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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Saved by Books

There are few things in life I enjoy more than fondling books, dusting books, taking books off the shelf, and then re-shelving them in alphabetical order. This needs to be done every few years, on account of new acquisitions, de-accessioning, and the inevitable march of disorder that attacks the bookshelves while I sleep. I welcome the occasion.

Things have been difficult of late. How many times in an afternoon can you explain to your mother what the word T-O-N-S-U-R-E means? She was sitting in her favorite chair, that was previously your father’s favorite chair, by the fireplace, reading a large picture book about The Ghent Altarpiece.
Several years ago my sister and I went to Belgium with our parents, in January. Aside from the fact that the weather is wretched and it gets dark at 2 in the afternoon, everything you want to see in Belgium is closed in January. We took a train to Ghent in order the see the Ghent Altarpiece, in January, because I had long harbored a desire to see for myself, in real time and space, the weird expressions of the singing angels. And of course, St Ursula. I always want to see St Ursula. St Bavo’s cathedral was closed that day in Ghent in January. The chapel with the altarpiece would remain closed for the month. You can only console yourself with moules frites so many times. Thus, I have a large book with many details of the altarpiece. Until my mother’s revelations by the fireside, I was unaware of the frequent references to tonsures. Or maybe it was one reference to one tonsure, encountered again and again.

So, in lieu of more drastic measures, I decided it was time to reorganize and re-alphabetize my books. Not all my books, just what I think of as the indispensable ones; only fiction and what was formerly called ‘belles lettres’ and might now be called ‘creative nonfiction’ gets alphabetized. Other books are organized by topic, and that is not a simple thing. Should a biography of Gertrude Bell be placed with books of travel and exploration (in the downstairs guest room), or in the biography section (in the second floor hall)? Likewise, where would a Life of Saint Teresa of Avila belong: in the aforementioned biography section, or in the hagiography department?
As for the hagiography, for quite a while, a few years past, as CSB will bemoan with bewilderment, hagiography was my chief subject of research. My collection of the lives of female saints, with special attention to mystics of the middle ages, is, I am sure, the largest in Hastings if not the whole county. Yet even that designation presents its categorical difficulties: should the life of Lydwin of Schiedam be placed with the mystics or the sainted anorexics? Likewise, there is significant crossover between the stigmatics and the mystics.
I could go on. But CSB will be pleased that I do not.
As soon as I started, with the A’s, I was hurtled back in time, with Walter Abish, who actually wrote a blurb for my first novel, Expecting, back when I very likely had no idea of the importance and trafficking of blurbs in the world of bookselling. New Directions published the book. They also published Walter Abish’s books, and so, without any more ado, I found his blurb on the back of my novel. I recommend his Alphabetical Africa.
One of the ways I console myself for the inevitable is knowing that when the time comes, I will be able to figure out what writers I have loved, craved, read and admired profligately; all I will have to do is look at my bookshelves. Calculate the linear shelf inches.
You would be correct to assume that I love the writing of Paul Auster; the evidence is right there, between Austen and Azuela.
Thomas Bernhardt gets maximum linear inches in the B’s. I was introduced to Bernhardt by Bine Köhler, from whom I learned so much about European writers, looking at art, listening to music and how to live. I also learned about egg hats in a Berlin pensione. I had been reading his books for decades before I finally went to Vienna with Bine last winter, and saw firsthand the country so reviled by its greatest writer. I, of course, loved Vienna and could easily have spent the rest of my life lurking at the Café Grindl.
Almost as much space is devoted to Ludwig Bemelmans: such is the democracy of my bookshelves. Who does not adore Madeleine who lives in an old house in Paris? But her books are upstairs in the children’s bookcase. Down here we have his so-called adult books, Hotel Splendide, Dirty Eddie and How to Travel Incognito.
There are more books here by Louis Bromfield than is reasonable, and some will be purged. But I will keep The Rains Came, a torrid page-turner set during a monsoon in Ranchipur, India. Along with James Hilton’s Lost Horizon it was a favorite book of my late father-in-law. We knew they were his favorite books because he spoke of them often; they were in fact the only books he ever mentioned. I always assumed they were connected to his war experience in India, but is that true? Were Americans even in India during the war?

Before departing the B’s, there is William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, the book I read when I was 19 at the behest of Jeff, my boyfriend, later husband. He gave it to me in order to combat my bourgeois tendencies. I was shocked, as presumably was intended, and confused. After Jeff died more than five years ago, I reread Naked Lunch and finally, at last, appreciated its brilliance. But was it too late?

Every letter has its triggers and madeleines. There are so many more to come. Let’s just say that the other day, while I was blissfully shelving my books, a certain brainy friend was visiting and I asked him and CSB to name women writers whose surnames begin with W.* Our brainy friend (he knows who he is) dredged up (barely) Edith Wharton. CSB, bless his heart, mentioned “that writer whose house we visited.” Bingo: yes, we visited Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson Mississippi on Nothing in Common goes South Road Trip #1. There was a sign on the door requesting that no guns be carried inside. Upstairs, and all over the house, visitors could still see Welty’s piles of books, not only on her shelves, but upon beds and chairs. I could have moved in. Without my gun.


*In my collection alone: Walbert, Walker, Weber, White, Williams, Winterson, Wesley, Weldon, Wolf, Woolf, Wroe. It may be - thus far - the only letter of the alphabet for which I have more novels by women than men. Actually, no. I think O is another one. I will check, count, and measure.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A little bit about Irony

Last year on this day we were in Vietnam. The day before, while visiting the beautiful ancient capital of Huế, I gleefully (though somewhat to CSB’s chagrin, because he finds masks creepy & thinks I tend to overdo things) posed next to ancient statues wearing my Happy Hilary mask, so confident was I of the following day’s victory and all those newfound opportunities to refer to Madam President.
While in Saigon, otherwise now known as Ho Chi Minh City but more or less universally still called Saigon, I had located the house* where my Belgian grandparents, my mother, and uncle had lived from 1939 until 1941, when they were evacuated, along with most European women and children, as the Japanese army was invading. And quickly. Because she was a Belgian woman, my Bonne Maman had never voted because women were not granted suffrage in Belgium until 1948, and from 1929 onwards she lived in Egypt, Indochina, California during the war, then Egypt again. She finally came to the US in 1956 because that was where all her grandchildren were. (Such is the narcissism of grandchildren; someone else might have said she came because her children were here, married to Americans.) My grandparents never became citizens, preferring to remain “Resident Aliens,” and thus ensure they could enter the Belgian section of Heaven – Bonne Maman told me this, seriously, somewhat.
While visiting Vietnam, I thought a lot about my beloved grandmother, who never voted; I had weeks earlier cast my absentee ballot for Hillary, and eagerly anticipated the election results.
We all know how very wrong that went.
Which is a long way to introduce the question of irony.
Was it ironic, my posing in a Hilary mask next to a statue of a bodyguard of Emperor Khải Định, whose first wife left him in order to become a nun?

I am pondering irony these days.
My mother received in the mail a “Certificate of Recognition” from the Alzheimer’s Association. She handed it to me because, sometimes, when she remembers, though remember is no longer the correct word, she gives me her mail to ‘deal with’. How ironic is that? The certificate recognizes her “extraordinary commitment to the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.” If so, it is a fight she has lost. Presumably, she received this ridiculous ‘certificate’ because, back when she was still writing checks, she sent some money to the AA and they would like her to send some more. To this end she receives countless solicitations at her new address in Hastings, even though I have never given any organization her new address. It is a miracle of the modern phenomenon of annoying requests for money.
Irony is generally defined as a situation that is not what it seems, that differs from what was expected. Irony is often used for comic effect, but at times is tragic. (See the Greeks. See me sporting my Hilary mask.) The word comes from the Greek, eirōneia for ‘simulated ignorance.’
Another chapter of the Azheimer’s Association sent my mother Christmassy address labels, presumably to affix to the Christmas cards she is no longer capable of writing or sending. They also have her address slightly wrong. What part of that is ironic?
Does it differ from the irony of the multiple books stacked on her nightstand about how to prevent memory loss or how to improve your memory?
Or how does it differ from the irony of me buying a book at Costco this morning called The End of Alzheimer’s, even though I have read lots of actual science books about Alzheimer’s and have spoken with doctors and visited labs and attended seminars? And I know damn well that there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s and I even know that most of the things we are told can stave off the advance of Alzheimer’s, like practicing yoga, speaking multiple languages, and eating healthy, are exactly what my grandmother and mother did all their lives.
Maybe that is not so much ironic, as delusional.

In literature, I love irony. Also in life. Irony makes life interesting. If I refer to someone as living in an “Irony-Free Zone” I do not mean it as a compliment.

On the other hand, this morning I woke up to un-ironic, good news from the elections, locally and in various other states.

* This is true. I knew they had lived at 216, rue Pelerin, and so with the help of an old map and a charming man at our hotel, I figured out that rue Pelerin is now rue Pasteur, and we went to that number to find that there was a house, that looked just like the house in the picture of my mother looking coy in the front yard. It was still there and was now Soul Music & Performing Arts Academy (SMPAA). On the tile floors where my mother once roller-skated indoors (so she claimed) Vietnamese children now dance hip-hop.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

How I feel about littering.



Perhaps we can cling to the pretense that this blog post is simply a vignette, a glimpse into My Life on Broadway.
But honestly, it is a rant. About littering. And litterers.

Picking up litter does not make me feel good or hopeful or even compassionate about my fellow creatures. Picking up litter is the sort of task that fills you with despair; unless of course you are picking up litter as a form of punishment, and then perhaps you can feel at least you that are getting out and about, working your way toward an early parole.

We live on a main road in a smallish town. So main that it is called Broadway, which is almost as main as Main. Between Broadway and the stone wall that officially demarcates our property line is about five yards of greensward. Technically that greensward belongs to the county because Broadway is a county road, but because CSB mows it, and because I pick up the litter and trim the branches on the dogwood and forsythias we planted, I feel rather proprietary about this greensward.

Hence the weekly litter collection. Yesterday there was quite a haul: the usual cigarette packs, cellophane wrappers, fast food cups and their plastic tops and straws, colorful empty bags of BBQ chips and other toxic foods, one used condom, a torn shopping list alluding to pork, or maybe portabellas, or possible porridge, 3 O’Doul's cans, 2 plastic water bottles filled with yellowish liquid that I have to assume is urine, and one dead skunk.

Yes, I was wearing gloves. I didn’t always, but these days I am about those gloves the way converts are about the church: more pious than the Pope.

First, those O’Doul's cans. The thing is that every single time I pick up litter on our greensward I find at least one and usually more empty cans of O’Doul's. Someone out there is a guy (I assume it is a guy; call me prejudiced if you must.) heading south on Broadway, to or from work, and just before our house, he finishes his O’Doul's and tosses it onto the grass. Without a thought for the person, me, who will have to pick up that can if that patch of grass is not to one day look like a tornado-damaged recycling center. Has he ever once considered what it would look like if I never ever picked up his empties? Should I leave his empties in situ and give him pause? Or should I make a sculpture – say of an upthrust middle finger – out of those empties? I seriously think about these possibilities. If I were ever to actually witness this person tossing out an O’Doul's can, what would I do? Being the wimp I am, most likely hide behind the stone wall and squint in an effort to see the license plate and fail because my eyes are terrible. I prefer to imagine hurling myself at his speeding car and then proceeding to have a useful conversation about the evils of littering and then the O’Doul's guzzler would have a St. Paul at Damascus moment and we would form an anti-littering alliance.

In an effort to further extrapolate the character of the O’Doul's litterer I looked it up on line and found this on an official website:
O’Doul’s is a Low-Alcohol ( %0.05) beer produced in Missouri by Anheuser-Busch.
O’Doul’s has a mild, sweet taste with a slightly dry finish. O’Doul’s Amber has a rich, slightly sweet taste with flavorful hop finish.
 
It receives a rating of 1.98 out of 5. In other words, “awful”. In “BEER STATS” (I have no idea what this means), O’Doul’s ranks #44,264. (Sadly, that is probably not unlike my Amazon sales ranking, which I refuse to look at now, even for the purposes of completely transparency.)

According to the “Urban Dictionary” website:
O’Doul’s is “The most pointless beverage in the world: a non-alcoholic beer. If you're gonna drink fucking beer, take it like a man. O'Doul's actually has 0.5% alcohol, so if you can down about 100 you might feel a little buzz.
Jimmy drank 100 O'Doul's and was hospitalized for a water overdose...completely sober”

(I do not endorse the above statement. “Take it like a man”? Please.)

Seguing quite naturally from the empty beer cans, we come to the water bottles filled with pee. I am not a camel, and I know what it is like to experience what is so elegantly referred to as “urgency”. So I can sympathize with someone’s need to pee, while in a moving car. I really can. That has frequently happened to me, and I do what right-thinking people do: I stop somewhere and use the facilities, and absent any facilities, I find a tree or a rock. I do not litter. Of course, peeing into a bottle is not really an option for me, given the constraints of anatomy. But for males of the species it is technically possible to pee into a bottle and there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, objectionable, rude, lazy and downright trashy, is throwing that bottle of pee on the grass into front of my house. Or anywhere. By throwing that bottle of pee out your window you have transformed a perfectly reasonable act in response to a perfectly normal human need, into an act of selfishness and pollution.

Then there was the dead skunk. A couple of days ago, presumably around the time of his unfortunate demise, I smelled the redolent odor of Pepe le Pew and thought of my dear departed Daisy and Bruno, who for this once would not be getting sprayed. Even with my excellent gloves, I did not remove the dead skunk. I would inform CSB, and leave it at that. But I had to wonder about myself and the gradations or irrationality of my squeamishness: why do I eschew touching a dead mammal, a very mangled dead mammal with a few flies, and yet collect the bottles filled with urine of selfish littering assholes?

Meanwhile, as I was finishing my litter collection and heading back to the shed with a full garbage bag, on the other side of Broadway came the crash of drums. Just across the way, in a wide open garage, I spotted the young man practicing on his drum set. All through June he tortured some of Patti Smith’s greatest tunes. Now it was The Doors. With his view from the garage, had he ever seen the O’Doul tosser? Make yourself useful, young man.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

My Theory Regarding Language Loss in Alzheimer’s Sufferers Based Entirely on Anecdotal, Personal, and Idiosyncratic Observations of One Mother and One Grandson, Aged 6

Last weekend we went to Squam Lake for a family wedding. The ceremony itself was held on tiny Church Island. Planning a wedding on a tiny island requires excellent logistics and good luck. Cold, rain, wind, faulty seamanship, and nasty insects are only some of the things that could possibly go awry. None of the above transpired. The day was exquisite. While the bride and groom paddled away in a canoe, a large water snake was spotted curled up by the dock. But no worries. My snake-phobic sister, the illustrious officiant, never even saw the snake, thanks to some quick thinking. We had among us one experienced herpetologist, and one crazy, risk-taking, snake-loving young man. Guess which one wrestled with the serpent?

The reception was held in a barn back on the mainland. This lovely old barn was decorated with galvanized buckets of artfully arranged flowers, mostly white and blue flowers, and foliage in multiple shades of green. The next morning, we stopped by to see my brother and sister-in-law, the happy and exhausted parents of the bride, and were enjoined to take a few buckets of flowers back to New York for my mother. We did, and only about a quart of water spilled in the back of the car.

Monday morning, I carted a bucket of artfully arranged flowers to my mother’s Little Red House, and placed it, artfully, in her living room.
“What are those? The big things?”
I explained that they were flowers from her granddaughter’s wedding, and that her son and daughter-in-law had asked me to bring them to her, knowing how much she loves flowers.
“Why are they…down?” she asked, and gestured with her hand, so I understood she was referring to some pendulous fronds in the arrangement.
“They were arranged that way. Aren’t they lovely?”
“Why are they here?”
We went over the history and provenance of the flowers 3 more times.

That evening I went back to my mother’s with some garden vegetables and a book about Palladio* from the Travelers Restaurant, where you get three free books with every meal.

It was clear my mother was not adjusting well to the flowers in the bucket, not matter that they were so artfully arranged.
“It’s too …” she said, and gestured again.
“Messy?” I suggested.
“Yes, they are messy,” she said.
“I can fix that.”
I lugged the bucket to the table on her patio and brought out several small and medium size vases. Back at the Orchard, my mother had amassed what must have been one of New England’s largest collection of vases. Her vases filled an entire, floor to ceiling, closet. They came from all over the world, and in many sizes. But as in all such things, certain vases were favored, and over the years I recognized that the large Costa Rican painted vase would always be in front of the corner window in the kitchen. The slender silver flute would always be on the small table in the blue room, in front of my grandmother’s photo. Certain vases came in multiples, and she used them on her dining table. (Full disclosure: I too have more vases than is healthy or essential. Unlike my mother’s, which were mostly very tasteful, some of mine are quite ugly. Yet those are the hardest to get rid of. Because if I don’t keep them, who else could possibly want a vase that resembles - in fact IS - a tortured lump of clay?) My mother always arranged the flowers herself, and brilliantly. She grew Russian sage, peonies, delphiniums, astilbes, and lots of other things I never learned to name. Her azaleas came in tempestuous and exotic colors. Her arrangements did not consist only of flowers; she used pine boughs, dried stalks from the fields, bittersweet, woodruff, ferns and massive hosta leaves.

If I know anything about arranging flowers, it is because of my mother.

So there on her outdoor table, I removed all the flowers from the bucket, and extracted them from that weird green styrafoam-ish stuff that absorbs water and then degrades and gets everywhere and is such a pain to clean up. I picked through the mass of flowers, trimmed their stems and arranged them in the vases.
“Look at her,” Mom said. “She’s amazing. What is she doing?”
“I’m re-arranging the flowers in smaller vases,” I said.
“What is that, the big one?”
“It’s a delphinium. Or do you mean this one, the hydrangea?”
“That one. You know so much,” she said. Her eyes were almost sparkling.
“Mom,” I said. “You knew all about flowers. I learned all this stuff from you.”
“That’s amazing. Isn’t she amazing?” Mom said to Shedley. “How does she know these things?”
“From you, Mom. You were a great flower arranger.”
She looked oddly at me. “Who is there?”
I couldn’t interpret that one. I said. “Now you can just relax and let me arrange flowers for you.”
“Isn’t she amazing?” Mom said.

So here is my theory: for those who develop Alzheimer’s there is a correlation between the years spent acquiring language and the years spent losing language. Early language is mostly - but not always - general: flower, boy, mother, table, running, dog. Then it becomes more and more specific.
In Iggy’s case, for instance, he is onto photosynthesis, ottomans (yes, he referred to an ottoman the other day.), boa constrictors, villain, hydration, atmosphere, cement mixer, stegosaurus and killer whales. To make my conclusions more scientific, I have watched several grandchildren acquire language. Auben is now naming animals, and discussing tropical fruits and edible fish; he is learning all the words to help him understand death, and what it means that Bruno is in dog heaven. Minerva is still in the generalist phase: apple, cheese, and always, the names of her beloveds: Leda!!! Iggy!!!!
Meanwhile, for the past six years, more or less, I have watched and listened as Mom has lost language. Initially she forgot people’s names. Then went the names of particular trees or architectural styles or places or household appliances or foods.
I remember the first time she had no idea what pesto was. Pasta with pesto was a staple in our house; my mother’s pesto was a favored food of all 15 of her grandchildren. We all use her recipe, as do our children. And then one day she had no idea what this green stuff was.
So it was that first Mom lost the names of the trees and flowers: chestnut, stewartia, European beech, Koosa dogwood, gingko, American elm and black birch. Then she lost the word for that whole vegetable group, the splendid source of oxygen, shade and beauty: tree.
For now, she still has pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and some verbs. While Iggy and his cohorts are parsing philosophical concepts, prehistoric creatures and thanatology.

*I was hoping this book - with pictures! - might spark a glimmer of recognition. Back when, Mom was an architectural historian with an especial fondness for Palladio. The pattern of a Palladian window graced all her stationary, her reams of stationary. Sadly, Palladio means nothing to her now. Forcing me to ask, for the 839th time, how is this possible?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Unlikely Meeting of Fly Fishing and Instant Gratification



CSB and I just went Wyoming to learn how to fly fish with my nephew. (Yes, the same nephew who can ably shoot, skin, eviscerate and cook an elk, but we we did not learn how to do those things.) I knew nothing about fly fishing, but had conceived the idea that it was a ‘peaceful’ sport, a contemplative pastime during which one communes with nature, ponders life’s imponderables, and exercises patience and mindfulness near running water.

But before going to Wyoming to be patient and mindful in the wilderness, yet still on the subject of fly-fishing, I achieved instant gratification at a stop light in Dobbs Ferry.

It turns out that I am one of only thirteen literate Americans who have neither read A River Runs Through It, nor have seen the movie. The other 12 are in the federal witness protection program.

I was driving through Dobbs Ferry when I realized that I really couldn’t go to Wyoming without reading this book. But we were leaving the very next day. Then came the stop light, and there was my iPhone staring at me, being affixed to this very handy magnetic gizmo my sister gave me. (It is worth pointing out that my sister is probably responsible for more than half of the useful gizmos in my life.) With a mere flick of the finger, I opened the HOOPLA app, which allows me to borrow eBooks and movies and audible books. Through the library system! At no cost! There at the stop light I entered A River Runs Through it into the search box, and immediately was given the choice of several versions of that book read aloud. I chose the unabridged version, and hit the download button. Ta-da. By the time the light turned green I was listening to A River Runs Through It. Because of course I would never ever fiddle with my iPhone while actually driving. Nor should you.

While we were float fishing on the glorious Snake River, gazing at the magnificent Teton mountains, I often had occasion to think of that moment of instant gratification at the Broadway stoplight, while I was not catching any fish at all.

Above: Our wonderful guide, Caleb, demonstrates what a cutthroat trout would look like, should I ever catch one.

No fish were harmed in creating this edition of SQD.



Friday, September 8, 2017

Untrammeled water

The day before yesterday.
First of all my computer guy’s Emotional Support Dog (Ozzie, a Papillon, admittedly a very appealing dog) peed on the red club chair in the living room. Being about 6 inches high, Ozzie stood in front of the chair, lifted his tiny leg, and squirted the red fabric. (See below. Not to scale.)


I’ve had that chair and its mate forever, at least since my grandmother moved out of her house and no longer had a sewing room. The chair and its mate were made in the 1940’s by Italian craftsman (apparently, or according to my mother, Italian craftsman made all the finest furniture) in Egypt, and resided in Bon Papa’s study in the house in Mahdi.
I had forgotten about the Italian craftsmen and their furniture, until we moved my mother into the Red House next door. Much of the furniture she chose to take with her was from her parents’ house in Egypt, and whenever she showed anyone around her new home she explained that certain pieces were made by Italians in Egypt. She had a spiel, and that was a key part of it. My mother still refers to Egypt and often will say she spent most of her life there, as if those first 15 years (minus a 4-year wartime hiatus) comprised most of her life. I don’t correct her. She no longer knows where ‘there’ is, or what Egypt is. A country? A state of mind? A French novel?

In 1956, Bonne Maman and Bon Papa moved to America, instead of the south of France or Belgium, because their children were here, spawning more children. The club chairs, along with all their other furniture, were shipped to America in a huge wooden crate. A kind of ancestor to the intermodal containers that are currently plying the seas. My mother hired a carpenter (perhaps he was Italian?) to transform the crate into a playhouse for us, the grandchildren. He installed a pitched roof, and created windows with window boxes; there was a front door and even a front porch. I spent hours in that former-crate-now-playhouse reading aloud from the Green Book of Saints for Children.

As for the club chairs, from 1956 until she moved out in the 1980’s, they were in Bonne Maman’s sewing room, and were upholstered with the strangest red, yellow and black plaid linen. It was a plaid as imagined by a Belgian lady in Egypt. They were situated nearby the large bookshelf (ditto Italian craftsmen) bearing Journeys Through Bookland, ten volumes and a guide. This series was, at least in 1909, proclaimed as a “New and Original Plan for Reading, Applied to the World’s Best Literature for Children”. In Volume IV I read, and wept, over The Dog of Flanders. I read The Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog: “But soon a wonder came to light,/ That show’d the rogues they lied:/ The Man recover’d of the bite,/ The Dog it was that died.” In Volume VIII I read Kingsley’s The Three Fishes and Poe’s Annabel Lee.

Ozzie the Emotional Support Dog peed on the chair I had curled up in and read of dead dogs, and mad dogs, and beautiful beloved Annabel Lee in her sepulcher by the sea.

I cleaned it up, of course.

Then I flooded the downstairs guest room.

It happened thusly. I needed to wash the plastic trays from our handy countertop dehydrator, because I have been making vast quantities of dried tomatoes lately. I placed the trays in the kitchen sink to soak, and turned on the water. While the sink was filling with water, I ran downstairs to check a certain closet where I thought I might have stored, for safe keeping, my mother’s collection of Middle Eastern, Asian and African jewelry. I had no need of ethnic jewelry just then, or perhaps ever. But for reasons buried deep in my obsessive psyche, I had determined that what I needed to do was photograph all my mother’s ethnic jewelry and then disseminate those pictures to my siblings, children, nieces and nephews, so they could choose pieces and I would cease to be responsible for all this ethnic jewelry. In our world of cellphone cameras and instant downloads and email, this sort of dissemination is, theoretically, easy.
I guess it is obvious that my mother also had an obsessive psyche that compelled her to amass this collection of largely unwearable jewelry (unless you are a six-foot tall Berber nomad).


The box I sought was not in the closet downstairs, so I went through the basement hearth room and up the other basement stairs and then I noticed the postman delivering the mail. I said hello to the postman, but as usual he didn’t say anything. Unlike Richie our old postman who was friendly and always told me golfing stories, our new postman is extremely shy. That is what I have come to believe. He must be pathologically shy, unless he finds me so objectionable that he will never say hello no matter how cheerful I try to be. I prefer not to think that. I still say hello and wave whenever I see him pull up, as if I were Doris Day in an old comedy. That’s how I see myself. What he sees is Bette Davis in a creepy gothic movie.

Then I had to check the mail, in case someone had written me a love letter, or written to say I would be inheriting a small Caribbean island from a distant relative, or maybe just written me a postcard of a Jackalope. None of the above arrived. But I got the idea that I might have stashed the box of Mom’s ethnic jewelry in one of the cupboards in my office, because that would be so tricky, and then I checked all four cupboards. There was no jewelry of any kind, but I did find a small Moleskin notebook which would be perfect for Leda’s drawings. She always needs more notebooks. That reminded me that when she was visiting last weekend, she left behind certain articles of clothing, mostly socks, that I had washed. I went down to the laundry room to fetch them, so I could mail her the socks along with the notebook.

I still hadn’t found the box of ethnic jewelry and I wondered if it had been stolen, but that because I had hidden it away so well, I had never noticed. Who would steal weird unwearable jewelry? Who could even think such a ridiculous thing?

I got to the laundry room and heard water dripping. Somewhere. I thought it might have started raining again, and I would need to shut some windows. But it wasn’t raining. Could the dishwasher be leaking through the guest room ceiling again? I thought we had fixed that leak. I went down the hall to the guest room and water was leaking QUITE A LOT from the ceiling. Water was coming from a certain crack and then seeping out all along a crack that meandered from the center of the room almost to the molding. But this part of the ceiling was not underneath the dishwasher. Could it have traveled so far? Or could it be from the rain earlier? But that made no sense, because there is a whole room above the guest room, not a roof. Whatever. I went back to the laundry and got a pile of old beach towels, and a couple of buckets, and put them on the floor under the dripping.
Finally, I went back up to the kitchen. Sometime long before the search for the jewelry and the postman’s non-loquacity, I had left the water running in the sink. Water was pouring from the counter onto the floor. The puddles were impressive.

Yet there is something about watching footage of hurricane flooding that puts things in perspective. In the midst of obsession, perspective.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

I walked across the yard, past the squawking chickens, to visit with my mother in her Little Red House. She was lounging on the screened porch with Shedley. Mom told me that she had brought all this lovely wicker furniture with her from the Orchard."It was there. That's where it was. Over there." She gestured towards the long bench against the clapboard. "Except this. I don't know where this came from."
Then she dashed off to get something she wanted to give me (she frequently has items for me: mail she doesn’t understand, gifts I gave her years ago, random pieces of paper) and returned with a copy of What to Wear to See the Pope. The hardback, with the cover photo I never liked and the title in all lower case letters, which I also never liked.
Mom said, “I thought you should have this. It has something to do with you.”
“I wrote it.”
Shedley was trying not to laugh. "I told her that. I showed her your name."
I almost said, Don't you remember. A collection of short stories? Some of them even funny. With a character based on a certain Belgian mother.
“Well, there it is," Mom said.
“Thanks Mom,” I said.
“Have you ever seen this before?”
“I wrote it, Mom.”
I thought about saying, Don't you remember? You came to a couple of readings. You liked it, at the time. But I didn't say that. My mother remembers so little, and certainly not my short stories. There would be no point.
“So have you seen it? I thought you would want it.”
“I have seen it. Because I wrote the book.”
“So I was right. You do want it.”
“Not really,” I said. “I already have too many copies of the book. Let’s give it to Shedley.”
So my mother handed the book to Shedley, who was still suppressing her laughter, and said, "I haven't written in this, so you can have it."
I said to Shedley, "Just don't give it back to me. Even if you don't like it."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I need honey raw for my French bulldog allergies

This is for you grammarians out there. I need your help.

Let it Bee received this email:
The subject line: I need honey raw for my French bulldog allergies

The text: Empty.

What would you do?

Initially I assumed the sender needed raw honey for his/her French bulldog, who suffered from allergies.


CSB said no, I had misread it, that it was the sender who was allergic to his/her French bulldog.

But that seemed strange, because why would you have a French bulldog if you are allergic to French bulldogs? (English bulldogs are another fish altogether.)

Or, if the bulldog is allergic, how can you tell?

Do bulldogs even like honey? Or miel as we say in Paris?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Tillykke med fødselsdagen* and the Animal Kingdom

So yesterday was Mom’s birthday, which she would not realize if we neglected to tell her, but I am not going to ignore the birthday of the woman who, on the occasion of my 50th birthday, sent me 50 birthday cards, with Happy Birthday written in a different language on each and every one. This is not an exaggeration. Back in those distant benighted days before the Google Translate App, my mother sought out, researched, asked friends and acquaintances and somehow managed to learn how to say Happy Birthday in 50 languages. Between the two of them, my parents could manage nine languages…some of them fluently, others raggedly, but still. (English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Flemish) That meant she had to get forty more languages.
But before we would celebrate Mom’s birthday in the evening, I had the ladies of the Literature Club coming for our annual midsummer picnic. All was, or seemed to be, under control. CSB had mowed the lawn and helped me gather our random assortment of lawn chairs in a loose circle, in the shade of an unnaturally large birch tree. I had set out iced tea and lemonade and pink wine. Just in case someone wanted to soak her feet, I left the red and yellow plastic kiddie pool filled with water, and hoped no one would notice the flotilla of bugs. Then I headed down to the end of the field to pick sunflowers and…there, lying in the grass like a discarded rumpled tee shirt, was a dead raccoon. Quite newly dead. Eyes still open, mouth still agape.
This was a bad thing for two specific reasons. No three. First, the chickens were out of their pen and running all over the yard, and I didn’t want them finding this dead - and possibly rabid? - raccoon. Second, fifteen ladies were showing up in an hour or so, and in case one of them wanted to wander a bit, I really did not want them to come upon a raccoon carcass. Third, Mom and her caregiver, Ava, generally took a daily walk around the garden going past exactly this spot, and while a dead raccoon would give just about anyone pause, a dead raccoon could very likely cause Ava to have genuine hysterics. Ava has many fine qualities, but any degree of comfort with animals, rodents, or insects, dead and alive, is not among them.
But I wasn’t keen to touch this dead raccoon.
So I went to the shed and found an empty metal garbage bucket, and placed it directly atop poor dead Ranger Rick. CSB would do the rest.

Then the literary ladies came, and everything was fine, and no one was troubled by the upside down garbage bin concealing the dead and rotting raccoon, and we discussed books such as A Summer without Men and Exit West and The Idiot (by Batumen, not Dostoyevsky, though of course Dostoyevsky is the inspiration), and we sang the praises of the The Traveler Restaurant, a wonderful eatery and bookshop off 1-84 on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, filled with discarded books, where one can depart with THREE FREE (!!!) books, and we announced the blooming corpse flower at the Des Moines Botanical Garden, serendipitously concurrent with the annual Rag Ride (bike ride across Iowa),and we also discussed whether it was possible to acquire dual citizenship, as in from the country of one’s ancestors, and according to one member, one could - with proper proofs and documents - indeed acquire the nationality of one’s grandparent, though no farther back than that. For those of us with family relatively new upon these shores - that is to say, immigrants -- all sorts of possibilities were raised. Would I rather be Belgian or French or German? Would I get to vote in both countries’ elections?
Meanwhile the chickens clucked, and wandered around, and happily pecked the lawn looking for worms and grubs and ticks. Until a large (larger even than the dead raccoon under the metal garbage bin, but I didn’t mention that) woodchuck appeared. He just waddled out onto the lawn while chickens clucked at him. Who was more distraught? Several literary ladies saw the woodchuck, and that provoked a discussion of whether or not woodchucks are crepuscular animals. While we were not sure about the woodchuck’s habits, we all agreed that crepuscular was a fine word. Foxes are definitely crepuscular, except for the fox who recently attacked and ran off with one of our chickens (an Araucana) neatly clutched between his, or her, jaws. The woodchuck, being an herbivore, I think, never attacked the chickens, and finally returned to the ferns. The chickens continued their clucking.

Later the deer arrived, munching in their usual spot under the apple trees. Our resident ungulates have already consumed every apple they can reach, and they have likewise eaten all the young leaves and fresh bark on any new trees. The upper apples, high on the tree, are however quite available for the squirrels. Who have already consumed all, as in 100%, of our peaches.
With all the wildlife, dead and alive, I had occasion to miss Bruno and Daisy, in their salad days, back when the four-legged animals running round the yard were members of the family, beloved creatures.

Later Mom came for dinner so we could celebrate her birthday. I made lamb chops and sweet potato fries and salad with endives and cucumbers, all favorite foods, once.
She is losing nouns at about the same rate we are losing peaches. Yet I surprise myself by understanding what she means when she says: “The thing… it was a color…over there, before.” (Regarding a red dress she bought in Brussels.)
One of her sons called to wish her Happy Birthday. She looked at me with confusion. “Who is this? What do I do?” I told her it was her son Michael, her favorite (I always tell her the one on the phone is her favorite), and that the scarf I’d just given her to open was from him, so she should say thank you. This caused both Mom and Michael (who had not given her the scarf) to be equally confused.
Then I brought out the cake and explained about blowing out the candle. Eighty seven years and one inexplicable candle.

* Danish.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Last Day with IGGY

It was Iggy’s last day with us, and as he had every day he has been here, he crawled into bed with me sometime between 3 am and 7 am. Still, I roll ever and express surprise at this vision of tangled curls on the pillow.
Then begins the morning’s monologue.
“Nana, it’s raining.
So we won’t go outside, because we would get so wet. Unless we go to the pool, and then we get wet on purpose, but let’s not go to the pool this morning. Because it is raining.
But the plants like it. All your plants like the rain. Even the weeds. They are burglars of the plant world. They’re not regular burglars. They just steal the sun and water. And that is not good.
And also weeds can be found worldwide. Worldwide.”

The concept of a plant, or an animal, or an insect or even an idea, existing worldwide, is one that Iggy finds very compelling.

When Iggy came to us last week, I had never heard of Ninjago. And even when I did learn of Ninjago I could not pronounce it properly. I kept saying Nin-JAY-go, to rhyme with Lego, which made sense because the Ninjagos are in fact Lego creatures. That drove Iggy crazy, because they are properly called Nin-JAH-gos.

Now I can pronounce Ninjago and I have learned all about them. According to Iggy:
“Nana, this is green Ninja. His name is Lloyd. He has all the elemental powers: Ice, fire, electricity and earth. Those are Ninjago ones of them: they’re not real ones.
Kai the red Ninja has fire.
And Zane the white Ninja has ice. Z is the starting letter
Coal is the black Ninja and he is earth.
And Blue Ninja, that’s Jay, and he is lightning.
Where does it say electricity? It shouldn’t say electricity - It should say: Lightning.
Do you know what this weapon is called?
The hurricane of ice.
The dagger of earth.
The sword of fire.
And this, this is the nunchuk of lightning
Lloyd can make the golden dragon with his powers, when he is the golden ninja. He can even beat Sensei Wu and he is super good.
He can freeze stuff in the ice
He could make my foot not be able to move.
And Lloyd. He started out as a bad boy. After a long time he turned out to be the green Ninja. Isn’t that crazy?”

Since it continued to be a rainy day, we played UNO. But first, because I was shocked that this wise-guy didn't already know them, I thought I would teach Iggy the twelve months of the year: January, Fever, Marvelous, Apricot, Mayonnaise, Jungle, Jellybean.... Iggy didn't think much of my humor: "Nana, that is an enormous non-funny joke."
So we played lots and lots of UNO. We played an UNO marathon. Iggy was the first to win six games. Then we started another marathon.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Another day with IGGY

So this morning after breakfast and before camp Iggy and I decided it was high time to clean the wooden Chinese bird cage that has been hanging from the kitchen ceiling for the past 20-odd years. Collecting dust and dead bugs, especially dead stink bugs. There has never been an actual bird inside the bird cage, but there is a petrified baby alligator head, an oropendola nest, some fake brown and white eggs and a couple fake birds with wire talons, clinging to the outside of the bird cage.
I am not sure whether the reptilian head in question is mummified or petrified or just freeze-dried, but I do know that it was once alive. Because I told Iggy so.
“Nana, is this real?”
“Definitely,” I said. “It’s dead now. But it was once alive, entirely.”
“But not the eyeballs,” Iggy said. “They’re marbles. Of course. If they were real crocodile eyeballs, or any type of eyeballs, they would stink! I’m warning ya!”
“I stand warned,” said. “But we still don’t know if this was a crocodile or an alligator. Or something else.”
“If we see his teeth when he closes his mouth, then it’s an alligator,” Iggy said. “With crocodiles, the teeth stick out.”
“I don’t see your teeth when your mouth is shut, so you must be an alligator,” I said.
“But Nana, I’m not a reptile!”

Then I told Iggy that, according to a show about entomophagy that I heard on NPR, the absolute worst tasting insect of all the possible insects to eat, is a live stink bug.
He considered this. “But I know a big that tastes like pizza.”
“Seriously?”
“It has a white body, - the whole body is white - and then a red face. With one big eye. I think it is a grub. Yes! That’s it, a straight-up grub. And it tastes like pizza.”

It just so happens that today is Pizza Friday at Hastings Day Camp.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

DAY TWO with IGGY

Let’s start with the corrections.
My brother Michael wrote: BTW, venomous and poisonous are not synonyms.  Anything with poison is poisonous; only animals with venom are venomous.  So, while all venomous animals are poisonous, but not all poisonous things are venomous.  Just thought Iggy would like to know. (Why Michael could not have put this in the comments section of SQD is not addressed here. Reluctance and refusal are not synonyms.)

The next correction is not quite as clear. We checked the paper Tuesday morning for the official Jeopardy! answer to “one lethal type of this bone-free creature is the most venomous marine animal”….and it was “Jellyfish. Not Blue-ringed octopus, and not any particular type of jellyfish, just Jellyfish. There are thousands of different types of jellyfish, inhabiting every ocean. They can be found on the surface, on beaches, and way out in the deep sea. Given our household’s preference for specificity, “Jellyfish” was an entirely unsatisfactory answer. But Iggy could improve on it. “It’s probably a Box Jellyfish”, he explained. "Oh yes indeed! [he was becoming gleefully agitated] If you touch the bottom of the box jellyfish, or the top of the box jellyfish, or the tentacles of the box jellyfish, you get stinged and then [pregnant pause, lowering of voice] you are dead."


Then we went outside to splash in the plastic pool and cool off. Iggy leapt in and out of the pool and attached the hose to the waterfall gizmo so water could spray all over. I moved away from the pool. Iggy came and sat next to me, in one of our very old and mismatched but still usable lawn chairs. Once upon a time my mother had a set of matching black and orange Brown-Jordan lawn chairs, and once upon a time Chucker’s mother had a set of matching white poolside chaises, and once we had two matching green chairs; now we have a selection and each one is wobbly and distended in its own particular way. There on the black webbing of one of the chairs, Iggy saw something wonderful.
“Nana! It’s a robber fly!”
“A rubber fly? I don’t see anything.”
“A robber fly. Right there. Naturally, he has excellent camouflage. This is our lucky day!”
“Because we saw a robber fly?”
“Yes! They live worldwide. And they can be very sneaky.”
“I had no idea,” I said.
“They predators. That’s why it is so good we saw this one. We can make sure he doesn’t get any of your honeybees.”

So now you know. Our lucky day. Samuel Beckett would agree.





Tuesday, July 18, 2017

DAY ONE with IGGY


Our grandson Iggy is staying with us for a week - eight days to be exact, and Iggy is always exact - while his parents are in Iceland. Yes, Iceland, where all the hipster sheep plunge into geothermal pools and knit.
Iggy comes with a long list of instructions that cover important topics ranging from “poop sit” modalities, to bedtimes, to bubble blowing skills, to fruit and vegetable preferences.


This morning, Iggy was eating waffles dipped in Lithuanian honey (we are out of Let it Bee Hastings honey), which he said was good, but not as good as our own bees' honey.
We were sitting on the porch. I was nibbling on blueberries, and casting an eye on the crossword puzzle, then noticed this Jeopardy Clue of the Day.


“Iggy, what is the most venomous marine animal? Bone-free, so obviously not a shark.”
With a piece of waffle impaled upon his fork, he answered immediately, “The Blue-ringed octopus. Yes, definitely it’s the blue ringed octopus.”
“I have never heard of the blue-ringed octopus,” I said.
“If you touch one of the blue rings… zingo…you are seriously dead. Maybe if you touch the octopus not on the blue ring you might survive, but mostly, you die.”
“I think I will just steer clear of blue-ringed octopuses entirely,” I said. “But are you sure? More venomous than a sea snake.”
“Sea snakes have bones. Eels don’t have bones, but snakes do.”
“Of course.” I remember once buying several dozen snake vertebrae to give as party favors for a long-ago birthday party for Iggy’s mother.


One thing about Iggy - and presumably all small persons - is specificity. He is very specific, and he demands specificity from the rest of us, of me, his ofttimes vague grandmother. This morning when I was dropping him off at day camp, I said, “Grab your knapsack.” And was indignantly corrected. “Nana, you mean my backpack. If you say knapsack I won’t know what you are talking about. Also book-bag. If you say book-bag I will look for a bag full of books.”
“Okay,” I said. “Henceforth I will always say backpack. I will TRY to say backpack. But I might forget. Did you know, Iggy, that there are often many words for the same thing?”
“Like venomous and poisonous?”
“Exactly. Though that wasn’t what I was thinking of. How about happy? Can we think of ten words for happy?”
“Glad. Cheerful.”
“Joyful. In a good mood.”
“We need six more,” Iggy announced. Then we went down the grassy hill and met with the head of the Hillside Day Camp.
Upon introducing Iggy to the young woman with the clipboard and a satchel full of permission slips, he announced “I am six.” Next, because we noticed the bees amusing themselves in the clover on the grass at Hillside, he added, “I am not afraid of bees. Do you know why that is? Because my grandparents are bee farmers. Also egg farmers.”
Then I delivered Iggy to his group of campers and counselors.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Ones Not Chosen

While we are on the subject of how to stay sane while rehabbing and regaining the full flexion, extension and strength in one’s right knee, I should point out that I have had an unequalled opportunity to sink and swim in Belgian writing.

The theme to be explored, elucidated, exhausted and ultimately wrung dry in our Literature Club this year is “Literature of Our Ancestors”. As with more or less every theme we devise, this one can be interpreted in multiple ways. It can be the literature written by a particular ancestor. It can be the literature written by fellow countrymen of your ancestors. It may be whatever literature your ancestors chose to read. But which ancestors? Your parents may have been reading Ladies’ Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, John Updike and John Cheever; while your great-great-great grandparents back in the swamps of Wallonia were reading Balzac by gaslight; while your other great-great-great grandparents on the Norman coast were reading ships’ manifests and not much else. You just hope they were reading at all.

I could complicate the matter endlessly, but this year I will not. Or not entirely. Because no one else has Belgian ancestors (how odd that I feel confident this is the case) I have decided to present a program on Belgian writers, or a Belgian writer.

The first Belgian writer I considered was Maurice Maeterlinck. But several years ago, when our theme was Science and Literature, I presented a program that included Maeterlinck’s classic Life of the Bee. So forget Maurice, even if he and his lover, Georgette LeBlanc, did live for several years in a ruined abbey (Abbey of St Wandrille in Normandy) so vast that they went from room to room on roller skates.
Then I happened to hear of Emile Verhauren (1855-1916). I had never in my life heard of Emile Verhauren, but according to Stefan Zweig, who knew a lot, Verhauren was supremely important, the Francophone equivalent of Walt Whitman, and a founder of the school of Symbolist poetry. Arthur Symons wrote that Verhauren’s poetry “is made directly out of the complaining voices of the nerves.” He also wrote of Verhauren, that “there is something lacerating, and the same time bewildering, which conveys to one the sense of all that is most solitary, picturesque, and poignant in the transformation of an intensely active and keen-sighted reason into a thing of conflicting visionary moods.” Could this be fated? Many years ago, when our theme was Latin American Literature, my subject was Ruben Dario (1867-1916), who created the Spanish Modernismo movement, akin to Symbolism.
But I happened to have dinner soon thereafter with Annabelle, Marc and Maude, all genuine Belgians. Neither Annabelle or Marc (no slouches) had ever heard of Verhauren; Maude said she had read him in school and that he was very boring.
The next writer I considered presenting was Georges Simenon. The creator of Inspector Maigret, Simenon wrote at least 500 books and at some time in the 1960’s he was the most translated writer in the world. Yet for all that, nowadays he doesn’t even consistently make the list of Top Ten Most Famous Belgians.
Simenon wrote all the time, and he wrote a lot. He also had a lot of sex. In 1977, Simenon told Fellini that, according to his calculations, since the age of 13 and a half [I like the distinction of the half] he had sex with 10,000 women. If my math is correct, that is 61 years, or 22,265 days. So, he could have had sex with a different woman every other day, religiously, for 61 years. All while being married, serially, to two women and having two or three long-term and devoted extra-marital relationships.
Another interesting fact about Simenon is that his very first novel, Au Pont des Arches (never translated into English) was partially set in an apothecary specializing in laxatives for pigeons.
If you, like me, cannot fathom why a pigeon would need a laxative, or how a pigeon would express the need for a laxative, you will perhaps understand why I will not be presenting a program on Georges Simenon to Literature Club this year.

STAY TUNED FOR THE BELGIAN WRITER ACTUALLY CHOSEN…

Monday, July 10, 2017

Circumambulating with Buddenbrooks

While listening to Buddenbrooks, I walked ten times around the driveway, mostly not using the cane but, following instructions from Geraldine the physical therapist I was carrying the cane lest I become tempted to pull a weed or thirty and then be unable to get myself upright again. According to the app on my phone, the same phone on which I listened to Buddenbrooks, I walked 1633 steps or .73 mile.

There is parked in our driveway an 18-year-old Audi station-wagon, shorn of license plates, that has not been driven for at least 18 months. Our plan is to call some worthy charity and give them the car if they will come to our driveway and take it away. The possible worthy charities are so vast and diverse that choosing among them inevitably gives rise to marital discord and/or moral dilemmas: should this well-loved and much-driven agglomeration of metal parts benefit the National Eating Disorders Association or Surf Aid International, Mechanics who Care or Glaucoma Research, Autism Speaks, Alzheimer’s Association, Colitis Foundation, Home for Little Wanderers, or Sierra Forever Families? You can appreciate the difficulty: good arguments can be made.

Before we decide what worthy cause shall reap the financial benefits of the old Audi, it will have to be emptied out, because for now it functions as a tertiary honey-super and broken tools storage container. And how useful it has been.

Being permanently parked and unregistered, no one has thought it worthwhile to actually wash the old Audi, so its once shiny red paint is now overlaid with a bespoke combination of pollen, pine sap and pollution. I discovered that this made an excellent medium for keeping track of my driveway orbits. Each time I completed a circle, I made a mark on the Audi’s hood with the rubber tip at the base of my cane. (I took a photo to show you, but it looks like an unsightly smudge. Nothing more.) I was irrationally pleased with myself for devising this method of keeping track. Until today I can honestly say that after walking several times around the driveway - excellent exercise for my post-surgical revised right knee - not once have I been absolutely sure of the number of revolutions. Did I manage 10 or 11? Or only 9? I was distracted by pulling those weeds in the asphalt, and then even more distracted by noticing the proliferation of poison ivy vines on the scrawny hemlock trees between our driveway and our neighbors, the ones that look like dendritic meth addicts. (The trees, not the neighbors.)

Then, coming round the corner, I was again distracted by the slow-growing tricolor beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’. I love all beech trees, copper, purple and weeping. In my imagination the Buddenbrooks landscape is full of beech forests, and the houses are surrounded by beech hedges. That is not the case. Thus far there is only the avenue of beech trees on the road to Travemünde. Just that avenue by the seaside, and yet the beeches, their roots and their canopies, are intrinsic to Buddenbrooks.
About fifteen years ago my mother gave me this tree, back when she was still capable of choosing and buying an exotic chimerical tree. I like to remember that time when my mother knew a lot about trees. She researched trees. She had arborists on speed-dial. Having become enamored of this particular tree in the Smith College (the maternal alma mater) Botanical Garden, my mother planted a tricolor beech at the Orchard, and it slowly grew to an impressive size. Then something strange happened: it started to revert. This variety of beech has variegated leaves of purple and pink, copper and green; so it was very eerie when certain branches of Mom’s tricolor beech were only purple or only copper or only green. Just certain branches. Apparently this can happen to variegated plants: at some point they revert. Mine has not yet reverted. Perhaps because it is still so small, being such a slow-grower, the slowest growing tree I have.
Given such compelling distractions, it is a good thing I have the pollen-dusted Audi keeping track of my revolutions.
This is not the first or even the second or third time I have read Buddenbrooks, but it is the first time I have listened to it on Audible because it only recently became available on Audible. (27 hours for a mere 1 credit: a real deal.) I cannot adequately explain what I find so compelling about Buddenbrooks. (I feel that I do a better job of justifying my passion for Moby Dick, even though I have read Buddenbrooks more frequently and likely will again.) The story of the rise, and mostly the decline of four generations of grain merchants in a northern German city, in Buddenbrooks you will find allusions to almost any family dysfunction you can imagine. When I read the book I am constantly telling myself all the ways the story is not analogous to the story of my family. The Buddenbrooks family are from northern Germany, and my grandfather was Swabian, in southern German. (True, like old Johann B., my paternal grandfather married a Frenchwoman, my grandmother Germaine. In both cases, being patriarchies, the family ethos remained overwhelmingly Teutonic rather than Gallic, until the French strain creeped in. By which time it was already too late.)
The Buddenbrooks are grain merchants, and the Lehners dealt in cotton waste, in the twentieth, not the nineteenth century. The Buddenbrooks are most adamantly Protestants, most certainly not Catholics. The Buddenbrooks family line dwindles down to poor Hanno; while the Lehners breed prolifically and seem inclined to continue on that path. So, of course, the differences are vast.

Buddenbrooks remains a story of duty in mortal struggle with personal fulfillment, of family and business versus individualism and art. Clear winners are not possible. Keep walking.

By my calculations, which you are free to check and correct, if ten revolutions equal 30 minutes of reading time, (and assuming I only listen to Buddenbrooks while walking the driveway), then the book will be finished after 540 times around the driveway or 39.42 miles. I could be in Cold Spring Harbor or the Wawayanda State Park. Or I could be in my driveway.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

R.I.P. Dear Bruno

This week we lost Bruno, our beloved, Springer spaniel, formerly of the Daisy and Bruno sibling duo.
I say “we lost Bruno” because that seems to be the locution people use. I am not very comfortable with the expression, though I much prefer it to smarmily mystical “he passed.”
We didn’t actually lose Bruno. We never misplaced him. At all times we knew where he was. Bruno died. Bruno is dead and buried.


A few months ago Bruno started acting sick, and then sicker and sicker. We went to see Alan, our vet, but there was nothing obviously wrong, except the depredations of old age: arthritis, cataracts, deafness, incontinence. Possibly dementia, but how can you tell with a sweet dog?
We discussed euthanasia, but we didn’t think Bruno was ready. More honestly, we were not ready. Then I got a letter from our vet that he was retiring in Mid-May. Alan had been Bruno’s loyal caregiver since his fraught puppy years, and we’d always assumed he would be there with Bruno at the end.
So now we had a logistical problem compounded by a moral dilemma, admixed with all the emotional perturbation. If we wanted Bruno to be euthanized by Alan, whom he knows, then we had to do it sooner rather than later; because once Alan retired he would no longer have access to “controlled substances”. I hinted at the possibility of just maybe possibly hanging onto some ‘controlled substance’, for this very eventuality. Alan was clearly going to be strict about this, and who could blame him?

So Alan retired, and Bruno lived on, after his fashion.
During the heat wave last week he had a seizure. I was sitting with him on the kitchen floor. I tried to hold still his spasming legs. I stroked his head and back. Was that even the right thing to do? I told him I loved him. We comforted him. I figured that, whatever else, this was the end, or the beginning of the end, and there would be no annoying car rides to see a new and strange vet. We would make him as comfortable as we could, and let him go on his own.
But for two more days, Bruno held on. Mostly unmoving. He didn’t eat and only took the water that I spooned into his mouth. We kept him cool, or warm, and talked to him. Yet he kept on, and his pain became palpable. A friend recommended a local holistic vet who made house calls, and we called, and to my surprise, she came that afternoon. She affirmed that Bruno was indeed dying of kidney failure, and should have been dead days ago. But he has a strong heart, she said. A remarkable strong heart. I blubbered. Of course, I thought. He was all heart. He was not especially brainy, and he was certainly mild-mannered and always was beta to his sister’s alpha-ness. He didn’t like to swim and he, unlike his sister, he never caught any rodents. Neither did he ever bark or jump, or scare anyone at all. He let the grandchildren climb all over him. He was beloved. He had a strong heart.

From his early days, there was something miraculous about Bruno.


Back in 2003, demented with the flush of new love and domesticity, CSB and I decided to we needed to get a dog. Together. I studied books of dog breeds more diligently than I had ever studied history, and I really like history. When the children were young, we had two bulldogs and both died prematurely: one from craziness and one from congenital health issues. Much as I had loved those bulldogs, with their placid temperament, their extraordinary beauty and whimsical body odor, this time around I wanted a normal healthy dog. I wanted an ordinary dog without health or emotional complications. We heard that a local breeder had a litter of Springer spaniels he was selling, so we went to see them.
For reasons that still escape me, we came home with two puppies instead of one, a brother and a sister, littermates.
Because there were two the naming options multiplied. CSB liked Nip and Tuck. Our friend David suggested Cha-Cha and Hummer. Tristram had the idea of serial numbers, and barring that, Anthrax and Arsenic. I was heavily into hagiography at the time, so I lobbied, unsuccessfully, for Benedict and Scholastic (yes, they were siblings too.) Also being a Trollopian, I suggested Dandy and Flirt, for Lady Glencora’s matching ponies.

We named them Daisy and Bruno, because CSB considered Daisy to be an unfussy dog’s name, and Saint Bruno founded the great Carthusian order, devoted to silence and solitude. I thought the name Bruno would endow Bruno the dog with the necessary fortitude to balance Daisy’s alpha-ferocity.

Being puppies they were incredibly cute. Possibly the cutest puppies that ever graced this planet.

One by one, all the grandchildren came to know him and love him. They loved Daisy too, mostly, but she was so very alpha, and prone to jump. She was the born hunter, and produced the rodents and avians to prove it. She was a natural swimmer and Olympic diver. Bruno eschewed the water. Like Ferdinand, he liked to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers.
He let the children do whatever they liked. He slept under our bed. He never chased the chickens. He slept under the dining table while we ate, and under my desk while I worked. He was endlessly patient. He laughed at my attempts at humor, sometimes even let me cut out the hairballs on his beautiful floppy ears.

We miss him.