Thursday, February 26, 2009

Seeking snowdrops

I went out seeking the snowdrops today. Somewhere in the woods between the house and the road here is an old patch of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). Not really woods, just an un-landscaped slope that was woods long ago, then farmed, and then allowed to do whatever it wanted and it wanted to hang on to this secret patch of snowdrops. Hidden in plain sight.
Every year I go to this spot, clambering over a large fallen tree, and then another smaller fallen tree, and very year I think there are none. The ground is covered with the soggy fallen leaves of autumns past and a few tawdry bits of old snow. What I need to do is stand still. Stay in one spot and let my eyes comb the ground as if it were my dog’s fur. And expect nothing. And slowly – but also suddenly – a snowdrop will appear. I will pluck off the brown leaves and see dozens on them. Today most were closed tight; even beneath the leaves they seemed to be protecting their privacy.
I read that snowdrops have an active substance called Galanthamine that can be helpful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Since at least once every day I have a Panic-stricken-I’m-losing-my-memory moment, and since like 90% (something like that – I’ve forgotten the exact percentage, naturally) of the population I am more frightened of getting Alzheimer’s than cancer, this item called out to me from its secret place, from its morass of fallen leaves. It makes a certain sense that a plant that would allay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s would be a plant that keeps its own counsel, and is a harbinger of spring, a flower that blooms when there is still snow on the ground. If you have the patience to see it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Possibly Adamic

Have you ever heard of Louis Adamic? I never had until his name jumped out at me from the yellowing pages of the Literature Club archives, and I began to regret my lacuna.
His death remains a mystery, while his books are – alas – out of print.

On account of the Literature Club’s centennial (previously mentioned and sure to be mentioned again) I have been reading the minutes – inscribed in anachronistic penmanship in log books carefully tended at the Historical Society – and trying to form an accurate record of all the annual programs since our inception. In the course of which I am constantly impressed by the studious intentions of the ladies, as well as their musical talents (most meetings included a recital of appropriately relevant music, anything from Southern spirituals to Verdi arias) and I am constantly discovering the names of popular writers and poets no longer popular, or even read.
One name has cropped up enough times to make me curious, not least because of its prelapsarian intimations, that of Louis Adamic. On various occasions, the ladies read and discussed his books, including, The Autobiography of an Immigrant in America (1932), The Native’s Return: An American Immigrant Visits Yugoslavia and Discovers his Old Country (1934) and The House in Antigua (1937) .
Born is what is now Slovenia, Adamic came to the US right before WW I and eventually worked as a journalist. Not having read his work, I am guessing that his novels were of the social realism school of Upton Sinclair.
He died in 1951 by gunshot. But whether it was self-inflicted or whether he was assassinated by a Balkan faction angry with his stand against King Alexander, has never been determined.
If you look up Louis Adamic, as I did, you will discover that he has quite a lengthy FBI file, and that much of it is redacted.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Napoleon and the bees

Napoleon by Ingres
For a while now I’ve known that bees were the symbol of Napoleon, thanks to my mother who is the source of everything I know of the decorative arts, architectural history, defenestration, fenestration and the knots in rugs. Whenever possible she sends me postcards of Napoleon, in which he is sporting his red velvet cloak studded with golden bees.

And naturally I assumed that Napoleon chose bees as his symbol because of their industriousness and community spirit. But it turns out to be more complicated – and political – than that. The Bourbons had the fleur-de-lys - and we know what happened to the some of the Bourbons in 1793. Napoleon sought an emblem with more of the “fraternité” spirit. Bees were the symbol of Childeric, the 5th century Merovingian king. More than a thousand years after Childeric's death, a mason was doing repairs in the church of Saint Brice in Tournai (now in Belgium; Dad used to go their to buy cotton linters) and he stumbled upon Childeric’s grave. It contained all sorts of treasure, but of the greatest significance were three hundred golden bees.

I read somewhere else (in the vast cyber world) that it was Dagobert II of the Franks who had the golden bee-studded cape, and that these bees were rudely removed from his tomb by the about-to-be-crowned Napoleon.
But I am going with the Childeric version of events. (And not only because the Dagobert version was full of egregious misspellings.)
Though if you are wondering where you might see these golden bees, sadly you cannot. One dark and rainy night in 1831 nefarious thieves (Jacques and Pepin) entered the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and stole the treasure of Childeric, and melted the bees down for gold. All that is left is this drawing.
And of course the lovely paintings of the humble Napoleon.

Everything you were wondering about The Players Club

Ways in which my house resembles The Players Club:
• Shakespeare tiles (We both have them; the PC around a fireplace, mine -reproductions- in the guest bath.)
• Pictures of characters unknown to any but the initiates (Chez nous: school pictures of my children from kindergarten though middle school; at the PC: great 19th century and early 20th actors)
• Skulls. (Edwin Booth's had his Yorick; I have my camel, and yes I really truly found it in the Sahara, along with the rest of the camel's bones but I buckled to pressure and did not bring them all home. Naturally I regret the buckling.)

Ways in which my house does not resemble The Players Club
• Presence of a pool table. Enough said.
• Inscriptions above the mantels, such as this one in Edwin Booth's bedroom which, if I am not mistaken, extols the merits of smoking: "And when the smoke ascends on high, Her[e] thou beholdst the vanity of worldly stuff, gone with a puff: thus think and smoke tobacco."
• Lunch someone else provides, which I enjoyed immensely with my gracious host, Paco Underhill, Scientist of Shopping, Player and Buffalo-afficionado.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Quarry trail visited

Yes that is CSB almost bumping his head against the keystone of the Bum's Bridge, otherwise known as the bridge from the Old Marble Quarry under the Old Croton Aqueduct on the way to the river.
What to make of graffiti? "That butter"? What butter? My first thoughts ran to one-who-buts, as in a ram, or one-who-says-but, as in someone who can always see the other side of the question, the opposing viewpoint or is just contrary. Then I noticed the pat of butter pictured above.
Well, it wasn't margarine. (Which is lucky because then I might feel compelled to share all I have learned of late on the subject of hydrogenation- the process by which vast vats of grease are turned into spreadable margarine.)

This may look like your average pile of empty green bottles under a stone bridge. (And humble apologies for the quality of the photograph.) But look again. Not only are they all empty but they appear to have always been empty, or never filled. Likewise they have no labels and appear to have never had labels. Most significantly, they are not broken. So what is a pile of empty green bottles doing under the stone bridge on the Quarry Trail?
A proximate distillery has been opined.
While it is not especially germane, I would like to point out that in the just recently closed Calder show at the Whitney, there is a piece entitled ??? in which a ball attached to a long string is periodically hit with a paddle by a museum employee so that another ball attached to a longer string swings around and hits various objects arranged in a circle and then clangs against various objects and makes a ding or a ping or a plonk, and one of those objects is a green bottle EXACTLY like the bottles piled so ignominiously under the quarry bridge, awaiting an explanation.
Another interesting point about the Calder show (and it seems egregious to be mentioning its merits after it has closed, but there it is) was that in the wonderful sculpture "Romulus and Remus" Calder uses the same wooden finials to represent the wolves tits as the little penises of the twins. B and I discussed this at length.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What you didn't know about mustaches

The other day my friend B was here, working on her memoir (Sylvia, Emily, August D and Me) and she is nothing if not thorough, obsessive, persnickety, and a perfectionist. Absent the correct detail – the correct word for the detail in question – she falls into a sad pathetic torpor and has been known to lick her laptop.
Naturally I completely identify and consider this behavior appropriate to the task.
So when she asked me what kind of mustache Adolf Hitler sported, I said, “A small black mustache,” and knew immediately that would not be sufficient.
But we love the Internet.
I found the American Mustache Institute, devoted to fighting discrimination against mustached Americans; they are staffed by certified mustachiologists.
And in case you are wondering, Hitler’s mustache was of the toothbrush style. (As distinguished from the Paintbrush, the Handlebars, the Fu Manchu and more than you ever imagined possible.)

Following our brilliant success in mustache naming, we moved on to Dutch desserts. (The less said about the Hartsbrook School’s Sachertorte Dictum, the better.)

Swarming across the sea

Saint Modomnoc (his feast was 2 days ago but we were at the Calder circus, all bent wire, movement and whimsy) was an Irish priest studying and preaching in Wales. One of his tasks there was to tend the bees, and of course he grew fond of his bees. (And they of him.) The story goes that when he informed the bees he planned to cross the Irish Sea and convert those pesky Irish, they swarmed and followed him across the water. In this way Ireland got her first honeybees.

I have stood in the midst of swarming bees, and I have watched as the bees exited their hive and collected themselves on a nearby branch in order to reconnoiter, secure the queen and send out scouts to find a new home, and it was been wonderful. I don’t say that lightly. Generally in nature we find bees singly, gathering nectar and going about their business. En masse, they generate electricity in the air and you can quite literally stand there while thousands fly purposefully around you, and never touch you, because they are focused on only one thing: finding a new home.
Modomnoc must have had a great crossing of the Irish Sea. I can’t imagine a better one.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Just in: a patron saint for panic attacks

I think I may have discovered a patron saint of Panic Attacks – Saint Romuald. I didn’t know I was seeking one, but clearly, given my delight upon finding him, I must have been.

Much is known about Saint Romuald (950-1027):
He did not live to be 120, contrary to early reports.
As a youth, he was a slave to his passions.
Then he watched as his father killed a man in a duel. Romuald was so traumatized that he fled straight to a monastery and stayed there for 3 years practicing austerities.
For the next thirty years he wandered around Italy founding monasteries. Based on a dream of white-robed monks climbing a ladder, he changed the official garb of his monks from black to white. But these are not why I think he should be the patron of Panic Attacks.
No, this is. Apparently Romuald always had this fantasy of going to Hungary and preaching to the Magyars (barbaric Slavs beholden to paprika) but when he did finally go he was stricken with a mysterious illness the instant he set foot in the country. He tried repeatedly to get himself to Hungary, but each time the mysterious illness returned.
Hungary for Romuald: Cocktail parties for me.

More observations upon putting all my books alphabetically on the shelves.
W is a full of women writers and in particular women writers of whom I tend to own many copies : Wharton, Wesley, Woolf (she alone represents almost 3 feet of shelf), Welty, Weldon, and Winterson. There is no other letter – on my book shelves – with so many women so amply represented.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The books and the bees

If there is a better way to spend the afternoon than taking all one’s books off the shelves, re-alphabetizing them and putting them back on the shelves, neatly, dusted, touched and fondled, then I don’t know what it is.
I need to redo this every few years because things get out of order and more books get acquired for which there is no room in the current shelf configuration. Hence everything has to be removed and then replaced. Often this involves more bookshelves. Sometimes there is purging. But even with the best intentions the purging never equals the new acquisitions. This afternoon I managed to remove all books written in foreign languages; this included Camilo Jose Cela’s La familia de Pascual Duarte, and Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo, which together accounted for about 1 inch of shelf space. Also Hemingway’s L’adieux aux armes. I can’t imagine why I ever needed to have that book in French.
I also discovered duplicate copies of Helen Barolini’s More Italian Hours and Jennifer Boylan’s She’s Not There (Both good books). Another inch a half of shelf space gained. Not that I necessarily purge duplicate copies. There are some books, like any Isak Dinesen or Moby Dick or anything by John Hawkes, for which I will treasure multiple copies. And isn’t it interesting that two of my very favorite writers, John Hawkes and Shirley Hazzard, are right next to each other on the shelf?

For a while now I’ve been wanting to reread Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot but couldn’t find it anywhere and couldn’t imagine where it could have gone. (Well I could imagine and that was the problem.) Aha, it was shelved in the C section (I note that Spellcheck wants to surgically put a hyphen between C and section, but I refuse.), where it did not belong, where, apparently, it never occurred to me to look. I am pretty sure I liked when I read it – after all the name Flaubert is in the title, and that bodes well.
Today I made it halfway through the H’s. The K's and J's are piled up on the floor. By my calculations, by moving all the books about Nicaragua and assorted pilgramages upstairs I have gained 10 feet of shelf space for fiction. But I have over 16 feet of books to shelf. I have no idea what I will do.

Meanwhile CSB went out to check on apian mortality rates. It’s over 50˚ out here and the bees are buzzing. Well some of them are buzzing. The ones that are still alive are buzzing. The others are dead. This always saddens us. While I know we are not responsible for the bees untimely winter death, I feel a sense of responsibility, and hence guilt. After all, they are ‘our’ bees in the sense that we own the hives they live in, and we paid real money for the bees as well, though there is a sense in which owning any living thing has an element of creepiness to it. Even an insect. So here is the tally: here in Hastings we have exactly 50% mortality with seven hives out and about, and seven hives goners.
In Irvington and Tarrytown the percentage is slightly better with a 35% mortality.
Should we have wrapped the hives with insulation? Given the recent frigid weather was there anything we could have done?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

From snakes to verse

If you needed another reason to be grateful you did not live 60,000 years ago, you now have one in the person of the largest snake ever. Giant vertebrae fossils of an alligator-hunting boa constrictor-type snake who weighed in at a ton have been found in Colombia. And if you need another reason to panic about the inevitability of global warming, consider this: our friend the giant snake thrives in steamy tropical temperatures much hotter than we are currently experiencing.
Chances are Edmund Clerihew did not worry about giant snakes because he was so busy inventing a the four-line poem that would be named after him. I find it hard to believe that I have lived all my life unaware of these delightful poems and that sad state of affairs would have continued had it not been for my friend Helen Barolini, doyenne of Italian-American letters and fellow member of the esteemed and centenarian Literature Club of Hastings on Hudson.(More about that later.) Clerihew's initial foray into the world of poetry was this:
Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
And in his honor I posit this:

Of the the poet Edmund Clerihew
I never knew
His comic verse

To be so terse

Which probably makes it abundantly clear why I will not be seeking employment with Hallmark cards.