Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The great pencil controversy

Yesterday was the 142nd birthday of the patent for a pencil with an attached eraser. Hymen Lipman (about whom nothing else is known) was issued Patent # 19,783 for his invention. But the patent was later rescinded when it was determined that he invented nothing; all he did was attach two existing things without altering their uses.

Which seems a little harsh, given that even as I type these words there is a #2 pencil with attached eraser sitting on my desk. Soon I will have to sharpen it. Additionally, Lipman’s attached eraser was designed to be sharpened, which could be a very wonderful thing for those of us who engage in creative erasing.

As with so many things, our choices about pencils say a lot about who we are. There are the mechanical pencil types, and the traditional pencil types. You know who you are.
No one will be surprised to learn that this house favored traditional pencils. CSB seems to have an unlimited supply from Rosenzweig lumber yard, but instead of being profligate with this store of pencils, he uses each one down to a stub. He is also – again, no surprise – a devotee of old fashioned manual pencil sharpeners, the kind normally screwed to the wall, generally on the way down to the basement. At least ours is.
While we are a one-style-pencil family, we do line up on opposite sides of the Great Sharpener Divide. I cannot give up my battery-operated pencil sharper, as I have a large stash of colored pencils and I like to keep their tips as pointy as my head. Also, our precious granddaughter enjoys the mechanical sharpener and can keep herself entertained for all of five minutes sharpening all our pencils into dangerous weapons that – unlike my fountain pens – should be forbidden from airplanes.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Learning to love a wood splitter

And how did we spend Palm Sunday? I would like to tell you we rode donkeys and waved palms, or even that we braided palms and walked beside donkeys, or even that we fed palms to the donkeys and took a walk. Or,given that we are fast approaching the end of Seagrass Awareness Month I would like to say we planted seagrass. But that would not be true. (It is also almost the end of Vulval Health Awareness Month and you probably don't need to know what we think about that.)
What is true: I saw a large loping coyote on the driveway in the morning. Coyotes and donkeys share a common class (Mammalia) but the grass eating donkeys belong to the order of Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates) while the carnivorous coyotes belong to Carnivora. It has been several millennia since donkeys and coyotes had much in common.

We chipped wood.

I learned to love a Wood Chipper. I am already a fan of hydraulic wood splitters, and at the end of the day I think the wood splitter is still a more entertaining tool. But chippers have their merits.They are voracious and mesmerizing.
We fed a couple of tons (no exaggeration - consider we've had two major storms alight and do their damage) of brush and branches and trees into the wood chipper and then watched it spit out tons of wood chips. Into the maw of the wood chipper (CSB referred to it fondly as The Eager Beaver) we fed an entire blue spruce that snapped off about a foot off the ground, more hemlock limbs than I can count, a pile of white pine branches twice the height of CSB. And that was just before lunch.

One of the cool things about a wood splitter is that you can aim the chute and therefore get the wood chips wherever you want them, and spread them around.

In other news, today would be the 181st birthday of Ritta and Christina, the Sardinian Siamese twins. (Think fusion cuisine.) And 162 years ago Niagara Falls stopped flowing for 30 hours because of an ice jam. We can't be sure if this was the first time that ever happened, but we know it was the last time.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Overheard in the 'hood

ME IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT: So, Leda, darling. We’re getting some new animals at home. Can you guess what they will be? What animal is born out of an egg?


ME: No. What animal – that is not extinct – is born out of an egg?

LEDA: A peacock!

ME: No.

LEDA: Nana, they are so born from eggs.

ME: You’re right Leda, but I don’t think Chucker and I are getting peacocks. What do you think we are getting? OK, I’ll tell you. Chickens.

LEDA: Hugo [at day care] was scratched by his chicken when he fell off the roof.

ME: Our chickens won’t scratch you.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cold Comfort

I’m a couple of days late with the feast of Saints Enda and Fanchea, but chances are you wouldn’t know that unless I told you. Which I just did.
Enda and Fanchea were Irish siblings in the 6th century. Fanchea was your typical Irish virgin consecrated to God; Enda was a typical bloodthirsty warrior. Fanchea got her brother to agree to settle down to lead a peaceful life, on the condition that she would give him one of her maidens in marriage.
But the maiden chosen for this happy life died at that exact moment, so that when Fanchea brought Enda to see his bride, he was faced with a pale, cold corpse.
Are you surprised to learn that after this shock to his dreams of marital bliss, he promptly joined a monastery?

Things to do while experiencing rhinovirus impairment

For several days or weeks I’ve been laid low with a cold and cough, whatever. Now that I am somewhat better, I find that I am eager to impart a few suggestions for those of you who might be planning a similar sojourn into the Land of Illness and Fog.

For nose-blowing, rather than your beloved’s shirttails, paper towels or newspapers, I suggest flannel rags that were pajamas in their previous incarnation. Preferably plaid.

For whiling away those long groggy afternoons under the influence of the cough syrup cocktail of your choice, I have discovered the best possible entertainment. Watch any one of the several Free Trees videos made by the charming arborphiliac children of my cousin Christopher, and available on YouTube. Click here or just put Free Trees/ Pescadero into the YouTube search cartouche and you will find a few. They get better with repeated viewing.

After reading the old NY Review of Books that have been accumulating under your bed next to the exercise device acquired from 1-800-FLAT-ABS, spend a little quality time with the Personal Ads looking for the perfect woman for your ex-husband.
Will it be the "attractive, slim, trilingual [She doesn’t specify which three] atheist"?
Or the "adventuress with calm demeanor who skis and snuggles but can’t play Mozart, despite years of lessons"?
Or should we opt for "the gourmet cook (mean paella, heavenly coq au vin, no biscuits though)"?

Now to the all-important WHAT NOT TO DO:
I don’t care how much you love your Polish cleaning lady, or how much folk wisdom she harbors, stay away from her favorite Old Country cure-all:
Hot milk with a large floating barge of butter, grated garlic and honey. (Yes, as bad as it sounds). It is important to stop her before she makes this vile concoction, otherwise she will stand over you until you have drunk it all. I am still recovering.

And finally, do not write down any dreams you have while taking Hycodan (cough syrup with codeine). While they may seem intriguing & pencil-worthy when you first emerge from the fog, I can guarantee that once you are fully awake, you will see them for the kinky and perverted tales they truly are.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Beekeeping legal in NYC - what will be next?

As you may already know, after years of being ignominiously lumped with other verboten ‘venomous animals’ by the nature-loving Giuliani, honeybees can now be legal residents of NYC.
But you what you probably do not know is that devotees of the Domino Theory (and yes, they are out there) are already at work drinking tea and predicting what rectangular tile will be the next to fall in the ineluctable path towards anarchy and hive-democracy.

People who keep abreast of these things are pointing out the many similarities between bees and BB guns (alliteration), honey-beekeeping and satanic worship (same number of letters), beekeeping and cricket fighting (insects for human pleasure). From there, it is but a small step to legalizing painting yourself green and marching on Fifth Avenue with no underwear.

Pretty soon your neighbors will say that if you can keep bees because you need honey for your allergies, then they can keep a rhinoceros because they need the tusks for aphrodisiacs, and which is more of a neighborly menace: a swarm of bees
or a charging rhinoceros? Clearly, it’s a slippery slope.

The good news: Beekeeping in NYC is legal.
The bad news: My brief glory days as an apicultural renegade scofflaw are officially over. I have rejoined the ranks of law-abiding citizens who have barbecues in the summer, turkey at Thanksgiving, and pink cupcakes on Valentines Day.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A theater review for prehistoric creatures

If you are an above-average young man in his late 20’s, what would be the most inappropriate subject matter for a play to which you will take your visiting mother?
Think about it.
Sex and violence presumably come to mind rather quickly – though it is true that a certain vitriolic ex-wife refers to your mother as a pornographic writer, one can only assume that is because she has set the bar quite low. Perhaps Thomas Kincaid paintings, bestiality and necrophilia also occur as taboo subjects.

You are a thoughtful and highly intelligent young man (and your mother is not the only person who thinks so) so you go ahead and buy tickets for a play at a small experimental theater.
The play is called Adore, and the program notes, which admittedly you do not read until you have already bought the tickets, begin “Armin is a cannibal. It’s a secret...” Naturally, you assume this is meant metaphorically. There is a literary tradition of such things, just as there are mythological tales of cannibalistic revenge.
Soon the night in question arrives. You and your mother have a pleasant meal at a local pub with an overly solicitous waitress. In the theater lobby you notice that the play only lasts for 60 minutes. This will prove to be a very good thing. Because, not too many minutes into the opening scene, it becomes clear that the cannibalism in the play – there are only two actors and a screen for video images – is not a metaphor. On the contrary, it is about two men who find each other – over the Internet, where else? – and proceed to live out their ultimate sexual fantasies: in Armin’s case, to eat his lover, in Bernd’s case, to be eaten. For about an hour these two actors alternately make the case that true love is eating/being eaten by one's beloved.
The thoughtful son in question keeps glancing over at his mother and asking her if she is all right.
Have I mentioned that they are sitting in the front row in a very small theater, so that rushing out in order to vomit would be a very public act?

Luckily, your mother is flying home the next day, so the topic of cannibalistic fetishism and all the ways in which it is not about love - and that in fact eating one's beloved does not mean that the beloved becomes incorporated into one's being, but rather that one excretes one's beloved, hardly a romantic notion - can only be flogged for another 12 hours. And it is true that the play’s revolting subject matter did manage to veer the conversation from Lyuba and the contents of her stomach.

Lyuba, since you ask, is a month old woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) whose very intact body was discovered in the Siberian permafrost by a reindeer herders, and named after his wife. Unlike his wife, Lyuba lived over 40,000 years ago and was the size of a large dog at the time of her death by inhalation of mud, presumably while crossing a bog with her fellow woolly mammoths. Inside her stomach, researchers at a Japanese medical school found mother’s milk, pollen from grasses, algae and mammoth dung.

Additionally, the river in your city has become bright green. This has nothing to do with your theatrical fiasco of the previous night. It is viewed with pleasure and amazement by mother and son, just before the mother heads to the airport for her flight home.

Or so you thought. Nature intervened and brought air travel throughout the east coast to a halt, which meant that your mother was back with you for another 48 hours while trees were uprooted and trunks fell on roofs and smashed in cars and power was extinguished and rain fell in record-breaking inches.
This gave you both more time to come up with bad jokes about cannibalism as love, or not.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A few things my guidebooks neglected to mention about Cartagena

The annual Señorita Colombia beauty pageant is held here in Cartagena every year in November. Stone plaques bearing photographs of every Señorita Colombia since 1934 are imbedded in the sidewalk under the arcade on the northern side of Parque Bolívar. (Bolívar and his horse are facing south, hence showing their backsides to the beauty queens.) This is called Portal de las Reinas (Gate of the Queens) and it is sponsored by the National Beauty School. Señorita Colombia of 2010 is Natalia Navarro Galvis. Note the toothy smile.

Cartagena is The Place if you would like to acquire an Osterizer blender or Osterizer blender parts, from any era. Or if you would like to unload your vast collection of Osterizer blender parts. Six days a week, at the corner of Calle Badillo and Dolores, you will find no less than six vendors specializing in Osterizer blenders and their multifarious parts. Business is good.

Before his brother was the Father of our Country, in 1741, Lawrence Washington fought with a group of American volunteers under Admiral Vernon*, who attacked Cartagena. Admiral Vernon over-estimated his strength and was so cocksure that he would prevail over Cartagena that he had medals cast commemorating his victory before he's even sailed into the harbor. One pictured the victorious Admiral Vernon standing over the defeated Don Blas, with this inscription: THE SPANISH PRIDE PULLED DOWN BY ADMIRAL VERNON. As it happens, Vernon and his force of 186 ships and 27,000 men were routed by Don Blas de Lezo, who at that point was missing one leg, one eye and one arm, and whose force consisted of 6 ships and 3,500 soldiers. As the British retreated, they continued their assaults and for a few days they managed to occupy La Popa, an Augustinian monastery on a hill overlooking the city. Lawrence Washington was among those who briefly resided in the cloisters. And yes, Lawrence Washington named Mount Vernon after his heroic leader.
*His nickname was “Old Grog” and his other best-known battle is the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

The guidebooks will tell you that the remains of San Pedro Claver (1580-1654) are beneath the main altar of the Church of San Pedro Claver. What the guidebooks don’t specify is that a glass casket containing the skeleton of the beloved “Apostle to the Slaves” is set into the marble altar and illuminated. While the skull is clearly visible, the rest of the skeleton is clothed in priestly garb probably more elegant than anything Pedro Claver wore in his lifetime. Given the dearth of lighting everywhere else in the church, the illuminated casket is particularly startling and eerie.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

El Museo naval de Cartagena

The other day we wandered into Cartagena’s Naval Museum inside a former Jesuit seminary. The only other people there were 2 naval officers in pristine white uniforms and an older presumably English couple and a female naval officer getting her picture taken in the courtyard. The museum consists of twenty or so flat glass display boxes depicting the many battles and assaults on Cartagena by English and French pirates, with exact positions of the ships involved, sailing on rippling glass, and little models of the forts atop hills dotted with miniature greenery.
The pirates come, they wreck, and then they go. More forts get built. They breech La Boca Grande or they breach La Boca Chica, again and again. Sometimes they don’t succeed but they still wreak havoc as they retreat.
There is also a vitrine displaying the insignia for every conceivable rank in the Colombian navy.
And then we have the stuffed head of Chicote, who was the mascot aboard the ‘Gloria’ for thirteen years and logged in 217, 260 nautical miles over his illustrious lifetime, and visited more than 100 ports.

Parque Fernández Madrid

CSB’s absolutely favorite thing to do in Cartagena, better than dining on robaló a la plancha, better than swimming in the turquoise Caribbean and losing his swimsuit in the waves, better even than visiting every single church in the walled city and listening to Christine’s detailed history of the saints depicted therein, CSB likes to sit on our balcony overlooking Parque Fernández Madrid and watch and speculate.
He keeps a close eye on the man in the green vest who rents out cell phones that are all attached to cords that originate in his belly pack.
He lets me know exactly how many pastries the parque’s policewoman has consumed this morning. He wonders when the coffee-shot vendor manages to refill his thermoses. He doubts the policewoman ever pays for her coffee shots, and there are many.
He times the arrival of the cardboard recycler. The cardboard man arrives no later than 8 every morning, pushing an ancient wooden cart stacked high with flattened cardboard boxes, and he sings a plaintive almost operatic (Poulenc not Verdi) song as he passes through Parque Fernández Madrid.
In the evening CSB watches the young men and woman, gathering on the broken steps of the statue of Fernández Madrid, playing music and singing. Of special interest are the two young women who each evening sashay through the parque in matching (short, strapless,skintight) dresses featuring a circle cut out of one side; each evening the dresses are a different color, but otherwise the same.
Ours is not a major parque. For starters, Fernández de Madrid was not a saint. He was president of the early republic for all of one year (1815-1816), for which his country thanks him (La Patria Agradecida), though it is not made clear whether the country is grateful for his service or its brevity. The newspaper he founded, El Argos, ended up being published in Havana.
Surrounding our parque we have the ever-lively Wiskeria Zorba and directly across from our little hotel, the Alianza Francesa. There is no church facing the parque, but San Toribio is off in one corner. As Archbishop of Lima Peru, Toribio de Mogrevejo (1538-1606) fought for the rights of the Native Americans against the brutal Spanish conquistadors. A great walker, three times he walked across his district of 180,000 square miles. The church’s interior is undistinguished until you look up and see an elaborate wooden Mudejar ceiling. Mostly the church is locked up, but one time we found it open and went in; the music of Hare Krishna chanting was being piped in.
Also on our parque is the Tamarindo, famous for its happy hour, and a store selling only white cotton blouses and low-cut white dresses and white guayaberas.
Up on our balcony, CSB is at eye level with the highest branches of the pod-laden tree I think is a kind of acacia. He is also at eye level with the raucous squawking parrots; they fumble at the pods with their beaks and nibble away while a fine dusting of foliage drifts to the ground of Parque Fernández Madrid.