Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Last Car, Etc.

In our fifty-some years together, my spouse and I have owned more houses than cars. But recently I’ve been thinking that, since we probably have another ten years before we hand in our licenses, we should drive a car that is less likely to leave us stranded on some dirt road in mud season. Last week, with a mixture of apprehension and regret--giving up our 2008 Subaru felt a bit like euthanizing a pet that wasn’t sick, just old--we exchanged it for a new hybrid of the same make.

In the past, when we traded one car for a newer model, there were always a couple of new things to learn, such as opening the windows with the push of a button instead of a rotating handle (which saves roughly twenty calories per day, thus contributing to the obesity epidemic). Other changes, such as heated seats and CD players, were pleasant additions that did not interfere with my driving.

This time, however, it’s different. The only things the new car has in common with its predecessor are the turn signal and the windshield wipers. Everything else is new. Everything else will require learning, and practice.

“Just play around with it,” the salesman said, handing us the keys (which, oddly, don’t actually start the car). “Then make a list of questions and come see me.” These were the exact words that the AT&T salesman said to me six months ago when I bought my smart phone. Since then, I have barely scratched the surface of the little gizmo’s potential.

The first morning, it took me twenty-five minutes to get the new car out of the garage. Nothing was where I expected it. Nothing did what I wanted. Instead, many attractive screens and displays lit up, giving me information I didn’t need. What I needed was to release the parking brake. As I tried various combinations of buttons and pedals, the car’s bells and whistles tolled and whistled, admonishing me that, although “love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru,” it’s not unconditional love, and I had better get to work on the three-inch stack of manuals that came with the car.

This is not a car, but a computer on wheels with a mind of its own, which sends me emails from the garage keeping me informed of its charging status. I miss my old car, with its plain and unassuming airs. Like an old-fashioned servant, it would no more have presumed to send me emails than it would have thought of leaving the garage and joining us in the living room.

It isn’t easy being green, as Kermit used to say, and the only consolation for the learning curve that lies before me is in knowing that by driving a hybrid I’m helping the planet more than by taking reusable shopping bags into the market or composting my banana peels. Also, the car’s umpteen safety features may lengthen my driving career (lately I’d been parking great distances from my destination just to avoid backing out of a parking slot). Just now, when I arrived home and opened the driver’s door, a little screen popped up reminding me to check the back seat, where I had put my purse. This feature is bound to become more handy, even essential, in the coming years.

My first car, an adorable tea-cup sized blue Renault Dauphine, felt like it was made of nothing more substantial than paper mache. It had a straight shift, roll-up windows (the handle used to come off in your hand if you weren’t careful), and no radio, so I could concentrate on the driving. My brand-new hybrid will in all likelihood be my last car, and it behooves me to make friends with it before I get a minute older.

The new car is one in an increasing series of lasts.These days I’m also living in what will almost certainly be my last house. And Bisou is surely my last dog. If she lives to age fifteen, I will be eighty when she dies. Even if I’m physically and mentally up for it, will it be responsible of me to get another dog, even if it is not a puppy? As for the cat Telemann, who will be three next month, if he lives into his late teens, as many indoor cats do, I will be unimaginably ancient when he expires, so he is likely my last cat as well.

I remember when life was a string of firsts: first pair of heels, first graduation, first (and so far, only) marriage, first baby, job, house…. I don’t mean to be morbid with this list of lasts, but it’s healthy at my age to get used to letting go, to practice with the smaller things so that when the big Last arrives, I will be able to greet it, if not gaily, at least serenely.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Fetching Water

The summer of 1951, before I turned seven, was the best one ever. The sun shone brighter, the melons were bigger, and the four o’clocks massed against the side of my grandparents’ farm house breathed out clouds of scent during the endless evenings when, after supper, the family congregated under the apple tree by the well.

The well, the apple tree, my father, and me in 1946
 My parents, my grandparents, my mother’s two sisters and her brother, my grandmother’s sister and her husband, and three older cousins sat on the stone benches or on the brittle grass and talked while the stars came out and the frogs croaked by the stream.  When my father took out his pocket watch and said, “It’s time to go to the fountain, don’t you think?” the family, still talking, would process into the silent village, greeting the occasional black-clad woman sitting on the stoop (“bona nit!”).

In the empty square, they filled two enormous càntirs at the fountain that, day and night, disgorged water from an underground spring. The càntirs were large clay vessels shaped roughly like beehives and closed except for two openings at the top, one for filling and another smaller one for drinking. In the dry Mediterranean climate, and thanks to the complex physics of evaporation, càntirs have been used to keep water cold for over four thousand years.

Although the water that came out of the kitchen and bathroom spigots was perfectly drinkable, once you had tasted water from the village fountain you never wanted to drink anything else. The entire family drank out of the same càntir. This was possible because, unlike me, the adults had mastered the skill of lifting the vessel high and tilting the head just right so that the water poured into the mouth without the lips ever touching the càntir. But the càntir was too heavy for me to lift, so when I wanted a drink someone would hold it above my open mouth and trickle the delicious, cold water onto my tongue.

 That summer, I was occasionally allowed to accompany the family on their nightly errand to the fountain. Proud and thrilled to be up so late, I walked along, scuffing my espadrilles on the dusty road, engulfed in the endless stream of talk.

On the way back to the house, the men would carry the full, heavy càntirs on their shoulders while the women entreated them not to spill a single drop. My aunt Xin would show me the Milky Way, known in Catalan as el camí de Sant Jaume (the road of Saint James), because in medieval times it was said to point pilgrims to the shrine in faraway Compostela, on the northwest coast of Spain.

“Look at all those stars!” Xin would say. “They look like clouds, don’t they? But do you know what they really are? They are the dust that Saint James’s white horse kicked up as it galloped towards Compostela.”

I was well acquainted with dust. Every day as I wandered on the dry summer roads, passing flocks of sheep or the occasional motorcycle would leave me dust-covered in their wake. Saint James, I reflected, must have had an enormous horse to kick up an entire galaxy of dust. And, I wondered, did the horse really gallop because it was in a hurry to get to Compostela? It seemed more likely to me, knowing the skittish nature of the species, that it had been frightened by those two bears grazing nearby, Ursa Major and her smaller friend, Ursa Minor.

Back at the house, I would beg someone to give me one last drink from the càntir before I was sent to bed. And I would fall asleep with the feel of dust between my toes, the cool earthiness of the water in my mouth, and the image of Saint James’s great horse cantering and curvetting in the sky.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


The last time I saw her I was in my sixties, and she in her eighties. “I’m the one who taught you to read, remember?”she said. “It was the summer when you were three years old. Your mother didn’t think I could do it.”

She was the older of my mother’s two younger sisters, and we called her Xin. That long-ago summer she and I sat on the sun-warmed roof terrace of my grandparents’ farm house, looking at an alphabet book. The next thing I remember is the two of us again sitting on the terrace, but this time she is holding the newspaper. She points to a paragraph, and somehow the letters suddenly cohere into words that I can say out loud. “See?” she says, “I told you it would be easy.”

In the summers that followed she regaled me with the best in children’s literature, translated into Spanish: The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Little Women. I didn’t much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because I found Evangeline, the plantation owner’s daughter, too virtuous. My favorite was a series of books by a Spanish author about Matonkikí, a little girl with crossed eyes like me. Unlike me, Matonkikí felt free to do whatever came into her head, regardless of consequences. I found this fascinating, and I envied her with all my heart.

Long before Xin taught me to read, she recited poems until I memorized them. The earliest one was in Catalan, about an old shepherd who lay dying on a bed of dry moss. When she got to the part where his sheep wept because he could no longer take care of them, I would shriek for her to stop before I too burst into tears. Together we declaimed poems by nineteenth-century Spanish romantics, and a lot of Lorca which I didn’t quite understand, about the moon, gypsies, and the color green. 

But her stories were best. Some she adapted for my age and powers of concentration—I heard about Gulliver and the Lilliputians before I could walk--and others she made up. One was triggered by the buzz that her bedside radio made as she tried to tune to a distant station. She said that there was a mosquito living inside the set, and whenever I was allowed to take a nap with her, she would turn on the radio and tell me about the mosquito’s adventures.

She taught Spanish history and literature in my school, in the upper grades, and one of my few regrets when we left for South America was that I would never have her as a teacher. When, five years later, we returned to Spain for the  summer, I was plump, pimply, and self-conscious. She took me to a fabric store, selected a cheerful cotton print and sewed me a sleeveless dress, cinched at the waist and with a full skirt, in which I felt less awkward. One day, as I was on my way to a dance wearing the dress, she called me into her room and secretly applied an almost invisible smear of pink on my lips. But it wasn’t invisible enough for the watchful eyes of my mother, who made me wipe it off.
Xin's dress, and some residual awkwardness

It took me a long time to realize that, from birth, Xin was engaged in a struggle with my mother for the alpha spot among the siblings. Of course she loved me for myself, but in her sustained efforts to make sure that I adored her, to teach me to read, and to broaden my horizons, there was also a tinge of rivalry with her dominant older sister. I imagine that when we took off for the New World she must have heaved a sigh of relief.
My parents and Xin (and me in the pram) in Barcelona. Note that both my mother and Xin have their hands on the handle.
Xin wasn’t her real name. When she would come home from school and find me in my crib, I was so delighted to see her that my cheeks would bunch up and my eyes almost disappear as I laughed, giving me a supposedly Asian look. “Xineta! Xineta!”(“little Chinese!”) she would coo, and one of my first words was Xin, which then became her nickname.

She died last week, just short of a century old, on the feast of the Epiphany. I imagine the three Magi, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, hoisting her onto one of their camels and carrying her off to their kingdom among the stars.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

New Gloves, Etc.

My old black leather gloves were falling apart, so when the sun came out for a couple of hours the other day I drove to T.J. Maxx, which is not too far from where I now live.

Lined with car dealerships and fast-food restaurants, the road between my house and TJM is not what I think of as the real Vermont, but I reminded myself that in the decade I spent in my beloved, store-free village, I had to shop for most of my clothes at the church rummage sale.

None of the leather gloves at TJM fit me. When had women evolved five-inch-long fingers?  Might this be a sign from the universe that I should forego leather in favor of artificial fabric? After all, if I refuse to eat a dead cow, it makes no sense to clothe my fingers with the skin of one.

Luckily, the non-leather gloves on the rack weren’t all fuzzy and bulky. I found a sleek pair that fit perfectly. It even had a frivolous little strip of black faux fur (no rabbits harmed) around the wrist.

At home, I got scissors and went to separate the gloves, which were tightly bound together with those annoying bits of plastic filament. (One end is always easy to grasp, cut, and throw in the trash--you can’t recycle the things--but the shorter end invariably springs out of my hands and disappears into the carpet.)

Attached to the gloves by more plastic ties were four labels of various thicknesses. One announced, in gold-embossed letters on stiff black cardboard, that the gloves were weatherproof. Another assured me that the strip of fur around the wrist was faux. (Wouldn’t it be great if the manufacturers of faux news felt equally obliged to describe it as such?)

The third label stated the price, $14.99 (compare at $20). And the fourth explained that those reinforcing bits on the tips of the index and thumb made the gloves “touch screen compatible,” so that, should I need to check my Facebook page while standing in the middle of a blizzard, I won’t have to take them off.

By the time I had disposed of the four labels, I was feeling less sanguine about my purchase. Sure, neither cows nor rabbits had perished for the sake of the gloves, but some tree somewhere had been amputated to make those tags.

That wasn’t the only reason I felt guilty, however: I had bought more than gloves on my shopping trip.

We all know about the environmental cost of the clothing trade. I once heard a researcher describe the rivers near the manufacturing centers in China, which run all the colors of the rainbow with the dyes used on the fabrics.  Every time I walk into a clothing store, I think about those rivers.

But as I pushed my cart along the aisles of TJM, the profusion of colors, textures, and shapes made my head spin. And the prices! When did clothes get so cheap? When I was a teenager, getting a new sweater was a memorable occasion, but now sweaters, unaffected by trumpian sanctions, are practically a dime a dozen.

Outside, there was snow on the ground and the wind was blowing. The old sweaters in my closet had all sprouted a crop of pills, while here in the store, at easy reach of my hand and wallet, hung hundreds of sweaters, unpilled, just my size, just my colors, fresh all the way from China.

Reader, I caved. I bought not one, not two, but three.

At the checkout, I handed the clerk the sweaters and gloves, and my canvas New Yorker bag.

“What is this?” the clerk asked, pointing to the bag.

“It’s my bag,” I said.

“You want me to put your things in there?”

“Yes, please.”

She sighed. She folded the sweaters and began stuffing them and the cruelty-free gloves into the bag. “It’s hard to get it all in,” she said, as the line of customers behind me grew.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

But I really wasn’t. I felt guilty about the sweaters, but at least I’d saved a plastic bag.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


For years I laughed at people who insisted on having their emotional support animals with them on the plane. I’m not laughing any longer. 

I have come to admit that I too have animal-related attachment issues. As a child, I had a teddy bear that kept me company; now, a couple of centuries later, I have two living beings, a red dog and a gray cat, that sustain my mental health.

I find it reassuring to have my steps dogged by Bisou and catted by Telemann as I move around the house. It feels disorienting to go for a walk without a leash in my left hand, a poop bag at the ready, and Bisou stopping at every sacred sniffing spot on the way. At night, watching cataclysms unfold on TV, I keep one hand on short gray fur and the other on long red fur, and life on this mournful planet seems more bearable.

In December, as we prepared to go on our Christmas travels, I lived in a state of anxiety. I had all the usual worries—packing, parking, getting on the right train. But most of my fretting was focused on the animals. Would there be a snow storm on the day when I was supposed to drive Bisou to her B&B in southern Vermont? (There wasn’t.) Would Telemann, alone except for twice-daily visits from a cat sitter, stop using the litter box in the quintessential mode of feline revenge? (He didn’t.) Would he tear up the house? (He tried.)

Day after day I told myself that, really, there was nothing for a rational person to worry about. Of course, this sort of thought never helps. It simply makes the worrier feel stupid, which gives her one more thing to worry about.

I tried to comfort myself by imagining the peace and contentment that would descend upon me once the trip was over and I could again take naps with Bisou against my right leg and Telemann on my stomach. Surely the happiness of having them with me again would match in strength and duration the anxiety that now had me so cruelly by the throat.

But for me, and I suspect for many others, our joys never feel commensurate with our sorrows. I knew from experience that the anxiety that had haunted me for weeks would not be replaced by an equivalent period of happiness after the trip. We somehow manage to sustain negative emotional states much longer than positive ones.

And that’s how it happened. After the ecstatic reunion (I spent the first night sleeping on the love seat, so Telemann could knead and purr to his heart’s content) things became, if not exactly humdrum, less than constantly joyous. Tiny worries—about laundry, groceries, the meaning of life--began to cloud my emotional skies.

But this time, with my former anxieties well fixed in my memory, I am attempting to hang onto a proportional level of happiness. As I go about my routines I occasionally stop and say to myself, wow, what gorgeous long ears Bisou has. Or I watch Telemann watching the winter-drab (but still adorable) finches at the feeder, and give thanks that his litter box habits have remained intact.

I was mistaken when I hoped that my happiness at being back would go on and on of its own accord. Spontaneous joy is something that we humans evolved to experience only in short bursts, lest we become complacent and stop scanning the horizon for lions on the prowl. Maybe happiness has to be cultivated, in the full botanical sense. The seed needs the right soil, water, and light. Above all, it needs attention.

And then it may, with luck, take root and flourish.