Thursday, December 31, 2009

An Apian motif

Perhaps your holidaze had a theme. Perhaps not.
One of the more bizarre aspects of beekeeping is discovering the enormous amount of bee-themed tchotchkes there are out there. I should have known.
But first some history: Many years ago we had bulldogs. My former mother-in-law’s family had kept bulldogs since the blustery day they hopped onto Plymouth Rock.
Initially I was terrified by the family bulldogs (growling, large protruding teeth, general bulk) but later I merely found them hideous. That too passed, as do so many aversions, and I grew to love the bulldogs so fervently that we eventually got one, and then another of our own.
By then I considered them to be the loveliest and wisest of creatures. I admired their ability to sleep all day, and I was in awe of the trajectory their drool could achieve by a simple shake of their enormous heads. Additionally impressive was the complete inability of a bulldog to survive ‘in the wild’. Not only were bulldogs pups always delivered by C-section, on account of their heads being too wide for the birth canal, but also insemination had to be effected artificially, on account of the impossibility of the male bulldog completing the act without getting stuck.

Not having grown up with dogs, I was blissfully unaware of the breed-specific paraphernalia that comes with them. I learned. While we had bulldogs, every Christmas and many birthdays were accompanied by gifts of dubious taste portraying bulldogs on a variety of objects. Objects with which you had never before associated bulldogs. Therefore I do not mention porcelain figurines of Union-Jack wearing bulldogs or prints of bulldogs playing poker. No, I am referring to bulldog paper towel dispensers, and bulldog doorstops and footstools, bulldog lamps, earrings, gravy boats, andirons, scissors, bath mats and candy jars.
You get the idea.

Our last bulldog died in 2002. By then I was divorced; acquiring another bulldog would have felt presumptuous.

Besides which, CSB, kind though he was with the late Billie, was not a bulldog aficionado. A year or so later we got 2 springer spaniels who do not seem to inspire themed gift giving.
Then came the bees.
Again, I should have predicted.
But I will insist that the decorative use of bees is intrinsically more tasteful than that of bulldogs. The Cretans made gold earrings in the shape of honey-dripping bees. Napoleon took bees as his symbol, and Empire furniture and fabric are thereby much adorned with their elegant shape.

Viz. Napoleon’s velvet robes in this portrait by Ingres.

That was a long and roundabout introduction to what was meant to be a short and pithy homage to our bee themed gifts this past Christmas: the finger puppets, wind-up toy, candle-holder, hooks, toiletry case, note cards and of course the soap. I love the soap.

In case you are wondering, sometimes I receive hagiographic gifts but these are fewer, and beloved CSB does not find them remotely as entertaining as I do. (Saint Theresa of Avila in a snow globe? What is not to like?)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

After the holidaze

In the interest of underscoring the surreality of Christmas, a few random notes (I used to have a brain that could organize details and form a coherent narrative; but that was before the holiday sugar gluttony. Now I speak in palindromes & lick the insides of my pockets.):

I don’t know what your Clara looked like, but ours (The Nutcracker at the Tarrytown Music Hall) had braces. I think they were Russian braces. Also one of the Snowflakes was pregnant. Hence the pauses.

Christmas Eve brought the arrival of the Aged P’s, with their long and short memories and balms of forgetfulness. It is such multilayered forgetfulness that gives rise to variations on re-gifting, bringing that somewhat maligned but useful tradition to new and arcane levels of complication.
For instance: knowing my fondness of all things Nicaraguan my mother gave me a ceramic decorative plate from Nicaragua that was given to her about 10 or 12 years ago by a Nicaraguan friend. I know this because he gave me one as well. I have since donated my decorative (but ugly) plate to the church fair. So imagine my delight when I was presented with yet another.

The black handbag with gold chain and a bejeweled clasp also came with a back story. Many years ago a neighbor of my parents died. She was reclusive and in fact my parents barely knew her, but her youngest son was a great friend of all of us. It turned out that this reclusive lady – and this was long before the days of online shopping – was a compulsive telephone shopper, and her house was full of unused and often unwrapped boxes from Saks and Lord & Taylor, full of mink hats, evening bags, designer handbags, cashmere bed-jackets, and black negligees. Days after this neighbor’s death, my mother opened her door to find Fred (the son, our friend) bearing piles of boxes full of his mother’s treasures. In his wisdom, Fred considered my mother the most stylish woman he knew and therefore the proper recipient for this bounty.
The white mink hat (think Hostess Sno Balls before they made them pink) has already come my way, and it’s in my back hall with the label still attached – in case you are interested.

One of the ways my mother has entertained herself these past few days is reading my daybook. It takes a very special person to find this book interesting because (other than my collages which are either the work of genius or a mental defective, depending on your POV) this book merely lists my daily activity in the driest and most unadorned way I can manage. (I do not always manage.) That very special person is my mother, she who corrects the spelling on restaurant menus, corrects the architectural descriptions in real estate adverts and now corrects the spelling in my daybook. “Zut alors! Surely you know that cauchemar has a U in it.”

Maybe you’ve been finding the holidaze a tad stressful and gloomy. If that is the case, you could have found consolation for your condition at the Blue Service, designed especially for the miserable, rotten, brutish and short. But you chose not to go. No one did. You preferred to suffer alone.

Which brings us to Saint Fabiola, of lost portrait fame.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How much fun is blanching almonds?

How much fun is blanching almonds?
Quite a lot of fun.
And that is a good thing because I have been a frequent almond-blancher of late.
Why frequent?
It goes back to a discussion last week of the numerous & multifarious holiday baked items that are piled in ancient tin boxes in the pantry, and CSB’s lamentable observation that there was not a macaroon among them.
No macaroons! Zut Alors! Heaven forefend!
It seems that macaroons are de rigueur for the holidays in the hallowed halls of Bedford and the Colony Club.
I have nothing against macaroons. I am fond of them, but that is not saying all that much since my sweet teeth are famous on seven continents.
But what kind of macaroons? When I think of macaroons I think of coconut. I am fond of coconut, in more or less all its permutations, harking back to travels along the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica and stopping every few miles at a roadside stand to buy yet another pipa for my son who had just discovered these local delicacies and had no sense of moderation. Pipas are whole young coconuts with a straw stuck through a hole in the outer shell so that you can drink the coconut water. Young T’s overindulgence in pipas en route to Cahuita had the should-have-been-obvious result.
But CSB does not like coconuts. (I have noted that certain otherwise perfectly reasonable people have an inexplicable aversion to coconut, my sister among them. She has other strange predilections I will not mention here.) The macaroons to which he longingly referred could only be almond macaroons. And this presented a problem, because it seems that in all my vast experience I have never properly made almond macaroons.
I made the first batch with Odense almond paste, and the less said about them the better. I blanched the almonds to put atop the macaroons, but they could not save the day. They could however amuse me. The point of blanching almonds is to promote ease of skin removal, and that skin removal is what is so much fun. With just the slightest pressure of thumb and forefinger, the wily little almonds just pop out of their skin and fly all over the kitchen. (This excited Daisy and Bruno until they realized that nuts were not squirrel meat or old cheese.) Further fun can be had by learning to aim the flying blanched almonds. At first I was delighted to watch them vault into the mixing bowl, but then I got ambitious. I aimed for the recycling bin and achieved the floor. I aimed for the rosemary plant and achieved the floor. I aimed for Daisy’s open mouth and achieved the rosemary plant. I aimed for CSB’s coffee cup, and the results are not yet determined.
For the second batch of macaroons I followed a Martha Stewart recipe. Because Martha Stewart knit ponchos when she was in prison and I happen to be a first-class poncho knitter, so this seemed an appropriate choice.
Her recipe does not call for almond paste but instead for pulverized blanched almonds; as you can imagine, this involved blanching many almonds and this was so entertaining that I became giddily optimistic for the results of these macaroons.
Did I over-blanch the almonds?
Is it possible to over-blanch almonds?
Or did I skimp on the sugar?
Should I have snuck in some almond extract even though Martha doesn’t call for it?
I have another recipe I will try tomorrow. This one calls for pulsing the blanched almonds together with the sugar, and I anticipate enjoying pulsing as much as I enjoy blanching.
It also calls for almond extract.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Alternative Version of Events

Given that it is the season of goodwill, red velvet, gold ribbons and refined sugar as well as the annual spike in the national suicide rate, you may very well be asking yourselves: what could Christine possibly be doing that is so compelling it kept her from blogging about La Griteria, Saints Budoc, Mennas, Eulalia of Merida, Daniel the Stylite and Lucia.

I will tell you.


On La Gritería (In Nicaragua the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a dogma taxing to the credulity, is celebrated with fireworks, public revelry and chanting.) I made dozens of cocoa rum balls. These involve the mixing together of many healthy and alcoholic ingredients, then rolling the paste between the palms of your hands to make little spheres, and then rolling the spheres in confectioners’ sugar. They are even better after being locked inside a metal box for a week.

The next day was the feast of Saint Budoc. He was a perfectly fine abbot, but his mother, Azenor, was remarkable: when her father was being attacked by a snake, Azenor smeared her breast with milk and aromatic oil to lure to snake away from her beleaguered Papa and onto her breast. Naturally the snake obliged. But the snake wanted to stay on that comfortable spot, so Azenor was forced to chop off her own breast and throw it into the fire. God recognized her for this kind act by replacing the charred breast with a new breast made of gold. Later she survived five months sealed inside a casket in the ocean, and in fact she even gave birth to Budoc inside that cask.
I made candied orange peels. Candied orange peels are my new favorite way to put myself into a hyperglycemic coma.

On the anniversary of the miserable death of Saint Mennas (eyes and tongue plucked out, feet flayed, beheaded) I made anise drop cookies. The thing about anise cookies that intrigues me is that after making the batter and dropping into onto the cookie sheet, you have to leave them out overnight before cooking. If you fail to do this, the cookies will have the texture of socks. Otherwise, they are a delicious soft and crunchy paradox. That same day was also the feast of Saint Eulalia of Merida (asphyxiated by the smoke from her burning hair), because there is little more appealing to a painter than the opportunity to paint a bloodied and naked young woman on the snow.
Painting by John William Waterhouse

To honor the feast of St Daniel the Stylite (the second-best-known of the pillar saints, they who sit atop pillars for ridiculously long periods of time, after St Simeon the Stylite, the best-known) I made gingerbread. And why is this gingerbread so good? Because it contains mustard (the dried kind in the lovely yellow tin) and candied ginger. Now candied ginger is rather difficult to chop (try it if you don’t believe me) but I have come up with a solution. I freeze it first, and then it cracks apart so easily you (I) wonder why it took so long to figure that out.

Painting by Domenico Beccafumi.
And then on the feast of Santa Lucia I made meringues. There is very little I can tell you about Saint Lucy that is true. When the wicked Diocletian sent her to be ‘exposed’ in a brothel, God made turned her to stone so that she became immovable. When Diocletian minions set her aflame, she did not burn. In order to dissuade an over-eager – and pagan – suitor, Lucy ripped out her eyeballs and presented them to the hapless swain. But God put them back in.
What color were her eyes? Probably not red or green, but those were the colors of the meringues I made. CSB, being the purist in the house, was distraught to see the tell-tale little bottles of food coloring, but in this holiday season certain aspects of our domestic order are jettisoned (good taste?).
Meant to look like eyeballs on a platter.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Of Bees and Broccoli

Yesterday’s temperatures reached an unseasonable 66˚ (that’s 19˚ higher than the normal high of 47˚) and the bees of Let it Bee ventured from their hives in search of nectar and pollen. But it is December and the pickings were slim.
What they found was broccoli. When we were putting the garden to bed a few weeks ago, CSB wisely realized that the broccoli flowers were still beckoning the bees, and so we left them to keep bolting and flowering.
Now broccoli is a funny looking plant (but not, I think, as funny-looking as Brussels sprouts or artichokes). In botanical circles there is heated debate about which came first, the broccoli or the cauliflower. One camp asserts that broccoli came about when gardeners starting growing cabbages for their shoots, and from there cauliflower was developed and of course prized because it was white instead of green. (That color hierarchy seems to be a truism in the vegetable world. Viz. asparagus.) The other camp asserts that the broccoli is a mutant form of cauliflower that evolved during the Damp Decades of the Late Medieval Green Period.
The name broccoli comes from the Italian, and means “little arms” or “little shoots”. I’m not sure where the name cauliflower comes from, but it is a term of endearment in French, as in, “mon petit chou-fleur”.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What comes after

Our national day of mandatory gratitude and gluttony and yclept Black Friday are receding into the tryptophan-dazed past; what remains for me is the intensity of my basement clean-up.
Already I regard it as its own kind of frenzy.
Nor does it take quantum mechanics to recognize the dialectic,
the pushmi-pullyu, the ying & yang of the gorge/purge pattern just enacted.
For three days I pulled out everything in the basement, put some things back – but labeled and sorted - and threw much away. We took 2 full truckloads to the DPW facility (trash and recyclables); I packed up boxes to give away to charities (And according to my daughter, leave them the task of throwing things away).
Have I mentioned how satisfying this all was?
Among the jettisoned items were:
A ceramic turkey
A non-functioning/never functioning mantel clock
About 400 pounds of dirt
6 rusted coal burning fireplace covers
Broken and sometimes intact glass urological X-ray plates, from the 40’s and 50’s
Broken skis
Broken hockey sticks
Broken tennis rackets
A motorcycle seat covered in red Naugahyde
I will stop now.

As much as I enjoy this sort of thing, I realize it is prompted by the middle-of-the-night fear that I will be run over by a speeding ambulance or impaled upon the antlers of a vengeful deer (though I try to emulate SS. Eustace and Hubert and their instant conversions as perpetrated by visions of the cross between the antlers of the hunted stag, but I fail to see anything between the antlers but bearers of Lyme ticks), and then my children, in the midst of their busy lives, will be forced to clear out this house. And they will not speak kindly of their dear-departed mother. No, they will find themselves asking:

Why did Mom think she needed three separate collections of faux fruits? Did she really need this chart of the parts of the eye? What about this 1955 Conversational Arabic? How many broken door knobs is too many? These Christmas decorations I made in third grade were not great them and now that they’ve been nibbled by a mouse they are even less appealing. Was she stockpiling floral oasis against a worldwide shortage of green Styrofoam? And did she have to keep the maps she drew in the 6th grade? Half the countries are no longer extant. Did she ever plan on hanging this mussel shell wreath? Or wearing it?
Did she really toss away our patrimony on straw hats for shrunken heads? And why does patrimony refer to the wealth we inherit from our father/parents, while matrimony means the legal union of 2 people?

No. When they retrieve my flattened body from beneath the ambulance I would like their grief to be untinged with resentment at the mess I have left behind, so I clean the basement.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What do a state dinner at the Obama White House

and dinner chez Let it Bee have in common?

We both serve Local Honey from our own well-tended beehives.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Visiting Vermeer

(Above:Today, a wall full of reproductions of the known Vermeers in the world.)

At 4 this morning I was wide awake with the realization that if I did not go to the Met this very day to see Vermeer's "Milkmaid" then I would have totally missed the opportunity and would rue my bad planning. So I went.

The milkmaid wears a red skirt, a blue apron (note there is a new blue dye just discovered in a lab in Oregon), a yellow laced-up chemise with the sleeves pushed up, and a fetching white wimple.
Admiring her were a redhead in a quilted jacket; an academic older couple in matching tweeds; a Japanese man who had strayed from his group, wearing a Kelly green sweater; an older man with a corona of white hair and a perfectly creased blue suit; a Russian woman (I think) in a trench coat; a woman wearing an embroidered Indian jacket of the same ilk as that last seen on Hillary Clinton as she spoke to the troops in Afghanistan; a priest; a women in a bright red hoodie sweatshirt; a boy with droopy pants, a ski cap and a shockingly bright turquoise tee shirt; a portly woman in a Norwegian ski sweater and a man in a rugby shirt with pastel stripes.

Tomorrow and next year Vermeer’s milkmaid will still be wearing her red skirt, blue apron, yellow chemise and wimple, while all those who saw her today will have scattered across the city and changed their clothes.

Elsewhere in the exhibit I noted that in Vermeer’s “The Maid Asleep” the eponymous maid sits & dozes on a red leather chair with brass knobs. I recognized that chair and immediately the back of my thighs began to ache. Did my mother see this painting before acquiring her beloved red leather dining room chairs with brass knobs, the ones that are so uncomfortable and in which I, for one, would be very unlikely to fall asleep?

Given her fondness for Caucasian carpets (note the table covering) this does not seem unlikely. She admired the beautiful rug and the sleeping maid and made the leap to the (false) assumption that similar red-leather-brass-knobbed chairs would provide comfortable and elegant seating in her dining room.
Maybe you will characterize me as a whiner, complainer and griper (and all of these are occasionally true and I will try to expunge such behavior before our upcoming day of national mandatory gratitude) but I still assert that those chairs are just plain painful on the hamstrings, and my heart goes out to the Dutch maid.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Little did I know

One of my way-smarter-than-me brothers, on reading the blog (see above, or rather below per blog construct) about memories of the Bosporus and in which I referred to telephone bills from the Spanish-American war simply as a way to indicate the distant pant, so-old-that-they-should-have -been-tossed-long-ago, wrote me this:

BTW, it is worth noting that the very steep sales tax on your telephone bill
was originally a "temporary tax" to help pay for the Spanish-American war.
Only the very wealthy had telephones in 1898, so taxing telephony services
was an easy way to tax the rich. (The income tax had not yet been

Lesson: Be wary­very, very wary­of "temporary" taxes or government programs.

But it seems that said smart relative is a few years out of date.

Feds cut off phone tax after 108 years
From USA TODAY 5/26/2006

By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
A pesky, century-old tax on your phone bill is finally being put to rest.

The Treasury Department said Thursday that it will no longer collect a 3% federal excise tax on long-distance calls and would refund about $15 billion to taxpayers.

The tax was imposed in 1898 to help pay for the Spanish-American War. It was designed as a tax on wealthy Americans, back when phone service was considered a luxury.

"It's not often you get to kill a tax, particularly one that goes back so far in history," Treasury Secretary John Snow said.

Treasury said it was conceding its battle to uphold the tax after five appeals courts declared it illegal because of changes in the way long-distance calls are billed.

Phone companies and cellular carriers must stop billing for the tax Aug. 1. Individuals and businesses can file for refunds next year on their 2006 tax returns for excise taxes paid on long-distance calls since March 1, 2003.

Individuals who don't have phone bill records can seek a standard refund that has yet to be determined.

Elimination of the tax will cost Treasury about $46 billion in refunds, lost revenue and administrative expenses in the next five years. That should be offset by higher tax revenue from a strong economy, Snow said.

Phone companies hailed the move. "This is a good first step in alleviating consumers' telephone tax burden, which currently accounts for more than 18% of the average bill," Verizon Vice President Tom Tauke said.

Callers will still pay a 3% excise tax on local phone calls. But that tax will no longer be levied on services that don't distinguish local calls, such as cellular, all-distance landline plans and Internet-based offerings. Consumers with those services can seek refunds on their full excise-tax payments.

Snow urged Congress to repeal the local-phone excise tax, as well.

I do not recall getting a refund.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Yet another catastrophe averted

You start out in one place – today it is a dusty and random hidden room – and then you end up in some very other place far away, in another time – which today was Greece and Turkey in 1972.

Because a niece is moving into Tristram’s room this evening (he is newly married and living on the shores of Lake Michigan, but it is and will always be his room) I thought it might be a good idea to clean up the tiny, slanty adjacent closet-slash-study. Though Tristram is hardly the packrat that his mother is, it seems that he too has managed to accumulate a random assortment of stuff: baseball figurines, incense, gifts he never bothered to open, philosophy books, a homemade xylophone, a stuffed parrot, an inflatable globe, a political poster for Dotty “Stanky” Stankovich, a didgeridoo, about 20 baseball caps, 2 sleeping bags, out of date guidebooks and Cuban currency. These I left largely untouched. I did however remove the mustard yellow, black and white Greek rug that was under his computer table and home to more dead bees than seemed appropriate. I threw out the ratty decomposing rug pad, possibly made with Leigh fibers materials. I washed the rug in cold water. Now it is outside, draped over the tree stump.
I remember buying that rug in 1972 when we made a family trip to Greece and Turkey (2 parents, 5 offspring). I bought the rug on a Greek island and I was so pleased with myself, because I had never bought a rug before and I planned to bring it back to college with me. It’s a smallish woven rug and I would never buy it if I saw it now. Really its only place in my life is as a mnemonic.
Also in Greece we visited Knossos, home to the labyrinth that housed the misunderstood Minotaur. Sometime after that I developed a terrible case of vertigo and dizziness, and when we visited a doctor at an American military base in Turkey and he diagnosed labyrinthitis, I knew exactly where I had caught it. The doctor said the labyrinth referred to was in my ear, but I knew otherwise.
In Istanbul we went sightseeing with my mother while my father made business calls. Lots of cotton was still grown in Turkey back then, which meant there was lots of cotton waste. One night we were to have dinner with some old customers of his at a waterfront restaurant on the Bosporus. Mom and Dad got in a taxi with their friend, and the five of us were in another taxi. Within minutes we had lost sight of our parents and none of us had any idea where we were going, and none of us spoke Turkish, and in no time at all I was convinced that we were all five blonde & dimwitted Yankees being kidnapped and taken to a hidden cove where we would be loaded onto a rusty, leaky tanker and transported to Saudi Arabia and sold into white slavery. I remember wondering whether they would separate us by gender – leaving me with my much younger sister apart from my three younger brothers, and I debated whether we would be better off thus separated, or whether it would be better to stay together so I would have help defending my little sister, the virgin among us, the dimpled child, and obviously the prize - the white-slavery-poster-girl.
When hours (so it seemed) later we were delivered to the waterfront restaurant, pulling in mere seconds after my parents’ taxi, I tried to tell them that we had been at terrible risk & that their negligence had almost lost them all of their progeny in one fell swoop. They were unimpressed, and not remotely worried.

These days I am of a mind to clear out stuff and purge whatever is not being used; to give away those treasures from a flea market in Goleta in 1973 and recycle all the telephone bills dating back to the Spanish-American War. Then I find something that reminds me of somewhere else.
I don’t know if I will return the Greek rug – now clean and presumably bug-free - to the hidden room. But what else would I do with a not very lovely rug that conjures up the Bosporus in twilight?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Trees, seeds, trees

If you happen to go to Fort Bragg, California you can drive on a road adopted by the MEDICAL MARIJUANA PATIENTS UNION, on your way to the only Virgin Redwood Ballroom anywhere.
Alas, I am a not a user of marijuana, medically or otherwise, but I like to think that MM patients have a union that is interested in keeping this section of the highway litter-free.

In Fort Bragg you will of course want to stay at the Weller House Inn. Unlike the usual B&B, it is a potpourri-free zone, with no overstuffed pillows or animals and lots of good books. The inn is managed by my friend Vivien, linguist, filmmaker, medieval chef and tangoista extraordinaire. While there, you can breakfast in the dining room under the benign gaze of Viv’s Danish grandfather, who at the age of 19 was made the Danish consul in Egypt. You can tango in the third floor redwood ballroom; or hear young Stephen practice his trumpet (or not); or visit the very special Ladies’ Room. There is also an elephant shaped commode but my picture does not do it justice.
Here I am hoping for a good review of Absent a Miracle from the Golden Sexlink and the Black astralorps.

Fort Bragg is way up north in the land of the redwoods, and I can say unequivocally that I have fallen in love with the towering redwoods. As I drove south I kept stopping to walk among them on the bright orange pine needle carpet and get that cathedral-feeling. Feeling short is not exactly a new thing for me (q.v.) but next to a redwood we are all puny. At the far end of one fallen hollow tree I happened upon the complete carcass of a deer. At first I thought he (antlers, hence male) had been burned, but then I realized that he had probably just died there and rotted, leaving his blacked pelt stretcehd across his skeleton. But how did he die? Bout 50 miles later I started thinking about this dead deer and really regretted that I had not extracted the skull and antlers to bring home. Thought that might have altered my plans for having only carry-on for the red-eye flight.

Later that day, and hundreds of miles of tall trees and ravishing coastline later, found me in Pescadero, a town of 2000 with orchards, artichoke fields and goat farms. Liz and I were enjoying a pre-prandial cocktail when my cousin Chris walked in from the office. He proceeded to lay several large black garbage bags flat on the rectangular dining room table. At each of three places he set out a pair of blue latex gloves and a kitchen knife. In the center of the table he emptied out a large bag filled with black walnut seeds.
Now I claim a certain intimacy with Juglans nigra. There is a large black walnut tree next to our house which means that in the autumn when the fruits start to fall, they land on our back porch and stain it black (these nuts were used as a dye by early settlers) or they drop onto the driveway and in a windstorm it sounds like someone has a machinegun out there. Any car that has ever spent time in our driveway has a roof and hood scarified by falling walnuts. We hand out hardhats to guests. Also, the nuts and roots of the black walnut are not friendly to neighbors. They secrete Juglone into the soil and even the air in their vicinity, and woe betide any plant that has the temerity to grow there.
But the shade is lovely, and the wood is beautiful and valuable. Just do not plant them near your house.
Meanwhile my cousin is fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a walnut forester. We donned our latex gloves and cut open the walnuts, removed the green husk and pith, and then scraped the nuts to make them readier to sprout. We probably did a few hundred before dinner. Later Chris would store the husked nuts in peat moss and then plant them. And the world will be a better place for having more trees.

Tomorrow I will continue (briefly) with the tree theme and tell you about the Tree Circus of Santa Cruz.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The other coast

In case you’ve been wondering how much I stood on my head last weekend, the answer is not very much. Why would I have stood on my head at all? My friend Lis and I went up to Mt Madonna for a yoga retreat. Mt Madonna is south of Santa Cruz and beautiful. It is home to towering redwoods and flying monkeys. The redwoods are very real, the monkeys (Hanuman) are representations but very endearing.
I am told that redwoods grow in circles.

Mt Madonna was founded by (or for) Baba Hari Dass (known to his followers as Baba-ji) who took a vow of silence in 1952. Oddly enough, that was the year of my birth. I am not implying there is any connection. Three times a week he comes up to Mt Madonna and sits on a raised chair at the center of a huge room adjacent to the dining hall, and people sit in his presence. He is dressed in white and has a long beard, not that those characteristics would help you find him in a room filled with Indian gurus. Sometimes the people ask him questions and he responds on his chalkboard. I could not think of a single question that seemed worthy, though I considered several that were definitely unworthy. But who knows what is worthy?

I love the people I meet on yoga retreats. (This may be a leap of sorts, given I have only been on 2. But so far, so good.)
In Tulum there was a Tennessee politician who sat on the Mexican beach listening to a CD of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. This was to psyche herself up for a coming election. (I am sad to say she lost.) There was also a brilliant bio-informatician who lay naked on the beach with her laptop and did not seem at all worried about getting sand on her keyboard.
In Mt Madonna there was a charming couple from Woodside, with whom I discussed poison oak, enneagrams, memoirs & memory. I plan to mention to CSB the benefit of doing yoga with one’s spouse in one’s 70’s: you can pose together- each in tree pose- and it will make for a great Christmas card. (Better than my bee costume? Than naked grandchild draped in Xmas lights? Ask again in a couple of decades.)

In 2 days I went to 5 yoga classes, which is a lifetime record for me. As previously mentioned, I grew very fond of the flying monkeys adorning the balustrade leading up to the temple. Hanuman is the 11th incarnation or avatar of Shiva, and is the most intelligent of the Hindu gods. He led the monkey army against the demon king. I also remember a bridge of monkeys across the water to Sri Lanka. (Don’t take my word for any of this.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that certain diets (heavy on legumes, short on protein) give rise to flatulence; such was the much-extolled diet of Mt. Madonna.

In other news, a local son won the COLDWATER CLASSIC in Santa Cruz. So-called because the water is very cold. I watched the heats on Friday before we went to calmer pursuits at Mt Madonna, and it was impressive. Then the waves got much bigger over the weekend.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On running

Sunday morning (blessed extra hour of sleep) my cousin and I swilled quarts of caffeinated beverages and drove from Boston to Hastings, hopped on a metro north train, walked north to Central Park and watched her daughter run (4:31:52, but I'm not bragging) the 40th NYC marathon, along with 40,000 others, including at least 2 men in kilts, several men in drag and women in ballgowns; runners tattoo'd, painted, bedecked and bedazzled and bonneted, lithe Frenchman in matching outfits and berets running side by side; several couples holding hands; women in bikinis and a man in full camouflage carrying a knapsack; Italians, Scandinavians, Africans and South Americans, barefoot runners, and runners in wheelchairs, runners with their causes or beloved’s name emblazoned upon their bodies…. They were one and all fleet of foot, or fleet in some way.
And afterward, having crossed the finish line in glory and then stopped short to say hello to their sore bodies and feel the chill in the air, all over Central Park the runners draped themselves in tin foil space blankets advertising every possible sponsor (Dr. Frog’s Liniments; Atalanta’s Ache-Prevention; Susie’s Steroids and Flubber Emporium…)
Since running is not my strong suit what else could I do but look for a patron saint of running?
And I am dismayed and disheartened to report there is not one. Running water has a patron: St John Nepomucene (Why? Because there are lots of statues of him on bridges?) And runaways have several patron saints: Dymphna, Eulalia of Merida & Alodia.
Petronilla is the patron of travelers in the mountains; she was running away from the man her father wanted her to marry: Flaccus. She heard the name and headed for the hills?
It is hard to believe the sport of running has not appropriated a saint.(There are so many.) On TV we watched Derartu Tulu burst through the finish line; the first thing she did was to cross herself. Since I feel confident she was not enacting my father’s old mantra for leaving the house prepared for all eventualities: Spectacles (forehead), testicles (obvious), wallet (Left shoulder), watch (Right shoulder). So to whom exactly was she praying?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why swans?

We went to see the botanical collages created by Mrs. Delany in the 18th century. (The twice-widowed Mrs. Delany was, I think, a stealth artist. By this I mean that she camouflaged her artistic projects as womanly pursuits. But there is nothing uxorial about her collages. They are sublime.) Her favorite flower, by far, was the lily-of the valley, Convallaria majalis, mentioned in these cyber pages not so many days ago. And I am sure she knew the leaves are poisonous.
But what I came home with was a notebook page full of Swan Marks.

Upstairs from Mrs. Delany’s flora we found Horace Walpole’s random collections, including a book containing over 900 representations of ‘swan marks’. It seems that while the British crown has traditionally owned all the swans on the Thames (good to eat) certain favored individuals can also own swans, and these swans are so designated by these marks cut into the beak.

My delightful daughter once glued fake diamonds and jewels onto the carapace of a box turtle she found in the woods, but it had never before occurred to me to mark a bird’s beak. Do beaks have nerve endings? Did this marking of the swan hurt? More or less than branding a cow? Than circumcising a boy? Than getting a tattoo?
Swans interest me for a variety of reasons.
CSB’s middle name is Swan, but it is not the Swan side whose genealogy is diligently traced back far enough to grant membership to the DAR for the females of the family.

And my granddaughter is named for the Greek heroine who was raped by Zeus. (Have I commented on this? When have I not?) In the shape of a swan, Zeus pretended to be pursued by an eagle and so fell into kindhearted Leda’s arms and proceeded to have his way with her. For obvious reasons, painters love to portray this scene.
As it happens that very same night Leda also had sex with her husband Tyndarus, and so became pregnant with two eggs. One egg produced Helen (Launched a thousand ships) and Clytemnestra (killed her husband Agamemnon because he killed their daughter Iphigenia); the other produced Castor and Pollux, best known as the Gemini constellation.
(The woman giving birth to eggs has always troubled me, but not much.)

And just last week at the parental home, each morning my father pointed out the lone swan on the pond just outside their kitchen window. Where was his mate? He wondered every morning. Where indeed? And how did we know the lone swan was a male?

As distinct from toes and toe fungus, swans do have a patron saint. Saint Hugh of Lincoln.

There is much of interest in the life of Saint Hugh, even for those of you (all of you?) who skip the hagiographic bits in this blog. For one thing, unlike many of the saints mentioned on account of their bizarre characteristics and gruesome deaths, Hugh, by all accounts, was a genuinely good and amusing person, untroubled by gifts such as bilocation, levitation, hallucination or defenestration. Instead, he favored puns, children, lepers, and defending the persecuted Jews. He is generally pictured with a large white swan (with no visible markings on the beak) because there was a swan with which Hugh was very friendly and this swan guarded him while he slept.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Toes as an aide-mémoire

Because my father has always had toe fungus – affectionately referred to as Lehner Toe Crud by all his children, before we were acquainted the finer points of onychomycosis – and also because his mother grew her toenails to rather exceptional lengths (How long? In India, she would have been venerated as a sadhu.) and also because my son once dropped a pool table on his big toe (hallex) and smashed it beyond recognition, but then miraculously recovered, I am interested in toes. Also, I obsess about my toes.

I look at my toes and what do I see? Stubby toes. And why is that? Because once, 30 odd years ago, a woman told me I had short stubby toes – in contrast with her long elegant toes – and I have never gotten over it.
Memory is elastic. Just in the minutes of writing the above about toes, I have recalled all sorts of things about the woman who said that.
Her name was Dorothy. I was a grad student at Brown & she was an older student in a creative writing class taught by my friend BH. That had to be our second year at Brown, because I remember that BH and his first wife came to my wedding, which occurred between my first and second year. Anyway, Dorothy was in her late 30’s and had children in high school, which at the time seemed incredibly older and more experienced. I have some weird memory (possibly elastic) of her jealous husband doing something wicked with a burning cigarette, but that may be transposed from a non-personal memory of Buddy Cianci (former mayor of Providence, admitted rapist, later imprisoned, later re-elected) who caused his estranged wife’s boyfriend to be burned with cigarettes.(And that's in the record.)
But back to the memories I am certain of. BH and Dorothy fell madly in love. She left her husband. He left his wife. They married. As I recall, Dorothy was tall, blonde, statuesque and – need I add? – had long thin feet and toes.
The occasion of the unfortunate reference to my shorter toes occurred after our graduation from Brown, and before my daughter was born. It took place in the kitchen of the house we were staying in, which is now my x-husband’s summer house. Back then the house still belonged to his parents, though they no longer stayed there, and every cabinet and drawer still contained the random and ancient assortment of kitchen and tableware his mother had gathered or found or inherited.
It pains me how well I remember everything there: the anchor motif bowls with blue rims in the narrow cabinet to the left of the sink; the cans of S.S. Pierce soups originally from my mother-in-law’s late mother’s house; the enormous black speckled pot for executing and boiling lobsters; the yellowed plastic placemats featuring nautical maps of local harbors.
I don’t remember anything else about Dorothy, I am sorry to say. I don’t recall whether we saw them any other time between the time of the toe comment in the kitchen and the last time.

The last time we saw them they were visiting us in our first house in Hastings, by which time I had two children. At some point while watching a football game (and because it was football I feel confident I was not in the room) my ex-husband and BH got into an argument that either ended or began with BH castigating my ex for having tried to seduce his Dorothy. It was a serious fight, and that was the end of the friendship. Which saddened me, because BH and I had many good times in graduate school. And I probably didn’t realize how scarred I would still be, decades later, by the stubby toe remark.

Had my ex in fact put the moves on this older, other woman who scorned my toes? He certainly denied it at the time, and I wanted to believe him; I feel certain that I will never know for sure one way or the other.

I would like to be able to write that having dredged up this pathetic toe story I could at least call on the patron saint of toes to reconcile me to my toes, if not to actually elongate them. But there is no patron saint of toes. This seems remarkably remiss, given that there are patron saints for kidney stones, hemorrhoids, and hangovers (Alban of Mainz, Fiacre, and Bibiana), not to mention breasts, ear, teeth and many other body parts.

Not that this has anything to do with toes or friendships gone awry, but I do want to mention two saints whose feasts are celebrated today, in honor of Marilyn Johnson, who not only gave a brilliant and hilarious introduction at yesterday’s reading (at the HVWC) but also was kind enough to ask a question about hagiography which allowed me to go on at some length about cephalophores and the beautiful prose inside the covers of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, subjects upon which I love to expatiate but which I am rarely asked about. I wonder why.
So here they are, in brief:
The infant Blessed Damian of Finario was stolen from his rocking cradle by the local lunatic. His parents searched everywhere in vain and then were led to the hiding spot by a miraculous beam of light. Not surprisingly, the rest of Damien’s life was relatively uneventful.
Blessed Bonaventura did some strange things when he was alive (mostly having to do with immaculate conception) but the strangest thing he did occurred when he was dead. Long after he’d been in his casket, the local bishop ordered the corpse to give up his arm as a sign of his obedience after death. Bonaventura raised his right arm and the surgeon drew blood.

*So that you may draw your own conclusions, above is a photo of my toes this past summer at Cuttyhunk. Or possibly the previous summer when the sun was shining.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hagiographic costume excesses

I like to think that CSB is not, in the normal course of events, happy when I leave town for a few days.
But this is clearly not the normal course of events. We heard this morning that our church is encouraging children and adults if they so desire, to dress up as their favorite saint for next Sunday, November 1st, which is of course All Saints Day.
Naturally I thought this was an excellent idea. In no time at all I was mentally outfitting myself and debating the stylistic merits of Saint Agnes bearing her breasts on a salver versus Joan of Arc in drag and full armor. What about Pelagia the Penitent as a bejeweled first century stripper? Or Saint Apollonia brandishing pincers for tooth extraction?
And just as naturally, poor CSB was imagining how mortally embarrassed he would be by my hagiographic costume excesses.
But, sadly, I will be in Boston next Sunday and so CSB will be spared his role as escort to a virgin-saint. Until next year.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Battling the Earworm

I am just now returned from a walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct featuring a newly dead garter snake and a possibly, but not very likely, missing girl. As I came down my usual shortcut, I noticed the girl leave her backpack in the foliage just in front of the quarry gate, and then go off on a run. Later, past Pinecrest drive, I saw a couple standing to the side of the path, looking at the ground in the oddest way – for a moment I thought the man was retarded and the woman was taking him for an outing and humoring him. But no, they were looking at the garter snake. The man said that a bicyclist had just run over the garter snake – and indeed I could see the tire tracks right across his middle – but the couple weren’t sure if the snake was dead or not. Noting the ruby-like beads of blood around its mouth and head, I said I was pretty sure it was very dead. The man said they hadn’t seen the blood. The woman stood back with her hands over her mouth, looking as if she was either afraid of snakes or distressed by the death of a snake. Or perhaps both. As garter snakes go, it was a good size.

Half a mile later, just before I was about to go back up the hill and take my shortcut home, I saw a police car parked on the aqueduct. There are no vehicles allowed on the aqueduct and I always take it amiss when public officials consider themselves above this rule. Then I saw on top of the police car’s hood were a jacket and a backpack. They looked like the backpack the girl had earlier left in the foliage. Why was it on the police car’s hood? Apparently another aqueduct walker had noticed the backpack and called the police, and now he was looking for the girl. I told him I had seen her go running and she looked just fine.
I did not mention to the officer that I am just now reading 2666 and am smack in the middle of the fourth part which is all about the murders of young women in the Mexican border town Bolaño calls Santa Teresa, and which are based on a real string of murders, because it would have been very morbid and not at all helpful.
(I loved the first section of the book about Archimboldi and the literary critics, and at first I wasn’t sure about this section about the murders, but now – have I mentioned it is a very long book? 900 pages long? – I am completely sucked in.)

My intention in going for a walk, other than enjoying the weather and checking to see if the bees were bringing in pollen (they are), was to clear my head of the Beatles’ song, Paperback Writer, which was been my constant earworm since a couple of days ago when I played the answering machine and heard this from CSB’s ex-wife: “I know you’re really busy with the pornographic writer and the bees – O God, wouldn’t your father be horrified – but you call me back or you will see me in 40 minutes.”

At first I had no clue why Paperback Writer showed up in my brain. It wasn’t even one of my favorite Beatles songs. Then I realized that the song playing in my head had become Pornographic Writer, and - finally - I made the connection with the message on the machine.
What I had forgotten was this lyric:
It's the dirty story of a dirty man
And his clinging wife doesn't understand.

The whole point of clearing my brain of the Pornographic Writer earworm was to move forward and be able to describe in all its autumnal glory our walk last week around the former ammunition depot as I tried to explain to Dad that the Trojan War really was started because Paris stole the oh-so-beautiful Helen from Menelaus. But now it’s time to beg a poor bee to sting my little finger and give up her life in the process.

Friday, October 16, 2009


One of SQD’s readers has privately objected to yesterday’s allusion to the tragic death of Jeanne de Couville, sister of our French maiden aunt who was not technically an aunt, but some kind of rather removed (in so many ways) cousin. I think she was the daughter of a half-brother of my paternal grandmother.
(Said reader also wonders: What exactly does one do with an long silk nightgown sewn by Syrian nuns dating from 1951 when Mom no longer needs it? What does one do with the lingerie of Bonne Maman, who, after all, has not needed clean underwear for 11 years?)
As for Jeanne, the story as I know it is that she had an unfortunate attachment to an older man, much older and not of the savory-est character. Though such things are never said aloud we were led to understand he became enormously rich dealing on the black market during the war. (Which war? Good question.) Unlike the rest of her largely celibate family, Jeanne had a predilection for attachments to older men, on account of her very early devotion to her Oncle Alphonse.
Alphonse was a failed poet but a very successful shipbuilder. When his wife, Delphine, learned of Alphonse’s quasi-incestuous relations with his beautiful niece, she took out her jealous rage on his portrait (see above) thus allowing her husband and her marriage to stay intact.
We keep Alphonse (exact relationship to me unplumbed) hanging in our dining room, as a prandial reminder that it is better to inflict one’s rage on a portrait than a person. Alphonse died at sea, but that was much later.
As for Jeanne, she and her older lover, the black marketer, both died in a motor accident on the corniche outside Nice. They were practically incinerated. The part that always appealed to me, as a child with a taste for gruesome details, was about the brooch. Our Aunt Madeleine always wore a large gold brooch in the shape of a bouquet of lilies of the valley. Each flower was a diamond, and there were several. Jeanne was wearing the brooch when she and her lover and their car burst into flames overlooking the Mediterranean. But the brooch was saved, cleaned of smoke, soot and gore, and went on to adorn my aunt’s chest for every Sunday dinner of my childhood.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On not running out

The second day I really wanted to write, if only briefly, of the feast of St Denis of Paris, the proto-cephalophore, the cephalophore referred to when it becomes incumbent in conversation to explain the cephalophoric phenomenon. Unlike my mother (see below) I have favorites, and St Denis is my favorite cephalophore.

Then my mother gave me her shopping list, which included 2 jars of Major Grey’s Chutney. (Have I mentioned my recent sojourn at the parental home to spend some quality time with the Aged P’s?) And she underscored that it must be the traditional Major Gray’s chutney and not any of the newfangled chutneys now available. Got the point. She bemoaned the quart bottles that she used to get, back in day, bottles so large and specific that they required a special long handled spoon always referred to reverentially as The Chutney Spoon. At the market I looked and looked but could not find the MGC. Finally I asked someone and he pointed to the bottles directly in front of me. He said, “Now it’s called Colonel Grey’s - he got a promotion.” I looked blankly at him and back at the bottle, which still said Major Grey. “That was a joke,” he explained to the halfwit in the aisle.
Back at the house I was putting the groceries away. In the big cabinet I saw two bottles of the exact same Major Gray’s chutney. And behind them I saw 8 more bottles.

Later, Mom told me that this was a European trait, this hoarding, this fear of running out. I don’t exactly follow since 1. Her European mother didn’t hoard anything, and 2. Mom never actually lived in Europe (Egypt is NOT Europe).

Another trait she has attributed to Europeans – but this is one she strenuously asserts she does not share – is parental favoritism. She often tells of a trip they took in the early 60’s when Theo Herbert’s wife, of Courtrai, Belgium, upon learning that my mother had 5 children, asked which was her favorite. My mother expressed Horreur!! Shock! Of course she didn’t have favorites! She loved them all equally and the same. She couldn’t imagine favoring one child over another. And so on.

While explaining why all this chutney soothes her anxious heart, she mentions that all her mustards are in the cellar. ALL her mustards.

Aside from the fact that she occasionally forgets just how many chutneys she has stashed away, my mother is the world’s most organized human being. She is also the planet’s premier labeler.

The bottom drawer of a chest upstairs is neatly labeled “Lingerie de RMB/MBL” and inside are perfectly folded slips and negligees. Attached to a long silk nightgown is a square piece of paper reading: “Nightgown RB had made by Syrian nuns for use on my honeymoon -1951”.

An even more remarkable gown bears the label: “Nightgown! Belonged to Madeleine de Couville or her sister Jeanne, the one who died tragically.
(It is the exclamation point I love.)

But it is no longer the feast of St Denis or Dionysus of Paris, who was cruelly beheaded in AD 258 at Montmartre (hence its name, Hill of Martyrs), and then retrieved his severed head from the Seine and carried it to his place of burial. So – having been sidetracked by the wonders of maternal executive functions - I will not be mentioning him and his many iconic images in art, bearing his head.

Tomorrow’s highlights will include bucolic descriptions of the former ammunition depot, home to the Navy’s first nuclear depth charge; a relating of my pathetic attempt to explain the Trojan War to Dad; and a partial list of excellent books discovered in the cellar ( with allusions to a discussion of the difference between a cellar and a basement), one of which was The World’s Best Jokes – from 1936, which can only lead one to believe that the state of humor has improved in the intervening 73 years.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

From yesterday's Times: 'Artificial Virginity' Kit Opposed
Published: October 5, 2009
Conservative lawmakers have called for a ban on imports of a Chinese-made kit meant to help women fake their virginity. The Artificial Virginity Hymen kit, which is distributed by the Chinese company Gigimo and costs about $30, is intended to help newly married women fool their husbands into believing they are virgins, an essential marriage requirement for women in much of the Middle East, by leaking a blood-like substance when inserted and broken. Sheik Sayed Askar, a member of the parliamentary committee on religious affairs, demanded the government take responsibility for fighting the product, which he said would make it easier for women to give in to temptation. (Italics mine)

The Vatican and the imams may be tweeting and twittering, but some things just haven’t changed. Who would have imagined that, centuries after moveable type, penicillin, lycra & space travel, virginity would still be the fulcrum upon which a woman’s life rests.
Thousands of years ago, young women were often killed as they tried to defend their virginity; and for this they entered the annals as “Saint, Virgin and Martyr.”
Today, for instance, we honor Saint Osyth of Mercia (AD 675). Against her wishes, her parents married her off to Sighere, king of the Saxons. His real passion was hunting, so much so that on their wedding night he was distracted from his connubial duties by a roaming stag. Off he went to slaughter the antlered beast, and when he got home Osyth had decamped. She took up residence in a convent where she lived happily until a pirate raid. Osyth resisted the piratical marauders wishing to take her away for their nefarious purposes, and for that her head was separated from her body.
About Saint Justina little is known except that she was devoted to her virginity and to God. In that order. She is generally portrayed with a unicorn to underscore that virginity, unicorns being symbols of virginity, presumably on account of their whiteness, and not the single (and frankly, phallic) horn.
I could go on, citing Saints Reparata and Faith, virgins martyred when only 12 years old. And the catatonic/ecstatic Saint Flora. And Saint Dymphna fleeing her incestuous father’s lust. But I will resist.
As for the Artificial Virginity Kit, I ask myself, which is worse: That there is a need for such a clever device? Or that it is banned?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Cairns of Block Island

More than 25 years ago we lived for a short while up-county and my friend Lilla and I put ads in the PennySaver and the Ridgefield Press: Looking to Start a Writers Group. Because Lilla, with her Monty-Pythonesque British accent, called in the ad, the person on the other end of the telephone mistook ‘support’ for ‘sport’ and that confused not a few of the intrepid respondents. But amazingly enough, there were respondents, wonderful ones, some who have become lifelong friends.

It was in the spirit of both support and sport that last week four of us from that original writers’ group crossed the waters and landed on Block Island. Mary-Ann’s agent graciously loaned us her house overlooking Rodman’s Hollow, where it just so happens a dead body is discovered in Mary-Ann’s mystery She’s Not There. (Mary-Ann writes sharp & witty mysteries. Also contemporary and historical fiction. Also a wonderful memoir, Girls of Tender Age. Sarah, a writer of romances and travel pieces and restorer of old houses, was our Athletic Director. And when we didn’t take direction, she rode off on her bicycle for an extra 10 miles just to get some exercise. Becky, who writes the highly acclaimed blog about midlife depression, The Blue Hours of Middle Life, provided comic relief.
But I would like to talk of rocks.
It seems that in the 17th and 18th centuries the rocks (called ‘pebbles’, rather in the same way that mansions in Newport are called ‘cottages’) of Block Island were taken across the water and used as cobblestones to pave the streets of the coastal towns of Connecticut. When Becky first informed me of this fact I said, What? You mean they didn’t have their own rocks?
Then I saw the ‘pebbles’ of Block Island and understood.
One day, according to Sarah’s brilliant plan, we left our car at Dorie’s Cove and then rode our bikes over to Mohegan Bluffs, because at low tide it is possible to walk all the way around the southern end of the island, from the bluffs to the cove. And there are rocks all the way, some of the finest you will ever see. There are over 100 stairs leading down from the bluff to the beach, which is to say it is a long way down.
When we arrived at sea level, we discovered to our amazement and wonder that the druids, the stonemasons, Saints Antoninus and Marinus, had all been there before is. The rocky beach was full of cairns, some more vertical than others, some petite and understated, some large and brazen; some were perilous feats of balance and a few incorporated driftwood.

What is it in us that compels us to build piles of stones? To gather stones, to move stones from place to another, to lay stone upon stone upon stone? How can we explain the deep satisfaction of choosing the right stone to rest upon another stone? Since ancient times cairns have been built to mark graves and paths and sacred places. Not all that long ago I arrived at my brother’s house in New Hampshire and saw that someone, an artist of stones, had built delicate balancing acts of stones and boulders, atop the already solid stone wall. It turned out the artist was a nephew who will always have a smooth rock in his pocket.
The cairns of Mohegan took our breath away. Of course they were beautiful, but there were so many and of such various artistic styles. Looking up at the imposing bluffs, we imagined that the first cairns were built in homage to that rocky face, and then subsequent cairns were built to join in, and then further cairns were built to honor the community.

While there are no specific patron saints of cairns, stonecutters and stonemasons are well supplied with patron saints. Though – and this should surprise no one – the patrons are not the saints who were in fact stonecutters.
Saint Antoninus, for instance, was a 4th century Syrian stonemason known for castigating the locals for worshipping stone images. After making himself unpopular, he went off to become a hermit.

Saint Marinus (5th century) is credited with being the namesake of tiny San Marino. A stonemason and a lifelong bachelor, a lunatic lady accused him of being her estranged husband, and he had to flee to a cave where he lived as a hermit. (Is this a pattern?)
Neither of them are patron saints of stonecutters.

Rather, we have Saint Stephen, the proto-martyr, stoned to death, one of the all-time favorite scenes of martyrdom in art, q.v.: Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio, Fouquet, Donatello, Foppa, Rubens, Vasari, Uccello, Cavallino, Carpaccio. Who would have thought throwing stones at a handsome young man would be so popular?
Then we have Saint Reinhold (10th century) who supervised the stonemasons building the monastery of Saint Pantaleon. His diligence so enraged the masons that they killed Reinhold with their hammers and threw his body into the Rhine. For that, he too is a patron saint of stonecutters.
I prefer the cairn builders of Block Island to the martyrs, but there are enough pebbles on the beach for all of us.