Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stranger bedfellows

(Thanks to The Old Leather Man, by Dan W. DeLuca, for the above picture and most of the information.)
What do the Leather Man, unwashed wanderer, and Hughette Clark, millionaire recluse, have in common? Depending on how you look at it, very little or a very significant characteristic.
The Leather Man’s name, birthplace and date of birth are unknown. He died, alone in a cave, in March of 1889, wearing the same oft-patched leather garment he had worn through all his wanderings. He was approximately 50 years old.
Hughette Clark was born in 1906, the daughter of the 67 year old, William Clark and the 28 year old Anna La Chapelle, formerly William Clark’s ward. Huguette spent almost her entire life in the rarefied air of Upper East Side mansions. She died in Manhattan’s Beth Israel hospital at the age of 104, still worth millions.
The Leather Man ate cured meat, windfall apples, dandelion greens, nuts and berries. He chewed tobacco he found discarded at railroad stations and post offices.
Huguette Clark’s favorite lunch was saltines with sardines.
Starting in 1856 – when he first entered the general consciousness – the Leather Man walked alone on country roads and railway beds, and slept in caves and in abandoned cabins. His journeys took him through Connecticut and New York and sometimes to the Berkshires. Then in 1883 he began to walk what would become his famous and reliable circuit: every 34 days he completed 365 miles through Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess and Columbia counties in New York and Fairfield, Litchfield, Hartford and Middlesex counties in Connecticut. Local towns folk and town papers often took note of his passing through, but he rarely spoke or interacted with others.
After her brief unconsummated marriage in 1929, Huguette moved back into the family’s Fifth Avenue mansion and lived there with her mother and a chorus line of servants. Surrounded by her exquisite dollhouses and their perfectly dressed occupants, she occupied herself by painting, playing the harp and watching the “Flintstones”. (What about those animated cave folks did Huguette find so compelling? Was it the bone barrette in Pebbles’s hair? Or was it the prehistoric approximation of a 1950’s suburban foursome, in which the husbands act like cavemen and the wives are delicate flowers with some actual common sense?) In the late 1980’s Huguette, under as assumed name, moved into a NY hospital suite. She brought her French dolls with her into seclusion. She never left the hospital again.

Apparently, the preeminent wish of both Huguette Clark and the Leather Man was to be left alone, to live alone and unknown, and to die that same way.

And since I am trying to keep the hagiography to a minimum, I won’t mention that both Huguette and the Leather Man surely have more in common with the eremites, stylites (pole-sitters), and peregrinating ascetics of early Christianity, than with most of their 19th, 20th and 21st century peers.

St Anthony Abbott,in the Desert, by Zurburan

Friday, May 27, 2011

CSB and the Carpenter Bees

Who ever wrote that “structural damage is generally minor or nonexistent” in the Wikipedia article about carpenter bees has not seen CSB on the roof with a badminton racquet. There is a reason gentlemen over 2 meters tall should not be roofers. Call it the tipping point. (But give them a lightweight racquet and they become weapons of mass destruction.)
Our carpenter bees, Xylocopa virginica, are larger than hummingbirds, hairier than woolly mammoths and just as annoying as the woodchuck in the vegetable garden. They make their nests by tunneling into wood, preferably the wood of our front porch, or the facia of the potting shed, or the underside of the shutters. Their tunneling technique – their large hairy bodies vibrate as they rasp their mandibles against the tender wood – results in telltale piles of sawdust falling to the ground and staining the clapboard. They also leave pollen skid marks under their tunnels. There is nothing subtle about a carpenter bee, or her depredations.
But what to do?
Years ago I was told to spray something toxic into the tunnels (assuming I could reach them) and then stuff in a wooden dowel (about 16 millimeters in diameter) to seal off the tunnel. My carpenter bees regarded this as afternoon tea. Recently it was suggested that we stuff steel wool into their excavations. But then the steel wool rusts and we end up with rust stains on the clapboard. There are also toxic bombs you can explode or drop onto the bees, and anything else in the vicinity, including the dogs, our own blessed honeybees, and us.
The ever-intrepid CSB has another technique. He swats the carpenter bees with a badminton racquet. I have tried this method with zero success, but he swears by it. In order to illustrate the potential deadliness of a swat with a badminton racquet, CSB points out that while the fastest a tennis ball has ever traveled is 156 mph, the fastest recorded shuttlecock speed was Fu Haifang’s 206 mph smash. On the lawn or the front porch this technique (Standing statue-still to ‘fool’ the bees, then lurching and swatting) may look silly but at least no human lives hang in the balance. This is not true on the roof, on the pitched roof, on the small pitched roof of the bay window.

The sport of badminton was invented in the 18th century by British officers stationed in Poona, India. Previous to these researches the only time I had every heard of Poona, or Pune, was as the venue of amazing erotic sculptures and reliefs, featuring the Hindu gods performing every manner of sex act you have ever heard of, and then some. * The game came back to England with the military, and was popular with the upper classes; think green lawns, long skirts, and shuttlecocks (“a feathered projectile with unique aerodynamic properties”). Until now, it has not been touted as a qualification for a career in extermination.

*And then upon further research I learned that I was completely wrong about that. How could I have been so mistaken? (The possibilities are myriad.) The famous erotic statues are in
some 735 miles from Pune. But if you want to associate the birthplace of badminton with artistic sex scenes, I think that would be lovely.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SQD banned in China; Hold the MSG

This just in from our dear friend Paco who is over in Beijing, explaining to Chinese retailers What Women Want and Why We Buy.

"Please take some pride in knowing that your blog (and many others) are deemed sufficiently subversive to the Chinese Communist Party, that it is blocked for Chinese readers. All your twisted finial piety worship and honeyed entries, does not conceal the truth that you are secretly funded by the Catholic Church to propagate the worship of Saints."

Of course I am honored to be in what I assume is very august company.But I can't help but wonder what I would have to do to be placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church's most exclusive club, populated by such notables as Galileo, Casanova, La Fontaine, Sartre and Maeterlinck.About whom we might ask: was it his very explicit The Life of the Bee that was the deciding factor in his listing?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Yes, indeed. The featured item is in fact a vintage Bakelite rolltop cigarette case made by the Rolinx company. You can also view this wonderful gizmo in the Science Museum in London and explain to your children how this innocent appearing contrivance is actually a cancer-stick & coffin-nail delivery device. I applaud the clever individuals who recognized it right away.
This item was designed and created by the very appealing Maurice Robin (1912-1982), "regarded as one of the post war pioneers of the injection moulding industry". One of his early successes was a "lighter faster pop riveter" used for assembling munitions during WW2. But it was his frustration with the wooden covers of pencil cases that led him to his trademark rolling plastic lid.

When I discovered it - in a cabinet in the parental basement, along with a silk Japanese flag ca.1945 - I was totally at a loss. Pencils? Chopsticks? Asparagus? But my younger sister, who has never smoked a cigarette in her life, knew it immediately. It seems that all these years when we thought she was usefully employed saving the aquifers and northern forests, she was in fact participating in James Bond marathons with her family.

The next challenge? Since my smoking days are now but a dim memory, an olfactory madeleine, I am seeking a new use for this item. Feel free to offer suggestions.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mystery item #17

What is it?
(And B - you are not allowed to answer, as you have classified information.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

At dinner the other night my sister read aloud this piece about a remarkable intersection of entrepreneurial creativity and gullibility (or piety?). Recognizing that there are thousands of people in this country who genuinely believe that they will be Raptured up to heaven this Saturday, May 21, who also have pets who will not be getting raptures, an inventive atheist saw an opportunity. He set up a service to adopt the pets-left-behind of the newly raptured. For payment in advance.

We all laughed excessively, and not a little because we knew that we would never do something so silly as agree to be raptured without our pets. Seriously, how gullible can you be?
I think I have an idea.
Didn’t I just travel Baltimore to look at relics & reliquaries, and don’t Catholics all over Europe risk life, limb and honor to go see Mary Magdalene’s tooth, and wash their scrofulous faces in St Winifred’s Holy Well, and pray to St Pantaleon’s foot to heal their bunions? Throughout the Middle Ages, and beyond, devout Christians, often extremely poor and desperate Christians who arguably had better things to do with their time, chose to risk their lives, their health, and their sanity in order to arrive at to some cathedral advertising the healing powers of their resident relics. And they paid real money to see or touch those relics.
They prayed to saints that never existed.
Today’s Lives of the Saints features St Venantius, whose cult is characterized as “fictitious history”. Which does not mean that the text refrains from describing his gruesome martyrdom (scourges, torches, asphyxiation, smashed teeth, thrown to lions, thrown from a cliff and decapitated.) Following the fictitious Venantius, we find St. Theodotus. His story,”with its reminiscences of a tale found in Herodotus, must be treated as a romance written by an author possessing rather more literary skill that we commonly find in such cases.” Which strikes me as a rather elegant way to say it is not true. This apocryphal tale tells us that Theodotus the innkeeper promised Fronto, the priest that if he, Fronto, built the church, he, Theodotus, would provide the relics. Later, after being appallingly tortured by the pagan powers, Theodotus was burned on a pyre. Fronto then plied the guards with liquor so that he could retrieve the body. He lay it across the back of his ass, set it free knowing it would go straight home. Fronto then built the church enshrining the innkeeper’s bones.

Of course, compared to the Rapture, all of the above is entirely plausible.

Hall of Fame for Dames

The Head of Athletics at Beaver Country Day (formerly all-girls) School opened their first ever Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony by quoting Cicero: The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.
It was a nice classical touch and I wracked my brain to come up with the Latin for that familiar phrase. (Not successful. No more was I successful in learning when and where Cicero said those words, or even if he really did.) But then it dawned over Marble Head: Here is the classical source of No Gain, No Pain.
(While I cannot verify that Cicero said that pithy quote, I can tell you that his name comes from the Latin for chickpea, Cicer. According to Plutarch, this is because one of his ancestors had a ‘cleft in the tip of his nose resembling a chickpea’. I am having difficulty imagining such a cleft. More likely a skin tag or a wart, is what I think. I can also tell you that Cicero’s sister-in-law, Fabia, was a Vestal Virgin, which was a very honorable thing to be in ancient Rome. I mention this otherwise completely irrelevant fact because Lee and I were sisters-in-law for almost 25 years. I remain unsure what happens to one’s in-law-ships upon divorce. I seek advice in this matter.)

When I first met LeeLee I was dating her older brother, a poet and a pot-smoking Nietzsche-spouting hipster. I was a scrawny, wannabe-poet and LeeLee was an archetypal jock. (Except that she was not archetypal, as we shall see.)
At Beaver Country Day* she played varsity field hockey, basketball and lacrosse and tennis. She was the captain of all her teams; she excelled at sports that involved hurling a ball into a goal or across a net, all while eluding one’s opponent. She was an adept at wielding weapons such as field hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks and tennis rackets. Had ice-hockey been played in girls’ schools back then, I feel confident she could have inflicted much pain with an ice hockey stick, or a puck, or both. She regularly broke records for goals, baskets, opponents pummeled, throws, whatever they were called.
When Lee entered a room, resplendently strong and sweaty in her brown pinny, I cowered. After all, my greatest, and only, claim to record-breaking in the gym department at my girls’ school was in the number and ingenuity of my excuses to avoid gym. Should they ever institute a Hall of Fame for Sports Evasion, I like to think I would be a contender.

Given my wimpiness and Lee’s manifestly superior athleticism, how did we end being such friends? You may well ask. The truth is that LeeLee read far more poetry than I ever played field hockey, and has even written some. I did in fact sail and ski (neither of which involve hurling balls) and I discovered a willingness to play Member-Guest tennis as Lee’s partner, just as she was willing to compete for the Consolation Prize rather than walk away with the Silver Cup.
We discovered we both thought was an excellent idea to end – or begin - a day with our kids at the beach a trip to DQ. It turns out you need a very special person to appreciate Dairy Queen as much as we did.
Basically though, we seem to find the same things funny. This has on occasion proved embarrassing, and possibly dangerous. We like to walk on the beach and solve the world’s problems, a pastime now sadly relegated to Personal Ads. We have spent more hours than is healthy counting the possible attendees at our respective funerals, and lamented their small number. The truth is, some things cannot be explained.

If my dearly-doted–on granddaughter ever sees fit to play field hockey, I hope that LeeLee will see fit to cheer her on. I will await them in the nearby coffee shop, reading about relics and fruitlessly seeking the patron saint of girls’ athletics.

*Fittingly enough, BCD was the sports rival of Milton Academy Girls Upper School (MAGUS), in my time. Not that I ever graced any team, in my time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Visiting Mary Magdalene's Tooth

Had I lived during the 15th century, and had I wanted to make a pilgrimage to see Mary Magdalene’s tooth encased in rock crystal and suspended in a golden reliquary resembling a two towers atop a chalice- maybe because I was a formerly-fallen woman, or maybe because I had a terrible toothache, or maybe just because I wanted to go on a journey - I would have had to walk from wherever I lived (Let’s say it was Alsace) to wherever the precious tooth currently resided (let’s say the cathedral at Arles). This would have taken quite a while, and would have surely involved muddy roads, filthy accommodations, hunger, bandits, marauders and most likely some unpleasant weather.
Had I lived in the 15th century, it is very possible I would already be dead from childbirth, plague, pleurisy, fits, or vile humors, because I am a just a few years past the average lifespan of a 15th century woman.
Had I lived in the early 15th century, I might have known that very brave and ultimately betrayed heroine from Domremy, Joan the savior of France. But that is unlikely, because she was courageous and brave, and I would surely be something of a chicken, at least so far as anything so strenuous as going into battle against English soldiers. (Our relation to each other would be not unlike the dichotomy I will experience tomorrow when I attend the Athletics Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Beaver Country Day where my sister-in-law, the amazing athlete, will be inducted. While she was wisely spending her high school years vigorous pursuing, hitting, and hurling balls on fields of competition, I was smoking and reading poetry in the graveyard. And there is no Hall of Fame for that.)
But I do not live in the 15th century and so, in order to visit the tooth of Mary Magdalene, all I had to do was take Amtrak to Baltimore, sit comfortably in the train as we whizzed past Trenton’s claim to fame, sleep through Wilmington, disembark at Baltimore’s Penn Station, walk down Charles Street past the equestrian Statue of John Eager Howard, no less than 3 Afghan restaurants, and a very tall monument to George Washington which claims to have a statue of George Washington on its top – but it was too far up for me to verify - , and then past Mt. Vernon Methodist where this week’s sermon will be “Jesus was a Bad Preacher” and enter the Walters Art Museum and see their exhibit, Treasure of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe. And not a moment too soon, since it closes this Sunday.
Having made my perilous pilgrimage, I encountered not only the tooth of Mary Magdalene, but also one of John the Baptist’s molars. According to the sidebar, in 1931 a dentist confirmed that the tooth did in fact belong to a 30-year old man who ate a coarse diet. He could not, however, say how old the tooth itself was. I also visited an arm, I don’t know which one, of St. George, enough fragments of the True Cross to build a table, bones of Sts. Cosmas and Damien, St. Baudine's blood,a Holy Thorn and the skull of the lovely St. Blandina. To garner the benefits of touching so many fabulous relics back in the 15th century, I would have had to spend my short and miserable lifetime trudging on rutted roads and fighting off unfunny traveling jesters.
It may be churlish of me to complain that St. Peter’s Rib and St. Blaise’s foot did not come over from London, but then, I am churlish in this matter.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother, Other

My mother in 1987. Note the smile.

My mother in 193?. Having been told she has a crooked smile, she is serious.

My mother and me in 1953. Note that she insisted upon wearing her glasses for this portrait. That shows character.Or stubbornness. She has worn contact lenses ever since.

Because it is Mothers Day, a holiday beloved of florists and purveyors of cards bearing prepackaged sentiments, and not because I am trying to extricate myself from my mother’s capacious and architecturally-correct doghouse, and I would like enumerate a few of the many things that I love about my mother.

Her vocabulary: She uses words like fenestration and curvilinear in regular conversation. On her answering machine, she asks the caller to “kindly leave a message”.

Her cuisine. When we were children in Hingham, back when Chef Boyardee spaghetti was foreign cuisine, and pigs-in-a-blanket and celery sticks were the acme of hors d’oeuvres, my Belgian, raised-in-Egypt mother fed us yogurt and falafel, sautéed kidneys, Italian cold cuts, French cheese, pasta with pesto, Syrian apricot leather, steak tartar and each morning, one raw egg yolk each. Much of that was not available in Hingham; she had to venture into dubious neighborhoods of the ‘city’ to find such delicacies. Our friends and cousins, served a bowl of fresh yogurt or raw meat with raw eggs, generally declined to eat again chez nous; until they grew up, developed palates, and then came in droves to dine à la Monique.

Her organization: She labels everything – you never have to be in doubt whether a painting was acquired in a gallery in Brussels in 1955 or inherited from a great aunt or presented by an admirer in 1977, because there will be a sticker on the back telling you the facts of the case. In her impeccable broom closet she has a box labeled: Monique’s Tiny Tools.

Her thrift: Aside from vintage lingerie, she has saved children’s clothes knit by Syrian nuns. (Are there many nuns in Syria? I always thought so.) Downstairs you can find almost every Shakespeare play complete with my father’s prep school annotations, as well as his assignment book from Brush Hill School, circa 1932. Although to be fair – and this has been pointed out to me very strongly – my mother is not personally responsible for the fact that in the barn and the basement you can find every ice skate ever worn by my father and his brother; Harvard Lampoons from the late 30’s (a treasure); Browne and Nichols beanies, and about 500 lbs of opera on 78’s – all those things came with the house she and my father inherited it from his father.
And she has never, to my knowledge, thrown away a book. In her house you can find books & books on such varied subjects (and these are a mere amuse bouche) as: theories of color, cotton waste, oriental carpets, arctic exploration, vernacular architecture, anything Egyptian, French cooking, learning German, Portuguese, Czech, Arabic, Swedish and Urdu. She has kept all our MAD magazines from the 60’s and 70’s and keeps them in the 3rd floor bathroom. If you ever lose a child – or an adult – for long periods of time in her house, that is where you will often find him. (It is not a coincidence that in my 2nd floor bathroom we have our much smaller collection of 80’s MAD magazines, as well as collections of Doonesbury, Gary Larson, Ogden Nash and P.G. Wodehouse. It is hommage.)

Her loyalty: When she arrived at Smith College in 1948, fresh from Cairo and a Swiss boarding school (where the English girls and their field hockey sticks gave her a lifelong aversion to playing team sports; an aversion I either inherited or came by honestly), she lived on campus with seven other girls, all Americans. They and their families took to this “fetching”* colonial, and eased her passage into American life. They were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. You can see them all in my parents’ wedding pictures, wearing hats that would not have looked amiss at the recent royal wedding of millinery notoriety. The Smith girls remained the best of friends through all the rigors of marriage and motherhood: puling infants, adolescent children, children making unfortunate marriages, and finally, grandchildren.

Her diligence: Because she was married to an America and lived in the US and spawned American children, my mother had the novel idea to become a naturalized citizen. She did not take this task lightly. Told that there would be questions about American history, my mother studied American history as if for a Ph.D. Her knowledge of the causes of the Revolution, the rational for Manifest Destiny, the exigencies of westward expansion, and the tribulations of Native Americans was vaster than the Immigration and Naturalization officer had ever heard before or since. She knows all the American presidents, in order, backwards and forwards AND she can describe for you the architecture of their houses, their furniture, and can tell you if the wallpaper in the restored Museum-House you will pay $10 to visit is architecturally correct.

Her fashion: This gets challenging. What can you say about a mother who wore bikinis at the Yacht Club in Massachusetts in the 1950’s? French bikinis, not American two-pieces. You can say she had the figure for it. Or you could mention that the Ladies Committee at the Yacht Club asked her to stop wearing bikinis, because there were children present. Also men.
Her sense of color in fashion is as good as her sense of color on houses. I am not the only one who recalls that at my high school graduation (as a trustee she was on the stage) she wore a deep purple dress from Paris, a wide red belt, red sling back heels, and a purple fascinator. In fact, at the one and only high school reunion I ever attended, my erstwhile classmates continued to note her elegance and style. Her style is not limited to the Gallic. Perhaps because of her time in the Middle East or simply because she is fashion-forward, she has always loved and collected ethnic jewelry and clothing. She is just as likely to come to your party in an Uzbek gown, a Guajarati sari, a Nepali shalwar kameez, an Egyptian gallibaya, or a Vietnamese ao dai as a Givenchy dress. She looks great in them all.

Do I dare add that our mother is and has ever been a source of endless quirky-Monique-stories for her numerous children, in-laws, grandchildren, godchildren and random hangers-on? Probably not. Happy Mothers Day.

* So wrote Edward Said, in Out of Place: A Memoir

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Very minimal progress

So while visiting the parents this week at their ancestral home I continued with my project of encouraging my mother to purge extremely unnecessary, useless, broken and unwanted items from her attic and basement. She continues to resist vociferously, e.g. You and your sister bully me around; and, You can do this when I am gone; and, Aren’t you glad I actually did save those old garter belts?

We went up to the attic where, in classic maternal style, everything is impeccably labeled, as in a zippered bag bearing this rubric: “Ecru and taupe hose, pre-era of Pantyhose” .

The very first drawer I pulled open was a bonanza of completely dispensable items. I identified a bag full of moldy and soap stained curtain rings, about two dozen assorted plastic curlers in tempting shades of Pepto-Bismal pink, prickly with that Velcro-like adhesive that was favored for curlers in the 1960’s, and a plastic bag full of old hairbrushes and combs, all well used, with missing bristles and teeth.
I said, “Mom, see how easy this is. Throwing these things out is a complete no-brainer.”
She said, “What just a minute. I’m not throwing out those hairbrushes. Some of them were very nice hairbrushes.”
I said, “But they have overstayed their welcome. They are decrepit. And they have been in this drawer for decades and you haven’t once missed them.”
Mom said, “There you go bullying me again. I kept those hairbrushes for a reason.”
I said, “Well at least you can’t argue about the curlers. You don’t use curlers any more and neither does anyone you are remotely related to.”
Mom said, “Maybe I could give them to my hairdresser for her salon.”
I said, “What an excellent idea. They’ve probably been looking for old, used, unsanitary hair curlers for ages.”
Mom said, “You and your sister think you are so funny.”
I said, “We are funny.”