Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ulphia and the frogs

Today is, among other things, the feast of Saint Ulphia who lived in 8th century France as a solitary hermit. The one miracle attributed to her was the Silencing of the Frogs. Apparently, one night the frogs croaked so loud and so continuously that she was unable to sleep for hours, and when she finally dropped off she missed morning prayers. This so disturbed her that she forbade the frogs to EVER CROAK again. And they were silent thereafter.

Which, given that male frogs must croak to attract the females in order to reproduce and perpetuate their species, this seems pretty harsh. I love my sleep as much as anyone (and some would say far more than is reasonable) but I can’t imagine imposing a diktat that would result in the extinction of a certain species just in order to sleep in peace. (How anti-Noah, as opposed to antediluvian.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A screed for your reading pleasure

CSB wanted me to write a letter of complaint to AA, so of course I complied because it’s been a while since I have applied myself to a really hefty letter of complaint and it seemed like an excellent diversion from proofreading my novel (for the 100000th time). But THEN he had the temerity to suggest that what I produced was on the long side and that the chances of it being read by the president of American Airlines and producing the desired results (an abject apology and a whole lot of money in a shoebox) were de minimis, and that I would do better to post it here, on SQD, and let my vast reading public enjoy the fruits of my spleen. So, please enjoy.

Dear American Airlines:

I suspect that all airline passengers – ourselves among them - are well aware that we live in a post 9/11, post service-oriented and economically-challenged world and have consequently downgraded their expectations for courtesy and logical behavior when traveling. Yet it still remains possible to be astounded and appalled by deliberate misstatements (also known as lying) and hostility coming directly from an airline and its employees.

Take AA# 988 from San José, Costa Rica to Miami last Friday, January 23, 2009. CSB and I arrived at the airport on time, checked in on time and waited patiently at the gate. The flight was scheduled to leave at 12:40 and around midday we were informed that because of mechanical problems it would be leaving 2 hours late. We continued to sit quietly at the gate. As did all the other passengers. Two hours later we learned it would be another 2 hours late and most of us would surely miss our connection in Miami, and possibly miss any possible connection that same day. We continued to wait patiently at the gate.
Around 7 PM we were informed that the mechanics on the ground were unable to fix the plane and that a new plane was being flown in from Miami. We were given vouchers for $10 worth of food.
[I forbore to mention the execrable quality of the only food available. No goats' eyes on any menu. Never mind the huitlacoche.]We were told that our flight would leave around 11 PM for Miami, and that once we arrived in Miami we would be given vouchers for hotels.
Again, the passengers – tired and hungry – waited patiently and finally boarded the plane around 10:30 in the full expectation that once in Miami hotel vouchers would be issued and they would finally get some much-needed rest.
En route to Miami we were informed – repeatedly – over the PA system that ground personal would meet offloading passengers right outside customs and pass out hotel vouchers, as well as information about connecting flights the following day.
Up to and even after our arrival in Miami it should be noted how compliant and orderly all the passengers were, even as it became increasingly obvious that American Airlines had DELIBERATELY & KNOWINGLY misinformed them.
We exited the plane fully expecting that after a long and tiring day of travel, some respite would await us.
That was far from the case.
Outside of customs the AA agent informed us – and many others – that she only had hotel vouchers for those passengers going on to Amsterdam. (Why Amsterdam? Don’t ask me.) The rest of us must walk to Terminal D and speak to an agent there. And by the way, the desk at terminal D did not open until 4 AM and it was now 2:30 AM Miami time. I should point out that the passengers on the flight included parents with very young children and elderly people in wheelchairs.
However, the passengers of AA#988 compliantly slogged across the Miami airport to terminal D to find…. absolutely no one willing to help them. Over the course of the next hour employees in AA uniforms would be occasionally spotted and questioned. Their rudeness, callousness and indifference to the plight of the passengers – their customers, the people who actually PAY to fly on American Airlines – were exceptional.
Yet still, the passengers did not create scenes or shriek or bang the floor, no, they FORMED A LINE in order to greet the mythical AA desk agent if and when he/she ever appeared.
Around 4:30 an agent arrived and began to process the disrupted passengers, who continued to quietly wait their turn. By the time we spoke to an agent day was dawning and we decided to simply take the next available flight back to New York.
Because we had business tickets from Miami to NY (though not from San José to Miami), the agent encouraged us to go to the Admirals’ Club for some rest. This we attempted to do, but the receptionist there (the only name she gave us was “Julia”) was extremely rude and threatened to call the police if we did not leave. We went to the gate, finally boarded a plane and arrived in LGA mid-morning, minus ONE BAG.
Again, while I think we all recognize that certain aspects of air travel are beyond anyone’s control (weather and mechanical problems) I would be hard put to hard to argue that simple courtesy and respect cannot be managed.

And by the way, only after having written and posted this did I recall the wonderful novel I read last summer which also happens to be addressed to American Airlines. Dear American Airlines, by Jonathan Miles. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Though – just this minute– it also occurs to me that I have NOT seen it being sold in any airport bookstore – and I always check what is being sold in airport bookstore so I can be well and truly miserable about the state of booksellerdom in America and the English-speaking world. And, given that it is a very good and amusing and, yes, topical, book, one can only assume that its absence in airport bookstore is the result of a CONSPIRACY or PLOT or CENSORSHIP by the airlines.


My mother, who prefers not to comment on this blog but rather to send me personal emails correcting my errors, tells me that the Syrian feast mentioned previously did not entail rabbits' eyes but goats' eyes, and that they enjoyed it very much, thank you.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Culinary adventures

A careful reading of today’s paper might lead even the most adventurous eater to think twice about ingesting certain delicacies.
Pickled walrus flippers, for instance.

You knew how delicious they can be after a year fermenting inside a cocoon of blubber and walrus skin. You were probably unaware that a problem with the fermentation process can lead to botulism, severe gastrointestinal distress, and death.

And who knew that blowfish even had testicles? (Though if I did know, I might suspect they were toxic. Just a guess.)

And that brings us to bacon. Universally beloved, Universally reviled. Some clever fellows in Kansas City have concocted a Bacon Explosion that includes woven bacon strips, a whole lot of sausage, and more bacon. 5000 calories. 500 grams of fat. Deadly in its own way.

This subject is of more than passing interest to me because I was brought up with the dictum that - when in Timbuktu - eating the local delicacies was not optional. My father traveled widely and as children we were led to believe that a significant factor in his business success was his willingness not only to eat rabbit eyeballs at a Syrian dinner, but to ask for seconds. On his return from distant parts, we thrilled to hear how he had dined on corn fungus (huitlacoche) or sucked monkey brains through a straw.
And he survived.
The greatest danger to the eater these days is the Food-that-is-not-food, the processed quasi-edible stuff in a package that neither looks nor tastes like anything in nature.
Bring on the walrus flippers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Los Damnificados and Abejas asesinas - The Damned and Assassin bees

In the early excited flush of becoming beekeepers four years ago, we naturally thought that honeybees should be everywhere and could improve the quality of everything. Of course we advocated local honey for allergies and honey poultices for burns and beeswax for lip balm.
We even lobbied heavily for the introduction of honeybees to Aquiares, our favorite coffee finca in Costa Rica. Our research showed that honeybee pollination could increase the coffee yield by 7%, which is not insignificant. (It could be an additional 1750 quintals.) An excellent idea. Except that it was not. Management told us that if they were to install honeybees on the finca, they might have more coffee but they would have no one to pick it; the pickers would refuse to come.
Since 1957, when 29 Tanzanian queens escaped from a lab in Brazil, Africanized hybrid bees have been making their way north at the rate of about 200 miles a year. By now virtually all the honeybees in Central America are Africanized. A single Africanized bee collecting nectar from a coffee flower is no more frightening than one of our friendly Italian bees, but en masse and when defending their hive, the Africanized bees are ferocious and aggressive. The American press calls them Killer Bees, which of course beekeepers find objectionable and highly alarmist.

In Spanish they are called Abejas Asesinas. Assassin Bees.

Here is an Abeja asesina alighting on an orange flower whose name I do not know. (Which distresses me.) Note that when they are out and about conducting their honeybee business, the Abejas asesinas are no more ferocious than any others. I was close enough to take this photo, and was not stung. Q.E.D.

Language matters.
While “Killer bees” sounds theatrical and histrionic, like fodder for a horror film, “Assassin bees” sounds deliberate, like suicide bombers. Which is not far off given that the word assassin originally derives from the Arabic hasisi or hashish eater, because the Islamic sect of that name were said to imbibe hashish before heading out to murder, or assassinate.

About a week before we visited Costa Rica there was an earthquake near Volcan Poas and the mudslides it precipitated caused enormous damage and at least 28 fatalities. In Spanish the victims of a natural disaster like that are called LOS DAMNIFICADOS. If you happen to be in Spanish speaking country when there is a natural disaster, in every newspaper you open you will see, in two inch thick black type: DAMNIFICADOS.
Now even though my Spanish is adequate (barely) and I know what damnificado means (victim) I read the DAMN and my mind leaps to the DAMNED and DAMNATION - conditions that are, yes, wretched and fraught with implied judgment.
That was what happened when I was in Nicaragua right after Hurricane Mitch, and again this past week after the Poas earthquake.
Empresa privada dona 13 contenedores para damnificados
Damnificados reciben 15.000 paquetes de comida
Tos, alergias y depresión enferman a damnificados

And so on.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

You know all those pictures you see of pitiable people looking weary and exasperated, sleeping on airport floors or corkscrewed into germ-laden airport chairs trying to sleep or slumped over misshapen lumps of baggage – usually post snowstorm – when their flights have been cancelled or delayed for time indeterminate…. Well that was us in the San José airport two nights ago. And the good news is that I have now formulated a list of very entertaining things you can do to entertain yourself should you ever find yourself in a similar position:

1. Acquire new reference books. I have never met a reference book I didn’t like. The fact that I know nothing about canal locks only reinforces the necessity to buy Canal Locks on All Seven Continents. But that was another happy occasion. In the San José airport I was lucky enough to find excellent guides to find both the Tropical Fruits of CR and Tropical Trees of CR, as well as a laminated monograph describing the venomous snakes of the country (we have already alluded to those serpents in these pages). These purchases gave me several happy hours parsing the finer points of cherimoya (Annona cherimola) and mamónes chinos (Nephelium lappaceum), along with references to their organoleptic properties. I was going to buy a laminated & illustrated 8 x 12 card describing every kind of heliconia found in CR, but pecuniary considerations militated against that purchase.

2. Acquire and then ingest chocolate covered passion fruit. Since dark chocolate, as we all know, lowers blood pressure and since passion fruit is a fruit (hence the name), this means that chocolate covered fruits are a true health food and as such are worthy of consumption whenever possible.

3. Make new friends. We are now on the Christmas card list (and vice versa) of a gentleman and his wife from Orlando, Florida. They own the local Port-a-Potty franchise ( their name is Call A-Head) and have eight children, and get this: all eight children work with them in the business. I found this fact remarkable.
ME: So what’s it like working with all your children?
ME: There must be lots of tension between the siblings, huh?
NFFO: Actually, there’s really none.
ME: Sibling rivalry can get very complex, and nasty, don't you think?
NFFO: I wouldn't know anything about that.
ME: So how do you deal with threats of violence, or exposure to the SEC?
NFFO: That never happens.
ME: It all goes back to childhood and competition for parental attention and love.
NFFO: We love all our children equally. Always have.
ME: I bet there are some serious disagreements over what direction the business will take, in these troubled economic times.
NFFO: Nope, we all agree on a reasonable rate of expansion.
ME: As a parent, it must be hard to watch your kids become estranged from each other, over something as insignificant as money and their inheritance.
And so on.

4. When you have made all the friends you are likely to make at Gate 15, you can simply wander up and down between the rows of bolted-together chairs (because chairs are at risk of being stolen by would-be felons en route to Fort Lauderdale or Attica) and comment on the books people are reading. People unfailingly enjoy this. They like to be told that you know the author and he doesn’t look remotely like the back picture. (In his dreams, he never had that much hair.) They like even more to be told that you’ve already read the book, the plot is manipulative and the ending was highly unsatisfactory.

5. You will notice I made no mention whatsoever of the pleasures to be had by informing random strangers about the saints whose feast we are celebrating today, and what amusing things they said before being roasted alive or eaten by lions, and what sorts of visions they experienced. I do not mention this possibility because I realized that any hagiographical references during our lengthy and patience-taxing delay in San José (yup, named for a saint) would be regarded by the normally agreeable CSB as the Last Straw. Without even knowing of what consisted the first, second and subsequent straws, I just knew that saints would be the last. Which is why I didn’t once mention Blessed Henry Susa, the 13th century German mystic who, for 16 long years, wore a nightshirt with 150 nails facing inward (which gives a heightened awaareness to the concept of scratchy nightwear), until an angel appeared and told him to stop all this nonsense. Disgruntled, Henry threw his shirt into the Rhine.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Burning sugar cane on Saint Agnes' Eve

Last night , Saint Agnes’ Eve, we saw them burning the Santa Inez cane fields. We watched the cane fields burn. I admit to being mesmerized. CSB and Heidi expressed some dismay at the extent of my fascination with the burning fields and engaged in pointless speculation as to any pyromaniac tendencies I might have. (None.)
These were cane fields named for Saint Agnes (Inez is her Spanish name), the martyred virgin who at the age of thirteen defied Diocletian (AD 304). He was so frustrated by her unwillingness to worship his gods even when threatened with horrible tortures, that he perpetrated the ultimate assault upon her purity: he sent her to a brothel to be there abused and used. Not single lusty male complied, so awed were they all by her aura of sanctity, and in the end Diocletian had her martyred in the one of the more usual ways. (The sources differ between decapitation and burning.) She is the patron saint not only of bodily purity but also of general cleanliness, and hotels.

Santa Inês (Saint Agnes)by Francisco de Zurbarán
Back in the fields, the sugar cane flickers, then flames up; once the whole clump is solidly aflame sparks will shoot up to 30 feet in the air; they glisten like stars in the thick black smoke.
We first saw the flames flickering from a distance, surrounded and surmounted by billowing clouds of smoke moving swiftly with the wind.
Then we got closer. Gabriel (yes, named for a guardian angel) told us that in Costa Rica they are only allowed to burn 35% of the fields in any given season, for environmental reasons, so they must choose wisely. Last night they were burning at Santa Inez.

We stood on the dirt road just beside the burning field. Two men wearing vests with reflecting tape walked the perimeter with their diesel torches, igniting the dry leaves and stalks.
I had heard that when the cane fields burn all the snakes, rats and other creatures slither, run and hightail out of the inferno, but alas we saw none of those. Heidi was especially disappointed, especially as early in the day we had seen a fellow holding up two (dead) tobobo gatos (which a visit to the dictionary tells me is the local name for, yes, Fer-de-lance, that really dangerous snake that can kill a cow).

Since 5 AM the Nicaraguan cane cutters will have already been there, cutting the hot but still sharp, charred cane stalks, as quickly as possible, because once the field has been burned you have about 12 hours to cut the cane and deliver it to the mill before the sucrose content (Which is all that really counts, the POL) starts declining. Cane cutting must rank in the top five worst jobs in the world.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No one else is concerned that we don't know its name

...which seems slightly odd when you consider how much time was spent the other night trying to parse the difference between an alligator and a crocodile (Separate taxonomic families! Jaw size! Dentistry!)

Cousin Heidi: Are there any poisonous snakes in Costa Rica?
Carlos: One of the [coffee] pickers was bitten by a snake last week.
Heidi: Snakes and I do not get along! Where?
Carlos: An abandoned coffee area.
Moi: Why abandoned? Too steep?
Carlos: No, the production was just too low to warrant picking.
Moi: Is the picker still alive?
Carlos: O yes.
Heidi: What about the snake?
Carlos: I presume so.
Me: What kind of snake was it? Fer de Lance? Mambo? Copacabandana?
Carlos: Oh, that I don’t know.
Me: We should find out. Does one use different antidotes for different snakes?
Carlos: I doubt it.
Moi: But we should know what kind it is.
Heidi: Why?
Moi: So we can call it by the correct name? Because to name something is a step toward understanding it?
(I continue in this vein but no one pays attention.)

And speaking of creatures unnamed - I found this friendly insect in the baño last night:

Click for larger view- I am not much of a photographer but this fellow has rather elegant markings.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The News from the Isthmus

Bringing in the beans
Perhaps you want to know how the coffee picking is going in the Turrialba region, (very well)or whether the volcano is smoking, bubbling or rumbling; perhaps you’d care for a political gossip (the current president is now dating one of his myriad cousins – she’s much younger and very rich; her mother was so upset that her daughter was involved with the consanguineous womanizer that she has retired to sulk in her Paris apartment), but I suspect you want to know how CSB is enjoying his vacation reading, and the answer is, Very much thank you.
We did procure another Bill Bryson volume, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and according to plan, CSB is amused.

The very first morning at the farm found CSB and Dad in their usual spot on the early morning patio. There is an excellent view of the volcano (see above) if the clouds are not in the way, which they are and have been, constantly and lamentably. They are drinking their coffee and solving the world’s problems as they read Le Nacion and Bill Bryson. Dad exclaims intermittently that this is such a lovely place and he is happy to be here; CSB remarks how pleasant it is to be back in their spot exactly as they were last year. Dad does not remember last year but he is sure it was equally lovely and that he had an equally lovely time.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

In his OpEd yesterday, Nicholas Kristof wrote of two occasions when he actually “bought” a sex worker, in order to free her and help her to a better life. With mixed results.
By a remarkable coincidence (there are NO coincidences) yesterday was the feast of Saint Vitalis of Gaza. For the first sixty years of his life, Vitalis was a monk and hermit, until he felt called upon to save the prostitutes of Alexandra. Upon arriving at the port city, he took work as a day laborer. Then each evening he spent his wages procuring the services of a prostitute. Naturally, no sex ensued. Instead, the evening was spent in prayer and preaching. Each morning Vitalis asked his companion not to reveal how their time had been spent. And in this way, it is said, he prayed with every prostitute in Alexandria. In AD 625 Saint Vitalis was killed by a thrown stone, outside a brothel; apparently his killer misunderstood his true intentions.
Meanwhile, 1384 years have passed.

Friday, January 9, 2009


René Descartes, after Franz Hals.
I am reading Russell Shorto’s fascinating book , Descartes Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, in which the fate and travels and travails of the actual skull of Descartes become emblematic for the dialectic between Faith and Reason that informs much of western thought over the past 400 years. I am not giving the story away to say that Descartes – who died in 1640 and was originally buried in Sweden – did not have an a especially peaceful journey to his final (so far) resting place in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (the skull that is, the body resides at Saint- Germain-des-Prés.).
It is of course interesting that the relics of the Father of Rationalism should have followed a path similar to that of so many early saints (as well as Abelard and Heloise who were moved and re-buried no less than 8 times, but neither of them were saints).
Saint Gudula, for instance. The high point of her life seems to have been a certain walk she took one evening with a lantern that went out and then miraculously re-lit itself when she prayed. Hence she is often portrayed with a lantern and a fiendish devil trying to blow it out.

By Bernard van Orley (1487-1541) or one of his followers. Saint Gudula is the one on the right, holding the lantern; the devil lurks behind her skirts.
Gudula was buried in 712 in Hamme, which is near Brussels. About a hundred years later, at Charlemagne’s behest - he was devoted to her - her body was moved to the Church of Saint Sauveur in Mozelle; sometime later the church’s name was changed to Saint Gudula. Next thing we know, around 978 the Normans (rough fellows) destroyed the church BUT the Duke of Lorraine managed to rescue Saint Gudula’s weary bones and translated them to the church of Saint Géry in Brussels. Not much later, in 1047, the relics were translated, again, to the church of Saint Michael and the name of the church was changed to Saint Gudule.
The church of Saint Michael and Gudula is still in Brussels. You can attend Mass there on a Sunday morning and there will be about 4 other people – of the elderly inclination – scattered about the vast nave.
I have no idea why or how Gudula’s skull got to Germany, but that’s where it is, in the church of Saint Hildegard in Elbingen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sad fish? It's in the water

First they give the bees cocaine and discover the obvious, then we have to worry about depressed fish.
What do you do with your old medications? The Benadryl a decade past its expiration date, the Bactrim that gave you hives, the countless antibiotics that – never mind the strict injunction to do so – you did not finish? You flush them down the toilet.
Not so fast. Y0u could end contributing to piscine melancholia.
(A while back, post knee surgery, I had a stash of pain medication so vile & nauseating I wanted to remove it post-haste from my presence and the house. In a fit of compunction I asked one of my brothers, the über-environmentalist among them, what was the environmentally correct way to get rid of prescription drugs. The answer: Huh? Flush them down the toilet. )
Nothing is that simple. In 2006 chemists found antidepressants in the brains of fish downstream from water treatment plants. Experiments with larval FATHEAD MINNOWS showed that fish with trace elements of Effexor failed to react quickly enough to predatory behavior, and hence, did not survive long. So when hybrid striped bass gobbled up the mellow fathead minnows, they too got a dose. In other experiments, when the bass were exposed to Prozac they started dieting and went vertical in the fish tank:

Which leaves the question of what to do with our old Effexor, Prozac, Zoloft and other drugs of choice wide open.
One thought: feed them to squirrels. Apparently the latest delicacy in Britain. But I am thinking that happily medicated squirrels would be less likely to leap valiantly onto my bird feeders. Or maybe not.

What didn't happen

Today was supposed to be the biweekly meeting of Literature club. (The Ladies Literature Club of Hastings is a most venerable institution and in fact this year we will be celebrating our 100th anniversary, having begun in 1909. Since then we have met on alternate Wednesdays and even with the advent of working women, many of us manage to keep those alternate Wednesdays sacrosanct. Back in 1909 all the ladies were Mrs. Somebody, wore white gloves and their maids served the luncheon. Things have changed. More about Lit Club anon.)
I was supposed to be hostess(a rotating position), which means that at this very moment I should be putting the finishing touches on with the crustless cucumber sandwiches, removing the saran wrap from the egg salad and sundried tomato sandwiches, arranging on the smoked turkey sandwiches symmetrically upon a plate used only on these occasions.
I should be setting out the coffee urn and teapot, making sure the cream in the creamer doesn’t smell bad, and slicing the lemons so thin they are transparent.
But I am not.
Because it is freezing rain out there. (An early morning email from our village government announced this fact. I am especially fond of the alarmist use of all caps.)

Ah freezing rain. CSB went out and returned with the intelligence that our driveway was a sheet of ice. And because the ground is colder than the rain, ice will continue to form on the roads. At least on our driveway.
Meanwhile, CSB went to work and said the main roads weren’t so bad. In fact the most treacherous driving anywhere is in our driveway. When I emailed news of the cancellation to D-- she wrote back to say that no, her road was the most treacherous.
So instead of lunching with the literary ladies and discussing Books We Recommend and then settling in to hear today’s program on Rumi and the Sufists, I have this block of four or five hours that have – so it seems – been dropped in my lap. Onto my laptop. And what do I do with such a gift of time?
Thus far I have read an article in the Phi Beta Kappa journal (no, it is not mine but my father’s) about the bad message inherent in the adage: Curiosity killed the Cat. I have read what happens when fish ingest Prozac. (More on that anon.) I have read/looked at pictures of Cypriot Icons. Mostly, I am trying to read Levi-Strauss’s From Honey to Ashes, which I firmly believe is very interesting but there are more technical and scientific symbols in the text than fit in my comfort zone. But I will keep trying.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Twinkie Defense

Saint Macarias the Younger (d AD 394) was a confectioner by trade.
AS I read his life in Butler’s – and of the culinary austerities he undertook following his early years in the pastry field– it struck me that he followed in his life the macro- trajectory of which our holiday season is the micro-trajectory. Which is to say we inhabit the sugar-sated, sweet-replete days of Advent and Christmas and then – disgusted, fattened, hyperglycemic – we segue into the the New Year and its dietary resolutions and restrictions.
But I was wrong on one rather significant point. Sugar, refined or otherwise, did not appear in the larder of a 4th century baker in Alexandria, Egypt.
Cane sugar as we know it (though not yet the refined kind beloved of the Twinkie trade) – originally from southeast Asia – came to Europe and northern Africa with the expansion of the Arab Empire about the 10th century. By the 12th century, upon the establishment by the Venetians of sugar plantations in the Levant, cane sugar (usually in a hard cone form) regularly supplemented honey as a sweetener.
But enough about sugar and back to Macarias who eschewed sugar entirely when he became an official hermit, with cells in no fewer than three deserts: Skete, Cells and Nitria. In his own time he was well known for his remarkably no-calorie diet: for seven years he ate nothing but raw vegetables and beans. And for three years after that he ate no more than 5 ounces of bread a day and 1 vessel of oil a year.
Was it because of his early career as a confectioner that honey was not included in his desert diet? Last week in the Science Section we learned of the realities of a 19th century workhouse diet, and frankly, Oliver Twist ate better than Saint Macarias. (And please don’t think that Macarias’ marvels were limited to eating very little; he also performed feats of endurance and prayed a lot.)
Almost daily I read in Butler’s of yet another hermit who survived on so little. Most of the time I am simply struck by the paucity of the diet and impressed by such self-discipline. Only sometimes do I actually wonder. And when I start to wonder it seems that I should wonder and doubt all the time.
What is more remarkable? Our willing suspension of disbelief or the whole hagiographical construct, these tales of miracles, wonders and freakish feats that we are told indicate holiness?
It should be inevitable to wonder. Yet I don’t wonder as much as I might. There is something about a life being written down that gives it – to me – credence.
I read of Saint Christina levitating to the rafters or Saint Kevin standing still enough for long enough that the robin’s eggs nesting in his hand can hatch, and before I doubt, I believe. Because it seems natural to believe a story and it seems like a good thing to believe that such things are possible.
And even Butler, the gold standard in hagiographica, refers to many of the lives he tells as: "romance…untrustworthy…legendary…spurious…preposterous…fiction…fictitious…audacious fiction…historically worthless…fabulous…fabricated….suspect.” And so on.

Lest we get too serious, we can always admire the imagination of the scientists who gave cocaine to honeybees. Under the influence, they “danced more frequently and more vigorously for the same quality food”. They didn’t dance at the wrong time. They didn’t dance incorrectly. Just more vigorously.
Put that together with the fact [we are playing loosely with the fact- concept here] that Sherlock Holmes, he of the amazing deductive powers, was a cokehead, we might take another look at the merits of cocaine.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reading Suggestions Solicited

About a year ago we spent a lovely week with my parents at a coffee farm in Costa Rica (Dad, you have forgotten but you were there and you had a good time).
I take vacation reading very seriously. First of all, I simply need to be sure I have enough to read because the idea of being in a beautiful spot with great food, excellent walks and good company – but not enough reading material – strikes me as a sure path to misery; and second, I like to have appropriate reading material. In New Mexico I want to read Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoirs, in Prague I will read Kafka and Hrabal, in Ethiopia I will read Kapuscinski’s The Emperor and Waugh’s Black Mischief (very amusing), and in Costa Rica I will read the latest Bolaño, some Rubén Darío (Nicaragua is next to Costa Rica, closer than Russia is to Alaska) and the memoirs of Wilson Poponoe, the agronomist who scoured the jungles of Central America looking for the perfect avocado (a valiant effort if there ever was one).

I could go on.
CSB (who with whom it has been suggested I have Nothing in Common) has a rather different attitude about vacation reading. He thinks time in foreign parts is a perfectly good time to read all the back issues of Bee Culture and American Bee Journal and The Ins and Outs of Comb Honey.
We don’t travel light.
(Aldous Huxley, so I was once told, had traveling trunk specially made to carry all 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he took it with him everywhere he went. There were very strong porters in those days and the airlines were less strict about carry-on, so I hear.)
Last year in Costa Rica, thanks to a brilliant Christmas gift by Peter and Fritz (well known re-gifters of books) CSB took along a book that had nothing whatever to do with honeybees. It was Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. He read it on the patio overlooking Volcan Turrialba and laughed aloud. He read it on Playa Junquillal and chortled enticingly.
“What is so funny?” I would demand.
CSB insisted that I would not find the story of an American boyhood in Omaha as funny as he did because I am [choose one: effete, not a normal American, insufficiently steeped in 1960's TV arcana, a Proustian manqué, a bleeding heart-white-wine drinking liberal, all of the above].
“Just read me something and see if I laugh,” I begged.
Grudgingly, he complied.
Of course I thought it was funny. When Bill Bryson is funny he is hilarious and when Stanley Katz enters the tale, all caution flies.
I am not THAT effete.

Which brings me to the request. (Has anyone read this far?) We are returning soon to the coffee farm, with my parents, and I seek another amusing book for CSB. Please send suggestions.