Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Bisou in Winter

It was 8F the other morning, so before taking my little red Cavalier Bisou out for a walk I dressed her for the weather. By the time I had zipped her into her coat and stuffed her limp feet into her booties and fastened the Velcro straps around her ankles and loosened them so she wouldn’t get gangrene and then tightened them again so they’d stay on, twenty minutes had elapsed.

Once we got outside, she felt so encumbered by all that gear that she just wanted to go back indoors.

This is why on days when it is too cold/snowy/icy/rainy I exercise Bisou indoors. It is one of the  joys of having a small dog: you can give her a real workout even in a space as small as our cottage. After fifteen minutes of running and jumping after her ball, Bisou considers herself well entertained.

I get a little workout too, doing forward bends to pick up the ball and perfecting my throws with both right and left arms, avoiding hitting the glass-fronted china cabinet and my spouse’s head. And the cat Telemann, who if Bisou and I went for a walk would be left staring forlornly out the window, also gets a workout during these sessions.

Sometimes he runs after the ball along with Bisou. Or he perches on the back of the sofa and bats at the ball as it flies past him. But what he likes best is to hide behind one of the side doors. Then, as Bisou runs past him, he leaps out like Nureyev and executes a grand jeté over her back.

When we’re done, Bisou flings herself panting on the sofa, where I join her with my book. Soon we hear a thunderous purr and Telemann is upon us, literally, kissing and nosing and kneading both of us until he finally dozes off.

These are dark days, in more ways than one, but the weight of two contented animals on my lap grounds me and keeps me from obsessing fruitlessly about the state of the planet. 2017 has not been an encouraging year, and its waning moments are as soul bruising as its beginning.

How to get through this bleak midwinter?  Let's try to be kind and generous, and then let us find comfort in the good things at hand: the chickadee at the suet, the geranium on the sill, and the certain knowledge that tomorrow the earth, bless her, will once again tilt her face toward the sun.

Happy solstice, everyone!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How I Write

I write on a recliner, with a laptop on a lap desk on my lap. Because my little red dog, Bisou, thinks that whenever I'm out of sight I cease to exist, and her mission is to keep me alive by being with me at all times, when I bought the recliner I made sure that the seat was wide enough to accommodate both me and her. It was a tight fit, but it worked.

But that was before the arrival of Telemann, the cat. As a kitten, he would squeeze himself between Bisou and my hip and take a nap while I wrote. Now, at ten months,  he's a ten-pound mass of assertive affection, and he too thinks that I cease to exist if he can't see me, which means that he has to be with me at all times.

So whenever I settle down to write, with Bisou next to me and the computer on my lap, he jumps up and insinuates himself in the space between my, um, breasts and the keyboard. He wiggles around a bit, taps my cheek with his little white paw, rolls onto his back and falls asleep.

His head rests on my right elbow, and his hind legs are splayed on my left elbow. It's hard for me to reach the keyboard, but I really don't want to wake him up because that will mean another session of feline lovemaking, with much purring and cheek patting and nose licking. So I hold my elbows out, and try to see the screen over his four white paws, which are sticking up in the air and occasionally twitching. Needless to say, if it weren't for spell-checker, you wouldn't be able to understand a word of what I write.

You know how writers are: we look for any excuse to get away from the blank page or screen. A cup of coffee or an extra sweater suddenly become urgent necessities. In my case, however, that means getting out from under Telemann, and the thirstier, colder, antsier I get, the more deeply he sleeps. I shift my hips and move my right elbow tentatively, but he is a dead weight, draped across me like those lead aprons they put on you when you're getting an x-ray.

If I somehow manage to get both the computer and the cat off my lap, and get that cup of coffee, I'll have to face it all again, the purring, the greeting, the turning around and settling down and going back to sleep. Plus, with all this going on,I'll probably spill hot coffee on poor innocent Bisou, or the computer, or Telemann himself.

So in the end I decide to forego the coffee and the extra sweater, and just keep writing.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


There is rage in the air these days, the rage of women. Young women, old women, tall/short/fat/thin/gorgeous/ordinary-looking women are telling their stories and shaking their fists and demanding justice. And because in this culture sweetness and passivity have always been expected of women, their rage when it emerges is doubly scary--kind of like having your pet bunny turn and bare its teeth at you.

The Greeks knew about female fury. Their mythology is full of over-the-top angry women like Medea and Clytemnestra. They even had goddesses who specialized in rage and vengeance, the Furies. Three of them, because one wasn't enough.

Outside of Greek mythology there haven't been many models for female anger, so we're making it up as we go along, from pussy hats and marches to pointing fingers at sexual harassers. And the latter are toppling like nine-pins, "good" guys along with bad.

Et tu Garrison, Al, John C.? But this is not a time to play favorites.

Remember Trump’s reaction to the accusations against Roy Moore, "He says it didn't happen. You have to listen to him, also"? Until practically yesterday, that was the response that any woman complaining of harassment would have expected to hear. Now, for the first time in human history, the victims are being listened to. They’ve even been named “Persons of the Year” by Time.

It is a kind of miracle, but will it last?

After rampaging through Ancient Greece, the Furies faded into the mists of time. And if we aren’t careful, so will the labors of today’s Furies, those who marched and protested and risked everything to speak out. The only way to ensure that this achievement isn’t lost is to put masses of women in positions of power, in the boardroom and the village council, the courts and the Congress.

Fortunately (thank Gaia, Artemis, Isis, Astarte, Sophia, and the Blessed Virgin Mary), masses of women these days are running for office, or planning to. All we have to do is elect them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What Were They Thinking?

If you were a plump middle-aged person with a comb-over, wouldn't you think twice about disrobing in front of a colleague, a job applicant, or an impressionable teenager? The photos of sexual harassers that decorate the news these days show that none of these men is physically attractive. If Michelangelo's David is a 10, Harvey Weinstein et al., on a good day, score a 2.

These guys must, at some point, have stood in front of a mirror, but apparently they didn't let what they saw hold them back.You have to admire their confidence, their optimism, their touching certainty that they would be adored, no matter how they looked or what they did. In fact many of them, in self defense, claim that the encounters were consensual, for what woman could fail to be enraptured by the sight of their nakedness?

Perhaps this blissful self-assurance was the fault of an overly fond  mother, who thought that whatever her little boy did was a sign of genius. But there I go, blaming the  woman.

One possible explanation is that these gruesome Peter Pans lack a trait that even some higher animals possess: theory of mind, the ability to put oneself in the other's place and imagine what she is thinking. Enveloped in a rosy fog of infant narcissism, they literally cannot see the woman in front of them. The root of the disrobing and the groping and the sexual jokes and insults is the inability, or the refusal, to see the desired object as not just a scaffolding for T&A, but as a fellow human, with ideas, tastes, and especially distastes, of her own.

But there is an even darker possibility: that these men do see the women they harass as real persons, but ones to be degraded and humiliated, precisely because they are female.

I go back and forth between these two explanations. If the first is correct, a good set of laws and penalties plus education might bring about a culture shift. But what if the second explanation is the right one? In the face of such hatred, what response can we even begin to imagine?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Temples of the Holy Ghost/Occasions of Sin

In the 1960's, long before bra straps became a fashion statement, we girls used to sew little tabs on the inside shoulder seams of our dresses to keep bra straps out of sight. To hide our incipient cleavage we used a dickey--a triangular piece of cloth that snapped into the center of a too-revealing neckline. At prom time in our Catholic high school, we were warned that if we showed up in a gown with spaghetti straps (or, God forbid, strapless), we would be sent back home. Our bodies were Temples of the Holy Ghost, but unless we were ever watchful, they could also be Occasions of Sin. 
1962 Senior Prom. Note the sin-avoiding straps on my dress.
 It was a difficult message for our hormone-marinated brains to disentangle because those same bodies, as our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and the entire culture never ceased to remind us, were our passport to the main if not the only source of personal fulfillment for women: marriage and motherhood.

Beauty and modesty were supposed to coexist in an eternally precarious equilibrium. Neglect your looks for a single day and you risked passing unnoticed by the Brylcreem-anointed boy who might have been your ticket to happiness. Disregard modesty and who knew what might happen? We certainly didn't, because it was never spelled out--nobody said the words pregnancy, or venereal disease, or rape as they might apply to us. But the consequences of immodesty were all the more alarming for being unspoken.

It was drilled into us that we had to make the most of whatever portion of beauty Providence had bestowed on us. Hair was supremely important. It had to balloon off the scalp to give us the wide-eyed, neotenic look that made us seem vulnerable and attractive. This required nightly work with brush rollers--I used to sleep with twenty-seven of them digging into my scalp--many cans of spray, and prayers for dry, windless weather.

Our skin gave us fits, being liable to erupt in pimples when we least wanted it to, despite copious applications of Clearasil. But breasts constituted the ultimate dilemma. From the movies--Sophia Loren! Marilyn Monroe! Jayne Mansfield!--we figured that they were a major asset, a helpful tool in luring the father of our future children. Yet because they also had the potential to provoke unbridled lust, they needed to be completely covered, although they could be hinted at by the artful positioning of darts in our bodices.

Legs were less of a liability, though we worried that our nylons would develop runs, a disgrace comparable to having our slip show. Until the blessed invention of pantyhose, stockings were held up by garter belts, an item that has since acquired fetishistic status but that I remember mostly as giving me severe pain in the lower back.

Sacred vessels on the one hand, agents of disgrace on the other, our bodies came to feel like two-edged swords, or UXBs that might go off unpredictably. It is a miracle that we managed to learn anything in school, worried as we were that the "rats" might be showing under the upper layers of our hair, or that the middle button on our uniform blouse might have popped open.

And yet we did learn, despite all the distractions, and ours became the first generation to aspire to having both meaningful work and a guy. And when the pill, the pantyhose, and the second wave of feminism burst simultaneously on the scene a few years later, we put away our dickeys, our garter belts and sometimes even our bras, and believed, at least for a while, that we could have it all.

Friday, November 10, 2017

My Medical Me-Too Story

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I am having my first consult with an allergist--thinning hair, glasses, white coat. Fiftyish, like me. The treatment room is small, and my chair is next to his desk. He is taking my medical history and with each question his chair rolls a little closer to me. "Are your symptoms worse in the spring or in the fall?" he asks. I am about to answer when I feel something pushing against my knee. I look down: it is his knee.

I look up and his eyes hold mine for just a second. I move my knee away. "In the fall," I say.

"And have you had much exposure to molds?"

When the history is complete, it is time for the physical. I am sitting on the edge of the examination table and he approaches, tongue depressor in hand. "Say aah!" he says, and as he peers into my throat I feel the pressure of his pelvis against my knees.

Why am I still in this room with this creep, you ask? Because the part of my brain that is capable of observing reality, drawing conclusions, and taking action has shut down completely. It has been replaced by an oddly reassuring voice that says, "He is a doctor. You are a patient. Therefore, this cannot be happening." Zombie-like, I get through the rest of the visit, suppressing the desire to run screaming out of the office, or to kick him in the...shins.

He prescribes a series of allergy shots that, fortunately, are administered by his nurses, so in the following months I don't see much more of him.

One day, long after my treatment is over, I am sitting in the metro next to a woman I know from work. She has curly red hair,  and she giggles a lot. She's always struck me as a little flighty and flaky, and I suspect that, as the French say, she did not invent the mouse trap.

As we chat, she sneezes a couple of times, blows her nose. "Sorry," she says, "it's my allergies. I can't find a good doctor. I went to Dr.__ [and she names my knee-pressing guy], but I couldn't stand him."

"Really? How so?"

"Well," she says, putting away her tissue and flushing with anger, "you won't believe this, but the first time I went to see him, he kept pushing his knee against mine!"

"Wow! That's terrible. What did you do?"

"What do you think?" she says, clenching her little fist. "I did what any intelligent person would do: grabbed my purse and slammed the door in his face. And on the way out I told the receptionist that if she charged me for the visit I would report him to the AMA!"

Monday, November 6, 2017

Just Animals

I was watching Rachel Maddow the other night when I heard an odd splashing in the Japanese fish tub. The female of my pair of fantail goldfish was swimming on her side, twisting and writhing, clearly in pain. Instantly Rachel, Russia, and even Trump vanished from my mind. What was wrong with my fish? What if I couldn't cure her and she died? What if I had to euthanize her?

Was I overreacting? After all, it was just a goldfish, the sort of creature that people used to bring home from the fair, decant into a brandy snifter, and when it expired a few weeks later, dump unceremoniously into the toilet.

Those were also the days when newly-hatched chicks, dyed pink or blue for Easter, were given to children to play with until the birds perished from stress and their limp little bodies were thrown out with the garbage.

For that matter, when pets roamed freely in suburban streets, before spaying and neutering became the cultural norm, well-meaning people routinely drowned unwanted litters of puppies and kittens. After all, they were just animals.

Today, of course, Easter chicks are a thing of the past, and unwanted puppies and kittens are placed in foster homes, their reproductive organs are excised under anesthesia, and would-be adopters are carefully screened before they're allowed to take their new pet home.

Now there are leash laws, and no-kill shelters, and fines and jail sentences for animal abusers. Stories of people's dedication to their pets' welfare are everywhere. I have a friend who for years had to rush home from work to give her diabetic cat his insulin shot, and another whose day revolves around meeting the needs and wants of his ancient, arthritic, almost blind Lab.

This new-found sensitivity extends beyond our pets. Every winter Americans spend millions on seeds and suet for the birds, and I could name half a dozen people who, if they find a spider in the house, carefully trap it under a glass, slip a piece of paper under it, and take it outside (I am not among the latter. I clobber large spiders to death with a broom, and drown ticks in the toilet). Thanks in great part to the genius of Temple Grandin, cows and pigs can now aspire to death with at least a measure of dignity. And most grocery stores stock eggs from cage-free or even pastured hens.

There has been a sea-change, within the last half century, in our attitude towards animals. The wall between "them" and "us" has become progressively thinner, until it is an almost transparent veil. The hen on her nest, the cat at the window, are not mere machines, as Descartes infamously maintained. Thanks to Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Jane Goodall and others we are beginning to see ourselves in them, and them in us.

Hence my preoccupation with my ailing goldfish, my friend's commitment to her cat, and the growing number of people who refuse to eat "anything with a face." There is nothing childish or silly about this, on the contrary. On days when it seems like human civilization is going down the tubes, I see in our compassion for the beasts a major reason for optimism, for it is in recognizing our kinship with the animals, and with all beings on the planet, that we finally become truly human.

Goldfish update: with the help of Google, I diagnosed swim-bladder disorder, withheld food for 24 hours, and she is now her old self again.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Some Things I Miss...

Some things I miss from my previous life:
Two goats
Ten hens
Nine garden beds
Four apple trees
A sloping hay field
A tumbledown stone wall
A swamp
The woods behind the house, and the thrush that sang in them
The imprint of fawn hooves on the driveway in mud season
The squeaky-door song of the phoebes at dawn
The frogs in the frog pond
The black bear at the bird feeder
The ermine in the garage
The milking pail, the cheese press
The me who believed she could keep it all going.

(photo by Alison Cobb)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Always on the Moon

I am folding laundry when a quote by William Morris comes wafting out of my subconscious, "The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life." Morris was ahead of his time. These days everybody, from mental health  professionals to Buddhist monks, tells you that staying in the present is the key to health and happiness, peace and sanity. Unfortunately, I find staying in the present almost impossible to do.

Even as a child--and children are supposed to have a special talent for being "in the now"--I couldn't do it. "Es lenta," (she's slow) the nuns at my school used to complain to my mother. But that was because it took me a while to come back from the edge of the universe to whatever I was supposed to be doing. 

One example: I am marching single file with my class after recess when suddenly I perceive a strange silence around me. I return to earth to find my classmates gone and the yard deserted except for a single nun. Her hands hidden inside the sleeves of her long white habit, she is watching me and shaking her head: "Benejam--siempre en la luna" (always on the moon).

More than half a century has passed since that day, however, during which I have read a lot of books by Buddhist monks and psychiatrists and logged quite a few hours on my meditation cushion, so I should be able to be present and genuinely interested in folding the laundry, right here, right now. 

I pick up one of my husband's undershirts. Feel the cotton, I tell myself. Feel its softness. Notice the Fruit of the Loom tag, and how it has curled. Look at the color of the shirt--it is slightly yellow. It is not terribly yellow, but it would be less yellow if I didn't do my laundry in cold water. But it's the least I can do, in this era when the environment is going to hell in a hand basket, to save a bit of energy. There really should be a law against washing clothes in hot water...And I'm off to the moon again, or rather to the halls of Congress, lobbying for environmental legislation.

When I land back in the present, the underwear is in its drawer. 

Next, I attempt to take a genuine interest in the socks, of which there are many. Some are brown, some black, others navy blue. Some are thick, some are thin--who cares? 

Why am I having so much trouble with this?

It's not that I can never focus on what I'm doing. There are a couple of things that force me to pay attention--one is writing, and the other is playing the recorder (and even during the latter sometimes my mind wanders in the easy passages). But with almost all the other "details of daily life"--taking Bisou for a walk, brushing my teeth, cleaning Telemann's litter box--I am, as that long-ago nun used to say, always on the moon.

Sorting socks, I fantasize what it would be like to be in the moment all day, every day, taking a genuine interest in whatever was in front of my nose. I would probably be a more relaxed person, a nicer one for sure. Maybe if I were more like William Morris I would be able to draw like him... How unfortunate that I've been cursed with this drive to inhabit the moon.

My mind grinds on laboriously, ruminating on what-ifs and might-have-beens, until I realize with a jolt that time has passed and all the socks have been united with their mates, like the beasts in Noah's ark. Not only that, but I have written this entire blog post in my head.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Of Flags and Feelings

We Catalans have always been a hairy people, so it's not surprising that we owe our flag (la senyera) to a 9th-century count of Barcelona named Wilfred the Hairy (Wilfred el Pilós). The story is lost in the mists of time, and historians love to poke holes in it, but we Catalans love to tell it.

It seems that Wilfred was helping the king of France, Charles the Bald--or perhaps his son, Louis the Stammerer--in a battle against the Visigoths (or perhaps the Moors). With Wilfred's help, Charles (or Louis) won the battle, but Wilfred was wounded.

The King wanted to show his gratitude, and Wilfred asked him to put a mark on his coat of arms, which was plain gold. With a sense of the grand gesture, Charles (or Louis), dipped four fingers in the blood of Wilfred and dragged them from top to bottom of the coat of arms. And that is how la senyera, also known as the four bars of blood (les quatre barres de sang) came about.

If you have watched Catalans marching and voting for independence in recent weeks, you may have noticed, in the ocean of waving senyeres, people holding up their hands with four fingers extended. They are duplicating the gesture, thirteen centuries old, of Charles the Bald (or maybe Louis the Stammerer) on the coat of arms of Wilfred el Pilós.

Most news reports attribute Catalans' desire for independence to financial matters. And it is true that Catalans pay the highest taxes in Europe and get precious little of that money back from the central government in Madrid. But it is much more than that. The secessionist impulse is based on a deep sense of separate identity, an identity whose clearest emblem is the Catalan language.

No one understood this better than Franco, and after winning the Spanish Civil War in 1939 he immediately forbade the use of Catalan in public fora. My generation was not taught to read and write Catalan in school; we did not see it in newspapers or street signs, or hear it in church or the radio or anywhere outside of home and the corner market. Franco imported the dreaded Guardia Civil from other parts of Spain to keep order in Catalonia. The guardias did not speak Catalan, and when addressed in the language would bark, "hablad cristiano!" (speak "Christian").

When Franco finally died in 1975 and Catalonia was granted a certain degree of autonomy, there was an explosion of feeling for all things Catalan, but especially the language. I have never known a population so obsessed with their native tongue. In a vegetable market in Barcelona in the early 1980s I overheard two old ladies, their net bags overflowing with the day's shopping, arguing about the proper Catalan term for "carrot," whether it was pastanaga, or safranòria.

So the Catalan desire for independence is not just about money, but also about history, tradition, language...and something else. It's an attachment to that fertile triangle tucked between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean and coveted in turn by Greece, Rome, the Arab caliphate, and France, not to mention Spain. It's about the human towers wobbling against the sky, the geese in the cloister of the Barcelona cathedral, the sardana (as different from flamenco as a dance could be) danced by young and old on the city square. And through it all flows the sound of the language, long forbidden and reviled and all the more loved for that.

I heard a young Catalan on the radio today. "Why are you for independence?" the interviewer asked. "It's not the money," he answered. "It's more than that. I don't know. It's just a...a...It's a feeling!" he concluded, triumphantly. Many listeners probably found him inarticulate, but I know just what he meant.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cat And Dog

People laugh at me when they hear his name--who would name a kitten after an 18th century composer? But I must have done something right, because I have never had a cat, or a dog for that matter, who so faithfully and eagerly comes when called. Telemann, from the first couple of days, he had mastered that envy of all dog trainers: the perfect recall. All I have to say is "Telemann, Telemann!" and, out from under the bed or down from the top of the bookshelf, he waltzes into my presence, tail held high, its tip curved into a question mark, "You wanted me?" 

He is the most dog-like cat I have ever had, learning not to jump into the litter box while I'm cleaning it, and not to even think (please God!) of dipping his paw into the Japanese-style tub that is home to my two fan-tailed goldfish, But his most canine quality is his compulsion to be near me: in the sink (yes, in--he adores water) while I brush my teeth, on my lap as I try to type (why do you think it takes me so long to write a post?), on the bed when I take a nap.

If naps with Bisou were lovely, naps with Bisou and Telemann are divine. The minute they see me take the cozy gray comforter out of the closet they both jump on the bed. Bisou settles next to my left calf. Telemann, purring mightily, kneads the comforter for a bit, then licks my nose and subsides against my right ribs. One hand on Bisou's haunch and the other on the curve of Telemann's back, I fall asleep with the odd but restful feeling that I am a member of a weird interspecies litter.

But he is nevertheless a cat, a member of the tribe of tiger, and our cottage often becomes a miniature Serengeti, with Telemann as apex predator and Bisou as hapless wildebeest. He watches from under the bed skirts, then leaps out on top of her, flings his arms around her neck, and tries to deliver the killing bite. She shakes him off, then runs back to see if he will do it again, which he does.

They paw at each other, stand on their hind legs and wrestle, leapfrog over each other. But in the evenings, when Rachel Maddow alternately mocks and bemoans what is happening in the country, Bisou and Telemann sleep aligned like spoons on the sofa next to me, one of the wildebeest's legs draped casually over the former predator's neck.

On the days when CFS nails me to the bed, and the news--Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, and my country, Catalunya--sits like a stone on my chest, I give thanks for the two fur-bearing persons who, in exchange for room and board, are content to lie close to me in silence, and watch the afternoon light fade a little earlier each day.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rock or Lion?

Every morning, while my uncle hitched the ancient farm horse to the cart, my grandmother would come out of the kitchen to supervise. "That horse," she would say, shaking her head,"is going to kill somebody one of these days." No matter that the horse hadn't broken into a trot within living memory: disaster could strike at any time.

Years later, I am in college and living at home. I am warming up the engine of my Renault Dauphine to get to my morning class across Birmingham, Alabama, when my mother runs out of the house and thrusts a hard-boiled egg through the driver's side window. "Here. Eat this on the way. You don't want to faint at the wheel and cause a tragedy." No matter that I have never fainted in my life, but it is best to be prepared.

Both my grandmother and my mother had lived through the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, so they had an excuse for their hyper vigilance. And they were convinced that it worked: after all, the cart horse never did kill anybody, and I never fainted at the wheel of that tiny car.

Unlike my mother and grandmother, however, I have led a peaceful existence, free (so far) from wars and other disasters. So there is no apparent reason for my own deep-seated conviction that it is only my constant watchfulness that keeps the world from falling to pieces.

Here is what goes through my mind on a routine trip to the market. At this season in Vermont the roads are rife with cyclists. What if one of them swerves in front of my car? What if, in the fruit aisle, the grapes I put in my cart are contaminated with a deadly bacterium? What if, at the checkout, I find out that our credit card's been hacked and we are now penniless?

When he was an old man, Mark Twain said that he had lived through many catastrophes, most of which never happened. Like the women in my family, Twain suffered from what scientists call the "negativity bias," a tendency towards pessimism and anxiety engraved in our DNA over millions of years by natural selection.

Say you are an early human wandering on the African savanna. Behind a tree in the distance, you see a beige-colored mass. It could be a rock, or it could be a lion. If you optimistically assume that it is a rock but it turns out to be a lion, you and your potential descendants are toast. If, on the other hand, you are an anxious type like Mark Twain, you will take to your heels immediately and, regardless of what the beige object actually turns out to be, you will live to pass on your genes, which will include a tendency to expect the worst.

The problem in our time is that, with lions on the wane, the negativity bias causes unwarranted stress and militates against the health and well being of millions of us modern Cassandras. It may even work against reproductive success, since deciding to become a parent requires at least a modicum of optimism. So the lesson for people like me might be to learn to imagine fewer lions, and trust in the ubiquitousness of rocks.

But the thing is that, for both optimists and Cassandras alike, there will ultimately be a lion behind the tree. It will be no use pretending that it is a rock, or hoping that it is old and toothless. That lion will catch us no matter how fast we flee.The closer I get to that final encounter, the more I think that the trick is not to run or struggle, but to face the beast and respectfully ask it to deliver the killing bite as quickly and kindly as possible.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Of Uncles And Equines

My favorite uncle, the husband of my grandmother's sister, was that rarity: a schoolmaster who adored kids. Early in our acquaintance we cast each other in roles which we never tired of playing: he as a devil (un dimoni!) and I as his intended victim. He only actually chased me once. After that, he merely had to look at me sideways to send me fleeing with terror and delight down the long dark hallway of my parents' Barcelona apartment. But this was just our urban entertainment. In the summer, we had my grandparents' entire farm for our adventures.

One summer my grandfather got a mother/daughter pair of donkeys to work on the farm. I don't remember the daughter's name, but we named the mother La Reverències ("Curtsies") after her habit of suddenly bending one of her knees.

My uncle one day got permission from my grandfather to take my visiting boy cousins from Barcelona and me to ride the donkeys on the threshing floor in front of the barn, which sat far from the house on a slight rise beyond the vegetable garden and the wheat field. A bare flat space, the threshing floor had been baked granite-hard over the centuries by the sun and the enormous stone rollers that crushed the wheat at harvest time.

My grandfather agreed, with the proviso that my uncle ride with me, to prevent accidents. So while my cousins took turns riding the younger donkey, my uncle and I got on La Reverències. The sun was beating down on our heads, the cicadas were going full blast, and the sky was so clear that I could see the Pyrenees in the distance as we made our way round and round the threshing ground.

The sun, the cicadas, and the slow clip-clop of the donkey's hooves had me in a kind of trance when, out of the blue, La Reverències curtsied and my uncle and I tobogganed neatly over her neck and crashed to the ground. It could not have happened faster if the donkey's neck had been drenched in olive oil. I can still feel the hardness of the ground on landing, and hear the laughter of my cousins as my uncle and I dusted ourselves off, while, nearby, the culprit munched serenely on some tufts of summer-dry grass.

La Reverències, left, and her daughter, right. Between them, my cousins and I, in our summer espadrilles. In the background, the back of the barn. Both my cousins and the donkeys seemed like giants to me. When did they shrink so much?

My other uncle, my mother's youngest sibling, was barely out of his teens when I was a toddler. He lived with my grandparents, rode a big motorcycle, hunted partridge and quail in season, and had curly blondish hair and a small straight nose. In the summer, the sun would turn his face bright red.

One evening, he and I were leading the carthorse from the barn back to the stable, which was across the courtyard from the house, for his dinner of oats and hay. As a special treat, my uncle said that I could ride the horse, on the condition that I hold tightly on to his mane. This was a first for me, and I was thrilled by the motion of the great beast, the smell of horse sweat and the prickly feel of his hair on my bare legs. The sun was going down, a cool breeze had come up, and in the pear trees that bordered the path a nightingale began to sing. Inspired by the bird, my uncle also broke into song: Oh Susana, no llores más por mí/Con mi banjo y mi caballo a Alabama me marché...

Then, perhaps carried away by the beauty of the evening and the prospect of dinner, he gave the horse a friendly slap on the rump. The usually lethargic beast misunderstood and broke into a trot. My uncle ran alongside, looking terrified, and I tried to hold on, but the sudden jolting and the sensation of my seat losing contact with the horse were so disconcerting that I lost my head, let go of the mane, and flew through the air and into the arms of my uncle, who fortunately had excellent eye-hand coordination and whose face, I noticed, had turned beet red.

He set me down, caught the horse, stopped to catch his breath, then squatted to look me in the eye and whispered, "Do not ever tell your parents what just happened."

And this, if my parents read this blog somewhere in the cosmos, is the first they'll hear of it.                                                  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Relativity, continued

Now I am fifteen, sitting in my American History class, in a Catholic high school in the Deep South. I am a little nervous because we are studying the discovery of America and I fear that my teacher, like my Ecuadorian teacher before him, will attack me for Spain's role in the conquest. But I needn't have worried. The talk here is all about Columbus, which makes the Italian kids in the class feel important. Just before the bell rings, almost in passing, the teacher briefly mentions the queen of Spain.

How is this possible? In my Spanish school, Isabel, la Reina Católica, was presented to us girls as a paragon of womanhood, a queen who shared equal power with her husband, Fernando de Aragón. She unified the squabbling kingdoms of the peninsula into one great country, won a decisive victory over the Moors, and was the only European ruler who listened to Columbus and gave him the money, the men, and the ships to embark on his crazy adventure. But in this American classroom, the queen and her magnificent enterprise are dismissed with barely a word. Perhaps, I tell myself, we will learn more about Spain's role in America in the next class.

But instead, in the next class we celebrate the arrival of the English in North America, and the establishment of the New England colonies. Not much is said about the the Indians that the colonists encountered, and I wonder what happened to them, since there don't seem to be nearly as many around as there are in South America...

I have now studied the events of 1492 in three different countries. In Spain, we were taught the discovery and conquest of the New World as a glorious chapter in the history of humanity. In Ecuador, my teacher presented Spain as a cruel and greedy imperialist power. Now, in my American classroom, Spanish history is all but ignored. One historical era, and three completely different versions of it--my adolescent brain is beginning to suspect that history class may not be all that different from literature class.

Three years pass, and now I'm sitting in Western Civ, in my liberal arts college, also in the Deep South. We are back to 1492, and the professor, unlike my high school teacher, does pay Queen Isabella some attention. But now she is presented as a monster who expelled the Moors and the Jews from Spain and gave the Inquisition the power to torture and kill in the name of the Catholic faith. Oddly, I don't remember being taught about the Inquisition in  my Catholic high school.

Soon we get to Elizabeth I, and I am amazed to hear her described as a powerful, enlightened monarch who vanquished Spain and put England at the head of the civilized world. I dimly recall my teacher in Spain describing the Virgin Queen as a thief who paid pirates to sink Spanish ships...

I am older now and these discrepancies no longer upset me like they used to. I realize that Western Civ is a handy framework on which to hang what I am learning in other classes on European art, philosophy, and literature. And for relief from the treacherous sands of history there is always my Biology major, which I have chosen because it seems to offer firm ground for my wobbly mind. In my white lab coat, inhaling formaldehyde fumes, I can put a slide under the microscope and identify this tiny swimming animal as a Paramecium and that tiny photosynthesizing plant as a Euglena, and take comfort in the belief that scientists all over the world agree with my identification.

This is the 1960s, however, and Biology is changing rapidly. Little do I suspect that by the end of the decade both Paramecium and Euglena, no longer clearly identified as either animal or plant, will be dumped into that swamp of uncertainty, the kingdom Protista. But by then I am in graduate school, studying French literature, which everyone agrees is just words anyway.

Monday, April 3, 2017


"You, Benejam, stand up, please," says Madre Mercedes del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús ("Corazón," for short). "Tell us what you think about what I have just said."

She teaches the fifth-grade class in Quito, Ecuador, where I have recently arrived from Spain. And what she has just said is that, shortly after Columbus discovered America, Francisco Pizarro and two-hundred Spanish soldiers, impelled by greed and blood-lust, conquered the Inca empire that extended from Colombia to Chile. They captured the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, and, even though Atahualpa offered them a room filled with gold to a man's height in exchange for his life, they basely murdered him and untold thousands of others.

What, Corazón  wants to know, do I, as a Spaniard, have to say to that?

Standing in the back of the room, with my classmates' eyes upon me, I open my mouth and quickly close it. My ten-year-old mind is blank. Corazón's account of my country's conquest of America is strangely different from what I learned just a few months ago in my history class in Barcelona.

There I was taught that the conquest of the Americas was one of the greatest achievements not only in the history of Spain, but in the history of mankind. Braving the dangers of an unknown ocean in ridiculously small boats, our fearless ancestors sallied forth to bring to the new continent our language, our culture, and, most important, the Catholic faith, thanks to which the natives stopped offering human sacrifices to their gods and started going to heaven after they died. We should feel proud, our teacher said, of what Spain did for America, and the proof was that our former colonies call Spain la madre patria and have become our friends and allies.

Right now, Corazón, all but sneering as I squirm, doesn't seem very friendly to me. Neither do my staring classmates, even the ones who have told me proudly that there was "a real Spaniard" somewhere in their family tree.

I scour my brain for clues from the bits of history I know. Before the conquest of America, Spain herself had been conquered in turn by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Moors. They had swept over the peninsula leaving blood and carnage, but also roads, temples, aqueducts, and mosques, in their wake. Just two centuries ago the French under Napoleon had invaded Spain. Does this mean that I should hate Françoise, the pianist from the Paris Conservatoire who plays sonatas with my father the way that Corazón seems to hate me?

I stare out the classroom window at the light glinting on the snows of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, and think of ways to defend myself. "But wait!" I say, "haven't killed any Indians. Neither did my parents, or my grandparents, or my..."

"Sit down, Benejam," says the nun, "and be quiet. The conquistadores were from your country, and you should be ashamed."

It strikes me, as the lesson continues and I sit fuming, that there are strong parallels between Corazón's train of thought and the doctrine of Original Sin. Because Adam and Eve ate an apple a million years ago, I now bear the taint of sin on my soul, which means that, as a "daughter of Eve," I will be punished with menstrual periods and labor pains. How much more unfair can you get?

From that day on, whenever the subject of Spain comes up, I keep a low profile. This is especially important when we sing the Ecuadorian national anthem, which with its references to Spain as a bloody monster (monstruo sangriento), a defeated lion (león destrozado) roaring with impotence and spite, may cause my classmates to turn on me in a fit of patriotic fervor.

I was neither sophisticated nor carefree enough to navigate these choppy international waters. If I had stayed in Spain, I would have continued to think comfortably of the conquest of America as one of the glories of European civilization. But now, despite my anger at the way Corazón had embarrassed me in front of my classmates, I had to admit that she might be right. Did the "gifts" of "civilization" and the one true faith really compensate all those poor Indians for their terrible losses?

Nobody explained these things to me, but I soon began to suspect that history might not always be an exact account of what really happened. Perhaps what I read in the history textbooks had been written to make children grow up to be patriots who would defend their country no matter what. But if one nation's story of glory and heroism could be another nation's story of suffering and pain, what did patriotism really mean? (To be continued.)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Birds In Blizzard

While the nor'easter rages outside, I'm watching the birds at the feeder under the eaves. Long past the time when they usually retire to their roosts, they're flying in for a few last bits of energy to get them through the night. Titmice, their little crests down from the cold; feisty chickadees; and winter-dull goldfinches swoop in, perch, grab a single sunflower or nyger seed and fly off into the trees to feast in peace. You'd think that they would use way more energy in those flights than a single seed could supply, but the yard is not littered with bird corpses, so they must know what they're doing.

Slate-colored juncos--elegant little birds with deep-gray backs and wings, white bellies and yellow beaks--are ground feeders, gleaning what our obese squirrels have left of the seeds that drop from the seed containers. Just now, as the agile titmice dove at the feeders swaying in the gale, I saw a pathetic sight: a junco fluttered up from the ground towards the trove of sunflower fuel, fell short, fluttered down, then fluttered up again. What was he thinking? That is the last thing he should have been doing, wasting energy pursuing an impossible goal.

After watching five or six of these vain flutterings, I filled a plastic tub with sunflower seeds and flung them into the shrieking wind. "Those seeds will be covered up in no time," said my husband. As it happened, the wind was blowing against the direction in which I had thrown the seeds, and they stuck fast to the surface of the snow. Soon four, five, six juncos appeared, feeding greedily. For a few minutes even a female cardinal came by, her feathers ruffling in the gusts. Cardinals are scarce in these latitudes, so even I, who used to get a dozen at a time at my Maryland feeder, have taken to gasping with wonder when I see one. I hoped she would stay, but she didn't.

It's almost dusk now, and although the titmice, etc. have gone home, the juncos are still out there, in the midst of the weather hoopla, pecking the ground like hens. But one little clever one, wing feathers tending to brown, beak a paler yellow--a female--is hanging out in the one-inch-wide strip of bare ground right against the house. Except that that ground is not really bare, but covered in sunflower husks and seeds fallen days and even weeks ago. She's filling up on these, feeding contentedly next to the wall, away from the males battling the storm. Bon appetit, junquette. I have high hopes for you. May you live to fledge a nestful of babies in the spring.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Paper Protest

Ten nasty, persistent women, one (v. nice) man, and a little red dog spent Sunday afternoon writing messages to the President, in anticipation of #TheIdesofTrump. Bisou wrote a card of her own (the one with the paw print), which I will be forwarding for her on Wednesday, March 15.

It was as much fun as a protest march, and warmer, since we were indoors with the gas fire on while outside the wind chill was well below zero. Two stalwart women showed up on foot, so swaddled in coats, boots, hats and scarves that at first I didn't recognize them.

A couple of days before the card-writing marathon I went to the Shelburne, Vermont post office and asked for sixty stamped postcards. The clerk said, "I don't think we have any left, but I'll check." She was gone a while, and when she came back she said "Nope. Not a single one. People have been buying them for that thing on March 15."

I got nervous. Where, if anywhere, would I find sixty stamped postcards? The clerk advised me to try the Charlotte (pronounced a la francaise, Char-lotte) post office. So I drove over, tempering my irritation with chilly views of Lake Champlain on my right.

When I told the Charlotte postman--four-feet tall and with uneven brown teeth, but beautiful to me--what I wanted, he smiled a cunning smile: "We got wind of what was coming, so we ordered extra." Tiny Charlotte, Vermont, voted to impeach Trump at its recent Town Meeting.

"I want to be prepared. Where will these be going, and when?" the postman asked, counting cards into little piles. I explained about #TheIdesofTrump, handed him my VISA, and drove back with the slate colored Lake Ch. on my left, to saute chicken livers for pate to sustain the card writers.

In the end, thanks to the Char-lotte P.O., all went swimmingly. We wrote and laughed and planned for the next paper protest (Show Us Your Taxes? Save ObamaCare? Hands-Off Planned Parenthood? Climate Change Is Real?). I'll know where to get my stamped cards from now on.

It looks like a promising spring for nasty, persisting women, v. nice men, and little red dogs.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Don't Link, Think!

At breakfast, sipping coffee, I said to my spouse, "Did you hear that thing on NPR about cyborgs?"

"What about them?" he asked, measuring honey into green tea.

If this had been the 1980s, I would have rummaged in my short-term memory and retrieved whatever shreds of the story I had retained. Then, flexing the muscles of my frontal lobes, I would have turned those concepts into coherent speech and voiced the results, thus giving myself a tiny intellectual workout before even starting my day.

"Cyborgs," I might have said, "are created by combining organic and inorganic parts in a single being. For instance, I became a partial cyborg when I got an artificial hip ten years ago. Merging the human brain with computers, which is already beginning to happen, will create the ultimate cyborg, with potentially alarming results."

But, this being 2017, I just said, "I'll send you a link."

(Here, in case you're interested, is the link to the cyborg story:

I'm suspicious of all this linking. Of course, the advent of hypertext has expanded our access to knowledge in ways undreamed-of in the era of shoulder pads. One click and I can read about Hildegard of Bingen's migraine-induced mystical visions, or find out how to make yogurt in a crock-pot. How can we not love this?

But this ease of access risks turning us into spectators of knowledge, passive enjoyers of an endless cornucopia of facts. And it's changing the way we interact with each other, as we increasingly express ourselves by posting links to what third parties have said or written rather going through the admittedly taxing process of putting things into our own words.

Consider Facebook. If you're like me, most of the posts on your news feed consist not of your friends' own ideas and opinions, but of links to videos and articles made by unknown others. I often click on these links, and laugh and cry along with the everyone else, but, unless we increasingly are what we link, they strike me only as indirect communications, at best, from my Facebook friends.

True, even before the hypertext era, few people managed to come up with really original ideas. Most of us just rehashed stuff we'd read, or heard others say. But even at its worst, rehashing is more mentally demanding than clicking.

Of course I know that fighting links is a losing battle. We Googlers and linkers are already cyborgs, letting the machine articulate and express many of our thoughts and feelings for us. But for those who would like to cling to the old ways of being human for a few more years, the strategy is clear: think, write, paint, sculpt, and compose more...and link less.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Feeding the Furniture

It's the depths of winter in Vermont. The deer in their deer yards and the bears in their dens are using up the last of their fat reserves. By this time each year, after months of having the heat on and despite the clouds of steam billowing out of our humidifier, my furniture, like me, is starving for moisture. The few wooden pieces that survived our downsizing look dull and gray, not unlike how many New Englanders feel about this time of year.

My husband and I didn't buy any of these pieces. They came to us almost fifty years ago from his Alabama grandparents, who knew that, as graduate students with two babies, we could barely afford to feed ourselves, let alone buy tables and dressers and chairs. Transplanted to the north country, in winter this Southern furniture wilts like a camellia in a New England garden. It wants care, nourishment, attention. It wants oil.

Household Goddess Bearing Oil and Rag, ca. 2017 A.D.
I get my bottle of furniture oil and look for a rag. I have very few rags now, having purged most of them in the Great Downsizing. I finally find one in which I recognize a piece of an old baby blanket and go to work on Grandma Ruby Violet's walnut dresser. It has two funny little drawers that used to hold her six pairs of white gloves, and where I now keep broken jewelry and old eyeglasses. The dry wood soaks up the oil thirstily, and I have to give it some extra passes with my rag.

Ruby Violet's kitchen table, now promoted to dining table, comes next. RV could hit a squirrel out of a magnolia tree with her .22, but she was a terrible cook, Her table is adorned with the circular burn marks made by the cast iron frying pan in which she cooked her fried chicken, the one dish at which she excelled. I love this beat-up old table, and massage oil into its every dent and crack.

The wobbly gate-leg sewing table, which I polish next, bears the marks of the serrated tracing wheel that RV used to transfer pattern markings onto fabric. RV liked to sew. For my honeymoon she made me a two-piece bathing suit, white with green polka dots, that scandalized my parents, who couldn't believe that my future grandmother-in-law would sew me such a daring garment.

Lastly I turn to an item known in the family as "Grandpappy's made-on-a boat chest." It's a vaguely Victorian piece made by a ship's carpenter as his steamboat sailed down the Mississippi. I have a vision of this carpenter, bored and sweating in the Delta heat, swatting mosquitoes and humming Negro spirituals to the beat of the paddle wheels as he sawed and planed.

It's the pathetic fallacy, I know, but I'll say it anyway: as I go around the cottage rubbing oil into wood with my rag I can practically sense the chests and tables relax and expand under my touch, can almost hear them heave a grateful sigh. When I'm done, I look at the scented, glowing wood around me and heave a sigh myself. Fallacy or not, feeding furniture is not a bad way to pass the time until that day in mud season when I can finally turn off the heat, open the windows, and let in some moist spring air.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Nun on the Bus

When the noon bell rang in the hill-top convent school of Nuestra Madre de la Merced in Quito, Ecuador, we would board the pale-yellow school bus that took us home for lunch. Two hours later, the bus would pick us up for our afternoon classes. And it was during that after-lunch trip that the drama of the motorcycles would unfold.

As the bus made its rounds on the cobbled streets, the boys from the Jesuit school in their uniforms and the ones from the American school in their leather jackets would come roaring up on their Vespas, Harleys, and Moto Guzzis and escort us through the town. On cloudy days there were fewer of them, and during the rainy season only the most ardent pursuers showed up. But on sunny afternoons they came out by the dozen, hooting, whistling and waving as they rode.

As the first motorcycle appeared over the horizon, the older girls would start to whisper and nudge each other, and with each addition to the procession they giggled and rolled their eyes and squirmed in their seats, trying to get a better look at the bikers. I was twelve at the time, and convinced that my classmates--who, due to the difference in school systems between Spain and Ecuador, were two or three years older that I--were insane. While the gawky Rodrigos, Pacos and Ricardos accelerating towards us sent the other girls into raptures, I watched Sister Imelda.

She was a young nun, newly professed, which is why she had been given the hopeless job of maintaining order and decency on the bus. She had a pretty face beneath her wimple, with ruddy skin, shapely eyebrows, and flashing green eyes. In her floor-length habit of white wool with wide sleeves and black veil she looked, except for the mannish lace-up shoes that were part of the outfit, almost elegant.

She sat near the front of the bus. As soon as a motorcycle was heard in the distance, she would straighten up in her seat, tug at her veil, and stare fixedly ahead, resolved not to let the bus chasers get to her. But soon there would be two motorcycles, and then three, and her face would redden and her knuckles whiten as she gripped the seat in front of her. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she would whirl around on her seat and yell "silencio!" at the giggling girls. But they couldn't hear her because of the motorcycles thundering behind us.

She would sit back down, adjust her veil, and clench her jaw. I could see her struggling to control herself, but as the whistling and hooting and roaring reached a certain pitch, she would leap up and fly to the back of the bus, her face purple with rage and flames shooting out of her eyes as she shook her fist at the bikers, shouting "imbéciles! malcriados! facinerosos!" This never failed to send the girls into fits of suppressed laughter and embolden the boys, some of whom leaned over to slap the bus as they sped by.

Poor Sister Imelda! I felt the indignity of her situation. She could either rail at the boys and be laughed at, or ignore them and appear to approve of their behavior.  As it was, the only thing that dissuaded our escorts, besides the rain, was the end of the route. As soon as the school's great iron gates came into view the riders would peel off one by one, like fighter pilots abandoning formation, and head to their own schools.

I wondered what Sister Imelda made of her trial. Perhaps she saw it as punishment for her sins. Perhaps she offered it up to relieve the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory (don't ask how that was supposed to work). I imagined that every day at dawn, as she headed to the chapel for prayers, she begged Our Lady of Mercy for rain.

Where is she now, my nun on the bus? Nuns last a long time, and she may still be living in the sisters' quarters on the third floor of the school. I wonder if, when she hears the bus depart on its rounds, she's glad that she's no longer young. As for those long-ago boys, her tormentors, do they now, driving their cars through the winding streets of Quito, remember the days when the girls they pursued were held captive in a yellow bus and guarded by a green-eyed dragon?