Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Poor Mv Lyubov Orlova. She is currently adrift in the North Atlantic, and no one wants her. Or maybe the soi-disant owner wants her, but he doesn’t want to actually catch her. For the finer points of this question we must refer to Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 89, in which he elegantly parses the rules of ownership at sea, to wit: I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it. II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it. Since the MV Lyubov Orlova is currently fast to no party, then she is a Loose-Fish.
Let me back up. Or go astern as we say in maritime-speak.
About 2 ½ years ago several siblings and I traveled in the Canadian Artic, from Iqaluit to Nanisivik to Devon Island and back to Ungava Bay, aboard the Russian ship, the MV Lyubov Orlova. It now seems we were the last passengers on board. After we debarked, she was headed to Newfoundland to be refitted. But she never got past the harbor at St. John’s. She was finally “arrested” by Canadian authorities for nonpayment of fees owed. The Russian crew on board had not been paid for months, and they had run out of vodka.
The ship is named for a Stalinist era film star. “Volga-Volga” was Joe Stalin’s favorite and we all know of his avocation as a film critic. Her photographs and movie posters decorated the saloon where we drank and played Bananagrams™ or Scrabble™ late into the Arctic night. (Things could get very heated. Do Inuit words count? Vodka was spilled. Glasses were broken. Then we went up to the bridge to view the Northern Lights.)
For almost two years, MV Lyubov Orlova was stuck in Newfoundland; locals raised money to send the poor Russian sailors home. It was cheaper than the alternative. (Use your imagination.)
Meanwhile, the ownership of MV Lyubov Orlova remains a tricky wicket. Back when we were on board, we all knew about the “Owner’s Cabin,” the locked room that stayed locked, on the Captain’s deck. Nobody would speak on the record, but we heard stories about this mysterious and nameless owner who mostly lived in Paris and did Parisian things, but liked to know that at any moment his cabin awaited him. During the more than two years the ship was detained at St. John’s, the nameless owner was unheard from. Neither was the shell company registered in the Cook Islands that is named as owner on the ship’s manifest.
Then in 2012 MV Lyubov Orlova was finally sold to a shipping company for scrap. (That is one version of events.) An American tug boat, the Charlene Hunt, was contracted to tow poor MV Lyubov Orlova south to the Dominican Republic, where underpaid workers could perform the nasty toxic job of dismantling the ship for parts and scrap metal. On the other hand, I have also read that the owner is Reza Shoeybi, an Iranian, who is hoping to snag the vessel back once she floats over to Europe. But I also read that Mr. Shoeybi is the owner of the tugboat that lost her connection to MV Lyubov Orlova. Who knows why it happened, but it did: on their first day out to sea the tow-line broke and in the 35 mph winds and high seas, the tugboat’s crew were unable to reattach the ship. A few days later a Canadian vessel, the Atlantic Hawk, secured the ship and managed to get her out of range of drifting into off-shore oil rigs and platforms, where a rogue Russian ice breaker/cruise ship could do a lot of damage. Once they had her in international waters, out of danger’s way, the Atlantic Hawk cut her loose. So there she floats; she could end up anywhere from Norway to West Africa, or she could just get caught in the North Atlantic gyre and spend eternity. A Loose-Fish if ever there was one.
But if you do hear of MV Lyubov Orlova being made fast anywhere, I would like to know, because I think my missing hairbrush is still on board, in Cabin 417, along with my sister’s lovely fleece hat with pompoms.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My so-called life in hip-disturbia

At first I had no idea what was going on. All those emails from old boyfriends and ex-colleagues, giving the strange impression that - after years of radio silence - they would like to be in contact with me again.
There was even a message from Amber, congratulating me for finally going gluten-free and vegan; years ago we had this ridiculous-in-retrospect falling out over butter. I had no idea I felt so passionately about butter, in a positive way; she felt just as passionately in the other direction, and suggested that my pro-butter stance verged on the lurid/kinky. Our friendship was sundered. Until now.
Joe D., who cast aspersions on my lineage, my intelligence, my sexual proclivities and even my taste in pets, when we broke up after the unfortunate incident with the capybara, emailed me to say that in the intervening decades he has embraced the varieties of human experience, that all is forgiven, and do I know any real estate agents? (Everyone in hipsturbia knows real estate agents. There are more real estate agencies than yoga studios. Though there are more hair salons than either.)
Strangest of all, by a factor of a gazillion and three, was hearing from Sister Flight into Egypt. Back when I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries on my lap during religion class in parochial school, I thought Sister Flight was about a hundred years old. I was very wrong. She is still very much alive, she has left the order, come out of the closet, and works on a biodynamic herb farm in upstate New York. She and her partner had apparently wanted to move back to the city and had set their sights on Brooklyn, until they read about our own hipsturbia up the river. I have no idea how she found me, but she did, and she said she had always know I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries while she expounded on the difference between mortal and venial sins; though now she understood my creative noncompliance as an early harbinger of the hip adult I must surely be, living as I do in hipsturbia. Oh, and she is no longer known as Sister Flight into Egypt. She is once again the Susie Shaughnessy of her youth.
I was beginning to see a pattern. And then CSB clued me in: it wasn’t me, it was Hastings. Apparently the paper of record singled out our village, though only in a “Wittgensteinian sort of way”, for the dubious distinction of “hipsturbia”.
I have no idea what it means to be a village in a Wittgensteinian sort of way, or even a Augustinian sort of way, or even less a Nietzschean sort of way. No more will I abide by Wittgenstein’s famous dictum from the end of Tractatus, in which he says: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The ever-increasing body of questions I don’t know the answers to:

On President’s Day Leda and I went to Sushi Mike’s for lunch. Leda loves sushi and is quite a connoisseur. At her age the only fish product I ate (and complained about it) was a Mrs. Paul’s fish stick, so this sophisticated palate of hers continually amazes me.
Upon entering Sushi Mike’s we passed by a tank of water full of brightly colored tropical fish.
I asked her, So Leda, what’s your favorite fish in the aquarium?
Nana, that’s not an aquarium.
Then what is it?
A fish tank.
Point taken. Ok, so what it your favorite?
The pufferfish.
That’s not a pufferfish, I said.
Of course it is.
A pufferfish is the second most venomous vertebrate in the world, I said. It would be a very bad idea to have one right at the entrance to a restaurant. What if it jumped out and bit you?
It’s not going to. What’s the most venomous? Leda asked.
The golden poison frog, I said, pleased with myself. I was on safer ground here.
Leda said, But this is a pufferfish, and they don’t jump.

Then we sat at our table near the window, with this elegant view of two ceramic sumo wrestlers.
Leda asked, Aren’t they allowed to use their hands?
I checked, and – at least in this lovely piece of sculpture – neither wrestler was touching the other with hands. Yes, their bodies touched and strained again the opposite’s number’s vast weight and effort, but hands were not involved.
I have no idea, I said. This was true.
I guess they just squash each other, Leda said.
That appears to be the goal, I said.
What if a golden frog jumped on of them? Then he’d be dead and the other guy would win without using his hands.
I doubt golden poison frogs are allowed in wrestling rings, I said.
Oh Nana!

Later I checked on line and it seems Leda was correct: that was a pufferfish.

Every family has their myths, the stories they tell in lieu of the real stories, the stories they tell to make themselves appear interesting or sane or law-abiding, or not. Our family had the story of my mother’s belly dancing past.
We presume the story started with my father, but he is dead now so we can’t check that fact, and even when he was alive, his memory of the sixty-plus years that constituted his life with my mother was the part of his memory that was largely eviscerated by the stroke. What remained intact, oddly, was his capacity to fully engage in the myth-making.

The myth was not complicated. The myth was that she was a belly dancer in her youth. My mother (known to my readers as SBM, or Sainted Belgian Mother) grew up in mostly in Cairo, Egypt. She was not Egyptian. She was the lithe and elegant daughter of a Belgian oil executive and his beautiful Belgian wife. Whatever African blood my mother had was last seen when her earliest ancestors departed East Africa and the mitochondrial Eve, headed north, crossed the Red Sea during the African Ice Age, and ended up in the Anatolian/Caucasian region. Eventually they traveled west in Europe, coinciding with the spread of the Aurignacian culture. As you can imagine, from there it was a mere matter of a few thousand years to waffles, frites, moules, 800 varieties of beer, TinTin, and Manneken Pis.
My mother did not have a belly dancer’s build, which as children we were led to believe involved serious avoirdupois, particularly in the mammary glands and the ventral region, that undulating belly of a thousand and one nights. But according to the myth, despite her slenderness and flat chest, the young Belgian schoolgirl one of Cairo’s most sought-after and scintillating belly dancers. Her specialty was the Dance of the Seven Veils, which she performed with seventeen veils. It was on an early business trip to purchase cotton waste from purveyors of the famously soft Egyptian cotton, that my father was taken for a night on the town, and encountered La Monica of Belgica, Belly-dancing sensation. He was smitten, and the rest is history.
My father loved to tell us this story. When he and Mom returned from vacations or dinner parties, he often vividly described how my mother, only slightly inebriated, would willingly belly dance atop a table and impress the assembled friends, and business acquaintances with her skill and dexterity. As children, we too were impressed and frequently told our friends that our mother was a belly dancer. As far as we could tell, they all believed us.

Then this morning, I read in the New York Times, that the popular Al-Tet ‘belly dancing channel’ is being forced off the air for ‘operating without a license’. You can thank the Muslim Brotherhood for another cultural icon thrown to the infidels.
Is it possible that SBM must now single-handedly carry the banner of belly dancing into the New World?

Friday, February 15, 2013

A question of sexing

So this morning I wake up rather early, but nowhere near as early as CSB, who is already in the kitchen listening to the morning news.
I greet him and ask if he wants to hear my dream.
He does not.
I have some bad news, he says. O dear, I think, what else could the pope do?
What? I ask.
I heard some noises in the chicken coop earlier.
Oh no, I say.
We have a rooster.
A rooster! Is that all? I thought a fox had gotten into the henhouse last night.
It must one of the new ones, but it’s unmistakably crowing.
I guess chicken sexing is not a perfect science, I say.

Later today I spend some quality time in the henhouse trying to discover and photograph the rooster in question.This is the result and no, he/she did not make any effort to stand still for the camera.
Last fall we got 24 new pullets, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons and Ameraucanas. When you get that many chickens McMurray’s throws in a bonus exotic breed, also, presumably, a pullet. The sad news, on top of the bad news, is that it appears that the rooster and the exotic bird are one and the same. I don’t know exactly what kind he/she is, but – except for that white patch on the wattle – he looks like a Welsummer. Rather handsome too, I think.

This is a certified Welsummer rooster, from the Internet.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

And later the same day

Happy snowy Valentine!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In case anyone is interested what follows is a highly redacted list of the things that we have done, that must be done, and that we are doing, in order to prepare the house and ourselves for the visit of Sainted Belgian Mother:
1. Absolutely the first thing is to remove all the bee equipment from the guest room, where it spends much of the winter. This includes, but is not limited to: wooden bee hives, piles of frames in need of cleaning for next season, piles of pressed wax foundation carefully placed between sheets of tissue paper, hive tools, smokers, CSB’s bee veil which he searched for throughout the entire house just last week.
2. Vacuum and dust. This is not your ordinary vacuuming event, because of the many insects that have taken up residence in the guest room over the winter, and built their webs and nests, and eaten their prey and then spit out the detritus of their prey. This is a full vacuum bag’s worth of dust and dead insectaria.
3. Clean the guest bathroom. This is so obvious as to not be worth mentioning. But it is also important to make sure there is a shade on the bathroom window, as requested when SBM last visited, for privacy issues. Even though the only creatures that could possibly look in that window are the chickens. Also roll and unroll the shade three times to make sure it is not harboring any stinkbugs. (Find and dispatch several.)

4. Make sure there are several photographs of my father in the guestroom, so that SBM can feel his presence. And talk to him if so inclined.
5. Put rubber sticky pads under the three area rugs in the guest room. CSB decided that was an imperative, so he was the one who went to Home Depot and acquired the sticky pads and cut them to the correct size and installed them under the area rugs. All of this to prevent SBM from slipping and/or sliding and possibly hurting herself; which would be a bad thing to have happen in more ways than I can count.
6. Acquire a new heating pad and install it next to guest bed. SBM is a devotee and a connoisseur of heating pads. Find an extension cord that works, and is color coordinated.
7. Buy flowers for the guest room. Tragically, there are no flowers blooming in my garden just now – it is February. Certain flowers are taboo, such as carnations, geraniums and mums. Tulips are acceptable, in certain colors. Arrange the flowers.
8. Check the liquor cabinet: do we have sufficient Macallan 12-year-old single malt Scotch? We do. Unless she overstays. Do we have enough Sam Adams beer? Yes.

9. Check the refrigerator: SBM consumes at least one pomegranate a day, and sometimes more.
10. Make a sweep of the house and put at least a dozen pictures askew. This ensures that SBM can re-align them, and feel that she has contributed to our domestic harmony, which she most certainly has, and will.
11. Turn the heat up to the tropical setting.

Friday, February 1, 2013


I know why I developed an early and unhealthy interest in the gruesome lives of the saints: it was in the usual way, under the wimpled auspices of ancient nuns. They whose mission in life was to teach uniformed & runny-nosed urchins the delights of martyrdom. That much is clear and obvious, if slightly pathetic.

But why is my delightful granddaughter, a Brooklynite of distinctly un-Catholic parentage and upbringing, so intrigued by the beheadings, defenestrations, stonings, and grillings of the early Christian saints? Surely she did not learn of such things from me, as I forbear to mention Diocletian in the presence of anyone under the age of 85.

But there it is. Leda is fascinated with saints in paintings.
CSB and I took her to the Brooklyn Museum last weekend. What with a death in the family, and school, and inclement weather, we hadn’t seen her in quite a while, and grandparental withdrawal symptoms were setting in. So we hustled to Brooklyn, scooped up Leda and took her off for some culture. I imagined she would be drawn to Egyptian mummies, Pacific totems and Keith Haring. Not for the first time, I was dead wrong.
There we were in the 3rd floor Beaux Arts Gallery, an arcade of paintings encircling an empty indoor courtyard, beckoning a six-year-old with the toes of an combination African dancer, rock climber, and sloth. Yet it was off-limits.

I was making my way from Anna Ramirez Dressed in Black to the Madonna of Humility, when Leda insisted I join her in front of a French 15th century altarpiece featuring Saints Cosmas and Damien getting beheaded. How could she have known my fondness for these twin doctors of early Christianity? (For their goodness and knowledge, for their famous proto-transplantation of a leg – with angelic surgical assistants, and for their survival of numerous forms of attempted martyrdom before finally succumbing.) Could she have known that their twin skulls reside in not one but two churches? For a total of four skulls?

Why is that man chopping people’s heads off?

The ones with halos are Cosmas and Damien and their brothers, and the Roman emperor hated them.

Why did he hate them?
Because they were Christians. Because they were good doctors who helped people and didn’t charge any money.
But why are they just standing there waiting to get their heads chopped off? Why don’t they run away?
Good question. Because they want their heads chopped off? To get it over with? Maybe they were really held down or forced in some way, but the painter didn’t want to show us that stuff.
Next on the wall was a predella featuring the Stoning of St Stephen, the protomartyr. This is problematical is many ways.
Leda looks hard at a hallowed man in a bare landscape surrounded by half a dozen men in colored tights tossing small objects.
What are they doing?
I am sorry to say the people are throwing stones at St Stephen, they’re stoning him.
But why?
It was a way the authorities killed people back then, when they didn’t like their religion.
But all those pebbles aren’t going to kill him.
I think they really threw bigger stones, and yes, sooner or later it killed him. It’s not a nice way to die though.
I know a nice way to die.
What’s that?
The way Buelo died, because he was old.
I don’t have to answer this. Because she is absolutely right.
Last in this hagiographic lineup is Saint Lawrence, patron saint of chefs and roasters, on account of his gruesome death.
What are they doing to him?
To Saint Lawrence? They’re grilling him. It was a kind of martyrdom.
Why would they want to do that? Who would want to?
I guess because it was painful. It was the Romans. They didn’t like the Christians because the Christians had one god, and the Romans had many.
They couldn’t share?
No, sharing was not an option.

It may not appear that way to you, but I actually thought I was doing pretty well, answering the unanswerable. Until we got to Purgatory. There simply is no way to explain purgatory to anyone with a rational mind.

Who are the ones in white?
They must be the souls St Lawrence is liberating from purgatory.
What is Purgatory?
It’s a place where the church said you would go if you weren’t good enough for heaven, but weren’t bad enough for hell.
This gives her pause, as it would anyone.
How bad do you have to be for hell?
Pretty bad I think. You have to kill someone or be terribly mean. But we don’t believe in hell anymore. Maybe some people still do, but you don’t need to worry, there is no hell.
Is there a purgatory?
There definitely is no purgatory.
What are the devils doing?
Writhing in pain because they’re trapped in fire. But you really don’t have to worry. Priests invented hell so they could scare people into doing what they told them. It really doesn’t exist.
But killing people is still bad.
It is very bad.

I think there is no way to reflect on a conversational opening like this with an inquisitive six-year-old, and not feel that a great opportunity was missed. There was my moment to explain the human need for scapegoats, the irrationality of persecution, and the historical context of Christian saints. Instead I wracked my brain to explain purgatory in such as way as to ensure she would not have nightmares.