Friday, December 31, 2010

Sometime in the late morning of December 23rd, 2010, at his country house in Marshfield, Massachusetts, Jeffrey Richardson Hewitt, my former husband, the father of our two extraordinary children, the grandfather of Leda, our shining light granddaughter, a former nurse and lawyer, a photographer, a prolific painter, a skier, tennis player and sailor, an oenophile, a jazz-lover, the dedicatee of my first book, an advocate for reproductive rights and former grief counselor, suffered an aortic aneurysm and died instantly.
It has taken me almost an hour to write the above paragraph. No, it has taken decades. Descriptors are inserted and then removed. Adjectives are pondered, rejected, dredged up and spit out. Ways in which I might have described him a mere month ago have slipped below the pelagic surface.
This is what has disappeared: possibility. There is no more time. I always imagined that with the proliferation of grandchildren and as our lives progressed, his anger & resentments would fade and we might enjoy again the things in each other that initially drew us together, and we could be friends again.
We were friends before we were lovers, friends before we were married & friends before we were parents. I imagined we could be friends again. But for that we needed time. Perhaps he would find a loving partner to go forward with. I imagined that one day at yet another grandchild’s birthday party, Jeff and I could find comfort in telling our shared stories, stories from a time when we were full of possibility and maybe little else: hiking naked in Red Rock Canyon, reading and writing stories, bicycling along the cliff in Santa Barbara, falling in love with Yeats’ poetry, climbing ruins in Honduras, reciting poetry, teaching our children to ski, losing the speeding demons among the moguls, quizzing the children on the capitals of the world (The ever-ready and eternal fallback was Ulan Bator, and always will be.), playing take-no-prisoners Scrabble, and being blessed by an elephant in India.
We’d had so much already. But to arrive at a consoling future, we needed more time.

We’d been living together for about 4 years when Jeff’s mother, neither a shirker nor a tactician, gave him her grandmother’s diamond ring and told him to get going and marry me. (Shit or get off the pot, what was she was later reputed to have said, but that may be apocryphal.)
The proposal accomplished & the ring in place, I returned to graduate school and Jeff went off for a six-month jaunt through Indonesia and Southeast Asia. He mailed back long handwritten letters on dragonflywing paper, full of adventures, hallucinogenic descriptions and religious rhapsodics. In Borneo he traveled into the jungle atop a riverboat. It was the hottest and swampiest and most fetid place he had ever been. For the rest of our lives together, Borneo would be the standard by which all heat and humidity were measured: Yes, the Amazon may be a sultry cauldron today, but it’s nothing like Borneo.
We were married on 9-11-76 in my parents’ back yard. His family’s bulldog, the über-terrifying Wrinkles (Or was she the kinder, gentler successor to Wrinkles?) was the ring bearer. I weighed 99 pounds. His glasses were scotch-taped together. We read poems by W.H. Auden and W.B.Yeats. The bridesmaids were not called bridesmaids; they wore dowdy red cotton dresses and carried paintings of assorted red and blue symbols, so abstract even we didn’t know what they meant, though we had painted them.
25 years later we separated.

One of the games Jeff played with our children, because his father had played with him and his brothers, was called Rigor Mortis Has Set In. In the course of roughhousing with the kids, he would grip an arm or leg, then seize up and fall to the floor with a thud, stiff and inflexible, only breaking his frozen pose to mutter grimly, “Rigor mortis has set in.” The children squealed, pleaded and wiggled. But his grip was powerful. They begged him to play Rigor Mortis.

I wanted to see him play Rigor Mortis with our grandchildren and hear their peals of delight; I wanted to watch this next generation learn to navigate the tidal line between terror and hilarity.
Rest in Peace, dear Jeff.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On donkeys, or not

Does it really matter whether it was a donkey or a horse, or even a mule, upon whose back the very pregnant Mary rode to Bethlehem, and who was then a spectator at the manger? It matters to me.
Twice in my life I have ridden donkeys and, strangely enough, I remember both instances, though not for their ease of travel or comfort. Au contraire. The first time was on the volcanic island of Santorini, known for being volcanic and for its rare and delicious white eggplants, which are so sweet they can be eaten raw. (I am very fond of eggplants – see previous posts re blue food for further information – but have yet to eat one raw.) If you arrive at Santorini by boat, and you will because there is no other way to arrive, it is a long and circuitous climb from the harbor up to the village at the crater’s rim. For reasons that presumably have to do with an ancient Santorinian’s wicked sense of humor, tourists are encouraged, even compelled, to make that ascent – the “traditional way” - on the back of a donkey.
I cannot recommend this little enough.
The second time I rode a donkey was on Mount Tubkal in Morocco. Experiencing knee problems on the descent, I briefly rode a donkey along the winding rocky paths where a misstep would plunge us both into a rocky abyss. I realized that no knee pain was bad enough to overcome the sheer terror, not to mention extreme discomfort, of riding that donkey. I walked.
So when I consider the gravid Mary, already struggling to keep down her last meal of wild locusts and honey, traveling atop a cantankerous and bumpy ass, I am full of sympathy. I refer to imagine her riding an onager, the wild Asian ass native to the deserts of Syria and Israel. Onagers are more horselike and larger than donkeys, and bear on their backs a distinctive black stripe edged in white. Sadly, onagers are untamable and always have been.

But if you are still interested in acquiring a donkey, there are about 44 million in the world today, mostly in China, but easily available here. A certain relative of mine described them as expensive lawn ornaments. Though it is not clear whether he was referring to the initial expense of acquiring said donkeys, or the expense of feeding them and garbing them in Louis Vuitton saddlery.

Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, by Cornelis Massys, who interests me because he is the son of Quentin Massys, for whom there is a plaque in the square in front of the Antwerp Cathedral at the exact spot where a young man (who would have been my great-uncle had he lived) and his beloved landed when they jumped from the cathedral spire.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My turn. Foiled again.

Every year around this time, I wait for the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce to give me their annual Golden Manger Award, for the person who has done the most to promote Bethlehem tourism.
Once again, I have been disappointed.
You would not believe who they have given it to: the Junior All-State Klezmer Band, Constantine the Great, Attila the Hun, and even Joe the Plumber. So why not me, Herod the Great? Wasn’t I the one who ordered all my subjects to go back to the place of their birth in order to be counted in the census? Absent that particular order, there would have been no tender family scene in the barn in Bethlehem, and no multi-million dollar tourist industry. Weren’t my priests the ones who gave those three goofballs from Persia directions to Jerusalem? (But did they come back, as requested, and tell me what they found? No, they did not. Ungrateful.) Aren’t I the one who ordered all the baby boys under the age of two in the region to be slaughtered, because if there is one thing I have learned from the Romans it is that any ruler with any sense makes sure that all potential rivals for power do not live long. And had I not ordered the so-called Massacre of the Innocents, then the holy family would not have fled into Egypt and Western Art would not have had the pleasure of some of the finest works by Carpaccio, Bondone, Borromeo, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, William Blake, David, and delaTour. Even the all-time favorite, Breugel, painted the census, albeit with a lot more snow than we had that year.

I will not deny that there are some unseemly bits in my biography that I would rather not focus on, such as killing my wife, children, mother-in-law and brother-in-law. But I suffered too! Just after that lunar eclipse – and we didn’t realize it was a lunar eclipse and so it scared the hell out of most of us – I died a very painful death of gangrene in unmentionable places. So it strikes me that given the great boon I have given to 2000 years of Christian iconography and souvenir sales, just this once they might give me the credit I deserve.
You can do your part, by writing to the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, Venerable Stable Recreation Center, Bethlehem, Israel (formerly Judea) and make your feelings known. A vote for me, Herod the Great, is a vote to recognize a real contribution to our collective well-being and economy.

Just a few suggestions

(Joseph and some others, by Kevin Hanna.)
I think by any standards I would be considered a decent fellow, even a very accommodating fellow. I have just married the very young & very pregnant Mary; and she is, admittedly, quite an attractive dusky and sloe-eyed lass in her blue robes, for now. Though by the Byzantine era her chest will have flattened out (yes, I know the old joke about a carpenter’s dream, and it doesn’t apply in my case) and her hair will have acquired gold tints; then in the Renaissance her face will be porcelain white and her hairline will have risen a good inch upward, also her breasts will have regained their lovely globular appeal. I prefer her in her current Semitic incarnation. But this is not about Mary’s carnal virtues, because frankly, I will never get to appreciate them in the usual husbandly fashion. I had nothing to do with her pregnancy, and neither did any other man, so I am told. I don’t pretend to understand this.
I just think – given all the above mentioned accommodating by me – I should get to have some input on the name for the little bun in the oven. I’ve agreed that if it’s a girl we’ll name her Anne, for Mary’s sainted mother, and I do mean sainted. But Mary insists says there is no way it will be a girl, though I don’t know how she can be so sure. Amniocentesis and ultra-sounds for gender-determination in utero are still 2000 years away; all we have now are old wives’ tales and chicken bones. So if the little spud is a boy, then I think I should get to name him. Or just like the name. And I’m not dogmatic; I’ve put lots of possibilities out there. Schlomo and Schmul were my first favorites. But I also like Casper – though not Jasper – and Rufus. Mary says she knew a Rufus in back in her village who was a terrible bully and tortured goats for fun. So should the name be forever tainted by one snot-nosed brat? She seems to think so. I’ve always liked Duncan but it sounds funny in Aramaic. Attila works in several languages. Mary thinks Winston sounds too WASPY but we could call him Winnie and that would be very down-to-earth. I lobbied hard for Bruno. Think about it: have you ever known a Bruno you didn’t like? But she will have none of it. It is Baby Jesus, or nothing.

A few Josephs, as pictured in Mexico, Ecuador, Nepal, Hummel-land, Cameroon, Philippines, and beyond.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Amazing! Just Discovered Scrolls Reveal Secrets of Shepherd's Psyche

Jerusalem, December 15, 2010: The Archeological Museum announced today the historic discovery of scrolls dating from approximately 0 A.D. The scrolls were found inside an urn buried under a mound of fossilized sheep dung in cave on the western slope of Mt Ararat. The discovery was made by a couple of French backpackers, Moses and Rebekka Valmont. While hiking, they were arguing about honeybees and Noah’s Arc. Moses insisted that only a queen and a drone were taken on board, while Rebekka claimed that the queen would have had an entourage of worker bees with her, as otherwise she would not have survived nor been able to lay eggs. Distracted by their argument, they stumbled into the cave. Immediately, they donned their energy-efficient headlamps and espied the handle of an urn. Moses dug out the urn with his penknife while Rebekka smoked a Gauloise, and discovered that sheep dung, even fossilized sheep dung, is highly flammable. However, they managed to extract the urn – with its precious contents - from its armor of fossilized sheep dung. Scholars at the museum in Jerusalem have been working day and night to translate these extraordinary documents. The following appears to be the narrative of a shepherd from the region of Bethlehem.

“Last week the weather took a turn for the worse so my flock and I came down from the hills looking for some warmth. Actually I was looking for warmth and olives and mead, and the sheep just followed me because that is what sheep do. That is how we ended up in a decrepit stable along with a carpenter, his very pregnant wife, three guys who smelled like incense and spoke a strange tongue, and a bunch of annoying androgynes with molting wings and later I learned they were the latest fashion in angels. To make a long story short, the pregnant wife gave birth – which was amazing since the angels kept telling us she was a virgin – and we all ended up hanging out in the stable, drinking mead and keeping warm. By morning, we had all agreed to stay in touch and exchanged addresses, though this was hard because the three foreigners were still unintelligible and the new parents and their babe were about to flee into Egypt.
But that’s not the point. The point is, the reason I am writing all this down and the reason I will put this scroll in a safe place when I am finished, is that without this document future generations – those of you reading this in a couple of thousand years – will have only the dimmest idea of what that guy in a homespun robe with a crooked staff and mangy sheep was doing in the stable on that night. Because most of you will not have the slightest idea what a shepherd does, because sheepherding will no longer be considered as a serious career option. Here in Judea, there will be no more shepherds, or very few, because sheep and goats are ruminants with no concern for ecological sustainability and they will have eaten every bit of greenery, every bud, every stick of an olive tree trying to survive. Most of the sheep in the world will be in China; in fact there will be twice as many sheep in China as there are in Australia, second on the Global sheep stock list. My country won’t even make the list.
Things will have changed so much that the ‘authorities’ will object to a store’s very generous proposition of giving away a sheep with each refrigerator. I have only the dimmest notion of what is a refrigerator, but I am well acquainted with sheep, and this seems to me a good idea. And if the Muslims, whoever they may be, choose to slaughter the gifted sheep, well that is fine too.

And how do I know this? Because I am a fictional character, and I know whatever my creator chooses for me to know, and little else.
Now I am going to roll up this scroll tighter than a sheep’s rectum and stick it in this urn.

You Don't Know my Name

I am the one with no name and a bad rep. Or, if they call me anything at all, it is Mr-No-Room-at-the-Inn.

How would you like it if, after a lifetime of baking bread and re-stuffing the beds with new hay and breaking up fights between camels, you were eternally vilified just because one night the place was full to the rafters and you suggested the travelers go elsewhere? How could you be expected to know that this old guy covered with wood shavings and his pregnant wife riding a scrawny donkey were about to become the most iconic and best beloved family of all time?
It is as if you sent away the Jehovah’s Witnesses – and I am sure you have sent away Jehovah’s Witnesses – and next thing you know it’s the Rapture and only subscribers to the Watchtower will make it to heaven. Or you get fed up and finally refuse to be browbeaten into buying any more Girl Scout cookies and it turns out that particular batch of Thin Mints is laced with pure sinsemilla from Michoacán. Or you turn down your ne’er-do-well brother-in-law’s request for yet another loan to finance his latest venture, (“consider it an investment, you will get 50% of the upside”) some ridiculous idea about natural cosmetics made with beeswax, and then three years later he is selling Let it Bee Natural™ to Estee Lauder for a billion dollars.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Other Wise Man

Our parents were not inclined to sing Christmas carols or bake Christmas cookies shaped like stars or dress up as a fat bearded Nordic fellow. We had one Christmas tradition that I recall, and it was this: on Christmas eve we gathered round the fire and read aloud The Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke. About half way though – around the time Artaban bribes one of Herod’s soldiers with a ruby to spare the life of a child in their otherwise thorough Slaughter of the Innocents - Dad started weeping silently, and he didn’t stop until the story was over, when Artaban finally shows up in time for the crucifixion. Most of us managed a few tears for the ending, but nothing so consistent as my father’s waterworks.

In case you are wondering, Henry van Dyke (1852 933)- was a popular writer, Presbyterian minister, English professor at Princeton and Ambassador to Holland and Luxembourg during WW1. In 1908 he participated in a collaborative novel organized by William Dean Howells called The Whole Family; each chapter was about a different family member, except the last chapter, "The Friend of the Family," which van Dyke wrote. Henry named his son Tertius. He retired from Princeton in 1923 but stayed active by opposing current literary movements; he especially deplored the doctrine of “Art for Art’s Sake."

About three years ago, after suffering a series of strokes that wiped out much of his short-term memory and disrupted his equilibrium, my father called me on the phone (that in itself was uncharacteristic) to let me know that his neurologist had diagnosed him with IEED, Involuntary Emotional Expression Disorder. Apparently Dad had described to the doctor his tendency to weep at the slightest provocation – the arrival of Duke the dog, a grandchild performing a handstand, carbon offsets – or with no provocation at all, and the doctor had explained that this was a common sequela to strokes. Dad related this with the satisfaction we all take in receiving a diagnosis for a nebulous condition, in learning the name of the ephemeral. His delight was palpable, even extravagant.
So I didn’t say: But Dad, you’ve always done this.
I didn’t say: Ten years ago you cried whenever Mom cooked a leg of lamb. But you were stoic when your college roommate killed himself at the age of 50.
I didn’t say: Dad, this has nothing to do with the strokes.
I didn’t say: You’ve just forgotten that you always got sappy.
I didn’t say: Nothing has changed.

This year we will read The Other Wise Man again, because I long to imagine that traditions exist, and I will probably shed a tear before Artaban has even made it out of Persia.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Looking for baby Jesus

(In the spirit of the season, I have come up with this deranged plan to write a tale, each day, involving one of the figures in any one of the crèches that so mysteriously abound in this house. The order will be random and arbitrary. I may even take suggestions, should they be offered.)

“I can’t find baby Jesus,” Leda calls from under the table.
“Which one?”
“You know, Nana.”
“Oh, that one. Has anyone seen baby Jesus?” I ask anyone who will listen.
“What does he look like?” my daughter asks.
“A naked baby. He’s made of felt. From Nepal. I only let them play with unbreakable crèches,” I say.
“A naked felt baby immortal? No, can't say I have,” Reine says. She removes the top from the coffee grinder and abundant ground coffee spills onto the counter top and floor. In that second, I know that for days to come tiny coffee grounds will stick to my bare feet and find their way between my toes.
CSB looks up from the newspaper. “Since when do they celebrate Christmas in Nepal?”
“Everybody celebrates Christmas,” I say. “ Anyway, that crèche came from the Fair Trade Gift Market. Apparently felt is big in Nepal.”
Reine says, “Sherpas are big in Nepal. Felt is boiled wool.”
“Nana, can you help us find baby Jesus?” Leda wails plaintively. Also under the table is Kyla, who is either Leda’s best friend or her worst enemy.
“Where did you see him last?” I ask.
“Can I play with baby Jesus now?” Kyla asks. “Here, you can have mother Mary.”
“Nana, why is there only one sheep in this stable?”
“Maybe it was a small stable. Or maybe they ran out of felt.”
Leda says, “It’s better to have three sheep. No, four. Baby Jesus gets two and then Mary and Joseph each get one.”
Reine says, “I bet baby Jesus was good about sharing.”
“I shared my pink play dough with Kyla and Nana says baby Jesus never had to share his play dough.”
“Leda! I never said that. Tell your mom what I really said.”
“I don’t remember. What did you say Nana?”
“I said that…” I have no idea what I really said, and it no longer matters because someone opened the door and along with frigid air the dogs are rushing in. Daisy circles the table at a full gallop, sticks her nose under the table to annoy the girls, and then emerges with a brown object between her jaws.
Leda shrieks, “Daisy has baby Jesus. She is going to eat baby Jesus.”
Ever calm, I say, “She is not going to eat baby Jesus. She doesn’t even eat lettuce. Why would she eat boiled wool?” I take hold of Daisy, pry open her jaws, and then extract the slightly moistened baby Jesus.
“Actually she has been known to chew on squirrels and they have fur,” Reine points out, gratuitously.
“Here you go, girls. Baby Jesus, straight from the mouths of babes. Or dogs.”
“We don’t want him when he’s all slimy, Nana.” Leda tugs on Kyla’s hand. “Let’s go find our crowns and be princesses.”

(With apologies & disclaimers to Reine, Leda, Kyla and baby Jesus.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sure, there are the old standbys: wreaths to crookedly hang, lights to string, fuses to blow, advent calendars to ship off to grown children who might otherwise neglect to note the sequence of days leading inexorably to the 25th, and moral questions to resolve: Should I finally do as I yearly threaten, and scratch from my Christmas card list all the sloths out there who neglect to send us cards?
But the truest harbinger of the season is glue. Crazy glue or rubber cement or epoxy: they each have their merits but the choice is generally determined by proximity. Last year it was baby Jesus’ leg and a magi’s turban that had become separated from their respective bodies. Before that were the black birettas* on the tiny wooden Dresden monks. Or choristers. Whoever they are, they lost their hats. Nutcrackers are frequently in need of glue. If I ever meet a Nutcracker not in need of gluing I will have my suspicions.
I know that - theoretically - Santa’s sleigh is pulled by 8 reindeer, but I only have two, which is enough for any household. From hoof to antler tip they are each 8 inches tall. The antlers are the problem. This year one reindeer emerged from his aestivation with both antlers severed from their base. Sometimes with adhering things you can just apply the glue to the object and put the broken bit on top and leave it alone to harden. Such is not the case with antlers, which in the best of times are perilously cantilevered from their relatively small ungulate head. No, broken antlers have to be held in place over the applied glue; pressure must be applied. Time must be spent. Impatience will get you nowhere.
So the other night after dinner I settled down with a fresh tube of crazy glue, several paper towels – anticipating drippage – one reindeer and his severed antlers, and watched a PBS fundraiser featuring folk music from the sixties. Lots and lots of aging, balding, graying and thickening folk singers belting out songs I actually know the words to. I began by spreading glue on the right antler base and then fiddling with the broken antler rack until it seemed to have found its match, and held it there, one hand around the reindeer’s body, one hand holding onto the antler, watching footage of the now-dead Mary Travers singing Blowin’ in the Wind. Until the PBS station stopped the music and began to ask for contributions, at which point I thought I might mute the sound. This meant removing one of my hands from the reindeer. I chose to remove the left hand, which encompassed the body. This was a mistake: as I did so the reindeer slipped sideways and the antler was dislodged. Apparently, it takes longer for crazy glue to re-attach an antler than the entire duration of Blowin’ in the Wind. Before starting the process all over again I repositioned the remote device so that I could hit the mute button with my elbow. It had not yet occurred to me that the whole concept of a television fundraiser was that in order to enjoy the old songs I had to listen to the interminable demands for money long enough to be convinced to call in and offer up my first born child.
I repeated the gluing while singing along with If I Had a Hammer. My mind wandered and the antler fell down, still unstuck. Somewhere around the fifth or fifteenth time I reapplied glue, I noted that in fact these antlers are not correct. Reindeer have twig-like antlers, similar to elk and caribou and the deer that are at this very moment killing my nascent peach trees. But this reindeer had palmate antlers, like the moose. And only the moose. Not only was I spending the better part of a folk music festival inhaling crazy glue and getting finger cramps, but I was perpetuating an anatomically incorrect version of the legendary reindeer.
Then, somewhere in the middle of Michael Row your Boat Ashore, it dawned on me that re-gluing antlers is like a relationship (i.e. marriage). It requires constant attention. Any attempted shortcut or relaxing of attention will lead directly further breakage. The only things that works are absolute stillness, perseverance, and focus. Don’t drop the antler and don’t mess with the remote control when you are gluing. Even if the antlers belong to another ungulate altogether, stick with them because they are what you have.

* I was not sure if biretta was the correct name for the clerical headgear in question, and I am still unsure. In searching for the answer I came upon this astonishing tidbit: somewhere in Germany there is the Philippi collection - the world’s largest - of clerical and ecclesiastical headgear. A 712 page book has been published, in German, featuring this collection, and you can buy it for 119 Euros. Need I say how tempted I am?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Kafka in Miami*

First you land in Miami, which is flat and lit up like a Christmas tree. No, wait, it is a Christmas tree, a premature illumination of the season.

Then you debouch from the covered gangway to Gate D20, which is about 1 mile as the crow flies from Passport Control. But you are not a crow and crows are not allowed inside the Miami Airport. This is a shame.
You walk 500 yards along beige carpeting between beige walls. Every 100 yards there is a sign indicating, by an arrow, that Passport Control is ahead. You expect to arrive there momentarily, and in order to be prepared, you remove your passport and customs declaration from your handbag. At the end of the passage you follow the arrows that indicate a right turn. Another right turns comes upon you rather quickly, and then you take a two-story escalator up. You step off the escalator with a spring in your step. Two hundred yards ahead is the longest moving sidewalk you have ever seen. You walk briskly along the moving sidewalk because you want to arrive at Passport Control in time to make your connection to New York. The moving sidewalk deposits you back on the beige carpeting. The signs continue to indicate the imminent location of Passport Control. You turn left and there is another escalator. This one goes down. It goes down a long way but you cannot say for sure exactly how long a way. After you are spewed by this elevator you follow the signs to the SkyTrain. In scrolling neon letters, you read: In 48, no 47 seconds, the SkyTrain will arrive.
You board the SkyTrain and hold onto a moist metal pole. The dark glass doors slide shut. You notice birds singing. You realize that birdsongs are being piped into the SkyTrain. After each 30-second trill or warble, the birds are identified in English and Spanish. The voice of the English identifier is a female with a vaguely Southern accent: “You have been listening to the mating song of the Pink-bellied Honduran Fruitbird. Mere seconds before inserting his avian penis into the female’s avian vagina, the male pink-bellied Honduran Fruitbird puffs out his eponymous belly and sings this melodious tune.” The same identification is then made in Spanish, but the speaker is a lisping male. The next birdsong belongs to the Hare-Lipped Bougainvillea Bird, and resembles a kazoo. The duration of your SkyTrain journey is thirteen birdsongs. Upon exiting the train via the doors opposite the doors by which you entered, you continue to follow the signs to Passport Control.
It is now tomorrow.
Up ahead you make a sharp left and encounter a moving sidewalk, which is twice as long as the moving sidewalk previously identified as the world’s longest. It is morning when you step on the moving sidewalk. Your connecting flight departed 12 hours ago. Mid-afternoon you are shot from the moving sidewalk like a pea from a pea-shooter. You switch your heavy bag full of chocolate-covered passion fruits from your numb right hand to your left hand. The hallway in front of you stretches ahead an indeterminable distance, at the end of which is a sign indicating Passport Control. That evening you turn right. There are 34 Passport Booths. Twenty-four of them are wrapped in bright yellow crime-scene tape. Eleven are staffed by uniformed Passport agents. Four lines are for Visitors. Four lines are for US Citizens. Three lines are for Resident Aliens. You get in a line for citizens. No one else in line is speaking English. Nor are they speaking Spanish. You will have ample time to wonder what language they are speaking, but you will arrive at no conclusions.
A week later, after three families in front of you in line have been fingerprinted, x-rayed and subject to cavity searches, you step up to Raoul at Passport Control and present your documents. He wants to know if you are married to CSB. This is the only question he asks.
In customs, you declare Nothing.

*Have you noticed that Kafka is always invoked whenever we want to allude to some bureaucratic nightmare or labyrinthine and hellish space? Of course you have.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mystery moth

Does anyone know the name of this moth? She came to the window a couple of nights ago, as we dined on ensalada verde and maduro con frijoles and almost-ripe cherimoya; and she fluttered and flapped desperately. She slapped the glass with her wings. She sought the light up and down. I snuck into the flowerbed to capture her with a large kitchen strainer – not to keep but to admire. I held her against the glass so we could really see her. And then released her to continue her pummeling of the glass. I was mystified because she appears to have holes her wings, portholes or windows. But why would a moth need perforated wings? Could it be because her wingspan was so large, approximately 8 inches, and she needed to reduce her flying weight? How did we arrive at this measurement? Scientifically of course. Lauren said, “I didn’t get a good look but I think 6 inches.” CSB stated, “13 inches.” Revered mother of mine indicated that her handspan is 9 inches. Did this help? Aged forgetful father posited 4 inches. I took a stab at 8 inches. This is science.

I did not take the above picture, I swiped it from a Google image search as most closely resembling what we saw, and no name was affixed. In The Butterflies of Costa Rica (Philip DeVries, PUP, 1987)I have found a couple of possible candidates: Eryphanis Polyxena lycomedon and Caligo eurilochus sulanus. I think the latter is most likely - also known as the Giant Owl Butterfly. But if it was a butterfly, then why was it flying at night, craving the light?

Caffeine rules

It is the happiest of convergences on a farm: the crop is excellent and the world price is high. Happy and rare. In farming one is often precipicitally poised between two implacable forces over which even the most adept farmer has no control: weather and the world price.
Often the price will be high and the harvests will be poor and the weather indifferent.
Just as often the price will be high because the harvests are poor and the supplies are low and hence demand outstrips them.
At other times there will be a fine flowering and an excellent crop, as high as 25,ooo fanegas per manzana, but the world price will hover in the low one-dollar-and-change range, where coffee farms can barely cover their costs. Then there will be no premiums for the coffee pickers. The difference between the cost of a fanega of coffee beans in the field and the price of a quintal of dried coffee beans for export will be very slim indeed.

Between 1972 and the present, the world price of coffee(the price paid to the grower for a quintal or hundredweight of green coffee beans,as determined by the CSCE, with assorted premiums or reductions for quality) has averaged $118.51. In 1977 and again in 1997 the price reached vertiginous heights over $300. Café finqueros around the world swooned. Then they quickly returned to reality. The record low of the past 40 years, when coffee farmers lost their camisettas and their farms, was $41.50 in December of 2001. You might associate that with the events of 9-11, but in fact the coffee market had been in a free fall since that Everestian day in 1997.

The spot position for coffee, today, is $202.40, with a premium of $30 for the high altitude estate coffee.
The coffee pickers of Costa Rica, already the best paid in the world of coffee, are being paid a premium to bring in this scarlet crop. Caffeine rules!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dateline: Aquiares. News: Smoking volcano

The last time Turrialba Volcano erupted was in 1866. The 19th century was a busy one for Turrialba, when the 10,958-foot volcano blew its top no less than seven times. The 20th century was quieter, if only for the Turrialba Volcano and its three craters. Sometime in the 1990’s we drove part way up and then hiked to the volcano’s rim to peer into its vastness.
Then in 2001 the central crater started spouting fumaroles. But visitors were still welcome. In January 2007 we drove with the Aged P’s to the very top and stood on the Mirador as wisps of smoke danced before us. On the way back we stopped at a lovely lodge and drank hot chocolate laced with tequila, a relatively unknown but delicious combination.
That has all stopped since January of this year when Turrialba Volcano spewed ash and created acid rain that forced the lodge to shut down, and 2 villages to be evacuated.
This afternoon the volcano was sending up snowy white smoke, surprising in its whiteness, vivid against the blue tropical sky. It is always a good thing to see a volcano before one’s siesta.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dateline: Casa la Esperanza, Hacienda Aquiares. Provincia de Turrialba. Costa Rica, isthmus of Central America.

It used to be that soon after we arrived here at the farm, we would realize we were sharing the house with toads. Large knobby toads the size of cats. The very first time I saw one I thought it was a doorstop, because it was sitting there – squatting really, poised for the next hop, if only I paid attention – by the door that leads from the big sala out to the terrace. Where are the toads?
The terrace has a view of nearly everything: the village, the church, the beneficio and the drying patio, the horses and the houses. When the beneficio caught on fire we were sitting on the terrace and watched the first tendrils of smoke lick the sky.
On the terrace we can watch for the itinerant priest’s Jeep to come tearing up the road from Turrialba and time the start of our walk to mass so as to arrive just as his Jeep would come to a jolting stop in front of the church doors, its headlights briefly illuminating the crucifix above the alter, against a background of sky blue stenciled with silver stars.

Bamboo grows 3 centimeters a day, up to 1 meter a week. This is not negotiable.

The white sap of the ficus tree has excellent antibacterial properties, and is effective against the sting of fire ants. I speak from experience.

Three seeds of cardamom in a cup of hot water will relieve stress. If you drink it. This may explain why the three-year old Reine would insist we stop the Jeep by the cardamom plants and get her a handful of seeds to chew. Or perhaps she liked the flavor.

Inside the spiny seed pod of the Achiote (bixa orellana) are bright red seeds ¬used to color your food. Red.

But the Imperial Ginger Torch is entirely ornamental.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A brief environmental update

The following are all endangered in Massachusetts:

The meta-population of marbled salamanders in Mansfield,

the Blanding’s turtles of Rattlesnake Hill,

and the Blue-spotted salamanders in the Hockomock Swamp.

But not the Rock Snot. That is thriving.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Pecking Order

Naturally you have all heard of the pecking order. We seem to have the pecking order – more pecking than order- made manifest in the henhouse these days.
You surely recall Bump? Bump was one of the first to hatch from our initial batch of 25 beautiful eggs from Annie Farrell. The Hoffman boys kept them in an incubator behind the couch in their octagonal room in which they watch Notre Dame football games on a big screen TV. Fifteen eggs hatched. An astounding 10 of them turned out to be roosters and hence made their way to Yonkers, leaving us with 5 hens, of which Bump is clearly the most remarkable.
Even before we knew Bump was a she, we knew she was special. She has a topknot, a pompadour, a frizzy Mohawk, a vertical hairdo, a beautiful black crest. She is a Crevecoeur, a breed developed by the French (mais oui) from Polish stock (the same poignant Polish sensibility that sent their cavalry to face the German Panzer Division in WWI). And like the cavalry, Crevecoeurs are now an endangered breed.

A couple of days ago CSB noticed a raw patch on Bump’s back, just in front of that spot where her tail makes its elegant swerve to the vertical. Clearly Bump was being picked on and pecked at.
We went to our poultry bible, Raising Chickens for Dummies, and found this disheartening explanation:
Chickens are conscious of colors and patterns, and they often pick on a bird that has different coloring, color patterns of feathering than the majority breed…Chickens with topknots are frequently picked on by other types of chickens.”
In other words, chickens can be bullies.
I consulted Butler’s to see if anything in the life of Saint Brigid, the patron saint of chicken farmers, could prove helpful in this matter. No. She is also the patron of milkmaids, bastards, poets and printing presses, and seems to have lavished all her patronly wisdom on them.
Now we are considering slathering Bump’s exposed posterior with honey, which is antibacterial and has great healing qualities. CSB is worried that the other hens will redouble their bullying when they discover how sweet the honey is.
I am considering arnica.

Monday, November 15, 2010

R.I.P. Patty Plymouth Rock

It is completely illogical if you take the trouble to look twice. Don’t I eat chicken on a regular basis? I am excessively fond of curried chicken, I also dote on coq au vin and chicken soup with quinoa; I would walk a mile for good chicken molé. I like chicken korma and chicken Marengo and Moroccan lemon chicken. Tarragon chicken was a childhood favorite, which reminds me: why hasn’t my mother cooked it lately?
All of the above chickens were undeniably dead when I cooked and ate them.
So why the lamentations, the gnashing of teeth, the tearing of hair and rending of garments?
Oh, woe, our first dead chicken.
But, as CSB gently reminded me, it was far from our first. What about all those roosters dispatched to a stewpot in Yonkers? Don’t they count? Wasn’t the strutting, tootling Alonso the very first of our chickens to die? Is it their maleness, their testosterone-laden morning alarums, that disqualifies them from being the object of mourning?
When I examine my reactions, it is hard not to infer a certain gynocentric-favoritism.

It came about thus:
Friday morning I visited the chickens and saw one of the Plymouth Rocks perched atop a cross beam, her rump facing my direction. She was trying with all her might to push out an egg and she was not having an easy time of it. I sympathized, as any mother would. The egg was about a third of the way out, and covered with blood. With effort, she would push it out farther and then several other hens, below her on the ground, would peck at the emerging egg. I shooed away the annoying harpies, while the laboring hen pushed and the egg came out further, then receded back into her bloody cloaca. I stroked her back and tried to make encouraging and midwifey cooing sounds. Other hens came around to bother. I stroked her and nudged them away. Finally she expelled the bloody egg, hopped off the perch, shat and wandered away.
About an hour later I returned and found her inside the chicken house, supine and dead on a nest of fresh wood shavings in the far corner beneath the nesting boxes. Other hens stood around showing varying degrees of lack of interest. I wrapped her in an old white sheet and put her in the garden shed, because I was about to leave for Linwood and wouldn’t have time to bury her, and I certainly could not leave her with her cannibalistic brethren, that is, her sistren.
Poor thing. Our first dead chicken, I thought melodramatically.
All afternoon, as I drove in my shiny new red car towards tree peonies and dairy farms and the Soaring Capital of America, I considered the brief life of our Barred Plymouth Rock, she who, at one-day-old, arrived at our local post office and come to live with us, along with a dozen other chicks, presumably her siblings, but not necessarily.

My face grew red and blotchy, my eyes became puffy and itchy and my skin tingled and prickled. Even I began to see this was an overreaction to a pullet’s demise. After all, such is nature.
It turns out I am allergic to my new car. After considering and rejecting several other theories, it became clear that the only possible cause for such bodily disruptions was the new car, with its Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) exhaling and out-gassing.
And yes, if you Google new car allergy, you will find that I am far from the first person to have identified this syndrome. But I may be the first to have initially confused the symptoms with chicken grief.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In the neo-vehicular department

After 11 years and 203,000 miles I finally relented and went shopping for a new car. It took that long and would have taken longer but for the constant and troubling illumination of several warning lights and arcane symbols on the dashboard of the elderly car, because I would rather have a colonoscopy in a 3rd World Country than go car-shopping. The very thought of wasting a perfectly fine day car-shopping gives me such palpitations that I have to take elephant tranquilizers and then I fall fast asleep in the car showroom, or try to. If I don’t take elephant tranquilizers and still go car-shopping then I get profoundly carsick just sitting inside a car parked inside a showroom.
But I bravely overcame all the above obstacles, and more, and managed to acquire a new car, which we picked up last week. Poor CSB was distraught about the color. He was convinced we were getting a dark blue car, the exciting color of a banker’s suit. Instead we have a red car. We are not sure how this happened. At least he is not.

Here are some disturbing things about a new car:
1. It is not an old car.
2. I find myself worrying about nicks on the outside and shortbread crumbs on the inside. This is not normal.
3. It took me about a decade to master certain electronic functions of the previous car. Now I have to start all over again with a GPS screen, a disembodied voice telling me to go the wrong way, and several manuals.
4. Because the old car is still in the driveway - since no one wanted to pay any money for it - the new car had to get its own new license plate which means I have to memorize a new license plate number, which means I need a new mnemonic device. The old license plate was so easy: Dead on Arrival plus Manhattan. The new one is more challenging but this is what I have devised: A musical refrain with a stutter, followed by the year in which the fire extinguisher was patented by an English man named French, which is also the year in which Peter the Great rescinded the Ban on Beards, and also – sadly in my case – the only year in the 18th century in which not a single saint was born, died, canonized or exhumed.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another Let it Bee emollient

I am still working on the formula for the perfect cream to be called Angadrisma’s Emollient, though not for lack of trying.
Why is this so challenging? For starters, Saint Angadrisma (695 AD) was so desperate to not get married (not to a mortal man that is; she wanted to be a Bride of Christ) that she implored God to make her too physically repulsive to appeal to any man. God complied and gave her leprosy.
Then she joined the nunnery, and miraculously, her leprosy was cured and she was more beautiful than ever. But safely enhabited and wimpled.

In homage to some of the more popular treatments for leprosy in the Dark Ages, Angadrisma’s Emollient might include bee venom*, arsenic or pulverized scorpions. If that repels you, consider how benign those cures seem when compared to castration and bathing in the blood of virgins, also very popular treatments.

*Given that I have been trying for days to induce one of our bees to sting my arthritic fingers, and failing miserably, collection of said venom could prove difficult. As I explained to my daughter, I put several bees in a jar and annoyed them as much as possible to get them to sting me. She was surprised at this failure, having spent a good part of her childhood admiring my ability to annoy my children.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Your beeswax, my beeswax

It’s the age-old question: what do we do with all that beeswax?
All summer long the bees have collected nectar and stored it inside their honeycomb and fanned the nectar until it achieved the perfect consistency. All summer long they sealed the honeycomb with newly masticated wax, the purest wax of all, which we call capping wax.

Then we came along and sliced off the capping wax and inserted the honey frames into the extractor and spun it around until centrifugal force threw out the stored honey. We bottled the honey and used it to sweeten our tea, coffee, ice cream, pancakes, acorn squash, salad dressing, ham glaze, gingerbread and fish pudding.

And what about the wax?

If you were a monk – even if you are a monk – you made candles. Monks appreciated that the wax burning so splendidly in their splendid cathedrals and intimate chapels was made solely by virgins. No queens and no drones helped in creating that wax.

If you lived in the 19th century and had smallpox scars you used beeswax to fill in the pits, and then stayed away from fires that would melt away your face.

If you are Roxanne Quimby you take Burt’s leftover wax and start concocting every kind of personal care product from pregnant belly moisturizer to toothpastes, and then you sell Burt’s Bees to Clorox for huge sums of money* and buy up as much land as you can in the state of Maine in order to preserve it.

If you are Let it Bee Honey, that is me, you stand at the stove and discover the wonders of chemistry. Emulsification can be fun.
Following various recipes and then experimenting, I’ve been making creams and lotions and balms. It is not clear what differentiates a cream from a lotion from a balm; the truth is that I apply the labels somewhat arbitrarily.
Then, of course, I had to name the creams and lotions and balms. Early one morning in the semi-darkness before the Palisades turn pink - when I do my best thinking - I had an inspiration: I would name every batch for a different female saint.
I have been enamored with medieval names for a long time now, and having neglected to call either of my children Ethelreda or Fulgentius, I could now name creams to my hearts content. I could not wait to tell CSB of this stroke of marketing genius.
His enthusiasm was flatter than old ginger ale. Naming beauty products for long dead female saints, especially blind or headless ones, struck him as a very bad idea.
So we compromised: I didn’t put Saint in front of their names.

My first success (by which I mean, it emulsified properly, did not separate, smells delicious and soothes) was Walburga’s Face Cream. After a holy life, Saint Walburga died in 777 or 779. Her body was interred in a rocky niche in Eichstätt and after a while it began to ooze sweet smelling therapeutic oil. Let it Bee’s Walburga’s Face Cream is made with Vitamin E and essence of honeysuckle.

Mechtilde‘s Myrrh Balm is named for Mechtilde of Magdeburg a medieval mystic and the author of The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Her vivid images of Hell may have influenced Dante’s Inferno, but we can’t be sure. My dear friend Gill brought me the myrrh extract from Italy; I like to think this balm is especially suited to the Christmas season.

Cunnegunda was married to Henry II of Bavaria; when envious gossips falsely accused her of adultery, she proved her innocence by walking unscathed over burning coals. Crème de Cunnegonda had hints of smoky resin.

Ulphia (of Super Strong Hand Cream, version #1) lived in Amiens in the 8th century. She built herself a hermitage for prayer in the middle of a swamp, and then when the croaking of the frogs kept her awake at nights, she silenced them. To this day, the frogs of Amiens are very quiet.

Tecla is said to be the first female Christian martyr. She is also said to be entirely fictional. Her face cream is made with trace bits of propolis, a remarkable resinous mixture gathered by the bees and used to seal up the hive. When suspended in alcohol or mixed with honey it is effective against sore throats, burns, dental plaque and tumors.

Gwenfredi is Welsh for Winifred who was decapitated by a rejected suitor. Her Uncle Bueno (also a saint) reattached her head so that Gwenfredi could become a nun, and later, a patron saint of payroll clerks. For obvious reasons, her name graces the newest version of our Super Strong Hand Cream, made with lanolin and extolled by sculptors and welders.

Poor Odilia of Alsace was born blind and her disappointed parents gave her away to a peasant family. Then at the age of 12 she entered the convent and her sight was miraculously restored by the touch of Saint Erhard. I would never claim that Odilia of Alsace Eye Cream will restore your vision, but pure beeswax and essence of jasmine will soothe your tired eyelids.

*$925,000,000 which is so close to a billion we could just say: a billion.

**Cream photographs by Colin Cooke. (gratitude)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Literature and Chickens

In a letter to James Thurber, one of the funniest men ever to put pen to paper, E.B. White, no slouch himself, wrote: “I don't know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.” I would concur with his confusion.
If you want to read that sentence again, you can walk along 41st Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue, a block known as Library Way, and look down. There are many other pertinent and pithy quotes embedded in the sidewalk, but you can understand why this one jumped out at me, and clucked.
It seems we embarked on this chicken venture in complete ignorance. I read The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, about adventures on a chicken farm in Washington state in the 1930’s; and we wandered through the poultry tents at county fairs coveting the silkies, and thought we were ready. Or I did.
Then Annie F. gave us 25 eggs and the Hoffman boys incubated them. Fifteen hatched and if you’ve been reading for a while, you already know how many were roosters. So we ordered 15 more hens, guaranteed to have ovaries.
CSB built a beautiful chicken house (only slightly unfinished and still in need of the electrician) and we bought a copy of Chickens for Dummies. I also bought a Field Guide to chicken breeds so I could wonder what breeds we have. Which is not as simple as it sounds. A crest and a beard may be the defining characteristics of a Crevecouer, but so are leaden blue toes and Bump’s toes are more of a slate blue. Then there is the matter of Mamacita’s weird comb.
I mention Bump and Mamacita because as far as I can tell, those are the only two laying hens we have thus far. I have seen them both, at various times, brooding in the roosting boxes, but I have not seen them actually lay the eggs.
In the law I think this would be referred to as circumstantial evidence.

In addition to the Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damien, and the Naval papers of the Quasi War between France and the US that I pass by en route to the powder room, one of the great benefits of having an office is that I am not tempted to visit the chicken house every hour to see if any more eggs have been laid. This is what I did all last weekend, and I am sad to report that my eagerness did not seem to enhance egg formation.
As for which is more discouraging, literature or chickens, they are neck and neck, wattle to wattle, beak to beak.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Whither procrastination?

I know I promised piping and vibrating, tooting and quacking, but they will have to wait. Procrastinating is something a honeybee would never do; she would never even consider it. If a honeybee needs to communicate with the queen, she doesn’t wait until the right time, she heads straight for the queen, presses her body against her and vibrates. If a virgin queen bee needs to express her intention to mortally sting any other contenders for queen bee status in the hive, she does not hesitate, her very life is at stake; she will emit that high-pitched piping sound – A-flat or G-sharp - called quacking. This is to be distinguished from tooting, which is the sound made by mated queen bees, usually soon after they are newly released into a hive.

But I am not a honeybee and procrastination seems to be in my DNA. Or maybe not. For all their myriad weirdness and quirkiness and idiosyncrasies the Aged P’s don’t seem to procrastinate. (I will not use the word FLAW since I know they will read this and never let it be said that I recognize any actual flaws in the parental units.),
So how did I come by this trait? And whom can I blame?

Instead of delving into piping and tooting, I set up my new office here at Purchase, because there are few things I enjoy more than fondling what I still think of as school supplies. And it is a well-known fact that any writer worth her pen nibs can spend all the available time sharpening pencils and labeling folders and aligning pads on the desk at right angles, and in this way avoid the dreaded task of actually writing something. Blank walls also beckon. Today for instance I tacked a poster of Fra Angelico’s The Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damian onto the wall. I’ve had this poster for at least five years; I know this because the dates of the Far Angelico exhibit at the Met are printed right there: 2005-2006. I bought the poster not entirely because I morbidly enjoy paintings of handsome young men splayed on the ground as their heads depart their bodies, spilling out their life’s blood and staining the ground red. I bought it because I found it so appealing that the saints in question had intact halos even as they were being beheaded, and then the removed heads rolled away with their golden halos attached and perfectly positioned. I should also mention that I have always been fond of the twins, Cosmas and Damian, third century doctors who performed the first – perhaps only – transplant of a leg. The good leg belonged to a just deceased Ethiopian, and they attached it to the stub of a patient who had lost his own leg. The resulting bi-colored limb was a popular subject for painters. You may find it equally miraculous that the skulls of Cosmas and Damian reside in both Munich and Madrid.
Also adorning my new office are a collection of feathers, large black and white feathers from the gulls of Georgian Bay, and smaller striped feathers from the Silver-laced Wyandottes of our chicken coop.

I would have done all this sooner, the thumbtacks and the filing, but – on another level of procrastination – this morning we were packing up jars of honey for Let it Bee’s first foray into high-end marketing: a selection of five honeys (early and late Manhattan, Hastings, Rye and Bedford), two of our own lip balms and one hand cream, crafted by your truly. CSB made elegant wooden boxes and the honeys and balms are nestled in the finest wood shavings you can buy. Not unlike the wood shavings that cover the floor and line the nesting boxes of our very pampered chickens.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

On this last day of the month, before it is another month and no longer the month that it currently is which aptly is Shameless Promotion Month , I want to draw your attention to just a few of the many foods, animals, and causes that are deemed month-worthy.
Here they are: Honey, Chickens (obviously pertinent), Mold, Mushrooms, People Skills, Subliminal Communications and Pleasure Your Mate.
None of which are particularly relevant to the life to Saint Jerome (342-420), whose feast it is and whom you probably know as the Doctor of the Church who translated the Hebrew Bible.
It turns out that Jerome may be the first – perhaps the only – saint to make note of why it is not a good idea to cry when wearing make-up: rivulets & runnels down the cheeks. He may have spent 4 long years alone in the desert, but he still knew a thing or two about personal hygiene.
Saint Jerome in the Desert, El Greco
“If in a moment of forgetfulness they shed a tear it makes a furrow where it rolls down the painted cheek.” One wonders if he observed this phenomenon in company with Saint Paula, when he was not battling the nasty gossip that circulated about his relations with this rich Roman widow.
Saint Jerome in his Study, Filippino Lippi
Unless the wind blows us away this evening, tomorrow we will discuss various types of honeybee communication: vibrating, piping, and the two types of queen piping: tooting and quacking.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


With great sadness I beg to inform my dear readers that this is my last post from the Arctic. I had hoped to tell you about the taxidermy displays and the Russian security check on the gravelly beach in Resolute, on Cornwallis Island. I was hoping to describe the elegant irony of sailing past the DEW line installations (abandoned and otherwise) in a Soviet-made boat. I had also hoped to describe the throat singing in Pond Inlet which I expected to sound like the ululating women in Gondar, Ethiopia, but was altogether different and mesmerizing (Once again You Tube cuts to the chase: just put in ‘throat singing’.), as well as shopping in the Pond Inlet Coop as well as the carcass of the narwhal on the beach (the ONLY narwhal I ever saw, minus the unicorn tusk) as well as the discarded hitchhiker’s sign for Montreal, perhaps the most poignant and mysterious sight of all given that Pond Inlet is at the northern tip of Baffin Island and there are no roads from there to Montreal or anywhere.
But I find myself back in New York, where the chickens have not yet figured out where to lay their eggs and the autumn honey is flowing.

One last thing: a sign from the Kuujjuaq Airport in Nunavik. And many thanks to my intrepid photographer for her willingness to take whatever pictures I asked of her, no questions asked.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tundra, Tussocks, Pingos & Palsas

If I were not in the Arctic and therefore reading daily from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, I would certainly let you know that today is the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) whom you recognize as the name on all those boxes in supermarket parking lots where you can deposit your old clothes under the illusion that they will go directly to some needy person who will not reject your rejected items as too tight, too loose or too painfully-eighties. And I would likewise tell you that Vincent de Paul, having escaped from his pirate captors, helped the poor, nursed the sick and been generally kind, died of natural causes in Paris. I would add that his story does not end there, as 52 years later his body was found to be incorrupt, then ‘defleshed’ in a flood, leaving only his washed skeleton to serve as his earthly presence. Some enterprising sort, combining the skills of candle-making and taxidermy, then encased the skeleton in a wax effigy to create a suitable display for the Vincentian House in Paris. Though you don’t have to go to Paris to see it: there is always You Tube.

But here in the Arctic, we have geology.
From our portholes on the Lyubov Orlova, we glimpse the steep cliffs and bleak hills of Devon Island (largest uninhabited island on earth, used for Mars-simulation exercises), Bylot Island, and Baffin Island.
It is an abstract landscape, forbidding and secretive. Or so it seems from the ship.
On land, geology becomes the storyteller. We go ashore in the zodiacs (all landings are “wet landings”) and realize that we are standing upon a vast field of polygonal humps in the tundra, frost boils created by millennia of freezing and thawing: the frost-heaving tosses up rocks and then they settle in a pattern as elaborate and defined as a honeycomb.
Frost boils are the commonest form of patterned ground in the Arctic, but you should not think less of them for that.
Pingos are larger and have the character of archeological remnants. They are conical hills with solid clear ice at their center, and I long to use the word in Scrabble. Occasionally someone will mistake a palsa for a young pingo, but that would be a mistake because at its core the palsa has frozen peat. We did not see any palsas so I could not embarrass myself by misidentifying it as a pingo. We did cross landscapes of lumpy peat mounds, spongy hummocks that defied one’s knees, not unlike moguls.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Something of a stretch: How a Pregnant Polar Bear and a Queen Bee are similar

In some mysterious way not fully understood by either mammalogists or entomologists, in both cases the female in question has some control over her internal reproductive system.
Female polar bears will come into estrus in the spring, and mate with a male of the species. But then she will – somehow – delay implantation of the fertilized ova until she has gained enough weight to successfully carry her cubs to term. It is not known how she manages this. Does a certain avoirdupois trigger the implantation? Do hormones do the trick?

The Queen Bee, who busily lays up to 2000 eggs a day during the honey season, must deposit either fertilized or unfertilized egg in the honeycomb cell presented to her by the workers of the hive. They are the ones who make the cells of the correct size, smaller for the worker females, larger for the male drones. The workers decide whether the hive needs more workers, or a few more drones to go out and disseminate their genetic matter. The Queen uses her front legs to gauge the cell’s diameter, and then backs into the cell and as the egg passes through her oviduct, she either fertilizes it or not.

When the Queen was mated on that fateful nuptial flight, she stored all the sperm in her ‘spermatheca’. This is a small sac next to and connected to her vagina via a small duct, through which she will discharge the spermatozoa when she determines to lay a fertilized egg.
We don’t quite know how she does it. What chaos would transpire if we mere humans had that ability?

You can imagine how delighted I was when I learned from our marine mammalogist on board the Lyubov Orlova of this quirk in the reproductive cycle of the polar bear, and quickly saw its tenuous similarity to the case of the Queen Bee. I tried to share my enthusiasm with several other Arctic travelers, but just then there were several thick-billed murres flitting across the sky – and they beckoned more than a Queen Bee’s reproductive talents.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Several people have asked me if there is a patron saint of the Arctic. (This is not technically true; only 2 people asked, but their interest looms large.) And I am sorry to report that there is not.

There are a few saints who are frequently represented with bears. Probably the first was St Cerbonius whom Roman soldiers threw to wild bears to be cruelly slaughtered. Instead, the bears, awed by his sanctity, became docile and licked Cerbonius’ feet.

Then in the 6th century, St Columbanus was looking for a lonely cave in which to pray his lonely prayers. He found such a cave, but it was already occupied by a slumbering bear. The bear, however, agreeably vacated the cave to accommodate St Columbanus.

A century later, both St Corbinian and St Humbert managed to turn ferocious ursines into bellhops: both saints are generally pictured with a bear behind, carrying their luggage.
Were any of the above-mentioned bears of the polar variety? Probably not. But we are grasping at straws here.

Tamed bears aside, it is Saint Brendan the Navigator who is most commonly associated with the Arctic, or voyages that may or may not have arrived at the Arctic regions.
In 484, Brendan was born, significantly, under the Aurora Borealis,in Kerry, Ireland. He grew up in the care of St Ita who made sure he was devout. Mostly, he traveled. In Sabine Baring-Gould’s 8-volume Lives of the British Saints, which devotes about 30,000 words to Brendan, we are told that Brendan’s first voyage came about when St Ita advised him to make himself scarce for a couple of years. Brendan had left a young boy in charge of his boat and the boy had drowned; when his brother went to help him, the brother drowned as well. Assuming that the boys’ family would be seeking revenge from Brendan, absence was suggested.
Whether he was fleeing an angry family, or seeking the Isle of Blessed, Brendan and 14 of his monks built 3 boats out of willow twigs, covered them with hides, and packed food for 40 days. On March 22 they sailed west. How far did they get? Perhaps they made it to Greenland or Newfoundland or Baffin Island. It is unlikely that St Brendan celebrated mass on the back of a whale; though there is a small whale-shaped island off Galway, conveniently called Whale Island, with an inland ‘blowhole’ into which the waves pour in at high tide and spout up.
Pre-Norse Irish books and relics have been found on Iceland. It certainly seems more possible that Brendan and his sailing monks made it to North America, than that Simeon Stylites lived atop a pillar for forty years, and no one doubts that for an instant.

Side note: Brendan’s sister’s name was Briga, and like my sister with a similar name, I can bet that it was frequently either misspelled or mispronounced or both.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


It was 9/11 all day long and far better than considering that THE 9/11 would have been my 25th wedding anniversary had I still been married and all the sadness that goes with that, far better was looking for BOWHEAD WHALES in Isabella Bay Preserve, a bowhead whale sanctuary just south of Cape Raper on the east coast of Baffin Island.
And this is what I learned: How to Look for a Bowhead Whale.
• Stand on deck in the freezing cold (it’s snowing and we are plowing through the Arctic Ocean) and scan the horizon both with and without binoculars
• Discuss the merits of using binoculars or not for whale watching; people can feel very strongly about this. There are those who favor the Scan-the-horizon-with your-bare-eyes technique vs. those who favor Magnified-examination-of-a-limited-area.
• Finally at long last see a blow – this is a bowhead surfacing and expelling warm air; the visible (fan or heart shaped depending on your informant) mist is a result of warm air from the whale’s lungs making contact with the cold atmosphere
• Discuss how much a bowhead’s blow looks like a whitecap (to you, the uninitiated) and then with time learn to distinguish between them, a skill that may have ramifications in later life
• Listen as knowledgeable/seasoned whale watchers count the seconds from the first blow in the certainty that the second blow will come in ten seconds, and then feel stupid when you cannot see the expected blow. And later, upon learning that bowheads can stay underwater for up to an hour, feel even stupider for having thought that second-counting made any sense at all
• Once you have mastered the sighting and identifying of the blow, you begin to see the whale’s body, the black back, the fluke and then the grail of whale watching, the photographable breach –living proof of your cetacean worthiness.

Look very carefully and you may see the blow of a bowhead whale. Or you may not.

Since I cannot produce a picture of a whale, I offer an iceberg and a glacier.

Unless otherwise noted, all Arctic photos are by Brigitte Kingsbury.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


In a day that did not include a Zodiac landing on Beechey Island to see the graves of the first members of the Franklin Expedition to die, and the only ones to have graves, and then sighting one’s first live polar bear (not counting the Central Park Zoo), the Lyobov Orlova’s lifeboat drill would have been the highlight.
First we gathered in the lounge (the forward lounge where the curtains are always pulled closed and the movement of the ship is magnified and very sick-making and all forms of stomach distress are exacerbated) and heard from the Russian Security Officer. (Have I mentioned that the entire crew of 52 is Russian? The young women are blonde and wear toothpaste-tight jeans. The young men are swarthy, but mostly unseen by us. They all smoke healthy Russian cigarettes somewhere in the bowels of the ship.)
“Good evening ladies gentlemen. I am safety officer on this ship. Unfortunately I am not speaking of your language. I speak only Russian.” Then he launched into his speech – in Russian - that presumably referenced life vests and muster stations and life boats, but could just as well have been his favorite poem by Pushkin, or a dithyramb to his wife's sexual allure.
Then Jason, our Inuit expedition leader, translated. Or we assumed he did.
Five minutes later the bell blasted throughout the ship, and as instructed, we put on our warmest clothes and rubber boats and gathered any life-saving medications we might need on the open seas, and carried our life vests up to our muster station at the stern.
There, Dmitri, Russian Safety Officer, gave another speech in Russian. Jason translated. The sun was shining and icebergs benignly floated and sparkled in the surrounding sea.
Later, my sister, showing off her linguistic talents, said, "Kamillarlutit."
Trying to one-up her, I replied, "Itsavautaup ataaniippallaijuq." Which means, "It's probably under the chair.