Friday, May 29, 2009

Not these saints

Have I mentioned that a baby bunny died on my watch? That I buried him (I use the male pronoun advisedly, because I thought I espied a tiny leporine penis; most likely as a result of too much exposure to spam offerings of 101 ways to enlarge your member and satisfy your girlfriend.) in the bamboo grove?
The matter of bunny mortality is just one of the many ways in which I do not resemble Saint Melangell. She (an adamant virgin) fled a suitor’s unwanted advances and resided for fifteen long years alone in the forest, with only the rabbits and hares for companionship. She always protected the bunnies, and they looked after her.

If you are wondering which saint I will make reference to when I make a few gracious remarks this evening on the occasion of the rehearsal dinner for Tristram and Nika, you can breathe a sigh a relief that – after some serious vacillation, it must be admitted – I will not mention Saint Theodosia as an example of female strength and leadership. Theodosia lived in 8th century Constantinople. When the Emperor decreed that all Christian images be torn down, Theodosia was the ringleader of a group of defiant woman who shook the ladder supporting the functionary attempting to tear down the image. The man fell and died. (It must have been a very tall ladder.) Then Theodosia and her gang stoned the palace of the pseudo-patriarch.
I don’t need to add that she was gruesomely martyred soon thereafter. (A ram’s horn was hammered through her neck.) Butler adds, wryly, “It is not difficult to suggest reason why this nun is not found in the Roman Martyrology.”
So as much as I admire Nika’s strength and leadership skills, I will not be comparing her to Theodosia, whose feast is today.
On the other hand, tomorrow, May 30th, is the feast of Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake in 1431. And I am a great admirer of Joan of Arc.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Loving a swarm

From ABC news:“Thousands of bees -- in a hive -- in a building between 4th Avenue and Irving Place -- and it was no joke to the employees here at GameStop. They were trapped inside their store. The sign in the window said, "temporarily closed, due to bee infestation."

I hear of a swarm and I immediately want to be there, right where the bees are. I want to stand amidst the bees as they fly to and from the swarm with complete attention and intention.
When we first became beekeepers five years ago, an older beekeeper (a psychiatrist who studied the hive to expand his understanding of the human brain) told us that a swarm was one of the most wonderful things we would ever experience. I had no idea what he was talking about.
And then our first hive swarmed, and we were in the back yard with the bees as they exited the hive in flight patterns of Boschian wonder, as they clustered on the branch of a nearby apple tree, as the cluster of interconnected bees grew to the size of a basketball shaped like a heart, as the scout bees went off looking for a suitable new home and returned to share their findings via the waggle dance. Then I got it. I was electrified and after much searching I find that is the best word for what it felt like to me. I was in the midst of an electrical force field. Just as the bees were dedicated to the queen’s pheromones, I sensed my own adrenalin rising and dashing about in every direction. You know how it is when you first fall in love and you can’t eat or sleep and you don’t quite understand what exactly is so altered but you know that the world looks remarkably rosy? You can’t live that way forever, but it’s great when it happens. And that’s what being with a swarm is like for me. Through no merit of my own I can exist briefly among the bees as they engage in this perfect and ancient task of dividing to increase.
Saturday some honeybees (probably about 30,000 workers plus one queen) swarmed in Union Square. Or so said the headline. It seems there was a hive living inside the wall of a video game store (Waggle Dance Pong? Buzz Saw Massacre? Bringin’ in the Pollen? Bee very very Scared?) and employees at the store noticed the bees, who may very well have been there for years or only days. Then panic set in. The employees believed they were “trapped inside the store”. They put up a sign, “Closed due to bee infestation,” and awaited rescue.
No one was stung.
Honeybees swarm when their hive has become too crowded. Rather than fighting it out, they collectively create a new queen by taking several fertilized eggs and feeding them Royal Jelly. Royal Jelly is secreted from the hypopharyngeal glands in the heads of the bees and when a larva is fed exclusively on Royal Jelly, she becomes a queen. (This same substance is used in extremely expensive creams and lotions, based on the notion that what makes a queen will make your skin younger. There appears to be no basis for this claim, and as you can imagine, extracting it is laborious and bizarre.) Having ensured her replacement, and the continuance of the remaining hive, the queen and half her bees, about 30,000 at this time of year, will depart, having first provisioned themselves for the expedition by gorging with honey and pollen. They will first cluster on a nearby limb or eave, or in the much-ballyhooed incident last year on the Upper East Side, on a newspaper vending machine. And while the queen is safely in the center, scout bees – older and wiser bees – go out to find their new home. They periodically return and indicate their findings by performing the waggle dance upon the bodies of their clustered sisters. And somehow, a collective decision comes about. In a recent issue of Science News, Susan Milius posits honeybee swarming as an example of democracy in action. In fact it is better than most democracies, because all of the bees are acting in concert for the good of the hive, its preservation and perpetuation.
Because the swarming bees are weighed down with honey and pollen, and because they are so focused on finding the next perfect cavity, it is unheard of for them to sting. They have better things to do than engage in suicide, because when a bee injects her barbed stinger in your skin most of her entrails are pulled away with it, and she dies.
Now that we are proper beekeepers, one of the things we are meant to do is manage the hives so they do not swarm, because when they swarm you lose most of the honey production for that season, and you risk upsetting your neighbors. We don’t live in the city and our bees have plenty of room in our back yard, but over the years we have lost a few swarms. But this is where CSB and I differ. He really is a proper beekeeper and manages our hives expertly; he is gentle and considerate with the bees, but not sentimental. Not me. If I see swarm cells in a hive, I leave them alone and keep the news to myself. I read the Georgics and long for a swarm.
I would have loved to been in Union Square.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Bristol Palin dilemma

The annals of hagiography are full of young women (viz. Dymphna, Winifred, Bega, Oringa, Regina, Grimonia and countless others) who defy the parental diktat to marry and instead consecrate themselves to a life of virginity. This defiance often leads to torture, death or a life spent in drag.
But Rita of Cascia, as pious as any virgin, submitted to her father’s decree and married the vile, brutal and philandering man chosen for her. And to make it worse, the two sons she bore followed in their father’s footsteps. When the horrid husband was killed by an enemy, the sons swore to avenge his death. Rita was so appalled by this longing for vengeance that she prayed they would die rather than commit a murder.
Her prayer was answered. Her sons contracted a deadly illness; their mother’s gentle nursing brought them round to a state of contrition so they were able to die forgiven.

Saint Rita’s story begs the question: which is the surer path to sainthood: a miserable enforced marriage or sacrificial virginity?
You could certainly argue that it was her marriage that led directly to Rita praying for the death of her own sons.

There are few circumstances in which I might argue for the merits of abstinence over safe sex, but Rita’s might be one.

Oddly enough, Rita is not a patron saint of bees, though surely her claim is as good as Ambrose’s or Bernard’s, and maybe better. The story goes that a swarm of white bees flew around her sweet milk-spattered face as the infant Rita slept in her crib, that they flew in and out of her mouth and never stung her.
This would not be a very remarkable feat for honeybees who generally do not sting unless they are bothered or feeling threatened. But were these honeybees? I have never heard of or seen white honeybees.

There is more. After the death of her husband and sons, Rita finally got her wish and entered the convent. I will spare you a litany of her holiness, her suffering and the suppurating wound that inhabited her forehead. She died in the convent, on this day, in 1457 and not only is her body still incorrupt but the descendants of those bees live in the wall of the cell she died in, and each year at this time they swarm.

St Rita's body in the chapel of Cascia, Italy

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stiff Little Fingers and what they mean

I have stiff little fingers. Since fingers and toes are both digits, I briefly entertained the thought of gout. But decided against it for reasons of gender and red wine consumption. Yet because I think every ache, pain and ailment however imaginary is of great interest as well as having an explanation, I Googled Stiff Little Fingers.
I learned that there is a Northern Irish punk rock group called Stiff Little Fingers.
Page after page of Googled material,and it's all about this punk band and nothing about my stiff pinkies.
So I Googled stiff fingers and learned that there is a Finnish study that links stiff fingers to death by heart disease. Even one stiff finger and you are more likely to die of heart disease. But more likely than what? This is something new to worry about. There is no mention of the effect of frequent saunas on stiff fingers, or on heart disease. If I were Finnish I would take saunas often, because that is what Finnish people do.
Even though I am not Finnish I would take saunas often if I had a sauna. Perhaps we could install a sauna in the now cleaned-up potting shed.

How many shears?

Last weekend we cleaned out the potting shed. The potting shed, theoretically, is a thing of beauty. It is an old old building though I couldn't tell you if it is older than the house, which is quite old indeed. It is half subterranean, with stone walls rising chthonically from below to wooden beams and a lovely slate roof; the wooden frame and beams are, alas, of great interest to the carpenter bees, my nemeses in this season as they hover just out of reach and taunt me.
But it is not my intention to either extol the potting shed or castigate the carpenter bees, much as either task seems appealing just now. No, because in the course of cleaning out the potting shed - removing every last thing from its dark hidden depths, disturbing the cobwebs and spider sacs - we found six pairs of hedge shears.
No one needs six pairs of hedge shears. And least of all we with our minimal hedges and less inclination to trim them.They all have rust, but the degree of rust varies. Two have hardwood handles. One is the Ames Miracle. One has TFE coated blades. One is a Fiskars Power-Lever 10-incher and that is the rustiest of all. The Green Thumb Power Lever is supposed to increase your cutting power without requiring extra effort. And maybe that is what happened long ago when the shears were new.Maybe that could happen still if the blades were not rusted.
Even in their prime, not one of these hedge shears were of the professional grade needed for topiaries.
It is highly likely the hedges will remain unsheared.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another burning question solved

You know that tube of chapstick or lip balm you have in your back pocket? I bet you have often wondered how it is made. I imagine you have spent many hours wondering about the simple 15-step process that goes into creating this handy item that is often the only thing that stands between you and bloody chapped lips and a truly rotten day.
I have decided to relieve you of that wonder, and explain.

How to make a .15 ounce stick of lip balm:

1. You have to keep bees, because bees make the wax which is an essential ingredient in lip balm. Keeping bees is simple. It involves making the hives and supers, ensuring they have a good sources of pollen and nectar, either preventing or capturing swarms, making sure the Queen is laying brood properly, dealing with all the various pests that bother bees, including (but not limited to) Varroa mites, trachea mites, mice, yellow jackets, robber bees and bears, adding or removing honey supers as needed and curtseying to the Queen.
2. When the time comes in mid summer, you have to extract the honey from the honey supers. With a heated or serrated knife (it’s a personal choice) you remove the wax capping the bees put on the comb to seal in their honey.
3. Strain the chunks of wax capping to get as much honey as possible.
4. Then start the process of cleaning the beeswax. Boil down the wax, with a little water, and then pour it through cheesecloth to strain out all the dead bee bits, pollen and other assorted items not considered desirable in a tube of lip balm. Repeat. Lest you think this process can only be done once, let me disabuse you of the notion.
5. Once you have strained the wax twice if not 3 times, boil it down one more time and then pour it into an empty milk or orange container (the squared waxy ones). Not through the little hole! Remove the top first. In a few hours the wax will have hardened and you can peel off the container. There will be water and guck in the bottom. Discard this. You now have a squared chunk of pure beeswax with which to make your lip balm.
6. Acquire small plastic tubes and tops into which you will pour the chapstick when it is ready.
7. Clean an empty coffee tin and make a pouring spout. This is will function as the top of your double boiler. Place the coffee tin in a pot of water.
8. Take 1 ounce of beeswax. To accomplish this I use a chisel and a hammer; with these delicate instruments I nick pieces of beeswax off my hardened chunk and then weigh them.
9. Add 2.5 ounces of sweet almond oil. I could tell you how to crush and extract almond oil from raw almonds, but I will not. Not this time.
10. Melt the wax and almond oil together in the coffee tin over boiling water. Add a small amount of raw honey and a few drops of essential oil. I like lavender or lemon. Honeysuckle has been deemed too ‘girlie’ by the resident critics.
11. Let the oil and wax cool down to about 120˚ before pouring it into the small plastic tubes, because if it is much hotter it will cause the tubes to shrink and then their tops will never stay properly shut.
12. Pour oil and wax into little white tubes, carefully. If you are already a brain surgeon, that is a good thing, because chances are you have steady hands. If you are not already a brain surgeon, you might consider medical school.
13. Let the lip balm harden inside the tube. Cap it.
14. Be grateful I am not going to explain the entire process of designing labels, getting labels printed, sticking them on so that they don’t overlap, and then safety sealing the lip balms.
15. Now you can sell each lip balm for the staggering price of $1.50, wholesale.
Now you know why I am referred to as the Beeswax Business Guru.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dymphna's Day

Saint Dymphna lost her head somewhere in the middle of the seventh century after Christ. She was the daughter of an Irish king who, after the death of his beloved wife, conceived an incestuous passion for his daughter. In order to escape from his advances, Dymphna and her confessor, Saint Gerebernus, fled across the water to Antwerp and settled nearby in Gheel. Inevitably, the Irish king found them there and he slaughtered Gerebernus before beheading his own daughter. Centuries later, in the 1300s, the relics of the two saints became objects of reverence; their finger bones were encased in gold and rock crystal coffers, their skulls displayed in gem-studded reliquaries. From all over darkened Europe epileptics and lunatics made the pilgrimage to Gheel. These poor souls were taken into the homes of the local inhabitants, who cared for them and treated them as members of the community. And many were cured. This was a time when the mentally ill, the demented, the delusional obsessives, the paralytics and the merely strange were often rejected and cast out; although sometimes they were sanctified.
To this day, the tradition continues as mentally ill and neurologically afflicted patients come from all over the world to be housed in the town and live amidst its compassionate inhabitants.
Visitors also come to visit the shrine of Saint Dymphna, to touch the relics, to walk the well-trodden streets of Gheel. Some may come to see the carved sarcophagus of Jan III de Merode.
Had my parents named me according to old tradition, for the saint whose feast day it was, they might have named me Dymphna. But they did not. Isidore, Bertha, Torquatus, Hallvard and Magdalen are other choices they rejected.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I stand corrected, in the hollow of a tree

A brother of mine sent in the following correction to my admittedly sloppy, rounded up, calculations regarding the housing amenities of Blessed Waldo:

A tree with a circumference of 50 feet has an interior area, assuming walls
of zero thickness, of 198.9437 square feet (not 220 square feet). Assuming
a more realistic wall thickness of 2 feet, the area of a hollow tree 50 feet
in circumference would be 111.51 square feet, which is a little small even
by New York standards. (Of course, since saints live to suffer, so the
smaller, the better, of course!)

Even if the walls were only a foot thick, the interior space would be
152.0853 square feet, and the tree’s structural soundness might be in question.

Just something to ponder.

BTW, the only way the inside of a hollow tree with a circumference with 50
could have an area of 220 square feet would be for the walls to be
infinitely thin and for π to be equal to 3.4741, which is 110.5841% of the
real value.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Walter and Waldo, but not Jutta

I was going to tell you about Saint Jutta, whom I have designated as the patron saint of frumpy clothes, but it just so happens that the person most in need of such a patron saint has catapulted herself from the frumpy ranks directly into the celestial orbit of the red hot and sexy, thanks to the first-in-fifteen-years purchase of a fancy dress. So I needn’t tell you about the admirable life of Saint Jutta (11th century), patroness of Prussia. First her husband remonstrated with her for the homeliness of her attire. Then he died on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Next it was her children who objected to her raggedy clothes and unshod feet, to no avail. She gave away everything she owned, had visions and died a recluse.
What part of this qualifies as a miracle?

Since I am precluded from expatiating about Jutta I will mention a couple of other remarkable characters:

Saint Walter, was born at the castle of Conflation during the Vienna Waltz, the chief chair of his family. While a young monk Walter went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and one hungry day a strange bird (are not all birds strange depending on your point of view, and are not we all strange to the birds?) dropped at young Walter’s feet a fish so heavy that Walter could not lift it from the ground. A strange bird indeed.
Another thing to admire about Saint Walter: he had no truck with self-righteousness. Given the saintly propensity for just that, this is especially remarkable. In the course of one long day Walter and his companions were so absorbed in their tasks, and so hungry, that they forgot it was Friday and cooked up some meat. Even realizing the day Walter let his companions continue eating, assuming that St Martin, whose feast it was, would be lenient on this point. But not Edlebert, the rigorist in the group. He chastised them soundly for eating meat, more vehemently than any vegetarian you know. The next day Edlebert lost a vast sum of money, which is related as an example of divine retribution for self-righteousness.

For twenty years Blessed Waldo lived alone inside a hollow chestnut tree, until he didn’t, and then he was dead. (The European chestnuts are Castanea sativa, and are not to be confused with the horse chestnuts next to my drive, the Aesculpus.) To put this in perspective, you should know there are chestnut trees on the slopes of Mount Etna with a circumference greater than 50 feet. Which gives you an area of about 220 square feet, which is about the size of some Manhattan studio apartments for which people pay serious money.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Travel hints

What to do in South Carolina when the business news is bad, and the business news is very bad indeed.
1. Read Sleep Savvy, the magazine for sleep professionals. Of special interest is the section entitled: SNOOZE NEWS/ Stuff you can use.

2. Check out the vitrine in the Spartanburg Marriott, featuring mannequins of Miss South Carolina on a very unfortunate hair day.

3. Learn to shoot skeet. Actually, fail to learn to shoot skeet. Watch others, both experienced and neophytous, succeed in shooting a bright orange clay disk. But still, I fail to make contact. My excuse, if you care to hear it, is that my eyes do not work in tandem. They started out not working at all, which is to say, I had severe strabismus as a child. Then the eyes were operated on in this fashion: the surgeon popped out the eyeballs, tightened the nerves and tendons that connect the eyeballs to the brain, and then popped them back in.
For many years I believed this to be exactly what happened, until one day I sat next to an ophthalmologist at a 50th birthday party and explained this surgery to him. He looked at me with a combination of incredulity and scorn, revealed his specialty, and told me that I was entirely wrong. That I couldn’t be more wrong. That I was deluded in every possible way. That such an operation did not exist, and I was either stupid or gullible, probably both.
Whatever happened on the optical operating table lo those many years ago, my eyes no longer wander but neither do they track. I compensate for that, so I am told. But not enough to shoot a shotgun and have the ejected shot make contact with the soaring orange clay disk. As I said, such is my excuse and I will stick to it.

4. Enjoy the signs in the plant.

5. Think of sastrugi in Antarctica when it's only cotton waste.