Thursday, April 30, 2009

Los Angeles Militantes

Seen at the New Baltimore Service area off the NY Thruway en route with 3000,000 bees in the back of the pickup, on a bizarrely hot day in April. Click to enlarge.
In case you are wondering what the 16-wheeler I would drive would look like, assuming there could ever be such a thing, which there most definitely could not, this is what it will look like.
What’s not to like about a sword-wielding angel?
A few years ago in Bolivia I became enamored of the Cuzqueña school of painting, which flourished in Peru and Bolivia in the 17th and 18th centuries. My favorites featured militant angels, with drawn swords, arquebuses, flames, and fish (San Raphael). We bought some student copies home with us, and now I understand why.
CSB, on the other hand, thinks nothing would be more entertaining that driving across the country in a rig, the kind that ordinary people need step ladders to climb into. He gets all glassy-eyed at the very mention of truck stop food.

Arcangel Arcabusero

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

TBMs, the wonder of, plus Saint Turibius

Those of you who are among the cognoscenti of heavy machinery (the sort of thing I associate with the precautions on my Dramamine bottle, as in “Do not use Heavy Machinery when taking this drug.”) have surely heard of the TBM, Tunnel Boring Machine.
But it is, was, new to me and 2 days after my introduction to the TBM the awe and wonder of it persists.
Sunday I attended a lecture at the annual meeting of FOCA (Friends of the Old Croton, my beloved, Aqueduct) about sandhogs, given by a veritable sandhog. He told us that yes, he has a PhD in Geology, but sandhogging pays better.
His PowerPoint included photographs of the above-mentioned TBM,
a machine so huge, so expensive, and so powerful that it can bore through 115 feet of rock a day. This, as compared to the 35 feet that can be accomplished in a day using the old Drill and Blast (D&B) method.
But how, you may well, ask, does the TBM get down into the tunnel? It is dismantled, taken down a 20 feet diameter shaft and then reassembled, subterraneally. As our lecturer pointed out, this guarantees employment to the assemblers and disassemblers.

At the front end of the TBM is a large shield with a rotating cutting wheel on which there are numerous cutter heads to chip away the rock, and behind or around the cutting wheel are rotating buckets that remove the excavated soil. An enormous hydraulic earthworm moves the machine forward, in mere hours gnawing its way through the rock that took billions of years to form.
Our lecturer described his work in the tunnels under NYC, which is enough to give one pause next time you step on the subway or drink tap water but of course there are TBMs tunneling under the Yangtze River in China, in the Gotthard Tunnel in the Alps, all over the world. For more pictures, go here and here.

Back when the Incas and their llamas were walking up and down the Andes there were no tunnels to shorten their route, and things were difficult in other ways as well. The conquistadors came. Which brings us (Yes, it’s a leap) to Saint Turibius de Mongrobejo.
For those interested in the history of New World canonization (See my new book, Absent a Miracle! Buy it! No one will be canonized! ), as I am, Turibius of Mongrobejo is not to be missed. According to Butler his feast day was yesterday, the 27th, but everyone else gives it as March 23, the day of his death.
More to the point is that in a pantheon filled with luminaries whose claims to sainthood are apocryphal, dubious, gruesome or weird, Turibius seems to have been a genuinely good and incredibly busy person.
He was sent as bishop to Lima in 1581 to clean up the mess (corruption, slavery, terrible abuses against the native population) made by the Spanish Conquistadors. Initially, he resisted the appointment on the grounds that he wasn’t even a priest, never mind a bishop. That technicality was quickly dealt with, and he sailed to Peru.
As soon as he arrived in 1581, he started reforming the rapacious and venal clergy he found there. This did not make him popular in certain quarters, but he persevered. He traveled tirelessly though his diocese, which consisted of all of Peru. He learned several Indian dialects and was able to speak directly to the people. He died in 1606, leaving all his property to the poor. St. Rose of Lima (another perpetual virgin, she rubbed her face with pepper and lye to disguise her beauty) was the first New World saint, but Turibius was the one who confirmed her.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Queens have arrived

Our friend at the PO called this morning to let us know that the new Queens were here. They are all Italians, all marked with a blue dot. If you enlarge the picture below you can see the dot on the Queen to the left. All the others are nurse bees who fed and groomed the queen during her journey north from Georgia, and will keep tending to her in the days to come; they will munch their way through the sugar patty that corks up the box and release her into the hive, by which time, so we hope, the thousands of bees will have accepted her pheromone and embraced her as their new Queen.

When we first started beekeeping I always named the Queens. Our very first one was Camilla, for Prince Charles' lady friend (I identified with the old farts finding love in middle age). The next ones we named for CSB's old girlfriends from his days in New Mexico. (Not the x-wife, I'm not that crazy.) When we ran out of ex-girlfriends (CSB was debonair but not a Casanova) we named them for attractive female friends. But we kept getting more hives, and existing hives swarmed, taking the Queen off to new digs, and it became too confusing. So we name them no more. But every time they arrive the old impulse rears itself up, the naming impulse, the impulse to differentiate and specify.
A few years ago I was in a bus outside Cairo and another impulse, the curious one, caused me to ask our guide about bees in Egypt. He told me a story. When he was a boy his grandfather had a melon farm beside the Nile in Upper Egypt and kept bees. He decided to repopulate his hives with European bees and so ordered a Queen from Italy. This Queen crossed the Mediterranean on a freighter and then traveled by train down to the grandfather's village. Our guide was visiting the day the message came from the stationmaster that his grandfather's Queen had arrived. He remembers the happiness on his grandfather's face as he said,"My new Queen is here, and she is Italian."
That was the sum total of what he told me about bees in Egypt. I have since learned that there is quite a bit more. The Egyptians in Pharaonic times kept bees on barges on the Nile and when the trees in one spot had finished their flowering, the keepers moved the barges at night to another fruitful mooring.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It is bad enough that the star of Bee Movie is a drone, wrongly shown as a working (nectar-gathering, honey-making) bee, wrongly insinuating to a generation of cartoon-goggle-eyed children that the sexism of the human world they know so well is mirrored in the apian world, which it is not, but it is truly egregious that the lovely industrious honeybee is used as a weapon in wars waged by man against man, which is to say, having nothing at all to do with bees, but now we learn that insects, formerly used as physical weapons in warfare, are now being used as psychological weapons in the torture of suspected miscreants.

It was bad enough perfectly beautiful beehives (those space-saving hexagons, those industrious bees, the sweet fruit of their labors) were catapulted over the parapet to repel the invaders (Huns, Tatars, Mongols, Gauls, Visigoths, Saracens, you pick), but now it seems that the very fear of an insect is used as an interrogation technique. Jeffrey Lockwood, author of Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War, discusses this in his OpEd in this past Sunday’s Times. (What with T being bitten by a rabid dog in Hanoi and CSB getting a kidney stone on his birthday, I was late in reading the Sunday paper this week.)

And on the subject of the mistreatment of honeybees, on this early spring day I would like to address the chronic misidentification of bees as the source of stings. So often people will complain of being stung by a bee when it is patently obvious that the offender was a yellow jacket or a wasp. Honeybees are rarely interested in people and only sting when they feel threatened, hence the vast majority of their stings go to beekeepers who are occasionally forced to work the hives and be bothersome. The insects that loiter around picnic tables and soda cans are yellow jackets as well; honeybees have better things to do. I mention these facts because no one likes to be blamed for crimes not committed. Am I anthropomorphizing? Perhaps.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Memory and Keith Waldrop

Speaking about memories and why it’s good to have them: April is Poetry Month and so every day I get a poem in my email inbox. Today a poem by Keith Waldrop arrived, and it is wonderful. It is additionally wonderful to remember Keith Waldrop, as I knew him, back when I was in grad school at Brown, where I assume he still teaches.
It was the late 1970s. Each week I had a writing seminar with John Hawkes and for reasons buried in the mists of time (We could drink and smoke?) our class met in the Waldrops’ living room on Elmgrove Avenue in Providence.
Theirs was a special house. Keith was allergic to sunlight, so I was told, hence all the windows were covered with curtains randomly safety-pinned shut. Burning Deck Press was in the basement. There were more books in that house and more books in odd places, than I had ever seen. Books were piled from floor to ceiling everywhere. Books were piled in the bathroom and the kitchen. If you opened a closet – why was I opening their closets? – they too were filled with books. There were countless books I’d never read, but every single one was a book I knew I would like to read or have read or have the wits or languages to read. Because along with being solar-phobic poets and publishers, the Waldrops were polymaths and multi-lingual.
They were also a visually striking couple: Rosemarie was beautiful and elegant, in a European way; Keith – born in the American heartland – had straight long hair and a Rip van Winkle beard.
It’s frightening to think of all the things it is possible to forget.
Such as the time the Waldrops came to dinner and the light fixture over the table came crashing down onto our meal and there were glass shards everywhere.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Lost, lost

Last night I wanted to find out when I had last been to the dentist, a mundane task, but a compelling one. And it was going to be easy: I would just go into my trusty iCal and scroll backwards. Well I scrolled backwards and after February 14, or rather before February 14, there was nothing. No events at all. I looked everywhere that one can look in a computer which is almost nowhere at all, but the events were gone.

S0 of course I am thinking of my father and his half-century of lost memories.
There is no patron saint of memory loss. Not officially. But there is of course St Anthony for lost items. (Not the Saint Anthony tempted in Dali’s painting, but the other one, the benign one always pictured with a baby, or a piglet. And I’ve no clue why the patronage of lost items.)
Bonne Maman, my beloved Belgian grandmother whose version of Catholicism was personal and idiosyncratic (and possibly idolatrous), was a devotée of St Anthony, largely for his uncanny ability to find lost objects, or cause them to be found. I wish I could manifest a modern skepticism on the subject, but it is hard. One of them – either my grandmother or Saint Anthony - really could find what was lost.
Or they did until Alzheimer’s took over Bonne Maman’s brain and decimated it, and then everything was lost, memory, language, and finally self. I don’t hold Saint Anthony responsible for her illness, though there were times when I was furious, when this terrible disintegration of the brain, this collapsing of synapses and this theft of a lifetime’s stories, seemed the cruelest thing and a negation of saintly intervention.
Meanwhile I bemoan my lost record of dentist appointments, haircuts, movies seen, parties, revelries, and physical therapy. Knee surgery has disappeared, along with trips to Bolivia and Alsace, along with a marriage that is already over, beekeeping classes and Literature Club meetings. I can’t bring myself to pray to Saint Anthony, not today.

So here is a fact that will neither find my missing calendar nor explain Saint Anthony’s patronage, but CSB will like it because he is longing to get pigs on our (still unnamed) farm. The smallest pig in the litter (the runt), or the favorite, is called the Tantony pig, short for Saint Anthony’s pig. Even though spellcheck disapproves, it’s a real word.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Shoes, glorious shoes

What is it about women and shoes? We grant them totemic powers to transform ourselves and our moods. We will spend more money on shoes we will wear once than on a new kitchen appliance that will make life easier for years to come. And without consulting Consumer Reports.
There is an important event coming up next month and I have determined that for this event I need to have turquoise shoes with pointy toes, that in fact turquoise shoes with pointy toes will enhance the entire event in ineffable ways. High heels would be nice as well, especially as heels could shorten the current 14" gap between the top of my head and the top of CSB's head. The problem with high heels is balancing on them. So most likely the gap will remain and CSB will continue to have the best view of the top of my skull. The above shoes came in a large box from, and soon they will return to (They don't fit, they look ridiculous and I can't walk in them.)Happily, Zappos has free shipping, to and from.
Meanwhile, I continue searching for turquoise shoes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lydwina of Schiedam

Among the many strange saints you will encounter, one of the strangest -and saddest - is Lydwina of Schiedam (1380—1433)

She is the patron saint of ice skaters, and perhaps I have her to thank for the occasion of falling through the ice several years ago (though at the time I attributed it to a post-divorce tendency to skate on thin ice), but I would not recommend her to the Sonia Henie’s out there. It was an ice skating adventure that precipitated one of the most miserable lives imaginable. During the particularly cold winter of 1395-96 , and while across the ocean Aztec astronomers were viewing the Transit of Venus, Lydwina fell while skating on a frozen Dutch canal and broke a rib. This was the beginning of a lifetime of illness and pain, a lifetime that would include- but was not limited to – vomiting, spasms, toothache, gangrene, headaches, dropsy, neuritis, gravel (gout? kidney stones?), syncope of the heart, blindness in one eye, and a fissure extending from the top of her forehead to the middle of her nose. Lydwina’s condition was so gag-inducing that even Alban Butler – who is not known for shirking the gruesome details of a martyrdom – writes of the revolting symptoms: “The full description of which we will spare the reader.” She spent the remainder of her life on a plank, often fasting for years at a time, confounding the medical authorities, and having visions.
Strange too is the biography of Lydwina by J.K. Huysmans, the decadent & erudite French writer not normally associated with suffering females; but then, who associates Mark Twain with Joan of Arc? (I do.) Huysman’s most famous book, À Rebours, features an all-black meal of caviar, squid ink and black pearls, served on ebony plates by naked Negresses. (At least that is how I remember it.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Things Papal, or not

Because I wrote a book called What to Wear to See the Pope, which many people - including those who should know better - assumed wrongly was largely autobiographical, they also assume that I did actually see the Pope.
For the record, I have never seen the Pope. Not in Rome and not in Yonkers. Not in Uruguay.
But I did see a movie yesterday called The Pope's Toilet. My friend Becky and I went to MOMA, ostensibly to see paintings from Picasso's blue period, because she is obsessed with all things blue. As we bought tickets I noticed that in 20 minutes there was a showing of The Pope's Toilet. A title conceived to pique one's interest? The gentlemen at the desk told me they had received many irate calls about the film. Of course we had to abandon Picasso and his blues, and descend into the theater. It was a lovely film, about a bicycling smuggler who hopes to make money with a pay toilet when the Pope's visit brings the devout hordes into Melo, Uruguay. The Pope and the Popemobile make their scheduled appearance, but the devout hordes never materialize. Don't count on a happy ending. (I did, and was very sad.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Old books, their writers and readers

I have spent much of the past 2 months reading the minutes of the Literature Club of Hastings-on-Hudson, from 1909 to the present, and to show for it I have a crick in my neck, a better appreciation for good penmanship and a pile of books from the library, books that were read and discussed by the ladies but have since been forgotten, only to be found in library stacks and dusty book sales.
You recall Louis Adamic? If not, see February 22. I have discovered Oliver Onions (not the Oliver Onions with a Dune Buggy video on You Tube) who wrote what some consider the best horror story ever, The Beckoning Fair One. (I would demur but then what do I know about horror stories? I find them unreadable.) I read about Agnes Keith and immediately got her memoir of Japanese prison camp in Borneo from the library. More on that another time. I asked myself, Who was Malvina Hoffman? It turns out she was a sculptor who created a series of life size sculptures of the various races (105) for the Field Museum, as chronicled in her book, Heads and Tales. All of them are now mothballed, being profoundly un-politically correct.
If you are from South Africa or England you probably know all about Laurens van der Post, but I was ignorant. Just yesterday (in the creepy waiting room of a retina specialist that I eventually fled, having decided that I didn’t want to see this doctor who kept very elderly people, and me, waiting for untold hours) I started reading The Lost World of the Kalahari, and discovered the honey hunting Bushmen. They are valiant honey hunters, climbing up rock faces and tall trees with their bare hands and feet to extract honey from hives in crevasses. They use special herbs to smoke the bees. These are African bees, feistier and fiercer than our gentle Italians, but according to van der Post they rarely sting the bushmen, just enough to remind them that they are bees. In her classic reference work, Beekeeping and Honey Hunting,the late lamented Eva Crane discusses in great detail the African honey hunters, but that was not read by the ladies of the Literature Club.

I was especially delighted about the bees because for a while now – often as he rubs the aforementioned crick in my neck – CSB has questioned where I am going with this project. Good question, of course. What are they paying you?” he asks. Very funny, I say. The pleasure of it. I know that deep in his heart – very deep, China perhaps – CSB too thinks this is a fascinating task. But discovering the Bushmen honey hunters felt like an excellent bonus.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Who was she?

I assume everyone has a mysterious relative, someone to whom you are genetically linked but whose character and motivation and behavior is mysterious to you.
Mine is my paternal grandmother, Germaine Marie Jeanne Levêque Lehner.

She was born June 2, 1892 at 9:30 PM in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue
I know the time exactly not from any family Bible, but from the horoscope that was drawn up for her in 1942 by Ethel Bret Harte who was very particular about the time of birth as it placed the sun in 12˚ Capricorn and the ruler, Mercury, in 0˚ Capricorn, both of which are brought into the 4th house. (I have no idea what any of that means.)
The discovery of the horoscope is what has prompted this writing.

I have a stack of Grumbacher sketchbooks filled with my grandmother’s watercolors. As in dozens. My siblings and cousins have dozens more. She painted hundreds of these abstract watercolors, so many that it is impossible not to wonder what compelled her. They are all similar in style, and each one is different.
I have a horsehair trunk full of her correspondence. I have a few leather notebooks with her poems. I haven’t read every single thing but I have read enough to be frustrated by the dreamy evasive quality of much of her poetry and by the generalities that fill the letters addressed to her.
Yet I know THINGS happened.
How soon after she married my grandfather did it become clear they were profoundly ill-suited for each other?
She was French, he was German.
She believed in Theosophy, astrology and numerology. She was a dancer, artist, probably a hypochondriac, a devotée of H.G. Wells, Annie Besant, Tagore and Rudolf Steiner.
He was a cotton trader, a brilliant businessman, and a patriarch.
OK – on the basis of those characteristics there is no reason to presume they were ill-suited. Great marriages have been forged from greater dissimilarities.
And yes, they were both Catholic but that only seems to have signified in the fact that they never actually divorced.

Having been frustrated in my attempts to learn more about my grandmother, I looked for information about Ethel Bret Harte (1875-1964). The youngest of Bret Harte’s five children (all equally neglected by their father) she appears exactly 10 scanty times in a recent Bret Harte biography (Bret Harte, Prince & Pauper, by Axel Nissen).
Her astrological bent is not mentioned. The fact that she was ill and destitute in 1905 (she was 30) is only obliquely alluded to, but Google found this:

So notable men did ante up for the poor offspring of the American writer. But of what ailed her I could not learn. And how well did she know Arthur Conan Doyle? He was a spiritualist and believed in the possibility of speaking with those gone over to the other side.
Am I being ignorant in lumping together spiritualism and astrology?
Ethel Bret Harte wrote one book:
What else do I know of Ethel Bret Harte? She knew my grandmother enough to write this last paragraph in her horoscope (7 single spaced typed pages on onionskin):
Now I leave you to draw your own conclusion on the quoted readings of planetary aspects in your natal chart because, though I could elaborate on these (Which coincide exactly with my own findings) I prefer that you should understand that this is not my interpretation which might seem prejudiced by knowing you. Then, too, I feel you have not been very frank or explicit with me as to just what did happen at home, though I have been forced to draw my own conclusions from what I find as tendencies in the chart.”
What do I learn from this? That my grandmother’s story was as elusive to her astrologer as it is to her descendants? Scant consolation.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Well I didn’t play a single April Fools joke but my favorite son Tristram did, and was rather successful.
I returned from White Plains mid-afternoon (and trips to White Plains always leave me shaken and disoriented, as if I’d barely escaped the underground laboratory of Balkan jellybean manufacturers) and there was a message from one Sam Rodman, who identified himself as the rector of St Michael’s who would be marrying Tristram and Nika in May. He said he wanted to “better understand Tristram’s religious background” and would I call back at my convenience.
I completely believed this.
But I did not call back immediately and for that I am grateful, because had I called I would very likely have said some rude and inappropriate things about Tristram’s amusing and brief career as an acolyte as well as alluded to my struggles to teach my children the most elementary hagiography in the face of opposition from my ex, the Unitarian.
I was saved by Tristram’s sister who got the same call and spoke at some length to the putative rector. Then, upon hanging up, she realized – and clearly her intuition is better than mine – that it was a hoax.
She shrieked with indignation, but also admiration. She had been truly had.
(Later, CSB pointed out that I should have turned the tables and told Tristram that I lost the phone number (it was Nika’s brother’s cell number, it turns out, their partner in foolery) and looked up the number for the real rector and spoke with the real Sam Rodman who disavowed the whole thing and was rather annoyed.)

We gave Ned B a year off, resting on our laurels from previous successes: the Incident of Parking Enforcement Officer Uriah Binfuled (U. Binfuled) and The Visit of the Green Egg™.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Cadillac of Pain Indices

A few years ago when I was in the hospital to have some weird body parts removed from my body, one of the ways I entertained myself was in contemplation of the Wong-Baker Pain Scale(see below). I practiced forming a parabola with my mouth, and then reversing it. I practiced flattening and tilting my eyebrows. Mostly, though, I just found it impossible to be sure that the pain I was describing was a whole lot or the worst when I could only feel one pain-set at a time. I was lucky too, in that I generally hovered between 2 and 3.

So imagine my glee when CSB returned from the beekeepers meeting last night with information about the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. It is to the Wong-Baker Index what Nabokov is to Dr. Seuss. I don’t know Justin Schmidt but I feel confident that in addition to being a fine research scientist, he is a poet manqué. His analogies for the pain inflicted by various stinging insects are nothing short of brilliant. It is like going to a wine tasting for pain.

* 1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
* 1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
* 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
* 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
* 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
* 2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.
* 3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
* 3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
* 4.0 Tarantula hawk: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
* 4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

(All bug pictures are from Wikipedia Commons except the honeybees, and they are ours. I couldn't find a picture of the Bullhorn Acacia ant, so beware.)