Sunday, January 31, 2010

News from the Animal Kingdom

Down in the former coal cellar, recumbent on the striated bedrock, there is a dead or sleeping mouse. Cute and small. Also inert.

Crawling or slithering up the tiles in the downstairs bathroom were two slugs, small and skinny slugs, pointed at both ends. (I attribute their unwelcome presence to the problems with the drain that doesn’t drain.)

At a particularly festive moment during dinner with friends on Friday night (perhaps while we were discussing Ted Williams’ cryogenically preserved head and the meaning thereof or maybe it was while we were parsing the old trope: “I have had an excellent sufficiency and any more would be a super abundance.”) the doorbell rang. CSB went to answer it and returned a few minutes later, with the dogs at his heels. (Did you know that Shakespeare uses to spaniel as a verb?)
Who was that? I queried.
The police, he replied.
No, seriously, who was it?
The police, CSB said.
No, really. Don’t make me anxious, who was it?
The police.
(I don’t recall how long this went on. According to bystanders, too long.)
It was in fact our local constabulary. They had received a call from a certain neighbor announcing that our dogs were barking and that it was too cold for them to be outdoors. CSB pointed out, as he often does, They are dogs. They have fur coats.
Also, they enjoy barking at deer, squirrels, raccoons, birds and anything that moves.

Continuing with our animal theme, St Maedoc of Ferns (a 7th century Irish bishop) could miraculously render invisible a stag being pursued by hounds. This terribly confused the poor hounds. In a similar situation, Daisy and Bruno would also be very confused, but we wonder if they would stop barking.
And then there is the virginal St Ulphia who silenced the frogs without aid of the local police.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Books in the Cellar #36

I know I’ve promised you tidbits from The World’s Best Jokes (edited Lewis Copeland, 1936), but I’ve been having trouble choosing among “Rube Jokes”, "Scotch Jokes”, "Little Willies” and “College Rhymes”. Someone far wiser than me can perhaps peruse the pages in question and explain why so many of the yclept jokes are not at all funny. Not even grimace funny. (Funny Haha, Funny Odd, Funny rowboat? None of the above.)

Instead, I am presenting a few gems from Take It From Me, by Neal O’Hara. (Extensive research, i.e. Google, tells me that Mr. O’Hara was Harvard’15, served in the Ordnance Department of the Army during WW1, was a well-known humorist, wrote for vaudeville and also wrote a regular column for the Boston Herald-Traveler. According to the Harvard Crimson:
His column in the Traveler is one of the most widely read and well known of all newspaper column.
Could this explain why my father found his jokes so hilarious? The book in question includes chapters full of random bits of information (e.g. “All Arabs abhor whistling and believe that when a person has whistled, it takes 40 days to purify the mouth”, separated by Favorite Gags and Favorite Questions.
Some questions for you:
#17. Briefly, what is suede?
#28. Where is the largest wireless receiving station in the world located?
#2 Where is Heidelberg College in America located? (Dad got this one. There’s a mystery for you.)

Example of a joke that inspired paternal mirth:
DRUNK: (to resplendently uniformed bystander): Call me a cab, will yuh?
BYSTANDER: My Good man, I am not a doorman; I’m a naval officer.
DRUNK: Okay then buddy; call me a boat. I gotta get home.

Tomorrow, things will get serious again.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Do not take us to any vulgar places

You may be wondering what strange and wonderful books I discovered in my recent delving into the parental cellar bookshelves.

But first, the goats, because last weekend we went north to Columbia County to meet 2 exceptional and pregnant goats, Gretel and Cecily.

But first first I must tell what I learned before meeting the goats. Among the many divisions that separate us in this world and the hereafter, especially the hereafter, is the one between the sheep and the goats. In any representation of the Last Judgment you will find Jesus in the center with the sheep on his right hand, signifying the blessed or saved, and the goats on his left, signifying the damned. As far as I can tell, Matthew referred analogously to the sheep and goats being separated, as they would be by a shepherd, and did not cast any aspersions on goats per se.
Another important fact I have learned about goats is that they have rectangular pupils. This is a fact that I can swear to on St Matthew’s Gospel. These rectangles allow them to see up to 340˚ (unlike our meager 210˚), which is especially remarkable when you realize that they can also turn their necks almost 180˚ in either direction.
Octopi also have rectangular pupils, though they do not have hooves.

Now for some literary highlights:
Gazella, by Stuart Cloete: “She sacrificed men on the altars of love and revenge...half-mistress...half-witch...half Portuguese...half Zulu...half child...ALL WOMAN!" This book is dedicated to “tiny” (sic)

Junior Scenarios for Home Movies, published by the Eastman Kodak Company in 1941, in which detailed instructions are given for movies you can make featuring your talented offspring. For instance, you can construct the witch’s gingerbread house with a large box, brown paper trimmed with doilies and a sign clearly identifying it as “Gingerbread House” . Then in Scene 11 (Semi Close-up) "Hansel and Gretel close the door. Hansel pulls off the knocker and tastes it. His fact shows that is it delicious. Gretel looks on, somewhat worried; but the temptation is too great and she breaks off the doorknob and tastes it, finding it also quite delicious."
Scene 12 features the witch looking from behind a tree.

But perhaps most importantly, I learned how say the all-important “Do not take us to any vulgar places,”
Bringen Sie uns nicht nach einem unanständigen Platz.
next time I am in Dresden or Cologne.
When in Oslo or Trondheim, I can say, “I’d like some suckling pig, hare, reindeer, and codfish liver with molasses.”
Jeg vil gjerne ha smâgris, hare, reinsdyr, og mØlje.

Which is a better idea than what did last time I was in Norway, which was try to avoid eating herring without benefit of the language.
Yes, I know herring is very good for you and some of my favorite people in the world love herring.
And also, because it might: Det kan begynne å brenne, which means: “It might catch fire.”
From What you Want to Say and How to Say it in German, and Norwegian for Travellers.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rooftop bees

Aside from occasional traffic infractions, I tend to think myself as a law-abiding individual, so it with a certain frisson that I read about the illegal activities of Let it Bee honey in this article in yesterday's CHOW, an on-line foodie magazine.

The honey'd middle of the night

The night before last was St Agnes’ Eve, which is another way of saying that yesterday was the feast of St Agnes. We have mentioned St Agnes before in these virtual pages (purity, exposure in a brothel, lambs, decapitation, burning). This year I am remembering how decades ago when I was a student at Milton Academy Girls Upper School (MAGUS) our entire class recited, in unison, Keats poem, St Agnes' Eve. All 42 stanzas. As I recalled this, as certain never-to-be-forgotten lines ran through my mind

ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,

They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright; 50
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.,

it struck me as an odd choice of performance poetry for a gaggle of barely-adolescent girls. The poem refers to the legend that on that night, young girls – virgins of course – go to be superless and naked, and they will dream of their husbands to be.
Keats tells of Madeline who sets out to do just this, while her beloved Porphyro hides in the closet (with the classic collusion of the trusty nursemaid) and presents himself in the flesh. Thinking he is but a dream’s phantasm, Madeline takes him to her bed and they do the deed; waking & realizing what has transpired, they run off together. So much for virginity.
Ten years later my sister was a student at Milton, and sadly, the 8th grade girls no longer recited St Agnes’ Eve at assembly. I wonder why.

Eve of St Agnes by Millais
And then we have the honey’d middle of the night, a designation that I did not appreciate in my callow youth for its sticky sweet allusions. I also note that to call the middle of the night honey’d is to not suffer from insomnia.

Monday, January 18, 2010


And because I couldn’t resist: 681 years ago yesterday Roseline de Villeneauve died. A virgin of ‘distinguished ancestry’ she became a Carthusian nun, was holy in many of the usual ecstatic ways and disciplined herself in the usual unpleasant ways. Then she died and her body did not disintegrate in any way. Five years later her body was exhumed and it was still so perfectly preserved, especially the eyes, the priest in charge had them enucleated and placed in a special reliquary. I rarely get to use the word enucleated, so I feel compelled to avail myself of this opportunity. Three hundred and fifteen years after the enucleation (in 1644), the body was still intact and the eyes had not shriveled. I don’t know how recently they have been checked, but you can visit Saint Roseline’s statue and reliquary in her chapel near Nice, and perhaps find out for yourself.

* enucleate |iˈn(y)oōklēˌāt|
verb [ trans. ]
1 Biology remove the nucleus from (a cell).
2 surgically remove (a tumor or gland, or the eyeball) intact from its surrounding capsule.

Babysitting Hints

What to do with a very active granddaughter (3 1/2) when her mother is in Berlin being extremely chic and Euro:

Pick up Litter.

You probably thought I was going to suggest indoor polo or making birdfeeders with pinecones and peanut butter or reading the oeuvre of Beatrix Potter.
But as it turned out, litter collection our favorite activity. We live on a busy street, and though we are far enough away from the road not to be troubled by it, this does mean that on the other side of the stone wall there is Litter. I hate litter. Of the many ills that plague our world, it seems to me entirely preventable and unnecessary (Arguably, right up there with malaria and female genital mutilation). Not that the folks who drive by and toss out half-eaten burritos inside their plastic clamshells, or light beer cans, pay me any mind.

So once a week I take one of my recycled grocery bags and head down the driveway and walk along the road picking up the discarded treasures.
This past weekend, I took along beloved granddaughter. She insisted on her own recycled grocery bag. I insisted she wear her mittens. And she loved picking up litter. Nothing pleased her more than pouncing upon an offending plastic wrapper. I picked up a soggy newspaper; she thought we should share in this bounty. From there on, every piece of litter had to be divided in two. (Note: Good for the environment; good lesson about sharing.) Since much of it was soggy, ripping or tearing in half was not a problem. I ceded individual soda cans to her. Then we got to the torn porn. Rather than having been tossed from a moving vehicle, I assumed this was flotsam from a neighbor’s recycling or garbage bin. There were several pages torn from a magazine that apparently featured naked females in a variety of creative positions in unlikely settings. Granddaughter thought we should divide these as well. I had qualms about which half of the naked female anatomy should end up in her trash bag. (I decided on the top half.)

I just thank the Litter Gods that on that particular outing there were no used condoms.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Books in the Cellar #3

Of the Little Blue Books, I think I will start with one of the hardest, #477. Not hard because it consists of tedious, tendentious and flaccid prose. Though it is all those and more.
Hard because it raises all sorts of difficult questions and the only people able to answer those questions are either dead or unwilling.
Little Blue Book #477 is The Nonsense called Theosophy, written by Joseph McCabe.
Of all the Little Blue Books in the cellar, this is the only one with a name inscribed: Madeleine de Couville. Madeleine was a maiden aunt (sort of). More accurately, she was my paternal grandmother’s niece, or maybe a half-niece or step-niece (if such a thing exists). Whichever it was, she came from France to spend a summer with my grandparents at some time in the 1930’s, and never went back to live in France again. As far as I know, Aunt Madeleine was devoted to her aunt.
And if her books are any indication, my grandmother was a devoted Theosophist. I seem to have read quite a lot about Theosophy by now, and still I have only the vaguest notion of what it might be. It is a religious, metaphysical, spiritualist philosophy developed by Madame Blavatsky and others around 1875.
I quote from the Encyclopedia Brittanica: “theosophical speculation reveals certain common characteristics. The first of these is an emphasis on mystical experience. Whether ancient or modern, theosophical writers have agreed that a deeper spiritual reality exists and that direct contact may be established with that reality through intuition, meditation, revelation, or some other state transcending normal human consciousness. A second characteristic is an emphasis on esoteric doctrine. A distinction between an inner, or esoteric, teaching and an outer, or exoteric, teaching is commonly accepted, and much attention is devoted to deciphering the meaning concealed in sacred texts. Modern theosophists claim that all the world religions, including Christianity, contain such an inner teaching. A third characteristic is an interest in occult phenomena. Most theosophical speculation reveals a fascination with supernatural or other extraordinary occurrences and with the achievement of higher psychic and spiritual powers. It is held that knowledge of the divine wisdom gives access to the mysteries of nature and humankind's deeper being. A fourth characteristic is a preference for monism—the view that reality is constituted of one principle, such as mind or spirit. Despite a recognition of basic distinctions between the exoteric and esoteric, between the phenomenal world and a higher spiritual reality, and between the human and the divine, which suggests dualism, most theosophically inclined writers have affirmed an underlying, all-encompassing unity that subsumes all differentiation.”

It may help to think of Theosophy has a pre-cursor to much of ‘New Age’ thinking.

Like many new religions, factions split off and the in-fighting could get nasty. In Theosophy, no one was burned at the stake, but feelings did get hurt. One splinter group was led by Annie Besant; and there are several of Anne Besant’s books in the cellar in question. Many of these, according to the name on the flyleaf, belonged to Chester Green in 1926. But they are otherwise filled with notes and marginalia in my grandmother’s tiny and very recognizable script.
Who was Chester Green?
And why, of all the Little Blue Books, did Aunt Madeleine lay claim to the one that aggressively debunks Theosophy in general and Madame Blavatsky in particular?
And what of Joseph McCabe, the writer of: The Nonsense etc? He was a Catholic priest who left the priesthood in 1896 and went on to write numerous Little and Big Blue Books denouncing Catholicism in countless ways, and came to be known as one of the “giants of atheism”.
(Is there something paradoxical about that pairing, or is that just me?)
Have I mentioned that my grandfather (estranged husband to my grandmother, but never divorced on account of being Catholic) frequently entertained priests and was a great friend of the then-prelate of Boston, Cardinal Cushing? They shared a taste for a certain Grouse Whiskey.

Today is the feast of Saint Alexander Akimetes (ca.440) who founded an order of “sleepless’ monks, which seems to me one of the worst ideas ever. In their monastery on the shore of the Euphrates, Alexander divided his monks into 6 choirs so that one choir was always singing the Divine Office, day and night, keeping up the racket.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Books in the Cellar #2

What do my ancestors and Haile Selassie have in common?
Tiger skin rugs?
The Order of the Condor of the Andes of Bolivia? Commander of the Order of the Shield and Spears of Uganda
Descent from the Queen of Sheba?
Fluency in Amharic?

Wrong on all counts.
Like my paternal grandparents (though I am not clear which one, or even if it was really my maiden aunt who is not technically a relative) Haile Selassie was devoted the Little Blue Books.

Several years ago I found the stash of the Little Blue Books in the cellar. Because they were small and printed on cheap paper (brittle as dried crab carcasses left behind by the tide) I assumed they were a response to the wartime paper shortage. I was wrong.
The Little Blue Books were the brainchild of Emanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius, socialists and publishers in Girard , Kansas, a hotbed of socialist politics in the early 20th century. So much so that in 1904 a progressive editor in Girard commissioned Upton Sinclair to write about the plight of immigrants in Chicago’s meat packing houses. Seven weeks later, he produced The Jungle. (Which I highly recommend; I read it for the first time about 3 years ago, and it seems that not enough - not enough by far - has changed.)
But I digress.
The idea was that the Little Blue Books would be cheap and portable, just the right size for a workingman’s back pocket. To finance his venture, Haldeman-Julius sent a prospectus to his mailing list of subscriber’s to the socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, asking for a prepayment of $5.00. This would entitlement the subscriber to 50 Little Blue Books, at 5¢ each.
In this way, he raised $25,0000, which allowed him to start printing 24,000 titles a day in 1919. The series took off, publishing such sure fire winners as:
Eight Humorous Sketches, Mark Twain
Truth, and Seventeen Other Essays, Francis Bacon
The Nonsense Called Theosophy, Joseph McCabe
How to Psycho-Analyze Yourself, Daniel H. Bonus
Then after WWII, J. Edgar Hoover took a look at these inflammatory and rabble rousing pamphlets, and he did Haldeman-Julius the honor of putting him on the FBI’s enemies list. Stores stopped carrying the Little Blue Books. Haldeman-Julius drowned in 1951, and in 1978 the Girard printing press burned to the ground.

On another note, today is the feast the widow, Blessed Jutta of Huy(b 1158. She married unwillingly and then was widowed at the age of 18, while still in the pink of her loveliness. This fact, and the attentions of suitors, so distressed her that she entered a convent, and when this was not austere enough, she had herself walled up in a little room attached to the leper house. There she lived until her death 46 years later. She was also an extraordinary mind reader and prognosticator, but it is not clear how she communicated from her room next to the lepers.

Hagiography was one of the few subjects not delved into by the Little Blue Books. That is where SQD comes in.

The Books in the Cellar #1

In an effort to distract ourselves from the disturbing goings on (middle-of-the-night haranguing phone calls, threatening messages, some coherent and some not) in our otherwise bucolic lives, we present the following.

I think we need more structure around here. Your faithful blogger clearly takes the ‘random’ rubric (see above) a little too seriously. So, in the interests of putting some structure into the coming year’s posts, in addition to bees and saints, I plan to expatiate on some of the literary treasures I have discovered and will surely discover upon the crammed bookshelves of the parental cellar.
These will include, but are most adamantly not limited to: tattered paperback lives of Cleopatra, one by Emil Ludwig, another by Rider Haggard; Just Folks by Edgar Guest; my father’s undergraduate thesis on the Cotton Waste Trade, circa 1946; The World’s Best Jokes, published 1936; Conversational Arabic, 1955; and countless editions of the Little Blue Books.
Most people I know have bookshelves in the usual places: living rooms, libraries, dining rooms, kitchens, linen closets, bathrooms & solaria. In addition to all the aforementioned, the cellar (my mother and I have debated whether hers is a cellar** or a basement*; nothing was resolved; feel free to weigh in) in my parents’ house contains a labyrinth of bookshelves. While my mother may, on a biannual basis, throw or give away torn underwear or broken crockery or a profoundly ugly knickknack, she has never thrown away a book and never will.
Because I have had so much pleasure perusing the treasures of the cellar bookshelves, it would be craven of me to do otherwise than applaud this dictum.
And since before my mother ever entered the abode in question, it was my father’s boyhood home, these cellar bookshelves contain high school texts featuring his mystified annotations as well as more recent (mid 20th century) tomes.

*basement =the floor of a building partly or entirely below ground level.

**cellar = a room below ground level in a house, typically one used for storing wine or coal.

Monday, January 11, 2010

You may have received this email, in which case ignore, or not. But if you did not, read on:

Your name personally inscribed here
Dear (Friends and Family),

In the interests of not letting all my New Year’s resolution slide quietly into the waste bin before February, I am actually trying to DO SOMETHING to increase readership for Sort Quench & Dump*, because I know from there it will be but a short leap to vast international readership.
N’est-ce pas?
Since I have not figured out a more cyber-anonymous way of accomplishing this, and if you would like to receive a short email notification of each new blog post, please just reply “Yes” to this email. (or just send an email to me at with “Yes” in the subject line.) If you do this I will put you on a list and promise not to bother you with anything else, nor will I sell this valuable list to email marketers of fabulous hallucinogenic drugs or sexual enhancement devices or Nigerian widows whose husbands have left them millions of dollars in UK bank accounts.
Otherwise, just ignore this.
Thanks, your humble blogger, Christine

*My sometimes amusing** blog about subjects apicultural, hagiographic and random. Mostly random.

**Depends who you ask.

Freya, the bees, and Susanna

What did the bees do with the letters Freya von Moltke hid in her beehives?

Freya von Moltke died on New Years Day in Vermont, at the age of 98. She was the widow of Count Helmuth James von Moltke, one of several German aristocrats and clerics who opposed Hitler and were executed. While her husband was imprisoned, Freya took the incriminating documents as well as his letters to her and hid them in the beehives on their estate at Kreisau. The obit does not mention what honeycomb masterpiece the bees created around those papers, only that they were an invaluable source for historians seeking to learn about the resistance to Hitler.
A couple of years ago I saw this honeycomb vase at MOMA created by a Slovakian artist, well - created by bees, with the nudging of the Slovakian artist. Since then I have been imploring CSB to let me introduce strange objects (a fountain pen, a tiara, a small book) into our beehives to see what the bees make of it. He is still considering this.

Later I went to hear my friend sing in Handel’s 1748 oratorio, “Susanna”. It’s a compelling and disturbing story: the beautiful Susana is seen bathing in the river by the lecherous elders and they accost her.
(In vain would age his ice bespread/To numb each gay desire/Tho’ seventy winters hoar my head/My heart is still on fire.)When she refuses their lewd advances the elders retaliate by accusing her of having carnal knowledge with her young man under a certain tree. She is condemned to die. (The cause is decided, the sentence decreed,/Susanna is guilty, Susanna must bleed.) Only when Daniel comes on the scene (sung by a woman, a soprano) and questions the elders separately is Susanna acquitted. Daniel wisely asks each elder under which tree Susanna was seen fornicating, and they answer with very different trees (a holm tree and a lentisk), trees that could not be mistaken one for the other.
Does this all sound painfully contemporary? It did to me.
Sitting there in my pew, I wondered how the Biblical version read, and since the concert was in a church, I thought, how convenient! I pulled the Bible out from the hymnal shelf and flipped through the book of Daniel. But there was no Susanna to be found.
Later I learned that her story has been deemed apocryphal by the Protestants (in the 39 articles) and so is only found in the RC and Easter Orthodox bibles.
Apocryphal or not, it is a story made for artists: naked bathing beauty, leering older men, and conflict.

Susanna and the Elders by Artemesia Gentileschi.

Susanna by Tintoretto.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

How not to be paranoid

I have discovered the perfect book to read, and not to read, in the middle of the night. Customer Service by Benoît Duteutrte, translated from the French. (Have I mentioned my craven Francophilia?)
CSB was awake with a nasty charley horse, and then I was as well. He wandered the house trying to walk off the charley horse, when it became clear that I was not going back to sleep any time soon I picked up this novella I bought a while back (largely on the basis of its cover and because I like the idea of novellas.) There is no hint (either on the cover or in the title) that it will compound and enhance your insomnia with paranoid dread.
At the beginning the narrator loses his new cell phone in a taxi, and when he goes to get the service cancelled and buy a new phone, he learns that he must pay the remaining 11 months of the service contract, in addition to the contract for his new phone. Things get worse. His Internet server demands a password and then PASSWORD INCORRECT flashes on the screen. His credit card is rejected while he is traveling. And he spends hours and hours on the phone, pressing numbers.But it doesn’t matter because all number sequences arrive at the same place: with a final recorded voice telling him that whatever is troubling him is the way it is meant to be, that it is all his fault, and there is nothing to be done. Unless of course he can reach Customer Service. Customer Service is of course a myth, a Minotaur at the end of the labyrinth that can only devour you if you are foolish enough to find your way there.
I kept reading.
When I was finished with the novella (in the pink early light) I began to obsess about my ongoing struggle with Chase bank to remove the $9.95 fee that gets deducted from my checking account monthly. This struggle began over a year ago when ‘Customer Service” at the bank told me that the fee was not their doing but was put there by Quicken. I cancelled my Quicken Bill Paying service over a year ago and yet the deduction continues, unabated and unrepentant. When I call Quicken they tell that I did indeed indeed cancel my service over a year ago but this fee is probably put there by Quicken dot com, which is a different entity from Quicken. (huh?) It is, however, impossible to reach either by telephone or email.

Where is Kafka when we need him?
How he would have loved the eternal forking of the automated telephone answering service:
Press 1 to continue in English; Press 2 for American Sign Language; Press 3 for any other language.
Press 1 if you are a person; press 2 if you are a business; press 3 if you are a monkey who has learned to press buttons.
Press 1 if this is a technical problem; press 2 for billing questions; press 3 if you don’t know what your problem is.
Press 1 if you are sedated; press 2 if you have drunk any alcohol in the past hour; press 3 if you have any lethal weapons in the room.
Thank you for calling our Customer Service. For additional help go to and choose the Help Tab on the Menu Bar. Have a nice day.

Oh, and Happy Gnu Year.