.  After final meditation, while we were rolling up our mats, the woman who sits on my left gave her a short lecture on the best kinds of livestock fencing.  As I was walking out, the instructor confided  that she is  thinking about keeping bees--her gesture towards saving the planet.

From where I sit at the computer, I can see my hens pecking and scratching at  the newly-green grass.  In the garden, the spinach is up but growing slowly because of the cold spring.  The apple trees are in bloom, but I have a stack of blankets ready, since a hard frost is predicted for tonight.

The farmer who hays our field dropped by on a chilly, sunny day last week to discuss plans for the coming summer.   He complained about the rising costs of diesel fuel, and told me his philosophy on breeding cows—he prefers to wait until they are two years old, when their pelvises are fully developed, because it makes for easier births. 

“You know,” he said, finally getting around to the real topic, “this field of yours really needs manuring.  I hope you don't mind.  It'll stink badly for a couple of days, but that won't last.”
His speech was as crisp and clear as the Vermont air, and I could understand every word he said.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sundays At The Church Of The Internet

For the first quarter century of my life, I went to church every Sunday.  I didn't mind the Mass so much, but the sermon did me in.  As a child I fidgeted in the pew, but as soon as I became capable of critical thinking, I fidgeted inside my head.  Proud of my book learning, I passed the time identifying logical fallacies and deploring the oratorical style, or lack thereof, of the man in the pulpit.

After the Ite, missa est released us, I would tear the chapel veil off my head and complain to my mother about yet another ridiculous sermon.  She, who probably had the same objections as I, would counsel humility, the suspension of judgment.  "But," I would counter in full adolescent preen, "if God didn't want me to use it, why did He give me a brain?"

Then for many years I didn't go to church at all.  But when life got difficult and my sense of invulnerability faded, I became aware of an annoying longing for spiritual guidance.  This led me to join crowds of lapsed Catholics and Jews at the local Unitarian church, but my old critical habit soon reared up its wizened head, and I stopped showing up.

After we moved to Vermont I started listening to On Being because it came on NPR while we were eating Sunday breakfast.  And because I usually missed part of it while I was out feeding the chickens I would later, when I thought of it, go to the website.

And I was off.  With the wind of the Holy Ghost in my sails, I discovered Viktor Frankl,  Richard Rohr, Pema ChodronSylvia Boorstein.  Eckart Tolle, who looks like a Dark Forest elf, reminds me of the German nuns who were my first teachers.  Also, he owns a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.  Do these sound like frivolous reasons to listen to a spiritual teacher?  If those priests of my childhood had owned a dog--or had a wife and children--I might have understood them better.

The vagaries of links led me to someone I would never have looked up, Geneen Roth, who lost all her money to Bernie Madoff and wrote beautifully about it, and to the illustrator Jennifer Orkin Lewis, whose works make me want to draw, or write, or something...

I know all too well the orthodox rebuttal to my digital spiritual wanderings.  I am picking and choosing what feels right--as opposed to what IS right--which is utterly non-Catholic.  But I'm not so sure about that.  No Sunday sermon on the dangers of mortal sin was as stark as Pema Chodron's message about the need to accept the impermanence of all things, to give up hope for good.

These digital homilies are hardly touchy-feely--at least the ones I read.  They deal with the inevitability of suffering and the need to be present, because the present is all we have.  And if an internet sermon makes me want to write or draw or stop thinking for a minute and just look into the green woods, isn't that all God's work?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Could Someone Explain About Leggings?

I am not against leggings.  In fact, I own several pair.  But I'm not sure I understand their raison d'etre.

In winter one wears leggings and socks inside boots, but in that case, why not just wear a pair of warm tights?

I like the look of leggings and sockless feet in flats, but if it's chilly enough to cover my legs I probably need something to cover my feet, too.

In warm weather, some women wear leggings under dresses, but it seems odd to encase one's legs in lycra when the point of a summer dress is to let air circulate.

The logic of leggings escapes me.  What have I missed?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Good-Enough Parenting--Her Story

As a baby, I never crawled.  I was held in someone's arms--my mother's, my grandmother's, my various aunts'--from birth until the day when I struggled out of that constant embrace and tottered across the room.

Our apartment in  Barcelona was large, which meant that I could gallop top-speed down the hallway that ran from one end to the other.  That was the only place where I could run.  Outdoors, on the street, I was always holding somebody's hand.  It was a big city, after all.  I could have run out into traffic, or gotten lost in the crowds.  I can still feel my mother's convulsive grip whenever we stepped off the curb.

While my five-year-old future husband was in the kitchen making pancakes for his lunch (see ), I hardly ever entered our kitchen.  There was always water boiling, or hot oil spattering, not to mention the bottle of lye lurking under the sink.  And I don't think I ever helped myself to a piece of food until I was a teenager and living in the U.S.  Food was handed to me at regular intervals by a responsible adult, like Communion, and I ate it obediently, whether or not I was hungry.

I was never out of sight of an adult.  Although I had my own bedroom in the apartment, I did not sleep there until I was in second grade.  Before that, I slept next to my parents' bed.  (This may be why it took them sixteen years to have another child.)

I spent my early years going places with my mother.  On Sundays I would walk with her to Mass, where I entertained myself by looking at the statues of the Virgin Mary and, as a last resort, at the Stations of the Cross.  Then we would take the metro to hear my father's orchestra play their weekly concert.  I sat as quietly as I could through endless Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler.  I stared at the extravagant Art Nouveau decorations of the hall, and tried to catch a glimpse of the only woman in the orchestra, the harpist, who was always stuck way in the back. 

On weekdays I went to the fish market with my mother, or out on the wide avenues to look at the windows of fancy shops that sold exquisite leather purses and silk scarves, or to dusty fabric stores that I hated almost as much as the Mahler symphonies.  All too often we would go to visit people, usually frail elderly ones who had to be kissed and who expected me to sit quietly for the whole endless afternoon.

My bodily safety was of great concern to the adults around me.  I was told when to put on a sweater, button my coat, take off my gloves.  I was advised to breathe through my nose and not run too fast lest I should fall.  When we moved to Ecuador our house was on a two-way street, and my mother would send the maid to take me across to meet the school bus, much to my embarrassment.  I was twelve years old.

The only physically adventurous thing that happened to me as a child took place one summer on my grandparents' farm.  My uncle, who was barely out of his teens, was leading the cart horse back to the barn and he let me ride, warning me to hold on to the collar.  He was walking alongside, singing Oh, Susanna! (Con mi banjo y mi caballo, a Alabama me marche!), forgot himself and slapped the horse on the rump.  The horse broke into a trot and I let go of the collar and for a delicious moment flew through the air until my uncle caught me.  He made me swear not to tell anybody, and in September I returned to my life of buttoned sweaters, symphony concerts, and apartment life.

Thanks to an accident of fate--I was the only child of an intense mother in a close-knit family--I didn't just have a pair of helicopter parents but two full sets of grandparents, a great-aunt and -uncle, four single aunts and a young uncle rotating above my head at all times, offering cautions and advice.

And yet, I made it.  I did not grow into a recluse or an idiot or a particularly fragile flower.  My pancake-making husband and I could hardly been brought up more differently from each other. But we were both, in our parents' respectively quirky ways, truly loved.  And it appears that, with that as a given, kids will prosper no matter what.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Good-Enough Parenting--His Story

We were at table with some friends recently, talking about the foods we used to like as children, when my husband said, "I made pancakes for lunch one day when I was in kindergarten."

"How nice," we said.  "Did your mother help you?"

"No," he said.  "The day I made pancakes I was alone in the house."

We put down our forks and, bit by bit, got the story out of him.  It seems that, arriving home for lunch and finding the house empty, he decided to take matters into his own hands.  He found the box of pancake mix, measured some into a bowl and poured in the milk.  Then, having lubricated the griddle with Crisco, he set it on the stove and turned on the gas.

While the griddle was preheating, he went into the next room and dialed his girlfriend's phone number.  The girl's mother answered and wanted to chat, but he was worried that the griddle would overheat.  He finally got rid of the lady, ran back into the kitchen, climbed up on a chair next to the stove, and started ladling batter onto the sizzling griddle.

We stared at him with our mouths open.  "What?" he said.  "I knew how to make pancakes.  My grandfather had taught me.  Besides, that was nothing.  I was babysitting my brother and sister when I was eight."

"You were?" we chorused, the food now cold on our plates.

"Sure.  When my parents went out they would put my brother and sister to bed.  I got to stay up and watch TV."

"But," I said, putting aside scenarios such as fires, gas leaks, and sudden fevers that might deter parents from leaving an eight-year-old in charge, "weren't you scared that a robber might come?"

"No, no," he said.  "I knew where the .22 was kept, in my parents' bedroom closet.  I knew perfectly well how to handle a gun.  I'd done lots of target practice with it in the woods."

This was childhood in the 1950s, not in a sharecropper's cabin in West Virginia but in suburban New Jersey, in a household of caring, college-educated if possibly over-optimistic young parents.

There is a lot of criticism today of fathers and mothers who overprotect their children. Helicopter parents, I know how you feel!  I refused to go to a Rolling Stones concert with my once gun-wielding, pancake-making spouse because my baby had developed a couple of funny-looking spots on her forehead.  To you I dedicate this story of pancakes and guns, not as an example but as reassurance.  Kids, mostly, can survive anything.

(For a completely different story of childhood survival, check tomorrow's post.)

Friday, May 10, 2013

What I Wish I'd Said To My Mother

My ninety-five-year-old mother is deeply demented, and there's not much I can do for her on Mother's Day.  She nevertheless still likes to eat, so I'm sending her a soul-food sweet from Spain:  chocolate-covered orange slices.  She won't know who they're from or why she's eating them.  All I'm hoping is to give her taste buds a momentary thrill.

As recently as three years ago, however, I could have given her a much bigger thrill, one that would have stayed with her for a long time.  I could have recounted some of the ways in which she had been a good mother to me.

I could have said, "Remember how you used to read over my high school term papers and make suggestions on how to improve them? You taught me how to think."

I could have said, "You used to make fantastic sauces.  No two were ever alike and none could be repeated because you invented them on the spur of the moment.  But they were terrific."

I could have said, "You made me feel loved every minute of my life, which created an expectation in me that others would love me too, and that helped me to find and keep love."

But instead of saying these things, I would go out and buy a gift, making sure that it arrived on time, and write "Happy Mother's Day" on the card.  Not bad, but I could have done better.  Unfortunately, at the time I lacked the imagination to realize that parents need to hear from their adult children that they did in fact do a good job of parenting.  Or at least that they got some things right.

I did once years ago, quite by chance, say to my mother that her relationship with my father had taught me how to be married.  I was surprised when she burst into tears.  Now I know how she felt.

"How sharper that a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child," poor sad King Lear complained.  I can think of a corollary to his words:  how sweeter even than chocolate-covered orange slices it is to have a child who is grateful, and tells you so.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rain, Maybe

I just walked in the house from taking the dogs out in the field, and all three of us are actually wet.  Well, maybe only moist.  But after two and a half weeks without rain, every drop counts.

Mind you, things are still green around here--it takes a while to use up the spring melt.  But yesterday the woods gave off that sweet, dry Mediterranean smell that would have made a nightingale not sound out of place.  In Vermont, however, a dry spell this early in the season does not bode well for fields and farms, flowers and wells.

I have a little fixation on wells, having spent my young adult years trying to coexist with a slow one.  I learned to do no more than one load of wash on any given day, and to turn off the shower while I soaped myself, and to never, ever water the garden or the grass.  But the Christmas when, having just placed turkey and trimmings in front of twelve house guests, I went to wash my hands and heard that fatal "shhhhhh" come drily out of the faucet ranks as one of the low points of my life.

Hence my over-vigilance about rainfall and water tables and wells.  As soon as we have a couple of dry days I go into water conservation mode.  I water the vegetables with a watering can instead of a hose.  I turn the water off while brushing my teeth.  And while I cook, I fill a bowl with water and rinse my fingers in it rather than under the faucet.  When I'm done I throw the contents of the bowl into the pond, to replenish it.  Need I say that our toilet tanks are equipped with water-saving quart jars year round?

So far, our Vermont well has never failed us, but who knows what lies ahead in this era of morphing climate?  Like, for instance, right now the rain has stopped.  The patio is dry again and the hens have come out to hunt for whatever micro-fauna emerge after a shower.  My hopes are dashed. The drought is not averted.  It will be sad to watch the gardens slowly die, the Holsteins in the fields grow gaunt and skeletal...

But wait!  The hens just ran inside!  It's sprinkling again, and the frog in the pond just croaked with joy.  And so did I.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Semi-Silent Spring

Where are the birds? 

On our hill, this slow spring has been curiously bird-free.  I do hear the occasional chickadee and goldfinch.  The bluebird hung around singing for a few days but nobody joined him, so he left.  I've heard an owl or two in the woods, and the woodpeckers are keeping the percussion section going as usual.  But what about the dawn chorus?

I should be waking up to red-winged blackbirds trilling in the field, hawks whistling in the heavens, and the rusty-hinge song of the phoebes.  Instead, I wake up to blue sky, bright sun, and silence.  The phoebes are here and building a nest, but they aren't singing.  And where are the thrushes?  Every morning when I open the door of the shed to let the hens out I listen for that magic flute in the woods, but if the thrushes are there, they too are silent.

It's a weird year for frogs as well.  By now there should be at least a dozen sunning themselves on the patio by the pond, but so far I've only seen one.  He is big and hefty, and lets out an occasional dispirited croak.  I hope some friends join him soon.  Bisou misses the frog parties even more than I do.

While we wait and hope for the real thing to arrive, here is Amy Beach's "Hermit Thrush At Morn," which is almost as mysterious and enchanting as the live bird:

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Control Freak Learns A Lesson

Sometimes when I'm invited to dinner at someone's house I'll walk in and find the hostess in the middle of, say, browning onions.  She'll put down her spatula, pour us a drink, and chat comfortably as she stirs until it's time to sit down to eat.  And the whole time she's cooking and we're chatting I'm thinking, wow, I wish I could do that!

I was the kind of student who handed term papers in before the deadline, who never in twenty years of schooling pulled an all-nighter.  I got my work done ahead of time because who knew what disaster might strike at the last minute?  Though I was not a Boy Scout, their motto was engraved in my heart.  I was always prepared.

Unlike my onion-frying friends, I can barely slice a lime for gin and tonics in the presence of guests.  If you come to my house for a meal, every last molecule of food will have been prepared beforehand.  That means that you will never experience my souffles or, God forbid, any dessert that requires a whipped-cream topping.  The potential for last minute misfortunes is too great.

I had invited friends to dinner sometime ago and had spent the day cooking, setting the table, straightening bathroom towels, picking up dog hair, putting away laundry (you never know when someone may wander into the laundry room, even if it's on the second floor), hiding newspapers, straightening rug fringes and wiping nose prints off the back door.  By the time I changed my clothes  I had five minutes to relax before the guests arrived.

I let the dogs out one last time, and Bisou did her ritual vacuuming of the grass for rabbit pellets.  She came back in, gulped down a big drink of water, and jumped up next to me on the sofa.  I was sitting breathing calmly and centering myself when she gave a huge burp and all that water, with its cargo of rabbit droppings and half digested kibble, geysered onto my lap, the sofa and the rug at my feet.

It was one of those disasters that turn one to stone.  I sat there dripping dog vomit, the guests doubtless already making their way up our driveway, unable to decide which to address first--the rug, the sofa, or my clothes.  I shrieked for my husband and told him to stand guard and not let anybody into the house until I gave the all clear.

I have no memory of what happened next.  Did I carry away the rug first, or did I take off my clothes, or did I swab down the sofa?  I do remember being glad that I had taught my dogs to hold their down-stays no matter what fascinating events were going on around them.

The universe was kind to me that day and delayed the guests' arrival until things were somewhat back in order, or at least not terribly smelly.  I have since tried to cultivate a more casual attitude towards entertaining and towards life in general.  It's just possible that the Boy Scout motto is not the secret of success.  After all, the Scouts have been wrong about plenty of other things...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Wild Cat On Your Lap

There's an article in this week's New Yorker about  people who are attempting to breed domestic cats that look like ocelots, jaguars, and tigers:

Their aim is paradoxical:  to come up with an animal that looks like it just walked out of the jungle before jumping up on your lap.  This is not an easy task, and many "mistakes," both physical and temperamental, are born in the process.

For the moment, I am free from this obsession.  I like a fluffy, cuddly-looking cat, because I am well aware of the wildness that lurks inside.  What about you?