Saturday, December 31, 2011

What can I say about the Christmas that is passed? (Just this one. Not all past.)
That I approached it with dread.
That for 24 days I opened the doors of the advent calendar with trepidation, dreading what would be revealed behind each snowy scene of family happiness: guilt, death, destroyed hopes, lost trust.
That it was the second Christmas without Jeff, the father of my children.
That it was the first Christmas since 2001 that did not require delicate negotiations over where the grown children would be for what celebrations.
That it was Iggy’s first Christmas and he discovered the bliss of a head massage while dressed as a candy cane.
That fake noses and fake teeth provided much needed amusement at Christmas dinner. There are few occasions that would not be enlivened by faux proboscii. Perhaps none.
That it did not snow and was in fact unseasonably warm for those of us not in Bethlehem, which is most of us. When it was 48˚ in Hastings it was 50˚ in Jerusalem. But it was not raining in Jerusalem.
That we received a moderate amount of bee-themed gifts and the ones we did receive were remarkably tasteful. The hands-down best was the bee bling-ring, which will soon be making appearances in select locations around the rivertowns.
Ditto chicken-themed gifts.
That CSB slash Santa chose exceptionally well with this year’s stocking gifts. The ergonomic salad dressing delivery system was my favorite. There was also an IOU for an ergonomic egg poacher.
That Leda discovered her vocation is to be an angel in the Christmas pageant, so long as she gets to wear that marvelous wide belt made of silver sequins.
That it is over.

The Hands of Hartford, and occasional other body parts

Monday, December 12, 2011

Waxing Rhapsodic re the Wood Chipper

What can I say about a wood chipper that hasn’t been said before?
They are quiet? I could say that but it would not be true.
Midday through our day of wood chipping I slipped out for a visit to our chiropractor where we discussed the merits of wood chipping, determining that the only thing that could improve the wood chipping experience would be if the machines were silent. That said, our chiropractor pointed out that for certain people (men, boys, half the human race?) one of the pleasures of heavy machinery is the noise factor. Think of ATV’s, motorcycles and anything with its muffler removed. We do wear earplugs when we employ the wood chipper, but they can only do so much and mostly what I cannot hear is anything CSB says to me, such as, Watch out for the huge branch coming your way.
The wood chipper we rented is made by Vermeer, a heavy machinery company named for the Flemish painter of exquisite – and quiet – luminous 17th century interiors. Even when he paints a music lesson, we feel certain that the notes played were soft and that no-one’s eardrums were assaulted.
And then there are the simple pleasures wood chipping: feeding the tree limbs into the hopper; pushing them towards the maw of the grinders (which are very similar to the molinos in a sugar mill, except they do not squeeze out sugar juice); watching the inexorable crushing and shredding of the woody pulp between the grinders; standing back to admire the arc of the finely chipped wood spew from the chute.
I will not mention CSB’s tired and aching limbs the following day.
A few facts to astound friends at your next party:
1. The wood chipper was invented in Germany in 1884 by Peter Jensen, who may or may not be related to the silversmith George Jensen who designed what I think are the loveliest cutlery patterns. Probably not, because Georg was Danish.
2. Between 1992 and 2005 there were 33 deaths by wood chipper in the USA. That statistic does not include the 2007 death of a Los Angeles man. As with the struggle of St Christina of Stommeln against the Devil, the details of death by wood chipper are “of so repulsive a nature that no particulars of it can be given here.”

And then there is the satisfaction of woods that look like woods and not a tornado zone.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Agreeable Men

I must be blessed with agreeable men. Sometimes. Well, two of them last week in Chicago in not dissimilar ways.
It was a chilly day in Chicago. Even CSB saw the wisdom of wearing a hat. But we had no hats. It was so raw and chilly that on our walk north from Number One Son’s residence, we ducked into a Walgreen’s and acquired two faux fur, faux wool, faux hats with faux ear flaps and dangling strings, presumably to tie the ear flaps under one’s chin, but in truth their only function is decorative & I use that word generously. They were not expensive but I feel confident that whatever we paid for them was larger than the cost of producing them by a factor of at least 50. Luckily there were no mirrors in that particular Walgreen’s, so we were spared the reflection of ourselves in these faux hats, which because of their rather special shape had room for a family of ferrets between the top of my head and the top of the hat. But they kept our heads and ears, all four of them, warm.
Having acquired the hats we comfortably admired several architectural wonders of Chicago, and walked past a newly opened museum: The Loyola U. Museum of Art, so new that it was not listed in my 4 year-old guidebook. And on the sandwich board outside the LUMA (nice acronym, doncha think?) was an announcement that their current exhibit featured crèches. Yes, an entire exhibit devoted to those adorable nativity scenes, of which I have several and CSB has seen more in our time together than he thought necessary for several lifetimes. Even so, he agreeably agreed to go inside. Noting the admission fee, he agreeably volunteered to sit in the lobby with the newspaper while I viewed the crèches. His thoughtfulness so impressed the ticket-seller that she said she would waive the admission fee for both of us, because she couldn’t bear the idea that he would be unable to accompany me to see the crèches. CSB demurred. But the ticket-seller would not be denied. She said she would not feel right if he could not accompany me to see the crèches just beyond the double doors, and he had not the heart to tell her just how much he would prefer to sit quietly n the lobby and read about the depravity of British tabloids.
But here is the good part, while I viewed the crèches and counted how many shepherds the Italian ones had relative to the Philippine ones, and noted the llamas in the Peruvian retable crèches made of potato flour, and admired the iguanas made of tortillas in the Mexican crèches, CSB went upstairs to the permanent collection of LUMA and found this lovely house altar containing the relic of a Saint Christina, but which Saint Christina?
The tag→ refers to Christina of Tyre and Christina of Bolsena, who were probably conflated in some way, given that they share a remarkable litany of tortures on their way to martyrdom: They both survived burning at the stake; having their breasts cut off (milk then flowed); having their tongues cut out (they kept preaching); and drowning (rescued by Michael the Archangel). The end came with an arrow through the heart. Could that all be coincidence? The third Christina referred to is of course Christina the Astonishing, a favorite with hipsters and now diagnosed as an epileptic. But there are other possibilities, such as Christina of Markgate (d.1160) who was forced into marriage but then refused to consummate the union; she later managed to fulfill her dream and became a nun and embroidered pointy hats for bishops.
And for this great find, I am grateful to CSB.
Next I will tell you of the agreeableness of Number One Son when we spent a full two hours touring the Clarke and Glessner Houses in the Prairie Historical District.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Yes I know smoking is bad for you, but it must be admitted that as a habit it engendered some rather clever and elegant accoutrements. Who would not like a pair of these gloves?

Monday, November 28, 2011

R.I.P. Bump

It seems like too classic a henhouse story. The fox swoops in and nabs the hen, then trots off gaily as the other hens cluck and squawk.
And we thought we had been so careful. Each evening around 4 pm we’ve put the dogs inside the house, in a room with no view of the backyard and henhouse, and then we’ve opened the gate so that all the chickens can roam free and pluck grubs and bugs from virgin grass and generally behave like animals in a farmyard. Then as it gets dark they head back to their cozy henhouse and gather for their nightcaps. We come in and count, and shut the door for the evening.
But not today. Around 4:30 I heard a squawking of a different tenor. It was agitated, staccato, and distressed. I dashed out the door and directly in front of me, just as perfect as an illustration from Aesop’s*, was a gorgeous red fox with Bump between his foxy jaws. Of all the chickens, why did it have to be poor Bump? She was our very first hatchling from the exotic eggs Anne Farrell gave us. We didn’t know what we were getting. She could have been anything and she was a Crevecoeur, all black and with a perfect Mohawk/Fro. She was the matriarch of them all.
And now, fox fodder.
Meanwhile all the chickens are back in the henhouse and we have counted them countless times to assure ourselves that it was only Bump we lost. Have you ever tried counting agitated chickens? It is challenging, but on the other hand I am glad that in my life I have on several occasions counted chickens, and I actually think I am getting better at it.
This is what the fox looked like:

And this was Bump last fall, in her youth:
*As far as I recall, in Aesop's Fables you will find a fox and grapes, a fox and a crow, and a fox with a hedgehog, but nothing about a fox trotting off with a hen between his jaws. Why is this? My guess: there is no moral to the tale.

Monday, November 14, 2011

On feral artichokes

It has come to my attention that in 1832, when Darwin visited Argentina and Uruguay, he found hundreds of square miles of pampas overrun with feral artichokes. And he lamented this fact - pointing out that the feral artichoke precluded anything else from growing, say feral clover, or feral dahlias, or feral lavender.
Unlike our garden in Hastings.
A couple of years ago CSB noted that Jefferson had artichokes in his garden. In Virginia, 315 miles southwest of here. Not to mention an altogether different growing zone.
CSB loves artichokes and his father was a Virginian, two very good reasons for us to grow them here. He acquired heirloom Jeffersonian seeds and planted them. We got leaves but no artichokes. The next year he did some research, found seeds for northern artichokes and started them in February in a cold frame constructed with glass doors salvaged from a historic home that was being demolished in order to built a Pilates studio. The seedlings grew. In late spring he planted all fifty seedlings in our garden, in various places in the garden. He planted seedlings in several urns. They grew. V e r y s l o w l y. We harvested eleven artichokes this past summer. We savored them. We admired swaths of artichoke foliage with no fruit.
Darwin does not say if he ever ate any feral artichokes. How does a feral artichoke differ from a cultivated artichoke? Are its leaves sharper and pointier? Does its heart beat more savagely?

Today we celebrate the feast of Bd John Liccio. (1400-1511). After his mother died in childbirth his father fed the infant crushed pomegranate arils. Pomegranates are another plant not native to the Americas; they came from Persia and spread to the Mediterranean early enough to be an integral part of the Persephone myth; they were introduced to South America by Spanish settlers in the 18th century. I have yet to hear anything about feral pomegranates. As for John Liccio, the busybody neighbor objected to this diet for an infant. But John’s father persisted, and the saint went on to have a very long life full of miracles, such as curing people whose heads were crushed, and causing paralysis in the hand of a would-be thief. He lived for 111 years.
If the next time you see Cherished & Superlative-in-all-Ways Grandson and note how pink his cherubic infant lips are, perhaps that will be a result of pomegranate juice.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A dialectic

This is what I found in the used copy of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy: a page torn from Bon Appetit with the recipes for two fruit smoothies. What can these simple instructions (Combine fruits; blend; serve) tell us about the dialectic of the Apollonian and the Dionysian? One smoothie combines berries (Black & blue) best grown in northern and temperate regions, while the other is a medley of tropical fruits: mango, pineapple and banana. Was the former reader/owner of this book thinking that, like the perfect Attic drama, the best smoothie would involve a flavored counterpoint between the warmth of the tropics and the chilly nights of the north? Or did the reader think that a diet with more fresh fruit might have kept poor Nietzsche from going mad on a street in Turin? (as far as I know he had tertiary syphilis, not scurvy, but fresh fruit can cure a myriad of ills.)

Yesterday was 11.11.11. Twice yesterday the time read 11.11. That is all I can tell you about that.
But I can tell you that it was the feast of St Theodore the Studite,a 9th century abbot who was significantly saner than many of his monastic confreres. He told his hermits: "Don't cultivate a self-satisfied austerity. Eat bread, drink wine occasionally, wear shoes, especially in winter, and take meat when you need it." Excellent advice in any century. Yet this admirable man had many run-ins with authority, both secular and religious. His iconoclastic bishop sent an officer to cut off Theodore's head, or at least cut out his tongue. But Theodore got a reprieve when Michael the Stammerer took over as Emperor. Theodore then wrote him a thank-you letter.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Beeing bees

So Sunday being a beautiful autumnal day and not snowing, and it being the putative day of rest, and also being the feast of the remarkable and remarkably weird Blessed Christina of Stommeln*, CSB and I went to Wave Hill to see Hive Culture.
To be honest, CSB did not initially see the point of going to an art exhibit about bees when we have so many bees right here. He softened a little when faced with this lovely bee wallpaper, not that he gave much thought to actually wallpapering the powder room with it (my idea). **
Nor did he think flowers sculpted from beeswax were the best use of beeswax, but I thought they were lovely in a cloying Victorian kind of way.

But our favorite by far was a video of a young woman dressed in a white sheath uncannily like a straitjacket who turns herself as a bee. This transformation includes spitting into an array of hexagonal jars while flapping her arms, and wending her way through a maze-like pattern of piled up fleece balls (pollen), moving them from pile to pile. It is true that I have, by popular demand, been known to perform the waggle dance, but this young woman took the concept and ran with it.
Why didn’t I think of this?

*Christina (1242-1312) lived in a village near Cologne in the 14th century. Clearly she was precocious, or something. At the age of 10 she announced that she was engaged to Jesus, and then she ran away to the convent where she experienced many hallucinations, including Satan disguised at St Bartholomew urging her to commit suicide. In her twenties she became friendly with a Dominican called Father Peter, and he was lucky enough to witness her being tossed around the room, pierced and stabbed, all by an invisible satanic presence. It is thanks to his excellent note-taking that we know the gruesome details of Christina’s holiness; Butler’s Live of the Saints is more squeamish: “But the manifestation of which Father Peter gives the most careful and detailed account was of so repulsive a nature that no particulars can of it can be given here.” Since Butler does feel comfortable relating how Christina found herself buried in a mud pit on one occasion and had hot stones attached to her body by Satan on another, I am afraid that for someone like me to read something like that is an invitation to imagine all sorts of kinky and disgusting torments.

**(Bee Wallpaper by Rob Keller, 2007) It wasn't until I got home and really stared at the bee wallpaper on the brochure that I realized what felt uncanny about it: my late, ex-husband, the late-lamented Jeff,being obsessive about many things, went through a period of obsessively digitally multiplying photographic images to produce patterns similar to this bee wallpaper. Being vociferously anti-Catholic, one of his stranger images featured a stained glass Jesus Christ kaleidoscopically repeated. It was very colorful.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

There are many good reasons to go to your local library’s book sale, such as supporting a good cause and taking note of how many copies of the Da Vinci Code have been discarded by your fellow citizens. I stopped counting at 18.

Here is another: find out what you have in common with John Steinbeck. But first, I must tell you that I thought I had read or was at least cognizant of all the books of Steinbeck. I was wrong. I had never heard of or read The Short Reign of Pippin IV, and there it was for $1 at the book sale.
So here it is: not only have both John Steinbeck and yours truly engaged in the most amusing pastime of inventing necessary saints, but we both invented female saints who would be sacred to manicurists. (See SQD of April 1 – St Digitassa of Phalangeville)
In The Short Reign of Pippin IV we make the acquaintance of St Hannah, patron saint of feet. She founded an order of nuns “dedicated to silence, black bread and pedicures for the poor.”
Don’t laugh too hard – I think we could really use this saint. Has anyone seen CSB’s toes lately?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I was taking the shortcut through the Grace Church glebe, and decided to see if there was a signature or plaque to tell me who was David's sculptor. There was not.

This is what I saw on the back side (backside) of David.

Friday, October 21, 2011

If you are having a bad day, say your pet tiger just escaped and was shot by the local sheriff, or your basement flooded and the 100 pounds of Jasmine rice that you were saving for a rainy day cooked itself and expanded so much that it burst though the walls of your closet and oozed all over the basement and now every mouse in the county has moved in, or perhaps it is the sixtieth birthday of your ex-husband, or it would have been his 60th, had he lived, and you are miserable and overwhelmed by sadness and intimations of mortality, well there is only one thing I can suggest to alleviate the problem: reorganize out your medicine cabinet.
Perhaps this is not the first thing that occurred to you.
But I can vouch for its efficacy.
I found it impossible to weep while I figuring out the difference between witch hazel and hydrogen peroxide, and then memorizing their many hitherto-unknown-to-me uses, such as: Hydrogen peroxide for whitening animal bones, removing fresh blood stains, controlling fish fungus, and removing skunk odor.
Witch hazel for pimples, hemorrhoids & after shave.
And in order to count how many packages of dental floss (more than 8, all freebies from the dentist) you have, you must concentrate and that means you are not obsessing about birthday presents you might have given your ex-husband when he was not your ex, and alive. It is impossible to simultaneously calculate the total length of dental floss and regret that you never found him a first edition of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
[Since reading the expiration dates of all the OTC medications is sure to remind you of mortality, I would not recommend that route.]
Instead, organize all your tubes and bottles of sunscreen and arrange them in ascending order of SPF strength (Bain de Soleil 8 to Neutrogena 70).
And if the above is not enough distraction from your misery, you can tackle the mystery of why you have so many tubes of Neosporin (Original and Maximum Strength), Bacitracin, Hydrocortisone cream and Benadryl anti-itch cream.
And please, let me know what you figure out.
As a last resort: paint the inside of the medicine cabinet bright blue or green.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Travel tips for NOLA

It is true that I have been to Axum and Kerala, Tierra del Fuego and Caratunk, but never before had I been to New Orleans. And now I am in love.
An abbreviated list of the things to love about New Orleans:
• Street names in French and Spanish
• Wooden shutters and balconies
• Beignets, which are basically fried dough covered with sugar but since the word is French they have NO calories. Don’t ask me how this is possible.
• Oysters
Abbreviated list of what to avoid:
• Mimes

While my sister was busy studying how to alleviate the rising of the waters and the sinking of the city, I wandered the French Quarter and discovered the home of Frances Parkinson Keyes, a writer I had never even heard of. But now I am one of her fans, or I will be as soon as I read her biography of Saints Rose of Lima and Mariana of Quito.
Prior to being the home of the prolific Mrs. Keyes, it was the home of Paul Morphy the chess prodigy, and before that, the home of Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, civil war general and engineer of whom I shall write more later.
Frances Parkinson was born in Virginia in 1885. As a girl she went to Miss Windsor’s School in Boston. (Much later, Windsor - having dropped the ‘Miss’ - was an athletic rival of MAGUS, that is, Milton Academy Girls Upper School. I did not participate in any of those athletics as they all involved hurling balls, and some of them even involved sticks. ) Later Frances married Henry Keyes, who would go on to be the Governor of New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”) and a U.S. Senator. Then he died in 1938.
So in 1950 Mrs. Keyes moved to New Orleans and bought a derelict old house across the street from the Ursuline Convent. Already a successful writer, Mrs. Keyes had to crank up her production to earn the kind of money needed to restore the historic house, and collect her porcelain veilleuses and dolls. A veilleuse is a very small teapot kept warm by resting atop a porcelain stand containing a votive candle, and in my humble opinion is rendered quite useless by the very small size of the teapot. Utility, however, is doubtless not the point of such a collection. Among her many veilleuses, Mrs. Keyes had examples in the shape of classical buildings, Persian dancers, a city in flames, and Joan of Arc. The tour guide told us,sadly, that this collection was not the largest in the US. That honor belongs to the collection of Dr. Frederick Freed in Trenton, Tennessee (“A tea-rrific place to live!”). Certainly Mrs. Keyes had the largest collection I have ever seen of dolls dressed as nuns; there were very many, in various habits, with some quite spectacular wimples. I am sorry photography was forbidden.
Meanwhile, my sister was discussing environmental justice in the 9th Ward.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The winner of The Ladies Hatchet Competition.(I couldn't type with those nails, never mind wield a hatchet. I am in awe.)
From the Morning Sentinel, Somerset County, Maine.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Walking the Wallace S. Walk

Wallace Stevens may not be the most widely read poet in America, but he is probably the most-widely read poet from Hartford who was also the Vice-President of a major insurance company and also has a walk through Asylum Hill in his honor. And because of that singular distinction, two dear friends and I gathered at The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company* Parking Lot last week to walk the Wallace Stevens Walk. Each of the thirteen stops along the way is marked by a stone inscribed with one of the thirteen inscrutable verses of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. As we walked we parsed one friend’s protracted divorce proceedings, focusing (of course) on the bizarre, and delusional behavior of her soon-to-be–ex-husband.
Our second stop (“ I was of three minds, /Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.”) was in front of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church and their Thrift Shop was open. This is very handy if you want to thriftily acquire items you don’t need. We went inside and B found a blue tea tin for 10¢ while M-A and I ate the free tootsie rolls on the counter.
The fifth stanza (“I do not know which to prefer/The beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes/The blackbird whistling/Or just after.”) was engraved in a stone directly in front of the St. Francis Hospital, the birthplace of M-A. I do believe she preferred inflections.
Stuck in the ground right next to the ninth stanza (“When the blackbird flew out of sight/ It marked the edge/ Of one of many circles.”) was a bright yellow sign alerting us that PESTICIDES had just been applied. The record is eerily silent about Wallace Stevens’ opinions about pesticide use and GMO’s.
And here we are in front of Wallace Stevens’ (former) house, enjoying the suburban susurrus of blasting leaf-blowers while reading the thirteenth stanza (“It was evening all afternoon/It was snowing/ And it was going to snow./ The blackbird sat/ In the cedar-limbs.”)

*You may be pleased to know that both Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln had homeowners’ insurance with The Hartford. I find that reassuring. Re-insuring.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What St Francis and the animals don't mind

The whole point of a temporary tattoo is that it is temporary. That would make sense to me. But it is not that simple. Temporary tattoos are temporary if you happen to have make-up remover in the house. If you do not, and you are unwilling to scrub your granddaughter’s arm with a pumice stone or an SOS pad, then you must consider the tattoos as temporarily permanent.

It was the feast of St. Francis, and I thought it would be a good idea to remove beloved granddaughter’s faux tattoos before we went to church for The Blessing of the Animals. Which probably shows you how shallow I am. Would God or the rector mind that a five-year-old is sporting faux tattoos? Not at all. Nor should they. Would St Francis or the animals? Ditto.
But I really wanted those tattoos off her soft little arm. Perhaps now is not the time to explore my feelings about tattoos, almost entirely a result of my daughter’s tattoos, each and every one of which I consider to be far less beautiful than the skin it currently mars. Maybe all mothers think this is the case, but in my case it is an absolute fact, that my daughter had and has the most beautiful pale and soft skin imaginable. What is not imaginable – to me – is why she would willingly allow herself to be pricked, dyed and scarified by some random tattoo “artist” who may be suffering from any number of infectious diseases and is surely suffering from a good-taste-deficiency. No, it does not matter to me in the least if her tattoos are ‘interesting’ or ‘tasteful’ (the alphabet in Czech modernist font?). What matters to me is her skin. No matter how much I love Moby Dick, the fact that Queequeg was covered with tattoos does not strike me as a good reason for my child to get a tattoo. She is not a South Sea Island whaler, nor is she a cannibal.

I thought I was not going to rant about tattoos. And lest anyone get the idea that I an prejudiced or narrow-minded, you should know that last week CSB and I went to the opening of Tattoo Flash at the very cool Lift Truck Project in Croton Falls. To be honest, I went because it was curated by my friend the poet Pam Hart and not because of an intrinsic fascination with the subject, because I do not have such an intrinsic fascination. But I discovered the wonderful stories of the early tattooists and their close connection to seaports and circuses. Of the tattoo flashes, I especially liked the buxom dames with Indian headdresses.
There were no wolves at our little church’s Blessing of the Animals, but we did have 1 rabbit in a hamper, 2 gerbils, at least 4 hermit crabs, a white cockatoo, a green and yellow parakeet (or parrot, I can’t tell the difference), 1 live cat, 2 photographs of cats too fearful to come out and play with all the dogs, and many dogs of all sizes and ilks, including one of ours. Bruno had to absorb the blessing for his rowdier sister in absentia. There were also about 12 honeybees, in a small jar in my pocket, and they too had to stand in for their thousands of sisters. Cherished granddaughter held the cockatoo’s cage for much of the service.
Should I tell her that on most Sundays there are not so many animals at church?

The new chickens (born April 22nd to be exact)are starting to lay, and notice how much smaller their eggs are. The Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons are laying brown,buff and mottled white eggs, while the Araucanas are laying sky blue eggs. Numero Uno granddaughter continues to expect a green yolk inside a blue egg. One day I hope to oblige.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Travel notes

PHILADELPHIA is where best-beloved daughter and Michael Brownstein recently celebrated their marriage, which in fact occurred one year ago, but they have their own version of chronology.

Philadelphia is where my ophidiophobic* sister and I were strolling beside the river when we saw a pudgy man striding along with a fat yellowish snake, about 8 feet long, wrapped around his waist and draped over his shoulder. He would periodically stop, look around to see who was watching, and then stroke his snake, call her a “lovely girl” and a “pretty missy” and then kiss her on the lips. Or the mouth. I don’t actually know if snakes have lips. My poor sister ran ahead in a state of profound misery. Instead of following to hold her hand, as a good sister would have done, I stayed behind to learn that the snake in question was an albino reticulated python, and that she had a very mellow temperament. I asked how one could discern a snake’s temperament. Her pudgy keeper told me that she liked to sit on the couch and watch reality television with him. As if that proved his point. I would like to say for the record that kissing your snake in public is not a good idea.

This is what an albino reticulated python looks like when she is not being kissed.

Philadelphia is also home to the Hyrtl Skull Collection, in the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians. The collection was amassed by Joseph Hyrtl. He was born in 1810 in Austria, where his father played the oboe in Count Esterhazy’s band. In university Hyrtl studied the osseous systems of fish and later collected over 800 fish skeletons. He also collected organs of hearing. But it is The Skulls for which he is best remembered. There are 139 skulls, mostly from Central and Eastern Europeans. And each one has a hand-written placard giving the nationality, the name, age, religion if known, occupation, means of death, and a description of any skeletal anomaly. In his collection there are 16 suicides and 11 executions. Here is a small sample of his captions:

Szigeth (Hungary or Romania)
Geza Uirenyi, 81; Reformist, herdsman. At age 70 attempted suicide by cutting his throat. Wound not fatal because of ossified larynx; laryngeal fistula remained. Lived until 80 without melancholy.

Araschtan Gottlieb, 19
Suicide by potassium cyanide because of suspected unfaithfulness of his mistress.

Magyar (Hungarian)
Jaska Soltesz, age 28
Reformist, soldier. Died of pneumonia.
Everted Gonial angles (bilateral); dental caries, potential abscessing.

Magyar (Hungary) from Transylvania
Ladislau Pal
Reformist, guerilla and deserter
Executed by hanging, 1861.
Bilateral flare of gonial angles.

North Hungary
Julius Farkas, 28
Protestant, soldier
Suicide by gunshot wound to the heart because of weariness of life.
Depressed nasal root.

*this is not the only thing she has in common with Indiana Jones.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Notes from the Animal Kingdom

In 3289 BCE, more or less, Ötzi was hunting in the Italian Alps when he was shot in the back with an arrow. He died immediately of hemorrhagic shock. Soon after his body froze and mummified naturally, and stayed that way for more than 5000 years until hikers found Iceman in 1991.
But only recently have x-rays of his stomach shown us that his last meal consisted of wild goat, or Ibex, an animal well known to crossword puzzlers and also to Copper Age mountain dwellers.

In 1539 CE Hernando de Soto arrived in Florida with 600 Spanish soldiers, 200 horses and 300 pigs. It was not de Soto’s first voyage to the New World. In 1514 Hernando sailed west with Pedrarias Dávila, the governor of Panama. De Soto was 18 years old. Dávila was 74 and did not expect to die in his homeland; so he brought with him an iron coffin. He did indeed die in León, Nicaragua (later a Sandinista stronghold) but the coffin’s whereabouts have remained a mystery all these years.
While the diseases (smallpox, typhus, measles, and more) the Spaniards carried wiped out vast numbers of the natives; it was the swine, their ambulatory meat locker, that destroyed much of the lush landscape and became the progenitors of the razorback hogs now so beloved of -- actually I have no idea if razorbacks are beloved by anyone at all. But they have given their name to several sports teams. Don’t ask me which ones.
It is entirely possible that one of Hamlette’s distant ancestors came to the New World with Hernando de Soto.

In the 20th century Chrysler produced a line of De Soto vehicles, each one surmounted by a stylized bust of a helmeted conquistador. Some of the De Soto’s of the 1950’s were the Firedome, the Fireflite and the Firesweep.

As I write these words there are eight stinkbugs perched on the outside of the window screen. Periodically I flick the screen with my finger and they bounce off and fly away, but soon they will return. Halyomorpha halys or the brown marmorated stink bud is native to the Far East. It was accidentally ‘introduced’ (nice euphemism there) into the US in 1998 and since then has been wending its way through the orchards and gardens of Pennsylvania up to New York. In case you care to check, the stink glands can be found under the thorax, between the first and second pair of legs. I read somewhere that the stink of the stinkbug resembles “the pungent odor of cilantro”; I have to assume that aspersion was written by someone who does not like cilantro, and would probably loathe my guacamole.

Three fat Rhode Island Reds are lined up on the ridgeline of the A-frame CSB built in their yard. It is either remarkable or completely obvious how chickens like to stand on bars and peaked things.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Tale of Two Irenes

So how did Irene-the-downgraded-hurricane measure up against her saintly namesake? While Tropical Storm Irene may have done significant damage up and down the coast, and flooded towns far away from the coast, and washed away wooden bridges, will she be remembered in 2000 years?

In the year 3372 (2011 + 1361, the number of years after the martyrdom of St Sebastian that George de la Tour painted his St Irene) will a tenebrist artist paint T.S. Irene by candlelight – as she surely was experienced by many – as Georges de la Tour painted Saint Irene tending the wounds of St Sebastian?
If you know of St Sebastian at all, you probably think of him as the naked young man with six-pack abs and a come-hither look, loosely tied to a tree and pierced with arrows. Sebastian had the misfortune to be Christian in the era of Diocletian, the 3rd century emperor who considered a day ill-spent if it did not include a nubile young Christian being eaten alive by wild beasts, or boiled in oil, or nailed upside down. If you know of St Sebastian at all, you probably assume he expired as a result of all those arrows piercing his handsome body.
But you would be wrong. Hearing of his torments, Irene, the widow of St Castulus (stretched on the rack, buried alive), went to bury Sebastian’s punctured body. But he was not dead. So she took him home with her, nursed him, tended his wounds with raw honey, and he recovered nicely. Still, Sebastian refused to stay out of trouble, and when he next saw Diocletian he repeated his creed. This time Diocletian ordered that poor Sebastian be cudgeled and then tossed into the sewer. He did not survive.

All the Irenic drama (yes, something of a paradox) chez Let it Bee Farm happened on the front end. We battened the hatches, the eternal hatches. We closed the Palladian windows that grace the hen house and fluffed up the nesting boxes. We encouraged (the late) Hamlette to stay inside her comfy quarters and not venture out to be bonked by a falling tree, and she complied. We picked all the sunflowers, anticipating that they would be flattened by the 80 mph winds. Now a fine layer of vivid yellow pollen coats every surface in the house; I’ve been wiping it up and eating it with my morning cereal and on my peanut butter sandwiches. We gathered bushels of tomatoes, and then we had to figure out what to do with that many tomatoes. (Guess.)
Then the winds fizzled out before they got here. The Saw Mill Parkway flooded, but the Saw Mill Parkway always floods– living proof of the merits of building a road alongside a river. We could have left the sunflowers standing.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Tragi-Comedy of Hamlette

Just how ignorantly, blithely, and naively did we embark on this pig adventure?

Here is the fact of it: CSB has always wanted a pig. Did I know this when we first dated? No, I did not. Would it have dissuaded me from continuing the romance? I like to think I am not so shallow; but I might have been daunted. The kind of pig he always wanted was not a small pink frolicking thing, or a pet pig of the pot-belly variety. He wanted a large pig, a farm pig. He wanted many of them. A herd of pigs. A pantheon of pigs.
As a young man he worked on Ruth Sharp’s farm, Cantitoe Corner, in Bedford, under the tutelage of her foreman Will Perry who was wont to exhort his underlings with this classic phrase*: “What’s time to the hogs?” CSB took the words to heart and has made the expression his own.

*Is this in fact a classic phrase? I have never heard it before, and when I try to use it to effect I am generally met with cookie sheet expressions, or mockery. And what does it mean anyway? Only CSB truly knows.

Then he thought it would be a great idea to have a pig roast for our 60th birthdays. Yes, that old.
So, with the help & advice of Annie Farrell we bought a piglet from Millstone Farm in Connecticut. We went up there one afternoon with a dog crate, bought the little piglet weighing about 30 lbs, and drove her home in the back of the car. Ethan, the pig farmer suggested that, since we planned to ultimately eat her, it would be a bad idea to give her a name. Of course that was not going to happen.
Initially, CSB called her Let’s Eat, but I called her Hamlette, and perhaps it has been that dialectic of nomenclature that has led her to the great existential questions. Or perhaps it is in the nature of all Hamlets to question existence.
We installed her in the pigpen CSB made – a nicely shaded outdoor area about 30 x 40, surrounded by a white picket fence and with a little house for shelter and privacy. She gamboled and rooted and oinked in classic porcine fashion. I had assumed she would eat anything and everything she was fed, that being the nature of a pig. I was wrong. Hamlette, it turned out, was a fussy eater. CSB of course gave her organic pig feed, and choice pickings from the garden. She prefers beet greens above all else. Soon the pigpen was living up to its name. When it rained, the sty became a living room entirely of mud, and also, whenever it rained, the manure smell became quite overwhelming. It could not be confused with ammoniac perfume of chicken poop. (And by the way, we frequently cleaned out the manure. But it kept coming.)

Meanwhile, Hamlette grew and grew.

Did we know anything of pig breeds? No.
Did we know of the proper age at which to slaughter a pig for a pig roast? No.
Did we know the correct age to slaughter a pig for anything at all? No.
Did we know how we were going to slaughter the pig? No.
Did we have any idea how to transport the pig to a slaughterhouse? None whatsoever.

And then – suddenly so it seemed - Hamlette was huge, too huge to roast, and we had to find a decent slaughterhouse for her. A humane slaughterhouse. I wanted to fly in Temple Grandin for the task, but she was busy.
CSB did some research and found an FDA-approved slaughterer (And very nice person) in Connecticut, and made Hamlette an appointment with her maker for the last day of August. Then arose the question of how Hamlette would get to the abattoir.
CSB toyed with the idea of asking his sister if one of her Bedford friends had a horse trailer we could borrow, but then decided against it. I thought it was a good plan. But no.
Then he rented a small closed U-haul trailer. He spoke with the man at the slaughterhouse, who said we were insane to think of bringing Hamlette that far in a closed trailer: she would pant, overheat and be DOA. And then we would have a dead pig but NO ham or bacon, because a dead pig cannot be slaughtered, not least because she is already dead.

So Chucker cancelled the U-Haul rental and cancelled the slaughter appointment. The next plan was to build a crate for Hamlette and put that on an open trailer. He remembered that Ned has a trailer and thought that would be a good thing because then he could bring Ned’s trailer over here right away, and build the crate on top of it.
But Ned’s trailer has Quebec license plates, no brake lights, no turn signals, and no lights at all. So we decided against Ned’s trailer.
But the fact of the Quebec plates made us start to worry about crossing state lines. Is it legal to cross state lines with a live pig for the purposes of slaughter? For any purpose? I have no idea. Should it be? Should it be more or less legal than crossing state lines with a minor for the purposes of sexual acts?
Apparently that is illegal.
So Chucker will have to build a subtle crate, a crate that does not have stenciled on it: LIVE PIG WITH NOT LONG TO LIVE. But also a crate with air holes, a comfortable crate Hamlette can travel in without undue stress.
He will build this crate inside her pigpen and start feeding her inside it so she gets comfy, and then we will lure her into it with food.
But how will we then get the crate (which itself won’t exactly be made of balsa wood) filled with a 300 lb pig onto the rented trailer?
With great effort.
CSB built the crate – quite a nice crate – and lined it with fresh wood shavings and made a gap in the fence around the pigpen, and situated the crate right there.
And then without any suggestion from us, Hamlette sauntered in. She likes it in there? All day long we have watched her go happily in and out of the crate that will transport her to the abattoir.
By the time this is over I may well be a vegetarian.
Then CSB went to pick up the rented trailer and drove all over the lawn to bring the trailer to the crate. The trailer has a ramp and we are thinking that we will coat the ramp with Vaseline and push the crate bearing Hamlette up the ramp and onto the trailer.

There is an element of the unknown about how well this process will work, not least because we really don’t know how much Hamlette weighs. In her piglet-hood CSB would pick her up to gauge her weight, as compared to the bale of peat moss. Obviously, the results would not pass FDA muster. She has long since gone past the weight and size to be hoisted, even by CSB. So we are placing bets on what she will prove to weigh once she arrives in Connecticut:
CSB came in the lowest at 225 lbs.
Honorable son bet 300 lbs.
I bet 310 lbs. Big.
Steve (who grew up on a farm in Iowa; probably has a clue) bet 280 lbs.
Mim, (who has a dramatic flair) bet the highest with 350 lbs.
Oscar (who grew up in EL Salvador) bet 250 lbs.

Well, the deed was done. After a sleepless night, CSB was out there this morning. He was a bundle of nerves. Hamlette, however, needed no coaxing to get into her comfy crate lined with wood shavings, with a stylish water bucket installed in the corner. In she went, as if she had known all along this is where it was all headed. CSB flipped up the door, and sealed up the crate. Then we pushed. And pulled. With Oscar’s help and a minimum of cursing (in deference to Hamlette’s sense of propriety) we pushed and pulled the crate onto the trailer, tied it down with ropes, just in case CSB encountered a tornado en route.

CSB just called in from Connecticut. They arrived safely. He sped past the state border weigh stations. (Actually, I have no idea.) Hamlette is fine. She is now in a bucolic pen. The butcher said that he no longer tells customers the weight of the standing pig because once a lady accused him of cheating her when her packages of pork came to less than the standing weight. Then, on seeing our documented bets, he relented and assessed Hamlette’s avoirdupois as around 250 lbs. Several of us (Honorable son, Mim and myself, specifically) were very wrong.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Knees and Multiple spellings

As they wheeled her into the operating room where she would have her old decrepit knee removed and a shiny new knee inserted, my mother predicted that Qaddafi (the world leader whose name can be spelled at least 112 different ways, all of them wrong) would be ousted when she woke up from the anesthesia.
Who knew my mother was Cassandra?
A few hours I saw my mother in the PACU (have I mentioned how much I enjoy the hospital acronyms: NICU, SICU, PACU, MICU, FUCU and so on?) formerly known as the Recovery Room and told her that she had nailed this turn of events. (Knowing that she was unlikely to check on the actual facts, I fudged it a bit. Yes, the rebels were in Tripoli, but Qaddafi’s whereabouts were unknown and he had not quite gracefully ceded power.) This news triggered some fond childhood memories.
“Benghazi used to be a popular weekend spot,” she said, referring to happy pre-war days in Egypt. “The best nightclubs were there.”
“So did you go to Libya?” I asked.
“No, my father didn’t like the Libyans. He preferred the Ethiopians, and the Sudanese. He always went in that direction.” Then she fell asleep.

Several hours later found us in her room up on the fourth floor of the hospital, a floor lamentably without any CU’s at all. Her nurse – the charming Mike who wears different colored, but always matching, scrubs every day – asked Mom about any previous surgeries. She mentioned her appendectomy in a Manila hotel room without anesthesia.
I couldn’t help a slight correction: the appendix was already gone - it was somewhere in Indo-China then being overrun by the Japanese - and the surgery referred to was to clean out an infected incision. “They put a cork in my mouth,” Mom added with some pleasure.

The next morning we had the first visit of Brigitte, the occupational therapist. She introduced herself as Bridget, but her nametag was spelled “Brigitte”. My mother explained that her other daughter (my sister) was also named Brigitte, but she pronounced it properly, the French way. She then informed Brigitte that there are 32 different ways to spell Brigitte. I did not add that this barely comes to a quarter of the ways there are to spell the name of the former Leader-for-Life of Libya.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

In case you have forgotten what I wrote here a few years ago, today is the feast of St Mamas of Cyprus, the patron saint of tax evaders. It is also the feast of Claire of Montelfalco (no, not the Clare of Assisi who is the patron saint of television) who was so tough on herself that if she broke her vow of silence she insisted on standing barefoot in the snow while saying Lord’s Prayer 100 times. I used to find this sort of story horrific and not a little creepy. But as I get older I appreciate the value of repetition as a mantra; and just last week I heard about a sixty year old women who, in order to prepare herself for a swim across the English Channel, sat in extremely cold water for a longer and longer period each day.
After Claire died – and was presumably autopsied – it was discovered there was an image of the cross formed upon her heart. I have not seen a picture, so I cannot verify this. Also, vials of her collected blood are said to liquefy each year on her feast day, which is today. I cannot verify this either, but I cannot deny that I would like – just once – to see one of these miracles of liquefied blood.

Today is also the feast of St Hyacinth, a Polish Dominican monk who traveled a great deal; but otherwise nothing you hear about him is likely to be true, at least “of little historical value”.
Here he is getting the word from the BVM that he should carry away her statue, weighing several hundred pounds, to save it from the Vandals or Goths or perhaps the Mongols. And he did.

On the Home Front, the boiler exploded last night. There is about 3 inches of water in the boiler room. I am currently ignoring it. Later I thought I would stand in the puddle and dry my hair.

Then the oven started leaking this dark sticky stuff; I think it is tomato slime since I had about 300 grape tomatoes drying in there all night long. It is amazing how tomatoes shrink overnight.

We are trying to figure out if chickens like peaches. Our peach tree has dropped a bunch of bruised peaches and I thought I would give them to the chickens; I knew they would like the bugs inside even if they scorned the fruit. But they seem to be enjoying the fruit as well.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Babyitting notes

It is 90˚ at 8 pm in August and I am reading How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Leda in bed. Even though it is 90˚ in August she is wearing her new lavender flannel pajamas. We both love Cindy Lou Who.
In another room, CSB is watching the HoH Zoning Board meeting on the local cable access TV channel with Ignacio resting upon his chest. They are both perilously close to sleep, which is a better response to the smug speechifying (think CSPAN coverage of the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justices) of the zoning board than would be my response, which tends toward mouth frothing.(Lest you think I do not hold grudges, think again: in the matter of the barn-that-is-not, I most certainly do.) Hence CSB's delight to have someone – a 4 month old infant – willing to watching WHOH with him, because I am not.

Friday, August 12, 2011

CSB is generally considered a good-natured and equable soul, with one exception: all equanimity flees when he finds himself a passenger in a car stopped at a red light that one might have driven through, had one sped up in proper time. Hence, when I am driving, his mantra at the approach of every light, regardless of its color, is “try to make that light.” Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I cannot manage to get worked up about it.

So in the interest of family harmony and CSB’s blood pressure, when we go into NYC and especially if time is a factor, he drives. And I take Bonine. That way he goes as fast as he wants and if he misses a light I say nothing. I do however harp on one thing: 2 hands on the wheel. You might say that I feel as strongly about two-hands-on-the-wheel as he does about making-the-light. I am convinced that the car swerves less and therefore I get carsick less if CSB drives with 2 hands. I know this. It is a fact.

This morning we headed down to the bottom tip of Manhattan for our 10 a.m. hearing with the Board of Sanitation, Bureau of Vector Control, regarding a ticket citing us for not having proper water buckets for the beehives on two of our rooftop apiaries. We left early because our friend Doug had told us the appointment times were meaningless and it was first come, first served.(FIFO) Doug has experience with the B of San in NYC because he owns a house on 104th street, and he is required to clear the litter from the sidewalk in front of his house and two feet into the street, which he does with alacrity, but it is entirely possible that immediately after he removes litter, someone else comes along and deposits more litter. In fact it is more than likely, it is guaranteed. Hence his experience with the B of San.
Our first stop was Duncan Donuts. CSB is a devotee of DD coffee. Without fail, every time he returns from a foray into DD he asks me, “Do we have stock in Duncan Donuts? If not, I think we should.” I invariably ignore this comment. (Do we have stocks? Do stocks even exist anymore?)

Then we drove into Manhattan, that is to say, CSB drove with one hand and with his other hand he drank his coffee and ate his bagel with a fried egg. (The less I say about the deplorable fact that CSB is willing to eat an egg not laid by our own hens, the better it is for family harmony. But I say it nonetheless, because what is harmony when held against the merits of fresh eggs?) I programmed the GPS to direct us to John Street; then I turned off the GPS voice (Female, American) because she was saying the obvious.
First there was the gorgeous biker-lady clad in leather armor.
CSB: Is that a woman?
Me (checking out the motorcyclist whipping past us): Must be. Wasp waist. Long braid.
CSB: The braid does not clinch it. As you know. (He is referring to my aversion to men over 30 with ponytails.)
Me: But that outfit. Nothing androgynous about it. Does Jean Paul Gaultier do biker gear?
CSB (pulling up alongside bike lady to better admire the curves): Who?
Me: Watch the road! I'm in charge of fashion here.
CSB: That must be a European bike.

By the time we approached the Upper West Side, CSB had finished his bagel and non-fresh fried egg, and that was a good thing because had he been eating, driving with one hand, and rubber necking at the flotilla of standing paddlers on the Hudson, I might have had to say some strong words. Maybe I did.
CSB: Those kayakers are standing up.
Me: What kayakers? Oh those guys. Those aren’t kayaks.
CSB: Can you read what it says on those banners?
Me: No! Please! Watch the road. Or pull over and let me drive and you can watch the standing paddlers.
CSB: Those boards must have heavy keels.
Me: I’ll watch the boards. You drive!!
CSB: I find it outrageous that you want me to watch the road when you always sightsee while you are driving.
Me: That is totally untrue. I only sightsee straight ahead.

We never figured out what was written on the banners flying from the escort boats.
We had no idea why the surfers or kayakers were standing up while paddling up the Hudson.
We arrived at 9 a.m. for our 10 a.m. hearing. At 9:05 we were informed that both citations had been withdrawn.We were free to go. Then we delivered honey to Murray’s on Bleeker Street and I bought a very expensive baguette and a slab of comté cheese.
On our way home, there were no more standing paddlers to be seen from the West Side Highway. Every last one of them must have made it under the George Washington Bridge by then.
The sport - which looks as silly as it sounds - is also called River Walking or Stand Up Paddle Surfing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Broaden your horizons

The last time someone commented on the egg stains on my shirt, my wrinkled skirt and my body odor, I responded by writing a nasty letter to the editor of the local paper accusing said person’s mother of performing sex acts with circus animals before running away with the Bearded Lady to get married in New York State. It never crossed my mind to have multiple orders of pizza (not even BBQ chicken which she especially loathes) and moo shu pork sent to her house. Obviously I wasn’t thinking outside the box. See below for an example of local political action at its best. And yes,there really is a judge named Lust.He handily beat Sloth in the run-off.

HARRISON — The case against accused serial pizza sender Maria Polera was adjourned Tuesday after Town Justice Ronald Bianchi recused himself.
Polera, 53, of 3 Woodside Ave., was arrested July 12 on allegations that for the past six to eight months she had been ordering pizzas and having them delivered to Town Supervisor Joan Walsh's home.
Bianchi, a Democrat and former town supervisor, did not give a reason for withdrawing from the case, but Polera is a former Democratic district leader who lost a 2009 bid for receiver of taxes while running with Walsh on the Democratic ticket.
Bianchi said the case would be turned over to Town Justice Marc Lust for the time being.
Lust was elected on the Democratic and Republican lines in the last election and has the endorsement of both parties in this November's race.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Judge Lust recuses himself also," Bianchi said during the brief hearing, before adjourning the case to Aug. 30.
Polera and her attorney, George Galgano, had no comment as they left the courthouse.
Polera and Walsh had been friends for more than a decade before they had a falling out last year, reportedly after Walsh told her that her body odor and appearance made her unelectable.
The bogus pizza orders began a short time later. Authorities said Polera ordered the pizzas and one order of Chinese food, and had them sent to Walsh's home as many as 25 times, including four times in one night.
After calling in the orders to pizzerias in Harrison and surrounding communities, police said Polera would park near Walsh's home to watch the delivery attempts.
She's charged with six misdemeanor counts of theft of services and one harassment violation.
Polera is free without bail.

from The Journal-News

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Log in Question

We were not yet arrived at Georgian Bay’s Belle au Clair beach on the 14th concession before B - alerted us to the latest contretemps among the cottagers. A piece of driftwood is a key player in this drama. As pieces of driftwood go, it is remarkable for its length and straightness. From its top to its tangled roots it is one straight shot, uninterrupted by branches or bends. As a pivotal player in a dispute, it is remarkably unremarkable.

B -’s Georgian Bay cottage is rented out for the month of July. For the past seven years she has rented to the same family, who are also friends with the neighbors on the beach. So the renters are no strangers to the beach and its dramatis personae. This is all by way of background.
This past month, the renter noticed the driftwood that – as driftwood is wont to do - had drifted up onto their bit of beach, that is, B -’s beach. Perhaps now would be a good time for a disquisition on beach ownership as it is adjudicated in Canada, with pithy allusions to beached whales, royal prerogatives and of course the Fast Fish/Loose Fish chapter in Moby Dick. The renter – we will call her Wendy – determined it would make an excellent table and stump chairs for sitting round her children’s bonfires. She called B -to inquire about this and left a voicemail. Not hearing back, she gassed up her chainsaw* and headed down to the beach. She yanked expertly on the starter cord and the chainsaw roared into life; its metallic shriek ripped through the peaceful susurrus of the waves like unmuffled Harleys in a nursing home parking lot.
Wendy had barely applied the rotating blade to the tender wood when Odette from the Island-that-is-no-longer-an-Island came rushing down the slope, over the causeway and onto the beach. Because a chainsaw is very noisy and drowns out all other sounds, Wendy was not aware of Odette’s approach. It was only when Odette stood directly opposite her on the other side of the recumbent driftwood, bellowing, “Stop this right away. You have no right,” that Wendy jerked upright, clutching and even proffering the still-roaring chainsaw.
(I do not know much about Odette, other than her persona non grata status on Belle au Clair Beach, but I am assuming that she missed the important childhood lesson to never startle or bother someone in possession of an operating chainsaw. This is how accidents happen.)

It was not reported what exactly was Wendy’s initial response to Odette’s exhortation. Versions differ. Gloria from two cottages down swears that Wendy told Odette to go back to the Island of Dr Moreau and stay there. Hugo says that Wendy reverted to her native Hungarian and emitted an aria of Slavic curses. According to Mr. Mitch in the pale green cottage, Wendy wordlessly brandished her still-roaring chainsaw in Odette’s direction.
Whatever was or was not said, all agree that Odette stood her ground.
Eventually Wendy switched off the chainsaw’s engine, to better enable the beach to hear the discussion.
Odette said, “That log is on our part of the beach. You are violating our property.”
Wendy said, “Look carefully, O-dette. The log is on the Barley’s beach and B - doesn’t give a flying fuck if I carve up a piece of flotsam.”
Odette said, “Please don’t use that language in front of my children.”
Wendy said, “I’ll say flotsam any time I damn well please. “ She mimed scanning the horizon and then said, “I don’t see any children.”
Odette said, “So long as you and your tools of destruction stay off our beach, your language can be as vile as you like.”
By now Gloria, Mr. Mitch, Hugo and Mrs. Hugo had ventured from their sections of the beach and stood at a safe but audible distance from the log in question and the interlocutors.
Wendy said, “It is the Barley beach and if you want to file a lawsuit over it, feel free. I am sure the judge will be delighted to see you guys back in court.” (For reasons that shall be explained later, this barb was particularly well-aimed. For now I will simply say that Odette and her husband - for whom lawsuits were mother’s milk, bread and butter, and their raison d’être -had recently lost an expensive battle over beach rights with their neighbors on the other side, and their loss was the cause of much merriment and glass-clinking up and down the beach.)
Odette retorted, “You are wrong. This part of the beach is shared property between ourselves and the Barley’s. Notice our tire tracks.”
Wendy said, “You are the one in the wrong. Again. Just because the Barley’s have allowed you an easement to drive to the island is no way means you have property rights. Where did you study law? Transylvania?”
Odette said, “I am not going to allow you to make this spectacle, and threaten me with your vile machine.”
Wendy said, “Who is threatening whom? Did I order you off the beach? Think again.”
Odette stood taller and said, “Until you can show me legal documents that prove this is the Barley’s sole property and that you have permission to destroy this piece of driftwood, I insist that you stop what you are doing. Immediately.”
Mrs. Hugo, who spoke so little that no one on the beach even knew her first name, interjected: “Do you really care that much about a piece of driftwood? Is it worth all this aggravation?”
Both Odette and Wendy ignored her reasonable question. Mr. Hugo patted his wife’s shapely buttocks as if she were a donkey.
Wendy gripped the chainsaw’s starter cord as if she might yank it into life again.
Odette said, “I will have the police issue a Cease and Desist order if you do not put that down immediately.”
Wendy said, “Just because you have a sleazy trial lawyer at your beck and call doesn’t give you the right to harass your neighbors.”
Mr. Hugo piped up, “I don’t think anything is being accomplished here. Why don’t you both go into your respective cottages and have a few cocktails to calm down. “
Odette’s final shot, spoken as if to the rapt audience at the Royal Theatre, “The last time Wendy had a few cocktails they could hear her off-key Marseillaise all the way to Penatanguishene.”
Wendy brandished her chainsaw once more but found herself at a loss for words. She strode over the dunes back to her cottage. Up on the sweeping deck she started the chainsaw up one last time, and revved it to make sure the sound carried all the way to the island.

*You are no doubt wondering, as did we, about the likelihood of a family arriving at their summer rental with their personal chainsaw. We can neither explain nor verify this detail.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Of all the possible places

Honorable #1 son has decamped for the summer to Paraguay, previously best known as the retirement home of Dr Joseph Mengele & friends; currently best known as the site of the assassination of Anastasio Somoza, by a Sandinista commando team calling themselves Operation Reptile. My son did not allow Paraguay’s reputation to deter him from volunteering for One Laptop/One Child. (Do check out the website; there is a very entertaining interactive map.) Honorable son, being a smart and intrepid young man, anticipated playing soccer in the rain (as it’s the rainy season), dealing with a recalcitrant bureaucracy and eating lots of beef and hard bread. He did not expect to find himself in the home of the gigantic Basilica of Caacupé, where resides the famous little statue of Our Lady of the Miracles.
Her story begins in the early 16th century when a converted Guaraní prayed to the Virgin to save him from certain death at the hands of his enemies. He hid inside a tree trunk and was saved. Afterward, in gratitude for her succor, he carved a statue of the Virgin, featuring blue eyes and blonde hair, for reasons unexplained. Then in 1603 Tapaicuá Lake flooded the surrounding valley, including the statue of the Virgin. When the waters receded the Guaraní Virgin reappeared, and she has been revered by the locals ever since.
Of all the places he might have gone in Paraguay, it seems to me serendipitous that my son has gone to a place where the Conception of the Virgin Mary is annually celebrated (December 8th) with great fanfare.

Full disclosure: After some prodding, my son did enter the basilica; but he evinced little (no) enthusiasm.

The Importance of Jigsaw Puzzles in American Summer Houses

For a while now I have been pondering this cultural trope. It seems fairly obvious that the chief pleasure of a jigsaw puzzle is in creating (arbitrary) Order out of (contrived) Chaos. What could be more satisfying?
You start with an unsorted pile of oddly shaped bits of wood or cardboard.
Hesiod’s world also starts with Chaos, a shapeless, bundled, tangled and inchoate agglomeration of everything and nothing, neither truly solid nor fluid nor gaseous.
You empty the box onto a flat surface. Before you can do anything else you turn the pieces over onto their ‘correct’ side; the assumption of the existence of a ‘correct’ side already being a great leap away from Chaos.
Hesiod tells us how the earth(Gaea), the sky(Ether) and Eros(the creative force), separate and take on form and emerge from Chaos.
(In Book VII of Paradise Lost, Milton describes Chaos as: “… the vast immeasurable abyss. Outrageous as a sea, dark ,wasteful, wild.” It is the use of the word wasteful here that strikes me for its implied harsh judgment.)
Back in the American summer house, you sort through the turned-over pieces to find the Edges, because knowing the periphery of a thing is so helpful in defining it. Where we would be without Limits? Edges or Borders or Fences? (As you can see, we have already ventured far from a ‘simple’ jigsaw puzzle into some fairly ponderous questions.)
In Hesiod’s Theogony, the gods, the Titans and finally mankind develop on earth.
Your hands hover over the random pieces as your eye scans for matching colors and shapes; even so, your mind wanders. This puzzle featuring water birds of North America inexorably leads you to the skeleton of a Great Blue Heron that dangled from a rafter of the screened porch in Marshfield for many years. Your ex/late husband found this prize one day on the salt marsh at low tide. He strung it with fishing line and set it to spin above your heads as you dined and played Risk and painted pictures. When you last inhabited the house on the marsh, the delicate bird bones were already finely swaddled in dust and scented with marijuana and fish. Perhaps it hangs there still, witness to another decade of revelry and discord.
You return to the puzzle and discover that the blue-greenish underbelly of the avocet is similar in shade to a watery frond.
Each completed bird is created out of Chaos; each time the pieces smoothly interlock a small breath of Order enters the room.
All this, and it is only a rainy day in a musty house by a lake, where the loons sing duets in the mornings and the moose are always on the other side.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What a piece of work is man and/or woman

The other evening we went to see The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark at Boscobel, presented by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival with a wonderful young Matthew Amendt as Hamlet, and I could have sworn someone was fooling around with my brain by having inserted the “What a piece of work is Man! How noble in reason!”* speech into Act 2 of Hamlet. You know the speech because it was set to music in “Hair!” and we can all sing it. And I could have sworn, and indeed did swear, that the speech belonged to Caliban in The Tempest. It is the perfect speech for Caliban, poor misshapen & oppressed creature that he is, to express his wonderment at these buff and sweet-talking gentlemen just been washed ashore onto his island.

Then I decided that the director (Terence O’Brien of HVSF) had conceived a clever device to illuminate the plays of Shakespeare: in each play he directed he would insert a speech from another play, but in such a way that it would proceed smoothly and mesh seamlessly with the action. I decided that this was his subtle way to illuminate certain recurring themes. And possibly, so I thought, it was meant as a signature fluke or “error”, in the same way that Native American weavers will deliberately leave one thread awry, so as not to provoke the gods with the perfection of their workmanship.

I may have missed some elegant swordplay in Act V because I was still working out the explanation for this unprecedented insertion of a speech from The Tempest (WS’s final play and a so-called comedy) into Hamlet (tragedy, without a doubt).

But I was wrong. The speech really is in Hamlet. The deeply troubled Hamlet says the words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, those perfidious friends.
How could I have been so confused? Is it possible that in The Tempest Caliban makes that same speech, that Caliban in fact, quotes Hamlet?

*What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
Reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! and yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no,
nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seeme
to say so