Monday, February 23, 2015

Leaving The House

Lake Champlain is frozen over, and for all I know, frozen solid as well.  But in these sub-zero mornings, if there is no wind and the sun is out, the dogs and I go for a cabin-fever abatement stroll. The walk is short, but the preparation takes forever.

First I put the invisible fence collars on Wolfie and Bisou and let them out into the back yard to relieve themselves.  Because I don't completely trust the invisible fence (would the dogs stay within  if, say, a catamount showed up?), and because I don't want them to bark at some hardy Wake Robin resident snow-shoeing by, I always go out with them, but not until I've put on an old parka of my husband's, and rubber boots. 

Back inside, I take off the parka and the boots, and exchange the dogs' invisible fence collars for their regular collars and leashes.  This causes Bisou to twirl and gyrate with glee, and to launch mock attacks at Wolfie's head, which in turn make him yodel and howl.

While this is going on, I put on an extra sweater and gather my hat, scarf, and gloves.  I slather some tingly lip balm on my lips.  I put on my long winter coat and reach down to start the zipper, which gets stuck.  Why is it, I wonder, that we can put a man on the moon but are forced to struggle with zippers all winter long? 

Next I get Bisou's little coat, and plead with her to be still so we can, sometime before the next storm hits, go for our walk.  I put her legs through the arm holes and start the zipper up the back, only it too gets stuck.  Why is it that we can put a man...etc.

I put on my winter boots, the made-in-China-of-man-made materials ones that I can slip into without having to tie laces, a great time-saver these days.  Then I get Bisou's four little boots, and call her.  But she's still leaping circles around Wolfie and now her leash has gotten tangled with his, so I go and separate them.

The sight of her boots ratchets up her excitement, and I struggle to thrust her floppy feet into the stiff, narrow boots.  The boot instructions say to tie the velcro straps tightly around the leg, but I always worry about cutting off her circulation.  As a result, she often casts a shoe during walks, and  with the wind blowing straight off the North Pole, I have to get both dogs to STAND STILL for crying out loud, take off my gloves, and put the shoe back on.

We are now ready for our walk.  But wait--are the emergency  poop bags in my right pocket, the house key in the left?  I should probably put on yak-traks, too, in case of ice, but I can't bear the idea of putting on one more thing, so I don't.

Outside the cold is...invigorating.  The locals are calling this an "old-fashioned Vermont winter."  We flatlanders console ourselves thinking what havoc it's wreaking on the tick population.  The Wake Robin sugaring brigade, of which my spouse is a novice member, is gearing up for action, checking the sap lines for squirrel damage.  Spring, they hope, will come again this year.

The dogs and I trudge along slowly--me, because I'm looking out for black ice;  Wolfie, because of his pathetic lameness;  and Bisou because of her boots, which force her to fling her legs sideways and use lots more energy than she normally would (this is a good thing).  But when I take my eyes off the pavement and look up at the sky, for the first time in forever I feel the warmth of the sun on my face.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bedroom Marmalade

After forty-six years and nine months of daily meal preparations, when we arrived in Wake Robin last June I turned my back on cooking without a second thought.  Good bye, cheese from my goats' milk, omelettes from my hens' eggs,  pesto from my kale.  No matter that our cottage has a fully equipped kitchen, my cooking days are done.

As we prepared for the move, I got rid of much that was dear to my heart, but I couldn't bear to part with my four potted citrus trees.  They survived the move and continued to bloom and set fruit in front of the cottage until the weather turned cold and they had to come indoors.  And then my problems began.

Wanting to recreate a Mediterranean climate for the little darlings, I found them the brightest spot in the house, which happens inconveniently to be in the bedroom, right next to our bed, which is also where Wolfie and Bisou sleep.  (If I get up during the night I have to watch to avoid stepping on a sleeping dog and bumping my head against a Meyer lemon.)  But despite this prime location the trees went into a decline and started dropping leaves. 

I got them a lamp with a big fluorescent bulb that I kept on whenever we weren't trying to sleep, but the leaves kept falling--and there is no more discouraging sound that the sigh of an indoor plant's leaf dropping in the night.  I started misting the trees with water twice a day, then every time I went into the bedroom.  Eventually I plugged in a humidifier and kept it going round the clock.  But the leaves continued to fall.

It took me weeks to realize that the weird web-like filaments on the leaves and stems might have something to do with the trees' misery:  spider mites!  This, coming hard on the heels of my sarcoptic mite episode, was a bit much.  But I went to work with home-made remedies and persistence, and eventually the mites disappeared.

By then, however, the Page orange had dropped all its baby fruits.  The larger of the two Meyer lemons kept its fruit but retained exactly four leaves (if a tree can look like it has mange, that one does).  The small Meyer lemon did only slightly better.  But the stalwart Calamondin orange kept on blooming, and setting and ripening fruit as if this were Valencia rather than Vermont.  By January, its crop of cheerful, grape-sized oranges was ready to pick.

Unfortunately, Calamondins are bitter as gall.  Some people use them as decorations for meat dishes, in lieu of kumquats.  But the only way to make them palatable is to turn them into marmalade.

I had never made marmalade in my life, and was tormented by visions of imperfectly sterilized jars leading to death from botulism.  In reality, it turned out to be quite simple, the only fiddly part being the slicing and seeding of the tiny fruits.  When this was done, I boiled them in water for fifteen minutes, refrigerated the mixture overnight, then added an unconscionable amount of sugar and heated it to 220F.  Finally I poured it into four clean little jars and bunged them in the fridge, thus averting botulism.

The results were terrific:  an ideal marriage of yin and yang, bitter and sweet.  And a feast for the eyes as well, each small jar a translucent carnelian gem.

Since it contains as much sugar as it does citrus, my bedroom marmalade does not qualify as health food.  But a little goes a long way, and a scant teaspoonful of the stuff can brighten a generous slice of buttered toast, and my entire morning.

As for that mangy Meyer lemon, yesterday I saw a barely-there bit of green poking out of one of its dead-looking stems--a new leaf!  The season of resurrection is at hand.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Neurons Firing Overtime

I could have danced all night...

Well, not really.  After an hour or so of trying to remember long-forgotten steps--twinkles and grapevines and promenades--I was pretty well done in.  It had been a couple of decades since I'd last put on my suede-soled shoes and fox trotted or jitterbugged, and I am not the dancer I once was.  But it's good to be a dancer again.

Last Friday at Wake Robin we inaugurated what we hope will be a long string of ballroom dances.  There were round tables with white cloths, a sizable wood floor, and music by Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.  About twenty of us showed up--more women than men, as is always the case where moving to music is expected.  For some, those big band sounds were the music that their parents danced and fell in love to.  For others, it was the music of their high school days. 

If a couple of years ago you had shown me a video of last Friday's scene, with me in it, I would have been incredulous.  Possibly dismayed.  Even frightened.  What, me, in a retirement community, in the company of people some of whom are less than fleet of foot? 

Like many Americans, I had bought into the superstition that old age is somehow contagious, and that the only way to keep ourselves young is to pretend that we will go on as we are forever.  How ignorant I was of the many meanings and faces of aging, of its relative and unpredictable nature, of its inevitability and its gifts.

About Friday night, you really had to be there.  There were ardent jitterbuggers, serene waltzers.  There were women dancing with women, and people dancing with people who were using walkers and canes.  At one point I asked a white-haired man who had just finished doing a competent waltz to dance with me.

"I would like to very much,"  he said.  "But I'm tired.  It happens when you're ninety-eight."  So we sat together and watched the dancers.

I've heard that dancing activates the neurons in the pleasure centers of the brain, and that watching people dance has the same effect.  Whether on the floor or off it, pleasure neurons were firing overtime at Wake Robin Friday night.

After an hour or so of steady dancing, we'd all had enough.  As my husband, who was in charge of the tech end of things, turned off various switches and I went to fetch our coats prior to stepping out into yet another sub-zero gale, I smiled at the various things the dancers had left behind--a single  glove, a bottle of red wine, a woolly scarf.  The lost-and-found department at Wake Robin does a brisk business.

It wasn't until we got back to the cottage that I realized I'd left my water bottle behind.