Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Health Fashions

When I was born, the midwife laid me in the bassinet, on my back. "This is how the child must sleep," she informed my mother. "Or she will die."

When my children were born, I was told to always lay them on their stomachs. Or they would die.

By the time my grandchildren arrived, pediatricians were sure that the only way to ward off SIDS was to never let a baby sleep on its stomach.

My father, a heavy smoker, died in his early fifties of lung cancer.That premature death convinced me of the fragility of the supposedly strong sex, and I devoted myself to preventing my healthy young husband from suddenly expiring. In the 1970s, I did this mostly by eliminating salt from our diet. For years I fed my family broccoli, green beans, and tuna casserole without even a soup├žon of salt.

I figured out a way to bake salt-free bread (ordinarily salt is needed for the dough to rise) and published an article about it in some now-defunct magazine. I hope that nobody took my recipe seriously, and I apologize to any readers who did. Maybe they will take comfort in the knowledge that years later I developed a condition that requires me to consume plenty of salt to keep from keeling over.

The salt-free seventies were succeeded by the fat-free eighties. You could eat all the carbs--and yes, all the sugar--you wanted as long as you didn't go near a molecule of fat. My mother was appalled. "This is not right!" she cried. "In Spain after the Civil War people got terribly sick because nobody had harvested the olives and they hadn't had any oil, let alone animal fats, for three years. They had skin problems and bone problems, and some even went blind. Don't believe these doctors who say that fats are bad." Then she would hold up her index finger and proclaim, "Moderation in all things!"

The fat-free diet was supposed to be good for our figure as well as our health, so we drank skimmed milk, gave up butter, and put that dietary oxymoron, "fat-free cream," in our coffee. Fat-free milk products remained popular until a couple of years ago, when studies showed that people who ate full-fat dairy were slimmer than those who ate the fat-free versions. Likewise, people who consume real sugar weigh less than those who use artificial sweeteners.

Remember that early panacea, vitamin C? It was succeeded in our medicine cabinets by the B vitamins. They were in turn replaced by vitamin D, which most of us are now deficient in as a result of following dermatologists' advice never to expose our skin to the sun (remember when sunshine was good for you?).

For a while coffee was supposed to be bad, but later was rehabilitated. Ditto for eggs, and potatoes. On the other hand, liver was once force-fed to children because of its nutritional excellence, but now is to be avoided.

Remember leeches? I don't, and neither do you, but after two centuries of being reviled they're now FDA-approved and back at work relieving a variety of circulatory problems.

If there was one dictum likely to stand unchallenged, however, it was the health benefits of dog ownership. Walking a dog, studies showed, was good for the heart, the lungs, the bones, and the soul. Dog owners lived longer, happier lives than the rest of the population. But I just heard on the radio that orthopedic surgeons are concerned about an outbreak of bone fractures among elderly dog walkers. What's next, an FDA recommendation against dog ownership after age 65?

Given how quickly certain principles of the health sciences are demolished, and others erected in their place, the sanest response is to embrace my mother's mantra: moderation in all things. And while it may feel discouraging that nothing in life is certain, especially where medicine is concerned, we can take comfort in one thing that doesn't look like changing soon: immortality is still out of reach.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Andalusian Fisherman and the American Tourist

Here is a story my mother used to tell: An Andalusian fisherman was lying on the warm sand next to his boat. Earlier, he had brought in a load of sardines, and now he was resting from his work. (The stereotype in Spain is that Andalusians, being southerners, are more easygoing than the rest of the population.)

An American tourist, his face red from too many hours on the beach, stopped in front of him. "Hey, what are you doing there, fella?" the tourist asked.

"I am resting in the sun. Is nice..." the fisherman said, yawning. He had picked up a little English from the tourists who descended on his village every summer.

"Resting!" the American exclaimed. "But it's still morning! Why don't you take your boat out again and fish some more?"


"Well, obviously, to catch more fish, and make more money. You know, moolah, euros."


"So you can buy a bigger boat!"

"A bigger boat?"

The American tourist sighed, and squatted down next to the fisherman. "Bigger boat, more fish, more fish, more money, comprende?"

"Yes. And then?"

"Then you buy another boat, and another, and..."

"But I can't fish in all those boats by myself."

"No, of course not," the American said, speaking slowly and distinctly. "You hire some men to help you fish."

"But then I have to pay these men!"

"Well, yes, a little. But you keep most of the profits for yourself, and then..."

"Then what?"

"Then you're rich!"

"And then?"

"Well...then you can lie on the beach, and rest."

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Embarrassing Embroideries

This appalling piece of work looks like it was made by a drunk person, doesn't it? Note the wobbly lines, the unfinished rows, the uneven spacing, the stains, the pathetic attempt at drawn-thread work. I was not drunk when I made it, but I was twelve years old, and utterly indifferent to the womanly art of embroidery.

Needle arts class was the bane of my school years. My first teachers, an order of German nuns in Barcelona, attempted to teach me crochet when I was six. "Watch me, Eulalinchen" the kindly Schwester would say, leaning close, yarn and hook in hand. But I was too overwhelmed by the proximity of her black veil and her starched white wimple and her fingers twisting the yarn and thrusting the hook into undefined loops to master anything beyond the chain stitch.

In second grade, we were taught to knit. Once again the Schwester showed me how to stick the big needles (this time two of them!) into what looked to me like random spaces. At home, my mother did some supplementary tutoring and even made a row or two for me, but by the end of the school year all I had to show for my efforts was a blue "scarf," barely longer than it was wide, with an enormous gap in the middle.

Just before the start of the summer vacation, the nuns would invite the parents to the annual needlework show. Crocheted doilies and knitted scarves, and the sophisticated embroideries of the older girls were pinned in decorative patters to the classroom walls. I still remember walking into that room with my parents, not wanting to look up because I knew that my scarf with its hole was too disgraceful to be exhibited.

But then, "Look! There it is!" my mother exclaimed. My scarf was on  the wall, among the more accomplished efforts of my agile-fingered classmates. And, miracle of miracles, you could not see the hole! The clever Schwester had pinned all four corners of the scarf to the wall, and scrunched up the middle, where the hole was, with a bright red ribbon.

In Ecuador, where I attended a school run by nuns imported from Spain, there was even more emphasis on needlework. That is where, with sweat and tears and gritted teeth, I produced the sampler shown above. Fortunately my mother, who had spent years of her life embroidering linens and baby clothes and my head-to-toe First Communion veil, overcame her upbringing and her culture and did not give my poor performance with needle and thread any importance. She had greater heights in mind for me to scale.

Although my mother's casual attitude helped, needlework class was an endless trial. But all those years of struggle paid off when, at fourteen, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and entered a high school run by Benedictine nuns. As Americans, these nuns were more practical-minded than my previous teachers and, in Home Ec, instead of cutwork and crewel, we were taught to make a skirt.

After some trouble learning how to thread the sewing machine (I knew very little English and couldn't understand the instructions) I came into my glory when it was time to finish the seams and hem the bottom of the skirt, which we did by hand. Most of the girls had never held a needle or worn a thimble, whereas I had had years of experience. Catch stitch, slip stitch, even blanket stitch held no secrets from me. The Schwester in Barcelona, and the hermana in Quito would have been pleased to see Sister Dorothy hold up, for the class's admiration, the flawless hem of my blue wool skirt.

Much later, my attitude towards needle and thread changed. In the 70s I joined the rest of my generation and crocheted afghans and ponchos out of granny squares. I made dresses for myself and my daughters, and even embroidered a Jacobean bell pull to summon nonexistent servants. 

The brain is a thrifty organ, and nothing that life throws its way is ever lost. My early needlework traumas probably  improved my eye-hand coordination. But they also taught me patience, humility, and frustration tolerance--life skills that have proven far more useful than the ability to produce flawless satin stitches or French knots.

(In this video, Renate Hiller makes an eloquent case for the teaching of handwork to children, and for the benefits that it offers to people of all ages.)

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Unfathomable Mysteries of the Cavalier Mind

Bisou has a new friend, a big, blond Cavalier fellow named L***.Whenever they see each other, they fall into each other's arms, like Tristan and Isolde after drinking the magic wine. But unlike T&I, the love scene doesn't last long, and they each quickly return to their private obsessions, Bisou with her ball and L*** with squirrels.

The latter didn't manifest until L***'s owner brought him over for a play date with Bisou. At first all went as usual: joyous greeting followed by racing around the cottage looking for the cat Telemann. Unfortunately our sun room's sliding glass doors give directly into the backyard, which functions as the village square for the local squirrels, who come in search of spilled bird seed, water from the bird bath, and the society of other squirrels. The minute L*** saw a squirrel at the bird bath, he stuck his nose to the glass, eyes bulging, tail wagging, shivering with excitement, and there was nothing any of us could do to distract him.

"This is so weird," his owner said. "At home he never watches the squirrels, but it's probably because there is a screened-in porch between our glass door and the backyard."

After a few more play dates during which even Bisou gave up trying to lure L*** away from his obsession, we reasoned that if we gathered at L***'s house he would be able to concentrate on playing with his friend. Our arrival chez L*** elicited from both dogs the usual yelps of ecstasy, frantic circling and thoughtful mutual sniffing. L***'s owner brought out a selection of balls and squeaky toys that immediately got Bisou's attention.

But where was L***?

L*** was at his sliding door, nose pressed to the glass, looking for the squirrels that he assumed followed Bisou wherever she went. "Bisou is here," he reasoned. "Therefore, there must be squirrels."

So certain was he of this that, again, it was impossible to distract him. He did chase a couple of balls, but his heart wasn't in it. His heart was with the invisible but nevertheless very real entourage of squirrels that accompanied Bisou like rodent paparazzi.

Compared to other dogs I've known, Cavaliers often strike me as a little odd, albeit in the nicest possible way. I've heard of some that have to be kept indoors in the summer so they won't exhaust themselves chasing butterflies. In her youth, Bisou was obsessed with the frogs that lived in the pond behind our previous house. Not that she wanted to bite them, God forbid. But she delighted in bopping them with her nose so that they would jump into the water with that satisfying plop. Half the time it was Bisou who ended up in the water, but that did not dissuade her, and if we hadn't moved away, I'm sure she'd still be hanging out by the pond, hoping for frogs to bop.

Sometimes when I ask her to sit, or to come to me, she looks at me with a strange, not unfriendly look that seems to say, "Have we met before?" And that's when I'm reminded that she's not a little red person with a tail, but a dog, and that most mysterious and quirky of dogs, a Cavalier.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Life's Too Short

I was scrubbing away at my once-white sofa with one of those magic eraser thingies the other day when I suddenly stopped in mid-stroke. Life's too short to be doing this, I thought. Who cares if my sofa is white, or just white-ish?

I put away the eraser and sat down to hem some pants. I am an excellent pants hemmer, at least at first. Look at those tiny, barely visible stitches, I say to myself. Sister Dorothy would approve! But it doesn't last. By the time I'm a quarter of the way through the first leg, my stitches grow imperceptibly longer. When I get to leg #2 I can barely restrain my impatience. How much longer is this going to take? Life's too short! I bite off the final thread, and see that my stitches would appall Sister Dorothy.

Then there's ironing. Life is surely too short for that. I own an iron, and an ironing board, but years go by without my disturbing their repose.  This despite the fact that I don't really hate ironing, and I wear lots of linen in the summer. But ironing, especially ironing linen, is the ultimate Sisyphean task. There is nothing I like better than a pair of well-ironed linen pants--until, that is, I sit down and when I stand up  my legs look like they are encased in those pleated paper lanterns. So I wear my linen wrinkled, and try not to look in the mirror.

When we moved to our cottage after the Grand Downsizing four years ago, I put  the few items that had survived the purge--half a dozen pottery salad bowls, some crystal, a silver champagne bucket, and a couple of wooden spoons carved by me-- in my glass-fronted china cabinet and closed the door. The other day, I went in to get a brandy snifter and saw that the base had left a dark circle on the shelf. Somehow dust has been getting into the cabinet! I should take everything out, dust the shelves, wipe each glass and dish and spoon, and put them back. Is life too short for that?

Then there's the silver, which now that we're in our golden years I insist on using every day, but it has to be polished every few months...

Remember that weird Zen saying: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water"? Whoever first said it did not think that life was too short for these mundane tasks, but that in fact these tasks were life itself. If you are truly enlightened you perform them with all the care and attention of which you are capable, every single time. The saying reminds me of Saint Benedict's advice to the monk in charge of washing dishes to treat them with the same reverence as he would the vessels of the altar.

I am not totally lacking in self-awareness, so often when I'm struggling with some tiny,  boring, repetitive task unworthy of my higher talents, I think about the potential satisfaction to be found in chopping wood, carrying water, washing dishes. And sometimes I do manage, for a couple of minutes, to banish thoughts of important stuff and focus on the next stitch or the next dish. But it doesn't last, of course, and I shouldn't attach to the idea of its lasting.

It's not easy, this Zen business, but once you come across it it's hard to ignore. What is life not too short for: producing masterpieces, ending wars, saving the earth? How many of us have the talent or the opportunity to do those things? I sure don't. But I can try to pay attention to the heft of the ax, the crack of the wood, the coolness of the water as it sloshes out of the pail. And when the last fork has been polished and the last clean dish put away, I will have truly lived another day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Magpie Cat

These days, when you walk into my house, you are met with a barrage of warnings:
"Better hide that scarf inside your coat pocket, or the cat will play with the fringe."
"Let's put your boots in the closet so the cat won't chew the laces."
"Please do NOT leave your purse on the floor, or the cat will rummage in it."
In the past, I've neglected the purse warning, which is how we've ended up with:
#1 a tube of lip balm
#2 a felt zippered bag, containing ear buds
#3 a soft eyeglass case (empty)
#4 many tissues, some used, some not.

Whenever I bring something into the house, even if it's just a stack of mail, Telemann is on it like a flash: What is it? What are you doing with it? Can I have it? Not that I wasn't forewarned: at nine weeks old, when he saw me filling out the adoption form, he jumped on the page and tried to grab the pen out of my hand.

He'll be two years old this month, and he doesn't break as many things as he used to. Now he just appropriates them. In the night, when we are sleeping, he roams the house looking for interesting stuff--paper clips, small ornamental objects, the contents of unsecured wastebaskets--then plays hockey with his findings until they disappear under the furniture.

His favorite toy is a long "snake" of fuzzy fabric attached to a stick. I can get him to chase it and do air-borne pirouettes for a minute or two, but then he catches it, kills it, and, with his head held high, drags it into the mud room.

The mud room is his territory. Not only does it house the litter box, but the hot water pipes run under the floor, which remains toasty winter and summer. The mud room is also where, a year before we got Telemann, a mouse squeezed through the hole where the heating pipes come into the cottage. My spouse stuffed the space with crumpled chicken wire and we've had no more mice. But that doesn't deter Telemann from spending hours staring fixedly at the spot where that mouse once entered, hoping to add him to his pile of loot.

True, my magpie cat is a pain sometimes (often). But when he jumps purring into my lap, gives me a slow blink, and says, I'm the BEST thing that's ever happened to you, I am almost tempted to believe him.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Bag Balm as Metaphor

Driving down Vermont country roads these days I often see a sight that breaks my heart: a small dairy farm in the process of dying. It happens in slow motion: the roof begins to sag, the equipment to rust, the fences to lean. And then, one day, the cows are gone. In the spring, dandelions sprout in the barnyard and Virginia creepers climb the silos which, by the time winter comes around again, stand decapitated in the snow.

There were over 11,200 dairy farms in Vermont in the 1940s, 1,091 ten years ago, and only 749 last year. It's mostly the little dairies that go bankrupt, while the mega-farms, those with over 700 animals confined in barns, have doubled in number. Falling milk prices, government regulations, high equipment costs, and, especially, the change in Americans' drinking habits (less milk, more beer) are all to blame.

The situation is so depressing that last February the co-op that owns Cabot Creamery sent farmers a list of suicide prevention hotlines along with the milk check (See Seven Days).

Fewer farms, more macmansions: Vermont is not quite what it used to be. If you doubt Vermont's drift away from its rural, farm-based identity, all you have to do is look at the change in the Bag Balm tin.

Created in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom in 1899, Bag Balm, that panacea for skin-related cold-weather ills, originally came in a green tin with a picture on the lid of a cow's head framed by a garland of clover leaves and blossoms. The side panels featured a drawing of an udder along with indications and directions for use: "For minor congestion of the udder due to calving, high feeding, bruising or chilling..."

The farmer was instructed to massage the balm gently into the udder fifteen minutes twice a day, or oftener. After a few sessions, those old-time farmers noticed a smoothing and softening of their own chapped skin. And this is how, despite the "Veterinary use only" caution on the tin, Bag Balm spread from the cows to their caretakers and then to village dwellers, skiers, tourists and assorted flatlanders as a sovereign remedy against winter skin woes.

This year, when a succession of weeks with below zero temperatures gave my spouse's hands that old sand-papery feel, he went out to get more Bag Balm and came back with a smaller tin that proclaims itself "Vermont's Original Bag Balm." The formula is the same, as is the pungent, uncompromising smell of the ointment, and there is still a picture of the cow's head on the cover, albeit much reduced. But the drawing of the udder is gone.

In fact, there is no mention of udders at all in the new tin. Gone also are the instructions to "thoroughly wash treated teats and udder before each milking....[After milking]strip milk out clean, dry skin and apply Bag Balm freely." The manufacturers must have figured that all this talk of teats and stripping would freak out customers who don't want to think about where milk comes from. Instead, they are now marketing the Balm as a "skin moisturizer for hands and body," Vermont's version of Jergen's or Eucerin.

Not that I blame the makers of Bag Balm. They are just trying to keep their business afloat, and with fewer cows with sore teats around, they had to expand their customer base. They have a gorgeous website which includes a video of real farmers talking about the product. But I miss the old tin, whose no-nonsense instructions transported me, every time I opened the lid, to the steamy inside of a dairy barn at winter milking time. I imagined the Holsteins, big as school buses; the doe-eyed little Jerseys; and the farmer making the rounds from cow to cow, filling his bucket and squirting an occasional milky jet into the mouth of the waiting barn cat.

This (admittedly romanticized) scene is becoming as rare as the original tins of Bag Balm.What can we do to help small farmers hang on, not just in Vermont but all over the country? Those of us who are neither economists, politicians, or farmers can start with what is right in front of our noses: we can buy, eat, and think local. And if like me you don't drink milk, you can still help the cause by buying local cheese--in Vermont, we have an astounding 150 varieties.*

*France supposedly has 1,000 varieties of cheese, but also 67 million Frenchmen, vs. fewer than 700,000 Vermonters.