Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Adult Ed, or Life Long Learning

Things I learned at Sunday night’s dinner party, while the hailstones were hailing and the thunder was thundering and the lightning was serrating the sky:
• How to cook Beer Can Chicken, and why. This really exists.
• A foolproof mousetrap that involves a bucket filled with water, a beer can (not the same one used for Beer Can Chicken) smeared with peanut butter and threaded through a stiff dowel atop the bucket full of water, and a ramp leading to the rim of the bucket for of water for the mouse to walk up. This is a Canadian mousetrap.
• The names of more movies than I will watch in a decade, and I wrote them all on the back of my place card and have already filed it away so carefully.
• How to make candied orange peel and I really do plan to attempt this because it is mysteriously sour and sweet and bitter and chewy.
• Philip Glass is a masterful businessman.
• There are ambulances for pets, at least in NYC. I should have known that.
• The importance of wearing proper vintage underwear with vintage clothing.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alas, poor Mercatrude

It seems only fitting that the patron saint of divorced people is not really a saint you would lay claim to, and probably not anyone you would want to hang around with. The early life of the royal Guntramnus, son of King Clotaire and Queen Clothildis, gave no indication that he would get religion in his later years. The story, as told by St. Gregory of Tours, generally considered reliable, is that Guntramnus divorced the fair Mercatrude. But within the year she became desperately ill and her physician was unable to cure her. So Guntramnus ordered his henchmen to murder the physician. Given the state of medicine in 6th century France, this seems a bit unfair. And the divorce business is unclear and confusing as well. Of course Guntramnus is not a saint for having killed his ex-wife’s quack doctor. No. After that he saw the error of his ways, converted and became a kind and tender ruler. His skull is kept in a silver reliquary in the church of Saint Marcellus, but I do not know where that it so it is unlikely I will be making a pilgrimage there any time soon.

On another note, CSB and I are trying to name our farm, which involves the hubris of calling it a farm in the first place.
CSB: How about Riverview Farm?
Me: That’s so generic.
CSB: It’s accurate.
Me: What do you think about C&C Ranch?
CSB points out that we are not in the west, have no cattle and no firearms. He prefers: Draper Homestead Farm
I say we are already next to a Draper Park. How Dew Drop Acres (homage à Nabokov)?
No comment.
What’s Time to the Hogs Farm, CSB suggests. I immediately concur and call his bluff.
And what is wrong with Let it Bee Farm? I ask.
Back to square one.
What about Mercatrude Farm, I ask, having just discovered the fair Mercatrude and not wanting to forget such a mellifluous name.
CSB: What does that mean?
Me: It’s the name of a long dead divorcée.
CSB: Next?
This is not an idle task. Naming matters. Ask Linnaeus if you don’t believe me.

Friday, March 27, 2009

My sister, a tenderhearted creature as regards the natural world, wants to know if there is a patron saint of frogs. She has a thing for frogs. One rarely has a conversation with her that does not include a rapturous description of the lusty bullfrogs on their pond. My sister’s rendition of the dulcet tones of mating frogs is almost as good as her loon call.
I am sad to report that neither frogs nor toads have a patron saint to call their own. (There is of course Saint Ulphia who silenced the frogs. See January 31.) My sister is distressed over the fate of the ‘disgusting and destructive” cane toads in Queensland, Australia. These venomous toads were imported from South America in a misguided effort to kill off the beetles harming the sugar cane. But it seems the toads, ugly as they are, cannot jump high enough to kill the beetles. Meanwhile they are killing everything else, including small reptiles, mammals and birds. So this Sunday will be TOAD DAY OUT. (In Australia. Unless you are already there you are unlikely to arrive in time to gather many cane toads.) Contestants are encouraged to bring in as many live toads as possible. Then they will be humanely killed. (Don’t ask.) The organizers recommend wearing gloves when you pick up the toads because they have a tendency to urinate.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The fate of the Henry Hudson Hotel

My parents are here for a few stays. Mom decided she needed a dose of NYC culture, and Dad agreeably accompanies her. Not that there is any choice, for her or for him.
Thus far they have visited the Onassis Cultural Center for the “Worshipping Women” Exhibit, MOMA to get confused, and the Met for Islamic tiles and Dutch landscapes. My mother is researching the lineage of the spiral design and has traced it as far back as the Bronze Age. This pleases her enormously.

Dad wants to know about the Henry Hudson Hotel. The NYC he remembers is circa 1944, when several floors of the Henry Hudson Hotel were commandeered by Naval Intelligence, and he lived there for a few months learning codes. The Henry Hudson Hotel was built in 1929 as the Women’s Association Clubhouse, with 1250 rooms and a swimming pool. A quick Google search tells me that back in 1997 Ian Schrager bought the building with plans to renovate it and turn it into a$75/night hotel. A lovely idea, but did that happen? The Internet trail turns chilly after one fascinating article about Schrager’s project and Anne Morgan’s role in the establishment of the Women’s Association.

An Internet site called EveryBlockNYC, tells me that in 2008 three Applications for alterations were denied at 353 West 57th. Having been denied a variance by our own misguided Zoning Board (for a barn, no less) I can only imagine the bureaucratic posturing and the gnashing of teeth, the lamentations and recriminations. Or maybe it’s not quite like that on the West Side.
The flat Netherlandish landscape may be fine, but this is all Dad wants to see. A visit is in order.
You probably would not expect the patron saint of hotel keepers to have much in common with Oedipus. But such is the sad case. He was out hunting when the stag he pursued predicted Julian would kill his parents. Julian promptly moved to Galicia and married a wealthy older woman. Twenty years later his loving parents found out where he had decamped to and popped in for a surprise visit. Julian's wife graciously gave the older couple her and Julian's bed. When Julian came home (from hunting, of course) and saw them sleeping there, he assumed it was his wife with another man and killed them both. And there is much more. But most likely none of it is true.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hastings has a new fire engine, which should be enough news for one day. But there is more: this new fire engine (a Seagrave Custom Pumper) has the seal of Hastings applied to both doors with gold leaf. And this gold leaf was applied by a fellow from Pennsylvania whose only job is to apply gold leaf to fire engines. Each fire engine takes two weeks, so we can assume he completes 25 each year, and then takes a 2-week vacation.
The question I ask myself is, does this professional applier of gold leaf know the patron saints of goldsmiths, and does he care? Of course you all know of Saint Eligius, famous for his metalworking skill as portrayed in the painting by Petrus Christus.
But what about Saint Anastasius the Persian? What is his connection to gold? I can only surmise his patronage is a result of the fact that he was lodging with a Persian Christian silversmith when he was converted. The wood of the ‘True Cross’ was plundered from Jerusalem in 614 by Chosroes of Persia, and Anastasius was a young soldier much affected by the devotion of the early Christians to this bit of wood. He converted and became a monk, and was horribly, gruesomely martyred, of which his end -death by strangulation and then beheading – is the mildest part of the story. Apparently his head is still to be found at the Church of SS. Vincent and Anastasius in Rome.
Then we have Saint Dunstan, the great English monk (10th century) and manuscript illuminator. His most famous attribute is thanks to Dickens’ ditty (and I ask myself if this could be called a Clerihew):
St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull'd the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more

In this manuscript illustration, could this be a self-portrait of Saint Dunstan? I knew he is meant to be prostrate before the cross, but to me he simply looks tired from those long hours poring over the small print.

And will the gold leaf enhance the fire quenching capacity of our new custom pumper?

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I have written in these pages before about the strange and wonderful and evocative treasures to be found in the subterranean recesses of the hyper-organized parental home. Often these artifacts will reveal better-forgotten, better-left-in-the-mists-of-time aspects of one's misspent youth. Often they are just weird.
This photo, for instance, provides tangible evidence of the summer when our collective family's brain was taken over by aliens from the Planet Lederhosen. Then why, you may well ask, is my younger self wearing a kimono? I don't know. I actually loved my lederhosen. I thought I was quite fetching in my lederhosen. I couldn't imagine a time in life when I wouldn't want to wear lederhosen. According to my mother, she passionately hated the dirndl she is wearing. More evidence of the alien usurpation.

Other recently unearthed treasures include countless Little Blue Books from the 1920s. I will be studying the absurdities of Christian Science while psycho-analyzing myself. I anticipate that my newly acquired knowledge of palmistry will make me exceptionally popular.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Not Saint Patrick's Day

Notice the mouse at her feet.
You would have to be color blind, live in a cave, or be my mother not to know that today is Saint Patrick’s Day. And however you feel about green beer and a forest’s worth of paper cutout green shamrocks, you probably have some residual fond feeling for the patron saint of Ireland.

But he’s not the only saint you could celebrate today. Imagine a parade in honor of Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of sufferers of suriphobia (also known as musophobia or murophobia), which is fear of rats and mice. She is also invoked against insanity, and for help in obtaining lodging while traveling. Imagine the floats. Imagine the spectators rushing off in all directions as the rodent marching bands make their way down Fifth Avenue.
Gertrude came by her sainthood the old-fashioned way, that is, from her family. Her parents, Pepin and Ida, were both Blesseds. Her sister Begga and her niece Wilfetrudis were both saints. She was born in AD 626 and died 33 years later, having worn herself out with fasting and wearing hair shirts. There is no satisfactory explanation of her connection to mice and rats. As recently as 1822 when there was a plague of field mice, the peasants brought little gold and silver mice to her shrine in Cologne.

What's with all the mice?
I had always been told that peas should be planted on Saint Patrick’s Day, but it seems in this case he is stealing Gertrude’s thunder. It is her feast day that is regarded – at least in obscure parts of Belgium – as the beginning of the gardening season.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ruminations on a chain saw

I have a long and complicated relationship with chain saws. Seven years ago when my x-husband moved out he naturally took with him the chain saw.
That seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
Then an enormous limb fell across the driveway and it became clear that if I were going to stay here I would have to get my own chain saw. At the hardware store I asked for the lightest weight chain saw, a queen size chain saw.
Such a thing does not exist, at least not at the Hastings Hardware store. I ended up with a 14 inch HomeLite. The hardware store man said, “Watch out for the kickback.” Which is not something that had ever been said to me before.
I gave my new chain saw a name, Frederick Barbarossa.
I read the instructions repeatedly. Eighty percent of the times I pulled the starter cord the chain saw did not start, did not purr into action. I reread the instructions.
I always wore a helmet and gloves. My friend M’s husband (now very ex) loaned me his chaps, but they seemed a little over the top. Even for me.
I will cut this story short and just tell you that my chain saw skills improved and I can creditably cut up a large fallen branch. I cannot and mostly likely will never take down a dead tree with a four-foot diameter.
But that is just what CSB did last weekend. I puttered inside the house, and outside as well; I listened to the suburban obbligato of power tools, and I hummed to the susurrus of CSB’s chain saw, which is most decidedly not Queen-size.
My chain saw days are over and this is generally a good thing. Though I can be very helpful with a hydraulic wood splitter.

Announcement of Death to Saint Fina
Ghirlandaio 1473-1475

While CSB was taking down the dead birch I thought of Saint Seraphina laid out on her plank. Seraphina was a 13th century Italian virgin (naturally) who early on was afflicted with a painful paralysis. She thought it would be a good idea to imitate Christ on the cross, so she spent six years laying flat on a plank, never changing position.
For this remarkable feat she is a saint.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I have no idea

It’s been a rough week so I can only express gratitude when my sister heightens my current state of paranoia with news items about owls attacking cross-country skiers and chimpanzees that actually PLAN to attack humans, by piling up stones for throwing later. It is a dangerous & treacherous world out there.

Saint Anastasia Patricia would agree. After all, in order to survive she had to spend her life in drag, living in a monk’s cell. For 28 years she never saw another human and was known as “Anastasias the Eunuch”. She was among that very special class of saint, or human, or anything, judged by the church to be a “permissible transsexual”.
She probably never existed and is just another version of the cross-dressing Marina or Pelagia or Apollinaris.
I am going spend today looking at everyone I see and wondering if in fact he or she is cross-dressing. And so what?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Happy Birthday Barbie and Saint Catherine

Today is Barbie’s 50th birthday. This very day. If you were listening to Brian Lehrer on NPR this morning you would have heard women from all over the Tri-state area calling in to reveal the myriad ways in which they dismembered or maimed or altered their Barbies. Only recently I learned that this was in fact a widespread phenomena and I was enormously cheered, because for so long I thought that my own predilection to inflict strange things upon my Barbie was a sign of my warped personality. (Perhaps relating to my affinity for early Christian female martyrs?) Now it seems I share this warped personality trait with a large contingent of American woman. Alleluia. And not just me, but also my daughter.
I seriously considered calling into the Brian Lehrer Show (93.9, WNYC) and relating how my son carefully dismembered his older sister’s Barbie and flushed, or attempted to flush, all the body parts down the toilet. This necessitated calling the plumber. Though when I called in the plumber I did not know what was causing the stoppage in the toilet. And when Barbie’s limbs were extracted, one by one, we all assumed it was Reine’s devilish little brother who had done this.
Then, about a year ago and almost two decades after the event, Reine confessed to me that she was the one who had disposed of Barbie’s body parts and allowed her brother to take the heat. My memory is that he never denied dismembering Barbie, which makes it a little more complex.
I didn’t call Brian Lehrer.

Saint Catherine of Bologna, whose feast is also today, never made it to 50. She died at the age of 48.
She was buried directly in the ground without a coffin, and stayed there for 18 days. Following a spate of miracles, she was disinterred and found to be sweet smelling and intact. And ever since then(1463 AD) she has resided in the convent church in Bologna, sitting upright inside a case of glass.
Like Barbie, forever, young, unchanging.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Add Honey, Semper

This just in from my excellent clipping service: Apicus, the Roman gourmand credited with writing the first cookbook about 1600 years ago, recommends adding honey to everything. That would include ostrich, flamingo and lobsters. The early Romans were nothing if not omnivores.
We would do well to follow his instructions.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Beloved Bonne Maman

Glamorous in Alexandria, Egypt. 1930's.

Excavations behind Maadi 1946. The vases are about 4000 years old.

With 2 very serious children, my mother and uncle.

With Bon Papa aboard the MAry-Q. 1960's?
Reine Marie Garat Molkau Brancart would be 107 years old today.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

To and from Rouen

I do not often think of Rouen, where I have never been, but when I do it is first of all as the sad place where Joan of Arc was imprisoned and then burned, on the last day of May 1431, which just so happens to be the year François Villon was born.
Even now, half a millennium later, I still lament the auto-da-fé of young Joan. A girl. Years ago when I was in the habit of swimming laps in my then mother-in-awl’s swimming pool I started thinking about Joan, burning in Rouen, and now all I have to do is start swimming in a relatively straight line, and I will think of her again. It is my fervent hope that some kind soul slipped her some hemlock before they ignited the faggots.

After Joan I think of Flaubert who was born in Rouen and lived there all his life, writing perfect sentences. He did not become a doctor like his father and brother, and for years I thought that his father was the French doctor and father of a great writer who was responsible for the concept of the cordon sanitaire, a quarantine to keep sickness from spreading. But in fact that was Proust’s father, Dr. Adrian Proust, not Flaubert’s father. Still, it seems a reasonable confusion, given that Proust and Flaubert are both French, obsessive; they never married, they wrote brilliantly and I read them both in French class decades ago. My dictionary was attached to my wrist.

But I am thinking of Rouen because today, no yesterday, was the feast of St Leo of Rouen (who is not in Butlers Lives of the Saints at all, putting his entire existence in doubt). Aside from his being bishop of Rouen – known for its rather fabulous ecclesiastical architecture (viz. numerous paintings by Monet) what we know of Leo is that Saracen pirates beheaded him in 900 AD. But that did not stop him. His headless body picked up the removed head and carried it back to the church where he had given his last sermon. And then fully died. Another glorious cephalophore.
And if you know me, you know that I have an unjustifiable fascination with cephalophores. There is something compelling about the notion that the body would object to its untimely truncation. And poignant about the literally mindless impulse to bear one’s head to a place of safety.
The theory I have read, and it makes sense, is that the concept of cephalophores results from the frequent representation in art of beheaded saints holding their heads. If you are carving a saint for the front of a cathedral (St Denis for example) it is much easier to have his body and head be in the same place, even if not in their normal relations. And seeing such images the populace came to the conclusion that the represented saint really did carry his or her head somewhere. However it evolved into yet another category of saints, it clearly relates to the human impulse to make whole what was sundered.