Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Francis, It's Not Funny

"Question:  How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer:  That's not funny!"

Remember the days when we girls were expected to swallow demeaning jokes with a smile, or be accused of lacking a sense of humor?  Remember when being told we were pretty was supposed to make up for being treated as inferior beings?

Now it seems that those days are still with us, at least where Pope Francis is concerned.  In a recent interview, when asked for his opinion on the place of women in the Church, he answers:  "Women are the most beautiful thing God has made.  The Church is a woman.  Church is a feminine word..."

(Why thank you, Francis.  So glad you like our looks.) 

Then he repeats his frequent assertion that "we need a theology of woman."  I wonder who will make up that theology?  Surely not a gaggle of male clerics claiming a special relationship to the Holy Spirit...

When the interviewer asks whether Francis doesn't see "a certain underlying misogyny" in the Church's attitude towards women, the Pope gets nervous and...he makes a joke!  He pretends to justify this misogyny by saying, "The fact is that woman was taken from a rib," then laughs heartily.  And the women of the world are supposed to laugh along with him, or be accused of lacking a sense of humor. 

The journalist, who knows better than to even mention the ordination of women, then asks if he might some day place a woman in an administrative position in the Vatican.  And Francis, still nervous, makes another joke, saying that often priests end up under the authority of their housekeeper.  Ah yes, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world;  the hand that washes the priest's underwear rules the parish.

All this is so familiar, and so sad, not to mention enraging.  Where has Francis been for the last forty years?  How can he be so patronizing, and so naive?  Even more troubling, he presents himself as a champion of the poor and of the environment (he's writing an encyclical on the environment right now) while continuing to condemn artificial contraception as sinful.

My hopes for this pope plummeted when, soon after his election, I read the following quote opposing  Cristina Fernandez Kirchner's victorious bid for the presidency of Argentina:  ”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.”  http://nbclatino.com/2013/03/14/pope-francis-and-argentinas-kirchner-have-battled-in-past


Nothing more than that--such hope-crushing words for women.  But at least we can take comfort in our beauty.

(You can see the English version of the full interview here.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Household Gods

If you've read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, you remember Ma's little china shepherdess.  Wherever the Ingalls family ended up--in the big woods, on the prairie, by Plum Creek, or in town--after the wagon had been unloaded and the floor swept Ma would unwrap the little china shepherdess and put her on the special shelf that Pa had made, and the Ingalls knew that they were home.

The ancient Romans were really good at finding gods for all kinds of things.  Among the most useful were the lares and penates, minor deities in charge of protecting the household.  In time, their name came to designate the statues representing them, and the term also spread to especially treasured household objects.

Like Ma and the Romans, I had my lares and penates, objects that followed me from house to house for almost fifty years of married life. The problem is, I had too many, and before moving to our present cottage I got rid of most of them. 

Sometimes, sitting in our new digs, looking out at the new view out of our new windows, I try to  imagine where my lares and penates ended up.  Are they hanging on somebody's wall, sitting on somebody's kitchen counter?  Have the gods who protected my household all those years transferred those duties to their new owners?  One thing I know for sure--of all the dozens of lares and penates I let go, I can only remember a mortar and pestle, and a set of wooden bowls.

However, I did hold on to a few, a very few, of my household deities.  One is a print of Lucas Cranach the Elder's Portrait of a Saxon Noblewoman, decoupaged on an old wooden board edged with antiqued gold paint. 


She sits on the contemporary equivalent of the household shrine, the mantel above the gas fireplace. She has to be one of the ugliest faces in Western art, and I wonder why I'm attached to her.  Maybe it's because she looks so alien.  In my family we tend towards the typical Spanish look--think el Greco--with thick droopy eyebrows to shade us from the glare of the Mediterranean sun, and eyes whose outer corners tilt down rather than up.

File:El Greco - Lady with a Flower.jpg 

But I think the real reason I've enshrined the Cranach woman all these years is that she looks both mean and unapologetic.  I occasionally feel as mean as she looks, but I'm also inwardly apologizing all over the place.  The Cranach woman is mean-spirited and unfriendly, and she doesn't give a damn.  She not only embodies what is worst in me, she possesses a complacency that I can only aspire to.

Family lore has it that I was an exceptionally well-behaved, compliant child.  But as a toddler I had an evil doll, named Antonio, who was constantly misbehaving and having to be made to stand in the corner.  I think the Cranach woman on my mantel is Antonio's successor.  Like the ancient Romans, I know how to pick my gods. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dying To Shop

For most of the last decade I've been in shopping withdrawal.  Along with the woods, the cow-dotted meadows, and the pastoral quiet of our former place in rural Vermont came an almost total absence of stores.

And in my heart I believed that this was a good thing.  It kept us from buying things that had been manufactured under dubious conditions in the far reaches of the planet and that we didn't need in the first place. It forced us to focus on our souls instead of on our stuff.

The availability of everything I could ever want on the internet kept this withdrawal from being absolute, of course.  But as far as actually seeing, touching, and smelling material goods for sale, I was as isolated as a hermit in her desert cave.  Occasionally this lack of stores got annoying, such as the time I had to drive forty-five minutes--albeit through a gorgeous snow-shrouded landscape--to buy a spool of brown thread.  And whenever we left home and ventured into civilization, a casual drive past a strip mall would have me slavering with the desire to buy something, anything.

Now I live around the corner from Vermont's ultra-cool shopping mecca.  The little market three minutes from our cottage carries four brands of Spanish olive oil, one of them from my mother's village in Catalonia, and goat cheeses from at least a dozen local farms.  There are furniture stores overflowing with exquisite pieces made by Vermont woodworkers from Vermont wood, and  boutiques selling clothes woven by Vermont weavers from the wool of Vermont sheep.  There are stores that cater to the enlightened pet owner and kitchen stores that make even me want to cook.

So I have been doing a lot of slavering, but mostly in vain.

If, for example, I go into the market for some breakfast yogurt, I have to ignore the olive oils and the cheeses and the racks of locally-baked breads bristling with grains.  For there is only so much even I can eat, and every day of the year Wake Robin provides us with a lovely, nutritious meal, and the oils would go rancid and the cheeses moldy and the bread stale in our pantry if I succumbed to my urges and brought them home.

I also have to give the furniture stores, the boutiques and the kitchen stores a miss.  Having just pressed one of my daughters into taking my husband's grandmother's wedding china, what am I doing even looking at noodle bowls from Japan?  We have given away, sold, or thrown out eighty percent of our belongings in order to fit into this cottage.  I'd better do a thorough examination of conscience before I bring even a salt shaker into our tiny space.

Maybe I could buy some clothes?  Clothes don't take up a lot of room, especially if they are made of silk.  But we all know where cheap silk comes from, and what those brilliant dyes are doing to rivers across the globe.  Besides, I have clothes hanging in my closet that are a couple of decades old and still perfectly wearable.  So buying clothes isn't a good way to assuage my shopping urges.

I suspect there isn't one.  Maybe what I need is to start meditating again, sitting on the floor and breathing, focusing on my soul, etc.  As it happens, my meditation cushion, which dates from sometime in the 90s, is looking scruffy.  There is bound to be a meditation store nearby....


Friday, July 11, 2014

Swimsuit Shopping at T.J. Maxx


My last swimsuit had sat unworn in a drawer for a couple of decades, and when I put it on last week I found that the elastic had lost its snap.  So on Sunday afternoon I went to find a new suit in that Vatican of fashion, T.J. Maxx.

I was wandering from rack to rack in a trance, avoiding the swimsuit section and looking around at my fellow shoppers, when I noticed several young women wearing the hijab.  Their hair, neck, ears and upper torso draped in cloth, all you could see were their big dark eyes and olive complexions.  Near each woman hovered a man, also young, often in charge of one or two small children.

The other young female shoppers had complexions that aimed towards olive but veered in the direction of orange, telling of self-tanning lotions or, worse, tanning booths.  Some wore transparent camisoles over bras, and shorts cut so high that the pocket liners stuck out over their burnt-sienna thighs.  Others were in long nightgown-like dresses with decolletages rivaling those of the
Napoleonic era.  None of them was accompanied by a man.

Reluctantly approaching the swimsuit rack, I imagined their boyfriends, at home watching the World Cup and drinking beer.  Unlike the male companions of the hijab wearers, they wouldn't be caught dead shopping for clothes on a weekend afternoon.

I come from a long line of covered women.  My maiden name, Benejam, harks to a time in medieval Spain when Arabs and Jews intermingled to such an extent that it's impossible to say which lineage my family belongs to.   But one thing is certain:  whether with wigs, veils, or hats, my great-great-great grandmothers all shunned the male gaze.

Even in my childhood, five centuries after the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, threw both Arabs and Jews out of Spain, girls and women could not enter a church unless we had some scrap of lace or cloth with which to cover our heads.  And I remember sitting through many a sermon in which the priest railed against women whose sleeves failed to cover their elbows.

But forget Spain.  Think Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s.  Prom-time is approaching in my Catholic high school, and we girls are told in no uncertain terms that strapless gowns, and even gowns with spaghetti straps, are an "occasion of sin," and unacceptable.  Somehow, we still managed to look  pretty in our Jackie-wannabe shiny gowns and puffy hair styles, our chests modestly under wraps. 

Pulling one swimsuit after another off the rack, surrounded by eastern and western notions of what women should wear and be, I gazed at the young mothers in hijabs with their patient husbands, and at the almost-naked American-born girls shopping alone.  I had always thought of the hijab, the burka and the chador as instruments of female subjection.  Yet here were the hijab-wearers, rifling idly through the dress racks, enjoying themselves while their men kept track of the kids.

I concluded that it was a case of the universal shopping imperative at work, so that if a certain culture dictates that women cannot leave the house alone, then men have to give up their afternoons in front of the TV to take them shopping, and mind the babies.  Sometimes things work out in unexpected ways.

After squeezing into and out of a couple dozen swimsuits, I found one with nice wide straps, paid for it, and drove home.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Time To Cook--or Not

For everything, as we know, there is a season:  a time to plant, a time to reap;  a time to laugh, a time to weep.  A time to cook...and a time to refrain from cooking.

My time to cook began in the Summer of Love of 1967.  Now, as of our move to Wake Robin a month ago, the time to refrain from cooking has arrived.  And not a moment too soon.

I got married just before feminism made its second pass through the American consciousness, when it was not considered particularly attractive for young ladies to be in graduate school, which I was.  Cooking, on the other hand, we were told was a feminine adornment and essential to the health of a marriage, so I strove to broaden my repertory, which prior to the wedding had been limited to boiling eggs.

It wasn't easy to produce a salad, meat, two veg and dessert seven days a week on our grad student income, and things got more complicated when our daughters began to eat solid foods.  Now, in addition to finances, I had three people's tastes to consider, plus I was starting to become aware, along with the rest of America, of the effects of diet on health.

At around this time I fell under the spell of The Mother Earth News, and became persuaded that the only way to keep my family from an early grave was to put on the table food that I had personally grown:  broccoli from my garden, apples from my trees, eggs from my hens, milk from my goats, and bread baked with my own two hands (though the flour came from the store).

This had a lot of charm, but it was a ton of work.  Once they'd eaten their first home-grown omelette and drunk their first miraculous glasses of goat's milk, home-grown food became the norm and my family gradually ceased to exclaim about the wonderfulness of my efforts.  And, children being what they are, the girls turned up their snub little noses at my hard-won broccoli, and pined for McDonald's.

Nevertheless, I persevered.  I still got pleasure from the garden and the goats, but cooking became a chore.  I've known people, all of them male, who say they come home from a day's work and look forward to making a creative dinner--they say it relaxes them.  I was not born to be one of these people.  I was born to marry one.
But I hadn't.  My husband declared himself willing to help, but on his terms:  TV dinners, soups by Campbell's, and green beans from the garden of the Jolly Green Giant.  Convinced that on such a diet we'd all be dead within the year, I shooed him out of the kitchen, gritted my teeth, and cooked on.

Years passed.  We moved from country to city to country again.  The city interludes were less arduous, because at least I wasn't producing the food, but I still had to shop for it.   I knew, as I opened my eyes every morning, that unless I caved and we ordered pizza, before I went to my rest that night I was going to have to do something about dinner. 

And for almost fifty years, I did.

Now that's behind me.  Our monthly fees include lunch or dinner, in the informal cafe or the  formalish (this being Vermont) dining room.  The food is, almost without exception, lovely, and of astounding variety.  I eat more vegetables here than I ever did before. Wake Robin is an important presence in the local farm-to-table movement, so the food is pretty much guilt-free.

Is there nothing I miss of my own cooking?  Certainly:  garlic sauteed in olive oil;  salads consisting entirely of arugula;  bread with, again, olive oil.  But our cottage kitchen is the most modern I've ever had, and its cupboards contain my old cast iron pans and well-worn wooden spoons.  There's a bottle of olive oil in the pantry, and a paper bag with the remains of last summer's garlic crop.  There's no reason I can't whip up a little Mediterranean dish anytime I really feel the urge.  I've even given some hazy consideration to getting deeply into bread making again.  And maybe I will--in the winter perhaps...

But for now, every day I rejoice in the knowledge that the season to refrain from cooking has arrived.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Poor Wolfie

Nobody can figure out what's wrong with him. 

It started slowly, four years ago, when I noticed that Wolfie had lost some stamina.  He still ran flat out, stretching his long legs as far as they would go, covering amazing amounts of ground in a few seconds.  But he didn't do it for quite as long as before.

The vet diagnosed anaplasmosis, a tick-borne disease, and treated him with antibiotics, which are normally quite effective.  In Wolfie's case, however, they weren't, so we treated him again.  Nothing much changed, but he was fine in all other respects--shiny black coat, good appetite, a friend to all.

Time passed and--so gradually that I often wondered if I was imagining it--Wolfie's energy continued to  decrease.  He was, after all, five years old--not a puppy anymore.  Still, he should have been in his prime, so I had him checked again.  All tests came back clear but, just in case, the vet prescribed a third course of antibiotics.

Then about a year ago, one day when he had stopped to feast on some deer poop in the field, I called him and as he ran towards me I noticed a slight limp on his right foreleg.  The next day, it was gone.  I had forgotten all about it when, a week later, the limp came back, and this time it was more pronounced.

In the following weeks I paid close attention to that foreleg, trying to figure out what triggered the limp.  Often, he'd be fine at the start of a walk but limping at the end, but other days he would start off limping and improve by the time we got back home.  Cold weather, warm weather, shifts in barometric pressure--none of it seemed linked to the limp, which came and went according to its own mysterious rhythms.

One thing was certain:  it was getting worse.  On the day when I saw Wolfie holding up his big paw and hobbling on three legs, I rushed him to the vet.  She noticed considerable muscle loss on his right side, and I made an appointment to have him sedated and x-rayed.  While he was under, the vet also drew blood for more tests.

The good news was that his skeleton was in perfect order for a seven-year-old dog, and his blood tests showed no indication of disease.  The bad news:  we still had no explanation for the limp.  The vet consulted various specialists, who were as baffled as she and could only recommend cat-scans and sonograms as the next step.  She put him on a drug for nerve pain, and when he showed no improvement, on an anti-inflammatory.  Nothing changed, except that the limp got worse.

Now, on good days he puts weight on all four legs, though with a noticeable limp.  And by the end of the walk he's lagging behind--a new experience for me (all my dogs, without exception, have been forgers).  On bad days he hops pathetically on three legs, coming down heavily on his good side--thump, thump, thump--so that it hurts to watch him and I take him home after a few minutes and make him lie down and, just to make myself feel better, give him a massage.

Our walks have not only grown shorter, but I've also relaxed all my obedience-school notions about  not allowing the dog to sniff, etc.  Now, as we amble out of the cottage, I indicate the general direction for the day--into the woods and towards the open field, or towards the beehives, or on the paved road--and then give Wolfie free rein, so to speak, to stop and sniff and mark (without lifting his leg, which he can't do these days) to his heart's content, and then go on until a new smell catches his attention.

He's still big and black and shiny-coated.  If you come to the house he will hop over to you and greet you like a long-lost friend and lash you with his wagging tail.  He still hasn't given up hopes, despite their mutual neutered status, of having children with Bisou.

We've had to find a new vet since our move, and we're going to him for a second opinion next week.  I'm hoping that, when I report back to you, I'll have a different story to tell.