Friday, December 21, 2012

The local standard for holiday parties was raised by several notches last night when our hostess, la belle Nonnie, greeted us in a *new* Louise Brooks bob, brandishing twin bottles of Moët Chandon. I admired the new do, and was proudly told that no animals or human hair were slaughtered to produce this wig – it was created entirely from recycled soda bottles.

The cabaret singer hailed from Boise, Idaho and as proof of this exotic provenance, she pointed to her wrist corsage. It had been FedExed that very morning by her mother, still busy conducting the Methodist choir back in Boise. We nodded sagely as if a wrist corsage was proof positive that one’s origins were Northern and/or Midwestern and far from New York. She sang beautifully, and danced irrepressibly. Irrepressible dancing could be found in several nooks and niches.
Did I drink champagne and nibble on Gavin’s delicious smoked salmon? Did I converse with old friends by flickering candlelight and drink more champagne? I did, and it was an excellent counterpoint to a long day that included 57 emails between yours truly and my siblings regarding my father’s hospitalization for: congestive heart failure, pneumonia, water on the lungs (is this the same thing as pneumonia?), anemia, even though he used to have the opposite of anemia (polycythemia vera), and refusal to drink water that does not include scotch. Why, you may ask, does the Aged P’s hospitalization require so many emails on the part of his offspring? Because it takes a minimum of that many emails to organize (browbeat in some cases) siblings to get to the ancestral home and look after Revered Mother, who in her Belgian stubbornness* has thus far refused to get sufficient help in the home…hence the crisis.
The Aged P is improving, but will not,alas, be available for caroling on Christmas Eve.

Not to belabor the point, but this family seems to be developing an unfortunate tendency to medical crises over the holidays, just when they are most inconvenient. It makes one pause. And pause again.

*According to Revered Mother’s younger brother, stubbornness is a specifically Belgian trait for which she cannot be held entirely responsible.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What to do when you cannot operate Heavy Machinery

It is only because I was unable to spend the afternoon operating heavy machinery that I allowed myself the time to contemplate the tempestuous and sartorial life of Christina of Markyate.

When being informed about the ‘procedure’ scheduled for this morning, I had neglected to properly note the prohibition against operating heavy machinery. (Now what do I do about the wood chipper? The chain saw? The electric waffle-maker? How heavy is heavy?)
The nurse claimed that the anti-heavy machinery injunction was clearly started somewhere in the 144 pages of informational paperwork and liability waivers. Or maybe it was imbedded in the 25 minute video that the doctor’s office sent to my email and then ….then, they actually knew if I had actually watched it and they even knew if I had started it and then decided I’d had enough of animated pictures of curly colons being probed by paparazzi electric eels, in which case I received ‘gentle reminder’ emails to watch the whole damn video, and if I didn’t watch the whole thing they threatened to perform the colonoscopy without anesthesia, so I could feel and hear everything I missed.
Somewhere in there I was not focusing on the heavy machinery taboo.
And since I can’t be applying myself to heavy machinery, as would be my wont, I have spent some time with Christina of Markyate (1097 – 1160) who, even if she never had the fun of operating a wood splitter, was seriously ahead of her time in the matter of defying parental matchmaking, defying the bishop, and needlework. The mitres she embroidered with silken threads for Pope Adrian IV were the twelfth century’s high point in millinery. She also proved to be a formidable adversary to the toads (sent by the devil) who invaded her anchorite cell. But far more challenging than the toads were the visions of Roger, her favorite priest, naked. These visions were of course likewise sent by the devil to tempt her, and Christina resisted that temptation. Valiantly.
A wood chipper would have been a walk in the park for Saint Christina of Markyate.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Frederick, Voltaire and Potatoes

Perhaps you have been wondering how you will celebrate the 300th birthday of Frederick the Great of Prussia (Friedrich der Grosse), also known as the “potato king.” Perhaps you planned to order extra home fries with your Western omelet, and leave it at that. But you would be denying yourself serious fun.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) had to face serious opposition when he set out to introduce the potato crop to Germany.
We know that the Spanish conquistadores discovered the delights of potatoes in Peru and Bolivia, and brought the tubers back to Europe in the 16th century. Potatoes spread throughout Spain and Italy (gnocchi), and up the Low Countries (frites) and Britain (chips). The Swiss botanist Caspar Bauhin correctly identified the potato as a member of the nightshade family, making it a relative of eggplants, deadly nightshade, wolfberry, tobacco and petunias. Meanwhile, others somewhat fancifully assigned to the potato aphrodisiac powers and nicknamed it “Eve’s apple” and “earth’s testicles”.
Though potatoes were being randomly grown in Germany by the end of the 18th century, they were hardly widespread and were generally viewed with superstition. FtG wanted to change all that. Around 1774 he set out to encourage potato cultivation, as away of diversifying the grain harvest with a root crop. But lumpy testicular blobs were not immediately appealing to the peasants, so Frederick had his own potato fields planted, and then set his soldiers to guard the field: to ostentatiously guard the fields, thus provoking curiosity. They were also instructed to not actually stop anyone from stealing the potatoes from the fields. Any parent recognizes this agricultural version of what we like to call reverse psychology.
And it worked. (Dumplings, German potato salad)
By 1776 the potato crop was an important food source. So much so that the War of Bavarian Succession is more commonly known as the Potato War (Kartoffelkrieg) because instead of engaging in any battles (none) the soldiers on all sides busied themselves despoiling the local peasants of their food, digging up the potatoes, and glaring at one another.
Meanwhile, FtG and Voltaire were close friends, and occasional frenemies. They both enjoyed debating arcane philosophical points, and topping off the evening with kartoffle pie and schnapps. Frederick especially enjoyed the rare occasions when he might outwit the brilliant (and showoffy) Voltaire. One day FtG asked Voltaire if he could estimate how many pounds of potatoes were hanging from trees in Prussia. Just to rub it in, he said that even his horse knew the answer to this one. Since I heard this story translated, I cannot vouch for my accuracy. But the punch line is that Voltaire did not realize that potatoes grow underground, not from trees. Voltaire was miffed and left the palace in a huff. The two enlightened friends were later reconciled and enjoyed many more evenings of potatoes and philosophy.
How does Christine know all this fascinating stuff about FtG and the potato, and why do we care? Recently the adventurous and likewise-porcelain-loving Bine and I visited the Königliche Porzellan-ManufakurKPM plant. Right in the middle of Berlin is this beautifully restored porcelain factory. We had a delightful time and I managed to emerge without breaking a single thing.
Frederick loved porcelain almost as much as he loved potatoes, and so KPM is honoring Frederick’s 300th with the creation of a porcelain potato. Yes, for 90€ you can buy, own and acquire a porcelain potato. I can’t presume to think what FtG would have thought about this, but I imagine that Voltaire would have been delighted.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Egg Hats of Berlin

The Egg Hats of Berlin

I realize that most people visit Berlin for the currywurst, or the head of Nefertiti, or Checkpoint Charlie that is no more, or figuring out from which window of the
Hotel Adlon Michael Jackson dangled his young son, or Frederick the Great’s summer cottage at Potsdam, and those are all fine things to travel for. But the Egg Hats of Pension Kettler are also an excellent reason to visit the once-divided city. Let me explain.
Thanks to the diligent research of Anna, extremely stylish art-historian and young mother, Bine and I stayed last week at the Pension Kettler on Bleibstrau Strasse. The price was right and the rooms were straight out of the 1920’s, including the plumbing. Each room is named for an artist, and I thought this was because the named artist had actually once stayed in the room. This misapprehension was the result of my pint-sized German. But so what if Maria Callas never stayed in my room: outside my door there was a handmade diorama featuring the highlights of her career. Across the hall, the Peggy Guggenheim (who likewise never actually stayed there) diorama featured a pair of exotic sunglasses.
Frau Isolde Josipovici, the proprietress of the Pension, is known in certain Berlin circles as the “Fountain Fairy” (die Brunnenfee) on account of her work restoring Berlin’s derelict fountains. She also takes great pride in preparing breakfast and delivering it to your chamber. The only problem is that the esteemed Frau has a bad hip, a very bad hip, and if I understood correctly is awaiting her hip surgery, but meanwhile she limps rather extravagantly, which makes it impossible to carry a tray laden with teapots, coffeepots, cups, saucers, eggcups, honey, cheese, ham and bread. And eggs hats. But this problem was solved when one of us went to the kitchen, midway down the famous 40 meter hallway, and carried the tray back to the Maria Callas zimmer. Followed by the careening Frau Isolde. Once we had deposited the tray, our hands were summarily swatted away - “This, I will do!” – by Frau Isolde who has a very special way of arranging the table. And each morning our boiled eggs (neither soft nor exactly hard) wore a different pair of hats. Though at first I did not realize that there would be new hats each morning, but soon this became clear, and even when I felt that could not stomach another egg, I also could not forego the chance to see which hat would come next.
No, we never exhausted the collection.

If you want to know more about Frau Isolde and Pension Kettler, you can read here from the English version of the website:
She rented an old-Berlin apartment after the career as photo-model and mannequin beginning of the 70er years. In originator-time - and Art-Deco-Stil, she " did her/its/their pension " from it.
Pictures, gifts of friends, hang at the walls of the 40 meters long hall. The widow of a Jewish art-historian and -händlers puts down beauty and individuality against cold uniformity. Her/its/their living room resembles a parlor of the 20er years. No coincidence - meets here regular Berlin artists however. Not art-connoisseur par excellence but as lover of distinctive pieces sees her itself.
Why the commitment for it, that the wells flow? " The beautiful has no unmitelbaren benefit for many people. Exactly therefore, I want to fight for it that gets it remains ". Watches, like in this city " the culture the brook down goes ", that can can her. So, she commits herself also to the conservation of the Berlischen gallery.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Newly discovered factoid

James Bond and I have something in common: our mothers share the same name. Of course his mother tragically died in a 'climbing accident' when James was a boy, and mine is alive and well and still delivering the last word in fenestration, protocol and oriental carpet maintenance.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The storm, past tense

For the first time ever we managed to use every heavy-duty extension cord we have, and we have a lot. More than is normal. Specifically we have 4 orange cords, 1 green cord, 1 purple cord and 3 yellow cords. If strung end to end we might have reached Yonkers, but no, we did not string them end to end because that would have been unsafe, and safety is good. We plugged them into the little generator and that way we could keep the heat lamp on for the new baby chicks.

Thanks to the high winds of Hurricane Sandy, aka Frankenstorm, we lost power Monday night, and thanks to the ministrations of ConEd crews, we regained it early Friday morning. Not so bad when you think about it, in the grand scheme of things, given that for the bulk of history, people lived their whole lives without electricity and most of them never complained. (As I did). They also lived without Gatorade, Girl Scout cookies and Donald Trump.
What we lost: the top half of a very large and old white pine, and on its way down, this white pine crushed the magnolia and the weeping hemlock. Gone. Creating a gap in the arboreal landscape, a space where there used to be foliage. Which I am discovering is very different from a similar space that never was filled with foliage in shades of green. CSB says he will not miss the weeping hemlock, but he is quite sad about the magnolia. I will miss them both.

What I missed: hot water.
What I enjoyed:
Going to bed by candlelight and then reading about Cuba with my headlamp.
Also, dining out on Sandy. The Powered fed the Powerless. Friends who did not lose power* invited us to dinner — and so thanks to the storm our social life improved by a factor of 1000%. The food was universally excellent, and the conversations ranged from South African flora to oysters in New York Harbor to geriatric medicine to Aged P’s to LBJ and the question of politicians and their excessive testosterone.
What I discovered when the lights came back on: that our floors - unvacuumed, unswept and largely unseen for a week - were covered with a fine layer of dog hair.
What else I discovered: the disturbing reality of my slavish devotion to incandescent lights and playing Solitaire on the computer.

* Not unlike the rest of the world, power and power outages in Hastings and New York are unevenly distributed.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ready for Frankenstorm

Here is SQD’s convenient guide for Frankenstorm* preparation:
• First thing, create a FEMA Halloween costume that includes, but is not limited to: Foul weather gear (Blue, as a color less likely to incite panic: more likely to spread calm mastery of the situation); rubber boots with bees on them; LED headlamp; snorkel; pink onion-peeling goggles which are also very good protection against flying limbs; Strike Anywhere matches in a sealed baggie.

• Then bring inside the OBAMA lawn signs, so they don’t get trashed by the wind and the rain. We are very protective of the OBAMA lawn signs just now as the first one we put out was stolen, and then after we put out another one, some $%&^# had the temerity to place a Romniac sign right in front of it.
• Batten down the chicken coop, nail shut their windows, fill all their food and water dispensers to the brim.
• Run a heavy-duty electrical cord from the baby chicks heat lamps to the generator, at the ready.
• Secure all the beehives, with rocks or concrete blocks or ratchet straps. Stack all the empty supers on the back porch, tie them up and wrap the whole package in plastic.

• Do every possible bit of laundry, and wash all the dishes. Run every possible appliance. Why? Because we can. And who knows what the next days will bring. Make bread in the breadmaker. [Soon I will make waffles in the electric waffle maker and squeeze something with the electric juicer that has not been plugged in for a decade. Then I will find some use for the electric curling iron.]
• Cut all the dahlias in bloom, before they are smashed to smithereens. Ditto the red peppers.
• Go next door and chain-saw the tree that fell directly across the driveway.
• Go down to the waterfront and note that already the Hudson River has flooded the park and is lapping at the base of the restaurant. And we are still hours away from the peak.
• Curl up with a good book. Light a fire with your Strike Anywhere matches. Keep your headlamp handy.

*I did not come up with this name. Thank the media.

Friday, October 19, 2012

How long has it been since I have written about a saint, any saint, in SQD? A very long time, and while there are some of my readers who have perhaps not bemoaned this hiatus, and while perhaps not a single one of you has woken in the middle of the night with a craving for a hagiographic tidbit, I am going to plunge back into the haloed fray.
This has nothing to do with the fact that on Sunday (21st) the Pope will canonize 6, or 7, depending on your source, new saints, thus rendering my compendious Lives of the Saints even more out-of-date than it already is.
It has more to do with the fact that today is the feast of René Goupil, a deaf French Jesuit who came to North America in 1639 to missionize among the Hurons, a group not known for their fondness for missionaries. However, it was the Iroquois, fierce enemies of the Hurons, who killed Goupil. The method was a tomahawk to the head, and on account of that dispatchment, he is the patron saint of anesthesiologists as well as patients who receive anesthesia.
This remarkable – is it literal or magical? – linkage-giving-rise-to-patronage made me want to suggest a patronage group for another of today’s saints: Peter of Alcantara. He was a 16th century Spanish friar and until today’s exciting discovery, I only knew him as a friend and mentor of Teresa of Avila. Early in his monkish career, Peter was put in charge of the refectory at his monastery. After six months of his regime, the other monks finally complained that they had not been given one piece of fruit in all that time. Peter replied that he hadn’t seen any fruit. A fellow monk directed his eyes just slightly upward, and there were grapes and apples and figs hanging in profusion.
Peter’s taste buds had not felt the lack. Monks, as we all know, have a great sense of humor, and once for fun they gave Peter a bowl of water with vinegar and salt and told him it was soup. He never knew the difference.
Based on this story, I am recommending to the Vatican that Peter be made the patron saint of school cafeteria workers who, no doubt, need all the help they can get.
St Frideswide, an 8th century virgin, is the patron saint of Oxford, England, but that is never here nor there. Her story gets interesting about 500 years after her death, when England was in the throes of reformist zeal. For those hundreds of years, Frideswide’s relics had been resting undisturbed in Oxford. Then in 1561 came Calfhill, of whom even the laconic Alban Butler writes: “[he]went to such trouble to desecrate them [Frideswide’s bones] that it would seem he must have been insane with fanaticism.” For the purposes of his nefarious desecration, Calfhill dug up the bones of an apostate nun (She had married a friar) and mixed them up with the bones of the virginal Frideswide, and then reburied the mélange back in the church.
This performance piece was written up in Latin and German, and given the rubric: “Here lies Religion with Superstition.” History does not tell us what Calfhill did with the rest of his life, nor the manner of his death.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Memo for the next debate

The following are subjects that were not addressed in the presidential debate that I would have liked to hear addressed and that, if addressed and discussed - even in the most bellicose manner - would have enabled many more undecided voters to choose their candidate, and additionally would have elevated the risibility factor of the debates several notches:
What does the US government intend to do about the pesticides that are likely responsible for hundreds of millions of honeybee deaths, the neonicotinoids?
What do the candidates suggest we do when our chickens stop laying eggs and just sit around all day eating their fancy organic food and roosting?
What is the candidate’s position on canonization?
Has anyone noticed how the US is plagued with a short and long term memory loss so extreme that an individual thus afflicted would be diagnosed with advanced senile dementia?

If any of my readers has would like to pass these questions on to the moderator of the next debate, please do so with my blessing.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Two good reasons to go to California

1. This cathedral, at the De Young Art Museum, is made entirely from guns and bullets, and comes complete with a tooth and a spinal bone. (These are my pictures - better ones can be found here:

2. Going to the supermarket in Santa Cruz, you are greeted with this sign:

And inside you can buy this honey:

3. Actually it should be three things. This tree at Golden Gate Park. Several other trees at GGP. California is blessed with trees.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Some people can look with pride upon their family trees, pointing out the mad scientists, cattle rustlers, burlesque dancers and Ping-Pong champions inhabiting the familial branches like the homicidal squirrels in our black walnut tree. A friend of mine can even claim a genuine saint (St. André Bessette) as a forebear. (It goes without saying that I am rendered a lurid shade of lime green with envy when she flaunts this relation.)

For years we have sought such illustrious ancestors, and come up – how shall we say this? – short. Until recently, when a certain cousin of mine(maternal side), the only member of our generation to carry the illustrious name of our Belgian grandfather in the New World, discovered an ancestor we can wholeheartedly claim.

Auguste Brancart was born in St Quentin, Belgium in 1851. From 1880 to 1885 he was a bookseller and publisher in Brussels. He then moved with his wife and young son to Amsterdam, where he fathered four daughters, and gained his worldwide reputation as a man on the cutting edge. He published the first known edition of My Secret Life, originally anonymous, now attributed to Henry Spencer Ashbee*; Rachilde’s The Mysteries of Venus, Fanny Hill and countless other books with titles in the vein of The Adventures of the Cross-Dressing Abbot, The Callipygian, or The Delights of the Penis; Lessons of a Voluptuary, or General Confession, and The Phallic Hotel: Vaudeville in Two Acts.

Yes, our ancestor was “one of the most important, and prolific, publishers of erotic books at his time.”

Or put more succinctly, a pornographer. A distinguished pornographer, to be sure, the founder of the Société des bibliophiles cosmopolites. A publisher credited with being the “link between the 19th and 20th centuries, between the ‘quality’ publishers …and the sordid colporteurs like Elias Gaucher.” A pornographer wanted by the police in two countries, but still, a pornographer.

It has always been a dream of mine to share with my children and grandchildren stories of their Old World ancestors. Now I can. While your forefathers and mothers were building railroads, wiping out indigenous populations, sailing to China and making fortunes in soon-to-become-endangered natural resources, ours was pandering to the public’s eternal and invincible demand for porn.

So what happened to the family fortune? After too many unfortunate interactions with the Amsterdam police, Brancart fled to Antwerp in 1894 and disappeared from the public record. There remains much to be discovered.

*Another interesting character of which I may write more later. For the time being, it is worth noting that one of his various pseudonyms was Apis, which as you know, means Bee. See his personal bookplate.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A conversation

He said, “I can’t walk down the street with you if you wear that hat.”
She said, “I paid a lot of money for this hat. This hat cost me three weeks of egg sales.”
He said, “You might have asked the chickens.”
She said, “Are you saying you don’t like it?”
He said, “I am saying that it puts me in mind of a crack in the sidewalk so wide and so deep that it swallows up children and small adults.”
She said, “No hat deserves that.”
He said, “Yes.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

Another slippery slope

Last we heard the Vatican was sanctioning prayers to halt global warming. Now the Popemobile has gone electric.*
Could women priests be around the corner?

*Thanks to my excellent apian/vatican clipping service: BMLK.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bovril Considered

Many are the ways to divide and distinguish the people of the world: Men v. women. Lefties v. righties; Sunnis v. Shi-ites v. Moonies; Red Sox fans v. Yankee fans v. everyone else; Stilettos v. Birkenstocks v. Mukluks; Hair-twirlers v. thumb-suckers v. earlobe-pullers.
These are the telling details that reveal so very much.
But few distinctions carry the weight of Bovril* v. Marmite** v. Anything But***.

My siblings and I were brought up with Bovril (fondly referred to as: essence of cow). We had Bovril, butter and white bread sandwiches. We put Bovril and butter on pasta. We ate hamburgers made with extra dollops of Bovril. We think there are few things better – or more soothing – in life than Bovril straight from the jar. A kitchen cabinet without Bovril is a sad place.

Many happy Bovril memories came flooding back the other evening when my vegetarian brother and I were dining with the Aged P’s at their venerable kitchen table. Perhaps we were discussing the Vicissitudes of Carnivorism or perhaps the Papacy or it may even have been Things-We-Have-Smuggled-Across-International-Borders. The exact topic eludes me, but it led us directly to the cabinet, where we discovered our Sainted Mother’s collection of Bovril & its ilk.

As you can see by the inclusion of Marmite in this trinity, sometime in the past decade our mother succumbed to apostasy. The Oxo arrived along with a Belgian cousin; it is a Continental wannabe among extracts & pastes. Seeking amusement wherever we may find it, my brother and I suggested a taste test. This idea was greeted with some derision, but we prevailed. Not surprisingly Bovril won my top honors, while my vegetarian brother voted for Marmite. (His facial expression revealed the depth of his moral crisis.) We unanimously agreed that Oxo was vile, and threw it away.
But then Sainted Mother retrieved the Oxo from the bin, and excoriated us for throwing it away. Why? Not only was its expiration date a mere five years ago, but also: it tasted revolting. Sainted Mother however dislikes throwing things away, on the assumption that in some mythical future there will be a need for vile rotten Belgian yeast extract, or bottomless threadbare French bikinis (i.e. only the bras) from the fifties.
The only question remaining was: how was the Bovril acquired?
Some of you may recall the Mad Cow (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, though Mad Cow sounds much better) Scare back in the early 2000’s. Around that time the FDA banned the importation of Bovril into the US, for the obvious reason that it is a delicious and highly concentrated form of British cows. Perhaps you were unaware that this staple suddenly vanished from the shelves of your grocery store. It was not a highly publicized event, but slowly it sank in, and some of us became just a little desperate. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Hence the smuggling, the secreting of contraband jars of Bovril in our luggage as we returned from Britain or Canada.

Yet another reason to appreciate Bovril is that it alone of all foodstuffs has been advertised along with the Pope. Early in the 20th century, quite soon after Papal infallibility was deemed to be Dogma by the First Vatican Council in 1870, posters appeared all over Britain (a country not known for its devotion to the Pope) featuring a be-gowned and crowned Pope imbibing a delicious cup of Bovril.

*Bovril, for the sadly uninformed, is a thick blackish paste, a “salty meat extract”. It’s consistency is somewhere between tar and bilge water. Since the 1870’s, when it was created by a Scotsman in Canada to more efficiently get beef into Napoleon’s troops, it has fed arctic explorers, cold & damp hikers, soldiers and my family. (I highly recommend the Bovril website; it is entertaining and not a little weird.)

**Marmite, for the equally sadly uninformed, is a thick blackish paste, extremely salty, made from yeast extract, which is a by-product of beer brewing. It’s consistency is somewhere between tar and bilge water. Marmite was created in 1902 by a British gourmand within minutes of his discovery that brewer’s yeast could be concentrated and eaten from a jar. Like Bovril, it has been a staple of soldiers and explorers, but not of my family.

***Those who favor neither Bovril nor Marmite claim to find both indistinguishable and equally inedible, and that to whatever extent they have ‘flavor’, it resembles solidified refuse from a toxic dump marinated in Dead Sea Water.

The sad truth is that in 1990 Bovril acquired Marmite, and in 2000 they were both acquired by Unilever. So much for healthy competition and fine distinctions.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Another slippery slope to worry about

It turns out that the Vatican and I have more in common than our preference for funny hats and white robes with a simple – but elegant – gold trim.

Yes, we both worry about Global Warming.
Just last month the Vatican was so worried about GW that it allowed a priest in the tiny village of Fiesch, at the foot of the receding Aletsch Glacier, to alter a centuries old prayer. The old prayer asked for divine intervention to push back & shrink the glacier. The newly-authorized prayer asks the Almighty to do just the opposite: keep that glacier from getting any smaller.

But this is not the innocent volte-face it may seem. In fact this is a slippery slope if ever there was one, a Vaseline coated declivity straight to hell. A nosedive into that morass the pundits call ‘science’.

What is next?
Will the virginity of the BVM be questioned and then re-addressed, in light of her having actually given birth?
Will the Cardinals all have a conclave and decide to marry their childhood sweethearts?
Scariest of all, will it turn out the Shroud of Turin is not the genuine imprint of Christ’s pained face but your uncle’s precious rag for buffing his 1949 Chevy?

Monday, August 13, 2012

A few things about Georgian Bay, the science of food, and a quiz:

Before we could arrive at Georgian Bay we had to cross the border into Canada, and we did this at the Thousand Islands Bridge (really 5 connected bridges and I highly recommend it) over the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Once across the great divide (while more intensely guarded than I recall from my youth, its rigors cannot hold a candle to harassment at various Nicaraguan and Syrian borders I have had the pleasure of crossing) I felt the call the nature and wanted to stop. But RR was at the wheel, and the sharp words she had exchanged with the Canadian Border guard had upset her.
Border Guard: Are you bringing in any food, fruits or vegetables?
RR: No.
BG: What do you have in the back seat?
RR: Just some sandwiches and granola bars.
BG: Sandwiches are food.

So we did not stop at the handy rest area just after the border station but continued to Gananoque (rhymes with Cataraqui, if that helps.), and pulled into the first possible place, a Ramada Inn. And what a good idea that was. Because downstairs in the Ramada Inn, alongside the rest rooms, was displayed the world’s largest collection of Antique Blow Torches. Subsequent researches - at least 5 minutes on the Internet - have revealed that this is not as strange as it sounds; there is in fact a lively trade in antique blow torches on both eBay and Etsy. Upstairs at the Ramada Inn, no one would tell who was the guiding light of the blow torch collection. But if you are ever in Gananoque, I recommend a visit.

We kept driving. Next to come was Tiny.
Tiny is which of the following? 1. a term of endearment, 2. a descriptor of size, 3. a lady’s lapdog, 4. a township in Ontario, 5. A particle recently discovered by scientists using the Supercollider.
Besides being all of the above, Tiny is nearby to Penetanguishene which played some kind of part in the War of 1812 (Bicentennial Alert). One of the things that distinguish Canadians from Americans is that Canadians actually know something about the War of 1812, and we do not.
Here is what we did at the cottage on Tiny Beach: we swam, we wrote stories, we read books, we painted and we looked for Benji the lost dog. Some read more books, one of us drew beautiful sketches, and two of us even played the violins. I took numerous photographs of my feet on the sand and in the rocks.

But mostly, we cooked meals and then dined on the deck overlooking the expanse of Georgian Bay.

RR, our hostess at the cottage on Tiny Beach, was raised as a Christian Scientist and has a prodigious capacity for memorization. Hence, she can recite – with emphasis - the CS Statement of Being. Because my ex-late-husband was related to several, I once spent lots of time with Christian Scientists (neither Christian nor scientific, as has been noted elsewhere), and some of them I loved dearly. But to my shame, I never properly absorbed the CS S of B. I did this time, when RR displayed her mnemonic abilities and declaimed the S of B on the deck, as the uncannily warm waters of Lake Huron lapped the shore behind her. I listened carefully for once and I was shocked. I heard a doctrine that denied the very existence of what we did and enjoyed at Tiny.
“Spirit is immortal truth
Matter is mortal error….
Matter is the unreal & temporal…therefore Man is not material, he is spiritual.”

In other words, illness and death do not exist, and neither do pleasures of the flesh. Gastronomy, for instance.

Question for extra credit: Have you ever heard of a Christian Scientist chef? Are there any foods you associate with CS? Have you ever heard the name Mary Baker Eddy and the expression ‘fine dining’ in the same sentence?
A: Of course you have not, no, and no.

Aside from dining well in contravention of all CS tenets, I was reading John Lanchester’s Debt to Pleasure. This delightful novel is told by a (possibly) homicidal lunatic/gastronome and uses the conceit of seasonal menus to organize the narrative. Reclining on Tiny Beach with the warm waters of Lake Huron lapping at our toes (immersion in the water to thwart the biting sand-fleas), I also felt compelled to read aloud pithy and hilarious passages (and some pages had several) to my fellow recliners. Actually, the only person who was ever willing to listen was M-A, who had recommended the book to me in the first place and so was well acquainted with the very passages I chose to iterate. Lanchester’s narrator’s knowledge of edible and toxic mushrooms is legion, and the secret of his Croque Monsieur is Dijon mustard; I always thought that was my secret.
I promise you that when I made Croque Monsieurs one day for lunch I had not yet read the passage in Debt to Pleasure with Tarquin Winot’s recipe. It was an excellent lunch too, served with fresh tomatoes and followed by a clafoutis with Ontario peaches. We drank pink wine from Provence, about which much has been said on other occasions.

As mesmerizing as it was to hear the recitation of Mary Baker Eddy’s creed - her Statement of Being - I cannot say that we gave much thought to her repudiation of the mortal world as we dined on fresh vegetables, grilled lamb chops and homemade naan, and especially not as we drank the aforementioned pink wine from Provence. But on another occasion, I studied the kitchen cabinet replete with cereals and granolas (more of the not-food brought over the border by RR) boasting of their flax, bran, oats and grains edible and inedible, boasting of their benefits to health and digestion. And I wondered if there could be any connection between the invention of Christian Science (ca. 1879) and that era’s promulgation of ‘healthy’ and scientific eating methods, eating methods designed to give the opposite of pleasure. Consider John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943): while superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanatorium, he formulated his ideas about eating and digestion. He extolled the benefits of a “squeaky clean intestine”, and to that end, he advocated nuts, ‘granose biscuits’ and enemas. No one has ever asked for a last meal of corn flakes. Kellogg’s like-minded contemporary Horace Fletcher was known as the “great Masticator” because he advocated that each bite be chewed 32 times. At which point all flavor and texture was effectively eradicated.
Could we lay the blame for the unfortunate scientification of food, at the tiny feet of Mary Baker Eddy?
Back to the splendors of Georgian Bay: we neglected to grill any local walleye (known for their excellent vision and sharp teeth), our own small dereliction of the exigencies of la gourmandise.

Oh, to happily split an infinitive

Yes, it is true. Fourteen years ago today, the Oxford English Dictionary declared that we speakers and writers of the English language were now allowed - encouraged even - to legally and gleefully split our infinitives. No more would we be put in the stocks by annoying pendants for declaring that we wish to quickly run to the store, in order to cheaply acquire some Calamine lotion for the poison ivy that afflicts several of our body parts. If the OED, the arbiter of all things grammatical and etymological, says it is okay to blithely split, then split away.

Monday, July 23, 2012

My mother battles the geese

You may know my mother, the estimable Monique, as the take-no-prisoners architectural historian, as the Maven of Fenestration, as the Correct Color tsarina and as the Ray Kroc of omelettes, but there is another side to her, a dark underbelly to all that sweetness and light, and just the other day that sinister side broke through the surface and shook her neighbors on Fulling Mill Pond to their very core.
Let’s just say it: Monique is a rabid anseri-phobe.
And her exquisite front lawn & gardens - not to mention her back lawn, orchard and surrounding fields – lure all the geese in a 50-mile radius, just as the Amazonian highlands lure seekers of hallucinations and insect-borne diseases.
Geese come to my mother’s lawn and nibble the greenery and leave their squirts of greenish goo. They honk incessantly. They honk without melody or rhythm. They defy her inhospitality. She shouts at them, cursing in French and Arabic. She waves her arms and stamps her feet. Upon waking in the morning you look outside to the perfect lawn extending far out back to the stone wall and the woods beyond. And littering, speckling, and ruining that perfect lawn will be dozens of geese, a gaggle as they are called on the ground. In the air they are called a skein or a wedge, but they are too fat or lazy to fly. And why should they, when the pickings are so delicious on my mother’s lawn?
So the other night we were having cocktails when we noticed an unusually large gaggle of geese on the front lawn. Monique decided to take up arms. She took out her slingshot, which is technically called a wrist rocket & was the gift of one of her bellicose sons, and went in search of projectiles. Specifically, she looked for pistachios. She told me she usually shoots pistachio nuts at the geese.

“Huh? Could this explain why you still have so many geese?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
But there were no pistachio nuts. I suggested pebbles. No, rocks. Rocks as large as possible, given that the idea is to injure the geese and discourage their tenure.
“We don’t have any rocks,” my mother said.
“This is New England,” I said. “Of course you have rocks.”
“Not on my lawn.”
So she went in search of artillery, and returned with a bag of gourmet pasta. Penne pasta. Then, holding the bag of penne pasta between her front teeth and armed with her wrist rocket, she went out to the front lawn and began shooting at the geese.
I cannot say for certain whether she actually hit a goose, but her shooing and shouting and Arabic imprecations did in fact move the geese from the lawn down towards the street. (Fulling Mill Pond is across the street, and if the geese have to be anywhere, they should be in the pond rather than the lawn.) The geese began crossing the street, and as sometimes happens on country roads, the cars driving by slowed down and then stopped to allow the geese to cross the road.
This infuriated my mother. To have gone to all this trouble to banish the geese, and then to have them coddled by namby-pamby animal-loving drivers, seemed profoundly unfair.
“Don’t slow down,” she shouted. “Run them over. Look what they’ve done.”
But the cars slowed and stopped, and the geese took their sweet time crossing the road.
“Step on the gas!” my mother urged them. “”Look at my driveway.” And indeed her driveway was as redolent of green & white-flecked squirts as a newly daubed Abstract Expressionist masterpiece.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I found this treasure in a box my mother unloaded on me last month. In it were reams of school papers from my academic heyday at parochial school (all those A+'s in religion), stacks of crayon drawings revealing a total lack of artistic talent, swimming certificates and this, from a ski trip to Ste Adele, Quebec sometime in the 1960's.Everything but this has gone straight into the recycling bin.
CSB took one look and said, "It's a good thing I know you now. Those glasses would have scared off a bear."
He did not mention the snowball hat or the braces.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What is really a river?

Perhaps because we think we are so very funny when we pose with objects of art, or with half-naked and very buff bouncers at some store on Fifth Avenue, my dear friends B and M-A (the only person I know who is actually, genuinely descended from/related to a saint: St. André Bessette) and I went to see the Alighieri Boetti show at MOMA yesterday. I will take some credit for having dragged them there; I have been longing to go since it opened. Boetti creates maps, or he created maps along with Afghani weavers, and I have been obsessed with maps since my days as a stellar student in parochial school making maps for everything, and dreaming of becoming a cartographer.

Until it became clear that modern mapmaking involved accuracy, and a facility with mathematics, and I headed straight for the funhouse of fiction.

And not only maps, but also words and letters. One huge woven piece listed the 1000 longest rivers on earth, in order. And while there may be agreement as to the 10 longest and even the 100 longest, after that it begins to require some research to determine the length of these rivers.
More than you would think. In fact the project was a 7-year collaboration of Boetti with his first wife. I get that.
I looked and looked for the Hudson River (315 miles long or 507 kms) and could not find it. I looked on the 2nd floor in the big atrium space where I saw the first iteration of I mille fiume piu linghi del mundo, and looked and looked, but could not find the Hudson River. Yes, I know that – though it looms large in my life and viewshed – the Hudson is not a huge river. But the last river listed, the 1000th, was the Agusan, (217.8 miles or 350 kilometers) on the island of Mindanao.
This is definitely shorter than the Hudson by almost 100 miles, unless Boetti was classifying the Hudson, as some hydrologists do, as an estuary all the way to Albany, which I suppose could make the ‘river’ part even shorter. But that seemed like the kind of distinction that could cloud the issue for countless bodies of water all over the planet, so I doubted it, and kept looking for the Hudson.
Up on the 6th floor where the bulk of the exhibition was, there was another version of I mille fiume piu linghi del mundo, also in descending order, but this time indicating their length in kilometers, rather than their ordinal value. And I kept searching for the Hudson. We found the Connecticut and the Osage and the Rio Plata, but we did not find the Kennebec (170 miles or 270 kms) where not so long ago forests full of vast trees floated down river to the mills of Skowhegan and Madison; nor did we find the Rio San Juan (119 miles or 192 kms), where Horatio Nelson lost his eye in 1780, while fighting the pirate Henry Morgan. Everyone in Nicaragua knows this for a fact, and they will tell you that his eyeball is still at the bottom of the Rio San Juan. Although if you contact the Nelson Society in London – which I did a few years ago - a very nice gentlemen will gently inform you that Nelson never lost his eye at all. And never in Nicaragua. He had a spot of malaria is all.
I did not stop there. At home I had a book with a reproduction of the I mille fiume piu linghi del mundo, and after not much time at all I found it: The Hudson River, there at spot #744. This was an enormous relief. (This was also an example of the kind of thing one can obsess about that serves ABSOLUTELY NO PURPOSE.) But to continue.
Right ahead of the Hudson, in position #743, is the Sarda. What and where is the Sarda River? It turns out this question is not so easily answered. The Sarda comprises part of the border between India and Nepal and that is the only uncontested thing about it. Some Nepalese call it the Mahakali River and other Nepalese, the Pahiri, call it Kali Gad. As the Kali River, its length is listed as 350 kms, or 217 miles. Also as the Kali, the river is famous for the Kali River goonch attacks, by the man-eating goonch catfish. But when I read about the Sarda River, it is given a length of 223 kms (138 miles) in Nepal and 323 kms (200 miles) in India, up to its confluence with the Ghagra River. And these two lengths add up to 546 kms, or 339 miles.
Just after the Hudson, is Lo Ho, in position #745. If you put Lo Ho into your internet search engine, you will get a bunch of real estate concerns in the lower east side of Manhattan, and only at the bottom of the page will you find: Lo Ho, also Ilo Ho, a river in China, 421 kms long, or Lo Ho, also Peilo Ho, another river in China, 500 kms long. “Geody” will give you Loho Jhal. Loho River in Baluchistan, Pakistan, and you can even see a Google earth picture that looks like the moon, or the beach at low tide with my footprints. But I think the one in Pakistan is what we know as the Daro River. Which begs the question as to why they have to alternately call it the Lo Ho, when the earth is already replete with Lo Ho’s. There is also a Lô River in Vietname – where they call it Song Lô – and that is 470 kms long.
Tragically, the index of my Times Atlas of the World, Seventh Comprehensive Edition, 11 pounds, lists no Lo Ho’s anywhere. There is a Loholoho in Celebes, and that is all.
Can you imagine going through this about 1000 times? I for one, think it would be lovely.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Honeymoon secret location revealed

Many of you have asked where we went for a honeymoon, and while we considered keeping our location a secret requiring Grade 12 Classification, we opted for transparency. And here we are.
Why Bingham?
Well, CSB wanted to go south and test his mettle with some Amazonian bees, while Christine wanted to go north to the pole because she didn’t get to eat enough raw seal meat last time she was there.
But as we know – or so we have been told – marriage is about compromise, and that is what we did. We went to Bingham, Maine (current plywood storefront capital of the state) halfway between the two.*

*If this picture looks photo-shopped, that is because it is. You try taking a time lapse photo when the only place to put the camera is dangling from a tree branch.

What to do on July Fourth in Maine when there is no more parade in West Athens?*

Check out Father Sébastien Rasle.
At a pit stop a few days earlier, on our drive north, I picked up a brochure about Somerset Country. All the other brochures were gone, and amazingly, coincidentally, Somerset Country is where are. In that brochure I learned of the existence of Father Rasle, who is named as one of the four (4) famous people of the county. The other three are Benedict Arnold, Margaret Chase Smith, and George Walter Hinckley of the Good Will-Hinckley School, so you can see he is in good company. The brochure, when it isn’t misspelling his name, tells us that Father Rasle was a Jesuit of the early 1700’s, at the time of the French and Indian Wars. The Abenaki Indians – in what was not yet known as Somerset County - were allied with the French against the English. Fr. Rasle worked to convert the Indians, and to that end he created the first French-Abenaki dictionary, the first Abenaki dictionary of any kind.

This is where I became quite excited, because I am interested in early saints and missionaries who, in the course of trying to convert native peoples - an enterprise I am not in favor of - often compiled dictionaries and wrote down languages - enterprises I think are entirely brilliant and worthwhile. (Another of these lexicological priests was Jean de Brebeuf, who compiled the French-Huron dictionary, and famously named the Huron’s favorite sport Lacrosse, because the stick they used reminded him of a bishop’s crozier.)
I also learned that Fr. Rasle’s grave is in Madison, on the other side of the Old Canada Highway from West Athens, and not so far from us. What else could we possibly hope to do on the anniversary of independence? CSB, whose interest in Jesuit philologists could not fill a thimble, was wonderfully agreeable about heading over to Madison, a town we generally note only for its frequent appearance in the Morning Sentinel’s Police Blotter.
So without even stopping for a quick drink at the Solon Hotel (ever-tempting)
we went to Madison and found the cemetery where Father Rasle was buried. Here is CSB looking really happy to pose. The cemetery was full of French Canadian names, and some wonderful gravestones. But this was my favorite. I am guessing that both Robert and Beverly love to play golf. CSB pointed out that they are not yet dead.
On our way home, via Skowhagen, we met up with the Grannies for Peace, marching back and forth across the Old Mill Bridge over the Kennebec, all day long. Being deprived of marching their annual plea for peace in West Athens, they brought their cause to the metropolis. They were delighted to have their picture taken, and of course we talked about our grandchildren.