Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Maybe you were expecting a discourse on Ramon Lull, the alchemist turned saint whose feast it is, in which case you will be disappointed. If you are really desperate, check here, a year ago tomorrow.

This year I am in a geographical mode. I love maps. I think of myself as a cartographer manqué. I keep maps, I draw maps. I consider maps an art form and over the years I have subjected my family to shower curtains with world maps and plastic placemats with maps of the USA and tablecloths with maps of America’s vacationlands. I think the maps of ski areas make excellent wrapping paper. In the attic I still have the mouse nibbled maps I used to make in sixth grade geography class; they generally feature examples of a country or state’s primary products glued on (think cotton balls, wheat seeds, olives or French fashion); once I made a map of Africa with every country cut out of colored paper and then the whole continent fitted together like a puzzle. Projects like these were largely responsible for my not-enviable position as a teacher’s pet toady. Not enviable because the teacher in question was Sister Seven Sorrows and she had taken her vows before the Reformation.

The truth is that for all my love of maps, I am not a good draftsman and my maps are rarely accurate. Freehand I can approximate Africa, South America, the United States, and Italy. I need shapes with distinct protrusions : Florida or Texas, the Cape of Good Hope, the Horn, or the Boot. My best creations are the imaginary lands: Benaguay, Surlandia and the Wholly Sacred Empire of Walponia.
I copy maps.
But years ago Geoff drew them all freehand -- any country, region or city -- and now he is dead. On dinner napkins he could draw Europe in the Middle Ages with all the Papal states, or Manhattan with all the neighborhoods done in different colored crayons, even all the asymmetrical streets downtown. Perfectly proportioned outlines of the continents flowed from his fingers. I copy maps. Geoff had them in his head and now is buried.
Geoff went to Brown as a hockey star, became a classics scholar, fell in love with Alex who was my friend from Santa Barbara, and then went to law school.

When I saw the movie Philadelphia, so many years ago, based on Geoff's legal career, his wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the firm, and then his death, I was taken by surprise. It was not because I didn't expect to see Geoff and Alex transformed into movie stars, nor because they were called by the wrong names, but because I did not expect to be so stricken by the memory of Alex. The Geoff character in the movie didn't draw maps. At the time I considered that a grave artistic error; it always seemed to me, solipsistic as I am, the telling detail. But afterwards, when I heard that Geoff's family were suing the filmmakers, it became clear exactly why the maps weren't there: because they were the telling detail, they were the one thing that could have absolutely proven the family's case.
Even the trajectory from city to city is the kind of leap writers always make when they want their work to pass as fiction but can't help imposing the far-more-amazing truth: Providence was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams who'd been thrown out of Plymouth Colony, and he named his city Providence "in gratitude to his supreme deliverer", when it should have been gratitude to the Narragansett Indians who showed him the spring of fresh water at College Hill. Penn named Philadelphia after the city in Jordan (now called Amman) which Ptolemy II Philadelphus had named after himself, upon conquering the strategic seaport around 260 BC. Penn's appellation was meant to invoke the Hellenistic ideals of that great age. It is not known if Ptolemy, as in THE Ptolemy, cartographer and astronomer, was a descendant of the city-namer; but that's not what really matters, what matters is that he described the geo-centric universe, and that it stuck for over thirteen hundred years. He also seriously underestimated the size of the earth -- another wrong story.
In Paraguay – a landlocked country, hard to draw – they spell it Filadelfia.

For years I saved Geoff's dinner-spotted maps.

Imagine my delight upon discovering this beach towel with a map of El Salvador. Theoretically, one could lie on the black volcanic sand and learn geography at the same time. Except that one’s eyes are shut and one’s body is obscuring ¾ of El Salvador’s 20,972 square kilometers. Except that the beach towel is in El Salvador and we are here, where of course it is raining and beach towels are not called for.
And imagine my further delight on hearing just last night - in the marvelous Roundabout production of Waiting for Godot (catch it while you can) - that Estragon was also an aficionado of maps and in fact his small acquaintance with the Bible rested entirely on his fond recollections of colored maps of the Holy Land.
Now I must reprogram my brain to properly pronounce Godot as GOD-oh.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fictional recollections?

In the Museé des Beaux Arts, Auden famously said that the Old Masters were never wrong*, but the meteorological wisdom of the 21st century avers otherwise. Last week I visited the excellent exhibit at the Jewish Museum, and there, next to a brooding landscape of van Ruysdael, I read that “Meteorologists have even concluded that van Ruysdael’s lovely clouds are largely fictional recollections.”
I was disturbed, because the truth of those wafting yet energized clouds is something I have long held dear.
The very next day I encountered, in neat italics next to John Singer Sargent’s iconic Portrait of Madame X, this disclaimer: “New research by fashion historians and couturiers has determined that the structure of Madame X’s dress is physically impossible.”
And not much later I was admiring Rubens’ Creation of the Milky Way and there beside the vast canvas was this note: “Cosmologists tell us that recent analysis of galactic debris has definitively proven that Rubens’ portrayal of the Milky Way ‘s origin via a spray of milk from the nipples of Juno is incorrect. The milk in question emanated from organic Vermont cows.”

Where does all this punctilious fact-checking leave us? Desperately clinging to our allusions. I tremble lest it is discovered that Garden of Eden is not as portrayed in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

*What he actually said is that they were never wrong about suffering.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Beekeepers Ball

So how was the Beekeepers Ball?
The venue was the Water Taxi Beach at South Street Seaport. This is a new beach, which initially strikes one as odd since beaches are generally - like mountains - a longstanding part of the landscape. The sand came from elsewhere. Which gives rise to all sorts of questions.
The Costumes were better than the honey-coated food. The chef's dictum that honey is not at its best cooked remains true. The most egregious offender was a hamburger in a "bun" of a honey-glazed donut. The most delicious was a strawberry, rhubarb & honey Popsicle (hence not cooked) made by the People's Pops.
As for the duct tape and pipe cleaners, you can see below and judge for yourself. The best part of the costume, however, is that which you cannot see. My pockets were filled with pollen, pure local pollen. Now if I were a worker bee the pollen in my rear saddlebags would be quite visible, but I didn't have transparent pockets and it wasn't until I was lying abed (l'esprit de l'escalier, or a variation thereon, strikes again) that I had the brainstorm: staple clear plastic bags - full of pollen - to my pockets.
Now it is highly unlikely that CSB will be going to any more Beekeeper Balls. He is a man of simple sartorial inclinations, and dressing in costume in not one of them.
In this he reminds me of Bon Papa. When my Belgian grandparents lived in Egypt in the 30's and 40's, costume balls were all the rage. And Bonne Maman loved to dress up. Somewhere - properly labeled, archivally kept, in its proper place because that is the way she does things - my mother has an album that consists entirely of Bonne Maman in various costumes. Some are more tasteful than others. And what about Bon Papa? Bonne Maman liked to say he always went as a headwaiter, that is to say, he wore a tuxedo or tails.
CSB went as himself, a beekeeper in white who can't remember where he put his veil.
There was much creativity to be admired and everyone was happy to be photographed. A favorite was the couple below who are not beekeepers but enthusiasts: those are lingerie bags on their heads as bee veils and they are wearing $4.99 disposable painters' suits. I also liked the woman who wrapped herself in a tufted bedspread and became a skep. But the two couples below were the liveliest, and you can see why.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Yet another use for duct tape

Many of you have asked, wistfully, why you have not read much hagiography of late. So here I comply.
There are not one, not two but three Edburga’s in the calendar of saints. They were all Anglo-Saxon princesses, and not on account of their tendency to shop at Filene’s Basement and pronounce Cuba with an R at the end. (Or Edburger.)

My favorite (960 AD) of the three set on her path to sainthood early in life. At the ripe age of three she was given the choice between a book of the Gospels and a pile of jewels. Her clammy little hands grasped the holy book and her fate was sealed. Her parents sent her away to an abbey where she just got holier and holier. Ever humble, she would sneak out at night and clean the other nuns’ sandals, and put them back before anyone awoke.

An earlier Edburga, Abbess of Minster ( 751 AD) was renowned all over Thuringia and Kent for her excellent calligraphy. Her friend Saint Lull once sent her a silver stylus for writing on beeswax, and so I like to think she kept bees when she was not copying out the scriptures.
Are they the patrons of shoes-shines and penmanship (the Palmer method)?

I lied. No one has asked.

Now to work on my costume for the Beekeepers Ball. I just informed CSB that there are no wings or funny antennae headsets to be bought anywhere around, and he was extremely relieved.
But all is not lost: there are always black duct tape and pipe cleaners.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Godspeed and Hopeful

I’ve been thinking about Godspeed and Hopeful, the two Olive Ridley turtles we released into the Pacific early this week. The eco-resort* we stayed at on the Pacific coast of El Salvador at Barra de Santiago is home to a cement pool full of toddler and adolescent Ridley turtles. Their mothers swim ashore 1 to 3 times a season – this is often precipitated by a strong offshore wind - and lay about 100 eggs in the sand, kiss their unhatched offspring goodbye, and go back out to see. Then a couple of local residents take the eggs and rebury them in a somewhat protected area behind the gate of the eco-resort. Once the turtles hatch 50 to 60 days later they are kept in the pool until the next guest comes along. Then he or she carries the fluttering flapping deep- breathing omnivorous young turtles to the beach and deposits them about 2 meters from the water line. (I read that turtle release was included in the cost of our room.)
We named our turtles Godspeed and Hopeful, because given their 1% chance of survival once they are in the ocean, they will need both.

We gave them a pep talk and rubbed their scutes (my new favorite word; I will be seeking every plausible chance to use it) in an effort to increase their chances of survival to 2 %.

If you think there is something ironic in the efforts made to save sea turtles in a country where the income gap is wider than the Grand Canyon and where the poor are plagued by violent gangs while the rich live with their colonial silver saints and retablos behind high walls topped with broken glass, I would have to concur.
There is nothing wrong with saving sea turtles. It is a good thing. But it feels like part of our fractured lives. One week we are celebrating a wedding with dear friends on an old coffee farm in the hills above San Salvador, and then we come home and work with our garden helper, Oscar. He inhabited the other, the far side of the income gap in Salvador; Oscar's options there were so bleak that his family all pitched in and gave him money to pay corrupt coyotes, and even then he walked the Mexican desert to the US. He has already paid back all the money and regularly sends money back to Salvador. Further irony: because so many Salvadorans have come to the US to work and are sending back dollars to their families, there is disgruntlement in the higher echelons that the much-vaunted work ethic is being corroded. Because the gap between what they are paid in Salvador and what their relatives send them is also large.
It is easier to think about Godspeed and Hopeful and their journey to the bottom of the Pacific.

* Apparently market research led the owners to determine that an eco-resort was the way to lure in customers. Not that there is anything wrong with the resort. Au contraire. But I would suggest you take the “eco” adjective advisedly.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Latest Verboten Item to take on an Airplane

Not cuticle clippers, not a fountain pen (ink is, after all, a liquid), not pruning shears, not e-coli in a vial or any of the other wonderful and dangerous things you might want to travel with.
It is sand.
I have a charming uncle who collects sand. Perhaps this is because he was born in Alexandria, Egypt, which is perched above the Sahara. Or perhaps this is because he used to dive in the Red Sea. Or perhaps it is because he designs, builds and occasionally travels in submarines. He has sand from deserts and beaches all over the world. And being an engineer, he is extremely well organized and hence his sand is well organized, and labeled. Naturally. His sister (my esteemed mother) brings him back sand from wherever she goes, assuming there is sand there.
So when we were on the coast of El Salvador this past week, walking along the black (volcanic) sand beach, I wanted to bring back some sand for my uncle’s collection. It just so happens that along with gazillions of coconuts in varying states of decay, the beach is also home to more litter than is lovely. We found a littered Gatorade bottle and rinsed it in the warm ocean and then filled it with black sand.

Hopeful, the Ridley turtle, at the beach, heading out to sea

What could be better?
Almost anything not sharp or liquid, it seems. After going through the X-ray machine at San Salvador airport, a security guard looked at my Gatorade bottle full of black sand from many different angles. Finally, I took pity and said, “Es arena. It’s sand.”
“Aha, said he. “That is not allowed.”
“Sand is not allowed?”
“No,” he said, but looked dubious. So he showed my bottle of sand to another security guard (repeat looking at from all angles) who nodded sagely in a negative fashion.
My guard returned and said, “It is not allowed.”
“I can’t bring back sand?” I said.
“Why not?”
“You can’t bring in any earth. No puede traer la tierra.
We all nodded sadly, repacked my suitcase, then CSB and I continued on to gate 6.
But upon later thought I was perplexed. I have brought sand back from Morocco, Tunisia, Costa Rica and New Jersey, and no one has ever objected. Was this a security decision, a customs decision (in which case it wasn’t his to make), or a spontaneous & illogical decision?
Naturally, I go with the last.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What we Do in San Salvador

• Eat Pupusas. These are not exactly quesadillas or empanadas but relatives of both, and its unclear to me if they are made with dough or tortillas, but they are usually filled with frijoles and queso, two of my major food groups.
• Watch assassin bees (because, so we are told, all honeybees in Central America are Africanized, hence abejas de asesino) collect nectar from the weeping red bottlebrush tree in downtown San Benito Colonia. (Later I learned that the tree I dubbed bottlebrush because the red flowers look so much like bottlebrushes is in fact called the Bottlebrush tree, which seems a remarkable case of nomenclature making sense. The Latin name is Callistemon, probably because there were no bottlebrushes back when Latin was the lingua franca. It is an evergreen of the Myrtaceae family, originally from Australia.
• Visit Centro Monseñor Romero on the grounds of the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, which is not where Bishop Oscar Romero was shot/ assassinated/martyred in 1980 but it is where 6 Jesuit priests were massacred in 1989 and if you are there when it is open you can see their preserved bloodstained shirts, behind glass, but it was not open when we were there because it was a special employees’ holiday so we only saw the scrapbooks with pictures of the bloody bodies, and it was very gruesome indeed, and we wandered in the Rose Garden where the massacre took place and which is now a peaceful Rose Garden with black baggies wrapped around the branches of certain roses that we assumed to be for grafting purposes. I had to go there, hoping it would be open when the guidebook said it would be open, because the cause of Romero’s canonization if being promoted and not surprisingly there is much controversy regarding this, and how you feel about it seems to depend on your stand on liberation theology. And in case you don’t know, my new novel (Absent a Miracle, have I mentioned this before?) hinges on the possible canonization of a certain Nicaraguan’s possible-virgin great-aunt.
• Go to MARTE, the Art Museum, where we saw several paintings by artists we would like to know more about, such as Mena Rosa Valenzuela & Salvador Salazar & Benjamin Cañas. The museum, last Saturday morning, was full of schoolchildren being herded – unsuccessfully – by teachers and guards, and art students drawing each other.
• Attend the wedding, which is after all the reason we are here. It takes place at a coffee finca above the city of San Salvador and it was a blast to see people I haven’t seen in twenty or even thirty years and consider how much they have aged and then come to the sobering realization that I too have aged in tandem, unless of course cosmetic surgery has intervened and in that case one is sometimes unrecognizable.
The service, in a small stone chapel with ferns growing in its interstices, was officiated by the archbishop known as Your Eminence Ambien, on account of his unmediated drone, something his sous-priests work for years to emulate. I however stayed awake for the nuptial (see previous post for pronunciation hints) homily and so I heard said eminence refer to Saint Anthony, whose feast it was on Saturday, but not to Saint Felicula, whose feast it also was and who in 90 AD was consigned to the Vestal Virgins to weaken her resistance to the marriage offer of Count Flaccus (his real name), but her resistance did not weaken and she was martyred by suffocation in a city sewer. * In this aspect of restraint from mentioning the saint’s gruesome death –and only in this aspect, I feel sure – the archbishop and I are alike. For I too refrained from alluding to Saint Theodosia’s gruesome death on the glorious occasion of Tristram and Nika’s marriage.

* Of course the salient point about this is that in first century Rome there was a sewer system, a much appreciated aspect of communal living that did not make it to vast sections of the northlands until last week.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Paranoia 101

Well, I was reading the El Salvador guide book and the main thrust is that the potential tourist shouldn’t worry too much about its reputation for violent crime, kidnapping, death squads and hooliganism, because things are much improved from the days when gangs ruled the streets.
Which is an excellent point to make in a guide book.

And then my computer guy told me that he only touches people or things outside the house with his sleeve. At first I had no clue why he did this – did he break his wrist? - and then it became clear: PANDEMIC!

And you know how the birds are flying too low and slamming into your windshield as you innocently drive down the road? That is because they all have West Nile Fever. And as soon as a mosquito carrying West Nile Fever bites someone with Swine Flu, a dangerous and creepy hybrid will emerge: West Swine Flu of De Nile.

But we are going to El Salvador for a lovely wedding to be celebrated (in Spanish and Italian) in a chapel at the foot of a volcano.
The volcano has been dormant for years now, but that’s no guarantee of anything.

Am I the last person in the Tristate area to learn about the recent eruption of three underground volcanoes that is causing the gloomy ashen sky and the cold Spring?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Observation Hive, redux

The Observation Hive is back.
All winter long, I knew I was missing the bees and missing the myriad and many sided (six) consolations of their industrious buzz at the north end of the living room; but now that it is back again and thousands of bees are again in residence, I realize how very much I missed it.

Perhaps it is foolhardy or even delusional to think that we can keep an O-hive happily all year long. In order to be observed, the glass hive is only one frame deep and so while there is a Queen performing her regal duties, there can never be the population of a normal hive (60,000 this time of year) and so it seems they cannot make sufficient stores to get through the winter.
Which is not to say I will not continue trying to observe bees all year long.

Last year, after a great season of foraging, waggling, dancing, propagating and honey-making, the hive died one cold October weekend.
It was a very Bad Mother/beekeeper moment.
We had to remove the glass and discard all their tiny deceased apian bodies. How much do 5000 dead bees weigh? Less than 5000 living bees. That is my unscientific, unverified observation.

Yesterday morning, CSB took 1 Queen, about 3000 bees, 3 brood frames and 1 honey-filled frame from a nuc box he’s been nurturing for this very purpose, and installed them in the Observation Hive. Then we loaded said hive up into the back seat of the car (not as easy as it sounds) and headed north to Lyndhurst for the Hudson River Fest. For 8 hours we explained Bees 101 to adults and countless small children. (In truth, CSB did most of the explaining; I was fanning myself.)

56 children located the Queen (she’s painted with a blue dot to facilitate this).
4 adults confided that they were either allergic to bees or had been stung and hospitalized
1 man, on his way to meet his motorcycle in Odessa, used to keep bees in Thermopylae, Wyoming

Then we brought the hive home and set it in its proper place.

The first known reference to an observation hive is in the Natural History of Pliny (23-78 AD). He told the story – probably apocryphal – that Aristotle inserted a piece of transparent stone, probably mica, into a bee hive, in order to watch the bees at work. But the bees were so indignant at the invasion of their privacy that they obscured the glass with ‘clay’. (It was most likely propolis – a remarkable sticky substance good for everything from sealing up a hive to curing laryngitis - and the bees will certainly fill in any available space beyond their requisite ‘bee-space’). Not just any creature foils Aristotle.

Have I mentioned how happy I am that Observation Hive is back?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Kevin, the numbers and the birds

The roman church likes numbers and equivalencies, which would explain the precision with which – back in the Dark Ages – seven pilgrimages to Glendalough equaled one pilgrimage to Rome, which equaled one plenary indulgence.
The royal Kevin was seven years old when his parents sent him away to live with the monks. Later, he lived for seven years as a hermit in a Bronze Age tomb inside a cave at Glendolough. It is said that he preferred animals to humans – a not uncommon trait among saints, oddly enough - and his devotion to chastity was so extreme that he once pushed an importuning female into a bed of nettles.
A few years ago when CSB and I visited North Wales, we traipsed around with Tristan Hulse, hagiographer par excellence, and saw many holy wells - often indistinguishable from any other verdant spring but with rags tied to the overhanging branches - and rocky saints' beds. This was not exactly what CSB had signed on for and he exhibited what is often referred to as the patience of a saint. He, alas, is not a saint, but speaking of patience, Tristan did tell us how many hundreds of years ago Kevin stood in a cold stream and prayed with his arms outstretched. A blackbird came and laid her eggs in the palm of his hand, and so he stayed there, still as could be, until the fledglings hatched and safely flew away.
Apparently cold feet are good for longevity, because Kevin of Glendalough lived to be 120, dying in 618 AD.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Post nuptial report

(Have you ever wondered why nuptial is pronounced that way it is, instead of the way it looks? Put another way, have you ever wondered why it isn't spelled nuptual? Even given the eccentric and occasionally absurd pronunciation of the English language, this irks me. But onward.)
I am still in a fog induced by last weekend's wedding of Tristram and Nika. (Additional fogginess provided by recent dilation of eyeballs for retina examination. Results: eyeballs look good.) And I would like expatiate on some of the happy moments of the weekend, the beautiful bride, the pink champagne, the charming South African cousins, the speeches, the beautiful bride, the sun finally shining, the flowers, the lavender in her upswept hair, the trumpets in church, the poetry of Emily Dickinson & the letters of Rilke, the ringing of the church bells, my son's gracious & sublime speech (the course of maternal pride runs strong these days), the beautiful bride, her father's speech, her mother's charm and ebullience and mother-in-law solidarity, the music ("Straight from Astoria,Queens") by Tristram's nursery school classmates, still making great music, the children dancing all night, the sheer happiness of their love.

But it really is too much, so I will instead tell you what Tristram's younger cousins learned at his wedding:
Out on the dance floor, M, a college roommate of Tristram’s, took aside Dylan (13) and Christian (13) and told them that dancing up a storm was the surest way to get laid.
Later when he saw them spooning up honey from the jars of specially bottled Let it Bee Local Honey(in honor of the sweetness of the newlyweds) M asked the boys about “honey shots”. Upon trying the honey he suggested that it would be a great date strategy as well. (Note to self: a new marketing strategy for Let it Bee Local honey? Put a Buzz in your Libido?*)

From the groom’s godfather, P.U., they learned of Tristram’s weekend outing in Greenwich Village at age seven (21 years ago), and his fascination with the Condomania Store (it used to grace Bleeker Street, in more innocent times). Being a dutiful godfather, PU endeavored to explain to his young charge the raison d’etre for such things, in all their myriad colors and flavors. Surely there were several godfathers in attendance wondering if they had fulfilled their duties properly.

Back at their hotel, the young cousins learned that an AMPLE SINGLES event does not mean there are piles of one dollar bills. It is a dating party for large people, very large people. And in some cases, the skinny people who love them.

According to the bride’s father, the key to a happy marriage is deciding early on who will be right and who will be wrong. In all cases I know the wife is right and the husband is wrong; there is rarely an exception to this rule. This struck me as very wise. I suspect that had we followed that simple precept, my ex and I might still be married. Or maybe I am reading way too much into this.
Another surefire path to marital bliss, according to the bride’s father, is to assign unimportant decisions to one spouse (where to live, where the children will go to school, how holidays are celebrated) and important ones to the other spouse (whether to bail out GM, whether to invade Iraq, Syria, Iran, or North Korea). I don’t need to tell you who decides what.

*Thanks to my brother-in-law Hal for this copy.
Photos by Lee Hewitt