Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Curse at Foigny

Where is Bernard of Clairvaux when we need him? We are experiencing a strange and unpleasant visitation of many flies, oh so many sleepy sluggish houseflies; they fly slowly from windowpane to windowpane; they seek light; they march across sills and perch on muntins; they gather inside lampshades. According to CSB, they have come inside because of the suddenly cold weather and woken up with the heat to have one last fly around before expiring. I am glad he posited that explanation because otherwise I might imagine there was a rotting corpse in the basement.

Many years ago (circa 1121) there was a similar infestation of pestilential flies in the church at Foigny, France. Bernard of Clairvaux - preacher of the Second Crusade, healer of schisms, condemner of heresies, and, alas, opponent of Abelard – entered the church, uttered the anathema of excommunication upon the flies and behold, they all died.
I have threatened excommunication, flunking, dunking and shunning. All to no avail. The flies are indifferent to my pleas.
Yesterday I had limited success with a flyswatter and each success was accompanied by a streaky stain of fly-guts across a windowpane.
On this snowy rainy Sunday CSB went out and acquired a package of Fly Strips™ (La Mosquera) and we have hung the sticky pheromone imbued coils in all the appropriate places.
Number of flies currently adhered to said fly strips: zero.
Which brings us back to the need for Saint Bernard.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Day After

Much has been said about the soporific qualities of turkey, on account of the serotonin-increasing quality of tryptophans (though it should be noted that soy beans, pork chops and caribou all have more tryptophans per 100 grams than does turkey), but not nearly enough has been said extolling the pleasures of trivia games with questions compiled in 1927.
Who is the Pope?
What father and son were both Presidents?
(NB: the answers have changed.)
Who is a French female painter of animals?
Rosa Bonheur. I am embarrassed to say I did not answer this correctly. I should have. Bonheur was well known as an animalière, which is an actual word to describe an artist specializing in animals. Because she lived with a woman friend, wore pants and smoked cigarettes, she is often labeled a lesbian.

Who said that he would rather be in Hell with his ancestors than in Heaven with with his enemies? That would be Radbod, the last pagan king of the Frisians and great-grandfather of Saint Radbod who died in 918.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, of the omnivore’s dilemma, of gluttony and gourmandise alike, I would like to draw your attention to Saint Conrad of Constance (d. 975). His devotion to the communion wine was so great that when a spider - probably a common Daddy longlegs (Pholcus phalangiode) and not the European black widow (Latrodectus tradecimguttatus) - fell from her silken web into the chalice he held aloft, Conrad went ahead and drank the wine. Not only did he fully believe that the wine was the Precious Blood, but he also believed, as did everyone in the middle ages, that spiders were deadly poison. He believed he was drinking his last. Yet he drank down to the last drop in the chalice.

Conrad survived.

Monday, November 24, 2008

One thing I love about my Mother is her comfort level with Weird Juxtapositions

Early this morning my mother sends me an email about our Belgian cousin's second disastrous marriage and her upcoming divorce, and how her second creepy husband scheduled their day in court on the exact day my cousin needs to take her mentally disabled brother into the hospital for major surgery and how her younger daughter will have to postpone college and keep modeling and losing weight because her father, creepy philandering husband #1, refuses to pay, but the real point of the email is that my cousin would like some more of that wonderful Press’n’Seal® I gave her last summer and would I please buy some and send it to my mother and then she will send it to Belgium.
(Of course I could send it directly to Belgium, or my mother could buy it at her local supermarket and send it, but that is not how we do things. That is not the Walloon way.)
In the best of times, in the worst of times, even in Wallonia, we still have to wrap up the leftovers.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Silk in any language

I was shocked today to learn in Science News that honeybees make silk. Perhaps I should have known this all along. Silk is a remarkable fiber. Strong and flexible. There are of course those reliable silkworms; and there are spiders that weave their silken webs. But spiders don’t like being together; in fact, group living can make them cannibalistic. So scientists looking for additional ways to create silk are addressing the honeybees. Those sturdy, smart and industrious bees. Having sequenced the honeybee genome, scientists found four (4) honeybee silk genes.
In all those hours spent in glazed meditation upon the observation hive, I never realized that each larva in its cell was protected by a thin sheet of golden silk. One scientist speculates that it is the silk buildup inside the hive cells that makes things so crowded that the bees will eventually seek a new home. In other words, they swarm because they can no longer squeeze comfortably inside their honeycomb. I have my doubts about this theory because I’ve seen(admired, stood enraptured, been electrified as) bees in fairly new hives swarm.
Still, if a fiber 1 inch in diameter made of dragline (spider) silk is strong enough to pull a 747 down from the sky, imagine with rope made of bee silk could do.

And in case you were wondering: tarantulas produce silk from spigots in their feet. All eight of them.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fathers and Daughters

Antigone leading the blind Oedipus out of Thebes.
Normally when I randomly contemplate fathers and daughters it is in the context of either 1)poor martyred virgin saints slaughtered by pagan fathers furious at their refusal to be married off to an appropriate suitor, or 2) daughters (Antigone and Ismene) looking after their aged fathers, often while the brothers are off fighting battles or arguing over the kingdom, as do Polynices and Eteocles in Oedipus at Colonus.
There is no rational reason I should have observed that not since 1963, and John Kennedy Jr, has a son lived in the White House.
Every president since then has had daughters, often pairs of daughters, though occasionally just one. If they had sons they were much older and did not live with their presidential parents.
What does this signify? Don’t try running for president with young sons? Would a candidate with a teenage son be looked upon with extra suspicion? Or is it that fathers of daughters have more of that particular self-punishing ambition (hubris?) that animates a presidential contender?
And what of the daughters?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Punica granatum

The sixteenth century Blessed John Licci’s life is a list of marvels and since his life went on for an inordinately long time (110 years), it is a long list. But it all began with crushed pomegranates. Absent a mother (she died in childbirth) John was raised by his hapless father who fed him crushed pomegranates. Or so says one of my sources. The source of all sources, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, does not mention the pomegranates, though the hapless father, the marvels and the longevity all figure.
Pomegranates figure largely in my family’s cuisine as well. The first things I knew about pomegranates were that they were messy to eat and delicious. The next thing I knew was that back in Egypt my grandparent’s cook in Mahdi cleaned pomegranates for my mother and every day after school my mother ate a bowl of perfectly removed pomegranate seeds.
Sometime after that I learned of Persephone (presumably in Edith Hamilton. Where else?) who was abducted by Hades, King of the Underworld. While she was down there she ate six pomegranate seeds, and because she succumbed to that sweet and sour delicious-ness she was condemned to spent six months of every year in Hades, while the rest of us got the seasons.
What do pomegranates have to do with John Licci’s longlived-ness?
Why do I insist that one must eat the white seed and not merely the succulent red flesh, believing as I do that this was the reason for Persephone’s half year sequestration?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Squirrrel stew and Maxellendis's bones

Daisy still has mange. But it must be improving, as in, the mites must be dying off because she is more herself. Her personality is returning to its alpha-ness. Daisy showed up with a dead squirrel dangling from her jaws this morning. Sometimes she gnaws on squirrels, sometimes she shares them with Bruno and sometimes she delivers them to me, as tribute.
And what do I do with a dead squirrel?
Little did I know. Until last week’s crossword puzzle when the clue was: Ingredient in Brunswick Stew. The answer? Squirrel. To make a batch of Brunswick Stew to feed a crowd, you will need 70 squirrels, cut up. You must also remove their furry tails, as these would cause gastric disturbances if ingested. You will also need lima beans and salt pork, two other ingredients I rarely cook with.

Given the average Dark Ages cuisine, Saint Maxellendis would presumably not have turned up her nose at squirrel stew. Au contraire.
Poor Maxellendis. There seems to be no end to the indignities she suffers. Back in the seventh century she strongly objected to her parents’ choice of a husband, one Harduin. She ran away and hid in a clothes chest. But, sadly, Harduin found her hiding place and killed her with his sword. At the moment of impact, he was struck blind. Maxellendis was duly buried in a nearby church “where she was the occasion of many marvels”. Meanwhile, Harduin repented his wickedness and when he fell to his knees before her coffin his sight was restored.
Since that time, Maxellendis’s relics – her skull and many bones – have been treasured and encased in reliquaries of gold and encrusted with gemstones, and duly displayed in the churches lucky enough to have such relics. Until about ten years ago when a gang of Romanian thieves broke into the Church of St. Martin in Le Cateau, Nord, France and stole a bejeweled monstrance in which Saint Maxellendis’s finger bone rested on a red silken pillow. It took two years for the crime to be solved, and it was in a Newark, NJ courtroom where the relic of Maxellendis was returned to its rightful owner. If there is such a thing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

YES WE CAN have urban bees

Above: Rooftop hives at undisclosed location translate to Let is Bee Local Honey.

One additional way Mayor Bloomberg could achieve his goal of an “environmentally sustainable 21st century city” at NO COST to the city would be to rescind the ban on honeybees (Apis melifera) in the five boroughs.
At no cost because beekeepers would be happy to set up hives on rooftops and in backyards. These bees would be happy to pollinate the one million trees that Bloomberg plans to plant in the next ten years, as well as all the existing trees and flowers. The bees would happily - and at no cost – collect nectar and pollen from the city’s greenery and produce local honey that would provide unique health benefits to all the residents of the city.
Given the current crisis in the honeybee population, and the much lamented disconnect so many urbanites have from the natural world, welcoming bees into the green pastures of NYC would signal a municipal willingness to be in the forefront of reclaiming that natural world for our urban population.

What with the rapturous response to the election of Obama, the US is now poised to regain some goodwill and credibility abroad. What better adjunct to that positive step than to align ourselves with the venerable tradition of urban beekeeping? In Paris there are beehives atop the roof of the Opera House producing over 200 pounds of honey annually; for highly inflated prices you can buy Opera honey in the gift shop downstairs and at Fauchon; the beekeeper cannot fulfill the demand. Elegant hotels keep rooftop hives to supply their guests with local honey. Beehives are a common sight in the city gardens of Berlin, where there are approximately 500 beekeepers. The Czech republic claims to have more than 50,000 beekeepers, which means that one of every 210 Czechs keeps bees; so naturally Prague is full of apiaries. In London you can find beehives atop the Bank of England, but not enough apparently, since – according to the Telegraph because of the honeybee shortage, England will run out of local honey before Christmas this year.

According to Jürgen Hans, chairman of Berlin's beekeepers' association, "Cities are ideally suited for bees.” And I concur. Advantages of urban apiaries include the lack of agricultural pesticides in the city, the warmer climate that translates to a longer collecting season for the bees, the variety of the flora, and the enormous health benefits of locally harvested honey for all those who suffer from seasonal allergies.
In fact, the economy would benefit from the diminution of sneezing, runny eyes, and congested sinuses in businesses all over the city. Because the bees collect nectar and pollen from the very plants that irritate the nasal passages and cause all that allergic misery, a teaspoon of local honey daily acts on the homeopathic principle of giving you a minute amount of that very allergen and hence immunizing your system. In the countryside people have known this for centuries and treat themselves with honey; why should not the residents of New York City have the same advantage?
With the election of Barack Obama, we have just witnessed a seismic shift in the American politic landscape and the fall of an enormous barrier. Removing honeybees from the listed of banned ‘wild animals’ in New York City would represent the fall of yet another barrier, one that separates American city dwellers from the wonders of the natural world and the flavors of homegrown honey.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

CYBI, The George Hamilton of Saints

Happily it is the feast of Saint Cybi, the only saint known for his tan. Happily, because we needed to take a break from our household’s unfortunate preoccupation with microscopic parasites this week.
Last week it was ticks, which are larger. An evening was spent watching my brother, Carl pick deer ticks from Oliver, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel of a very agreeable disposition. Carl, who is so clean he has been known to wash your plate while you are eating from it, and who drives a six year-old car that is as pristine as they day he pulled out of the lot, and whose basement floor is truly that proverbial “so clean you could eat off it” – this same Carl was removing ticks from his beloved (and otherwise very clean) dog with the tweezers component of his also beloved Swiss Army knife. In case you have not had the pleasure, any occasion of tick removal in the company of one’s siblings gives rise to fond memories of all the various methods of tick slaughter, destruction, and eradication in our shared youth. These include – but are not limited to – conflagration, crushing, explosion, implosion, truncation, decapitation and dismemberment.
Watching the deticking I secretly congratulated myself for not having brought along my dogs, who would surely have attracted far more ticks than tiny Oliver.
Premature congratulations as it happens. For this week Daisy was diagnosed with mange. Mange is just as it sounds: rather revolting and of course, mangy. Otherwise, mange is an infestation by parasitic microscopic mange mites. You will be pleased to know that Daisy’s mange is not infectious; at least, neither Bruno nor we have caught it. I am treating it with a propolis-based cream called Hoof Balm, developed by an upstate beekeeper to treat his miniature horse. We describe the situation thusly: Daisy is not herself. Causing me to think about what it means to be oneself.
Which brings us to Saint Cybi, a sixth century Welsh abbot for whom I harbor a special fondness because my friend B and I trod in Cybi’s footsteps on the lovely isle of Anglesey. Cybi’s best friend was Saint Seriol who lived at the opposite end of Anglesey. Each morning the two friends set off from their respective hermitages and met mid-island to converse until dusk. Cybi lived on the western end of the island and so he walked into the morning sun - hence the tan for which he became famous. How does it compare to George Hamilton’s tan? We will never know. Meanwhile, poor Saint Seriol was chronically pale and wan.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Day After

How did we celebrate the election of Obama?

First I went and told the bees. For reasons that are buried in the mists of time as well as patently obvious, beekeepers are highly superstitious and believe it is essential to tell the bees any good or bad news. Frankly, elections usually count as neither, but this time we made an exception. I mentioned that under new leadership, the EPA might even see its way to banning the insecticides and pesticides that are killing their fellow bees.

Midday found me at an assisted living facility up north where an octogenarian former member of the Ladies Literature Club now resides, and where a dozen us went to help her celebrate an important birthday. By tomorrow she will have forgotten our presence, but it was lovely to see her at that moment. Lunch was served and it was devoid of any spices or sharp edges. Our conversation ranged from a recent crime wave of stolen tires to Obama, from offspring in the Peace Corps to Obama, from aggressive swans and geese to Obama, from the correct word for a headscarf to Obama. We were of many different ages, backgrounds, and religions (though not race) and we were universally amazed and delighted by this sea-change. One septuagenarian mentioned that her mother had three children before she ever voted. I first assumed her mother was a child-bride. But no, it became clear: her mother had married in 1910, 10 years before the 19th amendment.
Several women mentioned the death of Obama’s grandmother and questioned when he would get to the funeral, and when he would have time to mourn her, and lamented that his moment of victory was tinged with this sorrow. They were deeply worried about this, and moved.
There was zero conversational opportunity for me to mention Saints Galation and Episteme and their bizarre and unconsummated marriage, or Saint Bertila, who as abbess ruled over Queens Hereswitha and Bathildis. (This is quite normally the case, hence this blog.)
Had I been quicker, I might have mentioned Saint Martin de Porres whose feast it was. Born in Peru in 1579, he was the son of a Spanish knight and a black Panamanian woman, and was known for his gentleness and generosity to the poor, as well as his concern for the black African slaves transported into Peru. He is the patron saint of social justice.

For dinner I made French onion soup (key are caramelized onions and port wine) to honor the United States’ presumptive rehabilitation within the international community.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

All SAints All the Time

It seems remiss in the extreme that I wrote nothing on All Saints Day, of all days. The following are my excuses, though there are no excuses.
Here are my son and his beloved, heading off into the night on the Eve of All Saints, looking their best.
Masks are wonderful things, it is true, but we stayed home and labeled honey jars, because Saturday we took Let it Bee Local Honey to the Farmers Market. (Have you ever been tempted to procure a supply of one-dollar bills at your local supermarket? I did, and the woman behind me in line said, “You must be either playing cards tonight or going to see a male stripper.” I would like to report that I said of course it was the latter.)
The following day, being All Souls’ Day, we visited a private menagerie. Somewhere in the upper reaches of Westchester County there is an estate (open to the public once a year) where for reasons unknown the vastly wealthy owners have collected an assortment of exotic animals. There were several camels, one with a severely misshapen & lopsided hump, listing dangerously off to one side. The ever-observant grandchild noted that camels have ‘stinky breath and ugly teeth’. Perhaps the most disturbing animal was the albino kangaroo. This is a real animal and it looks extremely unhappy. Although it does hop.
Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents. This fact was mentioned somewhere in an early story of mine, and to this day it is the only thing about that story my mother and sister remember. I am grateful they remember anything at all. Capybaras are native to South America, and not northern Westchester. You would not keep one on account of its good looks.

Flimsy excuses indeed.
Especially when you consider that yesterday was the feast of Saint Winifred who, while not technically a true cephalophore, deserves mention in their ranks. A devout virgin (they are always devout virgins) she was cruelly beheaded by the spurned Caradog. But along came her uncle, Saint Beuno, who took up her severed head, replaced it on her neck, where it instantly reattached itself. Meanwhile, the spot in the stream where her head fell was stained red, and has remained so to this day. You can visit her shrine at Holywell in Wales, dip your fingers in the water, and buy many souvenirs in the adjoining gift shop.

Then there is Blessed Ida of Toggenburg, of whom Alban Butler says: “This fictitious romance is a story of innocence maligned and patiently suffering undeserved punishment.” She was the absolutely faithful wife to a seriously bad-tempered husband, Count Henry of Toggenburg. One day an Italian in their household, Dominic, made a pass at the lovely Ida and was rejected. This vengeful Dominic then went to Count Henry and accused Ida of having improper relations with her servant. Meanwhile, a ring of Ida’s that had been lost was found by a magpie, carried off to its nest, and then found by the servant in question. He slipped it on his finger. When Count Henry saw the ring on the servant’s finger, he recognized it at once as his wife’s, and flew into a rage. He rushed off and defenestrated his wife from a high tower.
You get the idea.
And just one more to tax your credulity. Saint Rumwold was born to the King and Queen of Northumbria in the seventh century. He was immediately baptized, preached a sermon, and then died when only three-days old.