Thursday, September 16, 2021

To My Readers:

Here is my blog's new home:

I look forward to seeing you there, and thanks for reading!


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Eating Bugs

Quito, 1954. My mother comes excitedly home from the market with a package of shrimp, the first she’s found since we arrived from Barcelona, where shrimp was only one of several marine species in our Sunday paella. She places the package in the sink and asks the indigenous maid, Maria—black braids, embroidered blouse, felt skirt—to wash them in preparation for cooking. Maria opens the package, takes one look at the contents, and runs out of the kitchen, her braids streaming behind her, screaming that those bugs in the sink are just like the bugs with many legs that you find curled up under a stone, and she would rather die than touch one, much less eat it. 

It’s my first lesson in gastronomic relativity, in which I realize that what we like to eat or can’t bear to even think of eating is determined more by where we come from than by the merits of the thing on our plate. Ecuador is replete with challenges to gastronomic provincialism. There is the Andean village where at dusk small flying beetles take to the air, and are chased by swarms of little boys who catch and eat them. “They are sweet,” they tell us, munching. And there is the Saturday afternoon ritual when native families sit in front of their houses ridding each other’s scalp of lice, which they eat--a practice that supposedly helps to protect them against typhoid. And in the Amazon basin, we are told, people hunt monkeys with blow guns and boil them whole…. 

In Spain, before we went to South America, everything that I ate was anatomically correct: small fish were served entire on my plate, and I don’t remember being grossed out by their fishy eyes looking up at me, or by the knee caps and hip joints of rabbits and chickens, or by the chicken’s comb, which my  grandmother used to save for me. 

But the years have changed me. Long before I became vegetarian I stopped eating chicken thighs, because I couldn’t bear the sight of all the muscles and tendons; then I stopped eating chicken breasts (those ribs!); and then I stopped eating chicken altogether. Now, wishing I had the energy and resourcefulness to be vegan, I make-do with vegetables and dairy products, with an occasional can of salmon or sardines to boost my protein intake. 

I recently read “Grub,” an article in the September 6 issue of The New Yorker about entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects. Given the expanding human population and the diminishing resources of the planet, insects offer an ecologically sustainable source of high-quality protein, so it becomes almost a moral duty for us all to support the companies that are working to make entomophagous cuisine available to the world at large—and that includes actually eating their products. 

This is something that I will happily do as long as I cannot tell what I am eating. That means no legs, no antennae, no compound eyes, no diaphanous wings, no chewy bits of exoskeleton. Give me bugs ground into anonymous, homogeneous powder, and I will ingest not only cute, small things like ants and ladybugs but Luna moths, tarantulas, locusts, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Shared by most Americans, this preference for bugs in powder form presents a problem for the “tiny livestock” industry, because insect protein, as you know if you’ve ever squashed a bug, is gooey instead of solid. But they’re working on it. 

Note that I haven’t said anything about flavor. But mix some insect powder with an egg substitute, dredge in bread crumbs, fry lightly in olive oil, and what’s not to like? I just celebrated Labor Day with a sad little vegetarian patty made of mostly beans and corn. After that, critter croquettes don’t sound half bad to me. 

Thursday, September 2, 2021


I’m in a wobbly state these days. This, I am told, is normal after hip replacement surgery, but lately I’ve been feeling even more wobbly emotionally than I do physically. My inner weather shifts from placid to stormy countless times during the day. It doesn’t take much to lower my barometric pressure: an unanswered email, one item too many on my to-do list and, above all, the danse macabre of the news cycle, swirling in my consciousness from dawn to dusk. 

I wasn’t always like this. Although I had my ups and downs, I never approached my present weathervane-like state. One variable of course is age. I had always imagined that someday, when I finally grew up, I would attain a sage-like equanimity. So far this fantasy has not come true for me, on the contrary. 

But the principal variable, I believe, is not my age, but the age in which we live. Floods and fires. Afghans clinging to the fuselage of taxiing cargo planes. Haitians being dug out (or not being dug out) of ruins. Americans dying who would have lived if they had been vaccinated. Overflowing ICUs, exhausted doctors and nurses, and a virus that keeps reinventing itself. The uncertainty of what life will look like in a month, or three. Who can stay calm in the middle of this?

Often I tell myself that no generation before us has dealt with threats of this magnitude. And then I try to imagine myself as a Jew in 1940s Germany, or as my father, in hiding from 1936 to 1939, the duration of the Spanish Civil War. Surely the daily fear for their lives, their hunger and deprivation, were worse than what I and the people around me have to put up with. 

But here is the difference: although for us lucky ones the dangers are not immediate, they are planetary. We are the first generation to live day in and day out with the awareness of massive extinctions and colossal disasters across the globe, and the threat of more to come. (Have you noticed how few butterflies are around this summer? I saw a single Monarch at my hyssop yesterday and almost went down on my knees before it.) 

So in my apocalyptic moments, my mood teeters and falls. But then, because I am human and cannot sustain any one emotional state for very long, the phone rings, or I meet a friend, or I find a good book, and I lurch upright again. However, these are merely distractions, and the next newscast, article, or photo plunges me into the depths once more. 

Is this the new normal? And if so, how are we going to get through it? Is there even something beyond the through? I suspect that, for weary Londoners in the middle of the Blitz, it also must have seemed as if their trials would last forever. But then the Americans finally joined the war and made everything better. 

Where, I wonder, are the “Americans” who will come with weapons, K-rations, and chocolates, and get us out of this mess? 

Monday, August 30, 2021

To My Readers:

This is to let you know that, after today, if you have subscribed to this blog you may not get an email with my new posts. I am also aware that it is now impossible to leave comments on the blog. I apologize for these technical problems, which I am trying to resolve.

I post every week on Wednesday or Thursday, so until things return to normal you can always find me by clicking on MyGreenVermont.

I am sorry for the inconvenience, and am grateful to you, my readers, who keep  me writing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Showing Off

 My new left hip is only four hours old when the nurse comes into my room. "Wanna take your hip for a spin?" she asks, wheeling the walker up to the bed. I stand up and, feeling like the recipient of a New Testament miracle, take hold of my walker and walk. "You're doing great! Feel free to walk up and down the halls if you're up to it," she says, and returns to her station. 

Fiddling with the ties at my back, I adjust the XXL hospital gown to my actual dimensions, and go exploring. At the end of the hall, I stare out the huge window at the rain. Next door there is an empty room with chairs and sofas intended for visitors. As I leave, my walker bumps against the doorjamb. What am I doing with this annoying contraption?  I'm not even putting any weight on it. In fact, I can probably get around without it. 

I leave the walker in my room and take another stroll. This is much better! It leaves my hands free to keep the XXL gown from flapping open while I fantasize that my recovery is over and I am back to normal, even before the sun sets on my surgery day. Not the least of my joys is the look of amazement on the nurse's face when she comes to fetch me. "Wow, you're really killing it!" she says, adjusting the blood pressure cuff. 

I blush with pleasure, and imagine her back at her station saying to her fellow nurses, "That woman in 2116 is amazing. I've never seen anything like her in my life! Nobody has ever recovered from surgery this fast."

Now it is the dead of night, and two orthopedics residents appear at the foot of my bed. "Do you think you could try raising you leg a little?" one of them asks. I respond with a high kick worthy of the Rockettes. "How cool is that!" he whispers to his friend. They leave and I sink back into slumber, wreathed in smiles.  I'd forgotten how good it feels to impress people.

The night nurse comes by with some pills. "I hear you've been walking around without your walker," she says, handing me a glass of water. "That's just not safe. I must ask that you use your walker at all times while you're in the hospital." 

Alongside the show-off, there lives within me a deeply obedient and compliant child. It is now her turn to shine, so I use the walker for the remainder of my stay, even though that makes my excursions less exciting (fewer chances of impressing staff) and clouded by the fear of my gown falling open in the back.

But when the physical therapist comes in the morning to clear me to go home, I am back in show-off mode, demonstrating the flexions and abductions I've been practicing for months in preparation for surgery.

I am not without self-awareness, so throughout my time in the hospital I am conscious of this childlike compulsion to impress everyone I come across, from surgeons to orderlies. But why I might be doing this, I have no idea. Could it be that I believe that my performances will get me more attention, and better care? But that seems counterintuitive, as doctors and nurses would surely be more inclined to minister to me if I appeared feeble and needy. 

Or it might be that at my stage in life there is little opportunity for performance and the ensuing applause. Gone are the days when studying hard would get me an A, so now I aim for good grades from medical personnel. It may make me look ridiculous, but I can't help myself.

Or maybe it's simply in my genes. As my 94-year-old mother was dying of encephalitis, I sat by her bed reading her a Catalan poem about the afterlife that she and my father had always loved. But before I could finish she shook her head, waved the book aside, and said "Look! Look what I can do!" and underneath the bedsheet she raised her left leg, and then her right, a good two feet above the mattress.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Little White Paw

I go into the bedroom to prepare for a zoom session. My dog Bisou is with me because she’s always with me, unless I’ve accidentally locked her in a closet into which she has followed me. I close the bedroom door, open the laptop, and wait for the host to start the session. Out in the hallway, the cat Telemann gives a melancholy meow, and sticks his little white paw under the door. If there is one thing I cannot resist, it is Telemann’s little white paw. I would interrupt a zoom meeting with the Pope himself if Telemann stuck his paw under the door. 

The session hasn’t started yet, so I get up and open the door. You’d think that he would rush right in, but no. Instead, he backs up against the little bench across the hall and performs his marking ritual. This consists of raising one hind foot after the other while making trembling motions with his upright tail. You have probably seen male tigers do this against a jungle tree in nature documentaries. Unlike the tigers, Telemann is neutered, so he does not spray urine, for which I’m grateful. When I described this ritual to the vet, he said it was a sign of affection. “You are loved,” he whispered. 

I beckon with voice and gesture for Telemann to come into the room, but he’s not done with the marking ceremony. I know that if I simply close the door, the meowing and pawing will start all over again, so “Heeeere kitty” I implore, in my most dulcet tones. He looks at me as if he’s never seen me before. 

Surely by now the zoom session has started? I go to check the computer, and while I’m turned away Telemann ambles nobly into the room. I leap to the door and close it before he can change his mind. Both pets are now in the room—Bisou is already snoring—and I can center myself as I wait for the session to begin. 

But where is the cat? He’s sitting by the closed door, staring at it as if to bore a hole through which to escape. Is he thirsty? Is he bored? Does he need to use the litter box? How urgent is his need? If I let him out, he’ll insist on coming back in. On the other hand, if I ignore him there may be a heavy price to pay. 

The host has appears and the session begins. The minute Telemann hears voices, he jumps onto my lap and presses his damn little white paw on the keyboard, which causes the zoom screen to vanish. When I get it back, he maneuvers himself with his derrière to the screen, tail raised to the sky. It’s a good thing I’m not zooming with the Pope. 

Despite his many quirks, I find Telemann entrancing, because he is so mysterious. Dogs have their own mysteries, of course, but compared to a cat, a dog is an open book. Living with a dog is like watching a foreign movie with subtitles—you miss some stuff, but you get the general idea. Living with a cat is like watching that same movie minus subtitles, and having to figure out what is going on by guesswork and paying close attention to the actors’ facial expressions. 

Few things are as puzzling as trying to read a cat’s face. Perhaps this is because the cat’s facial expression often bears no relation in human terms to what he is doing. When Telemann in a playful mode “assaults” Bisou or leaps after a string I’m wiggling for him, his face remains as solemn and composed as when he does his nails at the scratching post. Dogs have play faces. Cats do not. 

There is one situation in which a cat’s face does what a human’s would do in the same circumstance, and that is the purr face--the cozy-comfy face, with the eyelids at half-mast. It’s the kind of face that, when a human makes it, we think of as cat-like. But for the most part, a cat expresses himself with his body—tail up or lashing, back flat or arched, and so on. We humans are a face-oriented species, however, and we scrutinize eyes, cheeks, and lips before we remember to look at the body, so cats appear sphinx-like to us, hieratic and unfathomable. 

I like to live with both a dog and a cat for the same reason that some married men keep mistresses: the dog (the wife) offers reliable comfort and companionship, while the cat, like a capricious mistress, is in charge of mystery and drama.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Age of Uncertainty

Masks, social distancing, distance learning, quarantines--we thought we were done with all that. We flung down our face coverings, hugged our friends, breathed sighs of relief. Now mask mandates, booster shots, and those obnoxious limitations loom once more on the horizon. Will the uncertainty ever end? 

The answer is, no. Covid may fade; the dreaded Delta variant may disappear; and we may return to some version of normalcy, if we can remember what that was like. But one thing is certain: something else is going to happen. In 1918, after the “war to end all wars,” people thought that they could get back to business as usual. But the war was followed by the influenza pandemic, then by the Great Depression, and by the Spanish Civil War, which was the dress rehearsal for the Second World War…. 

No matter how often we are proven wrong, we humans persist in our longing for certainty and stability, for things to stop happening so we can rest. I can’t imagine that this desire has any evolutionary value. Wouldn’t it have been better if as a species we had evolved to take change in our stride--to expect it, accept it, even enjoy it? Instead, we are forever waiting for the crisis of the moment to end, for the project to be completed, for exams to be over--and then, what? Then, and not before then, we will relax, take a deep breath, and be happy. 

Here is how it is for me right now: for a year, I have been waiting for a hip replacement, which is scheduled for next week. As I hobble around preparing for surgery--making one last trip to the market, taking Bisou for her check-up, doing the laundry--my mind, my heart, and my very bones are suffused with the conviction that after that magic date all will be normal, all will be well, and I will finally rest and be at peace. 

I feel this despite the fact that the many years I have lived and the many Buddhist books I have read should have taught me that, even if the surgery goes well (which it will!), when I return from the hospital some problem/dilemma/unexpected shift in the axis of my world will greet me at the door. It’s reasonable for me to anticipate hurting less after the surgery, but foolish to expect to take a deep breath and sink into blessed permanence.

That deep breath signaling the end of change would, if I were to take it, be my last one. Up until that moment, as long as I am alive, everything is bound to continue shifting in maddeningly uncertain ways. So if I want to relax and be happy, I need to figure out a way to do it right now, with chaos swirling all around. 

I often find Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun and teacher, hard to take. But that’s not her fault. She’s a tough woman, and she writes unvarnished truths that, in my heart of hearts, I know are accurate. Such as: “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.” 

Who wants to hear this kind of thing? And yet, we all know that she’s right. 

She also says, “Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.” This reminds me of the Aesop fable that I read as a child, in which a sturdy oak tree, standing mighty against the wind, mocks the lowly reeds that bend and sway with each gust. But then a big storm comes and knocks down the oak, while the bending, swaying reeds survive unscathed. 

The weather of our lives is as changeable as the weather of the planet. It’s human nature to identify with the oak tree, wanting certainty and permanence no matter what. I am working on becoming more reed-like, swaying and bending in harmony with whatever comes, and maybe even learning to take pleasure in the dance.