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!