Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From chicks back to the Basement Books (#77)

Chances are you want to hear how we are faring with the all-important task of sexing the chickens. It seems we have missed the opportunity to insert our fingers into the cloaca to feel the tell-tale penis-like bump – this can only be done safely in the first 24 hours of a chicken’s life, and I am happy to report that they are MUCH older now. So we are back to secondary sexual characteristics. And since chickens do not replace toilet paper rolls on dispensers, or fail to, nor do they talk about their feelings, or refuse to, these sure-fire indicators are not available to us. This morning I was looking for subtle signs of a desire to crow, or lay an egg. Last night they all gathered together under the heat lamp and slept in a sweet roosting-like cluster. Or so I want to believe. In Raising Chickens for Dummies, we read that the combs and wattles of the roosters will grow faster and larger than the hens; also, the roosters will have pointed – not rounded – hackle feathers. And we feel confident that the chicks will agreeably stay very still while he examine their body parts.

Since there is nothing to report, chicken-sex-wise, I thought I would discuss one of the more exciting Books from the Parental Basement. That would be Isometrics, by Henry Wittenberg, Olympic Gold Medal Champion. Our first introduction to isometrics was in Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, in which the young Bill is observing his father practicing isometric exercises, which look a lot like someone standing still or sitting still. In Bryson’s capable hands, this is weepingly funny, or it is when read aloud by CSB in the tropics. So when I found a guide to isometrics in the basement, by an isometric champion no less, I could not wait to share it with CSB.
One cool thing about isometrics is that you can do them in 10-second increments. Here’s an example: press your right hand against the right side of your head and push while your head pushes back. Voila – you have created tension without motion, and you can call it exercise. Although it says clearly on the cover of this 5th GIANT PRINTING that Wittenberg is an Olympic champion, it turns out he is not the Olympic Isometric champion (I still don’t know who that is), and that was disappointing. He was a wrestler.

If you were a promoter of an “Amazing System of No-Motion Exercises” and writer of a best-selling guide to the Magic of Isometrics, you would think this might get mentioned in your obituary. I would. So I found it very strange when last month I read of the death of Henry Wittenberg at age 91, and isometrics were nowhere mentioned. (Do isometrics get any credit for his remarkable longevity? No, they do not.) His early fondness for chess and swimming was alluded to. His career as a champion wrestler was highlighted. His participation in the Maccabiah Game was featured. We read how, unable to secure a job as a teacher, he became a police officer. He is quoted on the subject of weight lifting as a training regiment.
Nothing about Isometrics.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Chicks are here

As if it were not chaotic enough around here, what with the Gypsy lute-makers camping in the attic, and our mattress in the living room (While we painted our bedroom “rouge” with “desert tan” trim) along with the pillows and blankets and CSB’s tuxedo, and stacks of honey supers everywhere you turn, and bowls full of precious gourd seeds in the kitchen, and the imported Bolivian moths laying their Andean moth eggs in my sock drawer, and the Maine junior lacrosse team practicing in the front yard, the chickens moved in today.
Fifteen of them.
Because they are so small they all fifteen are residing in a large wooden crib (See above) filled with soft pine shavings, and we are hoping very much that the dogs do not think of them as a meal.
They will move into the chicken coop soon (it’s not quite ready; CSB is installing the chandelier and I’ll be hanging the damask curtains later tonight) but we’re not exactly sure when – we will have to consult with Raising Chickens for Dummies.
If we had gone about this in a somewhat normal fashion, we would have ordered day old chicks from McMurray’s Hatchery and they would have sent us hens. But instead, the little boys who formerly lived next door and now live in the next town, wanted to hatch the chicks from eggs. So our friend Annie Farrell gave CSB 24 eggs of various colors and breeds, and the boys hatched them in an incubator behind the sofa in their octagonal TV room. Fifteen eggs hatched and so far all fifteen are still alive and chirping. But we have no idea whether we have hens or roosters. And this is a very important distinction. Hens lay eggs. Roosters crow at early hours, and annoy the neighbors and in fact roosters are aves non grata in our town.

At least once a day we have some sort of discussion about chicken sexing. Chicken sexing is quite an art. (I did a lot of research on this subject for Absent A Miracle, believe it or not. Most of it did not make it into the novel.) It involves inserting a finger into the chicken’s rectum and feeling for a tell-tale bump. If you’re unwilling to do this – and I am unwilling – then you have to wait for the appearance of their secondary sexual characteristics.

So far the only specific breed identified is the Crevecour. The boys named her/him Bump, because of her/his flashy upright hairstyle. She looks like a punk Restoration playwright to me.
CSB is not going to refer to any of the chickens by name, for the obvious reason. I think he will be outnumbered.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Some hosts say grace (Bless us oh Lord for these thy gifts, for the traditionalists; Yeah, God, for the irreverent believers); some propose toasts to the occasion or to absent loved ones or to the erupted volcano; some send their compliments to the chef. The other night the host was the chef and he clanged his crystal goblet to warn us of all the things we could not or should not eat in the polenta and venison stew that steamed sweetly on the plates before us. These included small hard juniper berries, the woody stems of rosemary, the bones of the venison (no, not roadkill), and chicken mushrooms.
Technically, I think they are all edible, in the sense that none of them will kill us. Except that technically, anything can kill us. A berry can go down the windpipe. A woody stem can be lodged transversely in the esophagus. A bone splinter can pierce one’s intestines. You could, in theory, be allergic to chicken mushrooms. Or this chicken mushroom could have been gathered next to a healthy poison ivy vine, and if you are allergic enough to poison ivy and you ingest it, you could die from that as well. Painfully.
The possibilities are endless.
As the evening progressed we discussed the all-important question of where we wanted our ashes sprinkled. A recent case was mentioned in which the deceased requested that all his friends take small canisters of his ashes and distribute them around the world in places they think he would like to be. His friends are a well-traveled group, such that wherever his widow voyages with her new beau, her late husband’s ashes precede her. The merits of water and land sprinkling were debated. At least one diner planned to donate her body to science, which reminded me to wear nail polish if I ever do that, based on a story told by a recent medical student. (Regarding a cadaver and her color choice.) A good friend has been driving around for years with his father’s ashes right next to his surfboard in the back of his truck. They were recently joined by his mother’s ashes, prompting renewed questions as to their ultimate placement. Our chef expressed a desire to be pelletized and then fed to his beloved trout.

Just a day earlier we had been discussing the question of rest rooms for transgendered people. In high schools. Would a woman a becoming a man prefer to use the women’s or men’s room? What about a man becoming a woman? Is it necessary to have separate rest rooms for women → men, and men →women. These are thorny questions.

This was not an option for Hildegund of Schönau. (You were wondering where I was going with this? Wonder no more.) The most famous monk of the Cistercian monastery at Schönau was in fact a woman. She was born a girl in the unenlightened and pestilential 12th century. When she was 12, Hildegund’s father, a Knight of Neuss, decided to take her on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the protective garb of a boy, to be called Joseph. But her father died on their way home, though not before leaving ‘Joseph’ in the care of a Knight of Tyre, who promptly robbed and abandoned the child.
Somehow ‘Joseph’ made it back to Europe and became a servant to a canon in Cologne. She (always in drag) enjoyed many adventures and trials (including the ‘ordeal of red-hot iron’) in the canon’s employ, and ultimately joined the Cistercian monastery at Schönau. There to live a holy life, always as a man. Which leads me to believe that the monks were afforded private cells as well as private bathing arrangements.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How do silicate particles affect skeins of wool?

While the silicate-laden ash and smoke of Eyjafjallajökull are wreaking havoc in the air lanes of the Northern/Western hemisphere, the moths have struck again here at the farm.
Hannah Q. is stranded in Oslo with the boyfriend she just definitely broken up with- she was looking forward to placing an ocean between them; Dougal M. unable to make it to his great-aunt’s funeral in the Scottish highlands and will miss out on the ceremonial passing down of the family kilt. While the dreaded Tineola bisselliella were laying their nasty little eggs, our dear friend Ned thought his flight to Ireland - for a long anticipated golfing trip with his cronies - would be cancelled. But his flight was not cancelled. He is safely in Ireland now, alone. After Ned’s plane landed, all the airports in Ireland and the UK were closed once again, and his five friends are left fondling their five irons in New Canaan and drinking imported Guinness. While the voracious larvae were chewing our textiles, Madame Gabrielle Bonfoy is stuck in Brussels and wonders whether her one and only will wait. Having just discovered the great love of her youth via Facebook, they had planned a reunion in Hanoi. He is already in Hanoi watching Pay-Per-View in his hotel, and Gabrielle considers the frites of Brussels no consolation. They are both 65 years old, and while not exactly ancient, they are not inclined to delay the long-awaited consummation of their hitherto thwarted passion.

I wish I didn’t take attack of the moths so personally. But I take it very personally, entirely personally. Either it is a personal affront on me and the cleanliness of our abode; or else it is a reflection of the care I take of our woolens. Either way, I have been terribly remiss. This time the target was the two hangings from Bolivia, here in the little room where I frequently sit and stare at them, obviously not seeing the degradation, the disintegration and the enlarging holes. What kind of person can look at a beautiful woven hanging from the highlands of Bolivia as it positively vibrates with the chewing of those horrid & hungry Lepidoptera, and not notice? An inattentive and distracted person. A person in need of Remedial Home Ec.
It took a visit from CSB – on a brief break from his construction of Chicken Manor - to notice. Only then did we take down the hangings and rush them to the freezer.
But now I am worried about the gazillions of skeins of yarn stored in the window seat, upon which I seat.
I will deal with them tomorrow, while the terns and puffins of the North Atlantic enjoy uninterrupted flights through empty air.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Turn Right at the Lamb of God

You think you could move south, where it is all stories, all the time. At dinner there are Gothic tales of mistresses in the low country, violent death, and graveside hysterics clutching James Joyce. You imagine the fruits with Gullah names could bleed under your skin, and then you too would be related to both sides of the eternal conflict. The hellebores and their generations inhabit the woodlands and daily engage in mortal battle with the voles. Kudzu goes unmentioned. Broken crockery cannot stop the drama of lovers escaped to an endangered swamp where a Choctaw grandmother was last seen. Minutes before the wrecking ball shatters the bullet glass and splinters the wooden beams, a trunk full of a century’s journals is rescued. And inside you find: a braided hank of hair that reached her knees, and this notation for April 15, 1911: “The engineer tossed oranges to me from the train again. He wants to court me, and maybe he will.” There is a discussion of the perils and merits of hunting coyotes. Never at night.
You get lost on your way, and then you get the directions that will get you there: Turn right at the Lamb of God.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Forklift Rodeo, the Finale

Your blogger with Lamar Nelson, Forklift Rodeo Mastermind, Historian, Archeologist and Archivist

The course.
(Note: this was meant to be posted last night, but airlines delays got us home too late.)
Last night in the fragrant southern evening, swooning by the Mahonia (an evergreen shrub with dark blue berries named for the horticulturalist Bernard McMahan who introduced the plant from the Lewis and Clark expedition), amid my cousin’s woodland hellebores, we espied the holes of voles. Or moles. The more you try to distinguish between moles and voles, the more confusing it becomes. (Yes, I know the obvious answer.)
A little research leads me to believe the aforementioned must be voles, because moles are semi-aquatic, quasi-blind mammals that subsist mostly on earthworms, while voles are rodents sometimes called meadow mice and their diet consists of the roots of all the plants you especially like in your garden, and Douglas fir needles.

This morning we debouched from the Hampton Inn, situated snugly between Denny’s and Arby’s on Route 85 and just across from the worldwide headquarters of Cryovac, the Sealed Air Corporation, and headed back to the Forklift Rodeo for the nail-biting finale.
We are once again in the sunshine, gathered behind the Traffic Center at Leigh Fibers; on two sides we are sheltered by a copse of long-needle pines planted 50 years ago by Lamar’s father. A freight train rattles past the ridge just on the other side of the pines.

In the world at large the Polish president’s twin brother is overcoming his grief in order to take over his brother’s perch atop the Polish government; this will be a boon to geneticists as well as writers of international & political intrigue. In Malta they are debating whether or not to remove a certain vertical sculpture deemed to be potentially offensive to the Pope, as it would be almost the first thing he would see upon landing at the Malta International Airport in Luqa. In Italy they are celebrating the feast Margaret of Citta di Castello (died 1320). Her claim to fame is that she levitated while praying. Try it, and you will see that this is not simple.

We here at Leigh are holding our breath to know whether Brian Hunter will keep his spot at the top of the standings, or whether brother Hilton will beat his sibling’s time.

And now I can tell you. As of 3 pm, Brian remains in first place. Hilton performed admirably, coming in at 5:44. He held onto second place for several rounds, until Paul Hayes did the course in 5:35. Then Henry Bridges upset the rankings further by whipping through the course in 5: 39, beating out Hilton for third place, as well as beating his son, Cory’s time by almost three minutes. The triumph of experience over youth, hah!

The Hunter brothers taking sustenance.
Once again, the fun was not limited to nail-biting suspense, cutthroat competition and tallying the penalty times. A barbecued lunch of burgers, dogs and ribs was cooked and served up by Southeastern Forklift, one of the companies vying for the pleasure of selling 26 new forklifts and 48 batteries to Leigh Fibers. This catering coup was accomplished by none other than Organizer Extraordinaire, Lamar Nelson.

Scorekeepers, Course Managers and Contenders, Paul Middleton and Paul Hayes
The afternoon featured several competitors of the female persuasion, not one of whom had any previous experience on a forklift. Jennifer Lackey of HR blew away her competition (and vastly improved on her time of 2 years ago) with 15:35. Parris Hicks-Chernez was a speed demon on the course, but lost ground with her accumulated penalties (Several traffic cones lost their lives, or their shapes.)

Kathy Higaki of Marketing dressed for the occasion.
I could go on, but it’s time to fly home. This is especially frustrating because, so I am told by my sources, José Garcia, the last contestant to drive the course, is fast and efficicent and could upset all the current standings. So stay tuned.

Have I mentioned that the prizes are really great? (And donated, again, thanks to Lamar.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Forklift Rodeo

In Chile, they may be celebrating Saint Teresa de los Andes for her short and holy life, and of course fishermen across the world are surely tossing out a lure in honor of Saint Zeno who is their patron saint, but here at Leigh Fibers in Spartanburg South Carolina, we are attending the triennial Forklift Rodeo.

The Forklift Rodeo is the brainchild of Lamar Nelson, the Shipping Manager here at Leigh. Lamar is a man of myriad interests and skills. He is part Cherokee and has built a sweat lodge in his Spartanburg backyard. His collection of arrowheads is a valued resource source for historians of South Carolina.Just for starters.
As we watch the men and women of Leigh Fibers drive their forklifts though a slalom course of traffic cones topped with tennis balls, lift bales without disrupting the bucket of water on top and perform other feats of speed and dexterity, Lamar tells me how they have identified the largest Holly Tree in South Carolina (or is Spartanburg County?) in the nature trail in the woods across from Leigh’s plant, where he has also identified at least sixty native plants (so far) including two varieties of orchid.

Lamar believes that maintaining one’s forklift skills should be entertaining, both to the driver and the spectator.
Several years ago he came up with the plan for a Forklift Rodeo at Leigh, and researched similar events on the web. He had to modify the course for the squeeze clamp forklifts used here to pick up the 600 lb bales of recycled fiber materials.
The result is a day of thrills, camaraderie, and great prizes.

It’s a deceptively hard course. Unlike the robots used to perform brain surgery, the forklift is not an overly sensitive machine. Or it is far too sensitive. Choose your excuse.

The task at Station #1 is to lift up 2 bales with a bucket of water on top, and get those bales to the dock and then back to their original spot, exactly, without losing more than an inch of water from the bucket. Each lost inch adds 30 seconds to your time.

At Station #3 you must grab and clamp a bale with a barrel on top and a soccer ball on top of the barrel, and get this wedding cake from x to y without losing the ball. We watch with baited breath as the ball careens from side to side across the top of the barrel, dangerously close to bouncing over the rim and off into the penalty zone (10 seconds).

At Station #10, the task is to clamp a bale wearing twin clown hats: two traffic cones with tennis balls perched atop each one, then take this package through a tight squeeze of bales with water filled balloons on top and on to the finish line. Without breaking a water balloon or losing a tennis ball.

There are penalties for lost water, a dropped balloon, for knocking off the soccer ball or tennis balls, and for dropping the bale outside of the drop zone.

As of this afternoon Brian Hunter broke the six-minute barrier and vaulted to first place with 5:15; Otto Johnson is in second with 5:59. Cathy Alexander (with the grey mullet, seen above.) made good time but lost a lot on penalties.
Your faithful blogger, having been granted a temporary and very provisional forklift Learner’s Permit*, did the course in 28 minutes and 1 second, with excellent coaching and no water buckets.
Lest you think it is all fun out there on the forklift course, be assured it is not. There are also tee shirts with a Western motif, designed by Parris Chernez-Hicks, and food. In particular, three homemade sheet cakes. Managing Director Heidi emerged briefly from the conference room to oversee the activities, and insisted upon digging into the chocolate cake. Being a world-renowned connoisseur of chocolate, she deemed it excellent. But Dee Dees, who actually baked the cakes, was distressed that we did not also try the strawberry cake and the Heath Bar Crunch cake, her favorites. We did. And they were good.

Tomorrow promises to be equally exciting, with several top contenders slated to perform the course, including several of last year’s top five, as well as ringers, Parris and Jennifer Lackey.

*If you are with the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, I am only kidding.

Friday, April 9, 2010

It seems fitting that today is the feast day of Saint Waltrude, who lived in a convent in Mons back in the 7th century, as well as the anniversary of the French occupation of Mons, Belgium a thousand years later in 1691, following a nine-month siege that featured beehives hurled from the ramparts and pornographic mystery plays performed in secret.

Not that Waltrude did very much in Mons or anywhere else; but once a year on the feast known as Doudou or Ducasse her rather attractive reliquary is taken out of its cubby in the cathedral and paraded around the city of Mons in a gilded dray. (I have a mug and a plate commemorating this festival; my mother’s plate is nicer.)
Still, why do I care about Mons (and yes, I am well aware of its other meaning)?
Because my beloved Bonne Maman was born there more than 100 years ago.

And doubly fitting, because today is the 5th wedding anniversary of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Of course we don’t know if they celebrate this anniversary, or a more intimate one harking back to their first tryst but that is not my business, or yours.) Their wood anniversary. And one thing Bonne Maman was adamant about was the importance of TOUCHING WOOD. So much so that when we drove across the country together in the 70’s in her beige Buick, she kept a wooden pomegranate on the bench seat right between us so that at any appropriate moment in the conversation we could avoid jinxing our good luck or bringing upon us the wrath of the gods, by touching our handy wooden pomegranate. There were many such moments.
(I still travel with a wooden fruit. In honor of Cartagena I am calling it a lula these days, though you would probably say it looks like a tomato.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What is permissible? & Little Blue Book #556

I’ve seen a lot of human/canine interactions and many unexpected things on the aqueduct: fucking bunnies, a proposal (Marry Me Joel) a drug dealer’s pit bull, a porn star’s mother, a lost and possibly rabid skunk, a very short man with a metal detector, families not speaking to each other, terror and longing. But I have never before seen a butterfly net.
Today I saw a man with a net. And I couldn’t help myself. I asked him what it was for? I didn’t think it was necessarily for butterflies because it feels (to me) early for butterflies and also because I am under the impression that butterfly collecting has gone the way of stamp collecting (lamentable). Though in the case of butterflies, this is not because of email but because Science values experimental biology more than classification these days.
He said he was out to catch butterflies.
I said, Are there any this early?
And he said, Yes, the cabbage whites. [Pieris rapae; nonnative in North America, considered a pest on cabbages]
I stopped there.

I wanted to ask why he wanted to catch cabbage whites and what he planned to do with them, and if he had an existing collection of dead butterflies pinned to heavy pieces of paper and shedding their dusty flecks of color.
But I didn’t, unsure of what is permissible. How much is it permissible to ask a stranger questions that may or may not turn out to be personal?
I was troubled enough to consult Emily Post’s Blue Book of Social Usage and other volumes of Etiquette. As many of you know - and have had occasion to consult - I have several of these, including Miss Manners, Charlotte Ford, Manners for Millions & Society Small Talk , in the downstairs powder room.
Though happy to address such important issues as eating artichokes, afternoon tea, chaperons, chambermaids, forks (8 index entries), uniforms for servants, eating squab and jelly, Emily says nothing at all about nosy questions, or impertinent questions, or rude questions or when a perfectly reasonable question is nosy, rude or impertinent, and when it is not.
Which, frankly, is the kind of help I could use.

And I was wrong about it being early, at least it’s not early for Cabbage Whites, it is never early for Cabbage Whites.

And what am I to make of the hidden makeshift room about 20 yards from my short cut down from Draper park to the aqueduct. Someone, or some ones, have laid out a square floor, about 12’ x 12’ of interlocking green plastic, and on top of it at one end is a red molded plastic picnic table and seats, and on the opposite end are two tires placed symmetrically. In fact seen from above the tires could look like eyes and the red picnic table like a mouth (not smiling though, grim, serious) on a green face. No nose though.

Not that this has anything to do with a butterfly net on the aqueduct, but since I brought up etiquette, I would like to share a tidbit I just read in Hints on Etiquette (Little Blue Book #556) by Esther Floyd, who was a vegetarian but most avowedly not a naturist: “Without food we die. Without clothes we were better dead.”
She also has harsh words to say about “little finger crookers”.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

This is not a Joke

This is not a joke. We did not play an April Fools Joke on Ned this year. I feel terrible about this. In my vast experience I have never found a better person (victim?) upon whom to play April Fools Jokes. Ned’s perfection for this role derives from his uniquely charming combination of gullibility, innocence, and passionate attachments to all sorts of odd things, e.g. The Green Egg. I felt so badly about this that I apologized to his wife that circumstances beyond my control, as we like to call them, prevented me from moving forward with our plan to have Ned contacted by the Irish Golf Board. She assured Ned that he would not be fooled, at least not today.
But did he believe her? Or me?

I do have an excuse. Yesterday morning I was driving back from my chest x-ray mentally putting the finishing touches on my plot. Then I got home and learned, through her tears, that my niece’s* Slovakian boyfriend had just broken up with her via email. What a Bratislava shit. The focus of the day radically shifted from foolery to solace.

This was followed by more familial drama, which unusual discretion forces me to merely allude to but not explicate. Use your imagination, but I promise you won’t guess. (HINT: one drama involved a B&B, one of whose rooms features a “private prayer nook”.)
Plus there was way more plaster dust everywhere than I anticipated or even thought possible.
And you’re right if you think these are pathetic excuses. That is the nature of excuses.

*currently staying with us.